The ruins of the Great Stone Church at San Juan Capistrano Mission
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Eleven facts you might not know about California’s missions

The ruins of the Great Stone Church at San Juan Capistrano Mission
Zorro was born at a California mission.

Figuratively speaking, that is. Author Johnston McCulley’s first story about the black-masked crusader, published in 1919, was titled “The Curse of Capistrano” and set at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The first Zorro movie followed soon after.

This revelation (on Page 71) is just one among many sacred and secular nuggets to be found in “The California Missions: History, Art, and Preservation” (Getty Publications, 276 pages, hardcover, $39.95), a new coffee table book that’s both scholarly and, in the words of historian Kevin Starr, “sumptuous.” It has 170 color illustrations, 100 more in black-and-white, enough to give your fourth-grader a substantial advantage when time comes for that build-a-mission-with-Popsicle-sticks assignment. (It lacks, however, a picture of Zorro. And there’s not much practical information for a traveler.)

Of course the missions story is tricky to tell, given the countless souls the friars intended to save, the tens of thousands of Native American lives lost, and the romantic fondness so many people have for the look of those old buildings. In their quest of photos, sketches and paintings, authors Edna E. Kimbro (who died in 2005), Julia G. Costello and Tevvy Ball, working for the Getty Conservation Institute, used sources as diverse as the UC Berkeley‘s Bancroft Library to the National Gallery of Art, where a trove of startling watercolors and drawings turned up.

Here, only slightly sensationalized, are 10 more facts from the book, along with some images.

-- Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times staff writer (Courtesy San Juan Capistrano Mission / From The California Missions, Getty Publications)
San Diego Mission
1. Before Alta California got its first Franciscan mission in San Diego, Spanish Jesuits set up 17 in Baja.

Those churches, many of which endure, were built from 1697 to 1767, when Spain expelled the Jesuits from Baja California. (Page 14) (G. Aldana / From The California Missions, Getty Publications)
Station 6 from Via Cruces (Stations of the Cross) painted by Native American artists atSan Fernando Rey Mission
2. The main mission man in Alta California was a limping, wheezing old guy.

Junípero Serra, the Spanish-born Franciscan friar who led the expansion of missions into California, was already 56 when he reached San Diego in 1769. Not only did he have a leg infection that troubled him the rest of his life, but he also had asthma (Page 15). Though Serra died in 1784, the Franciscans kept adding missions until 1823, when the 21st, and last, opened in Sonoma. (In the 1830s, after Mexico wrested control of California from Spain, the missions were secularized, private owners took over mission lands, and the old buildings entered a long period of neglect and decline.) (Bill Dewey / From The California Missions Getty Publications)
Rendering of wall decoration at San Fernando Rey Mission by artists of the Index of American Design
3. California‘s missions were a crumbling mess until they were rescued by an imaginary mestizo maiden.

Without Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 romance novel “Ramona,” there’s no telling what the mission sites would look like now. But as that book rose to spectacular success, readers seized upon its fictionalized accounts of a California maiden of mixed descent in the early 19th century. Encouraged by railroad companies seeking western tourism, thousands of readers went looking for the real-life landmarks behind the story, and soon a movement was afoot to restore the crumbling structures. Jackson had written the book to lament the plight of California’s Indians, but her readers gave the missions far more immediate attention than they gave the remaining Native Californians. (Page 55) (Jeffrey Holt and Marry Mann Waddell, Restoration Drawing: Wall Painting and Door, 1937. Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, The California Missions, Getty Publications)
A painting of Santa Barbara Mission by Edwin Deakin
4. The first mission tourist may have been Henry Miller.

No, not the naughty novelist. This Henry Miller, from Northern California, was a little-known artist who rode by mule in 1856 to visit and sketch all 21 missions (Page 37). Several other painters followed, and photographer Carleton Watkins set himself a similar mission in the 1870s and 1880s. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson spoke up for mission preservation in 1879. But it wasn’t until after “Ramona” in 1884 that a broad preservation movement gained momentum. (Courtesy Garzoli Gallery / From The California Missions, Getty Publications)
San Luis Rey de Francia Mission
5.The biggest mission was in Oceanside.

Though the average mission settlement’s population of attached native “neophytes” rarely topped 2,000, San Luis Rey de Francia, in what is now Oceanside, grew quickly to a population of nearly 3,000. In the late 1820s, operations were said to include 60,000 head of cattle (Page 23). (Carleton Watkins / From The California Missions Getty Publications)
Santa Barbara Mission
6. We can thank the Spanish for introducing Chinese fireworks to California.

The fireworks came, of course, amid all sorts of other good and bad baggage brought by missionaries and soldiers, including the following: influenza, smallpox, typhoid, syphilis, horses, cattle, incense, candles, corn, squash, guitars, trumpets, mirrors, bells, silk and iron (Pages 32 and 33). (Bill Dewey / From The California Missions, Getty Publications)
San Fernando Rey Mission
7. While California was gaining its 21 missions, it lost about 250,000 Indians.

In 1750, before the missions reached Alta California, this region was home to an estimated 300,000 Native Americans. By 1855, that figure had fallen to about 50,000 (Pages 14 and 53). (Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art / The California Missoins Getty Publications)
San Luis Rey Mission
8. Most of the state’s mission churches are latter-day replacements.

Of the 21 mission churches that existed in 1832, only 10 original buildings have survived. Of those, four are made mostly of adobe ( San Luis Obispo, San Francisco de Asis, San Miguel and the Serra Chapel at San Juan Capistrano). Four others are a mixture of adobe and brick (San Buenaventura, San Luis Rey, San Juan Bautista and Santa Ines), and two are made of stone (San Gabriel and Santa Barbara) (Page 155). (G. Aldana / From The California Missions, Getty Publications)
San Miguel Mission
9. Once, these places were awash in crazy colors.

In their effort to clean up the crumbling old sites, the missions’ rescuers often covered or removed old murals, applying plain paint jobs in their place. Generations of fourth-graders, touring the sites as part of their California history studies, came away with enduring mental images of white-walled missions, austere inside and out. But that’s not how those buildings began. Many had highly colorful interiors. One clue is the Mission San Miguel, Arcangel, in San Luis Obispo, which still has most of its many-colored original interior (Page 3). There’s more evidence among the watercolors and photos made in the 1930s and early ‘40s by the Federal Art Project’s Index of American Design (Page 73). (G. Aldana / From The California Missions, Getty Publications)
La Purisma Mission
10. If it’s gritty mission reality you want, head for Lompoc.Or maybe not.

Mission La Purisima State Historic Park stands in an isolated valley three miles east of Lompoc. That reconstructed complex, the authors of “The California Missions” say, “displays perhaps the state’s most historically accurate vision of mission life” (Page 153). But it’s also on the list of 50 to 100 state parks that may be closed because of California’s budget crisis. (La Purisima Mission)