Spanish Viceroyalty
The earliest documented efforts by the Viceroyalty of New Spain, or Mexico, to chart the coast of the Californias began with the charter expedition of Hernán Cortés in 1535. Landing near La Paz, Cortés returned to the mainland, and subsequently dispatched another expedition under the command of Capitán Francisco de Ulloa in 1539. The Ulloa expedition succeeded in exploring and mapping the length of the Sea of Cortes, and in so doing determined that Baja California constituted a peninsula as opposed to an island. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez de Cabrillo (1499-1543) explored the west coast of Alta California, and on 28 September 1542 made landfall in what is today the San Diego Bay. Cabrillo christened the site San Miguel. In 1602, the Portuguese navigator Sebastián Viscaíno (1548-1627) followed suit, landed at at San Miguel, and promptly renamed the Bay after his flagship, and so San Diego was born on 10 November 1602. Viscaíno charted the coast of Alta California, and renamed many of those sites earlier named by Cabrillo, and succeeded in naming many more. It was Viscaíno who made landfall at Monterey, and it was there on 17 December 1602 that the first Catholic mass in Alta California was convened by Father Andrés de la Asunción, OFM, in staking claim to this portion of the Californias for the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Prompted by the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) between Spain, France and England, and England’s invasion and occupation of both the Spanish Philippines and Cuba; Spain’s King Carlos III ordered the colonization of Alta California. The Spanish plan for the colonization of Nueva, Upper or Alta, California was implemented some 72 years after the establishment of the first successful Jesuit mission and sole presidio or garrison at Loreto, Baja California, on 19 October 1697. By 1769, when the first foray was made into what was defined as the province of Alta California in 1768, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, had already established some twenty mission foundings in Baja California by the time of their expulsion in 1767. In 1768, Fray Junípero Serra, OFM, who had been selected to serve as the new Father President of the former Jesuit missions of Baja California the year before was ordered to relinquish administration of the Baja missions to the Dominicans. In March 1769 Serra established the sole Franciscan mission of Baja California at San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá near El Rosario. José de Gálvez, the inspector general of New Spain, then commissioned both Serra and the Spanish governor of Baja California, Gaspar de Portolá, to undertake what has since come to be termed the Sacred Expedition of 1769. The colonial entrada or expedition therefore was comprised of both religious and military components, and the first founding of Alta California was that identified with the mission of San Diego de Alcala on 16 July 1769. Shortly thereafter, Russian colonial expansion into Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in the 1770s and 80s fueled the advance by the Spanish into Alta California.

With the establishment of the Spanish and Indian missions and Royal presidios at hand, in 1777, the Spanish Viceroyalty based in Mexico City then moved to establish civilian settlements, or pueblo towns, at El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe (1797), la Villa de Branciforte or Santa Cruz (1797), and El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula (1781). The King Carlos III of Spain granted the Order of Friars Minor large tracts of land in Alta California to be held in trust for the indigenous peoples of California. The Franciscans were to convert, protect, and educate the California Indians for the expressed purpose of becoming loyal Spanish subjects. The Royal trusts did not grant the Franciscans the right to destroy existing Indian communities. However, those policies identified with the Reducción de indios, sought to consolidate evangelized indigenous communities for the purpose of drawing them into the mission communities. The Royal concessions were predicated on the belief that within ten years the Franciscans would convert, acculturate, and support indigenous peoples in their adoption of a Hispanicized agricultural lifestyle. However, the complexity and wholly distinct character of the California Indian lifestyle, and the hundreds of distinct indigenous languages that dominated California, soon proved formidable. As a result, in many instances the anticipated tenure required to transition indigenous communities in Alta California was beset with unforeseen challenges and failings. As a result, many Franciscans were forced to concede to the Viceroyalty that the indigenous peoples of Alta California were not ready to manage their own agricultural allotments, and so many missions persisted under the control of the Franciscans beyond the 10 years granted for that purpose. This was the argument that went on for the next thirty plus years. With the establishment of the otherwise prosperous missions, presidios, and pueblos, what had once been deemed an isolated frontier soon drew the interest of those wishing to exploit the rich resources of early California.

The rich maritime traditions of the Iberian Peninsula, the Mediterranean, and the Viceroyalty of Nueva España soon made possible the earliest mappings of the Californias. However, the earliest maps nevertheless depicted the Californias as an island, in large part due to confusion borne of the intersection of the Colorado River Delta with the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez. This error would be corrected with the charting of the region by Capitán Francisco de Ulloa in 1539. Ironically, however, 163 years would pass before land-based explorations of the Colorado River Delta and Gulf of California by the Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J. (1700-1702) finally dispelled the notion that California was an island.


Browse the Spanish Viceroyalty [AD 1542/1769-1821] Collections:

Franciscan Publications

Miscellaneous Publications – Spanish

Mission Maps

Pre-1824 Maps

Spanish Government Documents