Buildings of the Treviño-Uribe Rancho; Cuban Refugees, 1961.
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Mission San Miguel Arcàngel

San Miguel, California

Mission San Miguel Arcàngel

Mission San Miguel Arcàngel
Courtesy of Del Puerto Photography

The Spanish established 21 Franciscan Catholic missions in a line throughout Alta California during the 18th and early 19th centuries to expand their empire, settle the Pacific Coast region, and convert local American Indian tribes to Catholicism. Many of these historic missions still stand throughout California for visitors to experience. Mission San Miguel Arcàngel was the 16th mission founded in the 21 mission chain, and is today a National Historic Landmark. A unique feature of this mission is that its interior wall murals, originally painted in the 1800s by Salinan Indians who converted to Catholicism, have never been retouched or repainted.

Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén founded Mission San Miguel Arcàngel on July 25, 1797. The Spanish selected Mission San Miguel’s location along the Salinas River to ease travel between Mission San Antonio and Mission San Luis Obispo. In the mission system, missions were generally placed a day’s walk from one another. The mission’s grounds extended 18 miles to the north and south, 66 miles to the east and 35 miles to the west. Such large land grants were necessary for the mission to grow crops, plant vineyards, raise cattle and sheep, and graze horses and mules for trade and to sustain their community.

More of the interior wall murals at Mission San Miguel

More of the interior wall
murals at Mission San Miguel
Courtesy of Rachel Titiriga,
Flickr’s Creative Commons

Mission San Miguel sat along the El Camino Real, which was the main overland route that connected Spanish missions, presidios, and pueblos in Alta California. The road ran right next to a large Salinan Indian village. The mission’s first padre, Father Buenaventura Sitjar, had a pre-existing relationship with the Salinan people having ministered to them for 25 years at Mission San Antonio. Father Sitjar spoke the Salinan people’s language and was able to baptize 15 Salinan children the day the mission was established. The founding of Mission San Miguel marked the beginning of a friendly relationship between the Salinan people and Spanish padres. Eventually, over 1,000 Salinan Indians would call the mission home.

In 1797, a temporary church and other buildings were built at Mission San Miguel. In 1806, a fire destroyed the church, the other mission buildings, and all the stored farm products. Planning and preparation for a new and larger church began immediately following the fire, while the rebuilding of the other mission buildings began at once. For the next 10 years, Salinan neophytes made nearly 36,000 roof tiles and adobe blocks that they stored in preparation for constructing the new church. The foundation for the new church was laid in 1816 and by 1818, the new church, with its six feet thick adobe walls and a long colonnade with multiple arches of varying shapes and sizes, was finished. Monterey’s Esteban Munras designed and had completed the interior murals with the help of the Salinan Indians by 1821. These never re-touched original murals make Mission San Miguel a special stop along the California Mission chain today.

Life at Mission San Miguel changed after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821. Due to the financial strain of maintaining the missions, the Mexican government began to secularize the mission system and convert church property to private property. In 1834, Mission San Miguel was one of the last missions to be secularized. By this time, only about 30 Salinan Indians remained at the mission and no Spanish padres. A Mexican administrator took control of Mission San Miguel.

The interior wall murals, originally painted in the 1800s by Salinan Indian neophytes (converts), have never been retouched or repainted.

The interior wall murals, originally painted in the 1800s
by Salinan Indian neophytes (converts), have
never been retouched or repainted.
Courtesy of Prayitno, Flickr’s Creative Commons

In 1846, business partners Petronillio Rios, a retired Mexican military man, and William Reed, an Englishman who had a wife from Monterey, purchased the mission buildings. The Reeds lived in the mission until a brutal attack from three Irish sailors, who had deserted their ship, left 11 of the family members and household staff dead in their house. After the vicious murders of the Reed family and their staff, and because of the mission’s location as a stopping point for gold miners traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the mission’s buildings and grounds were converted for commercial use. At various times, the mission served as retail shops, a hotel, a saloon, and a dancehall.

President Buchanan returned Mission San Miguel to the Catholic Church in 1859. By 1878, the newly assigned resident padre, Father Philip Farrely, ran the mission and established a new parish. Fifty years later, in 1928, the mission was officially returned to the Franciscans. Under the direction of the Franciscans once again, the mission became a novitiate training school and a center for retreats and meetings. The mission is still an active parish and a novitiate training facility.

Today, a visitor to Mission San Miguel can see the beautifully restored and reconstructed mission buildings. The untouched interior murals provide a unique opportunity to view a piece of history and of old Spanish mission life in California.

Plan your visit

Mission San Miguel Arcàngel, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 775 Mission St. in San Miguel, CA. The Mission San Miguel Museum is open 10:00am to 4:30pm daily and the Mission San Miguel Church is open 8:00am to 5:00pm daily.  For more information, visit the Mission San Miguel website or call 805-467-3256.

Mission San Miguel has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey and is featured in the National Park Service Early History of the California Coast Travel Itinerary.

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