Unforgettable: Rampage


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.

The next day, Felipa Osuna saw some Indians talking to her gardener. Two were Fitch’s servants, the third, Juan Antonio. The trio had been meeting for several afternoons, she recalled.

They didn’t know it, but Osuna understood their language and heard the plan: while Fitch was away, they’d sneak into his home when Josefa was kneading bread. They’d rob the store; kill Lawrence Hatwell, a despised American clerk; and, on horses waiting outside the back door, kidnap Fitch’s wife Josefa and Osuna.

Osuna told her husband, Juan Marrón, the pueblo’s chief administrator. He didn’t believe her. But to be safe, and since there were only six males in town, Marrón ordered the women to ride to La Playa and stay with the “foreigners” — eight or ten English, American, and Hawaiian males — who worked there. The women would remain in the drying sheds until the danger passed.

Five miles west of the pueblo, less than an hour’s ride on a good horse, La Playa was the center of Alta California’s tanning industry. By 1837, five barn-sized structures and several makeshift sheds had become renowned for the ubiquitous stench emanating from thousands of cowhides cured in brine and hung to dry. Alfred Robinson dubbed the area “Hide Park.”

“We arrived at sunset,” writes Juana Machado. “There were many of us — the Pico women, and my family.” Exiled from their homes and husbands, possibly forever, the women found themselves in another world: warehouses warped by rough boards; thousands and thousands of hides; hordes of seagulls and ten times as many flies; and men, wearing bright red shirts and flaring straw hats, talking in a strange tongue and reeking of tallow and death.

The uprooted women spent the night huddled in fear. Convinced that 300–500 natives would swarm the pueblo and burn it to cinders, they scanned the lowlands across the bay for the slightest stray flicker. They also feared that their “protectors,” many of them sailors who’d jumped ship in San Diego, would take liberties. Few slept during what they later called “la noche triste” — “the sad night.”

“The next morning,” writes Machado, “the foreigners went with us to the pueblo.” Led by their boss, John Steward, they stayed for a week, until “we were out of danger.”

Not all the women went to La Playa. Since Captain Fitch was away, his wife had asked Osuna and her husband Juan Marrón to stay with her. Still unsure about the rumor, Marrón decided to set a trap. When nightfall came, he told Josefa, she should knead bread, as expected. He and Hatwell would hide behind the open door, a loaded pistol in each hand. If assailants arrived, they’d surprise them.

Josefa agreed to play decoy. After dark, as she began folding and smoothing dough on the dining-room table, two tall natives blocked the doorway. Marrón and Hatwell rushed them from behind and took them prisoner.

The next morning, as the women returned from La Playa, townspeople sent for Macedonio. He was staying across the river with Herculaneo Olivas, an old soldier. Macedonio formed a posse. After they rounded up the two Indians from the Fitch store, they stormed door to door through the pueblo.

“It was painful to see Macedonio’s people running after the Indians like a pack of hunting dogs,” writes Osuna. “Some were pulled out of their homes, others were lassoed as they tried to run away, terrified.”

The plaza filled with shouts and screams. An Indian boy darted into Osuna’s house and begged her to hide him. Too late. His pursuers burst in and dragged him outside.

One of Juan Bandini’s servants confessed. He was supposed to open the doors at midnight, he said, but didn’t want to because he loved the family. Bandini assured him he was safe.

Bandini told the posse to spare his servant. But Macedonio cinched a rope around his neck and took him with the others. Osuna says the boy was eventually set free “but suffered for the rest of his life until he died.”

At sundown, Macedonio herded between five and ten suspects to a small canyon. He ordered them to dig a long trench. When they finished, he had them kneel along one side. Then he and his posse shot each in the back of the head. Bodies tumbled into the pit.

Later that night, Macedonio and his men rode up to the Presidio. They captured an Indian spy who was waiting for the cooks to report. He knew where the war party had camped.

When the spy refused to confess, Macedonio promised instant death. The Indian remained mute. So Macedonio drew his sword and hacked off an ear. He vowed to slash the other, writes William Davis, and mutilate the Indian “little by little until he made the statement required of him.”

The Indian relented. After he told all he knew, Macedonio jammed the sword through his heart.

“This mode of extorting confession,” writes Davis, “although repulsive to those who participated in it, was the only way of securing the desired information.”

“These Jacum Indians were bold and brave,” writes Janssens. “San Diego suffered much at their hands. If it had not been for the little frontier guard, commanded by a man as energetic as Macedonio, there would have been in the future terrible scenes in the town, and perhaps the destruction of everyone.”

But, Janssens adds, “The violent execution without form of law brought sorrow to all the inhabitants, for no one had anticipated such a hasty proceeding.”

Lorenzana, who was at the mission, said Macedonio acted “with much force and harshness.” Judge José Antonio Estudillo fiercely objected to slaughter without the pretense of justice.

Forty years later, Thomas Savage interviewed Felipa Osuna. “The punishment produced a very beneficial effect,” she told him, “because after that, there were no more robberies by Indians in San Diego.”

When Savage assumed she’d finished her testimony, Osuna added: “I was so sorry that I had informed on the conspirators. The other women also felt sorry for the Indians and accused me of causing the whole thing. How could I have concealed a conspiracy against the lives, liberty, and possessions of so many people? They would have died.”

Macedonio Gonzales stayed around San Diego until 1864, then moved north. Some say he lived for 105 years. — Jeff Smith

Next time: The American Invasion


Alonso, Ana María, Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender in Mexico’s Northern Frontier, Tucson, 1995.

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; Osuna’s recollections, pp. 145–163; Machado’s recollections, pp. 119–144.

Davis, William Heath, Seventy-Five Years in California, San Francisco, 1967.

De Mofras, Duflot, Travels on the Pacific Coast (Santa Barbara, 2004), vol. 1; source of Father Peyri’s quotation, p. 209.

Duhaut-Cilly, Auguste, A Voyage to California, the Sandwich Islands, and around the World, 1826–1829, trans. and ed. by Auguste Fruge and Neal Harlow, Berkeley, 1997.

Forbes, Jack D., Warriors of the Colorado: The Yumas of the Quechan Nation and Their Neighbors, Norman, 1965.

Harding, George L., Don Agustín Zamorano: Statesman, Soldier, Craftsman, and California’s First Printer, Spokane, 2003.

Janssens, Agustín, The Life and Adventures of Don Agustín Janssens, San Marino, 1953.

Pourade, Richard, The Silver Dons, San Diego, 1963.

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