Felicita first saw the lances the day she got her name. She lived in the San Pasqual Valley, “the land of this life.” Her father, Panto, was chief of a Kumeyaay village. Tule and adobe huts, arranged around a small plaza, “stood thick on either side of the river.” Natives raised cattle, grew com, melons, and grains and built a dam. “There was food for all” and “many times of rejoicing.”
When she was 12, a man in brown came from the mission with soldiers. Their eight-foot-long, steel-tipped lances frightened the women and children, who ran into the hills. “These men counted our lives of little worth, and we feared them.”
The man in brown said he could save their spirits with water. “Our mothers were afraid to have the strange man touch us, but they feared more the soldiers’ lances.” The Kumeyaay were herded to the House of Willow Boughs, where the man stood near a bowl.
“‘I name thee Felicita,’ he said, as he touched me with water, and that is how I gained my name.”
Years later, the lancers returned. “We ran into the hills as before to wait until they passed, but they did not pass.”
Andres Pico’s Californian army commandeered the village around the fourth of December, 1846. In a pounding rain, soldiers slaughtered the Indians’ cattle. The rain was so severe, Pico let the Indians cram into unoccupied huts. Felicita; “There were few houses left for so many, and little food, but we said nothing.”
Before dawn on December 6, villagers heard coyote-like howls from across the valley. Felicita ran outside. Through a low mist she made out ghostlike figures coming down the narrow mountain pass. “As they drew nearer, we saw that they too were soldiers, wearing coats of blue.”
General Stephen Watts Kearny’s “Army of the West” had straggled 2000 miles from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The day before in the Ballena Valley, 101 “wet to the skin” dragoons joined with Captain Archibald Gillespie and 39 mountain men from San Diego. Kearny didn’t know the Californians’ strength. Gillespie and Kit Carson, Kearny’s chief scout, said no matter: their Spanish-speaking enemy would run from a fight
Pico had warnings of an army headed west The night before, Lt Thomas Hammond bungled surveillance of Pico’s camp, leaving a blue coat behind. Although it signaled American military nearby, Pico still didn’t think a battle would result Like Kearny, who had ordered 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe, Pico had cut his force in half, sending 75 to Rancho El Cajon to find Gillespie.
Most of Pico’s recruits were rancheros, not trained soldiers. They had 30 firearms, at most, and no heavy artillery. But they were expert horsemen. In hand-to-hand combat— what Pico called a pura arma blanca—their skills with lance and reata (a bolo-like whip) could prevail.
Kearny’s troops had been on the move, without breakfast, since two a.m. The officers rode “half-broken” Californian horses; the rest, “broken-down” mules. Lieutenant W.H. Emory called them “the most tattered and ill-fed detachment of men that ever the United States mustered under her colors.” They traveled an old cart path nine miles to the pass, a steep, mudslick ravine. By then most of their breechloading Hall carbines and Waters single-shot pistols were too cold to fire.
They descended in darkness, the animals tentative on rocky terrain. Captain Abraham Johnston’s 12-man advance guard led the way. Their task: capture Pico’s horses. When Johnston’s men reached the valley floor, from back up the hill Kearny shouted “trot” But Johnston heard “charge!” Though most of the 40-dragoon main force was still inching down the slope, Johnston taunted the distant bonfires with his saber, bellowed something undecipherable, and spurred his horse’s flank.
Hearing the shouts, a Californian fired a warning. “To arms!” Pico yelled. His men scrambled to the corral, saddled and mounted their horses. They took position at a gully just east of the village. Pico’s command: “one shot, then the lance.”
The Kumeyaay climbed up the hillside, hiding behind rocks and brush. At first, Felicita remembered, “Only a few American soldiers came down the mountain, and there were many Mexicans, so the battle went hard.”
When the first Americans rode into range, the Californians volleyed a “sheet of fire.”
Far ahead of the main force, Johnston’s men sprinted out of the mist toward puffs of smoke. As dull musket pops echoed through the hills, Leandro Osuna took careful aim with his flintlock and fired. Johnston’s cap flipped backward. He slumped off his horse, a bloody, nickel-sized hole in the forehead.
A second dragoon toppled.
Kit Carson rode with the advance guard. A hundred yards from the enemy, the horse tumbled, “threw me, and my rifle was broken into two pieces.” Almost trampled by the main force, arriving in small clusters, Carson crawled to safety. He took the dead dragoon’s gun and cartridge box and “joined in the melee.”
John C. Fremont said Carson had “quick and complete perception, taking in at a glance the advantages as well as the chances for defeat.” Carson was as good a horseman as the best Californian. Was his fall an accident, or self-preservation?
Dr. John S. Griffin rode into gunfire on a “jaded” mule: “the balls whistled about most infernally for a while, but the light was not sufficient to distinguish a line of the Enemy.. .by this time we were very disordered.”
From the hillside, the battle resembled an upside-down T: the stem, a long stampede of bluecoats; the crossbar, Pico’s wide phalanx of light horsemen. When the number of soldiers coming toward them grew, the Californians bolted west.
A lone boy lingered. Such “a prisoner of fear,” writes Antonio Osio, Francisco Lara couldn’t move. As Americans rode past, “some shot and others stabbed him,” then “boasted about the heinous murder” while chasing after Pico.
Felicita watched the Californians dash west, then “wait behind a hill” (site of the San Pasqual Battlefield Historical Monument). “Soon we saw the Americans moving down the valley. When they came near the place where the Mexicans were hiding, there was more fighting. The mules the Americans rode were frightened and ran all through the willows by the river. After them rode the Mexicans on their swift horses.. .we trembled as we watched.”
Years later, Pico said he didn’t want to “risk a fight.” But Kearny’s army became so spread out, he couldn’t “resist the temptation.” He ordered his men to lower lances and ambush the enemy as they rode past the rocky hiding place.
Led by Captain Benjamin Moore, who thought Pico was retreating, American officers ran ahead on fresh horses. Dragoons on mules lagged behind From the mountain pass to Pico’s new position, Kearny’s soldiers stretched over a mile and a half.
Moore ran ahead of the officers.
Pico trotted out to engage him. Both fired and missed, then slashed at each other with sabers. In that instant Leandro Osuna and Dionisio Alipas speared Moore. He fell. Thomas Sanchez — future Los Angeles County sheriff—fired point-blank at Moore’s heart Others lanced the body 14 times.
Chief Panto said, “Nothing is more talked of still.. .than the bravery of this officer.” Californians remembered him as "el valiente Morin” (“the valiant Moore”)—a lone rider charging the lancer horde.
“For God’s sake, men, come up,” yelled Moore’s brother-in-law, I.t Hammond, the second to arrive. A reata whip-wrap around the neck unhorsed him. From behind, a lancer jabbed him between the eighth and ninth ribs. Hammond died two hours later.
Pico’s men killed Hammond with an old strategy. Many had used reatas and lances to rid the region of grizzly bears. For the next fifteen minutes, the tactic — bolo-yank a rider down, spear him in the kidneys — made San Pasqual the bloodiest battle in California history.
Kearny’s men found their wet cartridges wouldn’t fire. Plus, several heavy Ames sabers had rusted in scabbards from disuse. So they swung rifles like clubs. Griffin: the enemy “rallied and came at us like devils with their lances.. .our advance was perfectly at their mercy.” An American survivor recalled that, when he rounded the point, he saw “a million people making for us. They proved to be about 400” — actually 75, but to a surprised dragoon they must have seemed legion.
As Kearny jousted with one, a second Californian hacked at the 52-year-old General. A hemorrhage spurted from his upper arm. Before Lt. Emory could chase the assailant away, another lanza groin-pierced Kearny “in the nates.”
Emory said Kearny “defended himself valiantly and was as calm as a clock.”
Fleeing to the rear, Kearny ordered a retreat But Captain Henry Smith Turner shouted, “No. Never, men! Turn your backs” and “you will be all cut down.”
Juan Mariano earned a battlefield promotion for bravery: the 23-year-old from San Gabriel became Juan Lobo (“the wolf). Writes Arthur Woodward: Mariano “led the Californians even better than Pico.” Outnumbering their enemy, many of Pico’s men dismounted, plundered the spoils of the fallen, and mutilated the bodies.
Amid neighs and brays and clangs of steel, Pico urged Californians to spare wounded bluecoats’ lives. They were out of the fight, he said, that was enough. But butchery prevailed.
Californians recognized Archibald Gillespie, despised for his vicious treatment of los Angelinos: “Four lances darted at me instantly.” He parried them, then two more. Another hooked his collar and flung him down. When Gillespie tried to rise, blond-haired Francisco Higuera punctured a lung. A second rider swiped at Gillespie’s free, “cutting my upper lip” and breaking a front tooth. The stallion leaped over the Americano.
Convinced he inflicted a mortal wound, Higuera grabbed Gillespie’s silver-studded bridle and saddle and rode off.
Gillespie played dead and watched “the best men of this command” riddled “in unequal combat.” later he returned to the rear.
His spear-tip bloody to its red, green, and white pennon, Captain Pablo Vejar left the field for a breather. Four dragoons chased him up an arroyo. His horse tripped on a badger hole. A spur caught a cinch, pulling the horse over him. Dragoon bullets struck so close they kicked sand in Vejar’s face.
Vejar’s horse tried to stand. Volunteers Philip Crosthwaite and Patitoux (a.k.a. “Beatitude”) saw him squirm underneath. Patitoux fired. “’The ball passed so close to his lips it caused him pain but drew no blood” (Woodward). They took Vejar prisoner. Crosth-waite later married Vejar’s second cousin, Maria Lopez.
Alliances blurred in the dust, haze, and slow blink of sunrise. Gillespie’s volunteers didn’t wear uniforms. Often confused for the enemy, they dodged lances and American rifle butts whistling at their skulls.
A mule team dragged one of Kearny’s mountain howitzers to the battlefield. The animals froze. Three frantic men tugged at the stubborn lead mule. Gabriel Garcia and Francisco Higuera killed the driver, Henry Booker, and “desperately” wounded the others. Garcia shot the mule. They looped reatas around the howitzer and towed it away.
Californians whooped as the bronze trophy bounced across the plain. The sound of the American Sutter Gun—a forty-inch four-pounder spitting grapeshot over the fray— stopped the battle cold.
Not wanting to face cannon fire, Pico ordered a retreat Californians withdrew to the southwest, 11 wounded and young Lara dead in the 30-minute fight. Casimiro Rubio died later at San Juan Capistrano.
Fewer than 50 Americans saw action. As day dawned, no one could tell the living from the slain. Among the few unscathed, Captain Turner had three slashes across his coat. The rest lay in crimson heaps. “Poor fellows,” wrote Turner, “but a few hours before without a presentiment of what so soon was to be their fete.”
Each suffered two to ten lancings (Dr. Griffin estimated an average of three “slots” per man). Eighteen died on the battlefield, four others in the days to come.
The village became a hospital. In his Quarterly Report, Griffin wrote that all 17 wounded and most of the dead “were killed or wounded by the lances; several healed but generally suppurated, and in some instances formed extensive abscesses.”
Because the Californians fled the field, Kearny claimed victory.
Pico claimed victory over “a force of200 Americans.” Felicita: “As the hours passed, we crept nearer and nearer to the valley. There was little shooting, so we were not afraid of the bullets.”
At first she welcomed the newcomers: “the Mexicans had not been good to the Indians, so we were not sorry to see the new soldiers come against them.” But white people brought new “sorrows.” In “after years,” she realized “the land of this life” would be no more.
1.Antonio Osio, Maria, The History of Alta California: A Memoir of Mexican California (University ofWisconsin Press, 1996)
2.Clarke, Dwight L., Stephen Watts Kearny, Soldier of the West (University of Oklahoma, 1961)
3.Coronel, Don Antonio, Tales of Mexican California (Bellerophon Books, 1877)
4.Coy, Owen C., Battle of San Pasqual( Sacramento, 1921)
5.Fams, Glen, “Captain Jose Panto and the San Pascual Indian Pueblo in San Diego County, 1833-1878,” Journal of San Diego History, spring 1997
6.Gillespie, Archibald H., Correspondence of a Government Agent (University of California at Los Angeles Library, Gillespie collection)
7.Griffin, John S., M.D., A Doctor Comes to California (California Historical Society, 1943)
8.Roberts, Elizabeth J., Indian Stories of the South West (Harr Wagner Publishing Co, 1917)
9.Woodward, Arthur, Lances at San Pascual (California Historical Society, 1948)
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