Times Past

A smuggler priest, an aborted firing squad and other intriguing moments in SLO Mission history

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Floods, fires, a priest arrested for smuggling, an aborted firing squad and a foreign invasion are part of the history of Mission San Luis Obispo.

The earliest site, off Dana Street near the Promontory office complex, had been subject to extreme flooding, destroying the original 1772 structures.

Four years later, Junípero Serra and Father Fermin de Lasuén met at the ruins of the recently burned, second mission site. Serra explained the urgency of rebuilding our strategically located mission with a tile roof and on even higher ground.

The fire was the result of Native Americans, probably Yokuts from the San Joaquin Valley, raiding and throwing flaming lances on to the thatch roofed structures between Dana and Higuera streets.

Lasuén, Serra’s future successor, accepted temporary reassignment to assist Father José Caveller, spending the next two months moving the Mission to its present site on the Plaza.

In 1830, Father Luis Antonio Martinez, arguably the most colorful and outspoken of all the Franciscans in California, was arrested for smuggling in front of the Mission.

Sixteen years later, just before dawn, a firing squad assembled in what is now Mission Plaza. Don José de Jesus “Totoi” Pico had been sentenced to death for violating his earlier promise not to bear arms against the U.S. At the last minute, Pico’s life was spared by John C. Fremont, the commander of the 400-member California Battalion that had arrived the evening before.

Fremont’s magnanimity in pardoning Pico, who was either directly related or a compadre to half the Californio families in Southern California, may have been judicious. Pico joined Fremont on the march to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. His presence may have ensured a relatively peaceful journey through hostile territory.

On Jan. 11, 1847, Fremont received word that the leader of the Californios, Gen. Andres Pico, a cousin of Jesus Pico, wished to confer with him at the deserted adobe of Tomas Feliz in what is now Studio City. The resulting “Capitulation of Cahuenga” ended hostilities in California.

Mission San Luis Obispo is among the few missions at the center of a modern, thriving city. It is also the symbol at the center of both our city and county seals, designed by Robert Reynolds. It either hosts or forms the backdrop for many of our civic events.

Nevertheless, we take it for granted. The “gift” that we have in our midst amazes visitors from elsewhere.

Tens of thousands of visitors, including schoolchildren from towns throughout California, flock to our 245-year-old Mission. They are anxious to hear about its history.

Readers of “Times Past” can have the pleasure of introducing people of all ages to the rich history of our region. Besides school tours, the docents offer daily tours. Old Mission San Luis Obispo is offering docent training beginning April 22. All sessions will be in the Serra Room in the parish office from 9 to 11 a.m. with exceptions noted. You don’t need to commit to serving as a docent to attend the sessions.

On Saturday, April 22, I’ll be speaking on the pre-mission era.

On Saturday, April 29, master bell ringer and docent Michael LaFreniere will lead a church walk-through. We’ll meet at the front of the church at 9 a.m.

On Saturday, May 6, Roger Power will speak on the founding of the missions up to secularization, 1769-1832.

On Saturday, May 13, Alex Gough will talk on history of the mission from secularization 1832 to the present, followed by a museum tour and discussions.

I began training docents at our mission in the late 1980s. More than 100 talented individuals have since been involved. Next week, I’ll be writing of two real docent giants, Jan Potter and Cathy Velardi.

The docents have become a family for one another. We hope you will want to join us.

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, now part of the California Missions Foundation. Reach him at slohistory@gmail.com.