San Luis Obispo was the first mission located in the land of the Chumash people, who occupied the area from Malibu Canyon to San Luis Obispo (over 150 miles). The estimated pre-European Chumash population was as high as 15,000. [fn]"Chumash: Introduction" pp 505 - 508 by Campbell Grant and "Obispeño and Purisimeño" " pp 519-520 by Roberta S. Greenwood in Volume 8 CALIFORNIA in Handbook of North American Indians, Smithsonian Institute: Washington D.C., 1978[/fn] The majority of the Chumash willingly became neophytes, and according to Campbell Grant "by the early 1800s, the entire Chumash population, with the exception of those who had fled into the mountains and inland valleys, had come into the mission system, which ended their way of life." The Chumash who joined the San Luis Obispo Mission were called Obispeño. The mission museum has an extensive display of artifacts and several wall paintings. [inline:slo_08_web.jpg=INDIAN WOMEN PREPARING FOOD]
The mission population declined significantly after secularization. By 1838 there were only 170 Obispeño descendants left at San Luis Obispo. The Chumash were an exceptional group of Native Americans who the Spanish found ”of good disposition, affable, liberal, and friendly" and "extremely intelligent and skillful." The natives lived in well organized villages whose hemispherical houses (which measured between12' and 20' in diameter) were a marvel. The Chumash had advanced woodworking skills, evident in their planked seagoing canoes, called tomols. These were made of driftwood or redwood, in sizes that ranged from 8' to 30' in length. [inline:slo_09_web.jpg=ARTIST DEPICTION OF CHUMASH VILLAGE]
This was an artistic, creative people. Chumash basketry was exceptional, particularly their coiled baskets which were made with "three slender rods of juncus rush, wrapped and sewn together with split strands of the same material. "[fn]The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has an informative presentation on the Chumash, available on line at: http://www.sbnature.org/research/anthro/chumash/daily.htm [/fn] Their rock paintings, mostly found in the interior of the Chumash land, are considered "the most interesting and spectacular in the United States." [fn] Brian Fagan has an extensive discussion of the Chumash on pp. 75-92 in his book Time Detectives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Available online at http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Chumash/Fagan_95.html [/fn] [inline:slo_10_web.jpg=MUSEUM WALL PAINTING SHOWING CHUMASH ROCK ART]
Their primary food sources were acorns and pine nuts; shell fish; sharks, sea bass, halibut and other fish caught in nets or harpooned; game birds and small animals hunted with bows and arrows.