Times Past

The man who buried the victims of SLO’s cholera epidemic

San Luis Obispo in the 1850s, as portrayed by “El Barrio de Tigre” by Edward Vischer, 1861.
San Luis Obispo in the 1850s, as portrayed by “El Barrio de Tigre” by Edward Vischer, 1861.

What happened to Indians who once occupied San Luis Obispo County?

Mission San Luis Obispo’s original graveyard was shamefully obliterated in the late 19th and early 20th century as Chorro Street was extended between Monterey and Palm streets.

Many Chumash and Salinan still live in San Luis Obispo County. Their ancestors fled after the mission was taken away from the Franciscans in 1834. Most of those who remained died of “white man’s diseases” in the 1850s and early 1860s.

In 1871, S. A. Pollard, the second postmaster and county recorder, whose store at Monterey and Chorro was the main business in 1850-60s, told Walter Murray’s Tribune about the deadly epidemic of 1852.

“At that time, the population of San Luis Obispo consisted of about a dozen white men, half of them Americans, and several hundred Indians … who had been brought up about the mission” and who continued to live nearby after the Mexican government evicted the Franciscans and divided up the mission properties.

Pollard recalled the constant tide of gold seekers flowing through the county.

“Our cholera visitation came from one of these emigrants, a man from Texas named Moss, who with his wife was traveling along in a two-horse wagon. Just as they reached here, the man was taken sick, and they found an old adobe near where the corner of Marsh and Broad is now, in which they took refuge.

“The man died after a sickness of a day or two, but his wife was not attacked. The old padre at the mission, Father (Miguel) Gomez, took charge of her until friends of hers in the northern mines heard of her plight and came for her.”

The Mexican priest heroically cared for the dying of all races, but mostly Indians in the “Padres Kitchen,” now the recently retrofitted Youth Center off Palm Street.

“I do not think any other whites died of … cholera, but for … Indians it was a veritable ‘scourge.’ They went down before it like chaff before the wind. Some 60 or 70 at least died here.”

Modern historians count at least 200 cholera and typhus deaths in 1852.

Most of the town Indians lived in what later became Chinatown.

“There was no one who dared to bury the dead, but after a few days we induced one William Breck to undertake the job.

“Breck was an old fellow, perhaps 65 years old, an expert mechanic . . . had married a Mexican woman and made a . . . living by making iron work for bridles, weapons, etc. His blacksmith forge and anvil stood under an old Sycamore (at Higuera and Toro).

“Breck had no end of nerve and grit and was besides a jolly old soul, ready to do almost anything for whiskey, and we made a bargain with him that we would give him a bottle of whiskey for every Indian he would cart away.

“We got a couple of Indians to dig a long trench in the southern part of town which was the receptacle. We owned a wheelbarrow, the only thing which had a wheel to it in the country except the heavy old country carretas.

“Chorro Street up toward Palm Street was then very steep. Breck could get no help and worked all alone and it was a sight to see him coming in a jog trot down the hill with the corpses riding in the wheelbarrow, the horrible ghastly head bobbing over the wheel and the limbs sticking out from the blue jeans covering we had provided.

“Reaching our store, Breck would sing out lustily for his bottle which we would give him in a hurry, begging him to keep going and take his disagreeable load away. Then he would push along down the bank of the creek and up the other side and away through the Mission garden to his distant destination.

“Breck stuck to his job steadily and persistently, but it was more than a week before he had finished.

“Then the cholera had died out for want of material to work on. No more of the emigrants who were passing along had the disease, and our Indians had vanished.”

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You’re invited to my free Halloween tour of the historic Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo on Monday, Oct. 31. Meet at the Bridge Street entrance at 4 p.m.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library. Dan can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com