Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Post at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
(Camp San Luis Rey)
The Mormon Battalion camped at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in late 1846. Then the Army initiated small garrisons here to provide protection for travelers through the area. A camp was established on the San Luis River, about two miles from the coast and some 35 miles northwest of San Diego. It was abandoned on June 23, 1849. On April 18, 1850, however, a new post was established at Mission San Luis Rey. The troops were withdrawn in June 1852. The church and mission, just south of the U.S. Marines' Camp Pendleton, have been restored and the ruins of the soldiers' barracks are on the site located three and a half miles east of Oceanside. One military historian claims that only one site served both camps.
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired)
"Require from the soldiers personal labor in erecting the necessary buildings, without murmuring at site or work, and with implicit obedience to Padre Lasuen," ordered Governor Borico in 1798 when guard detachment was provided to protect new mission. Average of 16 soldiers lived here even after padres were ousted in 1835, but were unable to prevent looting and gradual stripping of mission buildings. No Indian attacks took place during mission days, possibly because it was most successful of all missions with several hundred converts living around it.
This 1850 sketch by H.M.T. Powell shows the barracks in good condition. Taken from : Mission San Luis Rey: A Pocket History, by Harry Kelsey

Each mission was established with three cooperating entities: civil, religious, and military. Although not a fort, or presidio, the barracks housed the military arm of the mission system. Between five and eleven Spanish soldiers assigned to protect this mission resided in these barracks. The building had several apartments and a tower. The barracks were located in front of the Mission. U.S. Army occupation used tents and mission buildings in 1847-49 and 1850-52, was mainly to provide protection to travelers between San Diego and Los Angeles. When the mission was abandoned, the barracks fell into ruins. Today a fence surrounds the area where the barracks once stood, guarding the remnants of the centuries old structure.
"This immense mission structure, with an imposing church in an angle, built about 60 years previously, was found in good condition," reported General Philip St. George Cooke when he camped Mormon Battalion at San Luis Rey in January, 1846. "The battalion found ample quarters . . and immediately commenced a thorough instruction of the battalion in tactics." Without books, Cooke found this difficult "teaching and drilling officers half the day, and superintencling, in the other half, their efforts to impart what they had imperfectly learned." Battalion left the mission in April. One soldier died, was buried in church garden.
Sailors turned soldiers may not have liked the unaccustomed routine of being plodding infantrymen, but at Camp San Luis Rey they found that it had at least one advantage.
The story was told by Ordinary Seaman Joseph T. Downey in The Cruise of the Portsmouth. This was a personal account of the tribulations of the 200 shipboard sailors and Marines who joined Kearney's advance in Los Angeles.
More enthusiastic than effective, the seagoing troopers bad swung out of San Diego on December 28, 1846, "with a cheer that made the heavens ring." They had not been daunted by Commodore Stockton's inglorious attempts to make "Horse Marines" out of their brethren in the Corps. Nor were they discouraged when their oxen gave out before they had crossed the dry San Diego river beds. Men replaced oxen as the prime movers for the 30 or 40 wagons during the five day bike to San Luis Rey where new oxen were obtained.
"One of those ancient and massive structures found all over Mexico and California," San Luis Rey impressed Downey as "at once wonderful and pleasing to the weary traveler." Although "the gardens and fountains were overgrown and choked with weeds, tall grass and mud," the men found 11 some splendid vineyards close by the mission, and more grateful than all to us, there was found after inspection a quantity of good wine, which was served out to us, at the rate of a pint to each man in the evening and the same quantity on the next morning."
The landing force was quartered in the square next to the mission. Care was taken to respect the 50 year old adobe buildings. This respect did not prevent the party from memorializing its visit by "leaving as mementoes the names and effigies of our separate ships, done in charcoal upon the whitewashed walls of each separate companies rooms."
It also did not prevent "some lawless fellows, who certainly deserve not the name of men" from breaking into the church. Downey said that "a deep stain" was cast "upon our little army" when these men stole "a lot of the gold and silver utensils used in the celebration of the rites of this sect and feloniously carried them off and sold them at the pueblo."
Punishment of other culprits was the occasion that revealed that the soldiers lot was not all bad. It also established that the landing force, as a ground command, was to be governed by the Rules of the Army rather than the Navy.
The incident started when an officer from USS Cyane instructed a petty officer to fashion a set of 11 cat of nine tails" to punish several men for minor infractions. General Kearny heard about the plan and "cooly walked into the room, and taking up the articles in question, he asked in his easy manner what they were and what they were for," wrote Downey.
"'Then,' said Lt. H ------- - why General, them are cats and are for the punishment of sailors when they are unruly.'
"'Well, well,' says the General, deliberately taking out his knife and cutting the cats to pieces, 'if you find it impossible to curb your jacks, without resort to these things, allow me to tell you, that you shall punish none of my jacks with any such articles, and allow me to inform you at the same time young man, that every Jack in this battalion, is heart and soul mine.' When having finished cutting off the tails, he deliberately threw the handle into the fire, and turning on his heel, left the young officer, with something very like a flea in his ear."
Commodore Stockton supported Kearney's actions. This won for both officers the approval of the Tars of the Pacific Squadron. When the expedition left after an overnight stay at San Luis Rey, the sailors were calling Kearny "Our Old Soldier" and Stockton, "Fighting Bob." The sailors "had now found out beyond all question that there were at least two along, and big bugs too, to whom we could appeal in case of need."
Mission San Luis Rey, when Bartlett's border survey commission visited it in 1852, impressed Bartlett, "with such a range of buildings and cultivated grounds, a prince or a nabob might luxuriate to his heart's content." In absence of "the officer in command," commission "was hospitably entertained by the sergeant in charge." At that time Army had "placed a file of soldiers here to protect the property and keep off plunderers and squatters."
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was described in diary of Mormon soldier, Nathaniel V. Jones: "The whole front is about 10,200 feet in length. There was a beautiful piazza which was separated by beautiful turned arches about 10 feet in width and two and a half feet thick . . . The building covered nearly four acres of ground . . . It is the best building I have seen in California." Dimensions were not quite accurate in Jones' report, actual frontage was 600 feet and buildings covered 6.5 acres. Returned to Catholic Church in 1865, it was used in 1892 as refuge from Mexico's religious persecution.
This page was reprinted with permission from Pioneer Forts of the Far West, published in 1965
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Updated 10 August 2017