Photos from the Vault

In 1800s, an English mother worried her sons wouldn’t reach heaven in heathen SLO

Mission San Luis Obispo appears in a woodcut from the October 1871 edition of Overland Monthly. It was part of a 15-page article titled “Tropical California.”
Mission San Luis Obispo appears in a woodcut from the October 1871 edition of Overland Monthly. It was part of a 15-page article titled “Tropical California.” Overland Monthly

Sarah worried for her only sons, Walter and Alexander Murray, who had abandoned their native England for the heathen wilds of California.

Both sons had left to find their way in the world at age 16.

In an undated letter to Alexander estimated late 1859 Sarah wrote:

“I have often wished you had not gone out to California, as I fear through it you have, my dear son, experienced many hardships which you would not have done at home. You certainly would in all probability, had you been here, been confined to some office and perhaps under some hard ‘taskmaster.’ But as a compensation for it you would have had civilization and many, many comforts, and privileges which you cannot have there. The greatest in my estimation would have been the opportunity of hearing the gospel preached in its purity.”

The gospel could be heard at a church in San Luis Obispo. The town was founded because Father Junipero Serra chose the location to build the fifth mission in California on Sept. 1, 1772.

However, a Catholic church was not to be trusted in the eyes of the English branch of the family.

Walter departed England for America in 1843, then went on to California in 1848. Younger brother Alexander arrived in the Gold Rush town of Sonora and reunited with Walter in 1850. By 1854, they were both in San Luis Obispo.

Both Walter and Alexander were owners at different times of the Sonora Herald newspaper. Walter would found the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 1869.

Gold Rush California

When they arrived here, California was a wild place. Wide-open Gold Rush camps were known world wide as dens of depravity home to gamblers, barflys and prostitutes.

San Luis Obispo of the 1850s was a dusty cow town and haven for murderous outlaws.

But there was something more fearful.

There was no Protestant church.

Sarah suspected she would never see her sons again in this life and worried that she would be denied a reunion in the afterlife if they failed to attend the right church. She was 67 in 1861, a respectable old age, and she had a keen sense of the fragility of life. Sarah had already outlived 4 of her 8 children, and as fate would have it, she would outlive Walter and Alexander as well.

Every letter from Sarah carried a variation on the theme: “Oh! That dreadful heathen land.”

In May 28, 1858, Walter wrote to his sister Anne in England.

It was a long, newsy letter about the work of the vigilance committee, in which Walter was a leader, chasing down and hanging outlaws.

Murray amazed and dismayed both his mother and sister by admitting that he attended services at the Mission.

“I am not surprised at your amazement that I should attend the Catholic Church,” but Murray, now a lawyer, had two arguments he advanced.

The first was practical, the San Luis Obispo mission was the first and only church. Though he said, “I abhor the Catholic doctrines,” he added “I will defy a man to choose between attending two churches when there is but one.”

His second reason reveals a man who has lived and absorbed the California milieu for a decade. Murray had rubbed shoulders with men from all over the world, not just a regional shire.

He showed a rare acceptance of Asian culture in a bigoted era.

In a later public pronouncement as a Sacramento politician, he would show an ugly intolerance, one he would later try to distance himself from.

But in this private letter to his sister, he argues church attendance does not guarantee a seat in heaven.

“And I conceive that a Buddhist might perchance reach the Christian heaven and a really true believer in the principles of Presbyterianism or the doctrines of the Brethren might find himself lacking at the great day.”

The Murray family was progressive in another aspect. As the Civil War broke out, there were many who were indifferent to the plight of slaves.

But the Murray family was critical of slavery long before fighting began.

When Walter was 16 and just arrived in America he wrote in 1843 to his sister Ann about the racist views of the sailors.

“With the greatest surprise they asked me whether I really held the absurd doctrine that a black man was a good as a white man. They thought me a sensible young man in other things but that I was mad on that subject.”

Two months after gunfire had erupted at Fort Sumter, Alexander Murray was critical of a preacher who had come to town.

He wrote to sister Annie in England on April 12, 1862:

“We have an itinerant preacher here who preaches about once a month here. He belongs to the Methodist Church South & of course endorses slavery as a holy institution. He is an ignorant fellow & I believe I could deliver a better sermon myself.”

Alexander died of tuberculosis before the first Protestant Church was built in San Luis Obispo, but Walter was there to witness it.

On Jan. 26, 1970, Telegram-Tribune reporter Elliot Curry wrote a historical overview after the church building survived fire damage.

“St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church dates from Aug. 1867, when Dr. W.W. Hayes called together a group of Episcopalians and organized the first vestry. Formation of the parish was approved by Bishop Ingraham Kip on Sept. 4, 1867.

The building cost $3,000 and was completed in October of 1873.

St. Stephen’s is holding a 150th birthday celebration on Sunday. For details, visit

The Murray family letters, 1843-1889 quoted above are part of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, with microfilm available in Berkeley and at Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library, Special Collections and Archives.

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

Visit to see old photos and read selected archives.