“In Doubt as to the Condition of Things”: Benjamin D. Wilson’s Account of the Mexican-American War in Greater Los Angeles, September 1846-January 1847, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday’s first part of this post featured some of the December 1877 recollections, given to an agent of Hubert H. Bancroft for his series of interviews about pre-1848 Mexican-era California, by Benjamin D. Wilson (1811-1878) about the events involving the Mexican-American War in greater Los Angeles from late September 1846 to early January 1847.

As noted, just about the time that the Californios revolted and retook Los Angeles from a garrison left behind after Commodore Robert F. Stockton seized the pueblo, Wilson (recently commissioned a captain by Stockton), John Rowland of Rancho La Puente and a cadre of Anglos were captured after the Battle of Chino and held prisoner in several locales in Los Angeles and nearby areas for more than three months. During their imprisonment, Wilson alleged that British-born rancher and merchant Henry Dalton and his brother-in-law, commanding General José María Flores concocted a scheme to send the prisoners to México as war trophies and to burnish Flores’ credentials as a military leader.

Wilson, however, averred that William Workman, another Englishman and Dalton’s southern neighbor (the latter owned Rancho Azusa), worked with Californios like Ignacio Palomares of Rancho San José, which adjoined La Puente and Azusa to the east in what is now Pomona and nearby areas, to rally support to upend Dalton and Flores and keep the captured men in Los Angeles until they could be paroled or exchanged.

Just before Stockton, accompanied by General Stephen Watts Kearny, marched by land from San Diego to retake Los Angeles, the Anglo prisoners were released on the promise they would return to their homes and not get involved in the battles that were to mark the end of the war in California. This is where we pick up with Wilson’s reminiscences of these conflicts and their aftermath.

Having been given by General Andrés Pico (commander of the stunning Californio victory over a disorganized and poorly positioned Army force under Kearny at San Pasqual near San Diego in early December) what were purported to be the fastest horses in greater Los Angeles, Rowland and Wilson rode to their respective homes, with Wilson going to the residence of his father-in-law, Don Bernardo Yorba in what is now Yorba Linda in northeastern Orange County. He said he passed the American force, but didn’t stop to speak to them or anyone else on his way, and then related,

Knowing that on the 8th the contending forces would meet one another near the San Gabriel River [what we know as the Río Hondo], I came back skirting the hills of the Coyote Ranch [in Fullerton and La Habra], before I could get a view of the two armies. Remaining in view as long as the fight lasted, [I] saw there had been nothing decisive except that the Californians rather gave way. [I] rode back to the Rancho [Cañon de Santa Ana] where I remained all night. The day of the 8th a portion of the Californians made a charge and seemed for a time to have broken the American lines, which gave me much alarm, but as soon as the dust cleared away, I saw the Californians retreating, and from what I learned afterwards, had the charge been simultaneous of all the Californian forces, the American lines would have been broken, and there is no telling what the end might have been.

The Americans came together and forced the locals to retreat back into the higher ground that led up towards Boyle Heights and Wilson added that “I knew from the position of the two forces that the fight wouod be resumed the next morning” with the Americans camped where the previous skirmish (the Battle of the San Gabriel River) took place.

On the 9th, Wilson headed back from the Yorba place to check out the action but came across “friends of mine and relatives of my wife . . . they told me that in the morning Flores and hs Mexicans had refused to continue the fight, confining themselves to firing a few guns, and that they were running away to Mexico, by way of San Gorgonio Pass [near modern Palm Springs], inviting all that wished to follow them.”

With this intelligence, Wilson related that “I made up my mind to spend the day in the hills back of La Puente Ranch, and wait for the night to come to Los Angeles, through La Puente, where I would obtain some definite news.” This plan meant waiting in the Puente Hills the descending, perhaps along the route taken by Hacienda Road in La Habra Heights, before passing through the Workman portion of Rancho La Puente. The problem, however, was “that night it rained in perfec torrents; the night was black as pitch, and I lost my way,” and Wilson, was forced “to sit on my horse and wait for daylight.”

When morning came, Wilson proceeded and he told the unnamed interviewer

I went to the house of Mr. William Workman. After waking him up and having some conversation, he told me there were two very important persons in one of his outhouses [not meaning the outdoor bathrooms of the time!], with some fellows, he could not tell me who they were. We talked a great deal in a few minutes, and Mr. Workman told me that those persons were Monterey men, and probably I would know them. Workman felt in doubt as to the condition of things, whether it would be safe for me to see them or not, or how far he would be compromised by harboring them. We did not as yet know the actual results of the fight, and of course were unable to foresee events.

Moreover, Wilson did not know, with certainty, that what his contacts of the prior day told me was true, so he continued that “I then asked Mr. Workman (as I was still a prisoner on parole) to go and speak to them himself, learn their names, ask them if the fight was really over, what had been the result, and where were Flores and his command.” Workman, who elsewhere was reported to have brought out from Los Angeles the white flag of truce as the Americans marched up Alameda Street from the final battle, La Mesa, which took place in modern day Vernon, did as Wilson requested. A few minutes later, confirmed just what Wilson had been told on the 8th and that the two men were the brothers Joaquín and Gabriel de la Torre, of a very prominent family in Monterey.

Feeling there was no reason why he could not speak with the men, he asked Workman to allow him to visit with them. Wilson stated, “Mr. Workman went to the room where the Torres[‘] were and told them Don Benito Wilson wished to see them. They came out remarking that above all, I was the man they wanted to see.” Like him, they were caught in the prior evening’s storm “and we all looked like so many drowned rats” as they talked about the proceedings of the 9th, specifically that they went with Flores on the march away from Los Angeles until nightfall, when they “made a hasty retreat to La Puente, adding tht they would rather be shot in California, then go to Mexico.”

When the brothers asked Wilson to plead their case to Stockton, he replied that “I am sick of this things, have been in prison three months and want to see an end to this trouble.” He did offer to accompany them to Los Angeles and added “I called Mr. Workman in English, requesting him to order my horse, which he did,” with the de la Torres doing the same, even as they instructed their compatriots to inform their families that they might be executed. Still, the group had “a good, warm breakfast” at the Workman residence and took the whole day to reach the Angel City because the brothers were so worried about being shot that they frequently had to stop and discuss their fears with Wilson, who assured them that “the course advised by Mr. Workman and myself was the safest one for them.”

When Wilson introduced the de la Torres to the commodore, the latter told them “very sternly: ‘You have given me a great deal of trouble, but neither the Government of the United States, nor myself wish to treat harshly the native Californians. Can I rely upon you, if I again give you your liberty?'” The brothers readily asented, telling Stockton that “we are tired of the war, nad have paid dearly for our errors” and agreeing to his request to “allay existing discords threatened” in their hometown. Wilson never saw the pair again, but related that he’d heard they fulfilled their promises “and were ever after during their lifetime good and loyal citizens.” Whether they were well-treated by the growing American and European majority in the postwar period is another question.

Wilson then referred to the capitulation at Cahuenga across from today’s Universal Studios made by Andrés Pico to John C. Frémont, an action by the latter that “gave rise to no little dissatisfaction to Commodore Stockton and General Kearney [sic].” When Wilson, who still had Pico’s “Blanco Chico” horse, met up with the Californio general, a meeting was arranged with Stockton, who “gave Don Andres to understand and very positively that neither his (Pico’s) nor Fremont’s courses were in order” and that Pico should have known, as a military man “to whom he should surrender, [yet] had gone out of this way to surrender to a subordinate officer.” Moreover, the account went on, “it was generally known that Fremont had designedly delayed on his way [south] from Santa Barbara, by taking a circuitous route on the mountains, so as to keep himself out of danger from the Californians.”

Also noted was that Stockton sent local couriers, including Daniel Sexton, another alumnus with Wilson of the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841, to prevail on the independently minded Frémont to move rapidly to Los Angeles to take part in the second conquest of the Angel City. Sexton, who later lived at San Gabriel and then Rialto near San Bernardino, traveled by foot all the way from San Diego to Ventura—a journey of some 200 miles made in just ten days, but for “all this trouble and suffering,” Frémont “made no effort to comply with the Commdore’s wishes.” Stockton, moreover,

did not expect with his few marines and sailors, and a handful of volunteers, [that] he would withstand the whole force of the Californians, who were probably the best horsemen in the world and all mounted on fine horses, probably the finest cavalry horses in the world at that time, for their fleetness, endurance and easy management by the rider.

With respect to General Pico, he “felt humiliated and tried to apologize,” but Stockton told him, or, rather, Wilson paraphrased, that “I . . . do not wish to have any ill feeling shown to anyone and much less to the natives of California, who in all probability will have to be citizens of our common country,” so he informed Pico that if you have come in real earnest, and in good faith to yield and surrender yourself and comrades, there will be no punishment for past acts. The commodore was also, more or less, to have told the general that Stockton’s treatment to date “should be received as sufficient evidence that we mean well by you.”

An interesting tangent is that, when Pico told Stockton where he had hidden that cannon used in those last engagements on the 8th and 9th and the commodore asked Wilson what type they were, the American officer showed no interest in them. Wilson was aloowed to retrieve them so that “I would make them posts to keep the carretas [carts] off the entrance to my store” and he “placed them at the head of Commercial Street, at the junction of Main Street . . . where the may be seen to this day.”

Stockton asked Wilson to reconnoiter the region and learn what the situation was in the days after the seizure of Los Angeles and, when told that Frémont was said to have no intention to report to Stockton or “to recognize the superiority of Stockton or Kearney [sic],” the commodore erupted, “What does the damned fool mean?” After Stockton left for México to continue his part in the war, Kearny was left behind and assumed command, but he told Wilson “Fremont’s course towards me is very extraordinary; he declined to recognize me as Commander-in-Chief,” adding that “I have no power to enforce my authority” with Frémont commanding “a large force with him of undisciplined men.” Kearny proposed to give the impetuous colonel time to recognize his authority, but “if not, I will leave.”

Strikingly, as Kearny prepared to head back east overland, he asked Wilson and some Californios to join him for part of the way, including José Sepúlveda and a member of the Lugo family. Wilson stated that he was shocked to hear that Kearny was “under some apprehension of foul play to his person, by some of the Fremont party” and that “this produced in me a most disagreeable impression,” while he though these concerns “unfounded.” Wilson stayed with Kearny until the party reached the Santa Ana River, near the former’s Rancho Jurupa, west of today’s Riverside and recalled the general telling him, prior to that, “we are not out far enough from those fellows.” Some of the amazing circumstances involving Frémont, Kearny and Stockton has been related in previous posts on this blog.

The interview then came to a swift conclusion with Wilson giving some brief recollections of his activity in moving cattle to the north in fall 1847; the story of the formation of the 1849 Constitution, of which he said that, although a Southerner, he did not want slavery becaue “we had enough of a variety of races, and the character of the country was not favorable to any but free labor;” his role in trying to make southern California a territory and not part of the state of California (Pico, in 1859, proposed as a state senator to create a State of Colorado in the south and which likely would have been approved by Congress if not for the outbreak of the Civil War); his serving as the first mayor of Los Angeles, a federal Indian agent, and three term state senator; and his subsequent life as a horticulturist. He ended his remarkable interview by stating, “I hope to pass the remainder of my life in peace with God and man, as well as with myself.”

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