Leather from cattle hides became the major source of California’s wealth prior to the discovery of gold in 1848.
Today, we think of leather largely in terms of luxury clothing, shoes and belts. It was an indispensable commodity in the 19th century, when leather belts were used to transmit power from water or steam-driven pulleys to the machines that drove the industrial revolution.
Leather saddles, stirrups and harnesses linked a man or wagon to the horse and other beasts of burden.
The vast herds of cattle that thrived on the narrow-bladed grasses introduced by the Franciscan missionaries supplied a significant amount of the industrial nations’ need for leather.
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The 1840s were exciting times in Mexico’s remote province. The Californios had intermarried with Yankees, English traders, Belgians and French.
There was widespread discontent over Mexican rule, even among the nominally Mexican citizens. California became an inviting target for annexation by a foreign power. California might have become a colony of France.
The mission system had been eviscerated by the Mexican government. A new order was emerging in Alta California during the early 1840s. The Americans were beginning to appear as a dominant group along the California coast. Great opportunities for controlling access to California’s plentiful supply of leather were at hand.
Both the British and the French had come to regard the Pacific Ocean as their sphere of interest. The great powers tried to avert the American takeover.
Eugene Duflot de Mofras was the French attaché to a Mexican delegation sent on an inspection trip to Alta California and Oregon in 1841-42. He realized that the Republic of Mexico was unstable. Officials in Mexico City recognized the impossibility of exercising control over the northern parts of Spain’s former empire.
Historians believe that de Mofras was under special orders from France’s King Louis Phillipe to promote the French annexation of California.
He included an image of the then-flourishing Mission San Luis Rey de Francia — named after the sainted King Louis IX of France — near present-day Oceanside to illustrate the pro-French feelings in California.
In the spring of 1841, de Mofras came to Mission San Luis Obispo to visit the civil administrator, Vincente Canet, a citizen of France, who was the most powerful person in the little mission pueblo along San Luis Creek.
De Mofras, a French spy, gives us the last full report on Mission San Luis Obispo at the very end of the Franciscan era. He arrived just before the departure of Father Ramon Abella from our mission. The elderly, sick priest had only weeks to live.
De Mofras wrote: “(The Mission) is now in ruin reduced to a state of greatest want, the oldest Spanish Franciscan of California, the Rev. Father Ramon Abella the poor friar was bedded down on an ox-hide, and used the horn of an ox as a drinking cup, and for nourishment had only some strips of meat dried in the sun.
“The venerable father distributes the little that is sent to him among the Indian children, who with their parents occupy the tumble-down houses that surround the Mission He bears without murmuring his old age and the privations and humiliations which poverty entails.”
Shortly after de Mofras’ visit, Father Abella was transferred to Mission Purísima at Lompoc and later died at Mission Santa Inés on May 24, 1842. He is buried at the latter mission.
Mofras’ visit to San Luis Obispo had upset the Mexican government.
On April 14, 1842, Manuel Jimeno, the secretary of state to Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado, dismissed Vincente Canet as mission administrator for corruption.
Canet’s dismissal was a major blow to French influence in California.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.