Times Past

Mission San Miguel’s Father Juan Cabot well-versed in dealing with drought

Extensive buildings constructed by Father Juan Cabot at Mission San Miguel Arcangel as drawn by Henry Miller in 1856.
Extensive buildings constructed by Father Juan Cabot at Mission San Miguel Arcangel as drawn by Henry Miller in 1856.

The versatile missionary’s life’s work took him from a Mediterranean island to the remote shores of the Pacific Coast.

Mission San Miguel’s Father Juan Cabot was called “El Marinero” (“the mariner”), by English, Russian and Yankee hide and tallow traders who anchored at Rancho del Playa de San Simeon.

I’ve written several articles concerning Cabot over the past 35 years. I’ve always been impressed by his understanding of the California environment. Cabot (1781-1856) was, like Junípero Serra, born on the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean, which has a climate very similar to that of Coastal California. Most of the year, it is a land of little rain.

Cabot had the knowledge and experience to construct dams, reservoirs and aqueducts to bring water to settlements and farms in dry years.

He knew that when rains come, you need to be prepared to deal with them. The villages of Majorca resemble what the mission pueblos must have looked like: churches, homes, shops and warehouses constructed from a combination of mud brick, fired brick and stone with fired tiles for the roofs.

Water was brought to Spanish villages in ditches and aqueducts then stored in cisterns. Buildings were also designed so that water doesn’t set at the base of the soluble adobe walls. Instead, water is channeled to pass around or underneath structures.

Cabot was among the third generation of Spanish Franciscans in California. Serra and his successor as Father President, Fermín de Francisco Lasuén, laid out the beginnings of the mission system in Spain’s remote outposts. Cabot was a leading builder in the field.

Boston hide and tallow trader Alfred Robinson notes in his 1834 account of life in California that Cabot may have suffered from rheumatism.

The cold, foggy climate of the upper Salinas Valley worsened his problems.

Cabot coped with his physical infirmities by constructing a shelter house and a place for bathing over the sulphur springs at Paso Robles.

Many other mission friars prohibited bathing because of its association with the Native American religious rituals. Cabot saw that bathing was necessary to alleviate suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.

The therapeutic mad baths would later strongly influence the development of the town of Paso Robles.

Cabot had been at Mission La Purisima Concepción near Lompoc where Father Mariano Payeras had built up a healthy trade in cattle hides and tallow with British traders. Following a trail that had been used by the Salinan peoples for thousands of years, neophytes from Mission San Miguel cleared and constructed the cart trail that would be adequate to haul Cambria pines from the headwaters of Santa Rosa Creek. This crude cart trail was extended to the ocean and to the Bay of San Simeon, making use of the trade routes used by the Salinan for millennia.

The sandy beaches near San Simeon were perfect for moving cargo. By 1830, coves along the coast near Rancho Santa Rosa were used as “drops” for hides to be picked up by schooners taking part in the illegal trade along that part of the coast. Hides were hauled to the edge of the cliff above the landing cove and were dropped to the sandy beach below.

State archaeologist Glenn Farris excavated the site of a two-room house and a spot for cattle, horses and breeding mares that was constructed near the punta at Rancho del Playa de San Simeon in 1814. It was the ancestor of the harbor later used by Senator George Hearst and his more famous son, William Randolph Hearst.

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I’ll be speaking about “San Simeon, Its Growth, Industries & Famous People,” at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cambria Historical Society. The event is now sold out. To join the wait list call Penny at 805-927-1442.

Dan Krieger is 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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