Times Past

A poisoned bear meat BBQ greeted some of SLO’s early explorers

An 18th century portrait of Captain Juan Gaspar de Portolá in the Instituto de Estudis Ilerdencs, Tarragona, Spain.
An 18th century portrait of Captain Juan Gaspar de Portolá in the Instituto de Estudis Ilerdencs, Tarragona, Spain.

The expedition to locate Monterey Bay was nearly terminated by poisoned bear meat shortly after entering the county 250 years ago.

King Carlos III’s personal representative, Visitador-generál José de Galvez, wanted the capital of Alta California to be at Monterey Bay. Because of inaccurate maps made 165 years earlier, no one knew exactly where Monterey Bay was. Most of the overland expedition that had traveled from Loreto in Baja California, including Father Junípero Serra, were too lame or ill to march north from San Diego.

The search was left to Captain Juan Gaspar de Portolá, Father Juan Crespí and Miguel Costansó, a Catalan naval engineer, cartographer and cosmographer. Portolá led a party of 63 soldiers and Indian porters. They left San Diego on July 14, 1769, blazing a trail, which for the most part became El Camino Real, linking 19 missions between San Diego and San Francisco.

On Aug. 30, 1769 they crossed the Santa Maria River entering what is now San Luis Obispo County. They hadn’t eaten meat for several days. On Saturday, Sept. 2, they observed numerous bear tracks and succeeded in shooting a tall, scrawny bear next to a lake.

Costansó called this “Round Lake,” but Father Crespí reported that others in the expedition called it El Oso Flaco, the “skinny bear.” Today, motorists can visit Oso Flaco Lake much as it was in 1769. It is west of Highway 1 and three miles north of Guadalupe.

The bear had evidently consumed an alkaloid poison, perhaps intentionally put in meat by natives to entice it. The alkaloid numbed the legs and made the bear easier for the Chumash to kill with their primitive weapons. The Chumash avoided consuming the lower legs. But the expedition was unaware of the poison.

The morning after consuming the bear meat, which was “well flavored and good,” the men had difficulty standing. The first Central Coast barbecue consumed by Europeans was poisonous! In retrospect, they could reflect upon the story of Greek philosopher Socrates, when he was sentenced to death. When Socrates was forced to drink hemlock, an alkaloid poison, he was told the poison would first effect his legs.

Moving north through the Nipomo Mesa and onto Arroyo Grande Creek, they encountered a prosperous village governed by a powerful chieftain whom the soldiers nicknamed El Buchon. Many historians write that this was because he had an enormous goiter, one of several translations for the Spanish word “buchon.”

Later, Chief Buchon was instrumental in assisting the missionary settlement at San Luis Obispo.

The expedition received some food from Buchon, but Portolá was keenly aware of the food shortages that had plagued his group since it climbed the original San Marcos Pass northwest of Santa Barbara. He also realized they were closer to the elusive Monterey Bay. He needed to follow the crest of the coastal hills as much as possible.

This led him to a view of “Bear Hollow” or La Canada de Los Osos.

The 250th anniversary of the European discovery of our region by Portola needs to be placed in context. After all, Chumash and Salinan peoples had occupied this space for more than 8,000 years!

Phil Tillman will give a lecture at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County on Portolá’s arrival in the Central Coast at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6.

He will base his multi-media presentation on Alan K. Brown’s exhaustive “A Description of Distant Roads: Original Journals of the First Expedition into California, 1769-1770,” Lynn H. Gamble’s “The Chumash World at European Contact,” Jan Timbrook’s “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California,” and M. Kat Anderson’s “Tending the Wild — Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.”

I am struck by Anderson’s argument that the first Europeans who visited California “did not find a pristine, uninhabited wilderness but rather a carefully tended ‘garden’ that was the result of thousands of years of selective harvesting, tilling, burning, pruning, weeding, and transplanting.”

Tillman is a retired veterinarian, making goat’s milk cheese in the Arroyo Grande Valley. History is one of his many interests.

Call the History Center at 805-543-0638 for more information about the free event.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Phil Tillman’s talk at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. Also, no reservations are needed for this free event.

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