SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO : A Glimpse of Old West at Mission

Tucked in the south wing of the 215-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano, the Rancho Period Room is like a museum within a museum.

For the past six years, archeologist Nicolaus Magalousis has filled the Rancho Period Room with artifacts and scenes of the American Old West that are free for viewing to visitors reflecting on Southern California history in tours of the ancient mission.

Magalousis, the director of the mission’s museum and an archeologist at Chapman University, is particularly excited about the current display of photography by Edward H. Davis, who lived with American Indians while he chronicled their lifestyle about a century ago.

“Davis is one of the best, if not the best, photographer of Indian lifestyles, certainly in California, if not the country,” Magalousis said. “Davis undoubtedly ranks with the real greats in this field.”


Davis roamed Southern California and Mexico about 100 years ago and produced a collection of photographs that anthropologists praise for their depiction of the basic lifestyle of the age: religious rituals, housing, the making of baskets, as well as a variety of bows and arrows.

“It’s a visual history of a nearly extinct lifestyle,” Magalousis said. “Historians, anthropologists and archeologists often must guess what certain tools or baskets were used for. These photographs confirm many of the guesses.”

Davis had the benefit of eating, sleeping and traveling with the American Indians in the process of photographing them, Magalousis said. “Edward Davis had a dual reality, he had a dual existence,” Magalousis said. Davis “lived in both worlds, as an Anglo who was also accepted as an Indian.”

The mission and Magalousis are now the owners of 111 Davis prints, a gift from a private San Diego collector. Magalousis was doing research in San Diego County when he came across the photographs, which were contained in 35 boxes of negatives, prints and glass slides.


“I looked through them briefly and realized right away that this was a rare and important collection,” he said.

The majority of the Davis collection is now in the hands of the San Diego Historical Society.

Six years ago, Magalousis opened the Rancho Period Room museum with a display he acknowledged was a bit odd: snails, very old ones. “We had photography of Indian rock art throughout Mexico and prehistoric snails, something like 20 million years old,” Magalousis said.

The next feature for the museum--scheduled to open in February--will be oil and watercolor scenes from the West back to the early 20th Century done by artist Ellen Grimm.


The museum also opened a new bookstore last Saturday. Both the museum and the bookstore are free to all mission visitors.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

More information on the museum is available by calling (714) 248-2043.