Throughout this country, most people don't even know who he was. But in California, almost 250 years after he came here, Padre Junípero Serra is still a household name. In fact, among many Christians and historians, his name is revered.
Considered California's founding father, Serra is credited for opening the gateway to the Spanish colonization and evangelization of the state, starting in 1769, by building a series of missions, some of which eventually became major cities.
There are statues of him all over southern California. And yet, at the museum that bears his name, on the Presidio Hill where he built his first California mission, the showcases transcend Serra.
If you come here expecting major exhibits about the life of the Franciscan Order leader who gave birth to Spanish California, you are in for a surprise! You find much more of that history in the museums now housed in the missions Serra established.
In this museum, built in 1929, you take a timeline ride through San Diego's history and cultures, from the indigenous Kumeyaay to the Spanish, Mexican and early American settlers.
You learn, for example, about how difficult it was, for all these people, to acquire water in the desert-like climate of the San Diego area, and how natives and early settlers would have to carry water in very heavy special clay pots called "ollas" and in buckets made of leather.
You learn that, "Spanish priests and soldiers who lived on Presidio Hill had a long way to carry their water from the river," and that access to water was one of the main reasons why, in 1774, Mission San Diego de Alcalá was moved from its original dry-soil hilltop perch to better farmland, closer to water and the natives, six miles east of here.
You learn about the objects that archeologists seek when conducting excavations here on Presidio Hill and other California historical sites, and how the most minute object could represent a period of history, and cultures that have been buried in the dirt.
You learn that before Spanish contact in 1769, the Kumeyaay lived in huts called ewaas, which were made of woven branches and grass, in small villages of 75 to 100 people.
You learn that Kumeyaay and other local Indians who agreed to live in Spanish missions and become Christians were taught how to make candles, sew clothes, grow and prepare foods, and make adobe bricks (from mud, straws and water) and clay tiles to build buildings.
You learn that in the late 1800s, Presidio Hill was abandoned and nearly lost, had it not been for the intervention of George Marston, a San Diego merchant, community leader and philanthropist who in the early 1900s, fought to preserve the public use of this beautiful, historic hilltop and to build this museum.
Considered "a pure representation of Mission Revival architecture," from the outside, this museum really looks like a Spanish mission. But inside, its exhibits take you from life in a Kumeyaay village of the 18th century to life in a 19th century American town, and everything that came between.
It bears a great man's name, but this museum is about much more.
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