Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was founded in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra in the present-day city of San Luis Obispo, California. It was the fifth of 21 Spanish missions built by the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church between 1769 and 1823 in what was known as Alta California. Named after Saint Louis of Anjou, the 14th century Bishop of Toulouse (France), the mission gave its name to both the city and the county of San Luis Obispo, on California’s Central Coast.
King Carlos III of Spain saw the missions as a means to expand and protect Spain’s interests in Alta (upper) California (especially against the Russians who were making inroads southward from Alaska along California’s coast), while the Franciscans saw them as a means to expand the influence of the Catholic Church and to “civilize” the many tribes of indigenous peoples who inhabited the various regions of California.
Along with the Catholic faith, the missionaries brought disease and cultural decimation. A thriving tribe of over 15,000 Chumash Indians inhabiting the area were considered “souls to be saved.” The Spanish settlers forbade them to speak their native tongue or practice their accustomed dances and rituals, forcing them to build the mission, while imposing their language and faith upon them.
This pattern of forced labor and cultural subjugation of indigenous peoples was typical in the establishment of all of the California missions and the development of Alta California between 1768 and 1853. In fact, Native Americans were pressed into indentured servitude to the Spanish, separated from their families, and held to a strict, regimented daily work routine in the missions. The punishment for disobedience or noncompliance included beatings—sometimes severe, imprisonment (including solitary confinement), and even death. Women and girls were sometimes raped by the Spanish soldiers who lived in the adjoining presidios (forts) of many of the missions.
The Spaniards brought diseases that the indigenous peoples of California had never encountered; measles, dyptheria, influenza and smallpox—for which they had no resistance—killed many of them. Furthermore, European livestock (pigs, cows, goats, and chickens) ate the plants upon which the Chumash and their accustomed meat sources (including rabbits) had depended for food and medicine. They were forced to eat the foods imported or cultivated by the missionaries. Their new diet, including refined sugar and milk, led to diabetes and other health problems for the Chumash. Deprived of their centuries-old, eco-harmonious lifestyle, native language and accustomed foods, the Chumash tribe dwindled to approximately 170 members by 1838. In 1884, as few as 40 individuals were reported to have survived.
Few if any Native Americans embraced Christianity for its spiritual merits, nor did they adapt easily to new clothes, new mannerisms, a new language, or new roles in a white man’s hierarchy. The Indians of many of the 21 missions mounted resistance against the unjust treatment of their people. One famous resistor was Pomponio. In the early 1800s, he led raids on several missions from San Francisco to San Diego, including San Luis Obispo. His actions inspired a huge revolt (the Chumash Revolt of 1824) which culminated at Mission Santa Barbara, where over 2,000 Native Amerians took part.
The unremitting press of one culture against another led to adaptation and assimilation. Thousands of Native Americans chose to be baptized by the missionaries, because their options were bleak: baptism accorded them the right to work in the missions, to eat, to survive, and to bury their dead in church-sanctioned cemeteries. Refusing the church meant no rights, punishment, or death.
The building of the Franciscan missions was a significant, though traumatic, phenomenon in the history of California. In 1821, Mexico attained full independence from Spain, and took over control of Alta California; in 1833, with dwindling resources available to maintain the missions, all 21 of the missions were secularized, some being converted into residences for government officials and their families. Some became ranches and others housed barracks for military personnel. In 1859, following a petition filed with the Public Land Commission six years earlier by Archbishop J.S. Alemany, the mission was returned to the Catholic Church.
There is an unexpected gem of a museum within Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa that chronicles some of the early European explorations of the region and the founding of the mission and of Alta California. Extensive exhibits of tools, arrowheads, beads, pottery, and artwork give a feel for the Chumash way of life, while numerous photographs of Spanish settlers, clergymen, and members of the changing community of San Luis Obispo show the story of cultural change. Maps and historical paraphernalia round out the exhibition.
The mission itself is quite unique among California missions in its design, incorporating two naves in an “L”-shaped configuation, and a combination belfry and vestibule. While centrally located in the downtown area of its eponymous city, Mission San Luis Obispo retains a calm, meditative ambience, supported by its simple but beautiful landscaping and the airy layout of its courtyard and entryway. It remains central to the community of San Luis Obispo, offering regular masses, and hosting concerts and community events.