The skulls of seven American Indians unearthed near Avila Beach during railroad construction in the 1880s were returned to their Central Coast home early last month.
Their trans-Atlantic journey began when Dr. June Jones, senior lecturer in biomedical ethics and law at England’s University of Birmingham, began attempting to contact the native people of the Central Coast. The skulls were found in a metal cabinet in the university’s medical college.Jones wanted to know how she could return these remains to their ancestral home.
John Burch, traditional lead of the Salinan Tribe of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, was the only American Indian leader to reply to Jones’ inquiries. On May 9, Jones brought the remains in a large crate through customs at Los Angeles International Airport, where she was greeted by Burch and Chris Molina from the Salinan Tribe.
After gaining clearance and appropriate documentation from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, the remains were reburied in a quiet ceremony.
Speaking of her long journey to return the remains, Jones said, “This is an honor. It’s all about respect for cultures and beliefs, even if they don’t happen to be ours.”
The skulls had aging tags attesting to their origins near the mouth of San Luis Obispo Creek. We know historically that the construction of the Pacific Coast Railway along the bluffs from Avila Beach to what is now Port San Luis unearthed a significant number of American Indian burials during the late 1870s and early 1880s.
Charles Goodall, president of the Seattle-based Pacific Coast Steamship Company that was building the rail line, was aware of local concerns over the frequency with which human remains were being unearthed.
Many of Ah Louis’ Chinese workers under contract to Goodall were upset. There is a whole Avila Beach folklore concerning a surviving Chumash named Cabazon who spoke of curses that would fall upon those who unearthed the remains.
Goodall wanted the remains to go away. His friend, the Rev. Robert W. Summers, who became pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in 1881, offered a palatable solution to Goodall’s problem.
Summers often wrote of preserving American Indian culture for future generations in a museum. Although an ordained clergyman, Summers clearly would have preferred a career in the newly emerging fields of ethnology and anthropology.
Ten years earlier, he had served a two-year stint as the first Episcopal priest in Seattle.
Summers and his wife, Lucia, were a remarkable couple. Lucia was a skilled botanist. After her death in 1898, her botanical collection was purchased by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who donated the collection to the University of California herbarium.
The couple were married in Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s hometown. Summers had already spent some time in the Oregon frontier. He was most comfortable documenting the lives of Americans Indians in the Salmon and Klamath river basins than he was in ministering to his parishes.
In San Luis Obispo, he had to deal with St. Stephen’s long-serving founding warden, Dr. W.W. Hays, who is best known as the founder of the former San Luis Obispo General Hospital.
Summers and his wife had acquired a great deal of American Indian knowledge about plants and healing. Hays did not appreciate his pastor giving medical advice. In 1885, Summers resigned as pastor.
The Avila Beach remains did not go into Summers’ planned local museum. Instead, history literally took a different course.
To be continued
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.