Mission San Miguel Arcangel

Like every other graduate of California’s public schools, I learned about the Spanish missions in fourth grade by building a model out of cardboard and sugar cubes. But unlike most of my classmates I kept an interest in the subject after my voice changed, and went on to discover a lot of things that my teachers never mentioned. Did you know, for instance, that the soon-to-be-saintly Father Serra was in fact a notorious flagellant who liked to preach the gospel stripped to the waist, scourging himself with chains and burning his flesh with hot candle wax? Or that each of those quaint little mission cemeteries is actually a mass grave, packed with the bones of thousands of natives? No wonder the 4th grade lesson plan focused on arts and crafts.

Over the years I’ve managed to visit most of the 21 mission sites, and last weekend I cut another notch in my traveling stick, touring the long-shuttered Mission San Miguel Arcangel, just north of Paso Robles. Nearly destroyed by earthquakes, it has been closed to the public since the San Simeon quake of 2003, and only recently reopened. While most of the complex is still a private retreat for Franciscan monks, visitors can once again enter the main church and tour the adjoining wing of the quadrangle, which dates back to 1816.

Several things about Mission San Miguel are striking, and combine to make it well worth a visit. First, the location – surrounded by rolling oak hills, its pastoral setting has changed very little since its founding in 1797. Unlike other sites in more populated areas, this one is in the middle of nowhere, and it doesn’t take much Photoshop work to visualize it as it must have looked 200 years ago. Second, and also thanks to its remote location, there hasn’t been much demand for its real estate, so it remains surrounded by a good portion of the original mission grounds.  Third, the place has never seen much renovation or updating, and remains more-or-less true to its original form. Despite two centuries of fire and earthquakes you are still looking at original structures, not reproductions, and it’s a rare opportunity to view original  architecture and artwork. The elaborately painted interior of the mission church, in bold murals and colorful geometrics that seem at once neoclassical and neolithic, offers one of the finest surviving examples of this kind of decorative art, credited to the Catalan artist/ranchero Esteban Munras and “Salinan native American artists.”

Along with its obvious cultural, artistic, and architectural significance, Mission San Miguel has another historical claim to fame – it was the site of one of California’s earliest and grisliest mass murders. And I’m not talking about the 2,249 recorded Indian burials in the mission cemetery. In December of 1848, after the mission had been secularized and sold off to private interests, it was the home to the English sailor William Reed and his Californio family. Reed, who had recently returned from the gold fields after a profitable trip selling sheep to the miners, got a little too talky about his financial successes while entertaining a group of visiting gringos. They split his head open with an axe, took his gold, and proceeded to murder the entire family and staff. Mail courier James Beckwourth later discovered the hacked and partially burned bodies of eleven people in the old mission, including the Reeds’ unborn child.  The proto-Mansons were tracked down by a posse of local rancheros and executed.

To see more of my photos of the mission church and grounds, go here. For more general information about the California missions, check here.

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4 Responses to Mission San Miguel Arcangel

  1. […] Mission San Miguel Arcangel (The So-Called Expert) […]

  2. Dave says:

    Excellent blog, enjoyed the good read.

    As a Californio history buff, I was deeply immersed in the history of Spanish California while living in Southern California in predominantly Latino neighborhoods for the first two decades of my adult life (went down to go to university, somehow got entrenched). Now that I’m back living in Northern California, and getting re-acquainted with Northern Cal as an adult reader and interpreter of history and culture, I have come to a greater appreciation of what the Spanish accomplished with the Mission system.

    Yes, underneath all the “good intentions” it basically amounted to cultural genocide. But it was not DELIBERATE cultural genocide. It was not DELIBERATE murder and mayhem. The Franciscans regarded the indigenous population as people with souls (albeit, in the Spanish perception, child-like and in “need” of salvation).

    In contrast, the indians living north of Spanish influence fared much, much worse. The Gold Rush brought every manner of yankee riffraff streaming into Northern California, and these guys were not good people. For the most part, they were the ner-do-wells, the ex-cons (or escaped prisoners), the thieves, liars, murderers and other scum that had run out of welcome in the East. 1840’s-era white trailer trash. Like their kind to this day, they were ignorant, intolerant and racist.

    They hunted the local indigenous people like animals, shooting, killing, raping, burning, all without the slightest hiccup of conscience. We see the legacy of those early scumbags continuing to rear its ugly head around here today. Northern California continues to foster white supremicists. We’ve got local elected officials who talk about tribal political issues as if they regret that their ancestors didn’t finish the job right. The guy who shot that security guard in Washington DC last year was from the Redding area.

    So, don’t be too hard on the Spanish. They were human like anyone else, and they were a product of their age, just like we all are products of our age. In the Colonial Era, it was all about colonizing. The question is, HOW to colonize?

    The Spanish did not come to California with intention to exterminate an entire race. Many of the original Spanish settlers here were of African descent or already mixed Spanish-Indian from Mexico, which was colonized 200 years before California. Spanish social & legal life embraced mix-race marriages and recognized mixed-race offspring as full citizens and fully equal in the eyes of God and the law. Children fathered by spanish dons married to indian women inherited vast estates and enjoyed wealthy lives of social pristege in Spanish California. All the great founding families had indian or african blood, sometimes both. (Until Yankees took over and any family that wanted to keep their wealth had to marry Yankees and suddenly become white, conveniently forgetting their real roots.)

    One of the first things Yankees did when they began attempting to take over the California legislature was to make it illegal for any non-white to hold office, vote or own land. The Californios resisted this for many years, but finally the Yankees just outnumbered them too overwhelmingly, and California became a state officially dedicated to racial segregation for many decades.

    Yeah, now that I’m getting more familiar with what happened when the Yankees took over here in Northern California, it has given me a whole new appreciation of what the Spanish accomplished elsewhere.

    • Stu-Bob says:

      Thanks for your comments, Dave. My wife and I are both decendientes (5th and 4th generation, respectively) of those families who “suddenly became white.” Our grandparents might admit to Spanish but never Mexican or Indian. Our daughter, by contrast, is a proud 6th generation Californio who’s checks the “Hispanic” box on forms. Trying to reclaim some of our families’ (intentionally) forgotten culture is central to my interest in CA history.

  3. stephanie says:

    Great discussion….I am an 8th generation Californio…and extremely tied to my family’s history. We have found records that tie us to the sister of Pio Pico…in a fresco on the walls of a church basement in Castroville of all places. I have just recently begun researching the indeginous people here…have discovered what we learned in books is so far off from the truth! I am teaching my children and grandchildren about their/our heritage. I am proud to be one of the people who was here before the Spanish,White,etc.invasion of this beautiful land I call home.

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