Early SLO Snippet Compendium

The following items form a compendium of “snippets”(1-3) – each of them being an edited excerpt(4) from a contemporary, primarily first-person, account relating to the history of the immediate area of Town of San Luis Obispo, CA. The objective has been to provide a reasonably reliable basis for the study of its early history in a form that can be made widely available for historical scholarship.

These snippets span a one-century period from the establishment of the Spanish Mission under the charge of the Catholic Church until the mid-1870’s, seemingly the last stages of San Luis Obispo’s transition from a predominantly “Californio” to an American community(5). Within this period nations imposed three significant transitions in military, political, economic and cultural domination(6). The changes came unevenly, and sometimes created havoc, presenting an interesting crucible for the study of the history of this remote and isolated community — a relative “backwater”(7).

These various snippets can be thought of as “voices” speaking out to us from that period. However, unfortunately, one must realize that all “voices” have not been recorded, or are preserved and available locally in the English language; there are gaps among them8; they are frequently contradictory; and it is not to be inferred that these “voices” are free of bias — quite the contrary! Furthermore, a review of history texts published over the succeeding generations reveals varying shifts in the authors’ emphasis, interpretation and points of view.

There are very few independent accounts from the Spanish Mission period after its initial establishment. The administration of each mission was subject to a well- defined regimen of record-keeping and reporting, but, of course, the original documents are in Spanish script and not readily available to the public(9). The lack of other first-person accounts may be due to the fact that most travel during that period by people literate enough to have published reports was up and down the coast by boat.

The hope for this assembly of historical snippets is that the reader can learn San Luis Obispo history without layers of interpretation. Each source is close to the “voice” of the period and can be evaluated on its own merit by the reader.

[The Compendium is organized in the approximate order of the time period.]

1772, Francisco Palou

Chapter XXXII of Francisco Palou’s “Life of Padre Fray Junipero Serra”, as translated by C. Scott Williams, 1913

“….he took with him … Father Fr. Joseph Cavalier for the establishing of the Mission of San Luis. They traveled twenty-five leagues farther and came to the mouth of the Canyada [sic] of the Bears (where, as I have said, the soldiers made a slaughter of these animals in order to provide food for the people during the time of the famine). Here they found a very desirable site, with good lands for the raising of grain, and a beautiful clear stream of water for irrigating. The timber was prepared for a large Cross and when it had been set up they venerated it and formally took possession of the land. This act of founding the Mission took place on the 1st of September of the year 1772, Mass being said in a little shelter of branches by our Venerable Father Junipero. He left the following day to continue his journey to San Diego……….

“One year after the Mission had been founded, on the occasion of my visit to it, there were there twelve Christians and with the four families of the Californian Indians and a few converted young men whom I left behind, the Mission was increased both in equipment and in the number of believers. With this help the number of gentiles converted continued constantly to increase so that when the Venerable Father President died, there had been baptized six hundred and sixteen converts. This Mission of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is situated upon a hill, down the side of which flows a stream, with a plentiful supply of water for the irrigating of the lands which lie close below and which produce abundant harvests, not only enough for the maintenance of all the Christians but also to supply the garrisons, so that in exchange clothing has been bought for the Indians. The fertility of the soil is such that from whatever seed you may plant you may be sure of an abundant harvest…….

“……This stretch of country is well populated with pagan tribes whose evangelization from these Mission centers will not be easy until intermediate stations have been built, and also because these people are not accustomed to move away from their tribal lands, and further because of the difference in their language. At almost every step we find a different dialect, so that, thus far, we have no two Missions in which the people speak the same tongue. The climate of San Luis is very healthy, the winters being cold and the summers hot, but not in excess. The weather in the town is sometimes a little disagreeable on account of the winds which are noticeable, due to the elevation of the place……..”

1776, Pedro Font

Vol 3, No 1, “The Anza Expedition of 1775-1776, Diary of Pedro Font”, Edited by Frederick J. Teggart, 1913

“….The mission of San Luis [Obispo] is situated in a beautiful spot on a little rise beside stream, near the Sierra de Santa Lucia, and three leagues from the sea, with very fertile lands. The Indians of this Mission are clean, neat, and much better looking and seemly than those of any other nation I have seen.”

1836, Faxon Dean Atherton

Paraphrase of his account of his stop in San Luis Obispo, pages 21-22, First Trip to Southern California, June 1836; “The California Diary of Faxon Dean Atherton”, 1964, California Historical Society.

Mr. Atherton’s account of his brief stop at Mission San Luis Obispo in June, 1836, presents a colorful, but unflattering, description of both its Padre and Administrator, saying that “….the Mision is now in a most miserable, dirty condition…..” and likely to “…..[tumble]……if not repaired”.

1840, Eugene Duflot deMofras

Paraphrase of pages 198-202, “Travels on the Pacific Coast…..”, Vol 1, Eugene Duflot de Mofras, originally published 1844 in Paris; translated & edited by Marguerite Eyer Wilbur, 1937.

This account gives a summary of the evolution of the Mission, noting that its building is “….now in a dilapidated condition..” with “…fewer than100 [Indians] now remain…”, “…some living in the ruins of the mission”.

1846, Edwin Bryant

“What I saw in California: being the journal of a tour by the emigrant route …, 1846-47”, Edwin Bryant, 1849

A battalion of mounted riflemen under the command of Lieutenant-colonel Fremont, 428 men, left San Juan on November 30, enroute to Los Angeles]

December 14.—The battalion commenced its march on foot and in a heavy rain. The mud is very deep, and we have been compelled to wade several streams of considerable depth, being swollen by the recent rains. At one o’clock a halt was ordered, and beef slaughtered and cooked for dinner. The march was resumed late in the afternoon, and the plain surrounding the mission of San Luis Obispo was reached in the pitchy darkness of the night, a family in the caňada having been taken prisoners by the advance party to prevent them giving the alarm. The battalion was so disposed as to surround the mission and take prisoners all contained within it. The place was entered in great confusion, on account of the darkness, about nine o’clock. There was no military force at the mission, and the few inhabitants were greatly alarmed, as may well be supposed, by this sudden invasion. They made no resistance, and were all taken prisoners except one or two, who managed to escape and fled in great terror, no one knew where or how. It being ascertained that Tortoria Pico, a man who has figured conspicuously in most of the Californian revolutions, was in the neighborhood, a party was dispatched immediately to the place, and he was brought in a prisoner. The night was rainy and boisterous, and the soldiers were quartered to the best advantage in the miserable mud houses, and no acts of violence or outrage of any kind were committed.

The men composing the California battalion, as I have before stated, have been drawn from many sources, and are roughly clad and weather-beaten in their exterior appearance; but I feel it but justice here to state my belief, that no military party ever passed through an enemy’s country and observed the same strict regard for the rights of its population. I never heard of an outrage, or even a trespass being committed by one of the American volunteers during our entire march. Every American appeared to understand perfectly the duty which he owed to himself and others in this respect, and the deportment of the battalion might be cited as a model for imitation.Distance 18 miles.

December 15.— The rain fell in cataracts the entire day. The small streams which flow from the mountains through, and water the valley of, San Luis Obispo, are swollen by the deluge of water from the clouds into foaming unfordable torrents. In order not to trespass upon the population at the mission, in their miserable abodes of mud, the church was opened, and a large number of the soldiers were quartered in it. A guard, however, was set day and night, over the chancel and all other property contained in the building, to prevent its being injured or disturbed. The decorations of the church are much the same as I have before described. The edifice is large, and the interior in good repair. The floor is paved with square bricks. I noticed a common hand-organ in the church, which played the airs we usually hear from organ-grinders in the street.

Besides the main large buildings connected with the church, there are standing, and partially occupied, several small squares of adobe houses, belonging to this mission. The heaps of mud and crumbling walls outside of these, are evidence that the place was once of much greater extent, and probably one of the most opulent and prosperous establishments of the kind in the country. The lands surrounding the mission are finely situated for cultivation and irrigation if necessary. There are several large gardens, enclosed by high and substantial walls, which now contain a great variety of fruit-trees and shrubbery. I noticed the orange, fig, palm, olive, and grape. There are also large enclosures hedged in by the “prickly-pear” (cactus) which grows to an enormous size, and makes an impervious barrier against man or beast. The stalks of some of these plants are of the thickness of a man’s body, and grow to the height of fifteen feet. A juicy fruit is produced by the prickly-pear, named luna, from which a beverage is sometimes made called calinche. It has a pleasant flavor, as has also the fruit, which, when ripe, is blood-red. A small quantity of pounded wheat was found here, which, being purchased, was served out to the troops, about a pound to the man.

Frijoles and pumpkins were also obtained, delicacies of no common order.

December 16.— A court-martial was convened this morning for the trial of Pico, the principal prisoner, on the charge, I understood, of the forfeiture of his parole which had been taken on a former occasion. The sentence of the court was that he should be shot or hung, I do not know which. A rumor is current among the population here, that there has been an engagement between a party of Americans and Californians, near Los Angeles, in which the former were defeated with the loss of thirty men killed.

December 17.—Cool, with a hazy sky. While standing one of the corridors this morning, a procession of females passed by me, headed by a lady of fine appearance and dressed with remarkable taste and neatness, compared with those who followed her. Their rebosos concealed the faces of most of them, except the leader, whose beautiful features, I dare say, she thought (and justly) required no concealment. They proceeded to the quarters of Colonel Fremont, and their object, I understood, was to petition for the reprieve or pardon of Pico, who had been condemned to death by the court-martial yesterday, and whose execution was expected to take place this morning. Their intercession was successful, as no execution took place, and in a short time all the prisoners were discharged, and the order to saddle up and march given. We resumed our march at ten o’clock, and encamped just before sunset in a small but picturesque and fertile valley timbered with oak, so near the coast that the roar of the surf breaking against the shore could be heard distinctly. Distance 7 miles.‌

1847, William G. Dana

Excerpt from Letter from William G. Dana to Governor Mason, Nipomo, June 6, 1847, in Unbound Documents, Archives of California, Vol. 63, p. 168, As quoted on page 121 of “To Discourage Me Is No Easy Matter, The Life of California Pioneer William Goodwin Dana”, Joseph L. Dana, 2007

“Society is reduced here to the most horrid state. The whole place has for a long time past been a complete sink of drunkenness and debauchery. Alcalde’s orders made nugatory, by want of force, to restore order. The more respectable reside on their farms at some distance from the mission, and it is morally impossible that they could unite [in case of an outbreak] in season to be of any service.”

1849, A. B. Clarke

Pages 126-127, “Travels in Mexico & California”, A. B. Clarke, 1852

“July 17th. We arrived at the Rancho Napoma, kept by an American, before breakfast, where we obtained milk and penole. We afterwards again came in view of the sea. There are numerous small streams of excellent water running from the mountains. Distance 28 miles.

July 18th. We arrived at San Luis Obispo, the ‘capital of a county, formerly a state of that name. The mission buildings are in the shape of a large compact square, and with a few other buildings, form a small village. They are occupied by Indians and Mexicans. There is one variety store, and several grog shops. Flour 12 cents, and sugar 50 cents per lb. There was a proclamation posted up, issued by Gov. Riley, setting forth the existing form of government in California, and calling for a general convention on the first of September, and also ordering the election of alcaldes in the different departments of the state, &c.

“There were camped near here forty soldiers, on their way north, to quell the Indians, who are making attacks on small parties, and have killed eight Americans. We camped three miles from San Luis.

“July 19th. We remained in camp. Oats are plenty, and we find it necessary to recruit our animals. Several parties have passed, returning from the mines. It is reported that foreigners are ordered to leave the mines within a month. We have been meeting parties for several days past.

“July 20th. We left the camp early, arid crossed the mountain into a valley,….”

1850, T. Butler King

Excerpts from “The Report of Hon. T. Butler King on California”, March 1850. This report was made to the US House of Representatives in the name of the President in response to his having been requested to do so in April, 1949, by the US Secretary of State as “bearer of dispatches and special agent to California”.

“Previous to the treaty of peace with Mexico, and the discovery of gold, the exportable products of the country consisted almost exclusively of hides and tallow. The Californians were a pastoral people, and paid much more attention to the raising of horses and cattle than the cultivation of the soil.


“It is quite impossible to form anything like an accurate estimate of the number of Indians in the Territory. Since the commencement of the war, and especially since the discovery of gold in the mountains, their numbers at the missions, and in the valleys near the coast, have very much diminished. In fact, the whole race seems to be rapidly disappearing.

“The remains of a vast number of villages in all the valleys of the Sierra Nevada, and among the foot-hills of that range of mountains, show that at no distant day there must have been a numerous population, where there is not now an Indian to be seen. There are a few still retained in the service of the old Californians, but these do not amount to more than a few thousand in the whole Territory. · It is said there are large numbers of them in the mountains and valleys about the head-waters of the San Joaquin, along the western base of the Sierra, and in the northern part of the territory, and that they are hostile……..

“The small bands with whom I met, scattered through the lower portions of the foot-hills of the Sierra, and in the valleys between them and the coast, seemed to be almost the lowest grade of human beings. They live chiefly on acorns, roots, insects, and the kernel of the pine burr; occasionally, they catch fish and game. They use the bow and arrow, but are said to be too lazy and effeminate to make successful hunters. They do not appear to have the slightest inclination to cultivate the soil, nor do they even attempt it–as far as I could obtain information – except when they are induced to enter the service of the white inhabitants. They have never pretended to hold any interest in the soil, nor have they been treated by the Spanish or American immigrants as possessing any.

“The Mexican government never treated with them for the purchase of land, or the relinquishment of any claim to it whatever. They are lazy, idle to the last degree, and, although they are said to be willing to give their services to anyone who will provide them with blankets, beef, and bread, it is with much difficulty they can be made to perform labor enough to reward their employers for these very limited means of comfort.

“Formerly, at the missions, those who were brought up and instructed by the priests made very good servants. Many of these now attached to families seem to be faithful and intelligent. But those who are at all in a wild and uncultivated state are most degraded objects of filth and idleness.

“It is possible that Government might, by collecting them together, teach them, in some degree, the arts and habits of civilization; but, if we may judge of the future from the past, they will disappear from the face of the earth as the settlements of the whites extend over the country…….”

1850’s, Samuel A. Pollard

“San Luis Obispo Tribune”, August 12, 1887

1855 (circa), Juanita

1858, Walter Murray

Late 1850’s, Walter Murray

Late 1850’s, Charles Johnson

1861, William Brewer

1863, John S. Hittel


1860’s (late), Georgiana Parks Ballard

1868, Dr. Anderson

1869, J. P. Caldwell

1870, Walter Murray

1870, Stephen Powers

1871, The Overland Monthly

1874, Henry L. Oak

1874, Nov, SLO Tribune

1875, Jan, SLO Tribune


  1. Most of these “snippets” are brief, hopefully succinct, quotes, with full text for many available on-line, e.g., Google Books, Advanced Book Search.
  2. with the intention that: It be freely copied and distributed.Corrections, updates, and additions be sent to Editor for appropriate action.It be somewhat of a “work in progress”, with other like-minded people sending references to appropriate additions. [If interested, check periodically for updates.]
  3. Introduction freely distributed with enclosed accounts thought to be free of copyright protection or “fair use” as paraphrased.
  4. Except for two referenced accounts which have copyright protection.
  5. By then the Native Americans had been almost completely marginalized, if not decimated.
  6. Spain, Mexico, and the United States
  7. Its relative isolation continued for about another twenty years until the completion of the railroad connection over La Cuesta, having being primarily dependent upon the stage coach during this later period.
  8. E.g., even though Native American people lived in the area for extended periods, there are few, if any, extant texts authored by them, or even contemporary accounts recorded about them.
  9. It is understood that many of these records are extant in Church repositories (e.g., Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library). For Mission San Luis Obispo a reasonably-detailed summary of these records and reports has been collected and published in “Mission San Luis Obispo in the Valley of the Bears”, Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, 1933