LA BEATA: THE SISTERS' SAD FATE (Part Four)
By the time she was 45, Apolinaria Lorenzana had nursed numerous cases of syphilis at the San Diego Mission infirmary. She’d fought plagues of measles and smallpox. She’d midwifed new lives and mourned countless dead. But possibly the most tragic sight she ever saw was the face of Doña María de los Angeles. In the spring of 1837, a band of natives attacked Rancho Jamul. They killed María’s husband and her daughter’s fiancé. They stripped María and her children, burned the rancho, and took her daughters, Tomasa and Ramona, captive.
Wrapped in a bedsheet to cover her nudity, open-eyed, yet blank to the world, María told Lorenzana her story. When María concluded, “She could neither speak nor cry.” She’d been bled of tears.
Called la beata (the “blessed one”) for her piety and caring, Lorenzana witnessed a “shattered” spirit. María “suffered the rest of her life,” Lorenzana recalled 40 years later. “She never recovered…and finally succumbed to the burden of her sorrows.
“I heard that the Indians went to the Colorado River area,” Lorenzana added, “and sold the girls.” There are at least four other versions of the sisters’ fate — and each is a tale of woe.
After the burning of Rancho Jamul, since the nearest soldiers were stationed at San Luis Rey, San Diegans called upon Macedonio Gonzalez, an alferez (second lieutenant) from Baja California, to form an expedition and bring the girls home. A famous Indian fighter, Gonzalez came to be known — and feared — by his first name. Agustín Janssens, a Belgian who also went on the mission, called Macedonio “a man of great courage.” Others labeled him “the Potentate of the Frontier,” though many questioned his methods.
Macedonio “never bothered to prepare an indictment against delinquent Indians,” writes Antonio María Osio, “since he did not know how. He would deliver only an oral judgment and sentence them to a flogging or capital punishment” on the spot. Instead of using a gun, to save cartridges “he would execute them himself with his sword.” Macedonio called this treatment “justice.”
The captured girls were his nieces. This gave him added incentive, says Vicente Romero, a saddler who, along with 17 regular soldiers and 30 Baja California Indians, formed the expedition. The party left Mission San Miguel la Nueva, south of Rosarito. At Rancho Tía Juana, settlers from San Diego joined them. Approximately 60 armed men on fresh horses, accompanied by supply wagons and a remuda of extra rides, headed east.
According to Macedonio’s and Romero’s accounts, not much happened. The group went through Tecate, up to Campo and Jacumba, then back to the Cuyamaca Valley, where Romero says they had a “fight through the whole day” and somehow lost their supplies and ammunition.
Romero says they never saw the young women. Macedonio says he saw his nieces at the foot of a mountain, crying to be rescued. But he “didn’t dare shoot” for fear of killing them. He offered cattle and horses as ransom, but the captors refused. So the expedition headed home, after four months on the road.
Agustín Janssens gives a less reputation-saving account. When the expedition went through Tecate, word came that the Indians were in the mountains, camped at a narrow pass near the Cuyamaca Valley. Their chieftains — Cartucho, Martín, and Pedro Pablo — held three women captive.
The expedition reached Matadera (“murderess,” today’s 5700-foot Stonewall Peak). North of the white granite crown near Lake Cuyamaca, three young women sat on a pile of large rocks. They wore rabbit skins below the waist, their naked upper bodies and faces painted with white powder. Janssens recognized Tomasa and Ramona. The third, someone said, was the ex-wife of Cosmé Peña, a hard-drinking, abusive attorney. She’d escaped from him a year earlier with a musician named Arias. Colorado Indians captured her and later Cartucho and Martín took her from them.
When the young women called out from the rocks, Indians covered the women’s mouths. To reach them, the expedition had to inch through a narrow defile into a natural amphitheater bounded by craggy walls and caves. Veteran soldiers sensed that the open area was a perfect kill zone. Indians could hide in the crevices or behind the live oak and Jeffrey pine dotting the hillsides. As the troops moved forward, the natives began flanking left and right of the girls. Some dropped back behind the crest of the range. How many others had already hidden was anyone’s guess.
“It was an ambush from which we could not possibly withdraw,” writes Janssens.
Macedonio shouted encouragement “and told us not to worry.” The troops had round leather shields, made from three layers of stretched bull hide, to fend off rocks and arrows. “Among us were a few who knew how to manage the shields, but to those who didn’t, they were a great nuisance.”
Soldiers used the shields to defend their heads. For added protection, Macedonio ordered everyone to wrap leather thongs tightly around their most exposed body parts.
When most of the expedition came into the clearing area, a hundred arrows and stones swarmed overhead “from every direction” and whistled down. Horses fell, and men. Arrows and rocks pelted the ground like hail.
War cries and whoops echoed across the rocky walls; soldiers tried to shield themselves and return fire. Horses shrieked and threw their riders. Some hunkered near downed animals spiked with shafts; others mounted behind a fellow soldier. Some just ran blind through rising puffs of smoke.
“Soon we had several wounded,” writes Janssens. “Among them was Macedonio, against whom most of the arrows were directed.”
One stuck in his lips “and impeded his speech.”
Natives raced along a ridge to the entryway, where they began rolling boulders to close the narrow exit, which, according to Janssens, “they could have done with the greatest of ease.”
Indians attacked and killed the rear guard. They took the expedition’s supplies and extra horses and threatened to seal off the exit.