History of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

In the Valley of the Bears, so named by Don Gaspar de Portolá and his men on their first expedition from San Diego north in search of Monterey Bay in 1769, Father Junípero Serra founded the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, fifth in his chain of Franciscan stations, on September 1, 1772.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Progressing slowly on their march northward, Portolá and his soldiers encountered many ferocious bears between the mouth of the Santa Maria River and the present site of San Luis Obispo, and killed some of them for food. In their graphic diaries of the journey, Fathers Juan Crespi and Francisco Gomez expressed astonishment at the large number of bears. When starvation threatened the early settlements, they wrote, a hunting party sent out by Portolá returned with more than 9,000 pounds of bear meat. It was at the scene of this hunt, a few months later, that Mission San Luis Obispo was founded.

In August of 1772, Father Serra received word at his mission in Monterey that the San Carlos and the San Antonio had arrived in San Diego with supplies. The two ship captains shared a dark view of their previous journeys to the north, and had mutually decided that San Diego would be as far north as they would venture. They forwarded this opinion to Fr. Serra with the suggestion that supplies be taken overland from the southern port. Fr. Serra immediately set off for San Diego, determined to persuade at least one captain to sail to Monterey.

In order to capitalize further on his journey, he took another Franciscan and gave him the responsibility of establishing the mission at San Luis Obispo. He was reluctant to leave only one father at the mission, as he feared that the military might seek to make a rule out of this exception, in order to reduce the stature of the missions. But Fr. Junípero was a man of impulse and his decisions usually turned out very well. The mission grew. In early contact with the Indians, it reaped a harvest of goodwill that Spanish generosity had sown by sharing the meat with the hungry natives after the bear kill some months before.

Hostile Indians set afire the Mission on multiple occasions

San Luis Obispo was attacked by hostile Indians on three separate occasions prior to 1774, and the thatched roofs of the mission buildings were set afire by blazing arrows. Up to this time, most of the missions were using thatched roofs above their adobe walls. As a result of many fires, the padres developed a roof tile to protect the structures. Soon all the missions benefited from this step, and tile replaced thatched roofs throughout the chain.

Roof tiles were added to prevent fires

An interesting sidelight is the fact that this mission, though one of the smallest, contributed its share of an assessment levied against the California Franciscans in 1782 by the King of Spain to help him carry on his war against England. It sent $107 to Spain.

From 1794 to 1809, building operations at San Luis Obispo were quite extensive. In 1804, the number of neophytes reached a peak of 832 and, by the end of that year, the records showed a total of 2,074 baptisms and 2,091 deaths. In May, 1807, the mission was designated as one of six in which the California padres could make their annual retreats for spiritual exercises. Beginning in 1811 and continuing through 1820, the missionary fathers erected numerous dwellings for their Indians, made many improvements and additions to the mission, and, in 1819, finished construction of the quadrangle. Arrival of two mission bells from Lima, Peru, a year later was a particularly glorious occasion.

Following Mexico’s revolt against Spain in 1810, all the California missions were forced to contribute food and clothing to the army, which the government ceased to support. At San Luis Obispo, Fr. Luis Martinez often found himself and his Indian wards suffering privation because of the constant demands of the military.

Fr. Martinez was a jovial soul and his wit and good humor won him widespread fame in those early days. His sarcastic comments on the idleness of the soldiers stirred up trouble in 1816, but two years later he was restored to the good graces of the army, when he valiantly led a company of his Indians to Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano many leagues distant to help defend the missions against two shiploads of South American privateers.

Legend has it that Fr. Martinez, on the occasion of a visit from a distinguished general and his bride, arranged to have the entire barnyard population march in a solemn review before his celebrated visitor. Unfortunately, the doughty padre’s quick temper and outspoken criticism led to difficulty with the governor. Eventually, his enemies grew strong enough to drive him from the country. In 1830, after 34 years of service, he was forced to leave his beloved San Luis Obispo. The account tells of his sorrow at the parting. but as the mission fell victim to land reformers only five years later, it was perhaps a happier termination than the later day would have brought him.

A detail of the entrance

The story of the ruin of San Luis Obispo under successive Mexican governors is similar to that of the other missions of California, all of which has been fully recorded. It is interesting here to note that the Spanish occupation of California was one of the best documented colonizing efforts ever made by a civilized nation. Considering the primitive nature of their environment, the number of records, accounts, census figures and personal diaries produced by the early Californians is truly amazing. From the very first years, a constant stream of exports flowed back to Mexico City, the viceroy, the Franciscan College of San Fernando, and to friends and former companions. The volume was so great that one of the chief points of conflict between the civil and religious leaders was over the question of postage payment. Some of this undoubtedly resulted from the eagerness of the governors and the mission leaders to acquaint their superiors with their own interpretations of the issues in dispute. In any event, not even the slightest incident seems to have escaped the record books.

Native Indians at work in the Mission

Today, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is an important factor in the life of the city of San Luis Obispo, which proudly calls itself “The City with a Mission.” The mission continues to serve as a modern parish church for the many Catholics in the area. The original padres’ residence has been turned into an extraordinary mission museum which contains an extensive collection of early photographs and other items, which present a vivid picture of the way of life in California before the turn of the century.