The San Gabriel Mission was the fourth one to be built in Upper California. It was founded on September 8, 1771, by Fathers Pedro Cambon and Angel Somera. These padres left San Diego Mission with an escort of ten soldiers, and traveled forty leagues before looking for a site on which to settle. They found the Indians somewhat hostile, but when they held up a banner bearing a representation of the Blessed Virgin, the Indians fell upon their knees, and then helped in constructing the mission.
From 1771 until 1831 mission records show the baptism of 7,709 souls.1 Important industries were established in this mission to teach the Indians useful trades. A shoe shop, soap factory and carpentry shop gave constant employment to the natives, while others operated a saw mill and grist mill. A vineyard was planted, and herds of Mission cattle and horses roamed the plains.
San Gabriel Mission was of course important to the San Bernardino Valley because it was from there that Fathers were sent out to establish outposts and ranchos. Like most missions, San Gabriel maintained farms and stock ranches at varying distances from headquarters. Father Zalvidea, head padre of San Gabriel, had already established a rancho at Puente, and was favorably disposed when the Indians at Guachama (San Bernardino) asked for instruction in agriculture and stock raising. The Mission engaged Pedro Alvarez to lay out a zanja (san-ha), or water ditch. This famous ditch extended from Mission Creek [Mill Creek] to the Asistencia. The Zanja was completed in time for the spring planing in 1820, and Indians from all the neighboring rancherias were invited to come and see the Guachama Indians do their planting.
In 1826, Jedediah Strong Smith, the first American known to make the journey overland to California, appeared unexpectedly at the Mission San Gabriel with his party of fifteen ragged men. This event is pictured in a painting by Carl Oscar Borg. According to Beattie, "They were received kindly by the friars, and fed and clothed. The Mexican governmental authorities, however, were less cordial. They were not happy to find the hated gringos breaking through the barrier of desert and mountain on the east, a barrier which they had supposed made California secure from molestation; and after more or less trying negotiations, Smith agreed to depart"2.
1 Caballeria, op. cit., p. 35.
2 Beattie, op. cit., p. 22.