A couple of autumn days ago, we took a drive through the warm Lompoc Valley, admiring the black soil of the deeply furrowed fields. We lingered beside the road lined with fields of pink, cream, and lavendar flowers that grew abundantly at the base of the hills, even now, even in the midst of autumn.
Eventually, when we had almost reached the ocean, we came upon fields of artichokes that grew on sturdy, tall stems - hundreds and hundreds of acres of them. A laquer-red tractor plowed the ebony black earth. It wove a path in front of a wide, white barn that stood, sharp and clean, in the background. We drove on and passed under the shade of old eucalyptus trees, and between rolling hills at the edge of town.
We followed the roads that looped around the valley decided to stop and walk the grounds at La Purisima Mission.
La Purisima Mission has been so carefully restored and tended, it offers a view that has not changed much during the past 200 years. Upon arriving, only the parking lot and visitor's center are visible. Tall trees and hedges skirt the parking lot and little creek nearby.
A little dirt trail leads to a short, narrow bridge. When you cross the bridge and emerge from the little copse of woods, the world has been transformed.
Travelers who journeyed through Alta California along El Camino Real, looked upon the same view that you now see. They would stop here for food and rest. This was also the center of society for the local people who came here for religious ceremonies, for fiestas, for weddings and funerals and other community events.
Charles Francis Saunders and Joseph Smeaton Chase, tell more about La Purisima in their book entiled, The California Padres and Their Missions, written in 1915:
Purisima Concepci6n de la Santisima Virgen Maria, madre de Dios y Nuestra Senora (most pure conception of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Our Lady)
La Purisima is a place of modest size, and hid so snugly away in its secluded valley, that I doubt if many readers of the present chronicle have even so much as heard of it....
In the world of commerce, however, Lompoc is a place to be seriously reckoned with. It lies in the heart of as fertile a little valley as the sun often shines upon and... it caters to man's aesthetic aspirations by raising sweet pea seeds, and to his fleshly tastes by turning out onions and potatoes by the carload. It is also strong on beans. But the chief gem of Lompoc's agricultural crown is mustard seed. Lompoquians will tell you they raise all the mustard seed for the whole United States, and I believe statistics go a considerable way toward supporting the little town's claim to this hot preeminence.
More to our purpose is the fact that Lompoc is a Mission town.
Though Purisima was rather a frosty, grasshoppery place in its day, and overrun unduly with ground squirrels, rattlesnakes, and bears, the records say it attained an enviable measure of temporal prosperity, particularly in the matter of cattle - the Purisima herds being widely famous.
Padre Mariano Payeras who served here from 1804 to 1823...has left, in one of his reports, an idyllic picture of life at La Purisima....It was the Padre's joy to watch the Indians at their work, their songs, and their prayers....Yet it was these same Indians who, within a year after Padre Payeras death, engineered the most serious revolt of Mission history against white domination.
With the progress of Mexico's revolution against Spain there was a spread of lax notions respecting all authority, both civil and ecclesiastic, and the attitude of the white Californians toward the priests grew increasingly indifferent, while the temporal wealth of the Missions became correspondingly the object of their covetousness.
....the Indians were at last goaded into an active rebellion which broke out simultaneously at Santa Inez, Purisima, and Santa Barbara, on February 21, 1824, the immediate cause being the flogging of a Purisima neophyte by the corporal of the guard of Santa Ines.
The Chumash, our local indigenous people, were forced into servitude and submission by the Catholic priests and the Spanish soldiers, and through the centuries took many terrible beatings. First, through the brute force of the Europeans who claimed the land and its people for their own purposes, and soon, through diseases brought by the Spanish. Then, as the story above tells us, the Chumash, in an attempt at revolt, were summarily crushed by the Spanish.
The Chumash who survived the rebellion were then beaten and whipped, and some were hanged or shot. It is said that the grounds of La Purisim are haunted now, as a result of the bloodshed that took place. The Travel Channel has even produced an episode about La Purisima, attributing evidence of haunting at the Mission to the Chumash revolt.
But according to historians Saunders and Chase, above, there may be another piece to the puzzle. It seems there are more stories that may have resulted in wandering spirits that will not rest......Their tale begins:
One hardly expects to meet ghosts in California. We are too new, and also, I think, there is too much sun. But if ghosts there be in this hustling century, and this most modern of States, then certainly the Missions are the places where one might expect to see or to hear of them, and of all the Missions, commend me to La Purisima for such a quest.
With all my interest in and sympathy for these relics of the glory that was Spain's, I must allow that the sensation in my mind when I recall my visit to this particular Mission is not a pleasant one. There seemed something sinister in the phenomenal weediness, a slimy dankness about the debris of broken adobe, a gloom about the whole place that the glare of sun, somehow accentuated, as if it were the gleam of a detective's lantern turned on some ominous secret spot.
For convenience sake I write the account in the first person, but without unnecessary complication in the matter of inverted commas. This is his story. You remember that three years ago this summer, I was making a sight-seeing trip through southern California. I stayed for a few hours at the little town of Lompoc, where lives your friend Senor Andres Leyva....
I called on him in the afternoon, and spent a very pleasant and profitable hour. I meant to camp that night at the ruins....So as I was leaving, I mentioned my plan of camping to Senor Leyva.
"You had better change your mind," he said, shaking his head, "it is not a good place at night."
"Why not?' I asked. "I suppose you mean that it is unhealthful over there - damp perhaps?"
"No, it is not that," he replied, "but you will not sleep....It is a story that happened in my own family, and I shall tell it just as my father told it to me. That was many years ago, but I heard it from him more than once, and I remember it very well. Many years ago, my mother's uncle, Don Felipe, used to have the San Tomas Ranch not very far from the Mission....
When my father and mother came to California from Mexico, about 1830 or 1831, they lived with Don Felipe while their own house was being built. It was a large hacienda.... Don Felipe liked to have much company so there were always many guests with meriendas in the daytime and dancing almost every night.
Don Felipe had one son whose name was Jorge. He was only about twenty years old, but he was not like a young man - but like a monk. He did not care to be with the other people, and often when there was a merienda he would go away and ride all day over the ranch. So it was not strange that no one liked him.
But just the opposite of Jorge was my mother's young brother, Vicente. He had come from Mexico when my father and mother came, and was a handsome galanteador who could dance finely and play the guitar and make himself agreeable to the ladies.
One day, after a mass on a feast day, local people gathered for a fiesta of food, dancing, music and games.
One of the games was juego de gallo. Don Vicente did not want to participate. Don Jorge goaded Don Vicente. Their argument went on all day.
As I said, the people who came from the ranches far away stayed at the Mission the two nights. The priest, his name was Fray Antonio Rodriguez, I remember, had long tables set in the corridor for meals, and there were plenty of room for sleeping. There was much fun and joking at supper. After supper, they all sat in the dusk and talked and smoked cigarritos. Someone had a California guitar, so there was music, and after a while they called for Don Vicente to sing.
He had been there at first - laughing and joking - but now he was missing. It was dark by that time....my father felt uneasy about Vicente, so before going to bed, he went to see if he was in his room but he was not there. Then he went to Don Jorge's room and saw that he seemed to be asleep. So he thought it must be all right, and that Vicente had only gone for a ride as he did sometimes at night.
The first thing in the morning, he went to Don Vicente's room again, but he was not there and the bed had not been touched. Then he was sure something was wrong. He told Don Felipe and the priest, and they went and searched.
They went to the place where the horses were kept, and Vicente's horse was there. Many of the people were leaving early in the morning, but Don Felipe, and my father and mother would not go without knowing about Don Vicente. They knew he had not gone home because of his horse.
My mother was almost wild, for Don Vicente was her favorite brother, and to think he might be dead, and not to know anything was terrible grief. Just before the time for service in the evening...they had found Don Vicente....
You will see, if you go to the Mission, that there is one little room by itself like a separate house. The walls are very thick. I have been told that it was a jail in the early days. That is where, in one corner,there was a heap of the bricks that had fallen down. The priest went closer. He sent for a lantern and some Indians to move the bricks away, and then he saw that Don Vicente was there and that he was dead.
There was no blood, and the Padre knew that some one had killed him. Everybody must have known in his mind that Don Jorge had done it, but because Don Felipe was his father, no one said what he thought - it was bad enough to have Vicente dead without making more trouble.
They thought it would be best to have the funeral quickly so they took the body into the church and put it in front of the altar, and some of them stayed with it all that night. The next morning they had the burial. The next day Don Felipe went home to his ranch.
Then, in the evening there came bad news from the priest at San Buenaventura. Some Indians from there were coming from San Fernando with olives. While they were crossing over the Santa Clara River at the fording place, they saw the hoof of a horse sticking up out of the wet sand, a little way off . Do you know the Santa Clara River, senor? It is a bad river, there is not much water, but it has much quicksand and it is dangerous to cross it unless you know the safe places.
The Indians thought a man had sunk in the sand because they could see part of a sombrero in the sand close to the horse. When they got back to the Mission they told the Father and he thought it must be Don Jorge because the horse was black like the one Don Jorge had been riding.
Don Jorge had gone home early in the morning after he had killed Vicente, and taken a new horse and some money and had started to go somewhere and get away - I suppose he was going to Mexico - but no one ever knew.
They say that God will not owe a debt to any one very long. Truly, it was not long before Don Jorge was paid. So, that is why La Purisima is a bad place to stop, senor. I would not go there if I were you, not at night, anyhow.
"Well", I said, " it is certainly a terrible story, and I am sorry it should have happened in your family. But it was long ago, and I did not kill poor Don Vicente, so why should I not sleep there if I wish to?" I promised to let him know how I fared.
It was late afternoon when I arrived at the remains of the Mission. After eating supper I spread my blankets on a level spot at the west end, and just at the rear of the building. Then, I used up the remaining daylight in exploring the ruins.
You have not been there at night time, I believe. Well, I can assure you that it is the owliest and battiest, froggiest and rattiest of ruins....By the time the light was gone, a cold wind had begun to blow, so instead of picketing my horse in the open, I took him to a little adobe hut-sort-of-place that might have been an outhouse. It was roofless, and the greater part of the walls had fallen but there was a corner that if it were a little higher would give a good shelter from the wind. I gathered some of the best of the adobe bricks that lay about and put them carefully in place, so as to raise the height and found the place then made a pretty snug makeshift stable.
So I brought the horse in and tied him to a heavy timber and left him happy with his grain while I myself turned in at my camp some twenty paces or so away. I slept well, only that twice I was awakened by the horse plunging and snorting. The second time I got up and went over to quiet him. He was trembling and wet with sweat, and I had some trouble to calm him.
To avoid a third disturbance, I took him outside and blanketed him as best I could and left him tied to a bush, after which I slept undisturbed until daylight.
When I went to give the horse his morning grain, I noticed on glancing into the house that the adobes I had placed in position on the wall were thrown down - not merely one or two that might have slipped and fallen- but every single brick, many of which could by no possibility have fallen by chance for they were heavy and had been squarely placed. The horse could not have pulled them down, even by kicking; he could not have reached the wall, and had he done so, the wall itself must have fallen before the bricks - each weighing several pounds - would have been dislodged. I studied the problem while I ate my breakfast but could arrive at no possible solution.
I left the puzzle unsolved. At Santa Maria, a few days later, I thought of my promise to let our friend know how I had fared at La Purisima. In writing, I said that I had seen and heard nothing of any spirits, but I mentioned, as a matter not of any particular significance, the riddle about the bricks. At San Luis, I received his reply, of which the part that concerns this matter runs as follows:
"I think it is fortunate, amigo mio, that your horse and not yourself was in the old adobe. If the place you speak of is the little building near the west end of the Mission, that is the house in which they found the body of Don Vicente. I do not think I said when I was telling you the story that my father used to say that many times the Padre had had the wall put up after Don Vicente was found there, but always it was pulled down the next night.
"He had it properly built, and the bricks laid in mortar, but they were pulled down every time, and at last the Indians said they would not put them up again. They said it was Don Vicente's spirit that pulled them down because they had fallen on him and killed him.
"I think it was Don Vicente's spirit that broke down the wall and frightened the horse, and when you come again to Lompoc, I recommend you to choose a bed in the house of a good Catholic, who is also - Your friend and faithful servant, ANDRES MUNOZ LEYVA"
Despite it being Halloween weekend, we did not see any ghosts during our visit; in fact, we saw few people that day at the Mission. The grounds were almost completely deserted. We wandered at will.
The Mission grounds are quiet, and to me, quite beautiful. They are still "overrun unduly with ground squirrels," playing, running, leaping into and out of holes in the gardens. There are dozens of quail that move so fast they seem to shimmer into your field of sight - and out again, just as quickly. There are flocks of blackbirds, constant companions to the donkeys and horses in the pasture, gathering the bits of grain left by the animals. There are doves and blue jays, pileated woodpeckers, and crows who call La Purisima home. Glassy green dragonflies graze the water of a shaded fountain.
If man's inhumanity to man is the only requisite for haunting - then here, like every other place on earth, it must surely be so. But it is a place of many dimensions - tragedies, yes, and beautiful gifts, too.
Today - La Purisima is an educational site. It is a place to learn about and celebrate the Chumash people who have resided in Santa Barbara County for the past 13,000 years. It is a place for us to study the effects of manifest destiny, and the cultures who have, in succession, claimed this land for their own. Just as every life tells a story, the life of my beloved California is a complicated tale - savory, sad, sweet, elegant, tragic, triumphant, humorous, precious...hopeful.
La Purisima is a place to contemplate the story of "Early California", as well as the ensuing years.
And it's a place to come just to observe - observe the relics of the past; observe the mocking bird that sings from the top of a wooden cross; observe the autumn sun on red Catalina Brush Cherries;
to walk in the sweet grass smell of a Chumash-style home;
to admire this enormous beast that clearly loved having his picture taken (is he smiling?)
It's a place to walk among oak and olive trees that are hundreds of years old, down a dusty path, to a quiet bench. To sit. To think. To renew among the quiet clamor of life and history.
It's a place to stop at the edge of a fountain and listen, now, as they did then, to water that trills in tiny trickles, neon cool, on a late afternoon.
La Purisima is a road you can follow any time - and for the $6 entrance fee, find the gift of the place for yourself.
Is it possible you will see ghosts here? Many people say yes. Maybe out in the cemetery, or by the weaving room, or up in the choir loft....
But be sure you look for a little something of yourself, too, as you walk the quiet corridors and dusty paths of California history....
The link below will take you to a You Tube clip of the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures investigation of La Purisima Mission and the spirits who are said to reside here.