Mission Trail Today - The California Missions

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El Camino Real Back to California Missions First Asistencia

Mission Trail Today

All photographs taken by Kenneth A. Larson. All rights reserved. © 2003 - 2013.

Select photographs of my many visits to the California Missions build by Spain and Mexico between 1769 and 1823.

Missions of the Colorado River
Founded 1780-1781
by Fr. Garces
near Yuma, Arizona


In the extreme southeast corner of California, far from the more famous chain of twenty-one coastal missions, are two forgotten missions. Or were two missions. The missions of the Colorado River, near present day Yuma, Arizona were short lived and nothing remains except a sketchy record and one historical marker for each. Purísima Concepción, established in 1780 at Fort Yuma and Mission San Pedro Y San Pablo De Bicuner, founded January 7, 1781, in present day Imperial County were more "Arizona" missions on the California side of the Colorado River and not part of the California Mission system.

During his travels, Fr. Garces had become acquainted with Chief Palma, head of the Yuman Indians living in the area along the Colorado River. Chief Palma asked Garces to live with the natives and seemed interested in conversion. This area seemed ripe for settlement. After some study the king ordered that area be settled. strongly recommended against too large a presence. The Yumans, unlike the California Indians who lived off the land, were agriculturalists likely to resent any incursion that would place settlers in the area and appropriate Indian crop land. Unfortunately the commandant general, Carlos de Croix did not listen to Garces. He ordered that two missions be built, Purisima Concepcion at Fort Yuma and San Pedro y San Pablo at Bicuner. Construction began in the fall of 1780.

Fr. Garces and Fr. Juan Antonio Barreneche were assigned to the Purisima Concepcion mission. Just as Garces had predicted, the natives resented the white presence and Garces was given several warnings that the missions would be attacked, which he duly reported. The Yunans finally did attack both missions on July 17, 1781 while Fr.l Garces was saying Mass.

The missionaries survived the first day of the onslaught but both Garces and Barrenche were clubbed to death on 19th. Garces' body was removed to San Pedro de Tubutama where it was re-interred with all the honors due.

San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, 8 leagues down the Colorado river.

At the request of Palma, the chief of the Yumas, who had embraced Christianity and visited Mexico, on August 1st, 1779, leaving Padre Diaz with a small escort of soldiers at Sonoita, Padre Garces started with two soldiers and one other on his last entrada into what is now Arizona. He reached Yuma late in the month, and on September 3rd, sent the soldiers back to Diaz at Sonoita, with the information that he was already having trouble on account of the dissensions among the Yumas. The soldiers reached Diaz, and, at the same time, a Papago reported that some of his nation had revolted and proposed to attack the expedition en route. The soldiers were inclined to desert. This information

[page 73] having reached the higher authorities, the padres were advised to postpone further operations. They remained firm under orders of the commanding general to persevere. Padre Diaz succeeded in joining Padre Garces at Yuma on October 2d, with about a dozen men. From the start there was trouble owing to the discrepancy between what Palma's people had been led to expect in the way of lavish gifts, and the beggarly outfit that the needy friars had to divide among them. During that winter Palma became disaffected, many Indians were in open revolt, and after much complaining on the part of the military and priesthood, it was determined to establish two foundations on the Colorado. Formal orders for each were issued March 20, 1780. Says Elliott Coues: ‘‘The scheme was a novel one—one so novel that Arricivita styles its author, Croix, 'an artificer of death,' (artifice de morir). The plan was for neither a presidio, a mission nor a pueblo, each of which was intelligible to a Spaniard, but a mongrel affair nobody could manage, combining features of all three such establishments; and there were to be two such mongrels. For the first of these were detailed a corporal, nine soldiers, ten colonists, and six laborers; for the second, a corporal, eight soldiers, ten colonists, and six laborers. Such were the two presidio-pueblo missions established on the Colorado; the one at Puerto de la Purisima Concepcion, identical in site with modern Fort Yuma, and the other perhaps eight miles lower down the river, at a place called San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, near the site of Modern Fort Defiance (Pilot Knob). The logic of events showed the whole business to be criminal stupidity, ending in a bloody catastrophe.’’

[page 74] There were, at this time, according to the account, twenty families or settlers or colonists, twelve laborers, twenty-one soldiers and four priests. On Tuesday, July 17th, 1781, Garces was saying mass at Concepcion to a few people, mostly women, when the storm burst. Both padres survived the first outbreak. While the Indians were butchering right and left and looting the houses, both heard confession and administered the sacrament to some in the agony of death. The same day the Indians attacked Padres Diaz and Moreno at Bicuner as they were preparing to say mass, and they, and most of the soldiers, were killed on the first onslaught. Through the influence of Palma, Garces and Father Barranche were preserved from harm until the 19th when they were both beaten to death with clubs. The bodies of the four priests were afterwards recovered and laid to rest in one coffin in the church at Tubutama.

Captain Palma, a Yuma chief, who had been very friendly, had urged the establishing of missions repeatedly. In 1779, Garces went to prepare the way, and the following year the establishment took place. The missions were eight miles apart; one was named La Purisima Concepcion; the other, San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner. Garces and Barraneche took charge of the upper mission, and Diaz and Moreno of the lower.

Puerto de Purísima Concepción, established in October 1780, by Padres Juan Antonio Barreneche and Francis Tomás Hermenogildo Garcés. Winterhaven/Fort Yuma.

Personal Observations

Two missions were established along the Colorado River near present day Yuma Arizona. There is debate as to status of these sites as true missions and they did not last long. Today, nothing exists of these missions except markers. One mission site, Mission La Purisima Conception de la Virgen Santisima, by coincidence or more likely because of a commanding hill top location, is now home to a Catholic church, but it has not been in continuous occupation by a church. It was for an intervening time, the site of Fort Yuma. I read a brief account of this mission about six months before my visit and began planning a trip to Yuma.

Mission Art & Photo-Art


The first mission at Ft. Yuma was named Puerto de la Purísima Concepción, established in 1780, built by Father Francisco Garces. On July 17, 1781, when the Spanish Padres, settlers, and soldiers at that place and at San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, 8 leagues down the Colorado river, were all massacred. The padre's body was removed to San Pedro de Tubutama where it was re-interred with all the honors due a fallen "Soldier of the Cross." And thus passed Tucson's founder." Fort Yuma (1849-1885) became a U.S. military outpost in the 19th century and was revived as an active mission again in 1919. The current church, St. Thomas Indian Mission, was dedicated in 1923.

Mission was located on the California side of the Colorado River near where the Gila River joins the Colorado. Indian Hill.

The mission/pueblo site was inadequately supported. Colonists ignored Indian rights, usurped the best lands, and destroyed Indian crops. Completely frustrated and disappointed, the Quechans (Yumas) and their allies destroyed Concepción on July 17-19, 1781.

Times Open: The mission is closed during the week, but staff will accept visitors who make arrangements beforehand by calling (760) 572-0283.

The mission is San Diego's eastern-most parish. Mass times are Sat. 4:30 and Sun. 9:30 a.m. June-Sept., otherwise 10:30 a.m. Reconciliation is Saturday 3:30-4:30 p.m.

California Historical Landmark No. 350. In the forcourt of the church is a statute of Padre Garcés.

Location: St. Thomas Indian Mission, Indian Hill on Picacho Rd, Fort Yuma, 1 mi S of Winterhaven Location: St. Thomas Indian Mission is at Fort Yuma, California at the extreme southeast corner of California. Fort Yuma, California, Colorado River's west bank, opposite the present city of Yuma, Arizona. Take Interstate 8 almost to the Arizona border. After the check station, turn off on Winterhaven. Turn left on 4th Ave. When you come to a sign that reads "To Bard," turn right. At the fork in the road, go right. Turn left at the dead end and you will come to the church. It's actually easier than these directions sound. From the Arizona side, cross the Ocean to Ocean bridge and turn right. And there it is. It's on top of the only hill in the area and easily visible from a distance.

Photography Gallery

St. Thomas Indian Mission. Photo date: 3-12-05.

St. Thomas Indian Mission, interior. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Statute of Padre Garcés with Saint Thomas Indian Mission beyond. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Statute of Padre Garcés with Saint Thomas Indian Mission beyond. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Saint Thomas Indian Mission from below. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Saint Thomas Indian Mission from below. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Bell tower. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Bell tower. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Bell tower. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Saint Thomas Indian Mission interior. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Grotto to Our Lady. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Grotto to Our Lady. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Grotto to Our Lady. Photo date: 3-13-05.

Quechan Museum. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Quechan Museum. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Quechan Museum. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Quechan Museum. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Quechan Tribal Facility Building. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Quechan Tribal Facility Building. Photo date: 3-12-05.

Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner,
January 7, 1781. Imperial County

Mission San Pedro y San Pablo Cambón, Pedro Benito Spanish Missionary, Co-Founder and Builder of Mission San Francisco de Asis. Fray Cambón, a Spanish-born Franciscan friar and Roman Catholic priest, arrived in Mexico in 1771. He is credited with being the founder of Mission San Gabriel and asistencia of San Pedro y San Pablo. Photo date: 3-13-05

NO. 921 SITE OF MISSION SAN PEDRO Y SAN PABLO DE BICUNER - To protect the Anza Trail where it forded the Colorado River, the Spanish founded a pueblo and mission nearby on January 7, 1781. Threatened with the loss of their land, the Quechans (Yumas) attacked this strategic settlement on July 17, 1781. The Quechan victory closed this crossing and seriously crippled future communications between upper California and Mexico. Location: On County Rd 524, 0.2 mi W of intersection of Levee and Mehring Rds, 4.4 mi NE of Bard S24, near Coles Corner, about a mile west of the Colorado River, and a few miles south of Laguna Dam.

Location: This is open to debate. I have read severa laccounts that state that the site of Mission San Pedro y San Pablo is located 8 leagues down river from Purísima Concepción. I have seen several maps taht show this. I have also seen maps that show it to be 7 leagues up river from Purísima Concepción and n fact, this is where the road side marker is located.

January 7, 1781: The Mission San Pedro Y San Pablo De Bicuner is established, in modern Imperial County, California, where the Anza Trail crosses the Colorado River. This is on land claimed by the Quechan (Yuma) Indians.

Fort Defiance on the California side of the river, about half a mile above the Mexican boundary. The remains of this non military installation are located four miles below Fort Yuma. According to John R. Bartlett's book, Personal Narrative (1852) "'This is the spot where we first encamped, and were unable to reach the water. It was an old ferrying place, and the scene of a massacre by the Pumas the year before our visit." According to the War Department, a military post known as Fort Defiance, garrisoned by a lieutenant and 10 men, was also established at Pilot Knob to the northeast.

San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, a village about 10 miles north of present-day Laguna Dam.

San Pedro y San Pablo (Saint Peter and Saint Paul). A mission established by Fray Francisco Garcés in 1780 among the Yuma on the west bank of Colorado River, near the site of modern Fort Defiance (Pilot Knob), 8 or 10 miles below Yuma, in extreme south east California. On July 17-19, 1781, the mission was sacked and burned by the natives, about 50 Spaniards, including Garcés, three other friars, and Capt. Rivera y Moncada were killed, and the women and children made captives.

This is the only information that I have found on this mission.

Photo date: 3-13-05.

Photo date: 3-13-05.

Photo date: 3-13-05.

Photo date: 3-13-05.


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This page last updated 7-30-13

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