“The dark had come so quickly that Beckwourth tripped over something in the kitchen doorway. He kicked at it and it didn’t move. When he kneeled next to the obstacle and ran his fingers over it, he realized it was a corpse. Beckwourth sprang to his feet and went back to his mount to retrieve his pistols from their saddlebags. Lighting a candle, he went back inside the Reed family’s quarters, the candle held high in one hand and a pistol in the other. He found a second body. It was a woman, bloodied as badly as (murdered mountain men) Jedediah Smith or Hugh Glass had been. Then another. It was another woman.”
Jim Gregory’s “San Luis Obispo County Outlaws: Desperados, Vigilantes and Bootleggers” makes history come alive as he recounts the discovery of the first mass murder in California history only minutes after the violence occurred.
Jim Beckwourth knew something was amiss as he approached Mission San Miguel in the early evening darkness on Dec. 5, 1848. Normally, there would have been the smells of cooking and the sputtering light of tallow candles, discernible at a distance. Soon the children of William Reed, whose family lived in the secularized mission, would come running out to greet him. There was only silence.
Beckwourth, a former slave, mountain man and sometime Crow Indian chief, was a regular visitor to Mission San Miguel. He was one of the first civilian mail carriers in California.
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Gen. Stephen W. Kearny, the acting military governor of California, had directed Lt. Henry Halleck to set up a mail system from San Francisco to San Diego in April 1847. Beckwourth’s circuit began in Monterey and ended in Nipomo at the Dana Rancho, where he would exchange mail bags with a rider from Los Angeles.
Beckwourth was just returning with the Southern California mail pouch when he made the horrific discovery. Realizing that the crime had just been committed, he quickly rode to the nearest ranch. He returned with about 15 vaqueros and discovered that the perpetrators had placed the bodies of their 10 victims in the old mission carpenter’s shop. The shop was filled with sawed wood, which the baddies tried to ignite, hoping a fire would destroy evidence of their crime. But the fire had gone out.
Beckwourth rode north to Monterey to report matters to the military authorities. California wasn’t yet a state or even a territory, simply a military district. When he arrived at the Presidio, he met Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman, shouting “Leftenant (sic), they killed them all, not sparing even the baby!”
Military governor Richard B. Mason dispatched Lt. Edward O.C. Ord to San Miguel. Ord encountered rancheros John Michael Price, the alcalde of San Luis Obispo, and Francis Z. Branch, who were returning from gold country. They, too, had stopped at the mission and discovered the bodies still stacked in the carpentry shop.
Price alerted William G. Dana at Rancho Nipomo, telling him to watch out for the miscreants. Price also sent Trifón Garcia to Santa Barbara because the presumed gang might be headed there.
Gregory’s book says that New Orleans, the deadliest city in America between 2010 and 2015, had a rate of about 46 murders per 100,000. By comparison, the murder rate in San Luis Obispo County in the 1840-50s was the equivalent of 178 per 100,000.
Gregory’s account of the criminal activity in our region between 1848 and the Prohibition era makes for exciting reading. His rendition of the San Miguel Mission murders builds on the research of Ralph J. Leonard in the mid-1970s, about when Gregory was my student.
Readers are invited to Gregory’s free talk and book signing in the 1850s-era courtroom and juzgado, Mission San Luis Obispo’s Parish Hall, at 7 p.m. Oct. 11. It is sponsored by the Mission Docents. Gregory will also give a talk at the San Luis Obispo County Railroad Museum, 1940 Santa Barbara Street in San Luis Obispo at 11 a.m. Oct. 14, as part of the Central Coast Railroad Festival.
Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.