Times Past

In old California, ox-drawn carts hauled water, wood and wine

A cart, or carreta, at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in 1950.
A cart, or carreta, at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in 1950. Courtesy photo

California’s historic 600-mile road connecting the 21 missions bears the romanticized name El Camino Real, Spanish for “The Royal Road” or the “King’s Highway.”

It was in fact one of a number of overland links between viceroyal capitals such as Mexico City and the remote outposts of Spain’s colonial empire.

Ours began at Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, present-day Loreto on the Gulf of California in 1769. Native American guides led the Juan Gaspar de Portolá expedition north to San Diego and then on to search for Monterey Bay, the intended capital of California. The guides followed footpaths that had been used for thousands of years. This trail was not for sissies. Nor was it for wheeled vehicles.

Sixty-five years later, at the end of the Franciscan mission era, mule trains remained the only method of transporting goods overland. They were remarkably efficient in carrying even fragile works of art destined for the missions over rugged trails.

But for local use in and around the mission settlements, packing and unpacking a mule would have been far too time-consuming. The missionaries directed the Native American foremen at their carpentry shops to construct springless wagons, called carretas. Primitive in appearance, carretas were used for hauling barrels of water, firewood and — at wine-producing missions like San Luis Obispo — barrels of wine and aguardiente (brandy).

Carretas also were used to transport aging Franciscans such as Father Narciso Durán at Missions San José and Santa Barbara and Father Luis Antonio Martinez at Mission San Luis Obispo. Carretas also were used for bringing women and young children to church.

When I was young, carretas were the first objects to catch my eye when I was taken on a mission visit. That memory was shared by the United States Postal Service, which issued a new 7.6-cent Transportation Series pre-canceled stamp for nonprofit mailings featuring the carreta wagon on Aug. 30, 1988, in San Jose.

Guadalupe Vallejo’s account of the “wash-day expeditions” to Agua Caliente (geyser-fed hot springs) in Sonoma Valley in the 1830s tells us a lot about how carretas were used:

“The night before, the Indians had soaped the clumsy carreta’s great wheels. Lunch was placed in baskets, and the gentle oxen were yoked to the pole. We climbed in, under the green cloth of an old Mexican flag which was used as an awning, and the white-haired Indian ganan (ox-driver), who had driven the carreta since his boyhood, plodded beside with his long garrocha, or ox-goad.

“The great piles of soiled linen were fastened on the backs of horses, led by other servants, while the girls and women who were to do the washing trooped along by the side of the carreta. Our progress was slow, and it was generally sunrise before we had fairly reached the spring … The steps of the carreta were so low that we could climb in or out without stopping the oxen.”

Our docent interpreters want to replicate a carreta that would catch the eyes of the thousands of fourth-grade visitors we receive at Mission San Luis Obispo. They asked our resident artist and master art restorer, Nageh Bichay, to design a carreta for the mission garden. They are asking for support to have the replica built.

Please consider sending a tax-deductible donation to The Carreta Fund, c/o Mission San Luis Obispo, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

You will bring a lot of smiles and interest in history to the faces of the fourth-graders who travel from the towns of the San Joaquin Valley to visit our mission.

Did you ever want to give tours, share our history or learn more about the early mission days? The mission docents are planning a “spring training” on the following Saturdays: April 16, 23 and 30 and May 7 and 14. Come to learn about our early history and the pioneers at this mission.

We will meet at 9:30 a.m. in the Serra Room, formerly the refectory of the Immaculate Heart Sisters’ convent in the Parish Office complex. Sessions will be approximately 90 minutes. Please join us for these informative sessions.

There is no commitment to be a docent if you attend, but we think you will want to join what has become a community of history lovers.

Docents come from every background and don’t have to be Catholic. Come and be a part of the mission of our mission.

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.