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Mission San Diego

The first mission built in California was established by the Spanish on July 16, 1769. It was named after San Diego de Alcalá de Henares who was a saint that lived in Spain in the 1400’s and whose holiday was closest to when the Spanish arrived in California. San Diego was famous for taking care of sick people in Rome and many of them suddenly healing thanks to his effort.

While it might be a surprise now, the Spanish did not believe California was very valuable so they did not want many people to leave Spain to come live in the new land. In fact, the Spanish first thought California was just an island. So instead, they allowed members of the Catholic Church, which in Spanish are called “padres” meaning father, to come to California and try to get the Native Americans who lived there to become Christian. Padre Junipero Serra was in charge of this goal and built Mission San Diego de Alcalá on Presidio Hill where today you can look down and see San Diego Bay.

Unfortunately, the Spanish quickly found this location was not good because they didn’t have enough water to grow food and the soil was not good for plants. Five years later, they moved the location of the mission East so it was close to the San Diego River. The new location is not far from where Qualcomm Stadium is today. The new location was also closer to the Native Americans who called themselves Tipai-Ipai and they were who the Spanish wanted to become Christian.

In the first few years, as many as five hundred Indians came to live at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. There was a lot of work to be done to build and keep the mission going. Native Americans had to learn to speak Spanish and about the Catholic Church. The Spanish had to learn about how Tipai-Ipai lived too. Each person had their own role on the mission as well. Men plowed so plants could grow and then would harvest the plants for food. They also had to build bricks and learn how to take care of animals. In the first year of the mission, they raised cows, sheeps, goats, horses, and mules and had 250 animals. Women took care of the children, made clothing, and were in charge of cooking. Children learned lessons and helped take care of animals and the plants. The children also played games and learned Tipai-Ipai customs and stories from their elders too.

Not all of the Tipai-Ipai liked living on Mission San Diego de Alcalá. In 1975, many Tipai-Ipai invaded the mission and killed the Spanish who were there. They stole supplies and then burnt the mission down to the ground. Padre Serra returned to Mission San Diego de Alcalá to rebuild it. This time the Spanish made it harder to attack and began to develop the land around the mission too. They became more successful at growing crops each year and the mission also was able to get many Native Americans to join Christianity. Corn, wheat, barley, kidney beans, chick peas, and grapes for wine were the main crops that were grown at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. In 1822, the mission had over 30,000 animals, including nearly 20,000 sheep. These were big accomplishments and other missions would attempt to grow as many plants and raise as many animals as possible like in San Diego.

The Spanish continued to run the mission for many years until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and gained control of California. The Mexican government was not as interested in the missions and sold them to any Mexican who could afford them. In 1848, the Americans had won the Mexican American War and gained control of California. The Army used part of Mission San Diego de Alcalá and they established a cemetery where soldiers were buried. President Abraham Lincoln gave the mission back to the Catholic Church, but it was not taken care of. Many people took bricks from the mission to build houses in Old Town and Mission San Diego de Alcalá fell into ruins.

It was not until 1931 that the mission was rebuilt by two American builders. They researched the mission and tried to make the new one as accurate to the old mission as possible. Since it was rebuilt, Mission San Diego de Alcalá has been used as a church again. The location is also visited by thousands of fourth grade students each year who are working on the California Missions project.