Native American Period through the Mission Era (to 1822)
The culture of the earliest residents of San Luis Obispo County is unknown, but by 1585, the people of two distinct cultures were living in the area. The Salinan Indians inhabited the area north of the Cuesta Grade, and the Chumash lived south of the Grade and along the coast. These cultures were part of the Hokan language family. The Chumash were noted for their plank canoes, which were caulked with asphaltum, also called pizmo.
The earliest European explorers to land in San Luis Obispo County were Pedro de Unamuno in 1587 and Rodriguez Cermeño in 1595. After Sebastián Vizcaíno charted the Central Coast in 1602 and 1603, there were no explorations of the area until 1769, when the overland expedition of Gaspar de Portolá and the Franciscan Father Crespí traveled through the area.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the fifth in California’s chain of missions, was established by Father Junípero Serra on September 1, 1772. The mission prospered, with an assistancia, or assistant mission rancho established at Santa Margarita in the 1790s. Another granary and chapel were constructed near present-day Avila Beach in 1808. Twenty-five years later, on July 25, 1797, Mission San Miguel Arcángel was founded. This mission also prospered, with ranchos established at San Marcos and El Paso de los Robles.
From Mexican Territory to Early Days of U.S. Statehood (1822-1868)
After California’s annexation to Mexico in 1822, Mexican government officials and retired Army officers, with their eyes on the huge tracts of Mission lands, pushed for secularization of the missions. As this occurred, the Franciscan priests were forced to leave San Miguel and San Luis Obispo. The churches fell into ruins, but many of the vistas—outbuildings on the mission ranchos—became the quarters for the haciendas of the Mexicans.
During the Rancho Period, nearly 1/2 million acres previously controlled by the two Missions were distributed to Mexican citizens. Hides and tallow from cattle herds established by the Mission padres generated large amounts of money, ushering in a period of unprecedented prosperity, which led to levels of hospitality and fiestas previously unknown.
John C. Fremont took possession of San Luis Obispo for the United States in 1846. When California held its Constitutional Convention in 1850, San Luis Obispo’s delegates were Henry Amos Tefft and Jose Covarrubias. The 1850s saw a shift in California’s economic emphasis from the Spanish-centered cattle ranches in southern and central California to the frenzy of the Gold Rush, which drew people to San Francisco and the Mother Lode country. During these years, San Luis Obispo County fell into a state of isolation and lawlessness. Eventually this led to the 1858 formation of the Committee of Vigilance by Walter Murray and over 140 other citizens. The actions of this Committee were directed at reducing the violence that had plagued the area.
The lifestyle of the Mexican Californios prevailed into the early 1860s, when a severe drought destroyed the cattle herds on the ranchos. Families such as the Picos and the Estradas sold much of their land to Anglo newcomers, including the Steele brothers, George Hearst, and Patrick Murphy. These new landowners transformed the hide-and-tallow industry into beef-and-dairy-cattle production.
U.S. Consolidation (1869-1882)
The founding of the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 1869 by Walter Murray signaled the beginning of U.S. consolidation within the County. New buildings went up, with clapboards milled in Northern California, sandstone from the Los Berros area in the southern part of the County, granite from Bishop’s Peak, and brick fired in the brickyards of Chinese-born labor contractor Ah Louis. Dairy cattle were first raised in the Edna Valley on the former Corral de Piedra Rancho by the Steele brothers in the late 1860s. As dairy farming spread to the North Coast, it generated a need for greater maritime commerce. The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse was built north of San Simeon to help protect seagoing commerce and the shore whaling industry. Sea traffic increased, with landings at the People’s Wharf and Captain John Harford’s Wharf at Avila, at Captain James Cass’s wharf at Cayucos, and at Senator George Hearst’s wharf at San Simeon.
Land transportation improved in the 1870s. Chinese labor gangs under the direction of Ah Louis and others constructed county roads north over the Cuesta Grade and south to Los Olivos. Captain Harford began construction of the Pacific Coast Railway in 1872, eventually running a line from his wharf to the city of San Luis Obispo. From there, it continued south to Arroyo Grande and the communities of Los Berros, Nipomo, Central City (now known as Santa Maria), Los Alamos, and Los Olivos. The success of the Pacific Coast Railway and rumors of the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad sparked a land boom in the 1880s; at about the same time, the discovery of gold in the La Panza district in the eastern part of the County brought a rush of miners to the area.
Boom and Bust (1883-1915)
During the 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad pushed a standard gauge railroad south from San Jose. Several towns, including Templeton and Santa Margarita, were established during the North County land boom spurred by the railroad. After a five-year delay, the railroad came to the city of San Luis Obispo in 1894. San Luis Obispo continued to prosper with the founding in 1901 of the vocationally oriented California Polytechnic School. Historian and Tribune editor Myron Angel was the main impetus behind the founding of this school.
In the South County area, thousands of residents of the San Joaquin Valley escaped the heat of the summers in the early 1900s by camping in semi-permanent tent houses at Pismo Beach. Agriculture flourished in the Arroyo Grande Valley and the Oso Flaco region. Port Harford was renamed Port San Luis and became an important oil-shipping port. It served the pipelines from the Santa Maria oil fields from 1907 on, and those from Union Oil’s Taft-Coalinga fields from 1913 on.
World War I to 1940
During World War I, many County farmers turned to the production of navy beans, since these were subsidized by the War Relief Administration. In those days before reliable refrigeration, beans could be shipped to the troops in Europe without spoiling, and the County’s economy boomed.
When peace brought an end to government subsidies, there was an increase in dairy, seed, and truck farming. San Luis Obispo County became a leading dairy and produce center. Hollywood discovered the County during the 1920s, when such movies as The Sheik, The Ten Commandments, and Diamond Jim Brady were filmed here.
In 1920, Mission San Luis Obispo suffered a major fire. To raise funds for the restoration of the Mission, Father Daniel Keenan established the community celebration of La Fiesta de las Flores in 1925. This event became a tradition that lasted until 1995. The County’s agricultural diversity shielded it from the worst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. There were difficult times, however, for many of those who came from other areas looking for work. It was near a migrant camp in Nipomo that photographer Dorothea Lange, working for the Farm Security Administration, took her famous photograph entitled “Migrant Mother.” The County benefited from such Depression-era federal programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Through the involvement of these agencies, the County received a new Courthouse, flood-control projects, and highway improvements.
World War II to the Present
With the onset of World War II, our County’s transportation links and open land areas were deemed useful by the U.S. War Department, which located training camps in the area: Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo, as well as a naval training base at Morro Bay and a Coast Guard station near Cambria. These camps brought into the County nearly 100,000 military personnel, some with their families. Many liked the area so much that they returned to settle here after the war.
In 1942, Executive Order 9066 called for the relocation of more than 800 County residents of Japanese heritage. They were moved from their homes here to camps such as Manzanar in the Owens Valley and Posten in Arizona. The Japanese Americans in this area had been very active in truck farming, but few of them had been able to own land, and only a small number returned to the County after the end of the war.
The County grew rapidly after World War II, with military personnel training for the Korean War helping to maintain the boom in the early 1950s. Growth during the World War II era had shown the need for more water. Santa Margarita Dam was built in the 1940s, followed by the building of the Nacimiento, San Antonio, and Lopez Dams in the 1950s and 60s. Even now, a narrow balance must be maintained between existing supplies of water and increases in population.
Although tourism was part of the County’s economy from the late 19th century on, the numbers of visitors to the area grew steadily with such attractions as clam digging in the Pismo Beach area, the opening of Hearst Castle as a State Park in 1958, and the surge in the number of local wineries. Cal Poly grew dramatically, becoming a part of the State University system in 1972, and Cuesta College moved to a newly constructed campus adjacent to its former quarters at Camp San Luis.