Sophia Zaller 3:30 p.m., Aug. 31
On the trail of San Diego history: Mule Hill
If you drive Interstate 15, just south of Via Rancho Parkway you'll pass a major local landmark without knowing it. In part because the boulder strewn mound east of the freeway looks like every other grassy lump in the Escondido/Rancho Bernardo area.
And even if you knew, you might have wondered why it was so important, and not the taller peak much closer to I15.
The reason: the "Kearny Column" couldn't have made it that far. And where they stopped almost became California's Alamo.
On December 6, 1846, 40 of General Stephen Watts Kearny's U.S. Dragoons gallop-splashed across the muddy San Pasqual Valley. They rode emaciated horses and mules, had damp gunpowder in their rifles, and shouted like coyotes.
General Andres Pico and around 72 Californio horsemen, lined across the north side of the valley, fired volleys, then retreated to the west.
Many of the attackers went down, including Kit Carson, whose horse fell out from under him.
As Kearny's soldiers chased them, one at a time, the Californios regathered and cut them down with lariats and six- to eight-foot-long lances. Nineteen U.S. soldiers died. At least 31 were severely wounded, including Kearny, who took a spear-point "in the nates."
Reports vary, but Pico may have lost one or two men at most in the Battle of San Pasqual.
The next day, Kearny ordered the dead buried in a mass grave and marched west, harassed by Californio snipers.
It's most likely Kearny took a route north of the river basin, along today's San Pasqual Road, and not the marshy San Dieguito River Trail. The soldiers had to move slowly, since they transported the wounded in ambulances made from buffalo robes lashes to tent poles and willow branches.
The old Los Angeles/San Diego Road, little more than a wagon-wheel-rutted dirt path, ran past the foot of a mound-like hill, where granite boulders offered potential cover.
Assuming Kearny would march for the road, Pico stationed men on the hill and blocked all access. Six of Kearny's men charged, chased off the Californios, and established a makeshift fort. During the skirmish, the army's cattle, chickens, and mules carrying provisions ran off.
Pico's troops surrounded the hill, just out of rifle range. Each side hurled curses, but refused to waste ammo firing shots.
Kearny left Santa Fe with 300 mounted dragoons. Kit Carson caught up to him with news: Commodore Robert F. Stockton had captured all of Alta California. So Kearny sent around 200 troops back, along with most of their horses. The rest crossed the Sonoran Desert on horses and mules. Carson rode with them. By the time they reached the San Pasqual Valley the animals - and the soldiers - were exhausted.
On the evening of December 7, supplies ran out on the hill. Kearny ordered Carson, young Edward Beale, and a native-American - who pronounced his name "Che-muc-tah" - to sneak through the enemy pickets in the dead of night, walk/run 30 miles to San Diego, and urge Stockton to send reinforcements.
Soon after, Kearny's men had to eat their mounts. Thus the name: Mule Hill.
Stockton mustered at least 180 marines and sailors. By the time they arrived, Pico's forces had dispersed, most up the road to La Ciudad de Los Angeles.
Kearny's soldiers reached Old Town on December 12.
Each side claimed victory.
Directions: Exit Interstate 15 at Via Rancho Parkway, south of Escondidio. Go east. Turn right on Sunset Drive and park. Across the street, near a golf driving range, the Mule Hill trail begins. The walk's about a mile and a quarter. Markers along the way tell the grueling tale.