When the last of the California missions was founded in 1823, the chain of missions reached 650 miles from San Diego to Sonoma. Since they were spaced about a day’s walk apart along the El Camino Real (The Royal Road), the missions were found by travelers to be good stopping places for a night’s rest. Each of the missions had rooms available to guests.
Guests were important to the people who lived at the mission. From travelers they heard news of what was happening at the other missions, and in the world beyond California. Sometimes the visitors were ship captains, fur traders, or explorers with exciting tales to tell. The mission padres especially welcomed guests who brought news of the padres’ comrades and families in Spain and Mexico.
Though all of the missions had quarters for guests, Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Fernando Rey were especially well situated for visitors. Mission San Gabriel was located at the junction of the north-south road (from Mexico to northern California) with an east-west route (from what was then the United States to the frontier area of California). Mission San Gabriel was noted for its gracious hospitality, and for its accommodations for many guests.
Mission San Fernando Rey had the most extensive guest quarters of all the missions. Its location on the road from the eastern United States to the new pueblo (village) of Los Angeles made it a popular resting place for travelers. The guest quarters at Mission San Fernando Rey were large. The building was known as the Long Building because of its unusual size -- 235 feet long by 65 feet wide, with 21 rooms.
The reception hall in the Long Building had paintings decorating the walls, and an eight-candle iron chandelier hanging from the roof beams. In addition to the ordinary guest rooms, Mission San Fernando Rey had a special “governor’s chamber” which was for more important guests. It was somewhat nicer and more comfortably furnished than the other guest rooms.
Guest quarters were usually located in the section of the mission called the convento, which is also where the padres’quarters were located. The convento was at the front of the mission compound, often extending from one side of the church.
The reception room, called the sala, was the largest room in the convento wing, and often was the largest room (except for the church sanctuary) in the entire mission. Besides being used to welcome and entertain guests, the reception rooms were sometimes used as classrooms where the padres would give instruction to the young native workers.
In the reception hall there was usually a long, heavy table handmade by the mission craftsmen using local wood. Guests sat in plain, straight chairs or on wooden benches. The seats and backs of the chairs were made by stretching rawhide over the wooden frame. As Native Californian craftsmen became more skilled in furniture building and carving, the tables, chairs, and chests that they made were more finely crafted and decorated.
Only a few mission rooms had fireplaces to provide heat. Other areas may have been heated by metal pans filled with hot coals from the kitchen fires.
Mission guests were given small bedrooms for the night. The beds in these rooms were much like the beds that the padres used. A rough wooden frame was covered with rawhide. There were no sheets on the beds. The blankets were of coarsely-woven cloth, and were often prickly because the burrs and bits of thistle had not been removed from the wool before it was spun into yarn and woven into cloth. It is also reported that the blankets often harbored fleas, which would bite guests during the night.
Though the rooms and furnishings were not fancy, guests at the missions felt a warm welcome. Food and lodging were free. A mission worker was often stationed at the door both day and night, to help the guests remove their traveling gear and to unsaddle their horses. A very popular chocolate drink called champurrado was always offered to guests. Meals were prepared for guests and served to them by the mission Indians.
The variety of guests at the missions was a source of interest for the padres and the Indians. Some missions had famous guests. Mission San Gabriel entertained Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774, as he was looking for a land route between Sonora, Mexico, and Monterey, California. In 1776 Anza returned with 240 settlers whom he was leading to San Francisco Bay, where they would establish a town.
Trapper Jedediah Smith and his band stayed at Mission San Gabriel for two months in 1826. Jedediah Smith, who was also a guest at Mission San José, was an explorer of the American West. Another well-known visitor at Mission San José was Kit Carson, frontier guide and soldier.
In addition to ordinary travelers and important visitors, the California missions welcomed people who were fugitives from the law. The Catholic Church rules said that all the missions were to be places of refuge, where someone accused of a crime would be safe until that person could have a fair trial.
The lawbreaker could only be taken away from the mission by an official who gave written promise that there would be a fair trial. This Church ruling was intended to prevent hasty executions of criminals, and to protect those accused of breaking the law from being lynched by angry mobs. Mission Soledad, because of its isolated location away from other communities, was often used as a place of refuge by criminals.