by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In a new state recently transformed by the twin tempests of the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush, another source of conflict was between California’s indigenous people and Americans and Europeans who were flocking to the coast during the heady years of the rush.
The latter were mainly composed of young men, cut loose from ties of family and “settled society” in their hometowns and home lands, often fueled by prodigious amounts of alcohol, and better armed with the arrival of the recently developed Colt revolver. Many of them brought deep-seated hatreds and fears of Indians and were ready to act upon them.
The situation was greatly complicated by the near total lack of a competent legal and policing structure because the state government, barely a year into existence in early 1852, was in the early stages of development and there was a very, very long way to go before it could be considered anywhere near efficient.
As to the native people, their side of the conflict is not readily available, but we can at least try to empathize with their plight. About eighty years after Europeans, during the Spanish period, came to colonize and Christianize the “heathen,” the toll on the indigenous was terrible, mirroring what generally happens anywhere in the world when colonizers conquer. Disease, violence, alcoholism and other horrors visited upon natives reduced their population from several hundred thousand to just a fraction of this within decades.
As bad as the problems were during the Spanish and Mexican periods, they intensified during the first couple of decades of the American era, as greater numbers of Anglos with better armaments and a determined desire to solidify their domination of California descended upon the indigenous.
Generally speaking, the worst of the violence took place in the gold regions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the far northern part of the state, where eradication was often a clear and stated goal. In the south, matters were somewhat different, but today’s entry concerns an outright state of war that existed early in the 1850s between Indians and Americans and Europeans in Los Angeles and San Diego counties (this was before the creation of the counties of San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial and Orange).
The 12 January 1852 edition of the New York Spectator, a twice-weekly edition of news from the New York Commercial Advertiser, includes dispatches sent from far-flung California and discussing the state of tension existing in the southern part of the new state at the end of the previous year.
The Commercial Advertiser was founded in the 1790s and, as its name implies, was dedicated to economic matters, but did cover politics and news and was a Federalist-leaning sheet. Its news-oriented subsidiary, the Spectator, was launched in the first years of the new century and continued to publish until just after the Civil War.
Obviously, Gold Rush California was a source of great fascination for readers of the newspaper, so regular dispatches from the west coast were published. This one concerned an order by Governor John McDougal to San Francisco Sheriff Colonel John C. Hays, in which he stated:
I have received reliable information from the citizens and civil authorities of San Diego, that the Indians in that portion of the state have assumed a hostile and menacing attitude toward the whites; and have actually committed depredations and outrages upon the lives and properties of our citizens . . .
With very few Americans and Europeans in that region, McDougal ordered Hays to call up a volunteer infantry of 100 men to be mustered into service for up to three months, which pay and expenses to be approved by the legislature at its next session. Once the force was gathered, they were to be divided into two companies and proceed to San Diego to assist in pacifying the natives.
Among those appointed officers were Alexander Wells, a native of New York and 1850 migrant to California who was soon appointed and then elected as an associate justice in the state supreme court before his untimely death in 1854 at age 35; Alexander H. Sibley, son of Detroit’s first mayor and a wealthy mine owner in Michigan later in life; Samuel Purdy, the first mayor of Stockton (1851) and a lieutenant governor from 1852-1856; and John W. Geary, San Francisco’s first mayor and later a Civil War brigadier general and mayor of Pennsylvania and for whom Geary Street in San Francisco is named.
As this force, however, was readying and as fifty U.S. Army troops had sailed south from Benicia and reached Monterey, news was sent that the conflict around San Diego was over. The revolt led by Cupeño Indian Chief Antonio Garra because of ongoing conflicts among his people and the increasing presence of Anglos in the region, including anger over new American concepts of taxation and the age-old one of racial violence, led to planned attacks on San Diego, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, as well as an army camp along the Colorado River.
Garra sought assistance from other Indian tribal groups, some of which joined his effort while other demurred. An attack on the camp in mid-November 1851 proved ultimately unsuccessful as did an attack at Warner’s Ranch on the inland route between San Diego and Los Angeles, though some Anglos were killed. The tenuous alliance of natives crumbled when Cahuilla Chief Juan Antonio, based near Palm Springs and a rival of Garra, agreed to a meeting and then seized Garra and handed him over to General Joshua Bean, who led the local effort against Garra.
On 8 January 1852, a “military tribunal” of local militia and others in San Diego, including Bean, Cave Couts (who had a ranch near Mission San Luis Rey in modern Carlsbad, four other Anglos and one Californio, Santiago Argüello, convicted Garra of robbery, murder and treason. Two days later, the Indian chief was executed by a firing squad. On 13 December 1851, an American accused of working with Garra in plotting the murder of four Americans was hung and four Indian associates of the Cupeño leader were executed ten days after that.
There was, however, a letter by William C. Ferrell of San Diego (and who was a later district attorney and assessor there) claiming that the Indian revolt was not over despite reports. Ferrell, on his way to Los Angeles with Bean and others, wrote that there were Indians at Temecula, led by Chief Pablo Apis, who told them other natives were gathering to fight the whites further. Ferrell also stated that Juan Antonio was in the San Bernardino Mountains and rumor (always running rampant in time of real or perceived crisis) was that he was pondering whether to join a new phase of the revolt.
Ferrell knew of the reports that the Cahuilla chieftain captured Garra “and was taking him to Los Angeles” and then San Diego. He wrote that “it is inferred that peace is restored, and all danger at an end,” but wondered if this really was so. He finished his narrative by asking “is there any evidence that they will not destroy another rancho? That they will not slaughter in cold blood the next American that falls in their way? I think not.”
The Spectator claimed to have received news from Los Angeles sent in late November that
In the vicinity . . . fourteen whites had been murdered by the Indians, and there was a very general excitement arising from an apprehension of a general Indian insurrection.
The paper printed a statement that “disaffection is much too wide-spread, and the preparations among the Indians much to systematic and extensive” to be quelled by the capture of Garra. It was also claimed that “the lower class of the Californians” were in sympathy with the natives and could provide some undetermined level of support.
Meanwhile, the account continued that
the gentlemen in Los Angeles who have united in their exertions to procure men, arms, ammunition, etc. etc. are old residents in that section of the state. They know every inch of its territory, understand all its resources, and are intimately conversant with the number and character of its Indian tribes.
It was stated that these unnamed Angelenos stated clearly that they were in significant danger and claimed that there was irrefutable proof that there was “one unbroken and dangerous chain of tribes from Santa Barbara to the Rio Colorado” ready to attack. Consequently, it was opined that “certain immediate steps should be taken to forward to Los Angeles a sufficiency of arms and munitions of war to answer every emergency which may arise.”
As is so often the case, fear and mistrust feed rumor, especially when some of the kindling comes from racism. The fears that, after Garra’s capture and execution, that a massive coordinated expansion of hostilities throughout the entire southern portion of the state was on the offing were unfounded.
A clear Los Angeles connection was not only established through the reports of the murders and the quote from the unidentified “gentlemen” in the town. William C. Ferrell was the county’s first district attorney before he moved to San Diego. Jonathan Trumbull Warner of the San Diego County ranch of that name was an early American migrant to Los Angeles, was baptized and known as “Juan Jose” or J.J. Warner and was a close friend of the Workman and Temple families.
Finally, General Joshua Bean, after his campaign against Garra, relocated to San Gabriel in 1852, taking up proprietorship of The Headquarters saloon next to the mission. That November, however, he was murdered late at night near his home and a poor cobbler named Sandoval was lynched for the crime, which was likely committed by Felipe Reid, son of Victoria Bartolomea, a prominent native at the mission. Bean’s brother, Roy, who was with his brother at San Gabriel and stayed for several years in Los Angeles County, later went on to be the famous hanging judge of the Pecos in Texas.
Garra’s revolt was easily the most important of the uprisings by indigenous people in the American period, but it was hardly the only one during the years after European incursions some eight decades prior to his insurrection. As bravely as the natives fought, they were badly outnumbered and even more gravely at a disadvantage in firepower, much less the onslaught of disease and alcoholism. The New York Spectator article is a window into the terrible confrontation between the indigenous people of southern California and the rising tide of Americans and Europeans during the Gold Rush period.