“Unfriendly to Respectable Humanity”: Benjamin D. Wilson’s Recollections of the Battle of Cahuenga, 19-20 February 1845

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In fall 1842, about a year after the Workman family and F.P.F. Temple migrated to Mexican Alta California, the department (the official designation for it) had a change in governorship from native son Juan Bautista Alvarado to an appointee by the central government at México City named Manuel Micheltorena (1804-1853). A native of Oaxaca, in the southern part of the country, he was from Spanish Basque antecedents, and was a brigadier general in the army when he was tasked with overseeing the far-flung “Siberia of México.”

The fact that he was sent by the national government angered the Californios, whose very name indicated the sense of independence they’d developed from isolation, a lack of support from México City, and sheer necessity, and, when occasional chief executives were sent from the south, they were uniformly unwelcomed and, usually, sent back by force. In the case of Micheltorena, he did not endear himself to his constituents by bringing a detachment of soldiers, including several hundred convicts from Mexican prisons.

After a month’s stay at Los Angeles, the governor proceeded to the departmental capital at Monterey, just in time for the arrival of a U.S. Navy vessel that, on the mistaken understanding that war was declared against México, easily took possession of the capital on 19 October 1842. The governor and his men, derisively referred to as cholos by Californios, retreated back to the Angel City and remained there until the middle of 1843, even though Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, learning of the miscommunication about a war, returned Monterey to Mexican authority the day after his improvident action and sailed away.

The experience of living for more than half a year with the governor and his convict army in town meant that many Angelenos, including extranjeros, or American and European foreigners, even more convinced that Micheltorena could not be tolerated. His return to Monterey inspired increasing calls for a revolt against his authority as the behavior of the cholos in his guard enraged enough residents to stir them into action.

In November 1844, a couple hundred rebels led by General José Castro and former governor Alvarado prepared to launch an attack on Micheltorena, who then agreed to send his convicts back to México within three months, but, instead, began to buttress his support, including with some Americans and Europeans in the area, such as Johann (John) Sutter, the Swiss-born figure of great influence in the north.

Residents of southern California were detached from this intrigue until the northern rebels came south, arriving in late January, and convinced their oft-rivals (the divide between north and south in California has always been an issue!) of the need to band together to defeat the governor and send him packing back to México. The head of the department’s legislature was Pío Pico, whose brother Andrés was an Army general, and he called for a session to plan for dealing with Micheltorena.

After a delegation was sent to Santa Barbara, where the governor was staying on his march to quelch the revolt, and requests for his cooperation in resolving the matter utterly rejected, it was decided, on 15 February, to name Don Pío interim governor. He’d held that position before, when in late 1831 appointed outside governor Manuel Victoria was ousted after a battle at Cahuenga Pass, west of Los Angeles. With his new authority, Pico decided to form an army of local residents and named William Workman as captain of the American and European extranjeros, while John Rowland was appointed lieutenant as Workman’s second-in-command.

As was the case just more than 13 years before, the Cahuenga Pass was the locale for the confrontation between Micheltorena and Pico and several accounts of what transpired there on 19-20 February 1845. We are fortunate that historian Hubert Howe Bancroft and his interviewers recorded the recollections of those involved, though it was well over thirty years later and narrators often have agendas in their remembrances. Still, there is great value in these interviews and tonight’s post looks at those of Benjamin D. Wilson, conveyed in an interview in December 1877, not long before his death and published in an appendix to Robert Glass Cleland’s 1929 book Pathfinders.

Wilson came to Alta California with the Rowland and Workman Expedition of fall 1841 and was the owner of the Rancho Jurupa near today’s Riverside for the several years following his settling in the area. He related that “whilst Micheltorena, a few of his officers were unobjectionable men, there were at the time a majority, much the larger of them, who were a disgrace to civilization” and who “made themselves obnoxious by their thefts, and other outrages of a most hideous nature.” When news of the northern uprising reached the denizens of the south, “all classes joined the movement with great alacrity, to get the country rid of what was considered a great scourge.

Wilson was the alcalde (much like a mayor) of his area and was contacted by the Los Angeles District prefect, or chief executive, who Wilson recalled was Abel Stearns, one of the first Anglos to live in the Angel City, “to summon every man capable of bearing arms in my district, and to gather every man I could find on my way into Los Angeles.” Having done as ordered, Wilson continued,

[I] found on my arrival in the town great excitement, almost every man I knew, among them John Rowland and William Workman of La Puente, were armed and determined to do everything in his power to prevent Micheltorena and his scum from entering Los Angeles.

Supplies were accumulated, weapons and ammunition readied and the rebels looked to march to Cahuenga Pass the following morning. Wilson noted that “Mr. Workman had some Americans under him. We joined our forces without regard to who commanded; our joint force of foreigners, then consisted of about fifty men, determined to give the enemy a regular mountaineer [as in fur trappers used to hardy adventures in the wildlands?] reception.”

Castro was “ostensibly” in charge, but Wilson stated that it was the Pico brothers who “had the actual control of the people of this end of the country,” and that Don Pío got news that the governor was at the Rancho Encino fifteen miles to the west. The southerners took their position at midday and waited with Wilson stating that cannon fire began as soon as the two forces got sight of each other.

There were no human casualties, though one horse was decapitated from cannon fire. After this, the narration went on,

Mr. Workman and myself, having learned that the Americans and other foreigners in the Micheltorena party were commanded by some of our old personal friends, and feeling convinced that they had engaged themselves on that side under misapprehension, or ill advice, and that nothing was wanting but a proper understanding between them and us to make them withdrawn from Micheltorena, and join our party, we sent our native Californians to reconnoiter, and ascertain in what part of the field those foreigners were . . . It was at once decided between Mr. Workman and myself that I was to approach them if possible under a white flag, as I had a personal experience with the leaders. . .

Accompanied by Santiago (James) McKinley, Wilson found some of the opposing fighters in the same ravine, apparently along the Los Angeles River, but a mile to the west, but, when raising the flag, “we were fired upon by cannon loaded with grape shot.” Among those who came to parley with Wilson and McKinley was John Bidwell, long a prominent figure in the north and whose party emigrated to California at the same time in 1841 as the Rowland and Workman Expedition. It also turned out that, among the northerners, were Thomas Lindsay and Isaac Given, who were in the latter party (Given also surveyed Rancho La Puente for John Rowland’s grant petition in early 1842), along with Wilson, Michael White and Daniel Sexton, who were in Workman’s extranjero company.

Somehow, Wilson was able to give a purportedly verbatim statement that he delivered to the other side, apparently saying that “this rabble that you are with of Micheltorena’s are unfriendly to respectable humanity, and especially to Americans.” On the other hand, the Californios to which the extranjeros were allied in the south “have ever treated us kindly.” He warned that, if the governor and his “rabble hold their own in this country,” it would be “an element hostile to all enterprises, and most particularly American enterprise.”

Wilson related that this was agreed to by one of the northerners, who added, however, that many of the younger men were enticed to defend the governor with promises of land, albeit “of which many already hold deeds, and the question was what would Pío Pico promise in this regard. Wilson replied that he’d already broached the subject, but that Pico could be there in a few minutes to answer for himself.

According to Wilson, who translated, Pico asked whether these supporters of Micheltorena were naturalized Mexican citizens and noted that, if not, “your title deeds given you . . . are not worth the paper they are written on,” and that the governor was fully aware of it. Pico then told the group that “if you will abandon the Micheltorena cause, I will give you my word of honor as a gentleman, and that of Don Benito Wilson and Don Julian Workman, to carry out what I promise you.” Namely, any land held “in quiet and peaceful possession” would, provided these men took Mexican citizenship, which was no insisted upon immediately, be issued with legal title.

With these assurances, the narrative continued, those from the opposing faction “bowed and said that was all they asked, and promised not to fire a gun against us; at the same time, [they] expressed the desire of not being asked to fight on our side.” With that the parties returned to their positions and Pico went back to his headquarters, though the latter, in his Bancroft interview had a very different tale to tell when it came to his learning of the rapprochement Wilson and Workman sought with the northerners.

Wilson then wrote that the governor learned that his American supporters, mollified about their prospects for obtaining legal title for land, turned on him and immediately broke camp “and flanked us by going further into the valley towards [Mission] San Fernando, as if he was going to march into Los Angeles by following the curve of the Los Angeles River as it skirted the edge of what became Griffith Park and turned south towards the pueblo.

For their part the southern Californios and the Workman-led extranjeros dismantled their camp, returned through Cahuenga Pass and then “marched through the gap in the Feliz ranch on to the Los Angeles River “came back through the Cahuenga Pass, marched through the gap in the Feliz ranch [likely where Los Feliz Boulevard runs in the neighborhood of the same name] on to the Los Angeles River, till we came in close proximity to Micheltorena’s camp.”

The next morning, Wilson went on, “some of our men commenced maneuvering for a fight with the enemy, when a white flag was discovered flying from Micheltorena’s front.” The two sides then appointed negotiating teams “and the terms of surrender were agreed upon.” One of the specified conditions was that the deposed governor and his men “were to march back up the creek,” which sounds like the river, to Cahuenga Pass and then through it “to the plains west of Los Angeles, the most direct route for San Pedro.” [Note, 2 September 2022: reader Phyl van Ammers suggests that this location was more likely in a gorge that ran along the mountain at or very near what is now Universal City.]

One can almost imagine the path being close to that now taken by Western Avenue before making a slight southeastward turn to get to the rudimentary harbor, where Micheltorena and company were to “embark at that point on a vessel there anchored to carry them back to Mexico.” With that, Wilson simply concluded, by observing that “after that campaign, we all went home perfectly satisfied with the result.” While Pico assumed the officer as governor, it was not long before the United States precipitated war with México by creating a pretext in Texas. Within two years, California was seized and when the war ended, later in 1847, America took a huge portion of northern Mexican territory.

Pico and Michael White also provided interviews with Bancroft in 1877 and discussed what they recalled about the Battle Cahuenga, such that it was, so we’ll look to feature these remembrances in a future post—perhaps this time next year!

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