Times Past

Dan Krieger: Missionary’s fear of fire was soon realized

Fires have changed the appearance of San Luis Obispo since the mission settlement was founded in 1772.

The Rev. Pedro Font accompanied the second Juan Bautista de Anza expedition that was bringing 198 settlers and more than a thousand head of cattle overland from western Mexico to San Francisco Bay by way of what is now Tucson, Ariz.

On March 1, 1776, the expedition emerged from Price Canyon into the Edna Valley.

Font writes:

“The day was serene but cold. … On emerging from a cañada (canyon), about a league from the place, we passed along the foot of a hillock, in the midst of the rocks of which we observed oil (on the) road (from) some springs of pitch that originate there.”

The missionaries wrote that the Chumash name for the tar was “pizmo.”

“Afterwards we entered the plain, named for San Luis, where there are some marshy places with pools of water. In one of these, which is the worst, the mules sank down, and some of the men fell off, which caused some delay.”

Lower Marsh Street still lived up to its name in rainy years such as 1969, 1979 and 1983.

“From the Mission came the Fathers in charge, Fr. Jose Cavaller and Fr. Pablo Mugártegui, to receive us. When we reached the Mission, awaiting us at the door of the church, vested in cope and thurible (an incense burner on a chain during special liturgies) in hand, stood Fr. Juan Figuer. While the bells were sounded and the guards fired a salute we entered the church singing the Te Deum (“Thanks be to God”), and thus our arrival was the cause of mutual and very great rejoicing.

“The Mission is situated in a beautiful place on a slight elevation close by an arroyo of most excellent water, near the Sierra de Santa Lucia, and about three leagues from the ocean. The land is very fine and fertile.

“The Mission buildings consist of a large quadrangle constructed of palisades (upright tree branches). It contains in the middle of the wing a square reception room, and four apartments or divisions, one on each corner of the reception room.

“This latter has two doorways through which it receives its light, one by which one enters the sala or reception room, the other through which one goes into a small patio or court where are the kitchen and corrals.

“Apart from this is another … shack of palisades, which serves as the church. To one side are some shacks of palisades, or apartments, which serve as habitations for others.”

Font describes the monerjo, or monastery where unmarried young neophyte women lived.

“They are under the instruction and care of an elderly woman, the wife of a soldier … (she) teaches them to sew … and they … appear such as though they were little Spaniards.

“In front of the church are the soldiers’ quarters, and the huts, or rancheria as they call the collection, of the Christian Indians, which form half a plaza.

“However, all these buildings, though neatly constructed, are of tules and palisades and filled in with mud, because there are no means to build them in another way. Hence they are liable to be fired.”

Font’s fear of fires for the tinder dry building material was realized when our mission was torched in an Indian raid in December 1776.

All of the structures were burnt to the ground. From Monterey, the Rev. Junipero Serra directed that the mission should be rebuilt of adobe and stone with a fired tile roof.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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