Times Past

Dan Krieger: The archangel and the fleas

The political pundits say that America is engaged in “asymmetrical warfare” with guerrilla-type forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Perhaps the incessant battle between the large and the small isn’t that new a matter. Jared Diamond’s well-written history of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” tells the story of the tiny guys having a profound influence on the course of great military ventures.

Indeed, fleas and mosquitoes have probably killed far more people than have all the armaments since the club and stone ax.

My recent column concerning the 1836 marriage of Ana María de la Guerra and Alfred Robinson reminded me of “the Archangel and las pulgas (the fleas).”

The story is set at the beautiful Mission San Miguel Arcángel in the town of San Miguel. Both the mission and town were named for St. Michael the Archangel, who according to Hebrew scripture, cast Lucifer from Heaven before the beginning of human time.

A visit to Mission San Miguel has always been a special treat. When I was young my family referred to it as “the mission along the highway.” The old, two-lane Highway 101 ran directly in front of the entrance to the mission.

Before air-conditioned automobiles, a visit to the mission church offered welcome respite from the heat of the Salinas Valley on a summer’s day.

The vast interior space of the church makes it visually spectacular.

Large windows provide a great deal of light, even on gloomy days. The space must have intrigued the Catalonian artist Esteban Munras, who arrived from Spain during the early 19th century.

Munras would ultimately settle in Alta California’s capital, Monterey, where a major street and hotel bear his family name. But he left a special gift behind at Mission San Miguel: the greatest amount of largely unretouched interior painting characteristic of the missions as Spanish frontier institutions.

The statue of St. Michael, complete in Roman armor, floats ethereally below Munras’ “Eye of God.”

There is a large and significant collection of paintings along the walls of the church. The 18th century Mexican painting of the mission’s patron saint holds the scales of virtue under the Latin epigram “Quis Sicut Deus” (“He like God” who can discern good from evil).

Father Buenaventura Sitjar located the mission here because of the number of nearby American Indians and the availability of building materials and water. He wrote that there was limestone for quarries nearby and pine trees a short distance away.

During the 1820s, the mission realized most of the hopes of its founders. The mission became the Central California gateway to the San Joaquin Valley.

A number of the early Franciscan residents complained of the damp cold winters and the heat of summer.

The friars soon learned how to deal with arthritic pains by following the practices of the American Indians in employing the mud baths at the hot springs along the banks of the Salinas River.

Even the summer’s heat was eventually dealt with through positive thinking.

Fleas had been the bane of California travelers since the Portola expedition complained of “las pulgas” from San Diego to San Mateo.

Alfred Robinson, a Boston merchant with Bryant, Sturgis and Co., visited San Miguel in 1830, recalling that the mission “is built near the extremity of a small pass through the hill, where the sun casts its burning heat in a degree almost insufferable. They say there, in proof of the warmth of the Mission, that the fleas cannot endure the summer months, and during the heat of the day may be seen gasping upon the brick pavements!”

By ensuring the summer heat, Saint Michael has kept his namesake’s days free of fleas for more than two centuries.

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