“You Are One of my Soldiers”: Michael White’s Recollection of the Battle of Cahuenga, February 1845

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There was a very small cadre of British natives residing in Mexican-era California, including the Homestead’s founder William Workman; his neighbor to the north on Rancho Azusa, Henry Dalton; Scotland-born Hugo Reid of Rancho Santa Anita; John Forster of the Mission San Juan Capistrano area. While the United States has long had a “special relationship” with Great Britain, this was not the case at the time and, in fact, the two countries very nearly went to war over boundary disputes in Maine and the Pacific Northwest between Canada and America. Moreover, the United States, having designs on expansion to the Pacific, was suspicious of British involvement in this part of the world.

Moreover, there were always uncertain political dynamics in the department of Alta California, which has been referred to as “the Siberia of México.” From the time of colonization in the late 1760s under the crumbling Spanish empire and for about a quarter century after the fledgling Mexican Republic went through its own growing pains, with revolutions occurring seemingly constantly, the sparse population of this outpost identified as Californios out of sheer necessity being left largely to their own devices.

Even when the central government at Mexico City tried to exercise more authority and control over the governance of Alta California, the locals resisted, with revolutions leading to the expulsion or self-exile of appointed governors and the Californios resuming self-administration. Such was the case when Manuel Micheltorena was sent by Mexico City at the end of 1842 to assume the position of departmental chief executive, but the situation was worsened when he was accompanied by an armed guard that was said to comprise largely of released convicts, called cholos by the Californios.

After a little more than two years, with locals constantly chafing at the administration of Governor Micheltorena, especially local leaders like Pío Pico, who was the head of the small legislature for the department and who was based in Los Angeles, the chief executive decided to squelch, once and for all, the dissent coming from his detractors. Micheltorena gathered a small armed force, including the guard he brought with him from México proper, and marched toward the Angel City.

A Historic American Buildings Survey image of the Michael White Adobe, which is on the grounds of San Marino High School. From a National Park Service website.

The result was the Battle of Cahuenga, which took place on 19-20 February 1845, at the pass through the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of the pueblo and which led to the expansive San Fernando Valley. A previous post on this blog related events connected to the skirmish, which involved little actual gunfire and no human casualties (a horse, however, was killed), and which focused on the recollections of Benjamin D. Wilson when he sat down with a representative of Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1877 in one of a series of interviews that have proved quite valuable in understanding a modicum of the pre-American history of California.

Another figure who was present at the conflict was another English native, Michael Claringbud White (1801-1884), who also was interviewed in 1877 by a Bancroft associate, though his remembrances were quite a bit shorter, if not still colorful and notable. In addition to this conversation, there are at least a couple of other accounts from 1883 and 1896 that are of interest concerning a figure of longstanding residence in our region, but who was not as prominent as the others mentioned above.

White was born, according to his interview, on 10 February 1802, while the 1883 article (which incorrectly called White “the first Anglo-Saxon settler” in California) and the 1896 reminiscence by Henry D. Barrows, a collector of much regional history, state he was born in 1801 (to further confuse the matter, census records show his birth year as varying from 1800 to 1810—though most indicate the first couple of years of the 19th century.) Some sources, like Barrows, indicate his birthplace as Margate, a seaside town east of London in the county of Kent, while others, such as the 1883 article, state he hailed from Chislehurst in the Bromley district southeast of the capital city and formerly in Kent. It is possible that he was born in one and lived in the others during his youth.

In any case, it is known that he took to the sea as a teenager, with his Bancroft interview stating that he left at 13 and Barrows writing that he was a year older when he was apprenticed to William Mott, master of the whaling ship, Perseverance. This craft launched on the Thames River, which suggests that White was living in Chislehurst when he was became part of its crew, in 1801 and its seventh voyage under Captain Henry King left in August 1814 for Peru (where Dalton long resided) and returned almost two years later with 400 casks of whale oil. White recalled in 1877 that he sailed with Mott for two years and nine months, though Mott was not captain of the ship until a three-year sailing from 1824 to 1827, according to a British whaling ship database.

A painting of White made from a photograph.

In any case, the Perseverance sailed from 1816 to 1818 and White, by all three accounts, was recorded as having left the ship’s service andBrit landed at Cabo San Lucas in Baja California in 1817 and his Bancroft interview noted that he was nursed by a local family after he suffered a foot injury and that he remained in that area for well over a year. In 1819, at La Paz, White related that he sailed on the Flor de Mayo which landed at Mazatlán and Guaymas, where he took over command. After some voyages among these three ports and saying he was homesick and ready to return to England, White related that he was involved, at San Blas, in the capture of an American craft, the Lancaster.

After relating some hair-raising adventures during that period, none of which were mentioned in the 1883 and 1896 accounts, though these were necessarily shorter, White said he was destitute until he became a mate on an unnamed Mexican ship, which appears to have transported smuggled goods (hardly a rare phenomenon at the time and locale), and remained with it through 1826. Here there were more tales of smuggling money for Spanish priests being forced to leave México as well as brawling and White surviving by his wits before he sailed for Hawaii—Barrows’ account stated that White had been to what was then known as the Sandwich Islands a decade prior, but White’s interview does not mention this.

White told the Bancroft interviewer that he remained in Hawaii for about a year-and-a-half from late 1826 through spring 1828 and it is possible he met Jonathan Temple, who was a merchant in Honolulu until he left for San Diego about the first of April 1827. The British consul, Richard Charlton, employed White, so he said, to command the Dolly to California to purchase horses for shipment back to Hawaii, though, if White liked California, he could remain there. White stated that he continued with the Dolly through August 1828 with landings and horse purchases, as well as the ever-present smuggled goods, at San Francisco, Monterey and Santa Barbara, from which latter place the ship was sent back to Hawaii while White remained.

Again, the accounts vary as to some details, but White stayed at Santa Barbara, where he was working on the building of a schooner at Goleta when he participated in one of the frequent revolutions that roiled Alta California. When José de la Guerra, a prominent figure in the mission town, purchased a wrecked American ship, White, having found a cousin, Henry Paine, who he once saw in La Paz, at Santa Barbara worked with his relative on repairing the vessel. At the end of 1829, a storm dashed the ship to pieces, but material was salvaged for the construction of the Santa Barbara, which White asserted was the first ship built in California.

Los Angeles Herald, 29 November 1883. The following two images are from the same article.

In 1830 (the 1883 has dates a year later), White and others built another schooner, the Guadalupe for the use of the Mission San Gabriel and, though he didn’t go into any details, nor did the other accounts, he must’ve met, while at the “Queen of the Missions,” María Rosario Guillen, daughter of Miguel Antonio Guillen and his wife Eulalia Pérez, the llavelera, or keeper of the keys at the mission, with responsibility for, among much else, locking away neophyte indigenous girls and women at nights to keep native and Mexican me away. White, who was baptized a Roman Catholic at San Gabriel in September 1830, and Rosario Guillen were wed in November 1831.

White related that, just eight days after his marriage, he took the Guadalupe to western Mexican ports, including Mazatlán and San Blas and, while the 1883 account stated he spent two years at Guaymas and that he married Rosario there—this clearly being an error—White’s Bancroft interview recorded that he came back in under a year, sometime in 1832. From there, he added, he went to Los Nietos (modern Downey area) and opened a store and served as a local alcalde, akin to a mayor, while the 1883 account added that he did carpentry, having given up the sea as he was then in his early thirties.

Another revolution, this one in 1836-1837, included, so White recollected, his being summoned to bring men from Los Nietos to Los Angeles for defense purposes and he said he could only get three volunteers, bring brothers from the Alvitre family of what became Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, where the original Mission San Gabriel site was located in the Whittier Narrows, to join him. He related that he had a run-in with José Sepúlveda, who wanted White to go to San Diego to get a cannon, but this was refused and White returned home, though he did accompany the prominent General José Castro, whom he knew well in the north, to Santa Ana as Castro headed to the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores to engage with some rebels.

In his Bancroft interview, White, who lived near modern Compton in the late 1830s before a flood from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers drove him out after destroying much of his property, said nothing of significance happened until the 1845 incident at Cahuenga, while the Barrows account and the 1883 article also made little mention of what happened during the years before the revolt. White, however, did later in his 1877 reminiscence relate that, in spring 1839, a few months after the flood, he took 50 horses with a returning New Mexican trade caravan over the Old Spanish Trail, which opened about the time of his arrival in Alta California, to New Mexico. His recollection of that period, however, was confused with respect to timing:

Finally reached Taos, and stayed there the rest of 1839, and till the fall of 1840. During that period I visited Santa Fé two or three times, trading for blankets. I had sold or exchanged all my horses and mules for blankets.

Most of the time I was in the store of Mr. William Workman at Taos. In the fall of 1840 Mr. William Workman, Mr. John Rowland, Mr. Benj. D. Wilson, William Gordon and his family, William Knight, a German tailor named Jacob, Hamilton, Dr. Lyman (afterwards a famed scientist of Philadelphia), Taylor, Col. McClewen, and a great many others,
whose names I can’t recollect. We formed a party of 94 or 95 all foreigners, started from Taos in September for California, and arrived here in December at the Cajon. We celebrated Christmas
day at the Cajon. We of course considered ourselves in California then.

We met with no adventures on the road. Indians would occasionally come to our camp and beg for something to eat, which we gave them. We finally reached Los Angeles, where each man took his own road. I came home to my family at the Mesa just below Los Angeles.

There were a number of errors in this statement, including the fact that the Rowland and Workman Expedition was actually in fall 1841, that the number of participants was about 25 extranjeros (Americans and Europeans) with perhaps around 40 New Mexicans, and that Workman distinctly recalled arriving in this area on 5 November, it being Guy Fawkes’ Day, a British holiday (which, of course, White would know well.)

As for the members of the expedition, the German tailor was actually Jacob Frankfort, the first Jew to live in Los Angeles, while Dr. Jonathan H. Lyman was not a Philadelphia scientist, but a Massachusetts physician. The naturalist who achieved some renown in the City of Brotherly Love was William Gambel. Of course, White was well into his seventies and recollecting events of more than 35 years prior, so mistakes would be expected throughout the interview.

The reference to “the Mesa” is interesting because the Battle of Los Angeles that took place on 9 January 1847 during the Mexican-American War between the invading American military force and the Californios defending their homeland occurred in that location, which is now the City of Vernon. White’s residence there with his family was short as he noted that, in 1843, he moved to a tract he called the Rancho San Ysidro near the Mission San Gabriel.

That same year, he was granted the Rancho Muscupiabe, comprising about 4,500 acresadjacent on the northwest of the Rancho San Bernardino and which also next to Cajon Pass. This property, however, was established to be directly in line with the route used by Ute, Paiute and other inland Indian tribes who routinely conducted raids in greater Los Angeles for horses and cattle. White, who had a heavily fortified adobe house built on the Muscupiabe as part of his responsibility to prevent Indian raids, lasted all of nine months, while his family fled after just six weeks, before having his cattle taken and deciding he would return to the safer region at San Gabriel.

Notably, the grant to Muscupiabe was from Governor Micheltorena, which might partially explain White’s attitude about the situation at Cahuenga, though his reticence in 1836 is also telling. After the American seizure of California and the establishment of the land claims act of 1851, requiring land grant holders to prove their claim before a commission and federal courts, White submitted his petition for a patent. While it was eventually awarded, White gave half of his interest to the attorney representing him, in lieu of fees, this being a common situation and then sold the remaining half to surveyor Henry Hancock, who as notorious for his wheeling and dealing with land and creative surveying techniques. Hancock managed to get the Muscupiabe survey to cover seven times the size of the original grant.

The White family’s listing in the 1850 federal census, taken early the following year because of California’s admission to the Union that September. Two households above is that of Daniel (shown as “Lemuel”) Sexton, a fellow member of the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841.

With respect to the Battle of Cahuenga, White told the Bancroft interviewer that

In Feb. 1845 I was sent for by the Juez de Paz Juan Sepúlveda (now living in San Pedro) of Los Angeles. I remember the words of his letter that if I did not present myself in Los Angeles by10 o’clock on the day following the date, I was to be adjudged “ traidor a la patria [traitor to the country]. I went in there and asked the Judge what he wanted me for. Just at this moment a fellow came and took my hat away, and then brought it back to me with a red ribbon around it. Then Mr. William Workman came out of the office to where I was standing, and asked me to what party I belonged. I answered, “To the party of myself.” “Then,” says he, “you are one of my soldiers.” I told him I didn’t see it, and he pointed at my hat, saying I had his ribbon on.

I didn’t want to have anything to do with the revolution, but Workman took me against my will, to Cahuenga.

Workman was captain of the foreign (meaning, American and European) company of men ready to fight for Pico and the rebels against Micheltorena. White added, “that night we passed in the house of Cahuenga, lying around, singing songs, eating and drinking,” this residence reported to be that of Tomás Féliz, situated at the north side of the pass.

White noted that, the following day, the 19th of February, the Pico force met their counterparts, but, while cannon fire followed, these were from a substantial gap and “we lost one horse whose head was shot off.” He also related that “the enemy’s [cannon] balls were picked up and returned to him.” On the 20th, the company marched two miles east, “where the springs begin to rise in the river Los Angeles” and White observed “we there were all the time under a bank.” This location appears to be near the present Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

He continued that “our captain was William Workman, the Lt. John Rowland,” though he could not remember the other officers among the contingent of about 100 men. Of these, White recalled Daniel Sexton and Benjamin D. Wilson, other Rowland and Workman Expedition members; the mixed-race James Beckwourth (misspelled as “Beckwith” in the manuscript); Rowland’s sons-in-law John Reed and James Barton, the latter the sheriff of Los Angeles County whose killing was covered here in some detail; the Callahan brothers, whose families had a long San Gabriel history; and others.

The Whites as enumerated in the only state census, taken in 1852.

White further observed that “I know that there were negotiations between our Captain [Workman] and the Captain of the foreign camp on the Micheltorena side, but what they were about I never knew, and very soon Micheltorena surrendered.” Pico’s account from an 1877 Bancroft interview, which we’ll highlight in a post next year at this time, included his assertion that he lambasted Workman and Wilson for contacting the other side, but Wilson certainly asserted that these discussions led to the governor surrendering and then leaving immediately for México, with Pico becoming the last governor of California in the Mexican period.

Discussing further the “cholos” in Micheltorena’s force, White said that “One night I met in Los Angeles in the street where the Temple Bank now is, one of those fellows with a knife pointed at me who demanded my sarape . . .” White claimed that he pulled out a gun and dared the man to take the garment, but the adversary ran off. In April 1845, perhaps as recognition for his role in the Pico revolt, White was granted his 77-acre Rancho San Ysidro, where he built an adobe house that is still standing on the grounds of San Marino High School.

White’s narrative has an extensive recollection of the Battle of Chino, fought in September 1846 during the Mexican-American War, while he also had some interesting stories about his purported adventures during the Gold Rush. We’ll return in late September with a post about that, as well as some of White’s later years, which ended with his death in 1885. Be sure to check back for that!

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