Mission San Juan Bautista


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San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista
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San Juan Bautista Cemetery
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Side Altar

Fifteenth Mission
Date Founded: June 24, 1797
Founder: Father Fermin Lasuen
Named for: John the Baptist
2nd and Mariposa Sts,
San Juan Bautista CA

17 miles north of the city of Salinas in the town of San Juan Bautista, 4 miles off U.S. Highway 101


By 1797, 13 missions had been established, but the distance between some of them was still more than a single day's journey. During the Summer of 1797, Fr. Fermin de Lasuen, Presidente of the California Missions, set out to fill in some of these gaps. He embarked on the highly ambitious, and highly successful, plan to establish four missions that Summer. The Old Mission San Juan Bautista has had an unbroken succession of pastors since its founding on June 24, 1797.

Establishment of Mission San Juan Bautista

THE OLD MISSION SAN JUAN BAUTISTA began with a group of leather-jacketed soldiers and a few Native Americans watching a tonsured Franciscan priest raise his eyes and hands toward the sky. "In the name of our blessed Father, and the saint whose feast we commemorate today, St. John the Baptist..."

The day was June 24, 1797, a Saturday, and the priest was Fr. Fermin de Lasuen, Presidente of the California Missions successor to Blessed Junipero Serra. This mission was one of four established by Fr. Lausen in the summer of 1797 and the fifteenth of the twenty-one missions in Alta, California. It was named for Saint John the Baptist.

For the location of their fifteenth mission, the Franciscans chose a site at the foot of the Gavilan Mountains near the El Camino Real, which they named Mission San Juan Bautista, after St. John the Baptist. The site was chosen because it promised an "abundant harvest of souls" in the San Juan Valley. In late spring, Spanish Corporal Juan Ballesteros and five men came to the site and in a month they erected a chapel, houses for themselves and the padres, and a granary. Then, only thirteen days after he dedicated the mission at San Jose, Father Lasuen arrived for the formal dedication on Saturday, June 24, 1797.

Mission Life

Construction began almost immediately under the care of Fathers Jose Manuel de Martiarena and Pedro Martinez. By Christmas, because of the friendly and cooperative indigenous people, not only was there an adobe church built but also a granary, barracks, a monastery, and some adobe houses. By 1800, there were over 500 Indians living at the mission.

Located in the middle of the San Juan Valley, the mission sits right on the San Andreas fault! Although its location right on the fault was less dangerous than other locations, it accounted for many shaky days and nights. In October 1798 the shaking was so bad that the missionaries slept outside for the whole month. The earth shook as many as 6 times on one day, leaving many huge cracks in both the buildings and the ground.

When an earthquake caused considerable damage in October 1800, the padres took advantage of the opportunity to enlarge the church, and add certain facilities while making the needed repairs. The Indian population continued to increase and in 1803 extensive plans were made for the building of another church. The construction work was preceded by an elaborate ceremony to which people from all over the province were invited. During the dedication, a story of the event was sealed in a bottle and placed within the cornerstone. From 1803 to 1812 the resident Indians labored at construction of the quadrangle complex, which included a 190 foot long church and a beautiful corridor of 20 arches, all constructed of fired adobe brick. The mission church is said to be the largest of the missions and held 1,000 people during the mission days. The dimensions are 188 feet long and 72 feet wide and is the only mission with 3 aisles, two on the sides and one down the center of the church. In June, 1803, the cornerstone was laid for the present church. With three naves or aisles, it became the widest of all the mission churches. It was dedicated on June 23, 1812. Interior completion of the church continued through 1817 when the floor was tiled and the main altar and reredos (which holds the six statues) were completed by Thomas Doak, an American sailor who jumped ship in Monterey. He painted the reredos in exchange for room and board.

In 1808, a new padre named Fr. Arroyo de la Cuesta arrived, bringing with him a tremendous energy, learning and imagination. Instead of the usual long and narrow nave, Fr. de la Cuesta convinced the builders that a wide church of three naves would be an unusual asset to San Juan. When the church was completed in 1812, it was the largest in the province and the only structure of its kind ever built by the Franciscans in California.

While the work progressed on the church, the neophyte congregation for whom it was planned declined at a considerable rate. In 1805, the Indian population had stood at 1,100. By 1812, when the church was completed, death and desertions had reduced the number by more than half. The great new edifice dwarfed the attending congregations, and Padre de la Cuesta walled in the two rows of arches which separated the three naves of the church. Except for the area near the altar, the church interior then resembled other mission churches, with the two outside naves forming large, separate rooms.

In decorating and furnishing the church, however, the energetic Franciscan was not to be denied. He continually sought out needed religious articles with an appreciative eye for the finest workmanship available. In 1820 he hired Thomas Doak, an American carpenter who was gifted with a decorative talent, and embellished the interior walls. It was Doak, incidentally, who deserted his ship and came ashore at Monterey in 1816 to become the first American citizen to settle in California. He took Spanish citizenship, found permanent residence at San Juan Bautista, and married a daughter of José Castro.

In 1790, the Spanish began to show considerable interest in the lands to the east of El Camino Real. San José, San Juan Bautista and Soledad reflected this interest. The unfriendly Indians were no longer avoided and, in the ranks of the military, such names as Vallejo, Amador, Moraga and Peralta were prominently connected with Indian fighting. As supply bases, San José and San Juan Bautista were constantly visited by groups of soldiers under the leadership of one or more of these men. Fighting was not the only method of approaching the pagans for, among Franciscans, the idea of establishing other missions to the east was never discarded.

One of the most curious consequences of this missionary fervor was the Mission del Rio de los Santos Reyes, which never quite existed in fact. In 1831, a Boston stonemason, Caleb Merrill, arrived at Mission San Diego. His services were appreciated at once by the Franciscans, and it was not long before he was working at Carmel. A short time later, a missionary expedition arrived at San Juan Bautista leaving behind them a pile of adobe masonry which was still evident in the 1860's.

In 1812, Fr. Estévan Tápis, who had been acting as father presidente of the missions since the death of Fr. Lasuén in 1803, retired from the office and joined Fr. de la Cuesta at San Juan Bautista. Mission teachings continued under Father Tapis from 1812 to 1825, while the mission gained a highly regarded reputation for the quality of neophyte education and Padre Tapis' diplomacy in dealing with government officials and military officers living at San Juan Bautista. Like Fr. Durán, he had a special talent for music and it was he who did so much to develop choral singing among the neophytes. The use of colored notes to identify the various vocal parts on the sheet of music was apparently introduced by Fr. Tápis during his stay in San Juan. Two of his handwritten choir books can be seen in the Museum. In the congenial surroundings of San Juan Bautista, the elderly Franciscan spent the last of his 71 years. He was widely mourned when he died in 1825. Padre Esteban Tapis, who also founded Mission Santa Ines, is buried in the sanctuary of the church.

Fr. de la Cuesta continued to relegate the affairs of San Juan Bautista until the mission passed into the hands of the Zacatecan Franciscans. He was a forceful and imaginative man with a richer background and education than the majority of his fellow friars. One of his pleasures was the practice of endowing his newborn charges with names borrowed from the past. In this connection, Alfred Robinson, the American hide dealer who visited San Juan, related that the place abounded in "infant Platos, Ciceros and Alexanders."

Fr. de la Cuesta knew more than a dozen Indian languages, and could deliver his sermons in seven tongues. During his stay at San Juan Bautista, he wrote two important works one was a compendium of Indian phrases, and the other was an exhaustive study of the Mutsumi language which received scientific recognition in 1860. After Fr. de la Cuesta turned the direction of the mission over to the Zacatecan arrival in 1833, he joined his own Franciscans at San Miguel where he remained until his death in 1840.

An English barrel organ was acquired in 1826 and this crank-operated music maker produced wonder and enjoyment for the neophytes. The crank-operated English barrel organ at the mission is a source of many stories and legends. It made its way from Monterey to the mission sometime in the late 1820s. It most probably was given to Father Lasuen by the British explorer Vancouver. The organ was made in London and is over 5 feet tall, two feet wide and 18 inches deep. Inside are 17 wooden pipes and 29 metal pipes which sound when the crank is turned. A number of legends grew around this organ, one of which gave it unusual powers and linked it with the founding of the mission.

The organ is an odd thing to have in a church, though. Its tunes are reported to include "Go to the Devil, Spanish Waltz, College Hornpipe, and Lady Campbell's Reel.", tunes better known by rowdy sailors than pious fathers.

The most interesting story about the barrel organ is reported in Sunset Magazine's The California Missions: A Pictorial History: "Of the many stories concerning this barrel organ, one of the best shows its almost hypnotic power over the child-like savages. A tribe of warring Tulare Indians swooped down on the mission one day, and the neophytes ran for cover. Fortunately the padre kept his wits. He lugged out the hand-organ and began cranking. The neophytes caught on and began to sing with the music at the top of their voices, with the result that their foes were so entranced that they lay down their weapons and demanded more music, even asking to stay so they could enjoy it all the time."

The mission received an influx in population during 1824 from the Tulare Valley, quite possibly as a result of the aggressive expeditions to the interior territories by the military at that time. The population had peaked during 1823, with 641 male and 607 female residents. A total of 22 adobe dwellings for Indians had been constructed that year (obviously most lived in tule houses or on nearby rancherias), and reports were made of adobe corrals, a granary, a kiln, and weaving rooms restored with the new large labor force. The padres reported that wages paid to the Indians for skilled services included 4 reales a day ($0.50) for woodcutters, 3 reales ($0.375) for sawyers, and 1.5 reales ($0.1875) for laborers.

The 1827 report filed to the governor listed mission livestock and rancho lands. To the southeast and northeast of the mission on low hills and plains the Indians tended 6,500 head of cattle, 502 mares, 250 tame and broken horses, and 37 mules. To the east they maintained a rancho for the mission sheep. To the northeast a rancho was maintained for mission livestock. To the north-northeast another rancho was kept, where the stock grazed on small plains and low hills near springs. No irrigation was practiced on any of these mission ranchos. To the north-northeast, lying three leagues from the mission and El Camino Real, the mission held a rancho for sheep with pasturage on the sides of high mountains. In the center of these mountains were found deposits of pitch and sulfur, as well as sulfurous hot and cold springs. The pastures were watered by the overflow of El Rio de Pajaro. No more mission lands were held in that direction because Spanish land grants had been made for two large parcels, the Rancho de las Animas (southern Santa Clara Valley) and Rancho de Solis. The mission obtained good timber from this area as well. To the west-northwest was a rancho for sheep, three leagues from the mission, bordering the Rancho de Aro. Immediately to the west of these lands were the ranchos of Antonio Castro (Pajaro) and the Picos and Vallejos, with the Brea Springs of the Pajaro running towards them. To the southwest was Rancho San Miguel, or Los Espinosas. To the south-southeast lay the sheep ranch of Natividad, as well as the Spanish concession to Butron and the ranchos Alviso, Alisal, and Sausal, all on a small arroyo. To the south of the mission was the grand elevation of Gavilan, from which springs ran to irrigate the mission gardens, vineyard, and cornfield.

The parish books list 42 Indian tribes belonging to Mission San Juan Bautista, speaking twenty-nine dialects and thirteen different languages. They were friendly to the fathers and helped build the mission and work in the fields.

Marjorie Pierce reports in her book East of the Gabilans: The ranches, the towns, the people—yesterday and today: "The Indians were very fond of music and song and retained some of their pagan tunes, some sad and some cheerful, depending on the circumstances. They had their own musical instruments for non-church occasions, such as sticks on a hollow ball containing small pebbles, and whistles made of goose or deer bones. They would sometimes deck themselves out with feathers and paint their bodies, and, as they cavorted about in circles, would give out shouts and yells."

According to MISSION RECORD OF THE CALIFORNIA INDIANS (1811), translated by Alfred. L. Kroeber: "The mission of San Juan Bautista is farthest inland of those in Costanoan territory. The dialect of San Juan Bautista, named Mutsun after a village near the mission, is known from a grammar and phrase-book prepared by Father Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, who is probably the author of the following replies, as he was at San Juan Bautista at the time the report was called for."

More than 4,000 natives are buried in the mission cemetery beside the northeast wall of the mission church The Indians were buried in their blankets, without coffins.

Like most other missions, San Juan Bautista planted wheat and corn crops. They also raised grapes, cattle and sheep. Their agricultural products supported the mission community and nearby Indians and it was was used for trade. In fact, a thriving trade center for hides, tallow and farm products sprung up around the mission.


The Zacatecan period lasted a brief two years. After Mexico won its independence from Spain, it could not afford to keep the missions running as Spain had done and in 1834, Mexico decided to end the mission system and sell all of the lands. In 1835, under the secularization act, the mission was reduced to a curacy of the second class, under a civil administrator, and its assets sold.

After secularization, San Juan became a pueblo. The mission property was inventoried in 1845 by Pio Pico's brother Andres, who listed at the mission a parish house of 16 rooms made of adobe with brick tile and packed clay floors and tile roofs. The garden to the north of the complex and an orchard of 875 fruit trees were surrounded by a wall constructed of old cattle bones. The abandoned vineyard still held 1,200 vines. Total mission land at that time consisted of 7,500 square varas. A small settlement of whites grew up in the pueblo and there were some 50 inhabitants in the town of San Juan by the end of 1839. When title was restored to the church in 1859, Mission San Juan Bautista lands comprised 55.13 acres.

The history of San Juan after secularization is happier than at some of the other missions. The people continued to support the Church, and services have been held here without interruption.

Decline and Rebirth

In place of the Indian village, a little settlement of whites came into existence near the mission in which there were some 50 inhabitants by the end of 1839. The new pueblo became the town of San Juan Bautista, whose history is one of romance, stirring pioneer days and much bloodshed. Through all these turbulent times, kindly padres lived at the mission, as they do today, administering to the religious needs of the community. From the day of its founding, San Juan Bautista never lacked spiritual guide or pastor, and on November 19, 1859, President James Buchanan returned San Juan Bautista Mission to the Church.

Today the mission at San Juan Bautista faces a most remarkable plaza. On it are found a hotel, a stable and two adobe mansions, all identical to the appearance 100 years ago. The Plaza Hotel, with its wonderful barroom, the old Castro House, the wagons of the livery stable, and the clumsy and elaborate beds in the Zanetta house were acquired by the State in 1933, and they combine to give a vivid picture of California just prior to the Gold Rush Days. There are no false fronts or artful imitations. These are the actual buildings of the community which stood near the beautiful old mission.

Today there are modern buildings at the back of the mission garden. The old monastery wing, with its arches facing the only remaining Spanish plaza in California, houses a museum. Hidden steel beams give earthquake protection, the bell wall has been completed, and the side aisles restored.

The mission is seen in Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo. Fans of the movie may notice that the bell tower, featured in two dramatic scenes in the movie, does not exist.


After secularization in 1835 the church continued to serve as a parish for the local town. The wooden tower which was built about 1860 and later duplicated in concrete has been a part of the mission for so long, that when its removal was announced early in 1950, the old residents of the area were genuinely fearful that the structure was being desecrated. The tower, which was not in harmony with the rest of the church, was added by a secular priest in order to make his own tasks a little easier. It permitted ringing of the church bells comfortably no matter what the weather and, since he could not afford to pay the wages of an attendant, his action reveals a practical, rather than an artistic nature. After the departure of the priest, the earthquake of 1906 did extensive damage to the church. Fortunately, the monastery was not affected and the new padre did his best to restore the church, although both of the damaged outside naves were abandoned. Fortunately, in 1949, the Hearst Foundation financed the restoration that largely restored it to its original form. During 1976-77 the earthquake damage to the mission church at San Juan Bautista was at last repaired. Both side naves are now open, and the campanario, or bell wall, was rebuilt. San Juan Bautista has the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California. When visiting the Mission, pay special attention to the church floor tiles. There are animal prints in the tiles that were made while the tiles were left outside to dry in the sun. Also, note the "Cat Door" carved into the blue side door in the Guadalupe Chapel. This allowed cats access at all times to catch mice. In the 1800's mice were serious pests eating much of the harvest.

The present museum rooms were the padre's living quarters and the work areas for the Native Americans. Over the years the rooms were used for storage and for Mass after the 1906 eqrthquake.

The gardens were the center of activity. Here were learned the skills of carpentry, tanning, weaving, and candlemaking.

The present Gift Shop was a storeroom. In 1847, it was a temporary home for the Breen family who survived the Donner Party tragedy. Their family Bible is in the Museum.

The San Andreas Fault runs along the base of the hill below the cemetery. In 1906, there was a violent earthquake that shook the greater part of central California. The side walls of the church collapsed. They were restored in 1976. Vestiges of the original El Camino Real can still be seen north of the cemetery.

The "convento" wing is all that remains of the quadrangle that had enclosed the gardens. The kitchen served 1,200 people three times a day. The mission's collection of books and art works are in many cases older than the mission. Some of the fine vestments in the museum are from China, Russia and Venice, and were used at the mission as recently as the 1930's.

The cemetery on the north side of the church contains the remains of over 4,000 Christian Native Americans and Europeans. Ascencion Solorzano, the last pure blooded Native American of this mission, is buried in the cemetery. Her grave is marked by a red cross and a plaque has been placed on the wall above her grave in her memory.