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Home Page Button   Beginnings of the Mission
Teacher Information Button   Mission San Carlos was founded by Father Junipero Serra and is the second mission in the Alta California chain. Father Serra and several soldiers sailed from San Diego to find the Monterey Bay. It took over a month to travel the distance. On August 24, 1771 Father Serra blessed the area and dedicated the Mission to Saint Charles Borromeo.
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Sources Button   Location and Geography
Bibliography History Button   The Monterey Bay area had originally been ’discovered’ by European explorers years earlier. One of the explorers, Vizcaino, had named the area where the river met the sea for Mt. Carmel in Israel. Father Serra originally chose a site several miles north of where Mission San Carlos currently stands. The site was in what is now the city of Monterey. Unfortunately it was a difficult place to raise food and there were few Native American tribe members in the area.

Father Serra asked permission to move the Mission to a better location and one further away from the soldiers. The new location was within a mile from the Pacific Ocean near where the Carmel River empties into the Ocean. Father Serra was given permission and moved the Mission to a better site near the entrance to Carmel Valley. The site had better soil and was close to the sea. The Spanish didn’t completely abandon the site in Monterey. The soldiers used the site to build a Presidio where the military would live to help protect their new mission and control the area.

Top of Page Button   The Native Americans
    The main tribe in the area around Mission San Carlos was the Esselen. Like most of the other tribes in California, the Esselen were nomadic. That means that they lived in one area for a time and would move their entire community to follow herds for food or when too much garbage piled up they would burn down the old ones and find another site to build their homes. Men hunted and fished to provide food while the women gathered acorns, wild herbs, roots, and berries to help feed their families.

Top of Page Button   Architecture and Layout
    The Fathers followed a regular plan for creating the layout of the mission buildings. Right after blessing the site the Fathers and the soldiers would start building a small building to hold the religious ceremonies, called a Mass. They would encourage local Natives to help them. Many often did; they were fascinated by the tools and gifts that the Fathers had brought with them. The first buildings would be built of wood poles and brush. Eventually the buildings would be replaced by larger adobe brick or stone buildings. After a chapel or church was finished where the Fathers and Neophytes could hold Mass they would start building the Convento. The Convento was where the Fathers would live. Next would come workshops and the Monjerio. The Monjerio was where unmarried girls and women would live and be locked in at night. The Fathers didn’t think that unmarried girls and women should live near single men. Eventually there would be enough buildings for four sides of a square or quadrangle. The Mission complexes weren’t perfect squares because the Fathers didn’t have a way to measure distance other than walking off distances. Most Missions included a fountain. The fountain was used for washing, laundry, and water. The more fancy the fountain the more successful the Mission.

From 1771 to 1784 Father Francisco Palóu supervised the Mission San Carlos’ construction when Father Serra left to establish more Missions. Father Serra died in 1784 and Father Palou retired in 1785. Father Fermin Francisco Lasuen took over as the president of the Missions in Alta California. Mission San Carlos was where the president of the Missions lived and where his offices were located.

The church that stands in Carmel today is not the original church. It has been rebuilt several times. In 1791 Manuel Ruiz a master builder from New Spain was hired to build a new church on the same site where Father Serra had placed the original church. It took four years to build. The church was not made of adobe, it was made of sandstone dug from nearby mountains. The new church had an arched ceiling with walls covered in plaster. The plaster was made from seashells.

Top of Page Button   Life at the Mission
    Life at the Mission was difficult for both the Fathers and the Natives. During the early years most Missions had trouble supporting themselves and depended on deliveries of supplies and food from New Spain and other Missions. Often the ships were unable to make the trip and the Mission’s members went hungry. It normally took several years before a Mission was able to plant enough food and raise enough cattle and other animals to be able to feed everyone who lived at the Mission.

Those that lived at the Mission went by a strict schedule. The Fathers were used to this type of lifestyle, but the neophytes were not. The structure of Mission life was one of the reasons many Native Californians tried to leave. A French explorer, Jean François de La Pérouse, visited Mission San Carlos is 1786 and wrote a detailed account of what he observed. Events at the Mission were signaled by the ringing of the Mission bells. Each day started around sunrise (about 6am). The Mission bells would ring to wake everyone and summon them to Mass and morning prayers. Prayer lasted for about an hour and then everyone would go to breakfast. Atole, a type of soup made from barley and other grains, would be served. Breakfast took about 45 minutes and then it was time for everyone to go to work.

The Fathers were responsible for running the Mission and instructing the new converts and children in the Catholic faith. Most of the men went to the fields to tend to the crops or to help with the animals while women stayed at the Mission and worked on domestic chores such as weaving cloth and making clothes, boiling down fat to make soap and candles, and tending to the vegetable gardens. Children often helped at these chores around the Mission once their religious instruction was over. Depending on the particular industry at the Mission there also might be neophytes leatherworking, metalworking, wine making, and pressing olives for olive oil.

At noon the bells would ring again for everyone to gather for dinner, what we would call lunch. Lunch was normally pozole, another thick soup with beans and peas. After an afternoon break everyone returned to their work for another two to four hours depending on how much work there was to be done. A last bell would be rung to end the work day. Another serving of Atole would be served and the neophytes would be able to rest until it was time for bed (Margolin, Pg. 85). Women were usually expected to go to bed by 8pm and men by 9pm. Most of the Fathers allowed their neophytes to continue to hunt and gather additional foods and to cook some of their traditional dishes.

Living at the Mission was often difficult for new converts. They were used to working when work needed to be done and resting when they were tired. The Mission lifestyle was different. The Neophytes were the main source of labor for the Missions. It was their hard work along with the soldiers’ and Fathers’ that built the Missions and their outbuildings. Agriculture and ranching required constant tending to the crops and animals. Without this labor the Missions would not have been able to survive. Many neophytes missed the freedom of their tribal life and would try to leave the Mission. The Fathers wouldn’t allow neophytes to leave and would send soldiers to search for them and bring them back. Runaways were usually punished for breaking the rules.

By 1783 the Mission had 165 neophytes living there. Mission San Carlos was large enough to eventually have two Rancherías: Buena Vista and El Tucho. Rancherías were small ranches that had horse corrals and stables. The Missions also used the Rancherías to house the men responsible for watching over the horses and cattle.

By 1795 there were 875 neophytes living at the Mission.

Top of Page Button   Mission Industries
    The soil around the Mission was quite good and they grew corn, wheat, beans, and barley as well as other vegetables like artichokes. The Mission also had horses and cattle. The cattle were very important for providing food, oil, and hides.

The Mission was even involved in the seal fur trade. The rich Chinese loved using the fur of seals in their clothing and were willing to pay a lot of money for them. The Mission paid the Natives to kill and strip the seals’ fur and then sold the fur, called pelts, to traders to bring them to China. By the time Spain got heavily involved in the fur trade Chinese fashions had changed, but many seals were killed and they became very rare along the California coast.

Top of Page Button   The End of the Mission Period
    Mission San Carlos Ruins Looking From the Altar, Taken Before 1880Father Jose Real took charge of Mission San Carlos in 1833. In August of 1833 the Mission was Secularized. Instead of letting the neophytes purchase the land, most of it went to wealthy Spanish and Mexican landowners. By 1834 Mission records show that only 165 neophytes still lived there. What was left of the Esselen moved away from the Mission and worked on local ranches or as vaqueros. The Mission buildings were left to fall apart. By 1850 Alta California had become part of the United States as the State of California. Mission San Carlos was eventually given back to the Catholic Church. According to Kathleen and Susan Edgar’s book about Mission San Carlos, “…So much of the land became privately owned that the Catholics eventually had to buy back a section of land in front of the church…to allow people to enter through the front doors without trespassing on privately owned land.”1

Top of Page Button   Reconstruction and The Mission Today
    Nothing was done with the Mission ruins until the 1880s. A steep roof was put on the stone church to try and save the building. Not much else was done until the 1920s. At that point the steep roof was replaced and part of the church was restored. The Catholic Church re-dedicated the Mission as a Catholic parish in 1933 and the Mission once again started to flourish. Harry Downie, known for his understanding of authentic Mission architecture, decided that the Mission should once again be brought back the beautiful church that it once was. He worked for decades to help restore the church to what we see today. His restoration of the Mission church is considered one of the best.
1Edgar, Kathleen J. & Edgar, Susan E. Mission San Carlos
      Borromeo del Río Carmelo.
New York:
      The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2000.
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