California Missions

Mission San Miguel

Mission San Miguel Arcangel is located a day’s walk north of Mission San Luis Obispo, about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco Bay, a 34-mile seagull flight from the Pacific Ocean, somewhere in the south-middle of California, and in-between and to the west of Fresno and Bakersfield. In other words, who the hell knows where it’s at? I can’t describe its location very well, which is probably why it took my wife and I so long to visit it.

Decades ago, we made a vow to visit all of the old Spanish missions in California. We finished our 16th in 2019, and planned to visit more in 2020. But that year paranoia took over, and all the missions shut down.

After they reopened, we’d had enough of the fear-mongering. We took up a position in favor of missions, and in defiance of recommendations to stay home.

But then Omicron struck at the heart of quaking hypochondriacs everywhere, and coronavirus restrictions tightened. Also, I got an abscessed tooth, and needed dental care on the very dates we’d made our hotel reservations. So with sad hearts, we detached ourselves from our missionary position and canceled our reservations.

But lately it seems even hypochondriacs have grown weary of Covid restrictions. Ironically, there have been far more Covid cases this year than in 2020, and yet nobody seems to give a hoot. Including me, and I’m a hypochondriac.

This year, the coast has been about as clear for travel in the Golden State as it was pre-pandemic. So we finally made plans to visit the coast. That’s where the remaining five missions are, that we had not yet visited.

Mission San Miguel was the first in our itinerary. It’s in one of the more remote regions of coastal California, tucked away in a patchwork of farmland and wilderness. If you’re traveling by boat, you’ll find it at the confluence of the Salinas and Nacimiento Rivers, in a sleepy little farming village.

But we traveled over six hours by car, to reach this destination. Which beats traveling by foot, in the manner of the early missionaries. Mission San Miguel was founded by Father Fermin Lasuen and Father Buenaventura Sitjar on July 25, 1797, as a stopping-over place on the long, two-day footslog from Mission San Luis Obispo to Mission San Antonio. It was the 16th Californian mission to be established by the Spanish missionaries, and is the 11th in the south-to-north promenade of the 21 missions. Yep, it’s smack in the middle.

It seems life at all the missions was hard, and Mission San Miguel was no exception. The poor bastards built a church, which burned down in 1806. So then they built another church, made of nonflammable adobe. This church has been damaged by earthquakes, but is still standing.

The worst shaker to hit was the 2003 San Simeon quake, that registered 6.6 on whatever the hell scale they were using back then. It caused $15 million in damages to Mission San Miguel, and shut it down for six years, for renovations. In fact, renovations from that quake continue to this day.

The original, but renovated, adobe church of Mission San Miguel.

After Mexico secularized the missions in 1834, Mission San Miguel fell into the hands of civil authorities and the Indians were forced to go back where they came from. Which was all around where they were. In 1846, the mission was sold to William Reed and a business partner. Reed had important connections. He was a son-in-law of the very wealthy and influential Mexican General Mariano Vallejo.

On December 5th, 1848, five white desperados and an Indian showed up at Mission San Miguel. The Reeds used the mission as both a personal residence and an Inn, but they required gold as the only acceptable payment for travelers who stayed the night. This is because California was in a state of limbo, having recently been conquered by the United States. It was no longer part of Mexico, but it wasn’t a state yet, either.

The guests paid the gold, and spent the night at the mission, enjoying the hospitality of the Reed family and his servants. The next morning they left, and on their journey they got to talking about all the gold they figured the Reeds had, due to their restrictive payment policy. They plotted amongst themselves, then decided to return to the mission.

Inside the church. The frescoes on the walls are original, having been painted 200 years ago by Salinan Indians, under the direction of artist Estevan Munras.

It was a pleasant moment, the evening of December 5th, 1848. William Reed was warming himself by the cookfire, with his six guests. One of the guests, named Sam Bernard, kindly offered to go fetch some more firewood. But when he returned, he had an axe hidden inside the bundle of wood.

Sam suddenly pulled the axe out and hacked away at Reed, delivering several chops to the head. Then the Indian pounced on the hapless mission owner, and stabbed him. After liberating his spirit, Sam, the Indian, and the other four sought out the various rooms of the adobe mission, wielding the axe, a cutlass, and a knife. There they found Reed’s pregnant wife, Maria Antonia Vallejo. They murdered her and her unborn child. Then they murdered Reeds’ 4-year-old son.

But the bloodshed didn’t stop there. They hunted down the mid-wife, Josefa Olivera, and sliced her to death. They also slaughtered Olivera’s 15-year-old daughter, Olivera’s grandson, a cook, an Indian sheep-herder, and Reed’s brother-in-law, Jose Ramon Vallejo.

The church altar. Notice the beautiful frescoes painted by the Indians. Above the altar is the “All-Seeing Eye of God,” which reminded the Indians that they now had a God who was always watching them, and watching over them. Geez, even while using the bathroom?

The Indian sheep-herder had a four-year-old grandson, who hid in some boxes. But after everyone else was killed the little boy revealed himself, and begged for his life. But there was no mercy in the hearts of these thieves, and one of them grabbed the boy by his feet and swung his head into a wall, crushing his skull.

Counting the unborn child, the total number of victims in this massacre were 11. The outlaws then ransacked the mission, looking for gold. But they couldn’t find it. They had stupidly killed Reed without forcing him to reveal the hiding place of his treasure. But they did manage to steal some money, jewelry, clothing, and other valuables. Then they went on the run.

Statue of San Miguel (Saint Michael) conquering the devil. In Catholicism, Saint Michael is the defender of the church, and the chief opponent of Satan. The Reeds sure could have used his help the night of 12/5/1848.

The next day, the bodies were discovered and a posse was formed. The outlaws made it as far south as Santa Barbara, when the posse caught up with them. A shootout ensued. Sam Bernard was mortally wounded by a member of the posse named Ramon Rodriguez. But sadly, Ramon received a bullet from Sam’s gun, and was killed also.

One of the bandidos tried to escape by jumping into the surf, but he drowned. The Indian got away, but the remaining three were captured.

The three prisoners confessed to the murders and were sentenced to be hanged. But the Mexican leaders in Santa Barbara weren’t sure if they had the authority to hang them, so they summoned the U.S. military for help.

Nine soldiers were sent from Monterey to Santa Barbara. There, they executed the three prisoners by firing squad, on December 28, 1848, just 23 days after their crimes. It appears justice was swift in those days.

The Mission Arcade is a series of 12 arches. You may notice that they are all different sizes. They say the arches were planned this way on purpose, but I suspect the architect was a drunk.

A considerable amount of money was seized from the bandits at the time of their apprehension, and this was given to the widow of Ramon Rodriguez.

After the massacre, Mission San Miguel was converted into a saloon, hotel, and retail stores. Then in 1859, it was returned to the Catholic Church and has remained a mission ever since.

Some claim this mission is haunted, but we never saw any apparitions while we were visiting. But some speculate that the ghosts of the murderers inhabit this mission, still searching vainly for the treasure of gold hidden by William Reed.

Who knows what spirits may be hovering around Mission San Miguel?

Categories: California Missions

49 replies »

  1. I am really glad they didn’t find the gold and got caught!
    They were indeed heartless!!
    I hope your other missions have a happier story to them!
    You finding the gold would have been a perfect ending for of course you would have shared it! Your kind, generous spirit. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Go ahead, blurt it out:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.