Chased out of Los Angeles by rebelling Californios, a haphazard band of Americans joined Captain William Mervine’s expeditionary force of300 troops, recently landed at San Pedro. The contingent vowed to retake Los Angeles with muskets and cutlasses — but by no horses, supply train, or artillery. Fifteen miles southwest of the pueblo, they occupied Don Manuel Dominguez’s ranch.
On October 8, 1846, led by Jose Antonio Carrillo, 175 Californios faced the Americans with lances, rusty flint-locks, and Señora Cota de Reyes’ cannon. When fired, recalled Californio quartermaster Don Antonio Coronel, the ancient four-pounder went “pouf.”
A ceremonial field piece from Los Angeles plaza, the cannon hadn’t been shot in years. Plus, the Californios had a small keg of real powder and another, from San Gabriel, of charcoal and saltpeter mud. They loaded the “bad” powder first.
Carrillo ordered his lancers to taunt their foes 400 yards away, out of rifle range. Since the American soldiers were marching up a dusty trail in tight columns and presented a narrow target, Carillo trusted the cannon would win the day. Then the first shot: the cannonball trundled down the barrel and thudded on the ground.
“The Americans laughed,” recalled Don Antonio Coronel. “ ‘This is child’s play,’ they said, and pushed on closer.”
The second shot also fizzled. The Americans advanced “with catcalls and jeers.” Using leather rope reatas, Californio horsemen dragged the relic to safety. The pattern repeated a third time: fire, “pouf,” and flee.
Near present-day Gardena, gunner Jose Aguilar switched to the “good” powder, then realized he had nothing to ignite it “There were a few embers in the no-man’s land between combatants,” says Coronel, “so Pedro Romero galloped like the wind, scooped up a live ember while still in his saddle, and galloped back to our line in a hail of bullets.”
Aguilar fired, “mortally wounding the American flag officer and blowing a hole in the enemy ranks.” Two more blasts killed three, wounded nine, and ended the brief “Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun.”
Mervine ordered his troops back to San Pedro, where they boarded the frigate Savannah and anchored offshore. Later they sailed to San Diego.
After the battle, the Californios wanted to harass the escaping Americans, who were slowed by pulling casualties in carts. Carrillo said no, “Enough had been accomplished forcing the enemy to retreat.” Also, Coronel adds, Aguilar had only one “good” powder charge left; “the next minute it would have been the Californios [who] had to run away.”
The Spanish-speaking “troops” were formers or boys—and had no weaponry for war. So General Jose Flores ordered Coronel to ride to Mexican headquarters at Sonora. Coronel would take a captured American flag and dispatches urging help.
Coronel rounded up a caballada of remounts: 100 horses, saddle and pack mules. Escorted by two soldiers, three servants, and close friend Felipe Castillo, the party rode out of Los Angeles in a grand procession, autumn sunlight glinting off swords, pistols, and the silver trappings on Coronel’s stallion.
Historian Douglas Monroy calls Don Antonio Coronel “the most renowned citizen of Hispanic Los Angeles.” Others wonder why there isn’t a full biography of the man who, like William Davis, the original founder of San Diego, lived almost an entire century of California history.
Coronel was born in Mexico City, October 21,1817. His family came north in 1834. He fought for the Californios and was among the first to pan for gold. He served as mayor of Los Angeles (1853) and State Treasurer (1867-1871). He helped found the first public school system, public library, and college, St. Vincent’s, in Southern California.
Helen Hunt Jackson, author of Ramona, visited Coronel and his wife, Mariana, in the early 1880s. Jackson said Coronel’s memory was “like a burning glass bringing into sharp light and focus a half-century as if it were yesterday” (she also named him “best waltzer” in Los Angeles). Jackson got the story and details for Ramona from the Coronels.
When he reached Warner’s Ranch at Agua Caliente, Coronel learned that American soldiers from San Diego were after him. “I didn’t believe the news,” he said, “but proceeded warily in any case.”
When the party stopped at Algodones, on the Colorado River, two Indians warned them an army of Americans camped on the east bank. Coronel sent Castillo to verify.
The Americans were Stephen Watts Kearny’s “Army of the West”: 101 dragoons, some riding exhausted mules, others walking—“leg weary, nearly naked, and barefooted”— to California. Their chief scout was Kit Carson.
Though Castillo never saw the army, other Indian reports confirmed it. He also came across Sonoran thieves. Asked to watch over hundreds of the Californio militia’s horses, they stole them and lit out for Mexico. “They were alarmed to hear of my presence,” says Coronel, “because they thought I was pursuing them.”
A large American army to the east, soldiers from San Diego on his trail, horse thieves who’d kill him out of self-defense, and his slow-moving party an easy target, Coronel was boxed in: he must get the news to Mexico and scout the American force and watch his back. He sent Castillo south with the flag and dispatches. One person had a better chance of getting through, he reasoned, especially since Castillo, a Sonoran, knew the desert’s few watering holes.
“Castillo took the papers, wedged bottles of vino into his saddle bags, and crossed the river.” And got caught. In his journal entry for November 23, Lt. W.H. Emory reports Kearny’s army captured a Californio, “well mounted and muffled in his blanket...in each of his holsters the neck of a bottle.” Castillo’s dispatches alerted Kearny that a “counter-revolution had taken place in California.” To the scout’s astonishment, Kearny neatly resealed the letters, handed them back to Castillo, and wished him “vaya con dios.”
In several of their logs, Kearny’s men record a lone observer following the army from a distance. It was Coronel. He’d sent his party to the western mountains and watched the American troops slog through duststorms and caliche-scourged wastes and sand so deep they would have preferred snow. Toward the end of November, Coronel sensed a new threat: Indians from nearby rancherias “were getting restless, wanting to go over to the Americans.” Because they would turn him in, Coronel needed a “more secure place.”
That was Aguanaga, a Luiseno village halfway between Warner’s Ranch and Temecula, where his animals and Sonoran allies awaited. He arrived December 3, at 11:00 p.m. Although a full moon lit his path, an icy rain had fallen for days. Coronel was “wet through.” One of his scouts and an Indian friend ushered Coronel into a tent. His clothes felt like soaked hides. He peeled off his serape, jacket, trousers, boots, and stockings and laid them to dry near a fire. Wearing just a shirt and drawers, Coronel huddled by the crackling flames.
Around midnight, hoofbeats pounded nearby. Putting his ear to the ground, the Indian shouted: “Americanos! Americanos!”
Coronel caught a “gleam of weapons” in the moonlight He dove under the rear tent-flap, scrambled toward darkness, and climbed a cottonwood.
American soldiers arrested the Indian, Coronel’s servant Vicente Romero, and the Sonorans. “They took my horse and arms, my saddlebags and papers.” As Coronel watched from a tree branch, a soldier re-entered the tent and carried off his clothes. The “ragged blue-coats” and prisoners rode away, Coronel believed, “to find where [his] horses were hidden” and “to stir up the [Cupeno] Indians to hunt me in the woods.”
(In his journal, Emory notes that during this time, American soldiers found “a band of horses and mules.. .belonging to General Flores.” Actually they were Coronel’s caballada).
Coronel had to flee. “In shirtsleeves and barefooted,” he ran a 12-mile, mud-slick gauntlet through woods, sharp rocks, scrub, and cacti, to the village of Chief Alejo, a friend. Coronel ran all night — and had to: if he stopped he’d catch frostbite in the frigid mountain air.
Leaving a trail of bloody footprints, Coronel reached the village around five a.m. A low voice chanted in a brush wigwam. It was Alejo, feathering arrows by a fire. Coronel startled him. Unable to recognize his friend — just a breathless body steaming in the night air—Alejo grabbed his bow.
“It is Antonio!”
“No sound!” Alejo whispered, coming outside. Alejo didn’t have horses. But Coronel must keep moving. Local Indians “were up in arms on the American side.” Coronel was now a fugitive.
More horses’ hooves, like com popping far away. Soldiers. On all fours, Coronel skittered into a cactus patch. Alejo tossed reeds and a blanket over the nest of thorns.
Spiked and freezing, Coronel overheard the soldiers interrogate Alejo. Had he seen Coronel? No. “They [said] detain me if I did arrive. Then they went on — to where, I don’t know.”
Alejo bound Coronel’s feet with rawhide, then gave him a blanket, a tattered palm hat, and leather sandals many sizes too small. “We must hurry,” he said. They headed for Pala, high on a mountain, where the tribe’s older women gathered acorns — and might have a horse.
In a downpour, halfway up a “long and difficult trail,” Coronel crumpled to the ground. Sandal “straps rubbed my feet raw and the stones bruised them. I could walk no farther for the pain.”
Alejo tore long strips from his serape and wrapped Coronel’s feet, “which brought me some relief.”
Around 4:00 p.m., December 4, “feinting with fatigue and excitement,” they reached the harvest camp. The old women came to his aid. One fed him atole, an acorn soup. Others ground herbs on a stone metate. Then a woman unwrapped the dank, bloodied strips and bathed his shredded feet with healing leaves.
On December 5 around noon, Coronel sent a Pala messenger to warn Don Andres Pico of Kearny’s approaching army. Pico had positioned his Californios at the San Pasqual Indian village. At three that same day, Coronel sent another messenger. “Later I found out that the message was received the evening of December 5, the night before the Battle of San Pasqual, but Pico didn’t believe it.”
Coronel still had to warn General Flores at Los Angeles. But the only horse Alejo could find was a blindfolded, unbroken colt, a rawhide jaquima looped around its nose for a bridle and a sheepskin saddle cinched around its bony ribs. “I pulled the blindfold off and the colt bucked a few times, but I kept my seat.”
Coronel raced down the sierra. At midnight, he reached Rancho Temecula, where he got a fresh horse. After a banquet of dried meat scraps, Coronel rode north “at a furious pace.”
He changed horses, and clothes, at way stations. When he arrived at the home of his sweetheart, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Coronel was a grit-clogged hodgepodge of triple-wide pants with cuffs rolled high, floppy shoes strapped to bandaged feet with leather thongs, and a frayed horse blanket providing minimal relief from the worst December weather in memory.
He’d been on the move, almost nonstop, for four days. Thinking him a “pitiful beggar” and fer too ragged to enter their home, his sweethearts family fed Coronel on their porch. Helen Hunt Jackson: “The women eyed him curiously. One said to the other, ‘how much he looks like Don Antonio.’ ” But this couldn’t be, since rumor had it the Americans had taken the elegant Californio prisoner. Then his sweetheart approached warily and asked if he was related to Don Antonio Coronel.
Before Coronel could reveal that he was angry— or just relieved — at not being recognized, his sweetheart’s brother saw through the layers of grime. He leapt off a horse, shouted, “Don Antonio!” and embraced his good friend. “Then was a great laughing and half-weeping,” writes Helen Hunt Jackson.
The family gave Coronel a good horse, saddle and bridle, and fresh clothes. And he headed for home without complaining that “the welcomed gift of a pair of trousers was many inches too short” for his legs.
- Helen Hunt Jackson: “Only one who has seen California cactus thickets can realize the desperateness of [Coronet's] act. But it succeeded.”
- Coronel: “The primary education given the Indians never was meant to prepare them to live on their own. They were treated as perpetual children, subject to guardians.”
- Coronel: “What I most appreciated was an old woman unwrapping my feet and washing them with an infusion of herbs. All pain was gone immediately, and my feet have been tougher ever since.”
- Coronel, Antonio, Tales of Mexican California (Bellerophon Books, 1994)
- Emory, W.H., Lieutenant Emory Reports (University of New Mexico Press, 1951)
- Jackson, Helen Hunt, Glimpses of California and the Missions (Little Brown and Company, 1907)
- Monroy, Douglas, Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (University of California Press, 1990)
- Woodward, Arthur, The Lances of San Pasqual (California Historical Society, 1948)
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