Times Past

Los Osos' tasty grizzly bears bring mission to San Luis Obispo County

At Fort Tejon State Historic Park, the grave of French fur trapper Peter Lebeck, who was killed by a grizzly bear in 1837.
At Fort Tejon State Historic Park, the grave of French fur trapper Peter Lebeck, who was killed by a grizzly bear in 1837.

The cowardly vandals who defaced Paula Zima’s wondrous statue of a grizzly bear at the entrance to Los Osos wouldn’t have stood a chance had the creature been alive.

I have childhood memories of my grandmother taking me to the tree and grave of French-Canadian fur trapper Peter Lebec who died a gruesome death “by grisly bear” in 1837. You can still visit the Lebec tree and grave site, which are part of Fort Tejon State Historical Park along Interstate 5 south of Bakersfield.

The grizzly bear, Ursus arctos californicus, was the largest creature in California. Distinguished by its size, weight, brown fur and humped shoulders, the bear was feared and honored by Native Americans, early explorers, trappers and miners. They were known to grow as large as 2,200 pounds.

The last recorded California grizzly was shot in Tulare County in 1924.

Paula’s statue tells an important story: The way in which our region became essential to the survival of European settlement along the northern Pacific coast.

The Portola Expedition, the first overland exploration of Upper California, was starving when it encountered the large grizzly bear population of La Canada de los Osos in September 1769. The meat from three of the enormous bears allowed the party to travel on as far as San Francisco Bay and trace a land route to Monterey.

As a result, missions were established at Monterey, San Antonio and San Gabriel, joining the first at San Diego.

During the spring of 1772, the two northern missions experienced near starvation. Late in May, Governor Pedro Fages led an expedition of 13 men to La Cañada de Los Osos to hunt grizzly bears.

Fages and his men spent three months in Los Osos Valley and dispatched 25 loads (about 9,000 pounds) of salted bear meat and air dried jerky to missions San Antonio and San Carlos in Monterey County. Fages reported to the viceroy that this meat came from shooting 30 bears.

This assurance of supplies of food in the region probably caused Serra to switch his plan for founding a mission at San Buenaventura to the creation of a missionary base near La Cañada de Los Osos. Serra justified the change, at least partially, on reports the Fages’ hunters had committed numerous illicit acts with the native women in the Los Osos region. A mission in the region might serve to protect the Indians from the abuse of roving soldiers.

Fages returned to Monterey and was about to leave for San Diego. Serra decided to accompany him and then board a ship bound for the west coast of Mexico. Once at Mexico City he intended to confer with Viceroy Antonio de Bucareli, complaining of the soldados mistreatment of the Indians in Monterey and Los Osos.

Serra was seeking the removal of Lt. Pedro Fages as Military Governor of Alta California.

Serra threatened to use his position as Inquisitor General of the province of Alta California to bring charges of heresy against Fages for his defending the misdeeds of the soldiers. That wasn’t something that was taken lightly in Spain's Colonial Empire.

On the way to San Diego, the Father Presidente established a mission near the Valley of the Bears. In mid-August, 1772, a “mule train . . . bearing the supplies, the vestments and other church goods. . . .” for the founding of the new mission, departed from the Presidio in Monterey.

On a grassy knoll between two creeks, Serra and Fr. José Caveller founded Mission San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, 1772. Serra and Fages left behind two leather-coated soldiers, three blue coated Catalonian Volunteers and two Native American artisans from Baja California and “fifty pounds of flour, three pecks of wheat for sowing, a quantity of chocolate, and a box of brown sugar for which later they might obtain wild seeds” from the local Native Americans.

Serra appreciated having a reserve food supply for the northern missions in the brown furred, hump-shouldered, Ursus arctos californicus.