Time of the Bells, 1769-1835


The history of Western Civilization on the Pacific Coast of the United States begins on a little hill overlooking the Bay of San Diego. It is known as Presidio Hill. Here is the site of the first Christian mission and of the first military garrison of Royal Spain in California. The old adobe walls and buildings have sunk back into the ground, and green grass and black asphalt now hide all traces of the graves of forgotten soldiers and settlers who died in a lonely and at times unfriendly land.

The navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered California and claimed it for Spain, in 1542. But 227 years passed before a small band of Christian missionaries and soldiers arrived, by sea and by land, in 1769, to occupy and settle an almost legendary territory locked in by sea, mountains and deserts.

To the missionaries, California and the Pacific Coast was a land wealthy in pagans to be converted to Christianity. To the soldiers, assignment to California was a duty to be borne with fortitude. To the King of Spain and his commanders, California was to be a shield against the aggressions of foreign powers, in particular the Russians, who were creeping down from Alaska, and the English, whose fleets were sweeping the seas and who believed that occupation was a more effective claim to territory than mere discovery and explorations.

On the American Continent in the middle period of the 18th Century, England had a line of colonies along the eastern seaboard and controlled an area from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico; France had lost an empire in the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Valleys, and New Spain’s northern border curved in a weak, undefined line from western Louisiana through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to somewhere in Northern California.

The story of California and much of the Southwest unfolds from Presidio Hill. The Franciscan missionary domination of California lasted 66 years. The birth, life and death of the Mother Mission, at San Diego, and of the King of the Missions, at San Luis Rey, in northern San Diego County, is the drama of all the missions on the frontiers of New Spain.

From Presidio Hill the story reaches east, to the Colorado River, with all the hope and tragedy it held for the explorers, soldiers and colonists who came from Mexico, and to the deserts over which came, at last, the American trappers and traders.

To the north, it reaches out to the founding of all the 21 California missions and of Monterey, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Presidio Hill also looks to the south, to the peninsula of Baja California, whose settlement and subsequent decline foreshadowed events in California.

From the West, over the open Pacific Ocean, which the Spaniards called the South Sea, first came the ships of the discoverers and colonists, and then, as Spain weakened and collapsed, the ships of the British, the French and the Russians, and most importantly, the ships of adventurous American merchants.

The era from 1769 to 1835 was rich in faith and purpose. That it also at times was heavy with sorrow and neglect only proves that men and not events shape history. One of those men was Fr. Junipero Serra, with whom our story begins.