In 1851, Southern California was in a “three-sided struggle for survival,” writes William Evans. California became a state, and an influx of American settlers, on a rush for gold, usurped control from Californios and natives. Antonio Garra, Cupeño chief, saw his people taxed, their lands ransacked by invaders, and their lives lost to the “white” disease, smallpox. Garra envisioned the mother of all warpaths: unite every Indian tribe — plus the Californios, some say — and kill every white person from Fresno to Yuma.
Garra attacked two targets: Camp Independence, on the Colorado River, and Warner Ranch. The first failed, ending in a quarrel over captured sheep. When the second began, Garra refused to fight, claiming he was ill.
John Warner, 1879. Every single male headed east to avenge the Warner Ranch murders. When they reached Cupa, Garra’s deserted village near Warner Hot Springs, they set it on fire,
San Diego Historical Society photo
American reaction was swift. Phillips: “Realizing their own weakness but exaggerating Indian strength, the whites of San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and San Diego made preparations for a long war.” The San Diego Herald — November 27, 1851 — announced that if all the natives from the Colorado to Warner Ranch and down to Baja “took up arms, an Indian mob numbering 10,000 souls would be involved.”
“We momentarily expect to be attacked by Indians,” wrote Thomas Whaley, “who under their great chief Antonio Garra are swarming by the thousands in the south.”
On November 26, martial law was proclaimed in San Diego. The town became a fortress. Sentinels stood on 24-hour guard at every approach to the city and questioned every Indian who came near.
One citizen claimed, “The whole number of men” — i.e., whites — “in the county will not amount to 100. So we are utterly unable to do more than protect ourselves and our families.”
While San Diego’s 35 married men stayed behind to protect the town, on November 27, every single male headed east to avenge the Warner Ranch murders. Led by Major G.B. Fitzgerald, they acquired muskets from the Army. At least half, they learned later, were defective (a Los Angeles journalist estimated that Southern California had only eight functioning muskets in 1851). When they reached Cupa, Garra’s deserted village near Warner Hot Springs, Fitzgerald set it on fire, calling it a “funeral pyre for the slain.”
Fitzgerald sent three messengers to find Garra. Phillips: “They were to try to convince the Cupeño chief to meet Fitzgerald halfway between the sierra and the volunteers’ camp. Each would arrive with only four to six men, and they would discuss the cause of the outbreak.”
Garra needed allies. Although estimates of his force ranged in the thousands, he confessed he had “no more than 30 or 40 men with guns” and that he had “no communication with any other tribes than the Yumans and Cahuillas.” He hoped to unite with the latter. On December 2, he wrote to Juan Antonio, chief of the Cahuillas: This is the last chance, he said. “If we lose this war, all will be lost — the world. If we gain this war, then it is forever. Never will it stop; this war is for a whole life.”
There were thousands of Cahuillas. At least 3000 lived around the Lugo Ranch, also known as Rancho San Bernardino, and were the most powerful Indian society in San Bernardino and San Diego Counties. Their primary task was to defend the rancho against Indian cattle thieves and horse raiders. Monroy: “They were exceptional...with respect to their relations with the Californios.”
The Cahuilla leader, Juan Antonio, “kept absolute order among his people.” He had at least 20 village captains and never appeared in public without an escort of 10 to 20 men. To prove his swift justice, Juan Antonio buried a murderer alive with the man he killed.
Juan Antonio was 5'4". “Wirey even in old age,” he had “an aspect about the eyes, nose, and brow that came nearer to that of an African lion.” Because of his reputation as “an impatient administrator of justice,” his people referred to Juan Antonio as yampooche — “quick mad.”
On November 25, the Los Angeles County judge, Augustin Olvera, advised Juan Antonio to contact Garra about the uprising. “If Garra could explain his grievances,” Olvera wrote, “the problem could be settled without further violence.”
Phillips: “Olvera warned Juan Antonio not to get embroiled with the rising Indians, that if he had any thoughts along these lines he should get rid of them at once.” Olvera told Antonio to “work hard and be content.”
In his reply, Antonio said he visited all of his villages, talked to all of his captains, and swore his people were peace-loving — even Cabezón, a Cahuilla captain “not on good terms with the white authorities.”
Phillips: “It is not known what effect Olvera’s letter had on Juan Antonio, but shortly after receiving it, he wrote to Garra suggesting that they meet at the village of Razon.”
At first Garra refused to go to the desert village, about 15 miles from Los Coyotes Canyon. But after several Cahuilla chiefs encouraged him, Garra rode to Razon, convinced Juan Antonio would give him 300 warriors and would urge wealthy Californios José Antonio Estudillo and José Joaquín Ortega to join his crusade. As a gesture of respect, Garra brought eight head of cattle. On the way, he pleaded with Juan Verdugo, a Sonoran, to join him. Verdugo said he’d rather die than ride to Razon.
Verdugo sensed trouble. So, possibly, did Garra. He failed to achieve unity with the Quechan tribe at Camp Independence and was against the attack on Warner Ranch. He heard that “Juan Largo” (John Warner) “and the Americans would come in a few days and kill all the Indians.”
Phillips: that Garra “had gone to meet Juan Antonio only under pressure suggests that he had become despondent and had lost his supreme position among the rising Indians.... One suspects that when he left to meet Juan Antonio, Garra knew he was riding into a trap.”
With trusted friends Juan Bautista and Cosme, Garra came to Razon late one night. Juan Antonio arrived the next day. He seized Garra and his men and had them stripped. Antonio accused Garra of being the “devil” and “always playing tricks.” Antonio, who also commandeered the cattle, sent word to the Cahuillas and the warring Cupeños that he had captured Garra and restored peace.
The tribes dispersed. Juan Antonio took Garra to Rancho Lugo and eventually turned him over to General Joshua Bean, who negotiated a treaty with Juan Antonio. “As long as Juan Antonio continued to act in a friendly manner toward...the citizens of California, he would be protected and would be maintained in possession of his lands.”
Of Juan Antonio, the Los Angeles Star wrote, “His course was influenced beyond a doubt by the hope of gain, and he had made a pretty nice calculation as to which side would pay the best.”
Juan Antonio died of smallpox, February 28, 1863. White settlers eventually occupied all of his territories. Before Garra came to San Diego for trial, Captain Samuel P. Heintzelman and 46 soldiers attacked the Cahuillas at Los Coyotes Canyon. Chapuli, their chief, and 25 of his followers returned fire, then fled. Phillips: “According to one soldier, the Americans were more frightened than the Indians, and had the Indians held their ground 15 minutes longer, they might have remained in possession of the field.”
Monroy: “The small skirmish at Los Coyotes Canyon, on December 20, at which Chapuli was killed, marked the end of the rebellion.” Heintzelman, however, burned the Los Coyotes village and moved his troops to the Colorado, where, for over a year, “He scoured the country and punished the Indians if they or their villages could be found.”
Fearing further attacks, the governor of California ordered a company of New York volunteers to protect San Diego. Forty men sailed on the brig North Bend, arriving December 23. Although the San Diego Herald called them “as fine a looking set of men as ever shouldered arms,” they caused a riot in Jamaica, and in Panama, the national guard broke up a major disturbance. San Diegans called them “The Hounds,” many swearing that the recruits caused more trouble than Garra.
Although their services were no longer necessary, within days one “Hound” slashed his captain with a knife. The next day they fought a duel with Colt revolvers. Later, San Diegan Phillip Crosthwaite shot Lieutenant Watkins in the thigh, causing him to lose his leg. Other “Hounds” threatened to sack Old Town. Lieutenant Thomas W. Sweeny and 19 regular soldiers were nearby, however, with bayonets fixed. The “Hounds” left soon thereafter. Sweeny wrote, “It was the general opinion that if my men had not been present that day...the streets of San Diego would have been drenched with blood.”
Garra came to Old Town, in chains, January 9, 1852. Joshua Bean, who brought him from Rancho Lugo, said, “I know Antonio Garra well; I was with him constantly for 30 days, and had frequent conversations with him, relative to his revolt, and a more prevaricating old scamp I never knew.”
Phillips: “Once captured, the Cupeño chief realized that all his efforts to unify the Indians of southern California had failed and that his followers, defeated in battle, were anxious for peace. He was aware that even if released his influence among his people would now be tenuous at best.” Garra tried to implicate Californios in the plot, but his swift trial named him “sole author” of the uprising.
Though he pleaded guilty only to stealing sheep, Garra was tried at 2:00 p.m. on January 10, 1852, and sentenced at 3:00 p.m. At 4:00 p.m., Padre Juan Holbein led Garra to the Old Town cemetery. Garra knelt before an open grave. Several hundred people gathered. As ten San Diegans with muskets, including Thomas Whaley, readied to fire, the Padre asked Garra to request the crowd’s pardon. Garra said nothing. The padre asked again. Just before he was blindfolded and shot, Garra raised his head, smiled, and told the crowd, “Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for all my offenses — and expect yours in return.”
Carrico, Richard L., Strangers in a Stolen Land: American Indians in San Diego, 1850–1880 (Sierra Oaks Publishing Co., 1987)
Cook, Sherburne F., The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization (University of California Press, 1976)
Evans, William Edward, “The Garra Uprising: Conflict between San Diego Indians and Settlers in 1851,” California Historical Quarterly 45 (1966), pp. 339–349
Forbes, Jack D., Warriors of the Colorado: The Yumas of the Quechan Nation and Their Neighbors (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965)
Monroy, Douglas, Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (University of California Press, 1990)
Phillips, George Harwood, Chiefs and Challengers: Indian Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California (University of California Press, 1975)