In 490 BCE, when the Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon, legend says young Phidippides ran 26 miles, 385 yards over craggy mountains to Athens, where he proclaimed nike—victory— then collapsed and died. The Greeks held an annual “marathon” to commemorate his effort.
On December 8,1846, Kit Carson, Edward Beale, and an unnamed Indian crawled, ran, and hobbled 30 miles from Mule Hill — just southeast of the Hodges Golf Center off Escondido’s Via Rancho Parkway — to Old Town.
After the Battle of San Pasqual, 150 Californians laid siege to 110 Americans, on a rocky knoll. General Kearny’s troops were so starved they ate mule flesh. “There was little expectation that Carson and Beale would succeed,” wrote Lt William Emory. Carson agreed. He called the mad dash through enemy lines a “forlorn hope,” a British military euphemism for suicide.
One express had already failed. Just after the battle, the legendary scout Alexis Godey and three others rode to San Diego on fresh mules. They took a request for reinforcements to Commodore Robert F. Stockton. They got through. But on their return, the morning of December 8, Californians captured them 500 yards from Mule Hill. The new plan was to have three men go — on foot.
Beale made the proposal. The dark-complected 24-year-old spoke fluent Spanish and might have been a good choice if he weren’t such a tenderfoot.
A midshipman under Commodore Stockton, Beale had been in charge of a battalion of mounted riflemen — in other words, sailors on horseback. “Because their activities would require many hours in the saddle,” writes a biographer, “Beale had his men sew cowhide patches on the seats of their pants. It wasn’t long before they were known as ‘leather-ass dragoons.’”
Kearny looked at Beale’s head wound, bandaged with a torn army shirt, and said no. Too dangerous. Beale argued that Kit Carson could be his guide. Kearny vetoed Carson. If Andres Pico’s Californians attacked, or if Kearny decided to fight all the way to San Diego, Carson was far too important to let go.
Beale said he’d take an Indian but that the 36-year-old Carson would improve their chance to succeed. Kearny relented but refused to take responsibility for the mission.
Who was the Indian? No one knows. In a four-day-long speech in Congress, Senator Thomas Hart Benton called him Beale’s “faithful servant.” A recent biographer, Carl Briggs, says Benton made that up: “Beale, of course, had no ‘Indian servant.’ ”
Other candidates: Andres, a Delaware Indian guide who rode with Carson; or Fremont’s Delaware Indian spy, Che-muc-tah. San Diego historian William E. Smythe nominates the Kumeyaay “alcalde Panto.” The San Pasqual chief snuck through enemy pickets and climbed Mule Hill to offer help. Panto knew the routes to Old Town in the dark (he was raised at Mission San Diego). That he had already slipped past Pico’s sentries also makes Panto the logical choice.
Kearny okayed the decision at 1:00 p.m. Over the previous two days his men had fought the most violent, lopsided battle in California history: 18 were dead; 17 lay wounded on the hill. They’d eaten next to nothing (one account says an “ounce of mule meat for 24 hours”) and slept in 28-degree weather. Now three would run to San Diego? Carson and the Indian might fend for themselves. But Beale, gaunt as a skeleton, didn’t inspire confidence. When Kearny asked what provisions he had, Beale said “none.”
Kearny told his servant to cook something. The servant found just a handful of flour. He baked Beale a small loaf and said, “That was the last not of bread only, but of everything.” Beale gave it back. He picked some peas and bits of corn from a smoldering fire, scraped off the soot, and dropped them in his haversack.
Andres Pico also prepared. Learning from Godey that the Americans ran out of food and that Kit Carson was among those trapped on the hill, Pico ordered his men to be watchful, otherwise “se escarpa el lobo!” — the “wolf” (Carson) will escape. At dusk sentries on horseback formed three rings around the hill. Patrols rode among the cordons. Others kept their ears to the ground. Everyone searched the horizon for moving shadows — and listened, for sounds carried far in the wintry night
On December 8,1979, 36 runners ran a marathon from Battle Mountain — the conical hill with the white cross, off Pomerado Road, across I-ake Hodges from Mule Hill — to Old Town. They ran, carbohy-drated, with a constant supply of fluids. The leaders finished in just under three hours.
The marathoners used city streets. Since Californians guarded the main road and passes to San Diego, Carson, Beale, and the Indian had to improvise a route through canyons and arroyos and across open mesas. They could only travel at night and had to stay near cover. As the crow flies, it’s 30 miles. Given the detours involved, some estimate they traveled closer to 50.
Along with avoiding Californians, the trio also had to run nature’s gauntlet The terrain from Escondido to Old Town is chocked with jagged stones, quartzite, chips and fragments of tourmaline, volcanic glass. Tumbleweeds are green in summer; in winter they’re dry balls of needles. The trio would confront prickly pear and barrel cactus. Also known as “mule cripplers,” barrel cacti have a large hook, in the center, surrounded by rosettes of spines. For someone on foot, the worst are “baby barrel” cacti, which impale, then grab. Three inches wide and an inch tall, they hide under rocks, as if lying in wait.
The trio gathered provisions. Each took a rifle, revolver, canteen, knife, blanket, and smidgens of mule meat. In darkness — under a clear sky — they slithered toward the Californians army-style: on their bellies, bouncing from elbow to elbow.
The nearest trees were two miles away. Wearing moccasins, the Indian could creep without making noise. But Carson and Beale’s every move crackled sticks and brambles and rustled the dry grass. Carson: “In crawling over rocks and brush our shoes making noise, we took them off; fastened them under our belts.” They also abandoned the canteens, which made loud, empty clanks.
They moved inches at a time. They couldn’t stand up, or even curse when rocks bashed a knee or cacti speared an elbow.
Carson: “We could see three rows of sentinels, all a-horseback, and we would frequently have to pass within twenty yards of one.” A sentinel almost rode over them. He stopped, dismounted, and lit a cigaro. He was so close the trio smelled the smoke. Carson signaled Beale, just behind him, to stay flat on the ground. DeWitt Peters: “During these moments, so quietly did Carson and his companion lie that Car-son said, and always afterward affirmed, that he could distinctly hear Beale’s heart pulsate.”
Beale crept next to Carson. “We’re gone,” he whispered, “let’s jump up and fight it out.”
“No,” said Carson, “I’ve been in worse places.”
The sentry finished his smoke and rode off.
The night grew colder. Carson and Beale, in stocking feet, nudged forward, but not fast enough to keep warm.
On Mule Hill (Joseph Downey) “breathless silence reigned. Every ear was intently on the watch to hear any stir in the enemy’s camp, which would denote that they had been discovered.” Pico’s men never shouted, and the Americans “crawled to our hard couches, buoyed high with the hope that the morrow would bring the rescue.”
When they finally snuck past the sentries, Beale and Carson discovered they’d lost their shoes. They now had 28 jagged miles to go, in the dark, barefooted.
The Indian had few problems, but by dawn Car-son and Beale bled freely. They hid in a canyon — some say Penasquitos gorge — and picked spines from feet that resembled mule gristle.
Carson estimated that, other than muddy hand-fills for the wounded, the stranded soldiers drank no water for 60 hours. Neither did he. Some accounts have Beale and Carson “feverish” by the morning of the ninth. That day, they hid in gullies and crept from shrub to “thorny shrub.” When they walked—since they no longer ran — each step ached more than the last.
“Haggard from hunger, thirst, anxiety, and sleeplessness” [James Madison Cutts], the three stopped at an oak grove, about 12 miles from Old Town. They decided to split up. That way, at least one might get through. The Indian went west, through marshes to the coast, then south. Beale stayed close to El Camino Real. Carson went east, the longest route.
San Diego was also under siege. To starve the Americans, Californians drove cattle and sheep inland and controlled most of the region, including Presidio Hill—where, Bancroft reports, snipers fired at random, and “Juan Rocha could be heard shouting to his aunt,” in Old Town, “for ropa and chocolate.”
Fifty-three-year-old Robert “Fighting Bob” Stockton—a“low, trifling, trucking politician” (Henry Turner)—wrote that “skirmishes, or running fights, are of almost daily occurrence.” The Commodore built adobe barricades, dragged cannons from Fort Guijarros for defense, and put the town under martial law.
At night he went dancing. Stockton and his officers cavorted in uniform at Juan Bandini’s newly whitewashed casa. Downey: Stockton’s yen for fandangos “coincided perfectly with the California Ladies, who are so much devoted to this sort of amusement that they will make a meal of it, even when there is no mush in the cupboard.” Stockton danced with a sword and pistols “appended to a large leather belt” The band from his frigate, the Congress, provided music in the plaza; Bandini’s daughters provided the—Bancroft’s word — “jollification.”
On December 9, around 6:00 p.m. (some accounts say earlier), the Indian interrupted festivities with the news, spoken in Spanish, that Kearny needed help. The USS Portsmouth had just anchored at la Playa. Stock-ton — who claimed he awaited its arrival before sending a rescue party — ordered 150 men from the Portsmouth, plus 65 from the Congress and the Savannah, to march to Mule Hill that night.
Around 10:00 p.m., sentries noticed something crawling toward the light It was Beale, exhausted, mumbling that “Kearny has been defeated.”
Beale couldn’t walk, so they carried him to Stockton. John W. Davis: “Beale’s whole body was bruised and tom by the prickly pear bushes, his feet in a horrible condition.” For the next few days, Beale was “near death and raving” in the Congress's sick bay. A week later, Davis saw him “sitting down with his feet all wrapped up and unable to move.” A month would pass before he could hold a pen.
Carson limped in around 3:00 a.m., December 10. Although he recovered by the end of December, his feet were so shredded that for several days he feared amputation.
Carson never mentions the Indian in his memoirs.
Next time: To the rescue
- Joseph Downey: when Pico’s lancers surrounded American soldiers at San Pasqual, “valor was of no avail here.”
- By the time he died, in 1893, Edward Beale “had traveled between Washington and California perhaps more times than anyone, often under conditions of great urgency and peril.” (Carl Briggs)
- It’s difficult to overestimate Stockton’s self-importance. After Stockton gave a long-winded speech, surgeon John S. Griffin exclaimed, “Ye gods, what gas!”
- Bancroft, Herbert Howe, History of California V (San Francisco, 1890)
- Briggs, Carl, and Trudell, Clyde Francis, Quarterdeck & Saddlehom: The Story of Edward F. Beaky 1822-1893 (Glendale, California, 1983)
- Cutts, James Madison, The Conquest of California and New Mexico (Philadelphia, 1847)
- Davis, John W., “Statement of the Battle of San Pascual,” Washington D.C., February 19,1881 (MS in Bancroft Library)
- Downey, Joseph, The Cruise of the Portsmouth: A Sailor's View of the Naval Conquest of California, 1845-1847(Yale, 1958)
- Dunne, William H., “Notes on San Pascual” (MS in Bancroft Library)
- Farris, Glenn, “Captain Jose Panto and the San Pascual Indian Pueblo in San Diego County, 1835-1878,” Journal of San Diego History, spring 1997
- Peters, DeWitt G, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains (New York, 1858)
- Smythe, William E., History of San Diego: 1542-1908 (San Diego, 1908)
- Filings from an Old Saw (San Francisco, 1956)