LA BEATA: THE SISTERS' SAD FATE (Part Four)
By the time she was 45, Apolinaria Lorenzana had nursed numerous cases of syphilis at the San Diego Mission infirmary. She’d fought plagues of measles and smallpox. She’d midwifed new lives and mourned countless dead. But possibly the most tragic sight she ever saw was the face of Doña María de los Angeles. In the spring of 1837, a band of natives attacked Rancho Jamul. They killed María’s husband and her daughter’s fiancé. They stripped María and her children, burned the rancho, and took her daughters, Tomasa and Ramona, captive.
Wrapped in a bedsheet to cover her nudity, open-eyed, yet blank to the world, María told Lorenzana her story. When María concluded, “She could neither speak nor cry.” She’d been bled of tears.
Called la beata (the “blessed one”) for her piety and caring, Lorenzana witnessed a “shattered” spirit. María “suffered the rest of her life,” Lorenzana recalled 40 years later. “She never recovered…and finally succumbed to the burden of her sorrows.
“I heard that the Indians went to the Colorado River area,” Lorenzana added, “and sold the girls.” There are at least four other versions of the sisters’ fate — and each is a tale of woe.
After the burning of Rancho Jamul, since the nearest soldiers were stationed at San Luis Rey, San Diegans called upon Macedonio Gonzalez, an alferez (second lieutenant) from Baja California, to form an expedition and bring the girls home. A famous Indian fighter, Gonzalez came to be known — and feared — by his first name. Agustín Janssens, a Belgian who also went on the mission, called Macedonio “a man of great courage.” Others labeled him “the Potentate of the Frontier,” though many questioned his methods.
Macedonio “never bothered to prepare an indictment against delinquent Indians,” writes Antonio María Osio, “since he did not know how. He would deliver only an oral judgment and sentence them to a flogging or capital punishment” on the spot. Instead of using a gun, to save cartridges “he would execute them himself with his sword.” Macedonio called this treatment “justice.”
The captured girls were his nieces. This gave him added incentive, says Vicente Romero, a saddler who, along with 17 regular soldiers and 30 Baja California Indians, formed the expedition. The party left Mission San Miguel la Nueva, south of Rosarito. At Rancho Tía Juana, settlers from San Diego joined them. Approximately 60 armed men on fresh horses, accompanied by supply wagons and a remuda of extra rides, headed east.
According to Macedonio’s and Romero’s accounts, not much happened. The group went through Tecate, up to Campo and Jacumba, then back to the Cuyamaca Valley, where Romero says they had a “fight through the whole day” and somehow lost their supplies and ammunition.
Romero says they never saw the young women. Macedonio says he saw his nieces at the foot of a mountain, crying to be rescued. But he “didn’t dare shoot” for fear of killing them. He offered cattle and horses as ransom, but the captors refused. So the expedition headed home, after four months on the road.
Agustín Janssens gives a less reputation-saving account. When the expedition went through Tecate, word came that the Indians were in the mountains, camped at a narrow pass near the Cuyamaca Valley. Their chieftains — Cartucho, Martín, and Pedro Pablo — held three women captive.
The expedition reached Matadera (“murderess,” today’s 5700-foot Stonewall Peak). North of the white granite crown near Lake Cuyamaca, three young women sat on a pile of large rocks. They wore rabbit skins below the waist, their naked upper bodies and faces painted with white powder. Janssens recognized Tomasa and Ramona. The third, someone said, was the ex-wife of Cosmé Peña, a hard-drinking, abusive attorney. She’d escaped from him a year earlier with a musician named Arias. Colorado Indians captured her and later Cartucho and Martín took her from them.
When the young women called out from the rocks, Indians covered the women’s mouths. To reach them, the expedition had to inch through a narrow defile into a natural amphitheater bounded by craggy walls and caves. Veteran soldiers sensed that the open area was a perfect kill zone. Indians could hide in the crevices or behind the live oak and Jeffrey pine dotting the hillsides. As the troops moved forward, the natives began flanking left and right of the girls. Some dropped back behind the crest of the range. How many others had already hidden was anyone’s guess.
“It was an ambush from which we could not possibly withdraw,” writes Janssens.
Macedonio shouted encouragement “and told us not to worry.” The troops had round leather shields, made from three layers of stretched bull hide, to fend off rocks and arrows. “Among us were a few who knew how to manage the shields, but to those who didn’t, they were a great nuisance.”
Soldiers used the shields to defend their heads. For added protection, Macedonio ordered everyone to wrap leather thongs tightly around their most exposed body parts.
When most of the expedition came into the clearing area, a hundred arrows and stones swarmed overhead “from every direction” and whistled down. Horses fell, and men. Arrows and rocks pelted the ground like hail.
War cries and whoops echoed across the rocky walls; soldiers tried to shield themselves and return fire. Horses shrieked and threw their riders. Some hunkered near downed animals spiked with shafts; others mounted behind a fellow soldier. Some just ran blind through rising puffs of smoke.
“Soon we had several wounded,” writes Janssens. “Among them was Macedonio, against whom most of the arrows were directed.”
One stuck in his lips “and impeded his speech.”
Natives raced along a ridge to the entryway, where they began rolling boulders to close the narrow exit, which, according to Janssens, “they could have done with the greatest of ease.”
Indians attacked and killed the rear guard. They took the expedition’s supplies and extra horses and threatened to seal off the exit.
As the battlefield around them constricted, writes Janssens, “Repeatedly the cry was heard among us, [each was] to save himself before we should be cut off from retreat.”
But then they heard another cry: “Jatinil!”
The feared Indian chief from northern Baja, a friend of Macedonio, had learned of the ambush from spies the day before. With 200 Indians, Jatinil rode all night up Valle de las Palmas, through Tecate, and on to Stonewall Peak.
“With the yell of ‘Jatinil!’ and the resistance of his men,” writes Janssens, “we were given the chance of getting out of the ambush. But for this, more than half of us, and perhaps more, would have fallen victims.”
All were wounded, at least 20 by arrows and spears, the rest by rocks. “Jatinil, the pagan, after God, was our salvation.”
Somewhere on the way home, Macedonio forgot what happened. When he later told the story, he always left out Jatinil (after he tried to bargain with the Indians, he told Juana Machado, they “then took the girls down from the rock and retreated”; no battle). Maybe the “Potentate of the Frontier” didn’t want the word spread that a band of Indians had saved his life.
Jatinil didn’t return to his village at Neji. Instead he moved his people to a mesa on the Baja coast, where they built a fortress to defend themselves against reprisals.
According to Janssens, the three chiefs took the young women to the Colorado River.
Accounts vary as to what happened after that. In one version, two of the chiefs, Cartucho and Martín, married Tomasa and Ramona. According to Antonio Coronel, during the expedition’s four-month search, the Indians burned and pillaged native villages at random. The women “had become liabilities” to their captors and were murdered. (Coronel got this account from two of the chieftains who accompanied him on a trip to Sonora. As long as the chieftains were alive, Coronel says, he was afraid to tell anyone for fear of retaliation.)
Father Zephyrin Englehardt writes that “these unfortunates [Tomasa and Ramona] roused such jealousy in the Indian women that the latter, choosing a time when the men of the tribe were on a hunt, fastened the two prisoners to trees and stoned them to death.”
“It was my understanding,” Apolinaria Lorenzana says in her memoir, “that the Indians who committed those hostile acts were from Tecate, the Colorado River, and other well-known places.” But the “real leaders were the Indians from the rancho [Jamul] who encouraged the other Indians to participate.”
Two years after the attack on Jamul, Lorenzana became an official ranchera. Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado granted her the 8881-acre Rancho Jamacha. The 47-year-old woman, who’d come to San Diego as an orphan, eventually owned Rancho la Cañada de los Coches (“the glen of the hogs”) and Rancho San Juan de las Secuas as well. These had been mission lands used for growing cotton and grazing horses, sheep, cattle, and, at Los Coches, hogs. The San Diego friars, fearing secularization, deeded Lorenzana the grants “to preserve what could be saved of the mission’s property,” writes Stephen Van Wormer.
Lorenzana was never wealthy. She represents, writes Lisbeth Haas, “the relatively poor landowners of the colonial and Mexican periods who worked with their hands and labored for others.” Lorenzana may have regarded the ranchos more as something to protect for her beloved mission than possess. She had lived at Jamacha, off and on, for several years prior to owning it. Some suggest she abetted her health by drinking from its famous mineral spring, which Alfred H. Isham later claimed was the Fountain of Youth.
Lorenzana, who never married, renamed her ranchos for saints. Jamacha, for example, became “Santa Clara de Jamacha” (for St. Claire of Assisi). Two years after she took over the rancho, one of her servants, named Muñoz, decided to go to Sonora, Mexico. He took his wife and young son, whom Lorenzana had baptized.
Muñoz lived in Mexico “for quite some time.” When his wife died (possibly his son as well), he returned to San Diego on his only horse. His saddlebags held gifts for Lorenzana.
Somewhere along the way — he didn’t say where — Muñoz saw a woman sitting behind a house. She dressed like an Indian — cropped hair, rabbit skins, white powered upper body — but spoke “excellent” Spanish.
After he greeted her, he asked who she was.
“I’m from San Diego,” she replied, adding that her name was Ramona Léiva and that Indians had abducted her from Rancho Jamul many years ago. She was María de los Angeles’s youngest daughter. “Take me home!” she pleaded.
“But I can’t,” Muñoz replied.
He’d come all the way from deep into Sonora on one horse. “It was already quite tired,” he told Lorenzana later. “If I took the girl with me, the horse would tire even more and the Indians would be able to catch up and kill us both.”
Muñoz made his apologies to Ramona Léiva and rode north.
Lorenzana: “I do not know if anything else was done to rescue those girls.”
Next time: Rampage
Bancroft, Herbert Howe, History of California, vol. 3, 1825–1840, San Francisco, 1886.
Beebe, Rose Marie, and Senkewicz, Robert M., eds., Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; Lorenzana’s recollections, pp. 165–192; Berkeley, 2006.
Coronel, Antonio F., “Cosas de California,” Bancroft Library (BANC MSS C-D61), Berkeley, 1877.
Ellison, William, and Price, Francis, eds., The Life and Adventures in California of Don Agustín Janssens, 1834–1856, San Marino, 1953.
Englehardt, O.F.M., Zephyrin, San Diego Mission, San Francisco, 1920.
Haas, Lisbeth, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769–1936, Berkeley, 1995.
Jatinil, “Testimonio,” Bancroft Library, pp. 45–51.
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.
Monroy, Douglas, Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California, Berkeley, 1990.
Nasatir, A.P., “Pueblo Postscript: San Diego during the Mexican Period, 1825–1840” (includes Vicente Romero’s “Notes of the Past”), Journal of San Diego History, January 1967, vol. 13, no. 1.
Phillips, George Harwood, Chiefs and Challengers: Indian Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California, Berkeley, 1975.
George Harwood Phillips: “Even going only as far as the Valle de la Viejas, about 33 miles northeast of the Presidio, was considered dangerous, and the greatest caution was used by the soldiers.”
Douglas Monroy: “Typical of retaliations against Indian raids throughout the Americas, it was the peaceful natives who especially suffered the wrath of the righteous avengers.”
Juana Machaco: “Some years afterwards, when these same Indians were at peace, [Macedonio] again offered them ransom, but all his efforts were in vain.”