Mission Stories

As with most any enterprise, there are many stories about the missions and their founding. Most are false or misleading; some of these are detailed below.

Story: The Golden Road

Mustard by roadA persistent story I often heard as a child (and is still being spread) is that the padres, in order to mark El Camino Real, carried and spread mustard seeds along the road. These were supposed to grow and mark the road with their bright yellow flowers. Since mustard grows wild all over California it’s unlikely this is true but one can see where the story came from when you see sights like this one along Jolon road on the way to Mission San Antonio de Padua. (You used to see large stands of mustard along U.S. 101 but weed abatement programs took those out years ago.)

Technically, this type of mustard is called Brassica rapa (birdsrape mustard, field mustard). It is a winter annual herb resistant to frost and mild freezes. It is an aggressive plant and adapts to many different conditions so it’s easy to see how it could spread throughout the state. The seeds can be buried for up to 50 years and still survive to germinate. [California Invasive Plant Council] If you look at the distribution throughout the state you can see that it extends well beyond just El Camino Real. [Calflora] This distribution is confirmed in the Jepson Flora Project from U.C. Berkeley. Indeed, Brassica rapa can now be found in much of the United States. [ Invasivore.org] The genus is native in the wild in western Europe, the Mediterranean and temperate regions of Asia. In addition to the cultivated species, which are grown worldwide, many of the wild species grow as weeds, especially in North America, South America, and Australia. [Wikipedia]

In short: This is a persistent story with no real basis in fact. It’s more likely that the field mustard made its way to California by other means than Saint Serra.

Story: It’s a Day’s Walk Between Missions

Another persistent story is that the missions were founded a day’s walk apart. Just a look at the map should dispel that story but it seems to continue. For one thing the missions were not founded one after the other up the coast. They were founded at various times and are various distances apart. For another, the padres almost never walked between the missions; they typically rode horses or mules. Indeed, by Spanish law (and the law of the military at the time) the padres were forbidden to leave their missions unless they had a military guard and those always rode on horses. It would have been very difficult to travel the necessary distances in California by foot alone. The distances between the missions (via Google Maps) is shown here to demonstrate.

Starting at San Diego de Alcalá to San Luis Rey de Francia is 39.3 miles, then to San Juan Capistrano is 32.8 miles, on to San Gabriel Arcángel is 57.5 miles, through Los Angeles to San Fernando Rey de España is 30.3 miles, over to San Buenaventura is 60.9 miles, up to Santa Bárbara is 31.8 miles, over the mountains to Santa Inés is another 30.1 miles, across to La Purísima Concepción is 18.7 miles, up to San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is 55.2 miles, over the Cuesta Grade to San Miguel Arcángel is 36.8 miles, then over to San Antonio de Padua is 40.3 miles, from there up to Nuestra Señora de la Soledad adds 39.5 miles, then up to San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is 51.0 miles, over to San Juan Bautista is 36.9 miles, over to the coast again to Santa Cruz for 34.5 miles, then up to Santa Clara de Asís for 31.1 miles. Here it gets tricky. The padres had no bridge to cross so they would have gone to San José and then backtracked to Santa Clara de Asís and up. We’ll go directly and take the bridge so from Santa Clara de Asís to San José is 15.5 miles and San José across the bridge to San Francisco de Asís is 45.4 miles. (Santa Clara de Asís to San Francisco de Asís is 46.2 miles if you want to do the calculations that way.) Taking a boat from San Francisco de Asís (remember, no Golden Gate Bridge) then up to San Rafael Arcángel is 18.3 miles and, finally, up to San Francisco Solano adds 26.9 miles.

So, as you can see, there is no “standard” distance between missions and the longer distances would likely require multiple days; even the shorter distances would require extra time because of the terrain (e.g., Santa Barbara to Solvang isn’t far today but State Highway 154 did not exist back then and the mountain passes in that area are very steep and hard to negotiate).

Bottom line: The missions were founded at locations where there was water, soil suitable for planting, and natives in sufficient numbers to convert. Time traveling between them was NOT a significant factor.

Story: The Simi Valley Cross Guides Travelers to Nearest Mission

Mount McCoy Simi Valley

Photo taken from the Reagan Library.

There is a cross sitting atop Mount McCoy in Simi Valley. It’s said that the cross was erected there as the half-way point between the Ventura and San Fernando missions so that if travelers were under attack they knew which mission was the closest. It’s possible there might be some truth in that story as the cross is at the approximate mid-point between the two missions. It’s more likely however that the cross was put up to mark the location of the Rancho Simi Adobe for travelers as it was the only residence in the area for many miles around.

The first record of the cross is in an 1858 hand-drawn map of the Ventura County ranchos. At that time the hill was Verde Hill. It was later named Mount McCoy after an 1898 settler. A stone cross is supposed to have been put up by a shepherd at the turn of the 20th Century. A new wooden cross was erected in 1921 and the present 12-foot concrete cross erected in 1941. (To see the exact location of the cross put the coordinates 34.262530, -118.804419 into Google Maps.)