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Apolinaria Lorenzana lived for around 90 years. Born in Mexico City in the early 1790s, she died blind and indigent at Santa Barbara in 1884. Over approximately her first 45 years, she rose from a foundling child to become owner of three ranchos and one of the most beloved San Diegans of all time. Californios and natives hailed her as la beata (“the blessed one”) for her charitable work as a healer and teacher. In the second half of her life, starting around 1837, Lorenzana watched everything she had built, nurtured, and cherished fall away.

In 1837 San Diego was under attack from the north, where a rebel political faction attempted to take over Alta California, and from the east, where native tribes banded together. Enraged by decades of abuse, they planned, wrote Agustín Zamorano, “to kill all the white men and carry off all our women to the mountains and there begin a new race.”

On May 29, 1837, in a letter to the leaders of Los Angeles, Zamorano demanded a “respectable force” to “crush” the “inhuman Indians” and “obtain their total extinction.”

A year later, Don Sylvestre Portilla offered to build an army, at his own expense, and defeat every rebelling faction. He had one condition: make all the captives his “servants.”

Californios fought natives, and each other. Natives for the assault harassed those against it. And many, like Lorenzana and Felipa Osuna, found themselves at once outside events and trapped in the middle.

In 1837, San Diego had no garrison. The Presidio walls were crumbling. A rusty cannon lay half buried in the soil. When he toured the Presidio ten years earlier, Auguste Duhaut-Cilly called it “the bleakest we have visited in California.” Though surrounded by fields of brilliant mustard and boasting abundant olive groves and vineyards, the mission had deteriorated as well. Parts were in ruin, and a “disagreeable odor” penetrated “even the quarters of the fathers…who showed themselves as kind as they were dirty.”

The pueblo at the base of Presidio Hill had, at most, 20 or 30 adobe houses and 100 inhabitants. Many of its males were often away on business or combating the northern insurrection. In the spring of 1837, between 50 and 200 natives attacked Rancho Jamul. They killed four men, rustled livestock, burned all the buildings, and took two young girls captive.

San Diegans hired Sergeant Macedonio González to track down the perpetrators. Known (and feared) by his first name, Macedonio was a famous Indian fighter from Lower California. “For him to shoot an Indian,” wrote Agustín Janssens, “was as easy a matter it seemed, as taking a cup of chocolate.” To save bullets, Macedonio often executed prisoners with his sword.

He justified his action, adds Janssens, by saying, “It was the only way to keep the savages quiet; the Indians were without mercy, except in rare cases. Indeed, whenever they attacked, they did so in blood and fire.”

The captive girls were Macedonio’s nieces. He, 25 soldiers, and approximately 40 Neji Indians tracked the attackers for several weeks. Macedonio’s interrogations included torture and murder. They often set villages on fire. In at least one instance, they killed everyone except the old women, who would warn other villages against reprisals.

Near Lake Cuyamaca, 300 warriors ambushed the party in a tight, rocky box canyon. Hundreds of arrows rained down. Most, writes Janssens, were aimed at Macedonio. One punctured his lip. If his Neji Indian friend Jatinil hadn’t arrived with 200 braves, the entire company might have been massacred.

During this period, Apolinaria Lorenzana divided her time between working at the mission and at Rancho Jamacha, which she would eventually own. One day at the rancho, an Indian servant, Janajachil, approached. “Hard working, peaceful, and obedient,” he was a favorite, even though a “gentile,” a non-Christian native.

Janajachil’s darting eyes pleaded. His wife was in their mountain village, he said. He feared for her safety from rebelling tribes and vindictive soldiers. Could he please go and bring her to the rancho?

“He promised he would return in three days,” says Lorenzana, “so I gave him permission to go.”

She was at the mission when Janajachil returned with his wife. Before they had settled in, Macedonio rode up to the rancho. He taunted Janajachil, then bullied him to the ground. You just came from the mountains, Macedonio yelled. Did you meet the leaders, Cartucho, Martin, Pedro Pablo? Did they talk? Are they coming here next?

“No,” said Janajachil. He’d only gone for his wife. But before he could say more, Macedonio murdered Janajachil.

“I was at the mission when it happened,” Lorenzana recalled years later, still struck by the atrocity. “Perhaps [Macedonio] had suspicions, but I am convinced the poor Indian was innocent.”

The burning of Rancho Jamul was part of a much larger plan to assault several San Diego ranchos at once, including Otay and Tía Juana. But the Jamul attackers, it turned out, jumped the gun, enabling Californios to form an expedition against them. After the ambush at Cuyamaca, native leaders devised a new target: San Diego.

The attack would come at midnight. A war party of at least 200 braves would assemble two leagues from Presidio Hill, where they’d stash arrows, clubs, and spears in the ruins. Every house would have an Indian ally — many of them cooks — who would unlock the doors.

Juan Antonio, a native and chief cook at the home of José Antonio Estudillo, had personal reasons for revenge: Janajachil was his brother. In what became known as the “council of the cooks,” Juan Antonio conspired with servants from the other houses. They tried to determine when most of the men would be out of town.

Captain Henry D. Fitch owned the biggest store in San Diego. One day, when he was off on business, Candelaria, his Indian servant, warned Fitch’s wife Josefa to be on guard: Candelaria overheard the cook talking about burning down the store and carrying the women away. Like so many caught in these events, Candelaria was divided; the servants were from her native tribe, but Josefa was her godmother.

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