Such, in briefest outline, is the story of the planting of the twenty-one missions of Alta California. This story, as we have seen, brings us down to the year 1823. But by this time, as we follow the chronicles, our attention has already begun to be diverted from the forces which still made for growth and success to those which ere long were to co-operate for the complete undoing of the mission system and the ruin of all its work.
Perhaps it was in the nature of things (if one may venture here to employ a phrase too often used out of mere idleness or ignorance) that the undertaking which year by year had been carried forward with so much energy and success, should after a while come to a standstill; and the commonest observation of life will suffice to remind us that when progress ceases, retrogression is almost certain to set in. The immense zeal and unflagging enthusiasm of Junipero Serra and his immediate followers could not be transmitted by any rite or formula to the men upon whose shoulders their responsibilities came presently to rest. Men they were, of course, of widely varying characters and capabilities — some, unfortunately, altogether unworthy both morally and mentally, of their high calling; many, on the contrary, genuine embodiments of the great principles of their order — humane, benevolent, faithful in the discharge of daily duty, patient alike in labour and trial, and careful administrators of the practical affairs which lay within their charge. But without injustice it may be said of them that for the most part they possessed little of the tremendous personal force of their predecessors, and a generous endowment of such personal force was as needful now as it ever had been.
Not unless we wish to emulate Southey’s learned friend, who wrote whole volumes of hypothetical history in the subjunctive mood, it is hardly necessary for present purposes to discuss the internal changes which, had the missions been left to themselves, might in the long run have brought about their decay. For as a matter of fact the missions were not left to themselves. The closing chapter of their history, to which we have now to turn, is mainly concerned, not with their spiritual management, or with their success or failure in the work they had been given to do, but with the general movement of political events, and the upheavals which preceded the final conquest of California by the United States.