by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the many challenges in the American body politic and society in its history has been the status of its indigenous persons, or Indians. From the time the first English migrants arrived early in the 17th century, the relentless march of Europeans across the continent subjected native peoples to an unending series of devastating wars, largely meaningless treaties, ravages of diseases, dire effects of alcoholism, false promises, forced relocations, and other manifestations of an often brutal and bloody conquest.
In the latter part of the 18th century, missionaries, soldiers and colonists from the Spanish dominions of Mexico entered California with their own form of conquest. The situation was in many ways different than what took place elsewhere in the continent, but the general effect was largely the same. Nearly all native peoples perished within decades of that incursion and the slowly increasing population of the Spanish and Mexicans hastened the decline of the indigenous more rapidly.
With the American seizure of Mexican California and the contemporaneous discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains came a migration of people from all over the world that was unique in history. Already vulnerable natives were even more exposed to abuse and bloodshed, especially in the absence of any meaningful form of government and law enforcement. Greed and racism were a particularly heinous mixture in many who came to California and gave little or no thought to the indigenous people.
Small wonder, then, that many natives rose up, from the time of the Spanish colonization of California to the first years of the American era, in anger and frustration over the treatment meted out to them by so many of the invaders. Sadly, most of the indigenous were ill equipped to defend themselves against the powerful weapons used against them, including the newly introduced Colt revolver, which appeared as the Gold Rush was in full swing.
Still, there were some spirited efforts of defense employed by native peoples throughout California, with one of the better-known local examples being the revolt led by Antonio Garra, a native raised at the San Luis Rey Mission in modern Oceanside. There are varying accounts of what Garra sought to do. Some suggest that an Anglo sailor encouraged him to rise up, others stated that some prominent Californios were pushing Garra to oust the Americans in revenge for the recent conquest. Another account is that Garra was upset at having to pay taxes, a new concept introduced with the formation of American-style government in California in 1850.
The extent of Garra’s organization, partnerships, and control are also unclear. There are sources that claim he had alliances with native groups throughout much of the lower half of California, into the San Joaquin Valley, the Owens Valley of eastern California, and the many tribal groups of the south, including near Los Angeles. Some have suggested these arrangements were well-coordinated with letters exchanged between Garra and other native leaders, like Chief Juan Antonio of the Cahuillas, who remained out of the mission system from their base near modern Palm Springs. Others state that the confederation was so informal and loose that it really could never have held together.
Today’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings is not specifically related to Garra, but is an artifact of the time that reflects a broad concern among Anglos in California concerning native insurrections. The single sheet was published as a miscellaneous paper in the journal of the first session of the United States Senate during the 32nd Congress and it was ordered, on 8 December 1851, to be referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and printed.
Titled “Joint Resolutions of the Legislature of California,” it has the subheading “in relation to the placing of troops along the borders, and the erection of forts in California for the protection of the citizens of that State.” The resolution was signed by John Bigler, the assembly speaker and soon-to-be governor, and David C. Broderick, the senate president and also acting lieutenant governor and future U.S. Senator and delivered to Governor John McDougal.
The resolution is brief and pointed:
Whereas, a large portion of our State is unprotected from the different tribes of Indians that live upon our borders, and that these tribes are frequently engaged, and are now at war with the citizens of this State; and in consequence of our present unprotected condition there is no security for either life or property, and this State not having the means of extending that protection to its citizens which their present necessities require; and whereas, it is the duty of the Federal Government to protect its citizens from the incursions of either internal or external enemies . . . [it was resolved that members of Congress from California] use their best efforts to have a portion of the United States’ troops established on our borders, and also to have a line of forts erected along the same for the purpose of protecting our citizens.
The resolution was recorded as approved by McDougal on 25 March 1851, with a copy filed in the office of Secretary of State William Van Voorhies in what was then the state capital at Vallejo on 22 April. As noted above, however, the matter wasn’t referred to the Senate military affairs committee for months and not printed until the end of the year.
As for Garra, one of the signal events of the uprising attributed to him, though his direct involvement has been questioned, took place in mid-November at the remote ranch of Jonathan Trumbull (Juan José) Warner, a native of Connecticut who was one of the first Americans to live in Los Angeles (following a few years after Jonathan Temple). Warner, who was a close friend of the Workman and Temple families, established his ranch along the southern route leading from the Colorado River at the Arizona border and along which many Gold Rush migrants came, causing consternation and conflict with natives.
The area today is known as Warner Springs and is southeast of Temecula in northwestern San Diego County. An attack on the property led to the death of a ranch worker, though Warner and an Indian employee were able to escape. Other American deaths occurred in southeastern California during the time. As the alarm was sounded among Anglos in the region, Army personnel in the region and a volunteer militia chartered by the state went into action.
In mid-December, arrests of two Indians and an American named Marshall, who was alleged to have encouraged Garra to revolt, were made. An Army force quickly convened a court-martial and, finding the three men guilty, hung them in San Diego. Further arrests of natives accused of partaking in the Warner’s Ranch raid were instituted and another military trial led to four chiefs being shot on Christmas Day.
At Los Angeles, Joshua Bean was commissioned general of a state-chartered volunteer militia and commanded some three dozen men, while a group of Mormons who’d established the new town of San Bernardino and a Californio mounted force led by General Andrés Pico, distinguished for his role during the Mexican-American War also were into action.
Garra’s downfall, however, occurred when Juan Antonio of the Cahuillas decided to side with the Anglos and invited Garra to a meeting, at which he was seized and taken to the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, owned by Isaac (Don Julian) Williams. Garra’s namesake son, said to be directly involved in the Warner’s Ranch incident, and four other natives were summarily executed at Chino.
Garra was transported to San Diego, where Bean convened a court martial by his militia on charges of robbery, treason and murder. It was reported that the indigenous chief admitted involvement in some murders, but claimed he was not involved in what transpired at Warner’s Ranch. He was also said to finger two prominent Californios, José Antonio Estudillo and Joaquin Ortega, as pushing him to revolt and to have bitterly denounced the imposition of taxes upon the indigenous.
In January 1852, Garra was found guilty by the tribunal of robbery and murder and acquitted of treason. Among those who served on the jury was Bean, Major Myron Norton (the militia’s chief of staff, who came to California with a New York volunteer regiment during the Mexican-American War and who was later a Los Angeles lawyer and judge), and notable Californio, Santiago Argüello. Warner served as interpreter while also being a key witness, and Lt. Cave J. Couts, formerly at Fort Yuma and later owner of a ranch near San Luis Rey Mission, was judge advocate.
An Army lieutenant, who kept an arm’s length away from the trial, but provided the weapons and ammunition for the militia, said that Garra told him of his broad plans for rebellion, including actions to contain the lieutenant’s Army company and attacks on Anglo communities.
Garra was taken from his cell two days after the trial, marched to the Catholic cemetery in San Diego, forced to kneel in front of a freshly dug grave, blindfolded and shot by a firing squad. A newspaper report from San Diego reported on the calmness and courage evinced by the native chief as he met his death and reported that, with a clear voice, Garra told the assemblage before the shots rang out, “Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for all my offenses, and expect yours in return.”
How accurate this was might be weighed with the paper’s claim that Garra died as “the sun’s last rays . . . [were] lingering . . . [and] the bells of the neighboring church chimed vespers.” Pouring on the romance, the article added,
in an instant, the soul of a truly ‘brave’ winged its flight to the regions of eternity, accompanied by the melancholy howling of dogs, who seemed to be aware of the solemnity of the occasion—casting a gloom over the assembled hundreds, who, whilst acknowledging the justness of Antonio’s fate, failed not to drop a tear o’er the grave of a brave man and a once powerful chieftain.
Bean settled in San Gabriel after the militia was disbanded and operated The Headquarters saloon near the old mission. In November 1852, he was ambushed and killed and there were a number of theories about his murder, including the purported role of semi-legendary bandido Joaquin Murrieta, though Bean’s role in the Garra matter was also considered. Several men were tried in Los Angeles by an extralegal popular tribunal and lynched. Bean’s younger brother remained in San Gabriel and the Los Angeles area for some years before moving to Texas, where he became the famed Judge Roy Bean, the so-called “Law West of the Pecos.”
The Garra uprising was covered extensively in newspapers in America, as well as in England, Scotland and Australia and it has become a source of native pride, as well. Each January, about the time of his execution, an Antonio Garra Day is held to honor the chief considered a patriot for the indigenous as a champion of their rights and sovereignty.