San Luis Obispo was a “little gem of civilization in the wilderness” according to Herbert Eugene Bolton who pioneered the study of the Spanish-American borderlands.
On March 1, 1776 the colonists of the de Anza expedition approached our mission pueblo. The 198 settlers and a small military escort had been on the road since October 1775 when they left Tubac, sixty miles south of present day Tucson. As they entered the Edna Valley from Price Canyon, the women put on their best clothes and carefully combed their hair.
Just before the expedition reached our mission, it had to cross what is now Marsh Street. It was an almost impassible mire as a result of heavy February rains. The horses bogged down and the settlers fell into the mud, soiling their clothes and destroying the appearance of what had been carefully coiffed hair. But the warmth of their reception by our mission’s residents removed any embarrassment.
Fr. Pedro Font, the expedition’s chronicler, records that Padres Joseph Cavaller and Fr. Pablo Mugártegui “were waiting on the road to receive us. The bells were sounded and the guards fired a salute as we entered the church singing the Te Deum (“Thanks be to God”), and thus our arrival was the cause of mutual and very great rejoicing.”
The priests at the mission were delighted to host this very large group. The loneliness of the isolated settlement was often unbearable. But the padres’ ability to feed more than 200 visitors tells us that less than four years after our mission’s founding in 1772, San Luis Obispo was relatively prosperous.
Fr. Font was astonished at the physical beauty of the valley, writing: “The Mission is situated in a beautiful place on a slight elevation close by an arroyo of most excellent water, near the Sierra de Santa Lucia, and about three leagues from the ocean. The land is very fine and fertile.”
“The Mission buildings consist of a large quadrangle constructed of palisades [upright tree branches]. It contains in the middle of the wing a square reception room, and four apartments or divisions, one on each corner of the reception room.
“Apart from this is another . . . shack of palisades, which serves as the church. To one side are some shacks of palisades, or apartments, which serve as habitations for others. Unmarried Indian convert girls are locked in throughout the night. The girls are under the instruction and care of an elderly woman, the wife of a soldier. She teaches them to sew and to be tidy; and they do already appear such as though they were little Spaniards.
“In front of the church are the soldiers’ quarters, and the huts of the married Christian Indians, which form half a plaza.
“However, all these buildings, though neatly constructed, are of tules (river reeds) and palisades and filled in with adobe.” He feared that they could easily catch fire.
Fr. Font’s concern over the tinder dry building materials were realized when our mission was torched in an Indian raid in December 1776. All of the structures were burnt to the ground. From Monterey, Fr. Junipero Serra directed that the mission should be rebuilt of adobe and stone with a fired tile roof.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.