California Missions - La Purisima Concepcion
( Originally Published Early 1922 )
ALTHOUGH the date of the founding of this Mission is given as December 8, 1787, — for that was the day on which Presidente Lasuen raised the Cross, blessed the site, celebrated mass, and preached a dedicatory sermon, — there was no work done for several months, owing to the coming on of the rainy season. In the middle of March, 1788, Sergeant Cota of Santa Barbara, with a band of laborers and an escort, went up to prepare the necessary buildings ; and early in April Lasuen, accompanied by Padres Vicente Fuster and Jose Arroita, followed. As early as August the roll showed an acquisition of seventy-nine neophytes. During the first decade nearly a thousand baptisms were recorded, and the Mission flourished in all departments. Large crops of wheat and grain were raised, and live-stock increased rapidly. In 1804 the population numbered 1522, the highest on record during its history, and in 1810 the number of live-stock re-ported was over 20,000; but the unusual prosperity that attended this Mission during its earlier years was interrupted by a series of exceptional misfortunes.
The first church erected was crude and unstable, and fell rapidly into decay. Scarcely a dozen years had passed, when it became necessary to build a new one. This was constructed of adobe and roofed with tile. It was completed in 1802, but although well built, it was totally destroyed by an earthquake, as we shall see later on.
The Indians of this section were remarkably intelligent as well as diligent, and during the first years of the Mission there were over fifty rancherias in the district. According to the report of Padre Payeras in 1810 they were docile and industrious. This indefatigable worker, with the assistance of interpreters, prepared a catechism and manual of confession in the native language which he found very useful in imparting religious instruction and in uprooting the prevailing idolatry. In a little over twenty years the entire population for many leagues had been baptized, and were numbered among the converts.
This period of peace and prosperity was followed by sudden disaster. The earthquake of 1812, already noted as the most severe ever known on the Pacific Coast, brought devastation to Purisima. The morning of December 21 found padres and Indians rejoicing in the possession of the fruits of their labor of years, — a fine church, many Mission buildings, and a hundred houses built of adobe and occupied by the natives. A few hours afterward little was left that was fit for even temporary use. The first vibration, lasting four minutes, damaged the walls of the church. The second shock, a half-hour later, caused the total collapse of nearly all the buildings. Padre Payeras reported that " the earth opened in several places, emitting water and black sand." This calamity was quickly followed by torrents of rain, and the ensuing floods added to the distress of the homeless inhabitants. The remains of this old Mission of 1802 are still to be seen near Lompoc, and on the hillside above is a deep scar made by the earth-quake, this doubtless being the crack described by Padre Payeras. But nothing could daunt the courage or quench the zeal of the missionaries. Rude huts were erected for immediate needs, and, having selected a new and more advantageous site — five or six miles away — across the river, they obtained the necessary permission from the presidente, and at once commenced the construction of a new church, and all the buildings needed for carrying on the Mission. Water for irrigation and domestic purposes was brought in cement pipes, made and laid under the direction of the padres from Salsperde Creek, three miles away. But other misfortunes were in store for these unlucky people. During a drought in the winter of 1816–1817 hundreds of sheep perished for lack of feed, and in 1818 nearly all the neophytes' houses were destroyed by fire.
In 1823 the Mission lost one of its best friends in the death of Padre Payeras. For nearly twenty years this wise, zealous, and much loved missionary had made his home at Purisima, and his firm hand had been felt in both calm and storm, guiding and controlling in the midst of every vicissitude. Had he lived another year it is quite possible his skill in adjusting difficulties might have warded off the outbreak that occurred among the Indians, — the famous revolt of 1824.
This revolt, which also affected Santa Ines and Santa Barbara (see their respective chapters), had serious con-sequences at Purisima. After the attack at Santa Ines the rebels fled to Purisima. In the meantime the neophytes at this latter Mission, hearing of the uprising, had seized the buildings. The guard consisted of Corporal Tapia with four or five men. He bravely defended the padres and the soldiers' families through the night, but surrendered when his powder gave out. One woman was wounded. The rebels then sent Padre Ordaz and Tapia to Santa Ines to warn Sergeant Carrillo not to come or the families would be killed. Before an answer was received, the soldiers and their families were permitted to retire to Santa Ines, while Padre Rodriguez remained, the Indians being kindly disposed towards him. Four white men were killed in the fight, and seven Indians.
Left now to themselves, and knowing that they were sure to be attacked ere long, the Indians began to prepare for defence. They erected palisades, cut loop-holes in the walls of the church and other buildings, and mounted one or two rusty old cannon. For nearly a month they were not molested. This was the end of February.
In the meantime the Governor was getting a force ready at Monterey to send to unite with one under Guerra from Santa Barbara. On the 16th of March they were to have met, but owing to some mischance, the northern force had to make the attack alone. Cavalry skirmishers were sent right and left to cut off retreat, and the rest of the force began to fire on the adobe walls from muskets and a four-pounder. The four hundred neophytes within responded with yells of defiance and cannon, swivel-guns, and muskets, as well as a cloud of arrows. In their inexperienced hands, however, little damage was done with the cannon. By and by the Indians attempted to fly, but were pre-vented by the cavalry. Now realizing their defeat, they begged Padre Rodriguez to intercede for them, which he did. In two hours and a half the conflict was over, three Spaniards being wounded, one fatally, while there were sixteen Indians killed and a large number wounded. As the Governor had delegated authority to the officers to summarily dispense justice, they condemned seven of them to death for the murder of the white men in the first conflict. They were shot before the end of the month. Four of the revolt ringleaders were sentenced to ten years of labor at the presidio and then perpetual exile, while eight others were condemned to the presidio for eight years.
There was dissatisfaction expressed with the penalties, — on the side of the padres by Ripoll of Santa Barbara, who claimed that a general pardon had been promised; and on the part of the Governor, who thought his officers had been too lenient.
An increased guard was left at Purisima after this affair, and it took some little time before the Indians completely settled down again, as it was known that the Santa Barbara Indians were still in revolt.
During all the years when contending with the destructive forces of earthquake, fire, flood, and battle, to say nothing of those foes of agriculture, — drought, frost, grasshoppers, and squirrels, — the material results of native labor were notable. In 1819 they produced about 100,000 pounds of tallow. In 1821 the crops of wheat, barley, and corn amounted to nearly 8000 bushels. Between 1822 and 1827 they furnished the presidio with sup-plies valued at $12,921. The population, however, gradually decreased until about 400 were left at the time of secularization in 1835. The Purisima estate at this time was estimated by the appraisers to be worth about $60,000. The inventory included a library valued at $655 and five bells worth $1000. With the exception of the church property this estate, or what remained of it, was sold in 1845 for $1110. Under the management of administrators appointed by the government the Mission property rapidly disappeared, lands were sold, live-stock killed and scattered, and only the fragments of wreckage remained to be turned over to the jurisdiction of the padres according to the decree of Micheltorena in 1843. The following year an epidemic of smallpox caused the death of the greater proportion of Indians still living at Purisima, and the final act in the history of the once flourishing Mission was reached in 1845, when, by order of Governor Pico, the ruined estate was sold to John Temple for the paltry amount stated above.
Nearly forty years afterward Helen Hunt Jackson visited the ruins, and thus vividly described the desolate scene:
"Nothing is left there but one long, low adobe building, with a few arches of the corridor ; the doors stand open, the roof is falling in ; it has been so often used as a stable and sheepfold, that even the grasses are killed around it. The painted pulpit hangs half falling on the wall, its stairs are gone, and its sounding-board is slanting awry. Inside the broken altar-rail is a pile of stones, earth and rubbish thrown up by seekers after buried treasures ; in the farther corner another pile and hole, the home of a badger ; mud-swallows' nests are thick on the cornice, and cobwebbed rags of the old canvas ceiling hang fluttering overhead. The only trace of the ancient cultivation is a pear-orchard a few rods off, which must have been a splendid sight in its day; it is at least two hundred yards square, with a double row of trees all around, so placed as to leave between them a walk fifty or sixty feet wide. Bits of broken aqueduct here and there, and a large, round stone tank overgrown by grass, showed where the life of the orchard used to flow in. It has been many years slowly dying of thirst. Many of the trees are gone, and those that remain stretch out gaunt and shrivelled boughs, which, though still bearing fruit, look like arms tossing in vain reproach and entreaty ; a few pinched little blossoms seemed to heighten rather than lessen their melancholy look."
The Mission of La Purisima Concepcion was built in a canyada not far from the river. It stands northeast to southwest, the southwest end buttressed with solid and well built masonry. The main walls are of adobe, plastered over. Parts of the buildings are in two stories, but every-thing now (1905) is in sad ruins. Though it is as solitary and deserted as San Antonio, it does not make the pathetic appeal that that venerable and dignified structure does. And it is hard to say why. The photograph shows that it is not so striking a building, still there seems to be no reason why one should not feel as sadly at its desolation as one does at San Antonio. It is pathetic enough. The tiles have been taken off the roof except where they have fallen in and been broken to pieces ; some of the walls have tumbled down ; others are rapidly crumbling away ; some of the pillars of the corridors have fallen; weeds have grown everywhere, and, instead of giving the feeling of kindly covering the desolation, they serve only to accentuate it.
The corridors at La Purisima extended only in front of the building. The pillars are square with chamfered corners, and were evidently built of the material that happened to be readiest to hand at the moment, for some are of stone, others of burnt brick, and still others of adobe.
At the time of my last visit in May, 1904, eighteen pillars were still standing, and two had fallen. These pillars are about three feet square. The corridors are ten feet wide and extend the whole length of the building, which is about three hundred feet. The width, without the corridor, is about fifty feet.
The church is at the southwest end on the southeast side. It is about eighty feet long. The windows are low and arched, but there is little left to show what were the attractions of this church, so different from any of the others. At one corner, doubtless where interested neophytes have stood looking with luminous eyes upon the movements of the officiating padre, now stands a growing tree.
The peculiarity of La Purisima is in the architectural arrangement of the building. The church is a part, — one large room merely, — in a structure that contains many rooms. There is nothing that remains now of the wings that used to connect, and the ploughing up of the field near by has doubtless destroyed the foundations of walls, did any ever exist.
An extensive view of the valley, down to the ocean, can be had from the end of the corridor, or from the near-by hills. It was an attractive outlook, and gave the padres here more of a feeling of touch with the great outside when the glint of the sunshine upon the ocean greeted their watching eyes.
In regard to its present ownership and condition, a gentleman interested writes :
" The abandoned mission is on ground which now belongs to the Union Oil Company of California. The building itself has been desecrated and damaged by the public ever since its abandonment. Its visitors apparently did not scruple to deface it in every possible way, and what could not be stolen was ruthlessly destroyed. It apparently was a pleasure to them to pry the massive roof-beams loose, in order to enjoy the crash occasioned by the breaking of the valuable tile.
" On top of this the late series of earthquakes in that section threw down many of the brick pillars, and twisted the remainder so badly that the front of the building is a veritable wreck. During these earthquakes, which lasted several weeks, tile which could not be replaced for a thousand dollars were displaced and broken. To save the balance of the tile, as well as to avoid possible accidents to visitors, the secretary of the oil company had the remaining tile removed from the roof and piled up near the building for safety."