Read All About It: The Irving Gang Massacre of 1851

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the Homestead prepares to offer its fourth and final offering of 2016’s Curious Cases series presentations on notorious criminal events of early American-era greater Los Angeles, this post looks back at the subject of the first of this year’s programs:  the Lugo Case of 1851.

The incident began when the bodies of Patrick McSwiggin and a Creek Indian known only as Sam were discovered near Cajon Pass early that year.  The men were teamsters for Los Angeles residents engaged in mining in the deserts of what became, two years later, San Bernardino County, but were, at the time, still within Los Angeles County.

Suspicion soon rested on two brothers, Menito and Chico Lugo, of a prominent Californio family with extensive landholdings in the region including the Rancho San Bernardino below the pass.  It was alleged that the two were leading a posse of employees and friends in search of Paiute (or Ute) Indians who raided the ranch and stole horses.

While in pursuit, the claim stated, the Lugos came across McSwiggin and Sam and inquired if they’d seen Indians heading north.  Supposedly they were told that there were just a few Indians passed on the road, so the Lugos continued on, only to find a much larger group than anticipated.

Being forced to turn back because they were outnumbered, the Lugos, the allegation went on, took out their anger on McSwiggin and Sam and killed the pair.  A few days later, a detachment of Army troops, then engaged in a series of battles with Indians in southeastern California during a brutal campaign, came upon the remains and buried them.

The case against the Lugos was based almost entirely on testimony elicited from one of their employees, who was in jail on an unrelated charge of larceny.  Moreover, the jailer, recently hired by the county, had been in a physical altercation with the Lugos while staying at their ranch when he and his wife were on their way to settling in Los Angeles.  It may well be that the jailer sought revenge on the Lugos by getting their jailed employee to turn against them by claiming they’d killed McSwiggin and Sam.

The Lugo brothers were arrested and, while they were confined in the jail (which at the time was an old adobe house with a massive log, to which prisoners were chained, laid across the dirt floor), a gang of American and European bandits, led by John “Red” Irving, rode down from the gold fields (the Gold  Rush was then in full swing) on their way to Mexico.  Hearing about the plight of the Lugos, Irving concocted a scheme to free them for a large sum of cash, said to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Irving’s “indecent proposal”, however, was firmly rejected by the family and, enraged, he determined to seize and kill the brothers.  According to their attorney, Joseph Lancaster Brent, whose story cannot often  be corroborated, he organized a defense to protect the jail.  However, another squadron of Army personnel happened to arrive in Los Angeles just as Irving was preparing to take the brothers after they left a court hearing and foiled the bandit chieftain’s plans.

This excerpt from the 24 July 1851 issue of the New York Spectator newspaper of the massacre by Cahuilla Indians of the Irving Gang is taken from the 31 May edition of the Los Angeles Star, which began publication two weeks prior to that.

With his hopes for revenge thwarted, Irving rode back out to San Bernardino to take out his anger on the Lugo family.  On the way, incidentally, he and his gang stole horses from William Workman here at the Homestead.  Shortly after that, though, Irving decided to split his gang, sending some out to the Colorado River to wait until he and eleven other men finished their business with the Lugos, after which the gang was to proceed into Mexico for more marauding.

Brent stated that he sent word ahead to warn the Lugos and, in any  case, when Irving and his compatriots arrived at San Bernardino, the family had fled, leaving allies from the Cahuilla Indian tribe (principally located in and near San Gorgonio Pass near present Banning and Palm Springs) to protect their property.  After a brief skirmish, Irving and his men fled southeast looking for a road to take them to the rest of the fellows.

The problem was, however, that the Cahuillas were in their home territory and ably led by their chief, Juan Antonio, they pursued Irving into San Timoteo Canyon near modern Redlands.  When Irving thought he found a route through the hills to get him into open plains, the Cahuillas knew he had entered a box canyon.  They soon sealed off the entrance and ascended the peaks of the hills and then attacked.

The result was sure, decisive and brutal.  Irving and all of his men, save one who managed to hide and then escape, were quickly slaughtered.  A coroner’s inquest covened to hold a hearing on the site of the massacre and determined that there was no criminal action–which seemed to indicate that the Cahuillas were acting in self-defense.  Evidently, some Anglos in the region were upset that native peoples were exonerated for the killing of white men, even if the latter were hardened thieves.

The item highlighted here is an excerpt of an article from the 24 July 1851 edition of the New York Spectator, which draws directly from the 31 May issue of the Los Angeles Star.  The Star, the first newspaper published in Los Angeles, was launched just two weeks prior, so the account of the Irving Gang massacre was in just the third issue.

The account stated that, after ransacking the home of two Lugo brothers, including that of José María, father of the jailed Lugo boys, the gang headed into the mountains (hills) and were followed by the Cahuillas (spelled “Cowies” in the piece) into the box canyon (described as a “ravine”, which is not the case).  The article stated that the gang was struck down with arrows and then the heads of the members were mashed with rocks.

As for native losses, the Star indicated that only one Indian was killed, though there were rumors of more, perhaps as a way to rationalize that Irving and his men had to have inflicted more damage than that.  It was reported that the Cahuillas numbered some 300-400, a substantially higher number than the dozen in Irving’s gang.

Notably, the Cahuillas were said to have observed that “Irving . . . fought very bravely, and was conscious throughout the engagement, encouraging his men, and charging into the very midst of his opponents.”  It was reported he had five arrow wounds near his heart.

Irving and his gang were said to have had $5,000 with them and these funds, along with all clothing and other possessions were removed.  Notably, the paper referred to an idea held by at least some that

It does appear incredible that twelve well-armed men, most of whom had seen service in Texas [what kind is not explained, however] , and all of whom fought desperately, could have been conquered by Indians and all slain, while their antagonists sustained a loss of but one of their number . . .

Given, however, the geography of the canyon, “those who have viewed the scene of conflict are not at all surprised at the result.”  Finally, it was reported that the Cahuillas were given permission by authorities “to capture all thieves who might infest their neighborhood.”

As for the Lugo brothers, there was a considerable amount of legal deficiencies in the local court system and it took another year before they were freed by county judge Agustín Olvera on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  They may well have killed McSwiggin and Sam, but the unreliability of the principal witness and the lack of information about a crime that appeared in the desert vastness made Olvera’s decision the correct legal one.

As for “Red” Irving and his gang of desperadoes, they met their grisly, but justifiable end in a example of native Indian justice rarely allowed or tolerated in early American California.  The end of the Lugo Case was certainly a remarkable and dramatic one.

2 thoughts

  1. This is a very interesting glimpse into the early history of California. My great-great uncle, one Cameron Macpherson, was a member of Irving’s band of outlaws. I have a letter in my possession from his brother Alexander Wentworth Macpherson, a merchant in San Francisco, providing details of his death in the Irving massacre. According to Alexander, Irving and his band were headed for Sonora, Mexico, to hunt up new gold and silver mines and to “scalp Indians.” With his letter he includes a copy of a missive he received from an Englishman, one of the coroner’s jury who were first on the site of the massacre. In this letter, it states that Cameron was one of the first to die with five arrows in his chest and that the Indians said he “fought bravely.” Cameron and his brothers came from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Alexander was in the employ of the great Scots merchant house of Jardine and Matheson in Hong Kong but came to San Francisco in the Gold Rush. Another brother, Duncan Macpherson, was my great-great grandfather. He was quite a distinguished Victorian. He was a doctor with the Madras Army of the East India company and participated in the First Opium War with China, 1840-42 and wrote a well-received book on the campaign called The War in China that ran to three editions. He was later Inspector General of Hospitals to the Turkish Contingent, a 20,000 man Turkish army under British Officers raised to fight with the French and English against the Russians during the Crimean War. He was stationed at Kertch in the Crimea where he found time to carry out archaeological digs. He later wrote another book called Antiquities of Ketch detailing these excavations. All his finds are in the British Museum in London. He also became good friends with Florence Nightingale. In the family letters in my possession Cameron is obviously the black sheep of the family referred to as “poor Cameron” and “nothing but a wild, roving life will suit him” and so on. He obviously met a well-deserved end.

  2. Hi Mike, sorry for the late response to your very interesting comment to the Irving gang post about the Macphersons. Would you be willing to share a copy of the letter? If so, contact me at Thanks!

Leave a Reply