by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The aftermath of the 23 January 1857 massacre of Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and posse members Charles K. Baker, Charles F. Daly and William H. Little, recruited to join Barton in the search of the Flores-Daniel Gang which terrorized San Juan Capistrano merchants and others, featured a systematic house-to-house search of the Sonoratown (now Chinatown) and other Latino-majority sections of Los Angeles and a barbaric lynching of four men at San Gabriel that showed how fear and fury overcame the adherence to law in the race for revenge.
As we turn to the Los Angeles Star of 7 February 1857, the hunt for the gang was covered extensively under the title of “The Pursuit of the Robbers,” though there were also five murders attributed to the band. It was reported that a citizen company from El Monte, totaling twenty-six men, left that San Gabriel Valley town on 26 January with reports that the bandits were holed up in deep in the Santa Ana Mountains. When they were within twenty miles of San Juan, a dispatch was received from Andrés Pico, who had a contingent of mounted Californios that had already scoured that area and informed the El Monte group that “he was guarding a cañon in which the robbers were concealed.”
On the evening of the 29th, “the united parties saw them on the top of a mountain, and made arrangements for their capture, which resulted in the arrest of three, Flores and two others, and the scape of three. Through Sunday, the combined contingent remained in this location before they split into three groups with Pico leading the Californios and the Americans divided into two. Some ten miles away, another group of the bandits were located, though they “ran for another hiding place” and were chased for a few miles with the exchange of gunfire. While only a quartet of men were in close pursuit, the rest of the companies finally caught up and “surround the robbers, who seeing their position, laid down their arms and surrendered.”
It was reported that Flores was in possession of Barton’s watch, while a cache of weapons “and other plunder” were recovered. With the belief that “the principal men concerned in the murder of the Sheriff’s party” were securely in hand, most of the pursuers headed back towards Los Angeles and arrived, after about a half-dozen miles at the Rancho Lomas de Santiago, in what is now Irvine and Tustin, and the residence of its owner, Teodosio Yorba. After making camp and waiting for other companies looking for the bandits, the group “tied the prisoners and placed a guard over them.” When midnight came, however, and said to be “from the negligence of the guard, the prisoners effected their escape.” The El Monte party that was in charge of these men sent word to other groups and then headed back home to prepare for another sortie, when, on 3 February, “they received inteligence [sic] of the re-arrest of the principal prisoner,” but this bandit was not named.
At this point, the account turned to Pico’s Californio company, noting that it, too, left on the 26th, from Los Angeles, with the nineteen men to be joined by twenty-five others at the Rancho Paso de Bartolo, owned by Andrés’ brother, former governor Pío Pico. Without enough weapons for everyone, though, the party was reduced to thirty-five, but another five men joined at the Rancho San Joaquín, owned by José Sepúlveda, and then eleven more at San Juan. So, with fifty-one members, Pico’s group met up with the Americans from El Monte and he formulated the adopted plan of action, which included the use of forty-three men led by Chief Manuelito of the Pauma band of the Payómkawichum (Luiseño) Indians “by whose aid the mountain passes were effectually watched and guarded.”
A native man found a bandit camp site at the opening of the Santiago Canyon, while another returned to say that he’d met with Antonio Maria Varela, known as Chino, who was said to have told Pico ” to place his men in a certain position, and he would be sure to catch the whole gang.” With the moon behind cloud cover, though, the attempt had to be postponed and, the next morning, as the pursuers approached, Flores saw them “and commenced a retreat into the mountain fastnesses.” Pico went after the bandit leader, who had Varela covered with a pistol until the Americans arrived and, in the uproar, Varela got away and turned himself in to Tomás Sánchez, Pico’s lieutenant (here as he was a decade before in the Californio defense of the American invasion during the Mexican-American War.)
Once Flores and his group got to “a very high peak of the mountain,” Pico sent for the Americans who were at Trabuco Pass, and, when they arrived, the tripartite division was effected. Flores, Jesús Espinosa and Leonardo López were able to slide with their horses down a steep slope to a shelf fifty feet down and, leaving the animals, “escaped down a precipitous ledge of rocks, about 500 feet high, by aid of the brush growing on its side.” With this remarkable feat of mountaineering, the trio “took refuge in the adjacent mountain, making their way through dense chapparel [sic] on foot.” Francisco Ardillero was not able to keep up and was nabbed by an El Monte group, while Juan Silvas, afraid to try what Flores and the others accomplished, surrendered to the Californios.
Varela, meanwhile, told the captors that Daniel, Andres Fontes, a man named Santos, who was said to have been shot at the mission—this purportedly being Miguel Soto—, and a man known as “Piquinini” had fled towards Los Angeles. This led Sánchez and a party to ride for the city “with the Chino [Varela] as a guide to point out their hiding place,” while other pursuers went to a variety of mountain passes as guards. While Pico returned to San Juan, found more natives and continued a search of the Santa Ana range, an El Monte company “discovered the trail of Flores and his associates, pursued it and came in sight of them,” while the bandits found refuge in a cave. These men, however, surrendered and were the ones who escaped from the Yorba place, while Pico returned from his search and joined with other companies in a continent some 120 men strong when news was received of the capture.
Once the news of the escape of the prisoners from the Lomas de Santiago was received, Pico decided then and there that “not wishing to risk the safety of his prisoners, hung Silvas and Ardillero.” He then split his group and the two forces “diligently searched the whole country from San Juan to the Los Angeles River.” Among the pursuers, there were two reported injuries, Francis Goddard from El Monte, and Jose Antonio Serrano, Pío Pico’s foreman at the Paso de Bartolo. Near Los Nietos (where Downey, Santa Fe Springs, Pico Rivera and other cities are now), it was reported by Los Angeles Marshal William C. Getman that he found “two bodies evidently of Mexicans, hanging from a tree, suspended by a rope,” while another corpse was found in a nearby canyon “shot with lead and buck shot.”
Another American company, headed by James Thompson, headed for San Gabriel on 28 January with twenty-seven men and, after one night there of guard duty, divided. One contingent went to San Fernando and another to Cahuenga Pass and there were reports of a half-dozen or so men who scattered when spotted. Thompson had a party that camped at the Rancho Encino on the 29th and then proceeded west fifteen miles where they were met by some Army troops that came south from Fort Tejon. He took ten soldiers and two of his men each to San Fernando (Newhall) Pass and Simi Pass (where the 118 Freeway runs now), while two other squads, of ten and thirteen, respectively, were posted at the Rancho El Escorpión at the southwest corner of the San Fernando Valley and along “the main Santa Barbara road,” which became Ventura Boulevard.
On 3 February, a man arrived at Simi Pass saying he was in need of water and with a poor-quality horse, no weapons and just a bit of beef jerky tied to his saddle. When asked his name and where he was going, the man replied that he was Juan Gonzales Sánchez and that he’d left the Mission San Fernando to hunt for wild horses. He was recognized, however, by Francisco P. Johnson, who was of American and California parentage, as Juan Flores. An hour later, two men approached with fourteen horses, but, when hailed by a solitary guard, others who were posted there having left to seek grazing land for their horses, the duo escaped.
Flores told Thompson that he had no idea who the pair were, though Espinosa and López obviously came to mind for the guard, and the bandit co-leader said he’d taken a horse at Santa Ana and rode to San Fernando, where he commandeered the horse on which he was riding when taken. Claiming he had no leadership role with the bandits, saying that Daniel was the leader, Flores, who was wounded in the right arm when his gun went off while making his miraculous escape in the Santa Ana Mountains,
requested Mr. Thompson to bring him to town, so that he might have the benefit of a clergyman, make confession, and write to his mother—and then he was ready for his fate.
When brought into the Angel City, the captive “maintained his coolness and self-possession” until he saw a crowd at the jail and “his firmness gave way, and he begged Mr. Thompson not to leave him, but walk with him to the jail.” This was done and he was incarcerated with “heavy irons placed upon him, to await the action of the people.” Note that this did not say “the action of the courts.” Daniel, meanwhile, was said to have been spotted at Cahuenga, but Thompson was unable to track him down.
The Star also thanked all of those who pursued the Flores-Daniel Gang but gave special commendation to Pico and the Californios who “are the theme of all tongues” for their incredible exertions that “have earned themselves the respect and admiration of the whole community.” It added that the cooperation between Pico’s company and those from El Monte was such that “it is pleasant to find that the only emulation among the Californian and American citizens is, who can best act for, and defend, their common country. Thus may it ever be.”
Yet, after criticism from El Clamor Público, which presented a different account of the horror perpetrated at San Gabriel, which the Star deemed “a false account,” the paper offered “a correct statement of facts as they were.” It claimed that William M. Stockton, riding alongside a Latino, was being approached by another Latino, while Cyrus Sanford and two other men were heading towards the mission and saw the others heading towards them. When Stockton sked one of the Latinos where he was going, some sharp words were exchanged, followed by Sanford and his companions riding hard in that direction, “at which both strangers put spurs to their horses, and drew their pistols. Diego Navarro was said to then have rode up and attempted to join the other two Latinos, but El Clamor Público reported that he was putting brea, or tar, on the roof of his house at the time he was captured, and rode out to get some money he was owed by one of the fleeing men.
One of the riders, who was not named in this article, but was Soto, then fled into the swamp where he was flushed out by fire and “dispatched” by one of the King brothers of El Monte. The Star then simply stated that “a general search took place,” which sounds very similar to what took place without warrants in Los Angeles, “and a large number of suspected [of what?] persons were take prisoners—among them, Pedro Lopez and Juan Valenzuela.” This was quickly followed by the empaneling of a jury of twelve, “among whom were some natives” with the extralegal popular tribunal claimed to be “a fair and impartial trial” with proof said to be because “a large number [of the captives] were released.”
It was averred the Navarro was “a man of general bad character” and it was considered “dangerous [that he] be permitted to live in any peaceable community,” while Valenzuela was said to be “an old offender” in robberies and burglaries with his guilt for stealing sheep a few days prior was purported to have been proved at the impromptu trial. López, meanwhile, was also said to have been found culpable for stealing a mule and selling it to a dupe and “besides this, he never was known to work” other than earning his keep “by cock-fighting and cattle-stealing.” The paper decried the claim of El Clamor that one of them died in his wife’s arms and called the Spanish-language sheet “that incendiary publication.”
As for the brilliant young publisher of El Clamor, Francisco P. Ramirez, who wasn’t yet 20 years old, he forcefully countered the Star with editorials in the edition of the 7th of his paper:
A general feeling of indignation has been aroused among our fellow citizens at the execution that took place in San Gabriel of the four individuals suspected of being accomplices to the robbers [the Flores-Daniel Gang.] Recent revelations have shown that they were not guilty of the crimes of which they were accused, and if at some time they had done things that deserved the punishment to which they were subjected, at least we are unaware of it.
Ramirez continued that it was not his intent “to cause enmity between the races” or to attack innocent persons, as this would only “recreate the prostituted imagination of poorly entertained people.” Rather, he wanted to emphasize the notion of justice so that locals could live “more peacefully and in better harmony than before.” It was dangerous to allow unfettered vengeance such as took place at San Gabriel and it was added that “what we ask for is very fair, being in accordance with the rights of equality, justice and freedom that the laws confer on us by the privilege of bring born here.”
Referring specifically to Soto, the young journalist and publisher quoted extensive from the account of the Star about how he was chased into the swamp, burned out, shot and killed and then his corpse decapitated. Ramirez allowed that “if all this is true, there is no doubt that he was a criminal,” but, even so, “his death is still terrible” because it was reported to him that “when they set fire to the branches and grass where [Soto] had hidden, in the agony of pain and despair he dug a hole with his hands to bury himself.” Then, Soto was killed “his head was cut off, and his body was abandoned for food for animals and birds.” The salient and simple point was that:
No matter how bad a man is, and whether he has committed crimes that make him detestable in the eyes of society, a noble heart always feels sorry for him: he feels what humanity is, and does not persecute his fellow man as if they were so many animals of the field.
It is remarkable how much more eloquent and mature Ramirez was than his older counterpart, Henry Hamilton of the Star, and it is impossible to argue with his pleas for following law, pursuing justice as prescribed by statute, and not treating fellow human beings, no matter their crimes, like animals. Instead, the resort to vigilantism at San Gabriel represented the worst barbaric instincts in a people filled with fury and fear.
We’ll return tomorrow with the next part of this post and the sparring between the two newspapers in their editions of Valentine’s Day 1857.