On the Pacific coast, Russian fur traders in the eighteenth century established a series of forts and trading posts in Alaska. Although only a handful of Russian colonists lived in the region, Spain, alarmed by what it saw as a danger to its American empire, ordered the colonization of California. A string of Spanish missions and presidios soon dotted the California coastline, from San Diego to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Francisco, and Sonoma. born on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca, Father Junipero Serra became one of the most controversial figures in California’s early history. He founded the first California mission, in San Diego, in 1769 and administered the mission network until his death in 1784. Serra was widely praised in Spain for converting thousands of Indians to Christianity, teaching them Spanish, and working to transform their hunting-and-gathering economies by introducing settled agriculture and skilled crafts. Today, he is being considered by the Catholic Church for elevation to sainthood. But forced labor and disease took a heavy toll among Indians who lived at the missions Serra directed.

In this lithograph from 1816, Indians perform a dance at Mission San Francisco in California. Priests watch from the front of the mission church.

Present-day California was a densely populated area, with a native population of perhaps 250,000 when Spanish settlement began. But as in other regions, the coming of soldiers and missionaries proved a disaster for the Indians. More than any other Spanish colony, California was a mission frontier. These outposts served simultaneously as religious institutions and centers of government and labor. Their aim was to transform the culture of the local population and eventually assimilate it into Spanish civilization. Father Serra and other missionaries hoped to convert the natives to Christianity and settled farming. The missions also relied on forced Indian labor to grow grain, work in orchards and vineyards, and tend cattle. The combination of new diseases and the resettlement of thousands of Indians in villages around the missions devastated Indian society. By 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, California’s native population had declined by more than one-third. But the area had not attracted Spanish settlers. In 1800, Los Angeles, with a population of 300, was the largest town. When Spanish rule came to an end in 1821, Californios (California residents of Spanish descent) numbered only 3,200.

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