Mission La Purisima Concepción de Maria Santisima: A Spanish Mission in Santa Barbara County, California.

By Michael P. Sampson

Few traditional locations in present-day California are more emblematic of its early history or more recognizable than the twenty-one Spanish missions found along the El Camino Real from San Diego to Sonoma.

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On July 16, 1769, Father Junípero Serra dedicated Mission San Diego de Alcalá as the first mission in Alta California [the present-day state of California]. The northernmost and last mission developed in Alta California, San Francisco Solano in the town of Sonoma, was founded on July 4, 1823. The Spanish, as part of their colonization effort, also formed four presidios, or military garrisons, and three pueblos, where Spanish citizens lived. The colonization of Alta California by the Spanish in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century served to sustain their foothold on the Pacific Coast of North America in light of territorial expansions by the English and the Russians along the west coast. The missions, considered indispensable to the Spanish goal of colonizing Alta California, were operated by missionaries of the Franciscan order. Each Spanish mission in Alta California was situated near the villages of Native people, close to reliable water, adjacent to arable land, and chosen with consideration of the marching distance to the next mission.

The Spanish missions in Alta California operated as self-sufficient agrarian enterprises that consisted of a vast complex of buildings functioning as residences, food preparation areas, workshops, a church and adjacent cemetery, as well as, gardens, vineyards, water conveyance systems, industrial structures (e.g., mills, tanning vats, etc.), and fields.

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The labor force at each mission primarily was provided by the “neophytes,”, that is, local Native people. It was the intent of the mission founders that Native people who were brought to reside at the mission would be taught the Catholic faith by the Franciscan missionaries and trained in European crafts and trades.

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Thus, California’s Native people represented the key element to the Spanish goal of occupying Alta California. From the Spanish viewpoint, the Native Californian people who were taken to the missions would be converted into Catholic peasant citizens, that is, become gente de razón.

The mission experience for the California Natives, however, is a complex topic. From the perspective of the Native people, they were forced to leave their traditional lands, required to abandon their culture, and treated poorly if they did not conform to the expectations of the mission administrators. Many Native people attempted to flee the missions and were forcefully brought back, and traditional ways were practiced beyond the watchful eyes of the padres. Certainly, the forced relocation of Native people to missions had a far-reaching and permanent impact on traditional Native Californian culture. Native Californian people today honor their traditional culture, while many descendants of the mission neophytes still practice the Catholic faith.

The visitors to most Spanish missions today find it difficult to visualize the variety of activities that occurred at the missions of the late eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth century. Mission La Purisima Concepción de Maria Santisima (hereafter, referred to as Mission La Purisima), located near the city of Lompoc in San Barbara County, is one of the few mission sites today that is still situated in a rural area.   A visit to Mission La Purisima, owned and skillfully operated by the California State Park System and a group of dedicated volunteers, is a step into the past and permits the visitor to better comprehend life at the mission and gain some sense of the Spanish mission system.

Mission La Purisima was founded on December 8, 1787 under the administrative guidance of Father Fermin de Lasuén, who was then Father Presidente of all missions in California. The mission in 1787 was situated south of the Santa Ynez River in what is today the city of Lompoc at a place the local Native people, the Chumash, called Algsacupi. The buildings of this original mission, known today as “Mission Vieja,” were mostly destroyed by an earthquake on December 21, 1812 and the rains that followed. By the time of the earthquake, the Franciscans had been successful in relocating many of the Chumash to this mission from their villages. However, the mortality rate of the Native neophytes was high, prompting ever increasing forays into the Native villages to replace those who died from diseases brought by the Spanish.

Mission La Purisima was moved in April 1813 to its present location, a canyon the Spanish called “Los Berros” [watercress]; this location had the Chumash place name of Amúu.

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The Spanish continued to be successful in relocating the Chumash from their native villages into Mission La Purisima after this move but the rate of deaths among the neophytes also increased – triggering ever more intensive attempts to bring the Chumash from their traditional villages and keep those who wanted to leave from doing so. Mission La Purisima proved to be a highly successful agricultural enterprise during time the Spanish administered the mission as evidenced by the strong crop production numbers and high numbers of livestock. Considerable information about the neophytes and their condition, as well as mission crop production, livestock numbers, etc., is available today because the Spanish Franciscan missionaries maintained excellent records.

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Mission lands throughout California were secularized in 1834. Significant portions of Mission La Purisima and its vast landholdings were given as land grants to Mexican citizens by the Mexican government. Thereafter, the mission experienced a marked decrease in agricultural production, the number of Chumash living at the mission declined, and the mission buildings and landscape features slowly deteriorated. Finally, the actual mission buildings were sold on December 6, 1845 by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to John Temple, thus closing this chapter in California history. California State Parks acquired the Mission and surrounding acreage in 1935.

The main mission buildings, structures, and landscape features at Mission La Purisima today were reconstructed or significantly restored by Civil Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s, who labored under the direction of National Park Service staff and other experts. [A first-hand account of the 1930s work by the Civilian Conservation Corps at Mission La Purisima is provided in the 1991 book by Hageman and Ewing cited below.] Some buildings that had been present at the time the mission operated, such as the Neophyte Family Housing, have not been reconstructed.

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Archaeology typically plays a crucial role in the reconstruction and restoration of historic buildings and structures, most often by providing information unavailable in historical documents and through exposing the tangible evidence of daily life, such as, artifacts and food remains. The reconstruction and rebuilding efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Mission La Purisima in the 1930s were preceded by archaeological excavations that complemented the historical research on the mission. These archaeological excavations unearthed the physical remains of the mission buildings and structures, thereby indicating the exact outline and size of them, their configuration, the number of rooms, the specific functions of various rooms, the alignment of aqueducts or other features, and yielded the actual implements used on a daily basis at the mission.

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The archaeological efforts of the 1930s at Mission La Purisima represent the earliest large-scale investigation within an historic-period site in California at the time, and the National Park Service staff and the Civilian Conservation Corps workers used a methodology more rigorous than was standard for archaeological investigations in the 1930s. Subsequent archaeological excavations at Mission La Purisima, such as the work of archaeologists from the University of California at Santa Barbara, California State Parks archaeologists, and other researchers, have produced additional important information about life at the mission and the exact uses of structural remains.

The historical record at Mission la Purisima is colored by the worldview and religious fervor of the Spanish priests who managed the mission. The archaeological record of Mission La Purisima, however, reveals a different and compelling perspective that directly reflects the behavior of the neophytes, that is, those who day-to-day used the tools and resided in the residences at the mission uncovered during the excavations. The Chumash neophytes at Mission La Purisima, for example, performed their daily mission chores and prayed as directed by the Franciscan fathers, while also maintaining important aspects of their traditional culture, such as the use of traditional stone and bone implements to perform mission chores and use of traditional tools for domestic tasks and practices in their residences.

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The Chumash people living at the mission also regularly gathered traditional foods outside the mission grounds, maintained many traditional rituals, and continued regular interactions with Native people outside the mission purview. This uneven pattern of acculturation among the Mission la Purisima neophytes, repeated at the other Spanish missions in Alta California, demonstrated that traditional culture cannot be removed like changing clothes. California Native people as a whole, too, greatly valued individuality which was antithetical to the discipline and structure of daily life demanded by the Franciscan priests at the missions. The archaeological record at Mission La Purisima and other missions clearly indicates the California Native people displayed an extraordinary resilience of traditional values, worldview, and practices and resisted the European way of life during their actual conduct of daily actions.

For additional information on Mission La Purisima and topics discussed in the preceding narrative, the reader can consult the following publications (as well as others not listed here):

Boletín, Journal of the California Mission Studies Association.

California Department of Parks and Recreation website: Mission La Purisima State Historic Park.

Edward D. Castillo (1978) The Impact of Euro-American Exploration and Settlement. In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 99-127. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C. [This is a frank discussion of the effects of European colonization upon the California Indians.]

Julia G. Costello and John R. Johnson (2015) Colonization’s Cultural Earthquake. In First Coastal Californians, edited by Lynn H. Gamble, pp. 97-104. School of Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Drs. Costello and Johnson are experts on the Chumash in the historic era and authorities on the Spanish missions.]

James J. F. Deetz (1963) Archaeological Investigations at La Purisima Mission. University of California, Los Angeles, Archaeological Survey Annual Report, 1962-1963, pp. 159-246. Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles. [The late James Deetz was a well-respected historical archaeologist who at the time of the study taught at UC Santa Barbara.]

Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, O. F. M. (1986) Mission La Concepcion Purisima De Maria Santisima. McNally & Loftin, Publishers, Santa Barbara, California. [This important book, originally published in 1932, contains considerable primary information from Spanish mission archives.]

Glenn J. Farris and Elise Wheeler (1998) The Neophyte Housing and Infirmary at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park: A Review and Remapping of the Site. Report on file, California Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento. [This report contains a nice history of the mission and includes a documentation of the neophytes who resided in the Neophyte Family Housing site at Mission La Purisima based upon research with mission archives.]

Roberta S. Greenwood (1978) Obispeño and Purisimeño Chumash. In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 520-523. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Kent G. Lightfoot (2005) Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. University of California Press, Berkeley. [This book contains a very thoughtful discussion on the Spanish missions in Alta California and their impacts upon the lives of California Indians and the cultural responses to European colonization by the Indian people.]

Fred C. Hageman and Russell C. Ewing (1991) An Archaeological and Restoration Study of Mission La Purísima Concepcion. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Santa Barbara, California. [Hageman was the National Park Service architectural foreman for the 1930s restoration and Ewing was a National Park Service Historian assigned to the 1930s project.]

Robert L. Hoover (2002) Excavations at the Mystery Column: The Possible Remains of a Wind-Powered Wool Fulling Post Mill in La Purísima Mission State Historic Park. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly Volume 37 (1):37-50.

Mission Vieja, the First Location of La Purisima Mission, 1787-1812, in Lompoc, California. A brochure published by and available at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park.

Tsim D. Schneider (2015) Rebellions, Resistance, and Runaways in Colonial Times.  In First Coastal Californians, edited by Lynn H. Gamble, pp. 105-110. School of Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Robert L. Schuyler (1978) Indian-Euro-American Interaction: Archaeological Evidence from Non-Indian Sites. In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 69-79. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Kevin Starr (2005) California: A History. The Modern Library, New York.

Edith Buckland Webb (1952) Indian Life at the Old Missions. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. [A classic study with many old photographs of the missions.]