Roots and Acorns: Old Town San Diego State Parks Honors Garra Day: A Celebration of the Life

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By Abel Silvas A.K.A. Running grunion

In January of 1831, Manuel Victoria, the newly appointed Governor of the Mexican territory of Alta California, was sent to stop a small group of wealthy citizens who wanted to take possession of mission lands under the secularization order and remove all Native American tenants. Victoria called two of the men in this group — José Antonio Carrillo and Abel Stearns— “traitors” and called for their execution (though he “stayed” his execution orders and instead had them banished from Alta California). They ended up sneaking to San Diego and by December 6th had recruited a small army to defeat Victoria in Los Angeles.

There were also a few Americans, such as Abel Stearns, who became Catholic Mexican citizens in order to obtain land grants.

It appears John J. Warner was one of Portilla’s recruits in 1831, as Warner reports he was in San Diego in early November via Valley de San Jose and in Los Angeles a day before the battle. Although Warner was in Los Angeles at the same time Governor Victoria was being defeated at the Battle of Cahuenga Pass (December 6, 1831), I speculate that he, too, was among the small group of citizens and was considered a “traitor” by Governor Victoria along with Carrillo and Stearns. (“Colonel J.J. Warner 1907. Reminiscences of Early California, 1831 to 1846,” Southern California Quarterly, Volume 7)

The village of Cupa, a Cupeño center of civilization at the time John J. Warner arrived in the 1800s, was historically a major crossroads, cultural center, and trading outpost for numerous Native American tribes in the region and beyond. These include the coastal and island inhabitants of the Gabrieleño, Juaneño, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay, among others. They also include tribes down south to the Kumiai, Kiliwa, Pai Pai, and Cochimi of Baja, to the north as far as the Ohlones/Costanoans in the Monterey area, as well as tribes along the Colorado River and beyond.

Going back to Pre-Contact, or before the Spanish arrived in 1769, archaeological evidence suggests that Native Americans inhabited the region in and around the village of Cupa and Cupa Hot Springs for more than 13,000 years. It was highly desirable location in ancient times, not only because of the water source near a desert region, but also because of the natural hot springs, which were believed to have healing properties and served as a sort of ancient hospital.

The area was also an important site as a major crossroads throughout Southern California and in fact throughout the western hemisphere (including Alta Baja California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Mexico, the Pacific Islands, and even locations as far away as China and Spain, based on missionaries’ reports). Numerous paths in all directions have been documented that led in and out of Cupa Village. Many significant trails led out of the town toward the coast to Oceanside, one toward Los Angeles and one toward San Diego. Oral stories & songs indicate that many tribal people passed through, some en route to hunting grounds. Others were “runners,” or ancient mail carriers who spread news across the region. In fact, local coastal Indians were told of Spaniards even before Cabrillo’s arrival in San Diego by Yuman tribes from the Colorado River who quite possibly passed through Cupa with this news:

“... having cast anchor, they [Cabrillo’s men] went ashore where there were people... They gave signs of great fear... The next day in the morning, 3 adult Indians came to the ships and said by signs that in the interior, men like us were travelling about, bearded, clothed, and armed like those of the ships. They made signs that they carry crossbows and swords, and they made gestures with the right arm as if they were throwing lances, and ran around as if they were on horseback. They made signs that they were killing many Native Indians, and for this reason they were afraid...” (American Journals Collection: Relation of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, 1542–1543, Wisconsin Historical Society, Document No. AJ-001, 2003)

The Native Americans’ ability to adapt is evident through the Spanish Period (1769–1820), during which a network of missions was established & many Indians converted to Christianity. (Nearby Mission San Luis Rey had the largest population of Indians, one reason being that they were allowed to return to their native villages.) The Cupa area was used for grazing/farming purposes by the missions, who used Native American labor for their farming operations. Mission fathers taught the Cupeños to herd cattle, sheep, and goats, and also to grow crops.

Father Junipero Serra, however, promised the Native Americans that they would be allowed to keep their land. Given the benefit of grazing rights, the tribes adapted and remained at Cupa and other villages throughout this period.

The Mexican Period, from 1821–1848, began with Mexico’s independence from Spain. During this period Native Americans became citizens of Mexico and were given the same benefits as other citizens, including self-enterprise. The Cupeños became entrepreneurs of the hot springs, running them in effect like a modern resort, with empty brush houses serving as hotel rooms.

The new Mexican policy of “secularization” (post-Spanish rule) was to close the missions and redistribute the land in the form of Mexican ranchos. The Cupeños were again allowed to remain living on their tribal lands. They were given cattle and sheep, along with the hope of self-sufficiency. Mexican counterparts replaced the Spanish “fathers” as counterparts of the Cupeños’ territory.

After resistance from a group of wealthy citizens, Warner was granted a parcel of the Cupa Valley in 1844. He stayed until 1851, a total of 7 years, but he continued to own the land into the American Period and run it using Native American labor. Ever resilient, the Indians again remained in the area.

The American Period, which began after 1846, saw an influx of more outsiders traveling to and through Cupa Village. Among them were the U.S. military, U.S. citizens from the east, goldseekers and miners, and settlers seeking land and financial opportunities

Major changes — including uprisings, legal challenges, and cultural changes — would follow in the decades to come. Native Americans again remained in the area, continuing to graze and farm; however, their previous Mexican counterparts were now replaced by American occupiers, who were less accommodating to California Indians and did not recognize them as citizens (as the Mexican government did). The Americans also brought with them more diseases and state militias that decimated many tribes’ populations. (“John Work, J.J. Warner, and the American Catastrophe of 1833,” Peter Ahrens, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 1-32)

Hence we see the resiliency of the Cupeños, who adapted and remained living in the area — long known as the village of Cupa and Cupa Hot Springs before being renamed Warner Hot Springs — from ancient times and throughout Spanish, Mexican, and American jurisdictions.

Rebellion at Warner’s Ranch

“Before Euro-American emigrants went west to California to settle, mine, or otherwise make their fortunes, they had clear notions of what Indians were and what should be done with them. Ingrained thinking about Native Americans brought by emigrants to California arguably proved to be more significant than anything emigrants learned on the road west or from experience in their new home. This was significant to the pattern of Indian-white relations in California because Euro-Americans’ view of Native Americans as inhuman animals helped to minimize any vacillations over whether or not to exterminate them.” — Brendan C. Lindsay (Murder State. California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873, pg. 35)

Two cornerstones of American democracy are that there shall be no taxation of the people without representation and that all citizens shall have the right to due process under the law. These very principles led to the American colonists’ rebellion against their British rulers and heralded the American Revolution. As history shows, these revered rights would be secured by citizens of the newly formed United States of America.

Ironically, only decades later, the Cupeño people would revolt against the U.S. government for some of the very same reasons the Americans had revolted against the British. In the mid- 1800s, California Indians had no vote and no representation, yet they found themselves being taxed by a government who granted them few, if any, legal rights.

Two years later, on December 3, 1846, General Stephen Kearny arrived at the village of Cupa on his way to fight the Californios during the U.S.-Mexican War. The following account by Jose Rivera (Fighting the United States for American Principles: The 1851 Garra Revolt. California Council For The Humanities, “History Alive!” Chautauqua) illustrates the ironic inequality with which Native Americans who had long lived in and around Warner’s ranch were treated by the new U.S. government.

“There [at the village of Cupa] Kearny met with Antonio Garra, who was the traditional leader (‘naat’) of Cupa and a direct descendant from the prestigious Kavalim clan. Garra was educated at Mission San Luis Rey, where the Cupeños were missionized, and he expressed his desire for peace with the Americans.

Garra said he intended to not participate in the hostile actions between the Californios and the Americans; he assured Kearny that the Cupeños would merely go about their work. In turn, Kearny promised the Cupeño people that they would be well treated by the United States, provided that they maintain the peace and work hard. Days later Kearny’s army would be defeated by the Californios, in what became known as the Battle of San Pasqual.

After their meeting with General Kearny, the Cupeño people witnessed a long procession of military units and American immigrants passing through their territory. Antonio Garra consequently met a number of prominent Mexican and American citizens, and impressed many of them. For example, in January 1847, Garra met George Cook and his Mormon Battalion, and he led them into upper Temecula Valley. Two years later, Garra met J. Couts, who later worked for Mexicanized retired Boston sea captain Abel Stearns in the Los Angeles area.

Garra grew distressed at the number of immigrants flooding the valley, including John Warner, who after successfully petitioning Governor Manuel Micheltorena for a grant of land embracing the Valle de San Jose, including Agua Caliente, settled near the Cupeño villages and had hungry eyes for their hot springs.

The tax leading to the Garra revolt began when the county of San Diego decided which Indian groups were taxable. Eventually, the Americans determined that the ‘mission’ Indians, including the Cupeños, were subject to the tax, but that the ‘wild’ Indians were not. Some believe that this may have been motivated by a bit of jealousy, given how successful the Cupeños were.

In 1850 a state tax for the Cupeño people was assessed at $600, and Sheriff Agostin Haraszthy, a newly arrived Hungarian immigrant, was ordered to collect it. A year later, however, General Joshua Bean, commander of the California Militia, told Haraszthy that the California Indians were under the jurisdiction of the federal government, and therefore not subject to San Diego taxes. When Haraszthy returned to San Diego to confirm Bean’s position, the county again ordered him back to the Cupeños’ village to collect the tax. In lieu of American greenbacks, he eventually took cattle and horses as payment.

The rising tide of immigrants, along with the unfair taxes with no returns or representation, the failure of redress, and other issues forced Antonio Garra to consider revolting, or at least attempting to get rid of the Americans.

Garra conceived a plan to unite the various Indian villages into forces able to rid the country of Americans, but only Americans. In an attempt to unite the Indian people of Southern California, Garra sent runners to Indian villages as far north as the Central Valley, east beyond the Colorado River, south to the border, and perhaps beyond as well. Garra tried to form an alliance with the Californios as well, and the name that most frequently appears in his communication with the Californios was Jose Antonio Estudillo, one of the most prominent Californios.

Unfortunately, unity was not forthcoming. Many of the Indian people in the Central Valley had already signed treaties with the American commissioners and wanted to keep their word. Closer to home, the Cahuilla leader, Juan Antonio, was jealous of Garra’s influence over the Los Coyotes Canyon Cahuillas, since he himself had long wanted to bring the Los Coyotes Canyon Cahuillas people into his own sphere of influence

Garra wanted to wait until the alliance could be forge, but the young men with him were too eager to start the revolt. The Yumas attacked the crossing station along the Colorado River. This attack would most likely have been successful had it not been for the American soldiers’ howitzer cannons.

Meanwhile, the young Cupeños attacked John Warner’s store and ranch. Warner barely escaped, and two Americans were killed in the attack. When an American military unit was sent to the scene of the Warner’s Ranch attack, they headed for the Los Coyotes Canyon Cahuillas. There a massacre ensued in which Cahuillas and Cupeños alike were killed indiscriminately by American soldiers.

‘Now the blow is struck,’ Garra wrote to prominent Californio Jose Estudillo, shortly afterwards. ‘If I have life I will go and help you, because all the Indians are invited in all parts, and it is possible that the San Bernardinos (Cahuillas) are now rising and here a man by the name of Juan Berno (Verdugo) told me that the white people (Californios) waited for me... you will arrange with the white people and Indians and send me your word.’

Cahuilla leader Juan Antonio, who was warned by the American officials in Los Angeles not to join in the hostilities, saw his chance to rid himself of his rival Garra and to finally bring the Los Coyotes Canyon Cahuillas into his spear of influence.

Juan Antonio requested a meeting with Garra at his Cahuilla village. Although Garra had been warned by his followers not to go to Antonio’s camp, for fear of a trap, he went nonetheless. Upon arriving, Garra sat down at Antonio’s request, presumably to parley. Some men came up from behind Garra and captured him. Juan Antonio then turned Garra over to the American authorities.

Garra was arraigned on charges of treason, murder, and robbery. A military court martial was convened. His defense attorney argued that Garra could not be held for treason because, as the leader of his people, he had taken no oath of allegiance to the United States, meaning that Garra was, in fact a prisoner of war. Furthermore, his attorney argued, Garra was not present at the desert attack on the sheep herders, nor at Warner’s house and store.

The court agreed that the defense attorney was correct in that Garra was innocent of treason. However, since Garra was the leader of the revolt, the court decided Garra was still responsible for the attacks, and found him guilty of murder and robbery. The court sentenced him to death.

Antonio Garra refused to repent or otherwise express sorrow for attempting to organize a revolt. On the way to his execution, he was asked by the priest to pray and repent. Standing in front of a ten-man firing squad, Garra showed no fear, but rather contempt. Again the priest asked Garra to repent, and to satisfy the priest, Garra said, ‘Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for all my offenses, and expect yours in return.’

Garra was executed at 4:30pm on January 10, 1852, in Old Town San Diego, having been sentenced at 3pm that same day. It was said that Garra even laughed as the firing squad shot him. One witness recounted, ‘No man could have met his faith in a more brave and dignified manner than did Antonio Garra. I could not but feel a sort of sympathy for him, notwithstanding his crime.’” (“Warners Springs History Shadowed by a Conflict,” Vincent Nicholas Rossi, San Diego Union-Tribune, January 28, 2007)

Even though defeated and executed, Garra was considered by many Native Americans of his day — and descendants up to present day as well — as a martyr who gave his life for a cause he believed in. His actions in taking on the U.S. government were a bold cry for equal treatment for his people. And a result of his uprising was the creation of many treaties between the U.S. government and local tribes — this is a reason that San Diego County has more reservations than any other county in the nation.

And modern-day Warner Springs Resort, as the site of a rebellion that’s notable and remembered by local tribes, clearly has historical significance that should be taken into consideration.

At the time Garra’s Revolt began and John J. Warner was active in California politics, the California governor spoke plainly of his constituents’ opinion of Native Americans. (Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians, Kimberly Johnston-Dodds, California State Library, September 2002) His words are a matter of public record and are forever etched in California’s history:

“That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected; while we cannot anticipate this result with but painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power and wisdom of man to advert.” — Peter H. Burnett, Governor of California, Address to the Legislature, January 7, 1851

Cook, Friend Sherburne. “The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization.” Ibero-Americana, vol. III: The American Invasion, 1848–1870, no. 23. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1943.

Evans, William Edward. “The Garra Uprising: Conflict Between San Diego Indians and Settlers in 1851.” California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 4. San Francisco, 1966.

Hudson, Millard Fillmore. “The Last Indian Campaign in the Southwest.” The Pacific Monthly, vol. 17, no. 2. Portland, Oregon, 1907.

Loomis, Noel M. The Garra Uprising of 1851. San Diego: Brand Book II, San Diego Corral of Westerners, 1971.

Phillips, George Hardwood. Chief and Challengers: Indian Resistance Cooperation in Southern California. University of California Press, 1975.

Eviction At Cupa

Although in 1901 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Cupeños’ claim of land ownership around Cupa Valley and Cupa Hot Springs, and in favor of Warner and other recent immigrants to the area, in the minds of many Native Americans the issue was far from over when the case concluded. In fact, some consider the forced relocation of the Cupeños to Pala Reservation in 1903 as a Southern California version of the famous “Trail of Tears,” in which Cherokee Indians from North Carolina were relocated to Oklahoma.

“You ask us to think what place we like next best to this place where we always live. You see that graveyard out there? There are our fathers and our grandfathers. You see that Eagle-nest mountain and that Rabbit-hole mountain? When God made them, he gave us this place. We have always been here. We do not care for any other place. It may be good, but it is not ours. There is no other place for us. We do not want you to buy us any other place. If you do not buy this place we will go into the mountains like quail and die there, the old people and the women and the children. Let the government be glad and proud. It can kill us. We do not fight. We do what it says. If we cannot live, we want to go into those mountains and die. We do not want any other home.”

— Cupeño Leader Cecilio Blacktooth March 1902, during a meeting between Cupeño Indians at Agua Caliente and U.S. Commissioners in charge of finding them a suitable reservation

Both ex-governor John Downey and James McCoy, the infamous “Indian Killer,” immigrated to the United States from Ireland, and both arrived in California around the same time in 1850. (McCoy arrived with the U.S. Army and was stationed at San Luis Rey Mission. His first assignment was protecting European-Americans from Native American attacks in San Diego County. (“James McCoy: Lawman and Legislator,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, Fall 1977, Volume 23, No. 4) Downey also arrived in Los Angeles to start his political career; he was elected to the Los Angeles Common Council in May of 1852 and eventually elected governor in 1860 (at the same time Warner was a state assemblyman).

In my opinion, this was the beginning of a 50-year eviction process for the Cupeños. Meanwhile, during this time Antonio Garra wanted to live in peace with the Americans, but his people were being taxed by San Diego County, military and gold rushers were trampling all through his ancestral lands, the current governor announced Indian extermination, and he was executed for standing up for his people’s rights.

In 1851, the U.S. military (possibly McCoy’s Magruder unit) burned down the Village of Cupa during Garra’s Uprising. For decades, men like Warner had their eyes on Cupa Valley and the hot springs, and it was not until 1903 that former Governor John Downey’s dream of removing the Cupeños came to pass.

I blame John J. Warner for bringing the mass hysteria to the citizens of San Diego. J.J. Warner arrives California in 1831 and was a key person who helped start genocide of Native Americans. Between 1832-36 he appears in Los Angeles and was outspoken siding with the wrong camp; he was jailed at least twice, called a liar, traitor, and involved in shady dealings; he encourage the acquisition of California; encourage the establishment of the railroad to open communication and travel with the east; and engaging in unsound business deals. By1837 he became political active in Los Angeles and requested capital punishment. While traviling to New York in 1839, he gave two lectures in which he discussed the ideal living conditions of California and the significant of the Pacific coast in the development of the U.S. In 1841 his speech printed on the east and was an individual effort in reviving interest in California, interest which had waned during the 1837-41 Van Buren administration. Then in 1844 he was granted the Valle de San Jose (today's Warners Ranch). Two years later he and Abel Stearns were “Special Indian Agents” for Thomas Larken during the U.S. take over of California.

Finally in 1851 he was forced to leave his home as a result of the Garra Revolt. He than spread the news in town, the result of which was general panic and the organization of a group of men tagged “Fitzgerald's Volunteers”. Then burned the entire Village of Kupa down.