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Mission San Luis Rey Photo: Steve Marcotte/OsideNews

Historically Speaking: Mission San Luis Rey

By Tom Morrow

Father Fermin de Lausen founded Mission San Luis Rey on June 13, 1798.

It was determined the mission was needed to cut the travel time between San Diego and San Juan Capistrano. The Spanish tried to position each mission so that they could easily be reached within a day’s travel along California original highway, El Camino Real (the royal road)….a distance of roughly 30 miles.

It was little more than a footpath, but nonetheless a coastal passage for travel from San Diego to San Francisco.

There is good documentation of a visit by British explorer George Vancouver described San Diego as a less-than-desirable place to live. He found the Spanish to be rather cool in their hospitality, and the balmy coastal climate not to his liking.

“The way of life in California,” according to Vancouver’s journal, “is not calculated to produce any great increase in white inhabitants.”

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was laid out and built some five miles east of the coast line along the south shore of the San Luis Rey River. It was named in honor of King Louis 9th of France, who had been a Franciscan friar.

No figure in California mission history is more revered by the Luiseno people than is Father Antonio Peyri. By late summer of 1798, some 6,000 adobe bricks had been made for the new church, which was completed by 1802.

At the height of Mission San Luis Rey’s dominance in North County, it was the largest of the missions and the most prosperous, with some 25,000 head of cattle, 26,000 sheep, 2,000 head of horses, all maintained by some 5,000 Luisenos living in and around the mission. At one time it was the largest civilized living and working complex west of the Mississippi. It became known as “King of the Missions.”

The Mexicans take control…

In 1821, the Mexican people overthrew some 300 years of Spanish rule.

The new Mexican government insisted upon separating church and state, which meant the demise of the mission system and its vast holdings. Secularization of the missions meant the holdings of land and livestock at each mission was taken by the new government and sold to the public.

More importantly, the padres at each of the missions no longer had control over the native population. The mostly-Spanish-born padres refused to swear allegience to the new Republic of Mexico, which caused them to be feared and distrusted by Mexican officials.

Mexican secularization made all mission property public, and the natives were to be freed. This move, however, made the wealth that had been built up by each mission open to politicians and their cronies to grab the riches for little or nothing, all under the semblance of law. It could be compared with the “reconstruction” period in the South after the American Civil War.

During the secularization period in Mexico and Alta California there was a rapid increase in the number of private ranchos. Here in North County, Rancho Los Flores y Santa Margarita today is known as Camp Pendleton. Rancho Guajome in Vista was a subsidiary of Margarita.

Mission San Luis Rey was abandoned and surrendered to the Mexican government in 1835, clearing the way for officers, soldiers and landowners to loot or buy off at ridiculously cheap prices the vast holdings of the mission.

The looting became so fierce that even the huge timber beams holding up the roof of the church and other major buildings were stolen by ranchers to construct their own private buildings. For the next century, artifacts taken by the Mexicans during the period were gradually found in private homes and collections, much of which has been returned to the mission.

Mexico’s neglected Alta California might never have become part of the United States had it not been for three visionaries with very huge egos: Colonel John C. Fremont, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, and Brig. General Stephen W. Kearny.

Because it could take as long as six months to get a message to and from Washington, D.C., decisions had to be made on the spot, at the moment of opportunity.

Records indicate that California was in the hands of these three men before the war between Mexico and the United States was declared. Fremont was a lowly lieutenant surveyor sent by the Army to map the lands that Lewis & Clark had explored. His primary job was to find the best passage across the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. California, a foreign territory to the south of Oregon, which was part of the United States’ “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803, was not part of Fremont’s official mission. Nonetheless, he found himself at Sutter’s Fort near present-day Sacramento where a group of Anglo-Americans were forming a rag-tag army of revolution against the weakly-defended Mexican territory. Fremont led the so-called army of the Bear Flag Republic in an attack against Mexican soldiers in Sonoma. Eight months later the Mexicans would give up what we know today as California, Nevada, Utah, and most of Arizona, then all one region known as “Alta California.”

Control of Alta California bounced back and forth between the Americans and the Mexicans. At no time were any of the so-called armies on either side very large. Most numbered less than 100 men.

Fremont captured Los Angeles with only 39 men; Navy Lt. George Minor took the undefended village of San Diego with just 54 men, building a new earthwork gun emplacement on a hilltop east of the town, which was called Fort Stockton.
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