“Missions of San Diego” by Robert A. Bellezza is a small book, only 137 pages, but nevertheless full of interesting historical detail about the Franciscan missions established throughout California and the 1700s as a means of bringing the gospel to the local native populations. I had the pleasure of finding this book in the gift shop of an old mission that I visited while on holidays, before the pandemic.
The missions were located usually one days travel from one another and formed links in a chain stretching from Guatemala to Northern California. In addition to preaching the gospel, the Franciscan friars who manned the missions helped the natives transition from a hunter gatherer society to a settled lifestyle by teaching trades such as masonry, European agricultural practices, and woodworking.
In time settlements grew up around these missions and many of them later became important cities such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all of which had their Genesis as Christian missions established in the then unsettled land of California. Today California is a modern economic superpower linked by enormous highway systems and so it is difficult to understand the extent of the friars’ achievement. They ventured into an unknown land without any roads and without any fixed settlements and in the middle of nowhere, amid populations that were sometimes hostile and sometimes indifferent, built missions that lasted for centuries and in many cases where the seeds that gave rise to modern California and its greatest cities.
The relations with the local Indians were for the most part cordial and peaceful although of course there can be debate over the very question of whether the friars had a right to meddle in the Indians way of life. One thing that can be said however is that the natives grew attached to the Franciscan missions and were devoted to the friars.
Today most of the missions of San Diego remain standing and are open to visitors even though some are no longer active as Christian centers.
“Missions of San Diego” is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of California and the Christian missions that blazed the trail for future European settlement. Although it is a short book, it is surprisingly full of information and fascinating photographs from the 1800s and early 1900s, depicting both the missions and the way of life of the Indians who lived in their vicinity.
Verdict: this is definitely a book to read for anyone interested in the early history of California and the American West. It illuminates a largely forgotten chapter of American history and brings to life a people and way of life that has largely disappeared. Missions of San Diego was published in 2013 by Arcadia Publishing and forms part of the Images of America series, each title dedicated to pictorial histories of various parts of the United States.