The Russians are coming!
Fear of Russian or British intrusion into the Spanish Empire’s claims to North America’s Pacific Coast haunted José de Gálvez y Gallardo, marqués de Sonora. Gálvez was a close adviser to Spanish King Carlos III in the 1760s.
As visitador general de la Nueva España (inspector general to Mexico), he reorganized the systems of tariffs and taxation. As a result of his reforms, the government receipts increased from 6 million pesos in 1763 to 8 million in 1767 and 12 million in 1773.
It’s not surprising that the Royal Court entrusted him with a delicate mission: the expulsion of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, from Mexico.
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Carlos III, like the kings of France and Portugal, viewed the Jesuits as being too self-governing, often disobeying colonial officials in the interest of protecting native peoples. The Jesuits’ attitude is depicted in the moving 1986 film “The Mission,” starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, protecting Guarani Indians in South America.
The king knew the Jesuits had popular support in the provinces outside Mexico City. When Gálvez encountered resistance in Michoacán, Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí, he responded by sentencing the leaders to life imprisonment.
The Jesuits had colonized the southern half of the Baja California peninsula. To reduce the cost of administering this rugged territory, Gálvez sought the aid of the Franciscan Order to replace the Jesuits at their mission settlements. Before the Franciscan friars left Mexico City, a new edict arrived from Madrid.
The Seven Years War, ending in 1763, greatly strengthened the position of Great Britain in North America. An unexpected threat to Spain’s Pacific territories came from Russia.
Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov, commissioned by St. Petersburg, sailed through the Bering Strait in 1728. In 1741, they discovered the Aleutian Islands and the southern end of the Alaska Panhandle.
Carlos III wanted to prevent the British and the Russians from taking any Spanish territory. The Dominican Order was to take responsibility for Baja California. The Franciscans were to be sent alongside a small Spanish military guard to “occupy and fortify San Diego and Monterey for God and the King of Spain.”
Gálvez constructed a naval base at San Blas on the Mexican mainland to service that expedition.
Gálvez arrived in Baja California to oversee the land and seaborne expeditions. He appointed Juan Gaspar Portolá to lead the mainland expedition and Fernando Javier Rivera y Moncada to lead an advance party over the largely uncharted terrain. The Rev. Junípero Serra traveled with Portolá’s group.
Gálvez dispatched the ships San Antonio and the San Carlos to sail around Cabo San Lucas and onto San Diego to resupply
Portolá and Rivera. The mariners were given faulty maps and driven far to the west. The long period at sea decimated their crews with scurvy.
Nonetheless, both presidios (forts) and missions were established at San Diego and Monterey.
Despite Gálvez’s concern and efforts, a Russian ship from Sitka, Alaska, sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1806. By 1813, the Russian-American Company had a thriving outpost at Fort Ross, in what is now Sonoma County.
The Russians developed a vigorous trade with the missionaries and the Russian Pacific fleet wintered in San Francisco Bay.
The Russian presence in California’s historic missions can still be felt today.