The California missions are a string of 21 Spanish missions, lying along a 600-mile stretch of coast from San Diego to Sonoma (north of San Francisco). They were California's first European settlements. Built between 1769 and 1823, their adobe walls, arched doorways, tile roofs and Mediterranean gardens had a lasting influence on California architecture. Fires, earthquakes, floods and disuse caused most to fall into ruin, but nearly all have been restored.
In 1769, under order of the Spanish king, sea and land expeditions embarked up the California coast. San Diego saw the establishment of the first fort and mission in the expansion effort. The king sent military troops and Franciscan missionaries to the new land to colonize the territory and convert its Indian inhabitants to Christianity.
Over 54 years, four forts, or presidios, and 21 missions were founded in “upper” California. Some of these sites eventually evolved into the state's major cities, including San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Jose and San Francisco.
Founding of the California missions began seven years before the American Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and ended 25 years before gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, about 50 miles east of present-day Sacramento, in 1848. Mission expansion came to an end in 1823, when mission bells rang in Sonoma.
Today, the Franciscan friars of the St. Barbara Province live and minister in three of the 21 missions: Mission San Luis Rey, Mission Santa Barbara and Mission San Miguel.