San Luis Obispo De Tolosa Mission

In September 1772, the great Mission of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded on the coast, about one hundred and twenty miles south of the Gulf of Monterey. This port subsequently became important to commerce and trade. Padre Serra and Padre Cavalier, with a small party of soldiers such as invariably accompanied similar expeditions, started from Monterey in the latter part of August, and located the Mission on the first of September. The ceremonies were performed and the building was begun without delay. The Indians, trained by the Jesuits, and under the direction of Cavalier, were given the task of construction. A chapel, barracks for the five soldiers and corporal, and the house for the padres, were completed in a few months, and the natives were attracted to the place. Then followed the real work, and a nucleus of twenty converts was formed within a year. The soldier seldom interfered to ward off danger.

He was, like the padre, a friend of the Indian, and such was his peaceful nature that trouble seldom occurred to call him into action. The native food products of the soil and the forest were furnished by the Indians in abundance, with no compensation asked except religious instruction and kind treatment at the Missions. An Arcadian atmosphere seemed to pervade all these spiritual outposts of the Church in California. The successful hunting of the terrible grizzly bear by the Spanish sharpshooters during the previous famine year at Monterey and the country about San Luis Obispo, and the feeding of the Indians, doubtless paved the way to kindly feeling between them and the Mission people. Harmony was promoted by the manner of ruling the Indians. The padres chose some natural leader among them in whom confidence could be reposed, and consigned to him control of a specified number, holding him responsible for their good behavior. All offences against the laws and regulations of the Mission were reported by the leader, or alcaide, as he was designated, to the padres, who adjusted the penalty there for. Much depended upon the moral force of the alcaide in this personal government, but results were in the main satisfactory.

In classifying the Mission Indians, it must be remembered that there was found in the hidden places and caves of the mountains an Indian race known as the “Digger Indians,” whose condition was far below that of the generality of tribes that peopled California and came within the range of Mission influences. The Digger was an absolute savage, living upon seeds, herbs, and roots, and flesh that could be obtained with bows and arrows; when in extremity he would eat any living or dead thing, even reptiles and insects. He had the most debasing habits, was without morality or religion. He was inferior in the scale of being to even the chuckchee of Siberia, or the tree dwarf of Central Africa. The Diggers must not be reckoned among the Mission Indians; they never were or could be such; they were never sought for by the padres, but were adjudged as beyond the redemptive influences of civilization.

The infancy of this Mission was disastrous, although it was favorably planted in a naturally rich country, amid plenty of open and arable land, well watered, and ever enjoyed genial ocean breezes and temperate climate. Three different times were the buildings destroyed by fire, and as often rebuilt with indefatigable energy. In the consequent periods of adversity supplies were furnished generously from the common storehouses at San Diego and Monterey. These misfortunes aroused the inventive faculties of one of the old padres, whose name is now lamentably forgotten. He discovered, after many trials and failures, a method of making roof tiles, which were substituted for the former combustible coverings made from tules and willows. This insured safety for the future. Then commenced a long period of progress, prosperity, the gathering of wealth, and the winning of hundreds of heathen souls for the vineyard of Mother Church.

Padre Luis Martinez was the popular hero of that day among the worldly class. He had keen, practical sense, genial humor, and was given to generous hospitality that made him many friends. But alas, his rascally prudence in providing for his expected “rainy day” brought him into ill-favor with the more spiritual and elect. He was sent away from the Mission and from the Indians, whom he really loved and for whom he had labored. He closed his kindly but somewhat misguided life in Madrid, in some disrepute. But it goes far in his favor that around the neighborhood of the old Mission, at this distant day, local tradition still whispers words of praise in behalf of the much-loved old padre.

The Mission overlooks La Canada de los Osos, the Valley of the Bears, the grizzlies. It was a very beautiful and fertile expanse, the mountains bordering closely on the east, and the seacoast several miles away to the west.

Those who would like to know more of the happy scenes which sometimes enlivened the old Mission life would do well to read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona” the description of a procession of domestic animals and fowls, organized by Father Martinez.

The great Mission now lies in ruins, its good work nearly forgotten, and like the fame of “Our Lord the Bishop” to perpetuate which in a pious spirit it was erected, it is silently passing into utter oblivion.

Return to: The Missions of California and the Old Southwest

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