The Founding of The ‘King of the Missions’
By Tom Morrow
In the late 1700s, the Spanish military determined a new Fransican mission was needed to cut the travel time between San Diego and San Juan Capistrano. – more importantly it gave the Spanish more of a foothold in California, keeping the Russians coming down the West coast at bay north.
In short – the establishment of California missions were really for military purposes.
Francisco Father Fermin de Lausen founded the mission on June 13, 1798. It was named “Mission San Luis Rey de Francia” after the French king who had become a Francian friar years before.
The Spanish positioned the 21 missions along or close to the coast so each could be easily reached within a day’s travel on horseback, mule, and foot along California original highway, El Camino Real (the royal road). The travel distance between each mission was approximately 30 miles. San Luis Rey was the last to be built.
El Camino Real started as little more than a footpath, but nonetheless a coastal passage for travel from San Diego, the first mission to be built, to San Francisco. Portions of the original route exists today from San Diego north to San Francisco in a combination of highway and various city streets.
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was laid out and built some four miles east of the coastline along the south shore of the San Luis Rey River in what today is Oceanside, California. By late summer of 1798, some 6,000 adobe bricks had been made for the new church which was completed by 1802. It is situated halfway between Mission San Diego and Mission San Juan Capistrano.
At the height of Mission San Luis Rey’s dominance in North San Diego County, it was the largest of the 21 missions and the most prosperous with some 25,000 head of cattle, 26,000 sheep, 2,000 head of horses, all maintained by 5,000 Luisenos Indians living in and around the mission. At one time it was the largest civilized living and working complex west of the Mississippi. It was known as “King of the Missions.”
In 1821, the Mexicans overthrew some 300 years of Spanish rule. The new Mexican government insisted upon separating church and state, which meant the demise of the mission system and its vast holdings. Secularization meant the holdings of land and livestock at each mission was taken by the new government and sold to the public.
More importantly, the friars at each of the missions no longer had control over the native population. The mostly Spanish-born padres refused to swear allegiance to the new Republic of Mexico causing them to be distrusted and even feared by Mexican officials.
During the secularization period in Mexico and Alta California there was a rapid increase in the number of private ranchos. Today, the old Rancho Los Flores y Santa Margarita is known as the U.S. Marine’s Camp Pendleton, the nation’s largest military base. Rancho Guajome (pronounced: “wah-home-ah) in Vista, California was a subsidiary of Santa Margarita.
In 1835, Mission San Luis Rey was abandoned and surrendered to the Mexican government, clearing the way for officers, soldiers and landowners to loot or buy off the mission’s vast estate and livestock at ridiculously cheap prices.
The looting became so fierce that even the huge timber beams holding up the roof of the church and other major buildings were stolen by ranchers to construct their own private buildings. For the next century, artifacts taken by the Mexicans during that period of looting were gradually found in private homes and collections, much of which has been returned to the mission.
Mexico neglected “Alta” (upper) California, which might never have become part of the United States had it not been for three visionaries with very huge egos: U.S. Army surveyor and explorer Colonel John C. Fremont, U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, and U.S. Army Brig. General Stephen W. Kearny.
Because it could take as long as six months to get a message to and from Washington, D.C., decisions had to be made on the spot at the moment of opportunity. The question of who really had control of California wasn’t settled for some time. The population’s attitude was mixed. A good deal of the people, mostly Anglo, welcomed U.S. control; the Latino landowners possessing huge land grants were less than eager to see a governmental change.
Today, Mission San Luis Rey sits in the center of Oceanside and continues to be an active place of worship, educational museums, retreat and a popular tourist attraction, as do the remaining Spanish missions along the California coast.
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