I love history — especially when learning about it is effortless.
Delving into the history of Southern California is easy when you take a guided tour at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. That’s what I did in late March, and although I have visited the mission several times in the past, I have always just wandered through the complex with the help of a flier.
This visit was different.
I joined a group that was led by a docent, Mr. LeBlanc, who was well-versed in the facts and the lore surrounding the mission. He told the history from the perspective of the Native Americans, the padres who came to claim the land and souls for Spain, and the soldiers who guarded the missions.
If you attended fifth grade in California, you know that there is a string of 21 missions up the coast, each about a day’s walk (30 miles) apart. San Diego was the site of the first mission, established in 1769, but after that, the missions were not established in geographical order. Mission San Juan Capistrano was the seventh (founded in 1776), even though it is the third establishment going north. And San Luis Rey in Oceanside, although second geographically, was one of the last missions founded (1798).
Mr. LeBlanc relayed colorful and fascinating anecdotes that, along with the buildings and artifacts, provided us with a sense of what life was like in the late 1700s. In a word, it was — tough. Looking at the living quarters of the padres and soldiers, I decided that the “good ol’ days” were a long way from good. The early priests had nothing but a coal bucket with which to generate heat (fireplaces came later), and bedtime meant sleeping on crude beds held together by rough and sagging leather straps. Mattresses were formed by rolling grass between rough blankets and hoping you didn’t bring too many bugs in with the grass.
The Native Americans lived outside the mission walls in domed grass huts which could easily catch fire after a long dry summer. These indigenous people and others spent nine years erecting the church at Capistrano which, at the time, was the largest such edifice west of the Mississippi. Imagine their dismay six years later when its domes and walls came crashing down during the 1812 earthquake. Historians guess that the quake, which killed 40 people trying to escape the shaking building, measured between 6 and 7.5 on the Richter scale. (The scale wasn’t invented until 1935).
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom at the mission — especially after the resident padre decided that the outpost should have its own vineyard. Before the grapes were crushed, they were washed, as were the Native Americans who were employed to crush the grapes the old-fashioned way — by stomping. The brick pits where the crushing took place still exist.
At this time of year, the flowers throughout the gardens are profuse and in full bloom, and those swallows that legendarily return to the mission each spring flit around in the courtyards and in the upper regions of the remains of the old church.
Yes, the swallows still do return to Capistrano from Argentina every year — on or about March 19 — but many of them are inclined to find places other than the mission to build their nests, Mr. LeBlanc explained. The birds look for niches where they are less likely to be pestered by humans.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.