Times Past: Rise and fall of mission ranchos

Special to The TribuneJuly 29, 2012 

The Rancho Corral de Piedra lies at the southwestern end of the Edna Valley. It got its name during the late 1770s when the Rev. José Caveller had several stone corrals built to segregate the best cattle and horse breeding stock.

Less than five years had passed since the Rev. Francisco Palou brought 41 cattle, four mares and a stallion to Mission San Luis Obispo.

Narrow-bladed grass seeds introduced by the Franciscans had transformed the area. The county’s familiar green hills in spring provided ample fodder. The animals bred, resulting in hundreds of cattle and dozens of often exceptional horses.

These animals become the true wealth of the California missions. And leather from mission cattle provided shoes and boots for much of northwestern Europe and the United States.

The supple-yet-strong leather was made into wide belts that transferred water- and steam-driven power via pulleys to the machines of the Industrial Revolution.

The herds of cattle and horses continued to grow. The rancherias of Mission San Luis Obispo expanded north to Santa Margarita and south to the Santa Maria River. At the same time, the population of Native Americans began a rapid decline as immigrants from the newly independent Republic of Mexico flocked to the area in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

The increased exposure to diseases — from the common cold and measles, mumps, chicken pox, typhus and cholera to, later, smallpox — took an incredible toll on the indigenous local population.

Franciscan padres had held most of these diseases in check through a well-regulated system of quarantine. By 1834, the authority of the Spanishborn Franciscans was undermined by the Secularization Order of the new Mexican government.

Mexican immigrants sought possession of mission lands, arguing that the 231 remaining Indians at the San Luis Obispo Mission did not need the thousands of acres of watered lands with all the cattle.

In 1841, Gov. Juan B. Alvarado granted the 30,911-acre rancho Corral de Piedra to José María Villavicencio, the second son of Rafael de Jesus Villavicencio, who had been a soldier and member of the Portola expedition that passed through the area in 1769.

Villavicencio had retired as captain of the militia at the Presidio of Monterey. He became the civilian administrator at Mission San Antonio and later at Mission San Fernando. He married Rafaela Rodríguez, daughter of Sebastian Rodríguez, who had been granted Rancho Bolsa del Pajaro on what became the San Benito-Santa Clara county line. His brother, Rafael Villavicencio, was the grantee of Rancho San Geronimo north of Cayucos.

José María Villa, who had shortened his surname, made the required improvements by enlarging the mission-era overseer’s adobe into a large two-story structure. The Corral de Piedra adobe survived through the 1950s.

The Villas were able to keep the 5,000 cattle and hundreds of horses that grazed the land. In 1846, the last Mexican governor, Pio Pico, granted Villa an additional 5 square leagues of land in the surrounding foothills and canyons with cattle and water rights.

The Villa Adobe quickly became the site of some of the greatest feasts at any of the Californio ranchos.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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