Times Past: SLO County was a rough place in early days

September 29, 2012 

‘Hang ’em high, boys!”

The early history of San Luis Obispo County is like an old Clint Eastwood Western movie.

Artist Henry Miller had begun a journey south from San Francisco in the spring of 1856. We know little about Miller except that he wished to sketch the missions and towns along El Camino Real. He evidently wanted to create an exhibition depicting California but was never able to get financing.

Miller was not favorably impressed by San Luis Obispo.

“ … the Mission (has) metamorphosed [sic] into a little town of about 150 houses, inhabited principally by natives and Mexicans; however quite a number of Americans have also settled here … “After breakfast, I took a ramble about the mission buildings, some of which are in ruins, though once remarkably strong, …

“In the building adjoining the Church is held court at present, in the absence of a better one … I was informed by a young and very intelligent American that the American government was very badly sustained here and a jury could not be found to convict a criminal … ”

Our region suffered both from isolation and prosperity.

During the Gold Rush, the world was rushing to the Mother Lode and the counties of the Bay Area. The huge increase in population created a seller’s market for the numerous herds of cattle and sheep in the now largely depopulated Central Coast and Southern California ranches.

Basque sheep herders had been brought to California at the end of the mission period. By the early 1850s, their saddlebags were filled with gold. They grew rich driving cattle and sheep up the coastal trails and over the passes into the San Joaquin Valley where they were sold in the feed lots of Stockton.

There, in what came to be called “Fat City,” the trail weary animals would be fattened on grains and beer mash and shipped to Sonora, Columbia and Jamestown. A steer might fetch as much as $200 on the hoof.

The seller would have to be careful on his way home through the sparsely settled Central Coast. And a man should never boast of what he carried in his saddlebags.

An anonymous special correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin wrote of his concerns in 1853: “I know scarcely a month has passed … without the disappearance of several travelers, or the finding of dead bodies or skeletons on the roads.”

The writer was probably Walter Murray, who spent the remainder of his life in San Luis Obispo. Murray went on to organize the San Luis Obispo Committee of Vigilance of 1858. Along with his brother San Luis Obispo Postmaster Alexander Murray, he led the effort to keep our region in the Union during the Civil War. Continuing that effort to support “the party of Lincoln,” he founded this newspaper in 1869.

Murray was of Anglo-Scot origins and had emigrated from England to New York some 10 years before.

Murray’s “rough” arrival on our shores in 1853 soon led him into a lucrative legal career representing both the wealthy rancheros on whose land the cattle were nourished and the bandidos who stood accused of liberating them of their gold-filled saddlebags and sometimes their lives. To be continued.

• • •

You are invited to the premiere of the new “Ranchero Room” exhibit in the Mission San Luis Obispo Museum opening today. The event goes from 2 to 4 p.m. Artist Nageh Bichay has recreated a panorama of how San Luis Obispo appeared in the 1850s.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service