Times Past

Times Past: Grim sights on a lawless trail

The Mission Pueblo of San Luis Obispo in 1856 as sketched by artist Nageh N. Bichay from an original drawing by Henry Miller.
The Mission Pueblo of San Luis Obispo in 1856 as sketched by artist Nageh N. Bichay from an original drawing by Henry Miller.

During the 1850s, our own El Camino Real, today’s Highway 101, was known as “the most lawless trail in the West.”

The ranchero era marked both the best of times and the worst of times for our region.

Following Mexican independence in the 1830s, the mission lands were secularized. In many instances they were taken over by hungry squatters from Sonora and New Mexico. Some of these claims were legitimized by the Mexican government as “land grants.”

In a futile effort at containing the lawless elements, the provincial authorities encouraged the perfection of extranerjos — “foreigners” from England, Scotland, France, Belgium and the United States.

A foreigner was “perfected” when he accepted the Catholic religion and became a Mexican citizen. Once he bore the title “Don Perfecto,” he was able to marry one of the daughters of the several dozen influential Mexican families and apply for his own share of the plundered mission lands and thousands of head of cattle.

This ranchero system broke down with the American conquest. One month before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848, “selling” California to the United States, gold was discovered on the “American Branch” of the Sacramento River.

The world rushed into the goldfields of the Mother Lode. The miners needed to be fed.

What became Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties were known as the “cow counties.” Almost devoid of people, these counties supplied the beef to feed the gold seekers.

The 49ers had to eat. There were long trail rides to “Fat City” — Stockton on the San Joaquin Delta where the gaunt, weary steers were given a few final meals of beer brewers’ mash to fatten them up for marketing. The ranchers made a great deal more money than the vast majority of miners.

The vast wealth of the ranchers was a lure to criminals from throughout the world. The age of the California bandido began in earnest. Neither the Monterey-based U.S. military government, which administered California from 1847 until 1850, nor the ensuing state government possessed the resources to quell the crime wave.

By the 1850s, the El Camino Real from San Jose to San Diego was a deserving successor to the Natchez Trace and other early American byways as the “most lawless trail in the West.”

Despite this unsavory reputation, in 1856 Henry Miller, a fine artist, travel commentator and diarist, decided to take this route, evidently for sightseeing purposes.

Miller saw a number of grisly spectacles, including a macabre skeleton tied to a tree along the Nacimiento River at the Monterey County line. He wasted no time in riding on. Each day’s travel brought him new adventure and a number of narrow escapes.

Miller sketched our mission pueblo as it was in 1856. The original drawings are in the University of California’s Bancroft Library.

Nageh Bichay, a worldclass artist and curator from Egypt, used Miller’s sketches to form the backdrop for a new exhibit room in Mission San Luis Obispo’s Museum.

Bichay’s mural creates an appropriate atmosphere for the display of materials from the ranchero era, including the Serrano family’s elegant silver saddle, given to the mission by Frances Bressi.

The exhibit will premiere Sept. 30 from 2 to 4 p.m. Nageh and the curatorial committee, Donna Young, Tony Herrera, John Phillips and Richard Ochs, have placed artifacts from the ranchero era in times past in historical context. Set within the 225-year-old walls, visitors will have a truly unique experience.

As every hospitable ranchero would say, “¡Todos ustedes son bienvenidos!” You are all welcome!

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