Times Past

Mission San Luis Obispo priest pays a price for speaking his mind

Lt. Romualdo Pacheco arrests Father Luis Antonio Martinez in front of Mission San Luis Obispo on Feb. 3, 1830, depicted in a drawing by Alexander Harmer and A.B. Dodge in 1911.
Lt. Romualdo Pacheco arrests Father Luis Antonio Martinez in front of Mission San Luis Obispo on Feb. 3, 1830, depicted in a drawing by Alexander Harmer and A.B. Dodge in 1911.

he Mexican governor of Alta California claimed that Father Luis Antonio Martinez, at Mission San Luis Obispo from 1798 to 1830, was guilty of sedition, smuggling and probably treason.

He was both a paternalistic pastor and a genuine protector of the rights of Native Americans against greedy newcomers. Foreign visitors regarded him as a generous host and a good businessman.

Martinez’s legacy includes our famed 1818 mission bells made by Manuel Vargas in Lima, Peru, and the iconic five-arched campanile, or bell tower, built to hold those bells.

He was Spanish born and inordinately proud of that fact. When the flag of Spain was hauled down for the last time in September 1822 and replaced with the “Eagle and Serpent” of Mexico, Martinez refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new government.

During the time of the Mexican War of Independence from 1810 to 1821, California had been left on its own.

Without supplies from Mexico, the soldiers at the four presidios in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco and the Franciscan missions had to fetch for themselves.

During this time, Martinez built up a healthy trade with the Russian American Co. based in Sitka, Alaska.

He traded tallow, hides, dried beef, wine, locally distilled brandy, wheat and barley for beeswax candles, iron tools, Napoleon brandy from France that he served to his guests and, most important, silver Russian-minted trading coins called piasters.

He also traded with the Hudson’s Bay Co., a company that was entering southern Oregon and Northern California in search of fur and pelts via the Siskiyou Trail. He entertained the agents of these companies with lavish meals at the Mission.

Sometimes he would display some of his silver coinage that he may have later melted down to destroy evidence of its origins. This is the probable source of the legend that he had his own silver mine.

By 1825, he began to clash with Jose Maria de Echeandia, the first governor of Mexican California.

Echeandia wanted the wealth of the missions to go to his political supporters, leaving the missionized Native Americans without resources.

The battle of words and letters culminated in 1830 with a young Mexican soldier shouting, “Viva la Republica!” Martinez shouted, “Go to hell with your republic!”

On Feb. 3, 1830, Echeandia signed a warrant for the arrest of Martinez, and Echeandia charged him with treason, sedition and smuggling.

Martinez was specifically accused of training the Native Americans in the use of firearms. Arrested in front of the Mission by Lt. Romualdo Pacheco, Martinez was taken to Santa Barbara, where he was tried by Echeandia’s council of war, called a junta de guerra. He was placed aboard the English brig Thomas Nowlan and deported to his Spanish homeland by way of Peru, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and the Philippines.

In his memoirs, Mariano Vallejo described escorting Martinez aboard the ship. The priest walked very slowly, “... but as he was old and corpulent, was not hurried. When we were alone in the cabin the padre said: ‘Perhaps you thought me drunk. Not so, my son.’ ” He proceeded “to show that his clothing was lined with gold,” and Vallejo observed that “he was glad to know that the friar had made provisions for a rainy day and promised to keep his secret.”

Once he was in Madrid, Martinez gave some money to help build a church, but there is little evidence supporting Vallejo’s probable exaggeration of the quantity of gold.

Since 1993, the Old Mission community has recognized the hospitality of Martinez with La Mesa de las Padres, which supports historic preservation of the mission.

On Saturday, Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. there will be a full sit-down dinner and entertainment catered by Del Monte Cafe with fine foods and wines appropriate to Early California’s best-known host. The “padres” will be serving wines from Tolosa Vineyards, honoring Martinez’s efforts at viticulture.

Tickets are $115 and can be purchased by calling 805-781-8220.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com