Times Past

Dan Krieger: California’s French connection

In the last days of the Bourbon monarchy, the reports from California were read aloud at the Versailles palace soirées of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

At the urging of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the French monarchy played a vital role in winning our independence from England. Even when confronted with national bankruptcy, the French continued to be interested in North America.

The French came to California in 1786, when the French navigator Jean François Cômte de la Pérouse sailed from Alaska into Monterey Bay.

La Pérouse had played a major role in defeating Britain’s Royal Navy in the Hudson’s Bay region during the war of the American Revolution.

His observations on the mission communities in Northern California have been published by Heyday Press under the title “Life in a California Mission.” They form an important — if somewhat controversial — view of Native American lifestyles.

In 1788, La Pérouse’s expedition was lost at sea, but not before his highly literate “Voyage autour du monde” excited the imaginations of thousands of French readers about the possibilities of France annexing the rich land on the Pacific Rim.

French commercial expeditions came to establish trade with the cattlehide-rich missions and Californio ranchers during the 1830s and ’40s. These included August Bernard Duhaut-Cilly (1827-28). His observations of Spanish and Indian life filled more than 500 pages.

Duhaut-Cilly was the first visitor to complain of the vast amounts of tar that seems to bubble up from the ocean bottom along the Central Coast:

“While we went along by this shore, we found the sea almost everywhere covered with asphaltum, now in the form of round flat slabs of some thickness, now in that of large sheets of oil and tar, spread over the water and displaying yellow or blue reflections. The odor exhaled by this stuff was powerful enough to be annoying and make breathing troublesome and difficult.”

Abel Aubert Dupetit-Thouars followed in 1836. He has left us the earliest colored images of grizzly bears and the costumes worn by Mexican civilians in Alta California.

Eugène Duflot de Mofras arrived at Monterey in 1841. De Mofras was convinced that California would soon be taken over by a foreign power. His report led to the establishment of the French Consulate in Monterey in 1843.

The government of King Louis Philippe was very interested in the prospect of being the great power fortunate enough to gain control of the abundant lands of the Golden State.

De Mofras gives us the last full report on Mission San Luis Obispo at the very end of the Franciscan era in 1841.

De Mofras arrived just before the departure of Friar Ramon Abella from our mission. The elderly, sick priest died several weeks later at Mission La Purísima near Lompoc.

The reports of these explorers and commerce seekers prompted hundreds of Frenchmen to come to California during the 1830s and 1840s.

Jean-Louis Vignes came to the Los Angeles area about 1831. He planted vineyards in and about the present site of Los Angeles’ Union Station and Post Office Annex. He was the first truly commercial vintner in the state.

Today, Vignes Street off Cesar E. Chavez Street (the former Macy Street) near the main Los Angeles jail marks a dismal tribute to the founder of our wine industry.

Hundreds of Basques from the border area between Spain and France came to California during the Spanish and Mexican periods.

They were invited by the missionaries to tend the enormous herds of sheep and goats, which grew larger in number just when the Mission neophytes were dying off in great numbers from exposure to the white man’s diseases.

Early California governors Arrillaga, Borica and de Solá were Basque. While the Basques spoke Spanish as well as their own unique language, they also spoke French and increasingly identified with new immigrants from France.

The Basques quickly became some of the largest landholders in California.

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