California Forum

San Juan Bautista chosen as a California mission for its fertile land, water supply

“Mission Cloisters” Apple pencil drawing on iPad
“Mission Cloisters” Apple pencil drawing on iPad Special to The Bee

It’s one of those places on the way to somewhere else, a detour-on-purpose just off Highway 156, between the 101 and Hollister, right on top of the San Andreas Fault.

San Juan Bautista was founded as a mission in 1797, the largest mission out of 21 founded by Franciscans in Alta California between 1768 and 1853. It was chosen for abundance: in water, fertile land and Ohlone Indians who could serve as laborers and converts. At the back of the mission, about 4,500 shaded graves overlook El Camino Real, the fault and patterns of neatly organized farms.

Spanish Plaza, a vast green lawn of the mission, is the last remaining authentic plaza in California. Late afternoon sun bestows an antique glow to four facades of buildings that face the plaza, the arches of former mission cloisters and a classic bell tower. Missing is the bustle of industrious monks and 1,200 Indian converts who lived and worked there.

San Juan Bautista is an intense embodiment of California history densely packed into a 12-block area. It boasts 30 historic structures and an eclectic array of period facades, including original adobes. Plaza Hall was the former nunnery; Plaza Hotel was the solder’s barracks. The Castro-Breen House, built by Gen. Jose Castro in 1840, was purchased by the Breen family, survivors of the Donner Party who lived there until 1935.

Today, it’s a small agricultural town, nothing fancy or funky, just genuinely attached to the past and adapting gracefully to the present. Main Street doesn’t look restored. It just feels like it must have always looked.

Stephanie Taylor is a Sacramento artist. She can be contacted at Visit her website at