Father Junípero Serra and the Franciscan priests who followed him were the religious leaders of the California missions. They did not, however, have final authority over the missions. That was the responsibility of a government official appointed first by the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico, and later by the Mexican government.
At first this official served as comandante (military commander) of Alta (Upper) California, reporting to the governor of both Alta and Baja (Lower) California who was headquartered in Baja California. Later, the governor’s headquarters was moved to Monterey in Alta California. The relationships between the governors and the padres changed things at the missions.
Gaspár de Portolá was governor of California in 1769. He accompanied Father Serra from Baja California to San Diego, and then explored north looking for Monterey Bay, where the second mission was to be founded.
Serra respected Portolá, who is reported to have been a diplomatic person. However, Portolá made a decision to abandon Mission San Diego just seven months after it was founded. A supply ship expected to arrive from Mexico had not come. Some people at the mission had died, and others were ill and weak. Though Father Serra pleaded with Portolá, the governor set a date for the group to head back to Mexico. As if in answer to Serra’s prayers, when that day came the sails of the supply ship were seen on the horizon. Portolá allowed the padres to stay in San Diego.
When Portolá went back to Baja California, he turned over command in Alta California to a young military officer, Pedro Fages. Serra and Fages did not agree on many things. In 1772 Serra was anxious to found more missions than the five already started, but he had to have permission from Fages. Fages believed there were not enough soldiers to protect any more missions, so he refused to give permission. Fages also kept supplies that were supposed to go to the missions.
In 1772 Serra traveled to Mexico City to plead his case before the viceroy. Serra asked that Fages be replaced as comandante of Alta California. Serra was successful in persuading the viceroy that the missions were important. The viceroy approved plans to found more missions, ordered supply ships to be sent on a regular schedule to Alta California, and relieved Fages of his duties there.
Unfortunately for Father Serra, the comandante who replaced Fages was Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, and he was no easier for Serra to work with than Fages had been. When Mission San Diego was destroyed by fire in 1775, Rivera y Moncada objected to rebuilding it. He also wanted to punish the Indian leaders of the rebellion as an example to others. Serra opposed him on both issues and again appealed to the viceroy in Mexico City, who decided in favor of Serra.
In 1777, Governor Felipe de Neve moved his headquarters from Baja California to Monterey. He was now the governing official for Alta California and the missions. For the next five years, Father Serra had bitter conflicts with Felipe de Neve about the missions.
Governor de Neve did not approve of how the missions were being run. He wanted the Indians to remain in their villages, so the government would not have the expense of feeding and housing them. He wanted civilian pueblos (towns) to be established around each mission. Father Serra felt that the pueblos would hinder the work of the padres in converting the Indians. He felt that it would be dangerous for the padres to go to the Indian villages to hold religious services.
De Neve established the pueblos of San Jose and Los Angeles, despite Serra’s objections. He called Serra “arrogant,” “obstinate,” and “deceitful.” Serra saw de Neve as the enemy of the missions and said that de Neve was the reason he was unable to sleep many nights.
The only mission founded while de Neve was governor was San Buenaventura, in March 1782. De Neve had agreed for there to be a mission at Santa Barbara also. He allowed a presidio (fort) to be founded at Santa Barbara, but then made no move to found the mission. He said the padres had not followed the rules at Mission San Buenaventura, and would have to wait for another mission. Serra was very unhappy about this, but was unable to change the situation.
De Neve left California later in 1782, but his replacement cannot have been a good sign to Father Serra. It was Pedro Fages, whom Serra had complained about in 1772. Serra died before Fages agreed to the founding of Mission Santa Barbara in 1786. One more mission, La Puríisima, was founded while Fages was governor.
The governors who succeeded Fages were not so opposed to the missions. Two new missions were opened in 1791. In 1797 Diego de Borica became governor. This began a period of cooperation between the government and the missions. Borica arranged to have skilled tradesmen come to teach the Indians blacksmithing, carpentry, and other skills. He authorized the founding of five new missions in 1797 and 1798.
The relationship between the missions and the government changed again when Mexico began rebelling against Spain in 1810. Years of turmoil followed. Mexico officially declared its independence from Spain in February 1821. Due to the distance and difficulty in communications, the last Spanish governor was not replaced by the first Mexican governor until November 1822.
The padres hoped that Alta California would remain under Spanish rule. However, they were soon asked to swear their allegiance to Mexico and the new governor, Luís Antonio de Argüello.
The national government in Mexico City was no longer sending financial support to the province of Alta California. Governor Argüello decided to tax the missions, which held the most productive land in California. The padres fought this idea. The next plan was even more disastrous for the missions. In August 1833 the Mexican congress decided that all mission lands should be transferred from the Catholic Church to the pueblos. This transfer was called secularization, and it was the end of the mission period in California.
The governor of California at this time was José Figueroa. It may be that Governor Figueroa intended that half of the land used by each mission should be divided among the Indians who lived at that mission. If so, his plan was not carried out.
Each mission was placed under a civil administrator. These government officials ignored the interests of the Indians and divided the land and wealth of the missions among their friends and relatives. Between 1834 and 1842, more than 300 ranchos (farms) were granted, mostly from lands that had been used previously by the missions.
An example of what happened is in the story of Mission San Luis Rey. When this mission was secularized in 1833, the governor appointed Pío and Andrés Pico to oversee the mission lands. In 1841, the brothers were granted title to almost 90,000 acres of the land. In 1845 Pío Pico himself became governor and gave many more hundreds of acres of former mission lands to his friends and relatives.