To the government of Mexico, he was guilty of sedition, smuggling and probably treason. He was both a paternalistic pastor and a genuine protector of the rights of Native Americans against greedy newcomers. Foreign visitors regarded him as a generous host and a good businessman.
Father Luis Antonio Martinez, the chief priest at San Luis Obispo between 1798 and 1830, presided over one of the most affluent of all the missions. He was a great character, among the most celebrated of all the mission clergy.
His legacy includes our famed 1818 mission bells made by Manuel Vargas in Lima, Peru, and the iconic five-arched campanile, or bell tower, which was constructed to hold those bells.
He was, first and foremost, Spanish born and inordinately proud of that fact. When in September 1822 the flag of Spain was hauled down for the last time and replaced with the “Eagle and Serpent” of Mexico, Fr. Luis refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new government.
During the time of the Mexican War for Independence, 1810-1821, California had been left on its own. Contact and consequently supplies from Mexico were virtually cut off. The soldados at the presidios and the Franciscan missions had to fetch for themselves.
During this time, Fr. Luis built up a healthy trade with the Russian American Company based in Sitka, Alaska. He traded tallow, hides, dried beef, wine, locally distilled brandy, wheat and barley for beeswax candles, iron implements, Napoleon Brandy from France, which he served to his guests, and most important, silver piasters, Russian-minted trading coins.
He also traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was entering Southern Oregon and Northern California in search of fur and pelts via the Siskiyou Trail. He entertained the agents of these companies with lavish meals at the mission.
Sometimes he would display some of his silver coinage, which he may have melted down to destroy evidence of its origins. This is the probable source of the legend that he had his own silver mine.
By 1825, he began to clash with Jose Maria Echeandia, the first governor of Mexican California.
Governor Echeandia wanted the wealth of the missions to go to his political supporters, leaving the missionized Indians without resources. The battle of words and letters culminated in 1830 with a young Mexican soldier shouting “Viva la Republica!” To which Fr. Luis shouted “Go to hell with your republic!”
On February 3, 1830, Echeandia signed a warrant for the arrest of Fr. Martinez, charging him with treason, sedition and smuggling. He was specifically accused of training the Indians in the use of firearms. Arrested in front of the mission by Lt. Romualdo Pacheco, Fr. Luis was taken to Santa Barbara, placed aboard the English brig Thomas Nowlan and deported to his Spanish homeland.
Since 1993, the Old Mission community has recognized the hospitality of Fr. Luis with the La Mesa de las Padres banquet to support historic preservation of the mission.
The banquet is normally held in mid-August. This year it will be on Saturday, Sept. 11, at 5:30 p.m. at the Tolosa Winery.
There will be a full sit-down dinner with fine foods and wines appropriate to Early California’s best-known host. The community will honor Walt Gonyer, the longtime chair of the La Mesa committee, and Richard Ochs, who has devoted his energies to mission preservation.
To purchase tickets, which cost $100, call the parish office at 781-8220.