The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1981, Volume 27, Number 2

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

King of the Missions: A Documentary History of San Luis Rey de Francia. Compiled and edited by Msgr. Francis J. Weber. Los Angeles: Archdiocese of Los Angeles Archives, 1980. 237 pages. $12.00.

Reviewed by John E. Baur, Professor of History, California State University, Northridge, author of four books on the West.

Although this collection of writings on San Luis Rey does not add up to a complete history of California’s largest mission, its sixty-eight selections do offer an intriguing variety of essays by eyewitnesses, participants, and secondary writers impressed by the Franciscan establishment. These begin with its first year and include observations of the founder, Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuén, comments by the mission’s great builder and developer, Fray Antonio Peyri, and continue through brief but important Franciscan reports replying to official Spanish and Mexican government interrogations. There also are sections on secularization followed by the sad neglect of the mission, and later its restoration and renewed religious activities, concluding accounts in our own century with a touristic essay written by two journalists in 1979.

This book encompasses not only the polished descriptive prose of wellknown California authors Bret Harte, George Wharton James, and Charles Francis Saunders, the historically-significant statements of pioneers James Ohio Pattie, Alfred Robinson, and John Bidwell, but also the often-quoted words of travelers, including the eloquent Frenchmen, Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly (1827) and Eugene Duflot de Mofras (1842). Highlights of this useful anthology include the invaluable but incomplete memoirs of Pable Tac, a Luiseño Indian born and educated at San Luis Rey, who went to Italy with Peyri, and Julio Cesar, another mission native, who dictated his oral history to historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1878. Two visiting painters, Edward Vischer and Henry Miller, offered artists’ perceptions, while the outstanding architectural historian, Rexford Newcomb, composed probably the best description of mission structures. Most visitors praised agricultural riches.

Inevitably with such variegated impressions writing becomes uneven, for it also contains monotonous repetitions of some newspaper writers who penned brief mission chronologies and physical descriptions for readers seeking encapsulated data. One would wish, as Father Weber does, that the early padres had supplemented their detailed statistical chronicles, some of which are reproduced here, with full analyses of daily life and Indian reactions; such would have offered a refreshingly different vantage point from that of Tac and Cesar.

There is much useful information on the coming of Father Joseph J. O’Keefe, “rebuilder” of the mission, who reestablished Franciscan works there in 1892 and also began to restore mission buildings. Through the words of twentieth-century writers we see how these labors progressed, are introduced to the establishment of new educational functions, and witness the increase of tourism, various festivals, and renewed traditions at San Luis Rey.

This book does not simply repeat romantic stereotypes of mission founding, Franciscan dedication, and achievements both spiritual and physical. There are frequent allusions to the tragedy of secularization for its Indian victims, but little criticism of the system before that era. As editor, Father Weber has provided introduction of two-to-five lines for each of the selections, presenting the authors and the circumstances of their literary productions. In several cases these might profitably have been expanded for those historians and anthropologists who are sure to quote from these selections.

Through its total impact on the reader, this work makes abundantly clear why for nearly two centuries Mission San Luis Rey de Francia has continued to inspire interesting observations.