The history of Santa Cruz, California, and the Santa Cruz Mission, including the mission’s impact on Native American history.
Mission Santa Cruz was a bridge between past and future for local Ohlone natives and immigrants on the California coast.
Monterey Bay dwellers of the past were Ohlones. They lived in peace for many centuries, but when the Spanish Jesuit priests came to their homeland to create a mission, their lives were radically changed, forever.
Today Santa Cruz is a homey seaside town well-known for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park.
With the crashing, ever-vibrant surf on one side and the forested California coastal mountains on the other, Santa Cruz and its life-giving San Lorenzo River offered a hopeful and bountiful homeland rich in fresh air and bordered by mountainous beauty.
Originally occupied by Ohlone Native Americans, the northern corner of the Monterey Bay, now known as Santa Cruz, became a stop on El Camino Real for missionaries exploring California in the 1700s. They established a mission and colonized the area, attracting many Native Americans into their fold.
When the Mexican governor decided to establish a town near the mission, many Native Americans were distracted from mission life by the rewards of a wild west town… wine, women, and song. This set up a festering conflict between the devout and controlling Spanish priests and the wild Californios without any comparable morals or ethics. Natives caught between these two forces of human nature often paid a painful price.
Ohlone Native Americans – history of early Santa Cruz residents – The Ohlones were the original residents of Santa Cruz…
Ohlone Native Americans were also called Coastanoans. They lived from the Monterey Bay north to the San Francisco Bay Area. After the arrival of the Spaniard explorers and missionaries, the Ohlone civilization lasted only about fifty years. Many natives died from diseases introduced by the Europeans. They are buried around all the missions of the region. The Santa Cruz County towns of Aptos, Soquel, and Zayante have Ohlone names.
Author Malcolm Margolin has received dozens of awards for this and other books. The Ohlone Way is included in the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the Century”. This book describes the culture of the Ohlone people who occupied the San Francisco Bay Area and lived as far south as Santa Cruz, California, before the Californios, Franciscans, and Anglo-Americans arrived. This book has been called a “mini classic” by critic Pat Holt. Reader Judith Hansen called it “A truly beautifully written book.”
Discovery by explorer Gaspar de Portola
The first Europeans to set eyes on the Santa Cruz area were Gaspar de Portola and other members of his expedition in 1769. He was a Spanish explorer on California’s west coast.
He named the San Lorenzo River in honor of Saint Lawrence. The hills above the river were called Santa Cruz (holy cross). A local creek was named Arroyo de Santa Cruz.
Gaspar de Portola was the first governor of Mexican-occupied California, starting in 1767, and he was the author of this brief diary which was translated from Spanish. [60 pages]
On October 17, 1769 Gaspar de Portola crossed over a river that is now in the city of Santa Cruz. He named it the Rio de San Lorenzo.
Jesuit Father Fermin Lasuen chose the Mission Santa Cruz site on August 28, 1791 for Father Junipero Serra.
The original residents of the area – Ohlone Native Americans, found their lives changed forever.
The beautiful mission site overlooked the San Lorenzo River. The Ohlones called this place ‘Aulinta’.
The Ohlone natives lived and worked as indentured servants at Mission Santa Cruz.
The mission was dedicated on September 25, 1791 by two priests, Father I. Salazar and Father B. Lopez. Father Lasuen was unable to attend. This was California’s twelfth Franciscan mission. The mission’s original name is La Mision de la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz – Mission for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
The original mission was damaged in an earthquake in 1840, then totally destroyed by another earthquake in 1857. It is called the mission of misfortune because so many bad things happened. Father Obles nearly gave up and closed up shop in 1818.
The current mission building was not built on the foundation of the original mission, nor is it the same size! The original was about twice as big! But it is lovely. There’s a little museum and gift shop there. Worth visiting!
Reported by a visitor to the Mission: “When I visited the site of the Santa Cruz mission in October, 2011, I asked to know where the Native Americans were buried. The docent at the museum told me the cemetery had been paved over for a parking lot! However by the time the parking lot needed to be paved a second time, people started to care about the native grave sites, so part of the cemetery area was uncovered. The Church decided to plant a garden of native plants there. I went there and walked through the old cemetery ground after first asking permission of the spirits there. They invited me in and I walked the paths, asking them how they felt about their time at the mission. They told me they were happy to be there. Life had been difficult for the natives and they were grateful for the opportunity to work together with the Catholics to create a society where all needs were taken care of.”
Mission Santa Cruz historical documentary – Santa Cruz history on DVD, also available in a VHS version.
Directed by Adeeb Barsoum, originally of Egypt, a graduate of the College of Cinema in Cairo, and a former employee of Egyptian Television. A resident of California since 1967, Barsoum produced and directed 21 documentaries about California missions including this one about Mission Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz history. He also produced two feature films. He moved to Arizona in 2004.
This Santa Cruz history documentary is narrated by Laurie Scolari. The film tells about both the past and present of the Santa Cruz Mission, an early stronghold of the Santa Cruz community.
Villa de Branciforte history – early town now annexed into Santa Cruz
Villa de Branciforte was founded in 1797, only 6 years after the mission was dedicated.
The Villa de Branciforte was one of three Spanish/Mexican Californio civilian settlements in early California history. The other two were San Jose and Los Angeles. The other two were pueblos; Branciforte was called a “villa”. It was named after Miguel de la Grua Talamanca y Branciforte, originally of Sicily, an officer in the Spanish military.
Villa de Branciforte was about a mile from the mission, but on the other side of the San Lorenzo River. It attracted a lot of the Native Americans who tired of mission work. They indulged in the vices of the little town of Branciforte, and when they returned to the mission were severely punished by the priests who tried hard to keep the “savages” in line so they could receive God’s grace. Such beatings and other punishments only served to make more Ohlones want to leave the mission. The mission’s future was doomed.
In 1905 Villa de Branciforte was annexed into the city of Santa Cruz. You can find a historic monument marking the site if you drive on North Branciforte Avenue. The monument is on public school property.
Santa Cruz becomes a city
The rest of the history of Santa Cruz, in a nutshell.
Up until the 1820s Santa Cruz was dominated by Spaniards, but then the newly liberated Mexicans took over. The Santa Cruz Mission was secularized in 1834 and the mission community was named Pueblo de Figueroa. Later the community’s name was Santa Cruz.
In the mid-1800s United States immigrants flooded into the area. The Bear Flag Rebellion expelled Mexican leaders from Alta California in 1848. California initially became an independent republic and soon was granted USA statehood.
Santa Cruz officially became a city in 1866.
Santa Cruz history landmarks
On the National Register of Historic Places
A. J. Hinds House (8/25/1983)
Allan Brown Site (6/25/1981)
Bank of Santa Cruz County (3/15/1982)
Branciforte Adobe (1/31/1979)
Carmelita Court (3/20/1986)
Cope Row Houses (1/28/1982)
Cowell Lime Works Historic District (11/21/2007)
Elias H. Robinson House (1/9/1998)
Garfield Park Branch Library (3/26/1992)
Glen Canyon Covered Bridge (5/17/1984)
Golden Gate Villa (7/24/1975)
Hotel Metropole (5/23/1979)
Live Oak Ranch (7/10/1975)
Looff Carousel and Roller Coaster (2/27/1987)
Mission Hill Area Historic District (5/17/1976)
Neary-Rodriguez Adobe (2/24/1975)
Octagon Building (3/24/1971)
Santa Cruz Downtown Historic District (7/27/1989)
US Post Office-Santa Cruz Main (1/11/1985)
Veterans Memorial Building (4/27/1992)
Santa Cruz history landmarks
On the California Register of Historical Resources
Mission Santa Cruz
Center of Villa de Branciforte
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Here’s what I remember best from my years of visiting Santa Cruz. My mother was raised there. When I was a child we often went back to visit her relatives. Now my brother lives in Santa Cruz.
My favorite ride at the boardwalk is the Giant Dipper. I have been on that roller coaster many times.
Santa Cruz, CA Resources on the Web
Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History – The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History: connecting people with nature, and inspiring stewardship of the natural world.
Villa de Branciforte Preservation Society – Historic preservation of the Villa de Branciforte area.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – Everything you could want to know about the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Highway 17 History
There are two main roads for access to Santa Cruz. One is Highway 1 – the California Coast Highway. The other road, Highway 17, winds through the California Coast Mountains connecting Santa Cruz with San Jose, California. That road is the topic of this book. It is well-known to be a dangerous journey, but those who have been there remember it well, and thus, it is the focus of this book.