“Day by day this country seems to grow bigger and bigger with great walls and fortress-like bastions rising up to defend the west coast. They force us to make many detours, thus more than doubling the length of our march.”
So wrote Franciscan friar Junipero Serra in the summer of 1769 as he limped north through the desert with a Spanish expedition headed from Mexico to San Diego Bay. The 56-year-old Serra, a native of the Spanish island of Majorca, had been given the task of starting the first mission in what is now California.
He was not in the best condition for trail blazing. An infection caused by an insect bite had left one of his legs permanently injured. “When I saw him with his swollen foot and leg with its ulcer, I could not keep back the tears,” recalled another padre who saw him begin the trek. The soldiers in the expedition urged Serra to return to Mexico. The friar, who had adopted the motto “Always go forward and never turn back,” refused.
At one point, his foot grew so inflamed, he could not walk. He asked the young man who took care of the mules to make a poultice. “But father, I only know how to treat sores on mules,” the man
protested. “Then pretend I am a mule,” Serra replied, and the muleteer applied an ointment.
On July 1, 1769, the expedition rendezvoused with two ships at San Diego Bay and began building a settlement at what is now the city of San Diego. On July 16, Serra founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá when he raised a wooden cross and sang a mass. The tireless friar spent the remaining fifteen years of his life limping hundreds of miles up and down the coast, founding a string of missions that became the first major European effort to settle California.