Times Past

Drunken scandals at the Mission during Easter 1835

Special to The TribuneApril 5, 2014 

Father Ramon Abella greets the new Alta California governor, Jose Figueroa, at Monterey on Jan. 15, 1833, in this illustration by Alex F. Harmer in Father Zephyrin Engelhardt's "The Missions and Missionaries of California, Vol. II" (1912)


Easter was a time of utter chaos in San Luis Obispo in 1835.

The disorder was at least in part the result of changes introduced throughout Alta California by a new governor, José Figueroa, who arrived in Monterey on Jan. 15, 1833.

Figueroa was warmly greeted by Father Ramon Abella, the pastor at Carmel Mission. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Figueroa announced the beginning of the privatization of the rich, cattle-covered lands of the Franciscan missions.

By 1835, outsiders were rushing into California to take advantage of the secularization of so much wealth.

Father Abella’s health broke and he was transferred to San Luis Obispo. He found that conditions here were far worse than in Monterey. The traumatized, sick and aging pastor didn’t dare report matters to Gov. Figueroa until four months later.

On July 30, 1835, having taken refuge at the Santa Margarita Assistencia, Father Abella wrote a letter of complaint: “Through this Mission of San Luis Obispo . . . have passed people from . . . New Mexico, Sinaloa and Sonora (provinces of Mexico). The greater portion are dealers in mules and horses. There are others who carry nothing but barrels of whiskey. (They) remain for 15 days to three weeks . . .

“In Holy Week and the week after Easter, they brought two barrels of whiskey to the Mission. They took away only one barrel and that was not filled. From the other, they drank until they were drunk . . . Every day, Indians would appear drunk before me. The drunker they were, the more frequently they would present themselves and the more foolish would be their conduct . . .”

Things got “worse than ever, the schoolmaster D(avid) Amado(r) and an American named Martin Cooper (Cooper used a knife to) wound Serfin, the alcalde, at midnight when he walked about together with the schoolmaster in search of a young married woman called Margarita with whom he has spent much money.

“The schoolmaster himself maintains illicit intercourse with a girl from San Miguel whom her parents have taken to San Luis Obispo.”

“At the Mission all, or nearly all, the young women get drunk, and when anything happens to them they say without shame: ‘Father, I was drunk and did not know what was done.’”

It seems that Martin Cooper had developed a great interest in an attractive young woman named Margarita. Narcisco, Margarita's husband, objected to Cooper’s amorous displays. Father Abella hoped to avoid violence by moving the couple into the Mission compound. But Cooper came to the Mission and took her to his adobe.

Father Abella, accompanied by two armed men with pistols, went to “rescue” Margarita.

“The schoolmaster was there with Cooper. I said (to the schoolmaster) that he should close the school, to which he made no objections; and to Cooper that he should leave for other parts to carry on his scandals. He went into a rage, and said that he would not leave.

Cooper “drew a pistol from his belt, and threatened the Fathers with it in the presence of many witnesses. Then I went to my room with Father Felipe and ordered the doors locked; but the Indians gathered together in the corridor. The schoolmaster then approached and began to shout and uttered wicked words meanwhile, for he was very drunk.

“He had also made various Indians drunk, perhaps in order that they might not chastise him when they saw him insult the Fathers . . . the drunken schoolmaster tarried two hours at the (padres’) window shouting like a crazy man. Cooper . . . fired a shot at Narciso when he went to seize (his wife) Margarita.

Father Abella concluded, “I will not go back to San Luis Obispo until those fellows have been banished from the place.” He returned to his mission when Cooper and Amador left, only to be replaced by similar men.

**** I will be leading a tour May 4-7, “Following the Ramona Legend,” to the Ramona Pageant in Hemet and Missions San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, San Diego and the Pala Assistencia.

If you wish to join in, it is essential that you confirm your reservations with a deposit by April 8th. Please contact Silver Bay Tours,(805) 772-3409 or toll free (888) 304-3006. See www.silverbaytours.com/tours.html.

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

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