If Chumash descendant Teresa Raitt had been a more experienced researcher, or if curator John Johnson had been a bit less inquisitive, perhaps the sketches never would have been found.
But thanks to Raitt's zealous research at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Johnson's sharp eye, the two of them have unearthed crude sketches of the original floor plan of the historic San Buenaventura Mission complex--sketches Johnson calls one of a kind.
"I don't know if there is any mission in all of California that has sketches with this level of detail about room function," says Johnson, still excited two months after his discovery. "I'm not an expert, but I don't know of any other case."
Johnson's discovery came in October, shortly after the mission--established in 1782--broke ground for a $5.5-million expansion of its Holy Cross School.
The groundbreaking went ahead as planned, despite a last-minute protest by archeologists working on the site who complained that the mission's pastor was not allowing them to do their work in a professional manner. That, in turn, led to requests by local Chumash that more thorough excavation be done.
The newly discovered documents added even more fuel to the controversy.
Most recently, a prominent anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution waded into the fray, criticizing what he called "indefensible destruction of important portions of this landmark site."
In light of the discovery, Dennis Stanford, chairman of the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., called for "additional detailed archeological work, if not preservation."
Johnson came upon the documents quite by accident.
As Raitt tells the story, she was browsing through some linguistic materials on microfilm at the museum, trying to cull interesting sections from the work of a now-deceased 20th-century anthropologist.
"I went too far," Raitt said, referring to her scrolling of the microfilm. "John came over and looked over my shoulder and said, 'Look at this, it looks interesting.' He didn't know what it was."
So Raitt copied the items and handed them over to Johnson, who promptly stuffed them in his briefcase and forgot about them until several days later, when he gave the documents a closer look.
"I was flipping through," Johnson recalls, "and I realized they were the plans for the San Buenaventura Mission as well as the orchard."
Johnson remembers feeling a tremendous sense of serendipity at the find.
"I thought, wow, that this should come to light right at this particular time when there was this archeological project and the controversy over the remains," Johnson said.
The drawings are those of a Chumash man by the name of Fernando Librado, who was born at San Buenaventura Mission in 1839. His parents came from Santa Cruz Island, and his Chumash name was Kitsepawit.
As a boy, he did sweeping and odd jobs around the mission for the priest.
Decades later, Librado became an invaluable source of information on mission life for anthropologist John Peabody Herrington.
The anthropologist began working with descendants of the Chumash in 1912 and continued until his death in 1961.
Several books have been written about Herrington's work with Librado.
But what wasn't known, Johnson said, was that Herrington obtained a sketch of the layout of San Buenaventura Mission from Librado.
That is not surprising, given Herrington's prolific research. During his lifetime, he compiled more than 300,000 pages on the Chumash in California.
That research now sits in the national anthropology archives of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Indeed, Herrington's work was deemed so significant that funding was set aside to microfilm all of it. The Santa Barbara museum received 300 reels of microfilm of his work about six years ago.
But Herrington was so busy collecting information in his lifetime that he had no time to organize it, Johnson said.
As a result, his papers have become a virtual gold mine of information just waiting to be unearthed by today's scholars.
"That leads to discoveries like this," Johnson said. "Things we were totally unaware of."
Raitt said the sketches are so primitive that she did not realize what they were. They looked more like scribbles than building plans, she said.
Johnson agrees that they were hard to decipher.
"It's definitely a detective game," he said. "For one thing, you have to read Herrington's handwriting. And then the abbreviations in English and Spanish are not easy to interpret."
But from Librado's drawings, Johnson has been able to piece together a vibrant picture of life at the mission. Original floor plans do not exist for any of the missions, according to David Hornbeck, a geography professor at Cal State Northridge who has written numerous books and articles on Hispanic culture in Southern California.
Most missions started out as brush huts in the middle of nowhere, Hornbeck says, and grew gradually over time. The Santa Barbara Mission, for example, was built over 47 years.
The federal government drew plans of the missions in the late 19th century, but those drawings neglected the function of the rooms.
Librado's drawings, in contrast, vividly describe what went on in each room, as well as providing a layout of the mission.
For example, Johnson says, Librado pointed out where the padres slept, dined and received guests.
He added rich details, pointing out where 12 Indian women would grind grain daily and where they would weave--and sing as they did so. He explained what was kept in each storeroom and what kind of a roof the shed had.
Hornbeck confirms that Johnson's find is unprecedented.
"There is nothing like this that I know of," Hornbeck said. "In the past, we had to go from secondhand reports and accounts. This gives us one little glimpse into the life of the everyday mission: how work was organized, an idea of the social structure."
Once he had the sketches in hand, Johnson did all he could to prevent San Buenaventura Mission from expanding its Holy Cross School on top of the original foundation in back of the church structure.
He dashed copies off to Ventura planning and redevelopment manager Tom Figg, to a local Chumash representative, to the site archeologist and to the mission. He wanted to halt construction on the site at 211 E. Main St.
"I question why the [school] project was even conceived of to begin with," Johnson said. "These sites are of national importance. That is probably the most important historic site in Ventura. Why are they going to build on top of it?"
But efforts to stall construction of the expanded Holy Cross School are likely to fail.
Legally, the mission has done all it needs to do to move ahead with construction, Figg said.
On Dec. 17, all the people involved in the controversy held a meeting--including the architect for the school, the mission's Msgr. Patrick O'Brien, Figg and representatives from the local Chumash community.
Although he wishes the foundation could be saved, Johnson said he feels better now that he has seen the care with which the plan for the school has been drawn--to interfere as little as possible with the foundation.
"If this project goes ahead," Johnson said, "they [the ruins] aren't being destroyed. They are being sealed in time, like a time capsule."
Besides, he added, the building of the school will not detract from the value of the drawings.
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this story.