From Colonial America To El Camino Real — The Great American Heritage Grains Adventure (Part 4)

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


Cabizon Cultural Museum, Indio, California

Judy Stapp, Director

The Garden Oasis Of Mara, Joshua National Monument, Twenty-Nine Palms

John Legniole, Keeper

Oasis of Mara Scythe

Oasis of Mara Scythe

My incredibly gracious hosts and longtime friends, Cliffand Lee Ann Trafzer of Yucaipa, California, generously provided lodging for me during my week in the Los Angeles area so I could further my research on landrace grain varieties of the American West. Cliff and Lee Ann are both noted professors of history, and our friendship goes back to the 1970s when Cliff taught at Washington State University where we began a close friendship that has long endured and led to collaborations on many publishing projects. Lee Ann is an author in her own right, and by some coincidence we learned when she was also studying at WSU back in the day that has many mutual friends and relatives from Brewster, Washington, where she had lived for many years.

Cliff serves a Rupert Costo Endowed Chair of History at UC-Riverside and arranged for me to lecture there on environmental sustainability. Cliff is a prolific writer with the heart of a humanitarian, and he introduced me to an impressive group of graduate students who included Cahuilla tribal elder Sean Milanovich. What Cliff and Sean proceeded to share with me about early Southwestern agriculture was fascinating. I learned that early grain culture spread from 17th century Mexico to the native peoples of the Southwest where some like Cahuilla of present south central California had long gathered grain-like seeds of indigenous plants. Cahuilla elder Francisco Patencio (1857-1947) explained the appearance of the first wheat through the ancient tribal story in which benevolent Cahuilla Creator Múkat fell victim to a conspiracy of the people and animals he had fashioned. The people mourned his loss, and in the place where Múkat died and was cremated in Painted Canyon near Palm Springs, they noticed a variety of nutritious plants emerge from the ashes of his heart, teeth, hair, and other remains. “The first name that they had was the beans, which were the fingers of Múkat,” Patencio related. “These were named Ta va my lum. The corn was named Pa ha vosh lum and the wheat was named Pach che sal and the pumpkins were neh wit em, ….” Soon afterward Múkat returned to earth as a spirit. The following day Cliff took me on an extensive tour east of Riverside to tour the Cahuilla’s legendary Garden of Mara, a place know widely from the tragic story of Willie Boy, Joshua Tree National Monument, and the Painted Rocks area associated with the Múkat story.

Garden of Mara Keeper John (left) and Author-Scholar-Friend Cliff Trafzer

Garden of Mara Keeper John (left) and Author-Scholar-Friend Cliff Trafzer

Cliff is of Wyandot Indian heritage and was raised in the Yuma area so also had much to share with me about the early grain culture of the Pima and Papago peoples of the Gila River basin. By the mid-1800s Pima growers substantially supplied wheat to private teamsters for trade along the Overland Mail Route. These grains contributed to nutritious piñole and other staple soup mixtures of grain, corn, and beans. Some of the earliest California missions developed substantial grain farming and milling operations including places I had been like San Carlos Borroméo de Carmel (1770) and San Antonio du Padua (1771), founded on the fertile lowlands to the south near present Jolon, and San Gabriel Arcángel near present Los Angeles. By the early 1800s San Gabriel, Santa Inéz, and La Purísima led the California missions in production of wheat and barley and helped provision other missions along the El Camino Real. The 1806 stone foundations of San Antonio du Padua’s reconstructed grain mill remain intact, and a stone circular stone-lined threshing floor remains remarkably preserved and is likely the oldest known feature of its kind in North America. German-born artist Edward Visher (1809-1870) included these missions in his collection of twenty-six drawings and pen washes, The Missions of Upper California (1872).

Colored lithograph after Edward Vischer, “Mission San Antonio du Padua”; The Missions of Upper California (1872)

Colored lithograph after Edward Vischer, “Mission San Antonio du Padua”; The Missions of Upper California (1872)

Mission Mortars and Pestles

Mission Mortars and Pestles

The Alta California missions produced substantial amounts of grain and vegetables and raised considerable livestock. An 1850 sketch by frontier artist William H. Dougal (1822-1895) of the San Mateo Rancho granary near the San Juan Bautista Mission shows one side of the wide two-story structure with six doorways and five high windows near the eaves. The oldest extant one in North America is believed to be the Mission San Jose Granary (c. 1726) near San Antonio, Texas, which is a massive barrel-vaulted stone structure with flying buttress supports. Wheat production was especially notable at San Gabriel, Santa Inéz, La Purísima, and San Luis Obispo where at least 150,000 bushels raised at each location from the 1780s until secularization in the 1830s. Mission granary foundations have been located at Mission San Antonio de Padua, La Purísima, and Nuestra Señora de al Soledad. I had read somewhere that the latter, located a few miles west of Highway 101 near Soledad, was among the least restored of the El Camino missions so had not intended to stop there until I found out later its namesake was Mary’s sorrow between the time of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Since I was traveling by on that Saturday I made a pilgrimage to that quiet place which gave some consolation since I had never spent an Easter apart from the family.