The Salinan people at Mission San Miguel demanded political change.
On July 31, 1839, English-born William E. P. Hartnell, visitador general for the California missions, was traveling north from San Luis Obispo. He was fluent in many languages, good at bookkeeping and a naturalized Mexican citizen.
Earlier that year, he was commissioned by Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado to visit the missions to examine how well the process of secularization was being carried out.
In 1834, California’s governor, José Figueroa, ratified Mexico’s secularization laws. These laws were intended to end the mission system over a 10-year period.
The mission’s buildings and lands were to be given to the Indians. In most instances, the Franciscan padres had not sufficiently trained the native people in what the European concept of “ownership” of property meant.
Politically appointed “administrators” and speculators either seized mission properties for themselves and their friends, or tricked the Indians into ceding their “rights” to Mexican interlopers.
The San Miguel neophytes intercepted Hartnell at Rancho Paso de Robles. They demanded the removal of Ynocente Garcia as administrator.
They said that Garcia was seizing the best lands and mission property: the ranchos at Santa Rosa with its fine horses and cattle in present-day Cambria; Rancho Asuncion (Atascadero), with its beautiful house and garden; the granaries and fields of wheat and barley at Paso de Robles; and the house, granaries, chapel, the large flock of mission sheep and grain fields at San Simeon.
They told Hartnell that they would gladly give the inland properties at Estrella, Cholame, Canamo, Guerguero and certain coast lands northwest of San Simeon to Garcia.
They said that Garcia was already allowing local rancheros to slaughter and take the hides from mission herds on these ranchos.
The Salinans’ clearly stated complaint impressed Hartnell, who had a real concern for the welfare of the Indian peoples, the intended beneficiaries of the dissolution of the missions.
On Aug. 1, 1839, Hartnell arrived at San Miguel. Padre Juan Moreno had written complaining that he had never received his salary from Garcia as directed. The impoverished padre was obliged to use his meager savings to buy knives for the Salinan vaqueros to carry out the annual “matanza” (slaughter of animals).
Padre Juan said that mission warehouses contained “no more than the poles.”
When inventoried a little more than two years before, the mission seemed prosperous, including shops for iron work, hats, shoes, woodworking and weaving, a soap house, soap-making vats and a separate adobe tannery building. The vineyard had impressed New England merchant Alfred Robinson in 1834 with its 4,000 bearing vines.
Hartnell wrote the governor that he left Garcia with instructions forbidding the harsh lashings of Salinans for minor offenses, orders recalling the Salinan craftsmen and musicians to the mission complex from the fields and cattle range where Garcia had sent them, and orders to pay the padre’s salary and repair the mission roof.
When Hartnell checked conditions at San Miguel four months later, not one of his orders had been followed, and the distressed Salinans had added a new grievances.
Although Hartnell was impressed with the political astuteness of the Salinans, he knew that he was witnessing a tragedy throughout California. The cattle hide business was too lucrative an attraction for outsiders such as Ynocente Garcia to ignore.
Ultimately Hartnell discovered the governor to whom he was reporting was an active participant in the treachery. Threatened by the rancheros and betrayed by his governor, Hartnell resigned as visitador general.
On Aug. 26, 1840 he wrote to Manual Jimeno Casarin, secretary of state under Gov. Alvarado, from Mission San Buenaventura:
“My most esteemed brother: From my official communication today you will see that things have gone badly with the charge.” Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.