“Go, Seek for the Inhuman, Ruffianly Horde”: The Barton Massacre of 23 January 1857, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the aftermath of the massacre of Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and William H. Little, Charles K. Baker and Charles F. Daly, members of a far-too-small posse he summoned to join him in the search for the Flores-Daniel Gang (i.e., Las Manillas) after their robberies and a murder committed at San Juan Capistrano, greater Los Angeles was in an uproar and this was reflected starkly in the pages of the Los Angeles Star, including in its edition of 31 January 1857, eight days after the ambush.

It was noted, for example, that the paper had to delay getting the issue out until the evening “in consequence of ‘all hands’ being engaged in military duty during the excitement of the week.” By “military duty,” what was meant was the formation of citizen companies, not official military units, to seek out and punish anyone thought to be associated with the Flores-Daniel Gang, but it quickly became apparent that these loosely-organized entities often felt free to hunt down anyone else that was deemed to be a criminal. This meant that there were not only obvious problems with due process in arrests and confinements of a large number of Latinos, but that some were killed and reports were, to say the least, murky as to the circumstances.

The several images here, aside from the pair of photos, are from the Los Angeles Star, 31 January 1857.

Under the heading of “Military Organization of the Citizens,” the Star reported that

Immediately on the receipt of the intelligence of the terrible catastrophe which happened [to] Sheriff Barton and his party, the people took measures for their own defence for the arrest and punishment of the robbers.

The use of the word “defence” is notable, because Los Angeles is some 50 miles northwest of San Juan Capistrano and it was not stated that members of the Flores-Daniel Gang were anywhere near the Angel City. Still, the fear was such that, while mounted parties went “in the direction of where the robbers were supposed to be,” it was added that “the citizens organized themselves so as to keep up a close watch on the city and suburbs [there is an interesting choice of word as the small town had no real suburb at the time, but it was clearly meant neighboring farms and ranches and the mission hamlets of San Fernando and San Gabriel], for the detection of any of the robbers, or of such associated as should seek the city either as a place of refuge or for the purpose of obtaining supplies.”

The idea that members of the gang would even try to get anywhere near Los Angeles seems strange, especially “for refuge,” much less supplies, but the subtext may have been that it was feared that Latinos in town might harbor some of the gang’s members. This may be borne out by the statement that “it was determined to have a general turn out of the citizens” on the 29th because of “information that day received in town.” What this was, though, was not recorded.

At the gathering, Dr. John S. Griffin, who came to California as an Army surgeon with the invading American military force a decade before during the Mexican-American War and who was a prominent figure in town, was appointed to be in “command of the people,” including a military company, which then split into two. William W. Twist, who often was at the head of citizen militias, was the leader of one. Then, there were companies of Germans and French, as well, while a group from El Monte headed towards San Juan Capistrano, though it was reported that one of the men, named Buckner, “while drawing his gun towards him, incautiously caught it by the muzzle when the gun exploded, and the contents were lodged in the unfortunate man’s breast, causing instant death.” Buckner’s remains were interred at the mission graveyard at San Juan. Notably, it was stated that Griffin ” co-operated throughout with the Mayor and City Marshal,” these being John G. Nichols and William C. Getman, both of whom should legally have been in command.

Getman and his deputy, as “the town was surrounded by armed men, and every avenue of escape strictly guarded,” conducted a house-to-house search, without warrants as the law required, while Griffin’s men accompanied the two and carted some forty men to jail. It is significant to note, however, that the search only encompassed the north and eastern parts of the city around the Plaza—these being where most Spanish-speaking residents lived—so profiling was being conducted, again without due process, in what can only be described as the ad hoc imposition of martial law. It was claimed that, among the arrested men, were “a number, supposed to be convicts escaped from the State prison” at San Quentin, though no supporting details were offered. On Saturday afternoon, it was reported that Getman and his men “brought in and lodged in jail five prisoners; and another was arrested in the crowd at the jail, [at the] same time,” though what this crowd was doing there went, as so much did, unexplained. Put simply, martial law was imposed on Los Angeles, but without official sanction.

At the same time, though, the first mounted contingent to ride out of Los Angeles, this being on Monday the 25th, was “a company of Californian citizens, under [the] command of Don Andres Pico.” Another, led by James Thompson, “started out to scour the mountains near the Mission [presumably San Gabriel]” and then went north and west towards Big Tujunga Canyon. A group of Americans and Californios ventured out on Friday and were said to have joined Thompson’s contingent. Separately, it was stated that some 44 troops from Fort Tejon, which suffered major damage in the earthquake of the 9th, marched to Los Angeles “and encamped in the upper part of the city.” This, again, was a section heavily populated by Latinos and, north of the Plaza, was called Sonoratown because of the preponderance of Mexican-born residents.

This stereoscopic photo from the Homestead’s collection, dating to about 1870, shows the Sonoratown section of Los Angeles, north of the Plaza where Chinatown is now. At the top center and left are the Elysian Hills where Dodger Stadium is and the white fenced area below that is the old Calvary Cemetery, now the home of Cathedral High School (nickname: Phantoms.)

A report from San Diego was received by District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes and which said that one victim of the gang, Bonifacio López, returned to his home in that city and stated that he’d been robbed of eight horses. Hayes issued a warrant in this matter so that San Diego County Sheriff Joseph Reiner, with help from Army personnel stationed near the city, could ride to the northern reaches of the county near the border with Los Angeles County (now Orange County.) Indigenous tribal chiefs were told “to raise their people through the mountains towards San Juan, and watch all the outlets to Lower [Baja] California and the river Colorado. They were empowered “to arrest any armed or suspicious Mexicans” with a bounty offered for each captive. López reported that the Flores-Daniel Gang numbered about sixty well-armed men and that it was “threatening to attack the town of San Diego.”

Then came a report of the “Arrest and Execution of Four Robbers,” in which the Star related that Cyrus Sanford, a resident of the Mission San Gabriel area, “was attacked by Miguel Soto and two others.” It was added that William M. Stockton “came to his [Sanford’s] assistance, and the fight continue for some time pretty sharp, in close quarters.” Soto was wounded in the leg by Sanford, while the former shot the latter’s horse, after which the injured men dismounted “and ran afoot to take refuge in a marsh near at hand,” where he was said to have buried himself in mud and weeds.

The account continued that “some of the citizens of the Monte . . . camp up,” though how they happened to arrive just as this battle was taking place was not explained and the trio then “set fire to the weeds and burned them off the ground.” Because this action “exposed the position of the crafty robber,” One of the men, only known as “Mr. King,” but who was one of the three brothers (Andrew, Frank and Houston) who were involved in at least two major family feuds leading to death in 1855 and, again, a decade later, “fired and shot Soto through the heart.” Not only this, but

The head of the robber was then cut off and taken to the Monte, where it was recognized by Mr. W[illiam] H. Peterson [who frequently held positions in regional law enforcement], as the head of Miguel Soto, who had been examined before Justice [of the Peace Russell] Sackett for the robbery and attempt at murder of Mr. Twist some time ago.

The barbarity of the El Monte men is, of course, stunning and sickening, but the Star didn’t seem to think there was any problem with what was done, as if there was no other way to identify Soto. Not only this, but the article continued that a series of arrests were carried out in the vicinity of San Gabriel, with locals there said to have “organized a court,” that is, a so-called “popular tribunal.” Having tried the accused, the pro forma result was that three men were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Yet, when the condemned men, Pedro López, Diego Navarro and Juan Valenzuela, were marched out for their execution, the rope broke, sending the trio tumbling to the ground. Readers may recall the recent post about the legal execution of Felipe Alvitre, almost exactly two years prior, in which the rope failed and, when Alvitre fell to the ground, there was an outcry among the many Latinos present that he should be accordingly released. This was not done, however, and, after the rope was adjusted, Alvitre was hung.

In this case, however, with the rope having snapped, the executioners at San Gabriel did not bother to try to restart the hanging; instead, “the men were led out and shot dead.” Without any detail at all about the substance, if there was any, of the proceedings conducted against López, Navarro and Valenzuela, the Star merely concluded that,

Thus four of the banditti who recently committed the murder of Sheriff Barton and his three associates, have expiated their offences with their lives—and others will follow.

How it was known, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the trio were guilty was conveniently left aside, though, in another part of the paper, it was claimed that “Soto, who was arrested at the Mission by Messrs. Stockton and Sanford, had with him a mule and pack; also a gun, recognized as one lent by F[rancis] Mellus, Esq., to Sheriff Barton, previous to starting out on his ill-fated expedition.” The aforementioned account, though, said nothing at all about an arrest of Soto, only that he and two compatriots attacked Sanford, upon which Stockton appeared, followed soon after by the El Monte contingent.

Even if the gun Soto had in his possession was given to Barton by Mellus, who was a prominent merchant in Los Angeles, there was no attempt to understand or explain the circumstances by which Soto obtained the weapon and it was certainly no iron-clad piece of proof of his participation of the massacre.

Instead, in the midst of the fury and frenzy animating so many of the residents of Los Angeles and outlying areas, it seemed totally justifiable to a good number of them and to the Star, whose publisher, Henry Hamilton, took part in some measure of the “military duty” that was implemented after the killings of Barton and his men, to enact summary punishment on anyone deemed to have had a role in the operations of the Flores-Daniel Gang.

Another stereographic image from the Homestead’s holdings, taken by the famed photographer Carleton Watkins about 1880, of the Mission San Gabriel church. Behind the church and a short distance to the northeast was the swamp area where the atrocity committed against Miguel Soto took place.

For a region suffused with violence over the course of the previous decade, during the Mexican-American War and the following ferment and chaos of the Gold Rush period, with fear and frustration fueling popular resentment of an ineffective law enforcement and inefficient court system and with ethnic tension always present, the heinous executions at San Gabriel represented the basest and most depraved event of the era. Even still, an even larger-scale lynching was to follow against the Chinese almost fifteen years later and it should be pointed out that the new memorial to those who were killed in the October 1871 massacre has just gone to the stage of the receipt of submitted designs.

Despite the Star‘s support for the barbarity at San Gabriel, there was a heated opposition and counter narrative offered by the Spanish-language El Clamor Público, while that paper offered its support for the Californio company led by Andrés Pico, which committed its own summary executions in the Santa Ana Mountains near where the Barton massacre was committed. Join us tomorrow as we continue with part three of this post and carry the story to the editions of both papers on 7 February 1857.

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