Misión de Nuestro Padre San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores)

Misión de Nuestro Padre San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores)

Site Information

Country: United States of America
State: San Francisco
Location: 37° 45' 50" N - 122° 25' 36" W
Field Documentation Date(s): July 11th, 2012
Project Release Date(s): To be determined
Time Range: 1776 CE - Present
Era: Spanish Colonial, Mexican, Gold Rush
Culture: Spanish, Native American, Indian, US, Californian
Site Authority: Archdiocese of San Francisco
Heritage Listing: US National Register of Historic Places
US National Historic Landmark
world map with location

Sheet from the Mission Dolores Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) record: HABS CAL,38-SANFRA,1- (sheet 4 of 39) - Mission San Francisco de Asis, Mission & Sixteenth Streets, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA

Site Description


Mission Dolores, the popular name for Misión San Francisco de Asís, was completed in 1791. It is the oldest standing, intact, adobe building dedicated to Christian worship in California, and the oldest intact building in the modern City and County of San Francisco.
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Historic photograph of the Mission Dolores Cemetery in 1936



The Mission Period for Dolores lasted for over 40 years and had a peak Indian population of 1252 in 1820. It was the 6th Spanish Mission strategically founded in Alta California to defend the northern border of Spain’s claim to the region. The five predecessor missions were San Diego de Alcala, San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel Archangel, and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Colonization of Alta California
Spanish ships prowled the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Mendocino as early as 1543, but the Spanish did not attempt to occupy the land in the modern state of California for two centuries. In 1767 the Spanish King ordered Visitador-General Jose de Galvez to take immediate steps to occupy and defend the upper Pacific coast from the approaching Russians. Spain’s quest for an extended empire was crystallized during the colonization of the region which today makes up modern Mexico. Spain could utilize its presence in Mexico City to further expand the empire to the north. Because the Spanish occupation was to be spiritual as well as military, Galvez consulted Baja California’s newly appointed Franciscan President, Padre Junípero Serra24.

Galvez’s army and the Franciscan missionaries desired to establish a mission on the San Francisco Bay peninsula. The Spanish first entered modern San Francisco while exploring the area by foot as its narrow entrance and typical fog made it very difficult to find by ship.

On December 15, 1774, Viceroy Bucareli wrote to Padre Serra from Mexico giving permission to prepare a group of people and provisions to establish a mission and presidio in San Francisco. The first Spanish sailing vessel entered the Golden Gate on August 2, 1775. After exploring both arms of the immense harbor, the Spanish found the bay to be many ports with a single entrance and declared it the best anywhere under the Spanish flag. They decided it must be fortified.2.

On June 17, 1776, Lieutenant José Joaquín Moraga, Sergeant Grijalva, two corporals, sixteen soldiers, two colonists, five Indians, along with Padre Francisco Palóu and Padre Benito Cambon, departed Monterey for the San Francisco Bay on foot. Supplies had been sent ahead by the Spanish ship the San Carlos.

When Father Serra reached San Francisco by foot, he looked across the Golden Gate and said, “Our Holy Father St Francis has reached the extreme end of the continent of California.” The party reached the stream, later named Dolores, on June 27 at a location that had been selected for the mission. The land comprised of sandy hills with little grass, few trees, and only small creeks. The group erected an arbor of saplings and boughs and set up tents at the Dolores camp to wait for the San Carlos to arrive with supplies to build the presidio.

The ship was to arrive around the same time as the foot expeditions. Although the ship left Monterey on schedule, it encountered strong head winds and was delayed by a month, entering into the San Francisco Bay on August 18.

Although the foot party was ordered to wait for the ship before choosing spots for the mission and the presidio, they moved ahead of their plan choosing sites and beginning construction before the San Carlos entered the harbor. The first mass in the little arbor was celebrated on June 29, 1776, just five days before the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain20.

Padre Palóu, the party’s historian, wrote of the experience, “On June 27 we reached the vicinity of the port and pitched camp, which was composed of 15 tents, on the bank of a large lagoon which empties its waters into the arm of the sea or the port that extends inland 15 leagues to the southeast. The object was to wait for the ship to mark out the site for the presidio near a favorable anchorage.”22.

Padre Palóu also wrote, “In a short time a building was completed, which measured ten varas [or twenty-eight feet] in length, and five varas [fourteen feet] in width. This structure was of wood plastered over with clay and roofed with tules. To this was built of the same material a church eighteen varas [about fifty feet] long. Adjoining it, in the rear of the altar, was a small room which served as a vestry”22.

The adobe church, which still stands today, was completed in 179111.

Purpose of the California Missions
The primary focus of the California Missions was the Indians. Central to the efforts of the Franciscan Padres at all of the California Missions was to gather the native peoples into villages surrounding the location of a Mission establishment. At these transitional villages, the native peoples underwent a process called reduccion. This relocation of the native people’s allowed the Spanish to more easily teach Christian doctrine and European cultural values. Spanish laws and government were further established by the creation of townships or pueblos. Spanish law provided that Indian tribes entering the mission system would have their lands preserved intact under the management of the mission padres. The intention was to have self-governing pueblos in place within 10 years of the foundation of a given mission.

Although California’s Indians were the primary focus of the padres, the missions served important functions for the Hispanic population as well. Governor José Figueroa summed up the work of the missions just before their closure,

“Military and civilians depended on missions, made loans, were hostels where travelers and poor received food, lodging, horses or whatever they wanted free of charge. California missions were the sole source of the prosperity of the territory.”14

The Spanish philosophy of colonization has been termed Hispanization, "the assimilation of a conquered people into Spanish society by absorption of their own culture"3. Church and State were united, and the missionaries were expected to be the principal agents of colonization. A mission served as more than a church, containing quarters for the padres, soldiers and guests, homes for the Indians, workshops, storehouses, and acres of land devoted to agriculture and livestock. Although never realized, the mission was intended to continue until a native clergy had been developed, at which time the mission would be converted into a parish and the vast mission lands divided among the Indians.

Life for the Indians in the Missions
Junípero Serra and his missionaries did not come to California to study Indian culture, they came to change it. Their perspective is embodied in the final lines of the Gospel according to Matthew:

Jesus came forward and addressed them [the Apostles] in these words: Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world! [Matthew 28:18-20]

In conjunction with the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans interpreted this as a solemn mandate to Christianize and Hispanicize the Indians. In Palóu’s words:

They [the Indians] can be conquered first only by their interest in being fed and clothed, and afterwards they gradually acquire a knowledge of what is spiritually good and evil. If the missionaries had nothing to give them, they could not win them over. If the Indians did not live in a town within hearing of the mission bell, but rather in their villages after the fashion of their pagan days…the missionaries would not be able to get them to leave off their vicious pagan practices10.

A typical day at the mission began with the ringing of the bell at sunrise to call the Indians to Mass and morning prayers, followed by a first meal of atole, a grain porridge. Christian doctrine was learned by rote, repeated each day with a new point being added, until the entire catechism had been memorized. The daily routine for the Ohlone converts was probably a mixture of hard work tending the fields, caring for such animals as cattle, sheep and horses, and producing woven goods: this was coupled with intensive training in Spanish in the religious teachings of Catholicism. Typical meals at the mission would have consisted of cooked flour for breakfast, a gruel of grain, corn, peas and meat for lunch and cooked flour for dinner. It was expected that an adobe brick maker could make 28 bricks in one six hour work day. Anthropologist Randall Milliken estimates that physical labor in the missions was less than that of the prior hunter-gatherer mode of Indian food production17. There were frequent days off for religious fiestas.For the Ohlones of Chutchui, the mission meant the end to a traditional way of life that had been practiced for thousands of years.

The Spanish caused profound environmental change in the region. Many lands that had traditionally supported plants and animals crucial to the Ohlone lifeway were appropriated by the Spanish and used to support their sheep, cattle, horses and crops. Pigs now competed with the Ohlone for acorns, and horses consumed the grass seeds which were another important Ohlone dietary staple. The missions became more attractive to some Ohlone when faced with the depletion of traditional food resources alongside the relative abundance of foods at the mission17.

Concerned with Indian converts returning to their former homes and taking up old ways of life, the padres set strict rules following baptism. Once baptized, the Indians were expected to adopt the Spanish and Christian cultures. They were expected to stop their traditional methods of hunting and gathering, move into permanent dormitories, no longer take sweat baths, and no longer freely travel or trade with outsiders without permission. They were expected to attend Mass and speak Spanish instead of their native languages. If anyone was caught breaking the rules, they were flogged or imprisoned.

The first Indian baptism took place on June 24, 1777; a 20 year old male named Chamis who was renamed Francisco Moraga11. Baptisms peaked in 1794 at 180 for the year and the number of Indians at the mission doubled between 1794-1795.

During Mass, soldiers were stationed in the church to ensure that order was kept and the neophytes were observing the rituals properly. If someone was found to be sleeping or disorderly, a soldier would prod the offender. As the years progressed, and the Indians' resistance to these requirements grew, the soldiers resorted to more aggressive and violent methods, including bailiffs with whips, canes, and goads8. The padres were particularly concerned that the unmarried Indians would be promiscuous. As a result, unmarried men and women were kept in separate living quarters, and the women were locked into their monjeria at night. Serra writes on the care of the Indians:

In reference to the care we take of our converts…they are our children; for none except us has engendered them in Christ. The result is we look upon them as a father looks upon his family. We shower all our love and care upon them…. That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms; so general, in fact, that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule. Undoubtedly, the first to evangelize these shores followed the practice, and they surely were saints. In the life of Saint Francis Solano,…we read that, while he had a special gift from God to soften the ferocity of the most barbarous by the sweetness of his presence and his words, nevertheless, in the running of his mission in the Province of Tucumán…we are told in his biography,…[that] when they failed to carry out his orders, he gave directions for his Indians to be whipped….The whole world is aware of the fact that when the famous…[Hernán] Cortes permitted himself or, to speak more accurately, saw to it that he should be flogged by the Fathers, in full sight of the Indians, he took this course of action…to set an example to all23.

Living conditions at the Mission resulted in the rapid spread of disease in the Indian population. Neophytes were kept in small, windowless adobe structures, and the overall sanitation at the Mission was poor. Diseases spread quickly throughout the cramped, stuffy quarters. During the population doubling of 1794-1795, the crowded diseased conditions lead to up to 20 people dying each day; likely from typhoid fever11. The Indians had no immune resistance to the European diseases. In 1806 there was a break out of Measles, spreading from San Diego to San Francisco, which killed a quarter of the Bay Area Mission Indians (approximately 1600 deaths) between March and May of that year21. Sexually transmitted diseases contracted from the Spaniards also had devastating effects and were the first diseases recorded amongst the Indians. The diseases quickly spread through many non-mission tribes. Syphilis is known to be responsible for a high infant mortality rate amongst Mission Indians15.

The Franciscan portion of the Mission Period in California (as a whole), from 1769 to 1834, saw the baptism of 53,600 adult Indians and buried 37,000 adult Indians, a mortality rate of almost 70%19. According to historian Randall Milliken, “the death rates at missions Santa Clara and San Francisco over the decades between 1780 and 1830 were among the highest continually sustained death rates anywhere”15.

Unable to solve complex medical, social, and environmental problems, the Indian population was drastically reduced, especially through disease. California’s estimated pre-1769 Indian population of 300,000 dropped to approximately 225,000 by the end of the mission period in 1834. Following the mission periods between 1848-1900 the Indian population fell to an alarming low of 20,0005.

Mexican Period
War broke out between Spain and Mexico in 1810. The effect of the revolution was catastrophic on the military of Alta California with cessation of ships bringing supplies and money from Mexico. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, resulting in the closure of the missions and disbursement of land to people who had been loyal to Mexico. These new landowners established ranchos for farming and ranching. During the period between 1824 and 1829, the Mission Dolores’s population declined to 200 from its peak of 1,252 just 9 years earlier as Indians began migrating to other missions11.

The California missions were secularized in 1834, removing the material, economic, and commercial aspects of the mission from the control of the Franciscan Padres and selling the land. Within two years the entire Indian population of Mission Dolores had fled. It was the intention of the new Mexican government to make the mission lands into Indian pueblos, while retaining some lands for the padres. However this land was quickly purchased, acre-by-acre, by powerful rancheros (wealthy landowners). In 1823, the founding year of the United Mexican States, there were 20 secular land grants in Alta California; by 1845 there were close to 800, but only a handful were awarded to Indians.

The California Gold Rush
The late 1840s brought significant change to California through the annexation of the region by the United States as well as the discovery of gold. Following the Mexican American War, the California territory was annexed by the United States in 1848 through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, eventually becoming a state in 1850. The Indian Indenture Act was passed the same year. This act, which was described as “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” lead to indentured servitude for many Indians in California18. The change in government in California also resulted in priests from the United States taking control of the missions.

On January 24, 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River, starting the California Gold Rush. The Gold Rush brought not only burgeoning numbers of gold seekers but also trains, guns, alcohol, mercury, violence, and of course, diseases. Thousands of Indians died as a direct result of the influx of newcomers to California. The population became 10 Anglo to 1 Indian by 1900. Only seventy years prior, the statistics were exactly reversed: 10 Indians to every one non-native person in the 1830’s18. Violence against Indians during this period was common.

When the US took over the territory, only one tribal-born Yelamu person was still alive. His name was Pedro Alcatara, born in 1787. Regarding his tribe, he said:

"I am very old. My people were once around me like the sands of the shore...many...many. They have all passed away. They have died like the grass...they have gone to the mountains. I do not complain, the antelope falls with the arrow. I had a son. I loved him. When the palefaces came he went away. I do not know where he is. I am Christian Indian; I am all that is left of my people. I am alone.”16

The Missions and Indian Life today
Persecution by three different waves of colonizers left the San Francisco Bay Area Indian people with few choices and limited means of keeping their cultures and ways of seeing the world intact. After the United States conquest of California in 1846-1848 the surviving people sought refuge within East Bay rancherías. These were San Lorenzo, Del Mocho, El Molino (Niles), and Alisal (Sunol). Alisal (the alders) near Pleasanton, became a safe haven for displaced members of the interior tribes (Ohlone, Miwok, and Yokuts) who had intermarried within the missions. Alisal Ranchería had been established on an 1839 land grant belonging to a Californio named Agustin Bernal. In the 1880’s the Hearst family purchased part of the rancho that contained the ranchería; originally, the entire site was approximately 3000 acres. The Hearst family permitted approximately 125 people living at Alisal to remain on the land where they lived until the turn of the century.

Permission to live at Alisal enabled some descendants of mission Indians to begin a revitalization of Indian culture, including religion. Elements of song and dance that had been forced underground since the mission era began to resurface and take on new attributes that reflected a rapidly changing world.

Today Mission Dolores is an active parish of the Roman Catholic faith. It states its mission is the same today as it was in 1776: to establish a community of faith. Every year thousands of global visitors come to see the old mission and walk about the cemetery, including more than 30,000 California students who are led on guided tours. This mission church looks very much today as it did when it was dedicated in 1791.
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Perspective view of the point cloud of the Native American tule hut reconstruction within the Mission Dolores cemetery.

Project Narrative


The digital preservation fieldwork was conducted in July of 2012 using two terrestrial LiDAR scanners, the time-of-flight Leica C10 and the smaller phase-based Faro Focus3D. CyArk completed the Mission Dolores scanning in partnership with the University of San Francisco. The first day focused on the exterior of the building and the cemetery. At the end of the first day over 75 scans were captured between the two scanners, including panoramic images to provide color information to create photo-real 3D data.

The second day focused on the interior, including the loft and attic. At the end of the day, the Faro scanner was lowered down from the attic into a two foot gap between the current reredos altar and the original adobe wall. The original adobe is covered in Indian murals, protected by the detached reredos. The gap was narrow and had limited access, but the scanner still managed to capture parts of these original works. Although three days were planned for field work, it was completed by the end of the second day.
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Sheet from the Mission Dolores Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) record: HABS CAL,38-SANFRA,1- (sheet 8 of 39) - Mission San Francisco de Asis, Mission & Sixteenth Streets, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA



Mission Dolores, the popular name for Misión San Francisco de Asís, is the oldest standing, intact, adobe building devoted to Christian worship in California, and the oldest intact building in the modern City and County of San Francisco. The four walls of the adobe church are the same walls that were completed in 1791. The city of San Francisco surrounds the old building today. The church and part of its burial ground are all that is left of the original compound.

Restoration of the museum and continuing maintenance of the historic cemetery has been undertaken regularly. Funding for these projects has been possible due to generous grants from many sources, including parishioners, the California Missions Foundation, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art - Northern California Chapter, and others.

The latest round of digital documentation is important in the case of earthquake damage in the seismically active San Francisco Bay Area, particularly regarding the 1791 Baroque reredos (altar). The reredos was built in Mexico and shipped to San Francisco. During its construction and shipping, temporary Indian murals were placed upon the adobe wall. When the wooden reredos arrived, it was installed upon the dirt flooring and over the Indian murals. The installation directly on the dirt flooring allowed moisture from the floor to seep into the wood for centuries. In 1905 the bottom section was severely rotted and near collapse. The reredos was removed from the wall and the lower section (approximately 3 feet) was replaced. When the reredos was reinstalled, it was anchored to the ceiling with rod iron and to the adobe walls with a wooden frame that created an approximate two foot gap between the adobe and reredos. The original Indian murals on the back adobe wall are still protected behind the reredos, although inaccessible. The 1905 reredos’ support frame has not been replaced nor restored since its installation and it is at risk of a large earthquake dislodging the nails and screws which attach the reredos to the frame.

Additionally, much of the original cemetery is no longer visible, although its 11,000 burials remain in situ, but are now under the modern Mission compound, including the Basilica and school.
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Area Descriptions

Cemetery and Gardens

Cemetery and Gardens

Cemetery and Gardens Description:

Mission Dolores’ Cemetery is located next to the Old Mission. The gardens in the cemetery have been restored to contain native foliage from the San Francisco region in 1791. A rose garden has also been planted in the Cemetery as a gift from the Golden Gate Rose Society. The Mission Dolores Cemetery contains approximately 5000 Native people and includes many significant members in San Francisco’s and California’s History. Members of the Ohlone and Miwok tribes are the largest group buried there. Notable individuals include the first Mexican governor, Luis Antonio Arguello, the first commandant of the San Francisco Presidio, Lieutenant Moraga, and several victims of the Committee of Vigilance. (http://missiondolores.org/old-mission/visitor.html)

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  2. Berger, 1945.
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  4. Cook, Sherburne F., (1976). The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization. University of California Press, Berkeley, California
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  11. Grade A Projects, 2005. "Mission San Francisco, Old Mission Dolores: California Mission Project History and Models".
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  13. Hittell, Theodore H. (1898). History of California, Volume I. N.J. Stone & Company, San Francisco, CA
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  16. Milliken, 1996. The Founding of Mission Dolores and the End of Tribal Life on the Northern San Francisco. California Mission Studies Association.
  17. Milliken, Randall (1995). A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769–1910. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, California
  18. Nelson, 2004.
  19. Norton, Jack. (1987) The Path of Genocide: From El Camino Real to the Gold Mines of the North. in Rupert Costo and Jeannette Henry Costo, eds., The Missions of
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  22. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. www.sfmuseum.net Accessed 02 October 2012
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  24. Webb, Edith Buckland (1952). Indian Life at the Old Missions. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.

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