Photos from the Vault

Mission-era secrets revealed under pick and broom

Heather Cooper, surrounded by her tools, looks up from her work in a pit dug at former site of mission soldiers' barracks at Mission San Antonio de Padua.
Heather Cooper, surrounded by her tools, looks up from her work in a pit dug at former site of mission soldiers' barracks at Mission San Antonio de Padua. Telegram-Tribune

California Missions often were victims of their own success.

Towns grew up around most of the 21 missions founded in Alta California from 1769 to 1823. Though earthquakes and fires took a toll, development would be the biggest destroyer of past artifacts.

As late as the 1950s, commercial buildings covered much of what is now San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza. Recently, a Mission-era aqueduct was uncovered during current construction of the Chinatown project in San Luis Obispo. The discovery galvanized the history community to lobby to protect the find. A Tribune story from September said the developer was seeking a way to both build for the future and preserve the past.

The Mission Gardens Estates project in San Miguel ran afoul of authorities in 2003 when contractors graded 22 feet into adjacent Mission property, destroying remnants of a dormitory that had been used by Salinan Indians. The residents were converts to Christianity during the Mission period, circa 1805.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors sought a $1.8 million mitigation fee — but according to an Aug. 25, 2011, Tribune story, the bank that had foreclosed on the project was seeking to pay only $13,000.

One of the rare missions that has been spared wholesale redevelopment is Mission San Antonio de Padua near Jolon, the third California mission founded in 1771. San Luis Obispo de Tolosa would be founded a year later, fifth in the series.

Sainted in 2015, Junipero Serra, friar of the Franciscan Order, founded nine of the 21 missions, including San Luis Obispo and San Antonio.

S.E. Seager wrote this story for the Telegram-Tribune on July 29, 1983:

OK, kids, let’s hit the pits!

A July morning comes to Mission San Antonio de Padua much as it did 210 years ago; a cool silence broken by the sound of swallows’ wings.

The sun, hidden but bright behind hard, dry mountains, ends the nocturnal flittings of resident bats.

Sheltered inside the mission’s 3-foot-thick white walls, Franciscan Brother Jochaim Grant awakes in his narrow cell, dons his heavy brown habit and shuts his window to trap the cool night air.

Outside, the sound of Michael Jackson’s rock hit “Beat It” on a cassette player and the handful of archaeology students scratching at the rock-hard dirt bring the mission scene into the 20th century.

In an agreement with three Franciscans who run Mission San Antonio, Cal Poly professor Robert Hoover brings a new group of students each summer to live within the mission walls. Their mission has been the same for eight summers: to excavate Mission San Antonio’s outlying ruins.

“It’s been due to the Franciscans’ generosity that this is feasible,” said the 40-year-old Hoover. Students pay the Franciscans $6.50 a day for room and board at the isolated mission, set in a rugged valley on the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, north of the San Luis Obispo County line.

Brother Joaquim, whose ruddy, boyish face and hummingbird-like movements belie his 48 years, likes the idea that the mission’s past is being rediscovered.

“You spend so much time creating an event history. It’s so charitable of these people to respect that past.”

In the past eight summers, Hoover and his Cal Poly Summer Extension classes have dug up two ruin sites. It took three years to unearth the mission dormitories built to house 1,300 baptized Salinan Indians. This year completes a five-year dig of the barracks built for six soldiers and their Indian wives.

While 20th century civilization has gradually built up around most of Father Junipero Serra’s 21 California Missions, the ruins surrounding Mission San Antonio remain isolated and relatively untouched, an archeologist’s dream.

“The mission is one of the few still out in the country,” Hoover said. “The archeology remains preserved. The ruins haven’t been bulldozed for housing developments.”

This summer, Hoover and his class are completing the excavation of the soldiers’ barracks, which were reduced to dirt and stone after the missions were secularized in 1834. Each day’s work is long, monotonous, hard and hot.

“It’s a lot of manual stuff.” says Carrie Leven, one of the two Cal Poly students in the class of 11. “But you make a lot of interesting discoveries. Like these shell beads. Those are neat to find. They’re so small. It is amazing to me to find them in all this dirt. I like to think about turning a rock over that’s never been turned over in 200 years.”

The 20-year-old social science junior rises from a whitewashed, spartan monk’s cell every day at 6 a.m., as do all her classmates. She’s outside digging by 7, her face streaked with dirt and sweat as she squats to dig her ice pick in the dust.

There she is joined by 10 other students who have come from schools in Arizona, New York, Missouri and elsewhere. Hoover’s youngest student this year is 19; the eldest participant is 65-year-old W.B. Sawyer, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and class field director.

Sawyer, better known as “The Colonel,” is a bearded, gruff, Hemingway look-alike, a veteran of five wars and a former horse breeder from Arroyo Grande. He was one of Hoover’s first students.

It is the colonel, clad in clean, pressed khakis, who sends the students into action every morning with his gruff command: “OK, Let’s hit the pits.”

Digging continues from 7 a.m. until noon when the mercury nears 100 degrees and students retreat inside the cool mission walls for lunch.

It’s siesta time until 3 p.m., then back to the dig site or into the laboratory, where the day’s finds are washed with a frayed toothbrush. There are animal bones, leftovers from countless meals; glass beads, used for trade or jewelry; broken pieces of red roof tile; glazed pottery from Spain, Mexico, England and China. There is also a rusty knife; a handful of nails; chips of colored glass from wine bottles and slivers of abalone shells.

Most are numbered, catalogued and stored at the mission’s museum.

At night, after dinner, Hoover often gives talks or invites guest lecturers. The students learn more about the soldiers, who were probably mestizos, or of mixed European and Indian blood. The soldiers were called soldados de cuera for their knee-length leather armor. Many married Indian women. At the mission’s zenith in 1830, the soldiers protected the mission’s 8,000 head of cattle, 12,000 sheep and 350 horses.

Hoover warns against applying 20th century values to mission life. “There are two schools of thought. One is the romanticized view of the missions, that they were idyllic paradises on earth. … The other myth is that the missions were concentration camps. … Neither extreme is true. They (the missionaries) were well meaning, without the knowledge of modern medicine or culture, anthropology.”

“The missions were unsuccessful in turning out large masses of Christian-Spanish Indians because they had no protection against disease and because they underestimated the time it took to assimilate a new culture.”

After the nightly lectures, students often stay up until midnight completing their field notes. It makes for an 18-hour day.

“I think this the hardest these students will ever have to work for 4 units,” Hoover said laughing.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp