Sharing History with the Battle of Chino, 26-27 September 1846

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today was certainly one to remember being both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as one in which my colleagues Gennie Truelock, Jennifer Scerra and Michelle Muro gave a virtual presentation about the Homestead and its programming and management of its collections for Bay Area historic sites. On top of that, I wound up giving three talks today, the first in in the morning in downtown Los Angeles for Road Scholar/Elderhostel on the history of the art collectors Henry E. Huntington, J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon and Eli Broad; the second for a lunch meeting of the Covina Woman’s Club on the remarkable and tragic story of the writer Yda Addis; and the last this evening for the Chino Hills Historical Society on the Battle of Chino, which took place at the end of September 1846.

This post summarizes this remarkable tidbit of the Mexican-American War in greater Los Angeles, which took place after American forces led by Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton took the pueblo without a shot in August. Stockton left Captain Archibald Gillespie in charge of the occupation of the Angel City, but the young officer became imperious, declaring martial law, issuing a curfew and arresting several prominent locals.

The Californios were understandably enraged because they did not put up a resistance when Stockton took the town, so Gillespie’s harsh measures led to a revolt that led to his ouster and retreat to await reinforcements at a later date. Meanwhile, with tensions running high, some two dozen Americans and Europeans, unsure of what the intentions of the locals were, while these latter were also wary of what the former were up to, headed out to the substantial adobe residence of Isaac Williams on the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino.

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An enthusiastic half of the audience at tonight’s presentation (despite the mailbiter being played between the Giants and Dodgers).

The house was situated along the main thoroughfare, often called the Colorado Road, that led from Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley and then turned southward towads Rincon (where Prado Dam is now), Temecula, and eventually to the Colorado River where the Arizona border city of Yuma is now. The rancho was granted in 1841 to Antonio María Lugo, one of the most prominent Californios and was then acquired by his son-in-law Williams, who originally hailed from Pennsylvania.

Among those who took refuge at Chino were the brothers Evan and Isaac Callaghan, Matt Harbin, Joseph Perdue, William Skene, Louis Rubidoux, Michael White, David W. Alexander, Benjmain D. Wilson and John Rowland. Rowland was co-owner with William Workman of Rancho La Puente and White and Wilson were members of the 1841 expedition led by Rowland and Workman to Los Anglees from New Mexico.

Alexander came to the area the following year in another group led by Rowland, when the latter brought his family out from New Mexico. Perdue appears to have been related to Rowland’s wife through Marriage and the Callaghans wound up at San Gabriel with descendants being close to the Workman and Temple families. Robidoux is best known for the mountain bearing his name at the edge of Riverside and he was a neighbor of Wilson, who owned the Rancho Jurupa.

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This side of the room was a bit more subdued, but they got into the Battle of Chino story eventually!

When a cadre of Californios were sent out to see what was transpiring at Chino, among those involved two of Williams’ brothers-in-law, Vicente and José del Carmen Lugo. The force arrived on 26 September and José del Carmen told his version of the events that followed in an 1877 interview with Thomas Savage, who collected a number of oral histories for the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose namesake library is at the University of California, Berkeley.

Lugo told Savage that “there was a willow thicket, and here I encamped, very near the Chino house.” He added that “at about this time there arose a violent north wind,” which sounds like it could have been a Santa Ana wind condition, but also seems like a metaphor for the American invasion of México. Lugo also stated that “were were beside the road to Los Angeles all afternoon watching to see if those inside the house would come out to fight us,” though he continued that, if they had, they would have routed the poorly armed Californios.

Wilson also conducted an interview with Savage at the same time as Lugo and he related that he was hunting in the San Bernardino Mountains when “a messenger arrived with a letter from Mr. David W. Alexander and John Rowoaldn, advising me that they were then on my ranch . . . that there was a general revolt of the Californians and Mexicans against Gillespie and all americans, and that there was the devil to pay generally and to hasted down.”

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The record of the 1836 marriage of Isaac Williams and María de Jesús Lugo.

Wilson hurried down and found those two, Rubidoux and others at his place and they informed him “that Gillespie’s course towards the people had been so despotic and in every way unjustifiable . . . [and] he had established very obnoxious regulations to anny the people” while the arrests were apparently done “for no other purpose than to humilate them.” This led Wilson to aver that “of the truth of this I had no doubt then, and have none now.” The imperious young officer seemed to have taken these actions because of “the effect of vanity and want of Judgment.”

Wilson, of course, used most of his ammunition on his hunting foray, but Williams sent word that he had plenty at Chino, but “on our arrival Williams advised me that an officer and some soldiers of the California Brigade had just been there and taken all the ammunition he had.” This led Wilson to advise that they take to the mountains “and make our way to Los Angeles by following the edge” of the San Gabriel range. Most of the Americans and Europeans, being new to the area, “had a very contemptible opinion of the Californians’ courage and fighting qualities” and Wilson remonstrated “that I hoped that they had not underrated the natives.”

Isaac Callaghan volunteered to do some reconnaissance and determine the strength of the Californio cohort. Lugo told Savage that he sent a scouting party out to investigate the situation and found two Californios and Callaghan, but he said the only injuries suffered were when Diego Sepúlveda knocked Callaghan off his horse with a blow to the head. Wilson, however, reported that the latter told him that he was shot at with one bullet breaking his arm. Callaghan added that the apparent commander of this force was “José del Camun” Lugo.

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Part of José del Carmen Lugo’s 1877 interview as transcribed and printed by the San Bernardino County Museum in its quarterly publication in 1961.

Lugo reported that there was gunfire from those trapped in the house all afternoon, but, because of their low stocks, the Californios “only now and then responded with a shot.” As night fell, he went on, “I put my men on horseback about the house—, that is, at places where it was possible. We remained mounted and alert during the night.” Meanwhile, he sent word to José María Flores, commander of the Californios in greater Los Angeles that he needed reinforcements.

In his turn, Wilson told his fellow besieged that it would “be more prudent that we should march out whilst we had the opportunity under cover of the night,” but the rejoinder was “No. We can whip all they can bring against us.” The next morning he continued, “we found ourselves almost surrounded by cavalry” while he and his compatriots were trapped in a building “with a patio inside entire;y enclosed by rooms, with only one large door for entrance to the main patio or square. The structure was over 300 feet long with two a few windows looking to the north, while “there was a knoll on the west side, on which the Californians were arranged making their plan of attack.”

Lugo added that the those sent by Flores “consisted of some thirty men commanded by Servulo Varela and Ramón Carrillo, the first being the head.” He went on that “I concealed them so that the foreigners would not suspect that this reinforcement had arrived.” A boy then emerged from the residence heading to the south and Lugo sent his brother Vicente and Ricardo Vejar, co-owner of the adjacent Rancho San Jose (Pomona, Claremont, La Verne areas) after him and the concealed men, confused by what was happening, emerged from their hiding places.

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Wilson’s 1877 interview was included as an appendix in Robert Glass Cleland’s 1929 book, Pathfinders.

This led to the Californios sudenly riding toward the house “firing shots at the four sides of the building” as they rode over two sets of palings (fences topped by pointed wood stakes) and a moat.” As they leaped over the latter, one rider, Caros Ballesteros, was thrown from his horse and as he remounted a shot rang out from the adobe and Ballesteros was felled with a bullet to the temple, killing him instantly. Wilson, after giving his version of the battle, told Savage, “I forgot to mention that in the fight at the Ranch, one Californian named Carlos Ballesteros, a very good man, and one who had ever been among my best friends was killed outright, whilst charging on the house walls.”

Once the Californios reached the adobe house, Lugo stated, “some of the ones who were unarmed, at my ordes set themselves to gathering grass, and those who had arms pointed them at the doors and windows of the house. I ordered the grass thrown on the roof of the house and set on fire.” Perhaps calculating to give himself the role of a hero, Lugo then told Savage that, when informed that there was nothing immediately at hand to start the conflagration,

There was an Indian village near at hand [this was Pasinogna, the local indigenous settlement], and they had a fire outside it. I went at full speed amid the bullets that were coming from all directions. I rode hugging the sides of the horse and crouching low to keep a bullet from hitting me. During this onrush of the horse, stretched alongside as I was, I reached down and seized a blazing stick with which I returned at full speed to the house. I set fire to a corner of it and ordered that the same be done to the others.

Wilson’s recolletion was that, as they were being besieged, “we had no chance to fire but two or three shots apiece” as the Californios reached the structure and “they immediately set fire to the roof, which was made of cane covered with asphaltum; fire was applied in several places . . . the house burnt rapidly with a great deal of smoke and bad smell.” Notably, he recorded that it was Varela who approached the main entrance, telling Wilson “he commanded those men and wanted me to surrender to him, assuring me of his friendly disposition.”

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On the other hand, Lugo claimed that “before reaching this main entrance I had heard the cries of my brother-in-law’s children [a boy and two girls], who were calling for me” from the top of a wall behind a corral” and were taken on his orders to be guarded by José María Avila and Carillo. Sepúlveda then opened the main door, having entered the house by another entrance and “at this entrance all the foreginers were gathered. They surrendered their arms and were made prisoners. I made them come out and named a guard to look after them while I occupied myself with my men in putting out the fire and removing furniture and other effects from the house.” He added that little damage was done, though they found some men hiding in the building.

Wilson, though, insisted “we threw the broad door open and marched out” with Varela telling them to place their weapons against the building and directing them to march to a “Casa de la Matanza,” or slaughterhouse, some 400 yards to the south. From there, they were gathered for the long march to Los Angeles, some thirty-five miles away.

As for Lugo, he wrote that “I now called the children, my nieces and my nephew and delivered them over to their father” and continued that “I told him [Williams] that he should thank me for saving his children, but neither he nor they gave me any sign of thanks afterward. The little boy, named Antonio María after his grandfather, died not long afterward, but “the girls are still living and care nothing about their uncle.” These sisters were Merced (later the wife of John Rains) and Francisca (spouse of Robert Carlisle) and they became the heirs when Williams died almost exactly a decade later.

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Lugo’s account of the battle concluded with the observation that “an hour after finishing the arrest of the prisoners, the house was left to cool” and he added that “we left for Los Angeles with our prisoners, arms, ammunition, fighting equipment, saddle horses, and so on.” He noted “we reached Don Julian Workman’s Rancho de la Puente [at 20 miles from Los Angeles, a natural stopping point as it was about a day’s ride into town], where we all rested, although the main object was to give this benefit to the prisoners.”

Wilson, though, diverged significantly from Lugo about wha transpired after the prisoners were being marched away from Chino and toward Los Angeles and, as this was in ther aftermath of the actual battle, we’ll save this stry for a retelling via a post in early January. So, please look for that account then!

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