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.