Times Past

Notes on a 1776 trip to SLO

The de Anza expedition of 1776 resembled a traveling town.
The de Anza expedition of 1776 resembled a traveling town.

‘The women wear toupees and the men have the earlobes perforated.”

Father Pedro Font was describing the appearance of Native Americans in San Luis Obispo in 1776. It sounds a bit like a gathering of teenagers in 2013.

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

It was the most important event in Spain’s 52-year effort at colonizing Alta California, a remote outpost of the empire. Its successful completion led to the founding of both San Francisco and San Jose, which was no small achievement given the hardship of the journey from Guadalajara.

The Font diaries offer us a rich vignette of life in our county more than 200 years ago. In fact, the mission was barely four years old. The original mission was centered farther south along San Luis Creek from its present position, along Dana Street. But by 1776, it was approximately at its present location.

I’ve edited the narrative of Font’s diary beginning just north of the Santa Maria River at what is now called Oso Flaco Lake.

On March 1, 1776, Friday, “I celebrated holy Mass. We set out from La Laguna Graciosa at 8 in the morning, and at 5:30 in the afternoon we halted at the Rancheria del Buchon.”

The rancheria is named Buchon, he wrote, because, when the first expedition of Juan Gaspar del Portola came along, an Indian chief named Buchon lived there. He was famed, wrote de Anza, as “valiant” in the Santa Barbara Channel region on account of the damage he had done by his wars there.

The chief’s wife still lived in the village, he wrote and another concubine of his became a Christian and was then married to one of the soldiers whom the native pagans recognized, and to whom they paid as tribute a portion of their wild seeds; but the chief himself was already dead.

“Buchon” is the Spanish word for goiter. Both Buchon Street in San Luis Obispo and Point Buchon north of Port San Luis were named in honor of this Chumash chieftain with his highly visible goiter.

“This locality has very clear water and much firewood, which served us very well. The beach, which we followed on this whole journey, lacks shells very much. I saw very few, although some were singular and exquisite.”

On March 2, the party moved out from the Rancheria de Buchon at 8 in the morning, and a few hours later arrived at the Mission of San Luis Obispo.

“The day was serene but cold,” he wrote. “At daybreak a messenger had been dispatched to the mission announcing our coming. 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.”

There they saw oil from some springs of pitch that seep out of the ground.

The expedition was traveling through Price Canyon, where motorists can still smell the oil.

“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.”

The expedition was crossing Marsh Street at about the intersection with Higuera Street, a site that was memorably flooded in 1969 and again in 1973.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.