• Image by Tom Voss
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State Highway 78 winds its way through the San Pasqual Valley toward Ramona. At a bend in the road a mile east of the entrance to the Wild Animal Park there is a roadside park. It is small and indistinct. One could, and many do, zip by it without a glance. Some might slow down — a few might even stop — if they knew what happened there 139 years ago. The site is a monument to a brief but bloody fight between General Stephen Kearny's heavy cavalry and a group of colorful and dashing native Californians of Spanish descent.The date was December 6, 1846. and the fight is known as the Battle of San Pasqual.

If it were not for the metal plaque fixed to a boulder near the center of the park, skeptics might frown. The site might be passed off as the efforts of some local Elks Club to give San Pasqual undeserved distinction, the type of social vanity that has given rise to "George Washington Slept Here" taverns in nondescript communities all over the Northeast. But the state seal legitimizes San Pasqual, offsetting its somewhat barren visage. By itself the monument is merely a bouldery hillside with overgrown weeds and a few lonely willows. It has none of the portraitlike presence of other battlefields. It is not Gettysburg, where the manicured serenity causes you unconsciously to tread lightly. Nor is San Pasqual like the Custer Battlefield, a grassy piece of Big Sky country where the wind is alive with the ghosts of Indians and cavalry troopers. In the lull there you can hear the muffled pounding of thousands of hooves and the sound of distant, desperate bugle calls.

While the Battle of San Pasqual had neither the magnitude nor the significance of Gettysburg or the Little Big Horn, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought on California soil. It was a side show of the Mexican-American War and did not affect the outcome. Yet it had the elements of a much larger struggle: cavalry charges, magnificent horsemanship, and hand-to-hand combat. It began with foolishness, error, and bravado, was fought with amazing courage, and ended, days later, with a lone gunshot cracking in the night.

California in the year 1846 was a Mexican province. Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1822, signaling the end of Spanish domination in the western and southern parts of the New World, a reign which had begun in the 1500s. But Mexico, too, was now losing its grip on the northern lands. The Oregon Territory was coveted by both the British and the Americans, and even the Russians hovered nearby. Texas had revolted from Mexico in 1836 and become an independent republic. In 1845 the Texans voted for statehood and were admitted into the Union of the United States. In distant California, where Mexican control was loose, life was fairly peaceful. The Californians were people of Spanish heritage, descendants of Spain's colonization of Mexico, which resulted in the elimination of the Aztecs and most other native Indian inhabitants over the next several centuries. California was also populated with numerous North American Indian tribes. and,hy the mid-1800s,most of these had been touched by the influence of the Spanish friars. There was peace, for the most part. between the Californians and the local Indians.

California was made up of six major pueblos: Santa Barbara. San Jose, Yerba Buena. Los Angeles. Monterey (the capital of the province). and San Diego. There were several ports. including San Francisco and San Pedro, and there were the ranchos. the settlements, the old Spanish missions. and the Indian villages. The new settlers — American fur trappers, explorers, or adventurers. and Englishmen off sailing ships — mixed in with the Spanish-Californians. They married the daughters of the rancho owners, became naturalized Mexican citizens, and started ranchos of their own. There was no standing army and no heavy tax burden. But this was all about to change. Manifest Destiny was rolling west.

The western boundary of the United States at that time was found in what is today western Kansas. With Texas newly added to the country, the southern boundary was now claimed at the Rio Grande River. Mexic,. unfortunately, claimed that the border was north of the Rio Grande. American forces under General Zachary Taylor were sent to the Rio Grande in the spring of 1846 to secure the claimed territory. There was a skirmish with Mexican troops, and several Americans were killed. On May 13, 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico. President James Polk was a believer in the policy of Manifest Destiny, the expansion of the United States to the Pacific, and he ordered that all Mexican territory in what was then called Upper California (much of the West and Southwest) be occupied and annexed to the United States. An army was to be raised to secure New Mexico, California, and surrounding areas, while other forces under generals Taylor and John E. Wool were invading Mexico itself. A fifty-two-year-old cavalry colonel named Stephen Watts Kearny was given command of the expedition, and his army was designated the Army of the West.

Battle monument

Kearny was a career soldier. He had been decorated at the age of eighteen for heroism in combat against the British in the War of 1812. In the 1830s, battles with the Plains Indians made the U.S. Army aware of the limitations of the infantry, and a presidential order organized the First Regiment of Dragoons (heavily armed cavalry) in 1833. Stephen Kearny, called by some historians the father of the U.S. Cavalry, was responsible for training the new horse soldiers. Kearny later came commander of the First Dragoons, leading the efforts to keep peace on the frontier near Leavenworth, on the Missouri plains. Kearny had a reputation for being stern but fair. In sensitive dealings with the Indians he was known for finding a peaceful solution if possible. but he was recognized as being capable of committing to action if need be.

Kearny's Army of the West left Fort Leavenworth in June of 1846. The rugged Missouri frontiersmen ho had been recruited for the army were disappointed in New Mexico: the Mexican government there gave up without a fight. On September 25. Kearny (now a general) left the major portion of his 1600-man army in Santa Fe. from where they would head south to join the armies that were fighting in the Chihuahua province of Mexico. He took 300 of his dragoons and set out for California.

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