San Mateo in its soft, musical pronunciation, still voices memories of the past, when the Franciscan fathers were winding their chain of missions through the Californias.
San Mateo the name itself is of Spanish origin and emblematic of the nation which laid the foundation of this state. Translated, it means, “St. Matthew,” which shall serve to remind us of the faith of the Franciscans which carried them across the seas to distant Spanish America, there to serve their God and King.
The history of California began with the first white man who set foot upon the soil, and has been interwoven by the two distinguishing elements always prominent in early Spanish colonization, the military and the ecclesiastical. So it was in that portion of the state which later became San Mateo County; first came the men at arms hewing the way, followed by the priests and mission builders.
On October 9, 1776, came the foundation of the mission in San Francisco, Mission Dolores. During the next year, on January 18, 1777, the Mission of Santa Clara was built. It was a long day’s journey on horseback between these last two missions. Almost the entire route lay in what is now San Mateo County. There was no road, or even a path in those days, to guide travelers from the cordial hospitality of the Presidio and Mission of San Francisco to the assured welcome waiting them at Santa Clara Mission.
These two missions were but a small part of the unbroken chain of Franciscan missions extending up the coastside of California from San Diego to San Francisco, a space of six hundred miles. There are twenty-two in all, thus dividing up the distance between each station in the chain to an average length of thirty miles.
The names of these missions, from south to north, with dates of foundation are, San Diego (1769); San Luis Rey (1798); San Antonio de Pala (1816); San Juan Capistrano (1776); San Gabriel (1771); San Fernando (1797); San Buenaventura (1782); Santa Barbara (1786); Santa Inés (1804); La Purissima (1787); San Luis Obispo (1772); San Miguel (1797); San Antonio ‘de Padua (1771); Soledad (1791); San Carlos or Carmel (1770); San Juan Bautista (1797); Santa Cruz (1791); Santa Clara (1777); San Jose (1797); San Francisco de Asis (1776); San Rafael (1817); and San Francisco Solano (1823).
Although the foundation of the missions at San Francisco and Santa Clara was the beginning of the development of the county, it is really in Europe where we must look for the first cause. In fact all the stirring and picturesque history of this period can be traced back to the different phases of political and religious activity in old Spain, rising to a fever heat in the court of Charles III.
Thus the history of San Mateo County really began in about the middle of the eighteenth century in Spain, when that nation, under Charles III, the greatest of the Spanish Bourbons, experienced a widespread national awakening from a period of disgraceful lethargy, into an era of prosperity, enlightenment and reform.