Times Past

It was the 'most lawless trail in the West,' and it went right through San Luis Obispo

Outskirts of the town San Luis Obispo when it was known as Barrio del Tigre (town of the wildcat).
Outskirts of the town San Luis Obispo when it was known as Barrio del Tigre (town of the wildcat). Courtesy of the Bancroft Library

San Luis Obispo was known as “Barrio del Tigre,” the “town of the wildcat,” in the late 1850s. In many ways, it resembled the semi-fictionalized Dodge City on episodes of Gunsmoke.

When gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848, hundreds of thousands of people from Mexico, Chile, Australia, China and the United States flocked to California. The only available food source was the huge quantity of beef cattle from the herds started by the Franciscan missions.

These herds were now in the hands of the rancheros, individuals of mixed ethnicity, including several Americans, who had been awarded the former mission lands by the Mexican government. The value of the cattle had been for their hides, producing boots and leather belts for the machines of industry in New England and Western Europe. Now their value had dramatically increased as miners, flush with gold dust and nuggets, sought the immediate reward of what were, beyond all doubt, very tough beef steaks.

Cattle were driven from Central and Southern California to the Mother Lode counties. The rancheros returned with saddlebags filled with gold and became an easy target for the famed bandidos who dominated towns like San Juan Bautista, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

By the 1850s, the El Camino Real from San Jose to San Diego was a deserving successor to the Natchez Trace and other early American byways as the “most lawless trail in the West.”

Despite this unsavory reputation, in 1856 Henry Miller, a German-born artist, travel commentator and diarist, decided to see the strange new land along El Camino Real.

Miller saw several grisly spectacles, including a macabre skeleton tied to a tree along the Nacimiento River at the Monterey County line. He wasted no time in riding on. Each day’s travel brought him new adventure and several narrow escapes.

Miller was not favorably impressed by San Luis Obispo, saying that “the mission (has) metamorphosed (sic) into a little town of about 150 houses, inhabited principally by natives and Mexicans; however quite a number of Americans have also settled here.

“After breakfast, I took a ramble about the mission buildings, some of which are in ruins, though once remarkably strong, constructed of rock joined with very hard cement. In the building adjoining the church is held court at present, in the absence of a better one…

“I was informed by a young and very intelligent American that the American government was very badly sustained here and a jury could not be found to convict a criminal.”

There was “only one American woman in the county” and only “five or six stores” owned by Italians, French, Germans and “old Spaniards.” The once grand orchards and vineyards had been totally neglected for many years.

The town centered on a plaza in front of the mission building where Miller saw a “sun dial placed on a pillar” by the padres. In an era when timepieces were both fragile and expensive, the sun dial was a gathering place for those needing to know the time of day.

On July 1, 1856, Miller left San Luis Obispo, heading south. He was careful to avoid contact with other riders lest they be bandidos.

Today, the neglected vineyard and orchards are built over, but the sundial is a part of the collection in our mission’s museum. You can learn more about it and other aspects of our 246-year-old mission by attending the mission SLO docents’ annual training sessions starting Saturday. They are free and open to the public without obligation to become a docent.

This year’s sessions are as follows:

Week 1: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Old Mission Parish Hall. I’ll be focusing on the pre-Mission era.

Week 2: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 14 in Old Mission Parish Hall. I’ll be describing the Mission period (1768-1832).

Week 3: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 21 in the Old Mission Parish Hall. I’ll focus on the Mexican and American Era (1832–present).

Week 4: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 28 in Old Mission Parish Hall. Michael LaFreniere will do a sample tour and have graduation for our new docents.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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