Imagine nearly drowning as you land at Avila Beach.
Instead of helping you, a miserly rancher, acting like “the lord of all he surveys,” tells you to keep away. He offers to rent you a horse at outrageous rates to ride off his land along the dusty creek bed into San Luis Obispo.
That was the way it was during the 1840s and ’50s.
Today, the eclectic beach towns of San Luis Obispo County are a special treat. Families can enjoy the seashore and many other attractions without breaking their budget. That access to the superb views and beaches demonstrates the wisdom of 1972’s Proposition 20, known as the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act.
The cattle rich rancheros of Mexican California were noted for their hospitality to travelers – but not at Avila.
Virtually every foreign visitor heaped praise on the Californios for their generosity to guests. Unfortunately, several negative reports focus on a rancher at the very gateway to San Luis Obispo: Don Miguel Avila.
He was the grantee for the Rancho San Miguelito, where Avila Beach is today. Avila’s reputation had spread to New England by the early 1840s. Harvard University’s Houghton Library contains the sea journal of Capt. William Dane Phelps, master of the ship alert operated out of Boston by Bryant, Sturgis and Co. Phelps was in the business of buying cattle hides from ranches between San Diego and San Francisco.
He had great respect for most of the rancheros. But he was clearly stunned by his experience at the mouth of San Luis Obispo Creek.
Phelps recalls a visit to “the Rancho of Don Abelard [sic], a miserly and indolent old fellow, the owner of the pleasant and fertile valley in which he stays. He has about 1,200 head of cattle, and ... the farm of 15 square miles. Although to all appearances the soil can yield great crops, not one foot of it is under cultivation.”
Phelps was writing of a visit to San Luis Bay in May 1842. He never learned Spanish pronunciation and given the similarity of the “b” and the “v” in Spanish and his description of the setting and size of the rancho, he must be referring to Miguel Avila.
Phelps goes on to say how Avila paid an Indian laborer who tended cattle in the corral and supplied the rancho with fish “with which the bay abounds... He said that he was hired by the month at a rate of $4 per month and was paid in rum at $3 per bottle.”
Phelps adds, “The poor fellow could not understand how it was that he had steady employment, and yet was always in debt. There was always a bottle of rum scored against him.”
We might disregard Phelps’ commentary as Yankee racism were it not for another account, written 11 years later, that is included among some newspaper clippings in UC Berkeley’s famed Bancroft Library. The author, probably the English born Walter Murray, founder of this newspaper, recounts his arrival at San Luis Bay in 1853:
“I got ducked on landing and then had to pay nearly a dollar a mile for a horse to take me to the town ... nine miles ... short of which there is scarcely any accommodation. An old Californian keeps the house on the beach and being ‘lord of all he surveys’ there, keeps all other people away.
“He will give neither [decent] accommodations to wayfarers nor let anyone else give them ... a sort of dog-in- the-manger way of doing business which draws down many a blessing on his pericranium.”
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 email@example.com.