From Colonial America To El Camino Real — The Great American Heritage Grains Adventure (Part 3)

This blog is a continuation of a series on my (Richard's) recent trip across the country visiting important sites related to heritage and landrace grain studies. View the other posts here.


The Presido Of Monterey, California

Missions San Antonio Du Padua (Jolon) and San Carlos Borremeo (Carmel)

 

Mission San Juan Carmel Sanctuary (founded 1770); Good Friday, 2017

Mission San Juan Carmel Sanctuary (founded 1770); Good Friday, 2017

From 1973 to 1974 my wife, Lois, left the rolling hills of our native Palouse Country to begin married life in Monterey, California, where I attended the Defense Language Institute to study Russian at the oceanside city’s historic Presidio. While stationed there we explored many of the region’s Spanish missions that had greatly benefited from New Deal era restoration and other preservation work undertaken since the 1930s. One memorable visit to nearby historic Carmel Mission, founded in 1770, was a thoroughly multicultural experience—singing Russian folksongs with our Presidio choir in a Spanish church with commentary by our American conductor in English!

Cousin Patty Poffenroth Bell tending our German “Suesspleena” pancakes (Monterey Bay beyond the windows!)

Cousin Patty Poffenroth Bell tending our German “Suesspleena” pancakes

(Monterey Bay beyond the windows!)

Monterey Bay’s breathtaking beauty is legendary, and we are blessed to have gracious relatives who have lived there for many years—John and Patty (Poffenroth) Bell. Patty’s grandmother and my grandfather were sister and brother, and our family has special memories of their annual summer treks north to tiny Endicott to visit us country cousins. Patty’s Grandma Mae Poffenroth Geier was a young girl when she arrived in 1891 with her Russian-born parents in the Palouse, and shared stories with me about her life at the Palouse Colony where they lived before located nearby on a farm where I was raised between Endicott and St. John.

Back in California, due to concern long before about colonial ambitions by Russia and Great Britain, King Carlos III of Spain authorized an expedition from San Diego led by Gaspar de Portolá and Franciscan friar Junípero Serra to travel overland to Monterey to claim the region “for God and the king of Spain.” They reached this scenic area in 1769 and six years afterward Monterey became the capital of Alta California. Father Serra established the Royal Presidio Chapel in 1770 and in the following year founded Mission San Carlos Borromeo as his headquarters in nearby Carmel Valley. Two hundred years later we attended a friend’s wedding here! San Carlos and San Diego were the first in a chain of twenty missions constructed along the 600-mile El Camino Real from San Diego to present Sonoma (San Francisco Solano) over the next fifty years.

Above: Mission San Antonio Threshing Floor and Grist Mill, near Jolon, California Left: Father Serra Statue and Mission San Antonio du Padua Façade

Above: Mission San Antonio Threshing Floor and Grist Mill, near Jolon, California

Left: Father Serra Statue and Mission San Antonio du Padua Façade

Exhibits at the Presidio of Monterey Museum and Carmel’s San Carlos Borromeo showcase many treasured art objects associated with the missions’ spiritual and agrarian heritage including crosses meticulously decorated with lustrous grain straw appliqué, tapestries with colorful rural scenes, and deftly hand-wrought metal work in the forms of wheat stalks and grape clusters.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help Icon with Grain Stalk and Grape Cluster Candelabras (c. 1850); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Our Mother of Perpetual Help Icon with Grain Stalk and Grape Cluster Candelabras (c. 1850); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Wooden Cross with Grain Straw Appliqué (c. 1860); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Wooden Cross with Grain Straw Appliqué (c. 1860); Mission San Carlos Borromeo near Carmel, California

Until the United States seized control of California during the Mexican-American War in 1846 and later secularized the missions, these centers of regional development utilized Indian workers to raise vast livestock herds and substantial amounts of wheat, barley, corn, beans, and other crops. Areas of highest crop production, with a total of approximately twenty thousand tons of wheat produced from 1782 to 1832, centered around the missions San Gabriel Arcángel west of present Los Angeles, and at Santa Inéz and La Purísima Concepción to the northwest. San Antonio du Padua, founded by Father Serra in 1771 near present Jolon in central California, is today the most fully restored of the El Camino missions and features the original stone threshing floor—among the last extant in North America, adobe granary, and water-powered grist mill.

Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, San Gabriel, California

Mission San Gabriel Sanctuary

Mission San Gabriel Sanctuary

In recent years scientists in the fascinating field of archeobotany have turned their attention to old adobe bricks from the El Camino Missions in order to determine the varieties of wheat, barley, and oats raised in the region from the 1770s. Since the bricks were made using grain straw and can be dated using church records with some precision, this research has been of great interest to many and has relevance to our work reviving landrace varieties at Palouse Colony Farm.

Cereal grains arrived in the New World in the late 15th century when Columbus brought Mediterranean wheats and barleys to Isabella, Puerto Rico, in order to sustain the men and livestock of his later voyages and subsequent arrivals. The grains of the early Spanish explorers did not mature well in the humid Caribbean, but eventually spread across fertile Mesoamerica following Hernán Cortés’ discovery of three wheat kernels in a sack of rice soon after the conquest of Mexico City in 1521. The conquistador directed his Black secretary-aide, Juan Garrido, to plant the grains in a newly established chapel garden plot (huerta). Andrés de Tapia’s sixteenth century Relaciòn Geográfia records that “little by little there was boundless wheat,” and by 1535 wheat was being exported from Mexico City to the Antilles. By the end of the century this grain was adapting to the fertile plains in Spanish-dominated areas to Oaxaca and beyond as the foreigners preferred wheat flour to the flatbreads and tortillas made from cassava, maize, and other indigenous crops.

Original El Camino Real Route, near San Juan Batista Mission, San Juan Bautista, California

Original El Camino Real Route, near San Juan Batista Mission, San Juan Bautista, California

“Chronicler of the Indies” Pedro de Cieza de León (c. 1520-1554) traveled widely throughout the Inca empire in the 1540s and records fields of wheat and barley “thick with stalks” in valleys of Ecuador. The Flemish Franciscan Jodôco Ricke had planted South America’s first wheat at Quito about 1538. Since the eleventh century, the Catholic Church only allowed wheat flour for altar breads so the far-flung missions of New Spain encouraged local cultivation given the irregular schedules of colonial pack trains. Cereals also represented means of acculturation and nutrition. “Eat that which the Castilian people eat,” preached Friar Bernardo de Sahagún to the native peoples of Mexico, so they could also become “strong and pure and wise.”

Mission San Gabriel Harvesters (c. 1895)

Mission San Gabriel Harvesters (c. 1895)

Frontier trade in grain northward advanced before Spanish settlement and evidence indicates that wheat reached the Pima Indians of the Gila Basin in present southern Arizona in the late seventeenth century. Father Eusebio Kino distributed wheat seed among the area’s native peoples upon his visit to Pimería Alta in 1687. Wheat sown in December during the appearance of Wēq—Sculpin (The Pleaides) ripened in the time of Na’sigînax-qua—Three Men in a Line (Orion’s Belt) after harvest of traditional crops like maize and pumpkins. In this way cultivation of Pima Club and other winter grains fit well into the agricultural calendar of the Pima and Papago peoples and were soft enough to grind with stone metatas. When explorer Juan Bautista de Anza visited the Pima in 1774, he wrote that “…standing in the middle [of their wheat fields], one cannot see the ends, because they are so long. Their width is also great, embracing the whole width of the valley on either side.”