By David Kier
Co-author of ‘The Old Missions of Baja & Alta California, 1697-1834’
Mission San Luis Gonzaga is on the Magdalena Plain of Baja California Sur. In 1721, it was originally established as a visita, or satellite visiting chapel of the mission of Los Dolores Apaté. The Guaycura Indian name for the oasis was Chiriyaqui (Chiriyaki). On July 14, 1737, the visita was elevated to mission status with the arrival of Jesuit Padre Lamberto (Lambert) Hostell. The mission was named after Don Luis de Velasco, who providing 10,000 Mexican pesos for its founding. This mission was usually referred to simply as ‘San Luis’ in most letters and reports of the time.
Padre Hostell was not able to remain at his new mission after its founding because of an emergency at San José del Cabo. His time away lasted from August 1737 to November 1740. Hostell returned to his new mission after that absence, but traveled often to Los Dolores to assist Padre Guillén. The Guaycura tribes of the Magdalena Plain were scattered about to such a degree that Hostell’s first order of new business was to establish three pueblos that included his mission and two visitas. One visita was called San Juan Nepomuceno and the other was called Santa María Magdalena (on the bay of the same name). A fourth visita was planned, and was to be called Santa Trinidad.
In 1744, the Jesuit Visitador General was Padre Juan Antonio Balthasar and he made a routine tour of the California missions. He reported the neophyte population at San Luis as being 488. Balthasar also noted that Padre Hostell was attempting to establish a mission at Magdalena. Balthasar suggested to his superiors that a new missionary be sent to assist Hostell to open Magdalena. An additional Jesuit in California would also allow Hostell to assist his old companion Padre Clemente Guillén, at Los Dolores. This proposed mission on the great Pacific bay never materialized. Padre Hostell was later sent to Los Dolores and replaced an ill and dying Padre Guillén. Padre Juan Javier Bischoff replaced Hostell at San Luis Gonzaga from 1746 to early1751.
Padre Jacobo (Johann Jakob) Baegert arrived on May 28, 1751 and would remain at San Luis Gonzaga for 17 years. When Baegert arrived he found the site in somewhat of a ruined state. Bischoff had left sometime before Baegert arrived and a storm collapsed the small church there. Two other huts were all that stood at the mission to serve for storage and a residence. The new padre began to remodel his house by adding windows to let in light, a tiled roof, and whitewash the walls. It was such a dark room, Baegert called it a ‘cave’. The handsome cut stone church that remains intact to this day was constructed from March of 1753 to December of 1758.
Baegert had an aqueduct made from the mission spring to a small plot where he planted cabbage, melons, turnips and sugar cane. Later he planted wheat and corn, but the water was limited and the dry climate restricted production. Plagues of locusts also frequently destroyed crops. The desert surrounding the mission provided great quantities of the pitahaya cactus fruit. One variety ripens from June to August and another ripens in November and December. Baegert would sometimes serve pitahayas with wine poured over them, on a china plate, and pretend he was eating strawberries back in Germany. Goats, sheep and cattle were raised at the mission along with horses and mules.
Baegert and his Jesuit brothers were all forced to leave their missions and return to Europe. The 16 Jesuits all left California soil on February 3, 1768. Baegert wrote a most detailed account of his mission experiences and of the native Californians and it was published in 1772. An English translation was published in 1952 under the title, ‘Observations in Lower California’.
When the Franciscans assumed operations of the California missions, in April 1768, a report gives the population of San Luis Gonzaga at 310. Padre Andrés Villaumbrales was the new Franciscan missionary at San Luis Gonzaga. However, Villaumbrales was not there long before his mission was closed. Spain’s new Visitador General, José de Gálvez, decided to populate the rich agricultural lands of Todos Santos, far to the south, with the neophytes of San Luis Gonzaga and Los Dolores. On August 20, 1768, San Luis Gonzaga mission was abandoned and its neophyte Indians joined those of nearby Dolores in a forced relocation, far from their ancestral homeland. Losing their Jesuit priests was difficult enough, but leaving their native territory was a devastating blow to the Guaycura Indians.
To locate the mission of San Luis Gonzaga, take a 23 mile graded dirt road east from Highway 1, beginning about 10 miles south of Ciudad Constitución. A small village is located at the mission oasis. Ruins of other buildings date back to the years when this was a large cattle ranch and a rest stop on the Camino Real to La Paz.
David Kier is co-author of ‘The Old Missions of Baja & Alta California, 1697-1834’. The book is available for purchase HERE or at the DBTC offices (call 800-727-2252).