The Mission San Luis Obispo as it looks today

The Mission San Luis Obispo as it looks today

The date on the front of the Mission San Luis Obispo reads 1772, but what you see today took more than a half century to build—and another century for various parts to fall down, get demolished, burn, and finally be restored.

Father Serra showed up in la Cañada de los Osos, the Valley of the Bears, in late August 1772, founding the mission by the Northern Chumash village of “Tixlini” (now spelled tilhini) on September 1 by putting up a cross and saying Mass under a hastily improvised ramada, an open canopy. He took off the next day for San Diego, where he had to convince three ships to sail north and resupply Monterey. Serra didn’t show up again for almost two years.

San Luis Obispo Mission 1830

The Mission San Luis Obispo in a drawing by Edward Vischer from 1865, with its original finished appearance after 1830

This first mission site was described as being above two creeks, so probably half a  mile west of where the mission is now, possibly smack in the middle of the 101. The name tilhini is thought to mean “isolated” in Northern Chumash and to have referred to the village being between the two creeks (San Luis Obispo and the variously names Brizzolara/Potrero/De La Huerta/Garden/Stenner).

Serra left Father José Cavaller and five soldiers, as well as two Indian converts from Baja California, in a vain belief that the latter could communicate better with the people of tilhini than the Spanish could. The Chumash people, who stretch from Malibu to Morro Bay, possess eight different languages and innumerable dialects, none of which have any resemblance to what is spoken in Baja.

San Luis Obispo Mission 1870

A photograph about 1870 of the Mission San Luis Obispo’s stone bell loft and entrance porch, which were built after the 1830 San Luis Obispo earthquake and pulled down in 1878 after an earthquake in Cholame

The little group that Serra left had six pounds of flour each, some chocolate (always important), and a box of sugar. But the people of tilhini, who must have been puzzled but tolerant, by all contemporary accounts kept them alive—enough to do some basic building. The first Europeans who showed up and wrote about the mission—Father Francisco Dumetz, passing through a few months later, and Father Francisco Palou, joining the tiny community in 1773—both mention structures with roofs but fail to mention walls, so they sound like ramadas. Palou describes a stockade and pole and tule church, separate habitation for the fathers and soldiers, and a granary.

Jacal San Luis Obispo 4

These are structures typical of the Mission San Luis Obispo in its earliest years: ramadas and jacals, mostly of sticks and thatch with no apparent adobe

By March 1776, however, when Juan Bautista de Anza blew through with two hundred settlers on their way from southern Arizona to Monterey, walls had entered the picture.
De Anza and the expedition’s Father Pedro Font both kept diaries. Font regrets the delays approaching the mission because of mules bogging down and people falling off them, but he goes into joyous detail about their welcome with bells and gun volleys, with the priests in vestments chanting the Te Deum. De Anza observes their welcome was “such as may be imagined with people who spend all the days of their years without seeing any other faces than the twelve or thirteen to which most of these establishments are reduced,” and adds that some of his settlers, “who wished to avoid wetting their feet, and hoping that their mounts would bring them out safely, paid well for it by getting much wetter.”

Jacal San Luis Obispo 3

These are structures typical of the Mission San Luis Obispo in its earliest years: ramadas and jacals, mostly of sticks and thatch with no apparent adobe

Font describes the mission as being on a height right by an “arroyo de bellisima agua,” which could describe the mission more or less where it is now. He then goes on to describe the mission buildings in Goldilocks fashion as a “jacalon” (parish hall and priests’ quarters), “jacal” (church), and “jacalitos” (huts for the converted Indians). Jacal, from Nahuatl xacalli, is a hut made of thin poles attached to thin beams, generally with adobe walls, though probably piled earth rather than bricks.

The jacalon had rooms at the corners with a central hall lit by the front and back doors, the latter of which opened to a little patio, kitchen, and corrals. The jacalitos of the converted Indian muchachas and doncellas were next to the church and locked at night so the soldiers wouldn’t get “disorderly” with them. The huts of the converted male Indians and families were, along with the soldiers’ quarters, around the half-plaza in front.

Jacal San Luis Obispo 2

These buildings match Father Font’s 1776 description of the mission buildings: “tule, palisades, and a bit of adobe”

Font’s enthusiasm runs a bit dry when he describes the construction of the buildings. They were “curiosamente hecha” (curiously made) of tule, “pañizada” (presumably palizada—i.e., poles), and some adobe “because there isn’t anything else available,” and “consequently they are at risk of fire.”

Font was prescient. In late November, Yokut raiders set fire to the thatch with – in true Hollywood fashion – flaming arrows, and every building but the church and granary was
destroyed. Subsequent fires (apparently accidental) struck in the late 1770s and early 1780s. By 1780, according to a letter from Father Serra, Mission San Antonio, north of San Luis, introduced roof tile, which was already common in Mexico. The other California missions adopted it, too, and fire risk went down. By the early 1790s, Mexican craftsmen on government contract arrived to transform the missions with proper construction. Mission San Luis Obispo’s adobe church was completed in 1793, and the familiar convento and its colonnade on the plaza were done later the same year.

Jacal San Luis Obispo 1

These buildings match Father Font’s 1776 description of the mission buildings: “tule, palisades, and a bit of adobe”

In the early 1800s, utilitarian buildings were added in back of the mission and the round adobe columns in front were replaced with square stone ones. The mission quadrangle was completed in 1819. The next year new bells arrived from Lima and went up in the church’s front wall. But just as the Mission San Luis Obispo was completed—nearly a half-century after the 1772 date of its founding—anti-clerical Mexico won its independence from pious Spain, which put everything in peril. The last major addition to the mission, its unique stone bell loft and porch, built after an 1830 earthquake damaged the adobe church front, marked the beginning of decline.

—James Papp, Secret SLO