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Franciscan Friars Founded San Diego, CA 1769

Fears of a Russian incursion in the Pacific in the mid-1700s finally forced Spain to secure its hold on Alta California. After finding few volunteers, the Spanish government decided to send Franciscan missionaries to Alta California. In 1769, the first Franciscan friars arrived in California and founded the Mission San Diego de Alcala.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.

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San Diego in the Age of Discovery

The Kumeyaay people were the first inhabitants of the land on which the modern city of San Diego now stands. During the Age of Discovery, the Spaniard Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo became the first European to explore the San Diego Bay area. He later named it “San Miguel” in honor of the saint whose feast day was fast approaching when he explored the region. Cabrillo and his crew continued north, but the exploration was cut short when he died of gangrene.

More than half a century would pass before the Spaniards visited the area again. In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino and his fleet sailed from Acapulco to Alta California to explore the region. His main task was to find safe harbors for Manila-Acapulco galleons and claim the land for Spain. Vizcaino’s fleet arrived in the San Diego Bay on November 12, 1602, and proceeded to map the area for Spain. He named this territory San Diego de Alcala after the 15th-century Spanish saint and Franciscan friar Didacus of Alcala.

However, the plans to establish harbors and Spanish settlements failed to become a reality. The Age of Explorers also ended, and the adventurers were replaced by Jesuit missionaries. In 1700, the Jesuit friar Eusebio Kino was one of the first Spaniards to enter Arizona and established a mission near present-day Tucson. This adventurous and intelligent missionary also contradicted past explorers by claiming that neighboring California was not an island. Although the Mexican authorities did not believe him, Father Kino still continued his mission in Arizona. The Jesuits fell from grace as the years went by, and they were soon replaced by Franciscan friars.

The Foundation of Mission San Diego de Alcala

The Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded in 1769.

In the mid-1700s, the Danish explorer Vitus Bering and his Russian crew reached and explored some of the islands of Alaska. Although he died during the expedition, Russia was able to stake its claim on this new-found yet distant territory. Fears of a Russian incursion in the Pacific finally pushed King Carlos III of Spain to instruct Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja California, to secure Alta California. Spanish colonists, however, did not find Alta California attractive. They had made their fortunes in Mexico and there was no incentive for them to seek wealth in an inhospitable land.

With no volunteers in sight, the governor then turned to the priests of the Franciscan Order and commissioned them to establish a mission in Alta California. The Franciscan friars led by Father Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá were escorted by Spanish soldiers as they made their way to Alta California.

Two Spanish ships sailed from Baja California to the San Diego Bay in January and February 1769. This fleet arrived in April of the same year. A separate party, meanwhile, left Baja California by land in March. Scurvy, the scourge of early explorers, easily halved the members of this expedition.

 Father Serra, meanwhile, traveled with the second expedition and arrived in San Diego on the 1st of June, 1769. He was in his 50s by then and a leg infection made the journey north more difficult for him. Despite his age and condition, he was able to establish the Mission San Diego de la Alcala more than one month after the group’s arrival.

The site on which the Spaniards established the first mission, however, could not sustain them for long. The Spaniards moved to a more suitable place near the San Diego River and close to where the Kumeyaay people lived. In addition to successfully securing the area, the Franciscans also managed to gain more Kumeyaay converts.


Picture by: Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Fehrenbacher, Don E. A Basic History of California. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1964.

“History.” Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. Accessed September 18, 2017.

Jackson, Robert Howard, and Edward D. Castillo. Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians. Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2005.



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1 thought on “Franciscan Friars Founded San Diego, CA 1769

  1. Thank you for the Franciscan Friars devotion dedication & acceptance of all Gods children. Your work to make our lives & our world a better place is most appreciated. God Bless You All ✝️

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