La Purisima Mission State Historic Park

Visit La Purisima Mission State Historic Park in Lompoc, California.


Enlightenment or enslavement, or perhaps both: Such is the story of the Spanish missions established in Alta California, from San Diego to San Francisco, from 1769 to 1823. Spain claimed California in the 1500s, but no one was there to watch the store and the Spanish Crown had concerns about others taking possession. The concept was simple enough: Concentrate California’s 300,000 indigenous peoples in missions manned by the Catholic Church, convert them to Christianity, teach farming and other trades, and then use the missions to control California. A grand idea, perhaps, but one with unintended consequences: Indigenous cultures were obliterated, Native Americans were essentially forced into slavery, and by 1834 disease and other factors reduced California’s population to a scant 20,000 people.

La Purisima Mission (Misión La Purísima Concepción De María Santísima, or Mission of the Immaculate Conception of Most Holy Mary) was founded in December of 1787. La Purisima was the 11th of the 21 California missions, and it did well initially. Thousands of Chumash Native Americans converted to Catholicism and the complex grew to more than a hundred buildings and 300,000 irrigated acres. Livestock and crops thrived. It all came to an abrupt pause in 1812 when an earthquake destroyed most of the buildings, and what the initial temblor failed to obliterate, sizeable aftershocks and torrential rains did. The Mission rebuilt a few miles away (its current location) and it thrived yet again.

By the early 1800s, though, things were changing. From 1804 to 1807, smallpox and measles killed an estimated 500 Chumash Native Americans at La Purisima. In 1824, a Chumash was flogged by Spanish soldiers and the Chumash rebelled, leading to the arrival of more Spanish soldiers and more than a hundred deaths (including seven outright executions). To further complicate the situation, by 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain, and 12 years later the Mexican government ended the mission system. Some of the property went to the Mexican government and other parcels were to be returned to the Chumash, but most ended up being sold to private owners.

The La Purisima Mission sold at auction to John Temple of Los Angeles for a little more than a thousand dollars. In 1848 gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill. California’s population went from 20,000 to 290,000 as easterners flocked to the western edge of America, and in 1850 California became a state. What had been the La Purisima Mission changed owners several times. Union Oil purchased it in 1903 and donated it to the State of California. By then, what was left of the La Purisima mission was in ruins. Shortly after California took title, massive research and restoration activities by the County of Santa Barbara, the State of California, the National Park Service, and the Civilian Conservation Corps created what is now the most faithfully restored mission in California. Everything was resurrected as it existed in 1820, including the furniture, the buildings, and even adobe bricks made from surrounding soil.

Located about 165 miles from Los Angeles and a few miles west of the 101, the 2,000-acre La Purisima Mission is one of only two not run by the Catholic Church. It is the only one that recreates a complete historic mission operation. It is a California State Park, and it became a U.S. National Historic Landmark and entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. — Joe Berk

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