Father Junipero Serra came to New Spain to convert Natives to Christianity. Serra traveled more than 10,000 miles (16,000 km) in Mexico and present-day California, mostly on foot, and converted nearly 6,800 Natives. The network of mis¬ sions he helped establish laid the ground¬ work for the Spanish colonization of California and had a profound impact on the history of the region.
Miguel Jose Serra was born in the town of Petra, on the Spanish island of Majorca. He attended the university in Palma, the capital of Majorca, and graduated at the age of sixteen. After the university, he joined the Catholic Order of Saint Francis, and he was ordained as a priest after eight years of study. While studying at the Order, he took the name Junipero, after one of Saint Francis’s most devoted followers.
Serra taught philosophy at the university in Palma for many years. In 1749, he left Spain and traveled with the Franciscan missionaries to Mexico. He disembarked at Veracruz and walked the remaining distance to the College of San Fernando in Mexico City. It was the first of many long journeys on foot.
For many years, Serra walked around Mexico, visiting various missions, teaching the Natives, and converting them to Christianity. In 1768, he was placed in charge of all the missions on the peninsula of Baja (lower) California.
Spain faced increasing competition from Russia and Great Britain in colonizing the lands north of Baja in Alta (upper) California. In 1769, the Spanish government assigned a team of explorers and missionaries to colonize Alta California, and Serra was placed in charge of establishing the missions during the expedition.
Serra traveled to upper California by foot, while supply ships paralleled his route by sea.In July, they met at the Bay of San Diego. Serra built his first mission there, a chapel, out of tree branches. The next year, the expedition traveled to Monterey, where Serra built a second mission. The third mission followed soon after, in Carmel.
Serra made his permanent home in Carmel, but he continued to travel up and down Alta California, administering to the existing missions and building new ones.By 1774, Serra had built five more missions along a route that later became known as El Camino Real, or ‘’The King’s Highway.” By the time of his death, he had established a total of nine missions.
Many California cities bear the names of the original missions that were founded there, such as San Luis Obispo, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, San Gabriel, and San Francisco. The Franciscan order continued to preach to the Natives after Serra’s death, establishing a total of twenty-one missions in upper California.