The Butterfield Stage line between Warner’s Ranch and Oak Grove was a narrow trail, dusty in summer, soggy in winter, rutted the year round. On its weekly treks, the stage always stopped at Deadman’s Hole, a 300-yard, concave hollow eight miles northwest of Warner’s. A thick grove of shade trees, a field for grazing, and two spring-fed ponds made the site a natural rest area. For passengers in the crowded coach, the bone-jarring ride made the stop a necessity.
In the fall of 1858, a stage driver reined in his team near Deadman’s. He chain-locked the wheels and announced a 40-minute respite. A passenger walked to the easternmost pond for cool refreshment. As he kneeled down and cupped his hands in the water, shafts of sunlight flickered on a dark object, too large for a fish, breaking the surface. Blank eyes stared skyward. Ripples nudged a decomposing body.
An unidentified prospector: cause of death unknown. And since he was a stranger, passing to or from the gold fields around Julian, there was no coroner’s report.
Some say that’s how Deadman’s Hole got its name. Judge C.W. Fink, of Agua Caliente, gave a different version.
The majordomo of Warner’s Ranch frequently sold livestock in Temecula. Before his return, he always gambled at a saloon.
Almost every stop on the Butterfield line, writes James Jaspar, became a magnet not only for carousing cowboys but also “rovers, rowdies, and toughs.” Crude hotels and saloons sprouted up. Whiskey flowed, blood spilled. According to Jaspar, the station at Little Temecula Ranch ranked among the worst.
At the saloon, the majordomo proudly displayed a sack of gold. He left early the next morning for the long day’s ride to Warner’s. Just north of Aguanga he noticed a distant horse and rider, in no hurry but headed his way.
Cold shock. No one had said they’d be going south in the morning. The majordomo pulled off the trail and hitched his horse to a tree. Then he scratched out his tracks with a branch.
The rider rode past, slowed down, stopped. The saddle squeaked as he leaned over, looking for lost marks. He turned his horse around and walked it back up the trail, inspecting every indentation. Finally, he continued south.
He’d been one of the strangers at the saloon, and somewhere between here and Warner’s he’d be waiting. According to Fink, the majordomo decided to give his future assailant “a dose of his own medicine.”
In the 1850s and ’60s, since it was so out of the way, criminals hid out on Palomar Mountain and in canyons on the eastern slope. The majordomo knew of a “friendly outlaw” holed up near Aguanga who owed him a favor.
The majordomo offered the outlaw a $20 gold piece to kill the stalker. The majordomo would leave it at Buena Vista Casa. But the outlaw didn’t fancy being seen in public. After several arguments, the majordomo handed him the coin. Don’t do the job, he warned, and I’ll turn you in.
A few days later, travelers camped at Deadman’s found a corpse in a small barranca. According to Fink — who doesn’t say whether it was the majordomo or the stalker — ranch hands buried the body, and the outlaw “disappeared, with a horse and saddle and a twenty dollar gold piece.”
The nameless prospector may not have been the first to die at the grassy cienega, and the majordomo/stalker wasn’t the last. In fact, so many travelers lost their lives that two of San Diego County’s most aptly named sites are Deadman’s Hole and nearby Dark Canyon.
By 1888, if you don’t count the two men ambushed by bandits just south of Oak Grove (or the Frenchman probably shot by his wife in 1870, and another gunned down in 1875), at least seven corpses lay near the isolated water hole. Many others disappeared without a trace. The list of suspects includes outlaws on the lam, gangs of bandits, irate husbands or wives, and, for those strangled brutally, a “wild man” or “manimal,” known today as a sasquatch.
“Deadman’s isn’t a good place to rob a stage passing through,” says Arlie Bergman, whose ancestors — the Bergmans and Mendenhalls — helped settle Palomar Mountain. “They were always ready for trouble; in fact, there were very few Butterfield robberies around here. But it’s a good place to bushwhack individuals camped alone near the springs. They had to have money on them somewhere.”
Most mysterious were the murders where money, apparently, wasn’t the object. Between 1876 and 1888, at least three men and a woman were found strangled, their necks severely bruised or broken, with wallets and goods intact. The culprit, so the legend grew, was a “wild man.”
When the first friars came to San Diego, the natives spoke of hairy human giants that lived in arroyos to the east. The tribes expelled them, the story went, because they were too warlike.
Early in 1876, during a stop at Deadman’s, a passenger sensed something watching him take a drink. He turned and saw a “naked thing covered with long black hair” hiding in the bushes. In an instant, the large creature vanished.
In March 1876, Turner Helm and a man whose initials were “L.T.H.” prospected east of Warner’s. Helm, who had wandered off about a half-mile, heard a whistle — like a kid putting two fingers in the sides of his mouth and blowing. Then Helm saw “something” on a large boulder, maybe 20 paces away. It looked like an animal but “proved to be a man” of about medium size, reported the San Diego Union, “covered all over with coarse black hair, two or three inches long.” The man had “fine features — not like those of an Indian, but more like an American or Spaniard.”
Helm tried speaking to the creature, in English, then Spanish, then the local native tongue. When the creature stepped toward him, Helm raised his rifle. The manimal fled over a hill.
L.T.H., who wrote the Union story, said they’d seen the creature’s tracks before, “but I supposed them to be [those] of an Indian.” He didn’t see the strange being, “but Mr. Helm is known to be a man of unquestioned veracity.”