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The eighth Franciscan mission established in California. The site first chosen was near Guadalupe River, not far from the head of San Francisco bay, and about 3 miles from its present position. This site was called Thamien by the natives. Here the mission was founded, Jan. 12, 1777, and dedicated to Santa Clara de Asis. Cattle and supplies arrived from Monterey and San Francisco, and work on the buildings was immediately begun. The Indians were at first friendly, but soon began to steal cattle, and did not entirely desist even after 3 were killed and several flogged. By the end of the year there had been 67 baptisms, mostly children. In 1779 the mission was twice flooded, and it was decided to rebuild at another site on higher ground.
A new church was begun in 1781 and finished in 1784, the finest erected in California up to that time. This church was considerably damaged by earthquakes in 1812 and later, and a new one was finally built on the present site in 1825-26. Shortly after 1800 there was considerable trouble with the natives. Many of the neophytes seem to have run away at different times, and the expeditions sent out to bring them back were attacked in a few cases. The wealth of the mission increased rapidly.
In 1790 the large stock numbered 2,817, small stock 836; in 1800 there were about 5,000 each, while in 1810 the numbers were 8,353 and 10,027, respectively, with average crops for the two decades of 4,600 and 4,970 bushels. The converts also increased rapidly, numbering 927 in 1790, 1,247 in 1800, 1,332 in 1810, and 1,357 in 1820. The highest figure, 1,464, was reached in 1827, after which the decline was very rapid. The stock and the yearly crops of the mission had decreased considerably before this time. The total number of notices baptized up to 1834 was 7,711, of whom 3,177 were children. The death rate at the mission was very high.
In 1834 there were about 800 neophytes, while in 1840 there were only 290, with possibly 150 more scattered in the district. The mission was secularized in 1837. By 1840 two-thirds of the stock and apparently all of the available property had disappeared. The mission was returned to the control of the padres in 1843, and two years later there were about 150 ex-neophytes connected with the mission. After this Santa Clara mission became a regular parish church, and in 1851 Santa Clara College was established in the old mission buildings. The growth of the college necessitated the renovation and enlargement of the buildings, so that now there is little remaining of the old adobe structures.
The Indians in the neighborhood of the mission belonged to the Costanoan linguistic family, and these doubtless furnished the majority of the neophytes, yet it is probable that the Mariposan (Yokuts) and Moquelumnan stocks were also represented.