In search of the unwanted

This land is mine: The Cupeño removal of 1903, part two of four

Cupeño village of Cupa in 1902, now Warner Springs
  • Cupeño village of Cupa in 1902, now Warner Springs

Last time: Part One: The blackest of crimes committed against Warner Ranch Indians


“When Charles Fletcher Lummis stepped into the state of California,” writes Frances E. Watkins, “he took the vast domain of the Pacific Coast for his own. It was his to praise and his to blame — above all, his to fight for, right against wrong as he saw it.”

A writer/editor of Out West Magazine and one of the first photojournalists, Lummis fought for conservation long before it became popular. He was the first to translate and publish Father Junípero Serra’s diary. The Landmarks Club he cofounded restored missions and other historic buildings. Always outspoken — he called Manifest Destiny “manifest thievery” — he wore a wild green corduroy outfit, chain-smoked cigars, and, if contradicted, would counter-attack with wild intolerance.

On April 1, 1903, Lummis reached a high-water mark. In the San Diego Union, he claimed he found a better home for the Cupeño Indians. They lived on “the desert corner of a worthless cattle ranch” at Warner’s Springs. Their new home at Pala, 45 miles away, will be a “valley all their own.” They will enjoy “better conveniences and better care and better lands than they have now, and will be paid for building them.”

Lummis led the Warner’s Ranch Indian Advisory Commission on a three-week expedition for possible sites. The only real hardship came “from hair-trigger Americans,” who urged the natives to resist the move.

On May 13, 1901, when the Supreme Court declared they must leave their ancestral land, three Cupeño leaders wrote to the president, “our father, the White American in Washington,” urging him not to “throw us out, no!” Although the court decision was final, for the next two years, Lummis, his so-called “hair-trigger Americans,” and newspapers eager for a sensational story turned the removal into a national tug-of-war.

In December 1902, James McLaughlin of the Bureau of Indian Affairs examined 12 properties in San Diego and Riverside counties. He recommended the 2370-acre Monserrate Ranch, about halfway between Fallbrook and Bonsall, for the Cupeños’ new home. The ranch had 1800 arable acres, he said, with 300 irrigable from the San Luis Rey River, “at certain seasons.” There was a 40-horsepower pumping plant, “comparatively new and in good condition,” and abundant timber. Of all available property, McLaughlin deemed Monserrate “superior.” The cost: $70,000.

When the Bureau of Indian Affairs endorsed the proposal, Lummis and his Sequoya League objected: “Far from removing the need for a commission [to inspect locations], this emphasizes it.”

Lummis demanded an advisory commission, appointed by the Department of the Interior, to make a more rigorous search. As a result, the congressional action halted.

On May 28, president Theodore Roosevelt, Lummis’s friend and Harvard classmate, called for a Warner’s Ranch Indian Advisory Commission. Five citizens, headed by Lummis, would “serve without compensation to investigate the needs of the Indians.”

Lummis was ecstatic. “You and I have ached for years,” he wrote George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine and fellow Sequoya League member. “Now I believe with all my heart the hour has struck…God pity the oppressor, for his name shall be made a stench in the nostrils of the decent!”

On June 2, 1903, having been notified by telegraph, Lummis, Charles Partridge, R. C. Allen, Richard Egan, William Collier, Mary Haskins, and Lummis’s ten-year-old daughter Turbese outfitted for the expedition at Riverside, along with Lanier Bartlett, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. They assembled horses, a wagon with a large, canopy-like umbrella, plus cameras and measuring instruments. A prairie schooner–style chuck wagon hauled food and, locked in a large trunk-like box, a case of white wine, a gallon of whiskey, two gallons of claret, a gallon of zinfandel, 200 Barman Bros. cigars, and 100 miscellaneous stogies.

Lummis later defended the sealed cargo: “no Havana cigars, just decent little 5-centers, no imported wines or even of the fine California vintages, but just good label wines needed as “lubricants” for “overworked men in the desert.”

The commission wanted two Cupeño representatives. They met with Cecilio Blacktooth and 30 others. “In spite of the honeyed words of the commissioners” (Riverside Daily Press), Blacktooth answered every question with “I want to see the President” and “we will not give up our home.” Asked to name two representatives, he told the commission to “pick as it chooses.”

They selected Ambrosio Ortega and Salvador Nolasaquez, who spoke English and wouldn’t need an interpreter.

Two days after the expedition left Kupa, the Los Angeles Times quoted Blacktooth: “What right have you got for taking our lands and hunt new homes for us? You white people all think we are dogs without any feelings… God gave us this land. Who can take it away?”

For the next three weeks, led by young Turbese in a checked tam o’ shanter on a roan horse, the expedition inspected 26 sites. Lummis wrote: “Few travelers in California have any dream of the ‘back country.’” In north San Diego County, behind “the Eden the tourist visits, are more mountains and more rocks than in the state of New Hampshire. Thousands of square miles are worthless now and forever. All the ingenuity of man will never find a use for them.”

He often noted the poor conditions of the reservations. Natives have lost their “fertile valleys sometimes under color of law, sometimes at the end of a shotgun — and driven back to the ragged edge of the desert.

“It has become a standing jest with all who are familiar with the facts, on seeing an absolutely worthless peak of dry rocks to remark: ‘that must be an Indian reservation.’ Almost nothing a white man would take as a gift has been left these original Americans.”

On a typical day, commissioners walked the length and breadth of a property. They measured the flow of streams, noted the slope of the fields and quality of the crops. They took soil and water samples and surveyed the timber.

At day’s end, Lummis unlocked the box and gave the party a “short spell of relaxation.” Then he dictated to stenographer Mary Haskins until midnight. The group broke camp at five the next morning.

Other installments in this 4-part series: Part one | Part three | Part four

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