The buildings that face San Juan Bautista’s central plaza represent several periods of California history. The mission, founded in 1797, is the oldest; it was located here by Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen because there were many Indians in the area, and because it was about a day’s walk from either Mission Santa Clara or Mission San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel. Excellent soil and a good water supply, as well as timber, rock and other building materials were available nearby.
At one time some 1,200 Indians lived and worked at this mission, and more than 4,300 Indians are buried in the old cemetery beside the northeast wall of the mission church, along with a number of Spanish Californians. The church itself, the largest of its kind in California, was started in 1803 and, despite damage from numerous earthquakes, has been in continuous use since July 1, 1812. The altar wall was painted by Thomas Doak, a sailor who left his ship and is said to have been the first U.S. citizen to settle in Spanish California.
Today part of the mission can be toured, and historical artifacts and exhibits are on display. The buildings still belong to the Catholic Church and therefore are not, strictly speaking, part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. Small donations by visitors are used to offset the cost of keeping the mission open to the public.
San Juan de Castro
After 1834 the town of San Juan, close beside the old mission, became known temporarily as San Juan de Castro. Jose Tiburcio Castro became the civil or secular administrator of the mission and, acting in accordance with the mission secularization decree issued that year, he divided up the mission property and auctioned it off to friends, neighbors and relatives.
Castro House was built in 1840-41 at the request of his son Jose Maria Castro, who had become prefect of the northern district. It was intended to serve as the judicial and administrative-headquarters of a district that included the entire northern half of Alta California. However, Jose Maria Castro was unable to spend much time there. After 1840, when he was cleared of charges of treason arising from an 1836 military revolt he led against Governor Juan Guttierrez, his military responsibilities required him to travel extensively.
In 1843, San Juan once again became the rallying point for a military revolt, as Castrol organized friends and family into the force that overthrew and deported Governor Micheltorena. Later, he became commanding general of Mexican military forces in California, preoccupied with the threat of foreign invasion and with the many other problems caused by the flood of immigrants beginning to arrive in California.
The Gavilan Peak Affair
John C. Fremont and his company of U.S. “surveyors” had been allowed to winter in California provided they stay away from the coastal settlements, but in March 1846 they suddenly appeared in the hills near Monterey. Castro notified Fremont that he would have to leave California, but Fremont ignored the request and led his men to the summit of Gavilan Peak, overlooking San Juan. After three days, following an exchange of diplomatic (and some not-so-diplomatic) messages, Fremont decided to comply and withdrew – “slowly and growlingly” as he later described it.
On July 7, 1846, after the outbreak of war between Mexico and the U.S., Commodore Sloat landed his troops at Monterey and claimed California for the United States. In November of that year Fremont returned to San Juan Bautista, this time as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and spent nearly two weeks there gathering horses, mules, and supplies for his 428-man army. Known as the California Battalion, Fremont’s little army left San Juan on November 28, 1846 and managed, despite considerable hardship, to meet with Andres Pico and sign a treaty with him – the Treaty of Cahuenga – thus ending armed hostilities between the U.S. and the Californians.
Castro House Today
Today, Castro House with its red tile roof and full-length balcony looks much as it did when the Castros first built it. Inside, however, it has been furnished in the style of the 1870’s, when it belonged to the Breen family.
As members of the ill-fated Donner Party, Patrick and Margaret Breen along with their seven children had been stranded in the Sierra Nevada for 111 days without supplies during the extraordinary snows of 1846. It is said that they arrived penniless in San Juan and were given free shelter in the mission. Early in 1848, when word came that gold had been discovered in the Sierra foothills, one of the Breen children, 16-year-old John, set out for the goldfields and returned with about $10,000 in gold dust.
In December 1848 the Breens purchased the Castro adobe and 400 acres of prime agricultural land in the San Juan Valley. Thereafter – until 1933 when it became part of the State Historic Park – the old adobe building was occupied by succeeding generations of the Breen family.
Behind the Castro House you will find a 150 year old pepper tree, a delightful garden, and several large cast-iron caldrons. An interpretive panel shows how these caldrons were used in the busy hide and tallow trade during the Spanish-Mexican period of California history.