History of San Miguel Arcángel

At a site halfway between San Luis Obispo and San Antonio de Padua, Fr. Lasuén founded a new mission for the third time within three months. This was San Miguel Arcángel, and the date was July 25, 1797.

The northern half of the mission chain, from San Luis Obispo to Dolores in San Francisco, was now complete. San Miguel had most excellent prospects, for it was located in a flat and fertile area near the juncture of two rivers, the Nacimiento and the Salinas. On the day of their arrival, the guardian fathers found a host of friendly prospective neophytes on hand to welcome them and help with the work of setting up the mission. The padres took this attitude on the part of the Indians as a good omen and events proved they were justified, for San Miguel quickly became a thriving community.

Ink drawing of Mission San Miguel de Arcángel

In six years time, the mission could account for over 1,000 Indian converts. The industrious settlement consisted of many buildings and, as in the other missions, the neophytes carried on a great number of simple trades. Some had become blacksmiths, others masons or carpenters, and the growth of herds of livestock led to the training of soap makers, weavers and leather workers. Hundreds of others worked in the fields, the vineyards or in producing charcoal for use in the tile ovens. In the kitchens and the other workrooms, the women performed the routine duties of providing for the daily needs of all who lived there. The fathers made steady progress among the Indians and the mission prospered without mishap for several years.

In 1806, a serious fire destroyed most of the buildings. In addition, its stores of wool, cloth and leather goods were lost and over 6,000 bushels of grain rendered useless. With the help of other missions, San Miguel soon recovered, and new adobe and tile-roofed buildings replaced those consumed by the fire. A new and larger church was started and by 1816 it stood ready for roofing. However, the beams that were needed to carry the roof structure could be obtained only in the mountains, the nearest of which lay 40 miles away across a rough and trackless terrain. Little wonder, then, that the building was not completed until 1818 and the final decorations added in 1821 under the direction of San Carlos’ artisan-builder, Estévan Munras.

The Mission Bell used at San Miguel Arcángel

Like other inland missions to the north, San Miguel very early developed an interest in the Indians of the valleys of central California. Fr. Juan Cabot, who ruled over the destinies of the mission after 1800, sent a number of expeditions into the central valley with the idea of establishing a mission there. His efforts met with the same hostility that the padres of the other missions encountered, and the project was eventually discarded. After 1820, the increasing conflict between the missions and the civil authorities further discouraged any plans for expansion. Instead of gaining new areas of influence, the Franciscans lost all their material gains to the settlers.

Today the missions, surrounded for the most part by modern brick and stone structures, present a far different picture than they did 125 years ago. Indians of the San Joaquin Valley were actually next door neighbors then, living along the periphery of lands under use by the fathers. An example of the extent of mission holdings is given in a report made by Fr. Cabot in 1827 which states that lands of Mission San Miguel were recognized as extending to Rancho de la Asunción, a distance of seven leagues to the south where they joined the boundary of Mission San Luis Obispo. Fr. Cabot’s account says:

“From the mission to the beach the land consists almost entirely of mountain ridges… for this reason it is not occupied until it reaches the coast where the mission has a house of adobe … eight hundred cattle, some tame horses and breeding mares are kept at said rancho, which is called San Simeon. In the direction toward the south all land is occupied, for the mission there maintains all its sheep, besides horses for the guards. There it has Rancho de Santa Isabel, where there is a small vineyard. Other ranchos of the mission in that direction are San Antonio, where barley is planted; Rancho del Paso de Robles, where wheat is sown; and the Rancho de la Asunción.”

A Spanish league represents a distance of three and one-third miles, which means that San Miguel stood 18 miles distant from its rancho at San Simeon and that its north and south boundaries were nearly 50 miles apart. The fertile fields in this fast area were kept in production by two Franciscan padres, assisted by a handful of soldiers. And San Miguel was far from the largest of the mission holdings; San Luis Rey, for instance, had a rancho at San Jacinto almost 40 air miles away from it.

The beautiful fountain inside the Mission's garden

To keep this extended program in operation, the fathers were dependent upon their converts, not as slaves locked up at night and working out the days under the muzzles of Spanish guns, as some writers seem to believe, but as a community of workmen with a system of authority of their own. Harsh justice was visited only upon those who threatened the general peace and security. It can be admitted, however, that when the husbands were sent out to one of the ranchos for an extended period, the married women under a certain age were housed in the same dormitory where the unmarried girls were locked for the night. The padres could find no other way of dealing with the pagan understanding of most of their charges, who found it difficult to accept monogamy as a principle of the Christian religion they had embraced.

The last Franciscan left San Miguel in 1840 and the last remnants of the mission were sold by Pio Pico in 1846. During the 1860’s and 1870’s, the long monastery building was turned into a series of stores, one of which was the most popular saloon along El Camino Real. In 1878, the property was taken over again by the Catholic Church and the structures gradually redeemed from the results of their long neglect. The restoration project began at that time is still underway and once more San Miguel is being rebuilt by the Franciscans, who returned to the mission in 1928.

Mission San Miguel has the only church in which the paintings and decorations have never been retouched by subsequent artists. The view presented to the visitor, except for the modern luxury of bench pews, is exactly the same as that seen by the Indian converts. In its museum, a great deal of effort has been made to present the tools used in mission industries: a spinning wheel and loom, a beehive oven, fishtraps, branding irons, forging tools, and a tile kiln which is still in operation. One of the most interesting of the exhibits is a “mission window” of the type used before the padres obtained glass. It is a wooden frame, over which cowhide is stretched very thinly, then shaved and greased to increase its translucence. These frames were pegged into the window openings during periods of cold or inclement weather.

An handcart used to carry out daily routine at the Mission

The long and leisurely road that formed El Camino Real is today a roaring highway and many of its travelers speed past Mission San Miguel without pause. But often a traveler, captivated by the beauty of the adobe mission and its lovely garden, is moved to stop and discover for himself the wonderful achievements of California’s true pioneers.