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In the spring of 1837, Apolinaria Lorenzana left her duties at the mission for a few days, to break in a new foreman at Rancho Jamacha. San Diegans called her la beata (“the blessed one”), though she preferred la cuña (“the foundling”), because she’d been orphaned at birth. At Jamacha she was la ranchera. She managed, and would eventually own, the 8881-acre land grant 15 miles southeast of San Diego in the Sweetwater River Valley.

Lorenzana arrived and put everyone to work. She sent her servant, Camacho, to Jamul to help round up stray cattle. She had servants clean the adobe casa (on a rise northwest of the junction of Campo and Jamacha Roads). She told the new foreman, Rios, to help workers with chores, while she and the foreman’s wife, Nieves, scraped gunk from a watering trough.

Someone’s coming.

A shaken, half-clothed boy inched down the trail from Jamul with painful, barefooted steps. Forty-five-year-old Lorenzana, whose eyesight had begun to dim, thought she saw a woman trying to hide behind the lime kiln. Naked from the waist up, the woman held straw in her crossed arms to conceal her breasts.

“Something for my mother,” the boy pointed to the kiln, “to cover her.”

He was José Antonio, the 12-year-old son of Juan Léiva, foreman of Jamul. As Nieves ran into the house to grab a bedspread, she thought she heard the boy say “Indian attack.”

So did Lorenzana. Warn Rios and gather everyone together, she told a servant.

Lorenzana recognized the woman staring through infinity. It was Léiva’s wife María, so “overwhelmed by sorrow,” she could neither speak nor cry. “I tried to console her and get her to eat something,” said Lorenzana, “but she was sad beyond comforting.”

An old Indian trail, through Mexican Canyon and southwest along today’s Otay Lakes Road, curves from Jamacha to Rancho Jamul. If the attack were widespread, Lorenzana’s rancho would be next. “This is what I feared.”

Praised as a healer, beloved by many as a “living saint,” Lorenzana was also a woman of the world, writes Philip S. Rush, with a “strong, somewhat domineering character.” She never married, nor was she a cloistered nun. The “grand lady” taught, nursed, godparented, and, in times of tragedy such as the “Jamul Incident” of 1837, took charge.

Ride to the village of Secua, she ordered a native. They must come at once armed with bows and arrows. She wrote letters to El Cajon Rancho and San Diego, telling a woman friend where the mission hid guns and bullets. Send them! And ask Fathers Oliva and Martin for paper to make cartridges.

As lookouts raced to vantage points up the hill, and ranch hands secured the livestock and piled adobe for a siege, Doña María, wrapped in a bedspread, told her story.

Don Pio Pico (who owned the rancho) had been arrested Christmas Eve and at last word was in Santa Barbara. His mother Estaquia and her three daughters were among those at Jamul.

Two days earlier, Estaquia sat in the doorway of the adobe ranch house, on a shelf near the mouth of Cedar Canyon. She had a pleasing view of the orchard, down to her right, and the corral, across the way, behind the junction of Jamul and Dulzura creeks. Off to the southeast, she could see the cornfield, which still needed planting, and the wheat fields beyond.

Cesaria, an old Indian servant, came up the hill and asked for salt.

Estaquia gestured at someone inside.

The servant’s hands flashed “no!” Estaquia must bring it.

The two went inside. In a quiet corner, Cesaria whispered, “Indians are going to revolt. They will kill the men and take the women captive!”

Estaquia went to the sewing room. Drop everything, she told her daughters. Grab your rebozos (all-purpose shawls) and go to the road by the cornfield — ¡andale!

Estaquia broke the news to Léiva. She’d seen signs of unrest for days, she added. Léiva, whose wife and four children were at the rancho, told her to calm down. They had more than enough arms and vaqueros to stop an assault.

Estaquia wanted to leave. So the foreman sent an ox-drawn carreta to the cornfield. As they boarded, a daughter noticed only one cowhide. Since carretas usually have hides on the bottom and the sides, theirs was an undignified means of travel. Urgency tempered displeasure, however.

When Léiva’s wife María heard the news, she begged him to flee. And if he was staying, then “let me go to [Lorenzana’s] rancho because I am really frightened.”

There are no Indians, Léiva joked. Don’t worry. Lorenzana’s servant will stay the night. So that makes four men, plus 12 loaded firearms in the house. “If they do come, I’ll put the family in a room filled with cowhides.”

The day had been too blessed for bad news. Anastasio Molina had come from San Diego that morning with a much-anticipated request. He asked Léiva’s permission to marry his oldest daughter, Tomasa, and to take her to the mission. They’d publish the marriage banns and proclaim their love. No one would dare violate such a joyous occasion.

At sunrise, María cooked breakfast at the “kitchen,” an outside structure and stone oven near the ranch house. A servant took an extra strip of beef to fortify himself, since the wheat fields he tended were so far away. Camacho rode to the corral, where he would separate Lorenzana’s cattle from the roundup. Léiva and Molina mounted their horses. Then Léiva dismounted. He went to the outdoor oven for a fire-stick to light his cigarro.

All heard a scream, sudden, more piercing than any bird. Then several.


“Oh, Anastasio,” Doña María shouted at her future son-in-law, “the Indians are coming to kill us!”

She hurried her children down the hill to hide among the olive trees.

A band of natives, some bareback on horses, others sprinting, swarmed across the cornfield, killing the servant. Through the tall reeds and sycamores at Dulzura Creek, Léiva heard horses’ hooves pound for the corral, where Camacho, unarmed, ran for shelter. He found none and died amid shouts and slashes.

Horses splashed across the creek. Léiva and Molina raced to the ranch house. The attackers had to come up the promontory through over 100 yards of open ground. There was still time.

As Léiva neared the house, where he stored the muskets and pistols, arrows hissed past. They spiked the soil and clacked off adobe walls. One struck him. He ran inside. What’s wrong with the storage room door? He shook the handle. It’s stuck. Someone locked it!

As an Indian cleaning woman headed outside, she flashed the key at Léiva. She laughed, pointed at the door, and shouted, “No hope in that direction!”

Léiva chased after her. He saw Molina crumble under the covered porch. Gone. Léiva dashed to the oven and reached inside. He grabbed hot coals and firebrands and flung them at his attackers. They engulfed him.

In the orchard, María tried to hide her sons and daughters. Attackers surrounded them. Don’t try to escape, one said, or we will kill you all.

María recognized several of the natives. The “worst of the bunch,” she told Lorenzana, were from the rancho. They “incited the others to come.”

The Indians stripped the children. They tore the rebozo and blouse off María. They bound the girls — Tomasa (18) and Ramona (11) — with rawhide thongs.

You three leave now, one ordered Doña María and the boys. We do not want to kill you. Young Ramona realized what this meant: she and Tomasa were captives.

“The girls were screaming,” María told Lorenzana, “and the youngest was hanging on to my skirt.”

Leave now! A raised war club.

“Don’t kill them!” Tomasa shouted.

María and her boys, already hoarse from pleading, moved away.

From a distance she watched her house crackle, then erupt. She may or may not have known that Léiva, Molina, Camacho, and the field servant’s corpses had been dragged inside and laid out in the hallway. Flames crowned other buildings.

Loaded with booty from the rancho, the attackers headed east with Pico’s cattle. Somewhere from the dust cloud, two girls wailed above the din.

María finished her story and went blank, still refusing to eat. Later that afternoon, Secuans arrived armed with bows and arrows. Lorenzana sent a “force” of them to find out what happened at Jamul. “Don’t touch the bodies until after the judicial inquiry,” she told her foreman. (The next day, when Judge José Estudillo examined the corpses, he found them charred beyond recognition.)

After a long, profound silence, María asked to go to San Diego. Lorenzana offered a carreta and watched the inconsolable woman leave. Her “spirit was shattered,” says Lorenzana, “and she suffered the rest of her life. She never recovered from the tragedy and finally succumbed to the burden of her sorrows.”

— Jeff Smith

Next time: Tomasa and Ramona’s sad fate(s).


Alvarado, J.B., Vignettes of Early California; San Francisco, 1982.

Beebe, Rose Marie, and Robert M. Senkewicz, eds., Testimonios: Early California Through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; Lorenzana’s recollections, pp. 165–192; Berkeley, 2006

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, “Neither Activists Nor Victims: Mexican Women’s Historical Discourse — The Case of San Diego, 1820–1850”; California History, vol. 74, fall 1974.

Hughes, Charles, “The Decline of the Californios: The Case of San Diego, 1846–1856,” Journal of San Diego History; vol. XXI, no. 3, summer 1975.

Machado, Doña Juana, “Times Gone By in Alta California,” trans. Raymond S. Brandes, The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, September 1959; also in Testimonios, pp. 119–144.

Moyer, Cecil C., Historic Ranchos of San Diego, San Diego, 1969.

Padilla, Genaro M., My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography; Madison, 1993.

Pico, Pio, Historical Narrative, 1877, trans. Arthur P. Botello; Glendale, 1973.

Rush, Philip S., Some Old Ranchos and Adobes; San Diego, 1965.

Sánchez, Rosaura, Telling Identities: The California Testimonios; Minneapolis, 1995.

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