Times Past

Mission San Luis Obispo a link to one of California’s largest earthquakes, tsunamis

Ruins of the original Mission de la Purisima Concepción de Maria Santisima, destroyed by an 1812 earthquake, in Lompoc.
Ruins of the original Mission de la Purisima Concepción de Maria Santisima, destroyed by an 1812 earthquake, in Lompoc.

History offers us many reminders that we live in a place Spanish soldados in 1769 described as “Tierra de los temblores,” or the “land of the shakes.”

Last week in Times Past, we wrote about a man who may have dropped dead from fear in the Los Angeles Plaza during 1857’s historic Fort Tejon earthquake because he recalled the terrible events of 1812.

There were two massive quakes that year. The first, on Dec. 8, destroyed the church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, killing 40 people. The second was in the Santa Barbara Channel on Dec. 21.

Through Father Luis Gil y Taboada, witness to one of the greatest historically recorded earthquakes and possible tsunami in Central and Southern California geologic history, Mission San Luis Obispo has a connection to that event. His grave is marked at the right base of the sanctuary.

First, a bit about Taboada (1773-1833).

In December 1830, he replaced Father Luis Antonio Martinez, who was expelled from Mission San Luis Obispo by the Mexican governor, José María Echeandía, earlier that year.

Taboada found that conditions had deteriorated considerably at San Luis Obispo since the departure of Martinez. He made repairs to the buildings, but continuing ill health restricted energy of the then 60-year- old.

In December 1833, he attempted traveling to Rancho Santa Margarita to say mass for Native Americans there who were engaged in planting the winter grain crop.

Evidently, the journey over the rugged Cuesta trail sapped what remained of his health. At the foot of the altar in the Asistencia chapel, he suffered a violent attack of dysentery and began vomiting blood.

Father Juan Cabot was summoned from San Miguel and administered last rites before Taboada died Dec. 15.

But 21 years earlier, in 1812, he was stationed at Mission Santa Barbara when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake occurred. What appears to be the most complete historical record we have of a major tsunami in our region documents events following that temblor.

The earthquake had its origins near Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel. Within several minutes, it leveled Mission La Purisima to “rubble and ruin, presenting the picture of a destroyed Jerusalem.”

Missions Santa Ines, Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Presidio, Mission San Buenaventura (Ventura) and Mission San Fernando, covering a radius nearly 100 miles distant from the epicenter, were severely damaged.

Angustias de la Guerra Ord (1815-1890) told oral historian Thomas W. Savage of a conversation she had in 1832 with Taboada, probably in San Luis Obispo:

“Speaking of Fr. Luis Gil Taboada, he told me that when he was in Santa Bárbara in 1812, the earthquakes were very strong… While he was at the presidio of Santa Bárbara, there was such a strong earthquake that the sea withdrew and turned into what appeared to be a tall hill. He and all the people from the presidio took off running toward the mission, singing litanies to the Virgin.

“I jokingly asked him why he had not gone to see what was at the foot of that hill.

“He told me that they drove a pole with a ball tied to it into the ground at a place where the wind did not blow. But, the ball moved continuously for eight days. It stopped moving for two or three hours and then it began to move again. This lasted for about fifteen days.”

Fr. Taboada also reported that a sea otter trapping ship, The Charon, at Refugio, was carried up a canyon by the wave and returned to the sea, apparently without any great damage to ship or crew.

Ironically, the ship was named after Charon, who in Greek mythology ferries the dead across the river Acheron.

Although, Taboada’s earthly remains may have been removed from the Mission. That’s another story for Times Past. The grave site continues to link us with one of the great catastrophes in California’s history.

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. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.