“The appetite grows with eating.” Many in the late 19th Century applied the French proverb to an insatiable urge to filibuster: to conquer foreign territories with private armies.
If appetite grows, then Captain John H. Janes was land-hungry. “San Diego,” he wrote in 1884, “the only salvation for you: raise a filibustering army, take [Lower California] and annex it…There is no piece of such geographical importance to the United States; it belongs naturally to Alta California.”
Since the long-awaited “Coming Man” never appeared, in the mid-1880s Janes anointed himself “Messiah of the Southland.” The “eccentric old salt” built a house in San Pedro from parts of wrecked ships. In his newspaper editorials, he advocated splitting California in two. The southern half would include Lower (Baja) California.
“San Diego, get ready to filibuster Lower California, and I will raise 500 men to help you!”
Janes made his offer despite a bloody tradition of failure. From 1850 to 1890, at least a dozen self-appointed saviors tried to conquer lands below the border. In 1888, while Janes recruited for his own invasion, Colonel J.E. Mulkey organized the Los Angeles chapter of the Order of the Golden Field. This secret society — connected, some say, to the slavery-promoting Knights of the Golden Circle — wanted to make Lower California the new “Republic of Northern Mexico.” The takeover, Mulkey assured Bascom A. Stephens, a Bohemian journalist, “will simply be the story of Texas all over again.” Capture the peninsula, annex it to the United States.
In July 1888, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle disguised himself as an itinerant worker. He went to Los Angeles and begged Mulkey to let him join. Impressed with the young man’s fervor, Mulkey boasted that the Golden Field had men in “high authority” across the country. When the time came, over 20,000 soldiers would “strike the blow” in Baja.
They talked from sundown to 9:00 p.m. When his new recruit left, Mulkey grew suspicious. That kid asked pointed questions, like a reporter. So Mulkey grabbed his coat and tailed the mystery man through downtown Los Angeles — and watched him hustle up the steps of the Los Angeles Tribune.
Afraid he blabbed top secret information, Mulkey raced to the Los Angeles Times. He told an editor: “I just gave a rival reporter some ‘fill’” — minor details — “about a filibuster.” Then he outlined the entire scheme, “to break the force of the anticipated account.”
Next morning, the Tribune printed two vague sentences about a possible filibuster, no names, no dates. The L.A. Times printed Mulkey’s detailed retraction. In effect, he unwittingly exposed his plan. “The publicity,” wrote the Times, “proved fatal.”
By the time Mulkey sabotaged himself, the real estate boom of the 1880s began to bust, as did the gold rush to the mines of Lower California. At the height of the rush, the manager of the Hotel del Coronado had to telegraph San Francisco for help: all his employees ran off to the mines. Then land values tumbled. Struck hardest, along with San Diego developers holding property in Baja, was the Mexico Land and Colonization Company. The British consortium owned millions of acres in Baja. Only annexation, they believed, would raise property values and prevent bankruptcy.
Early in 1890, Janes was recruiting in Oregon and Washington for his filibuster. B.A. Stephens, Mulkey’s colleague, established a chapter of the Golden Field in San Diego. He started a newspaper with C. A. Harris, The Republic, devoted to annexation and anti-Mexico slurs. Augustus Merrill, editor of the weekly Informant, let them use his printers.
Merrill told Stephens and Harris about a fool-proof plan to capture Lower California. After demanding a pledge of secrecy, he introduced them to Walter G. Smith, editor of the San Diego Sun and local firebrand.
A former member of the New York legislature, the five-foot, nine-inch Smith lived with a wife and three children in Coronado. In an era of sleek Van Dyke beards and spikey handlebar mustaches, Smith was clean-shaven — and was so abrasive, a rival editor claimed he “could say more mean things in less space than another man could, and say them meaner.”
People wondered what Smith had more of, friends or enemies. One time, several outraged gents stormed the Sun’s office across from Horton Plaza. They picked him up and heaved all 200 pounds out the second-floor window. A balcony cushioned the fall.
“My father,” a daughter said, “has a way of stimulating people.”
Smith’s most ardent cause was Manifest Destiny. America is destined to grow. And since expansion stopped at the Pacific Coast, it was time to turn south. Although he denied everything in a letter 17 years later, Smith devised a grand strategy to capture Baja.
His idea: the Mexico Land and Colonization Company — called the “English Company” — says it will build a railroad from Ensenada to San Quintín. That way they could infiltrate 300 insurgents disguised as laborers to the peninsula. Instead of laying out tracks, they storm Ensenada. The town had 60 troops at best, and most were convicted criminals sentenced to military duty.
On April 7, the four men met at the Informant with eight fellow conspirators, among them Ranford Worthing, financier and former mining boss; Colonel Edward Hill, Civil War veteran with large holdings in Baja; and Captain John H. Janes. He came to San Diego to recruit for his own scheme but — out of curiosity? — decided to join the confederacy of editors.
The next night, the “Council of 15” met in a private room at the Hotel del Coronado. Smith declared himself “Governor General of the New Republic of Lower California.” To intensify involvement he made everyone a general: Merrill, commanding general; Hill, war general; et cetera. Janes, “the oldest filibuster of all,” became general of the navy.
Hill offered $5000 of his own money, plus another $20,000 if the English Company honored their $100,000 promise to fund the filibuster. Hill said everyone at the English Company favored the plan except the president, Sir Edward Jenkinson.
After the meeting, Hill and Smith went to Ensenada to meet with Major Buchanan Scott, English company manager. They’d discuss the plan, “reconnoiter” the troops, and confirm a rumor that the customs house had a small fortune in construction funds.
Once a way-station for miners headed for El Alamo and Santa Clara, Ensenada looked about half settled when Smith and Hill arrived. City streets laid out, telephone poles like a harbor of masts, new reservoir up the hill, even a park. But many structures were unfinished. The gold rush ran out, and Lower California foresaw a “period of keenest depression.”
Buchanan Scott, captain in the Royal Engineers, companion in the Order of the Indian Empire, veteran of the Afghan War, had a sterling record as an administrator. Though convinced “Americans have no honor or right principles in them,” for his company he knew that “American rule, fraught with problems with fraudulent Yankees, was preferable to further Mexican influence.”
Scott found Smith’s fake railroad scheme too naïve. How do you infiltrate 300 laborers? Plus, given the parched conditions of the peninsula, how to feed such a horde?
Scott proposed a new plan. Hold a “Fandango Ball” at the Iturbide Hotel. Overlooking Todos Santos Bay, the roomy, wooden, three-story structure was the most elegant hotel in Baja. It already had a reputation for epic festivities. A fandango would be the event of the season. Everyone must come, from governor Luis Torres to every important officer in the region.
For months prior to the ball, they’d stock warehouses — at Ensenada or near the harbor entrance at San Diego — with arms and provisions.
At the fandango, the conspirators would get every dignitary so blind drunk he couldn’t see his knees. Having bribed the captain of the guard, at a given signal the revolutionaries, who sailed from San Diego on English Company steamers Manual Dublan and Carlos Pacheco, would overpower the sentries, take possession of the hotel, Ensenada, and Lower California. The new regime would parcel the peninsula into military districts and declare martial law.
Once the filibuster became known, Scott swore that locals, miners, even residents of little Tia Juana would revolt. And “recruits from all parts of Southern California would flock to the new republic.”
If the filibuster succeeded, Scott wrote to a colleague, “the Company will make millions, but under Mexican rule, you may be able to get back your money if carefully managed.”
Smith and Hill returned to San Diego April 13. Hill went east to purchase six Napoleon field pieces, several Gatling guns, and over 1000 Winchester rifles and ammo. On April 21, the inner circle met at the Informant. The bad news: no small fortune at the customs house; the good: “a general dissatisfaction down there, and a general desire, among Mexicans and Americans, for a revolution and annexation.” And Major Scott had a gem of a plan.
On April 23, the Council of 15 met at the Hotel del Coronado. Since many were newspaper editors, they had the entire revolution already on paper. Smith read his lengthy, post-takeover Governor General’s address, and the complete declaration of independence. Commanding General Merrill read an intricate description of military tactics, with estimates of arms needed. Richard Worthing added a detailed financial scheme, and Stephens a draft of the constitution. Late in the long meeting, all agreed that Navy General Janes must capture the Democrata, an iron-hull, single-screw gunboat that patrolled coastal waters.
A lifelong mariner, Janes may have wondered why nab such an ancient, unseaworthy craft.
Smith unveiled their flag: red field, small white field with a single blue star. A narrow orange strip extended from the outer end lengthwise. The meeting concluded with a target date: August 1, 1890.
Three days later, the Los Angeles Times published an article hinting at a filibuster. Janes had gone back to Los Angeles. Did he spill the beans? On May 4, Commanding General Augustus Merrill went north to take Janes’s pulse. As did Governor General Smith a week later. Both felt their Navy General was still onboard. But the San Diego Union ran a personal: “Governor-General was in Los Angeles on Sunday.”
The word was out, and spread faster than the plotters could squelch it. On May 21, in four front-page columns, the Union announced: “Filibusters Frustrated: Exposé of a Rattle-Brained Project to Capture Lower California.”
The long article pointed fingers, shined spotlights, and named names: “The prime movers are San Diego men, at mention of whose names the wonder will be excited that some who have countenanced the scheme were ever induced to listen to a discussion of the proposition.”
The paper named rival Walter G. Smith, “of the lurid [San Diego] Sun,” with shimmering glee. Augustus Merrill and B.A. Stephens, editor and city editor of the Informant, along with C. A. Harris of the San Diego Republic co-conspired in the “fool hardy scheme.” “The actors in this absurd drama,” the article concluded, “may well be left to the ridicule their conduct will undoubtedly excite.”
Reactions flared overnight.
San Francisco Chronicle: “It is a remarkable fact that the majority of the individuals who operated the scheme are newspapermen.” An editorial that same day wrote: “while many men were mixed up in the affair, they were of small caliber and entirely unable to carry out any programme of revolution.”
The Los Angeles Times suggested a larger conspiracy: “It is a matter for deep surprise that persons whom the state has honored with high position should be found endorsing such criminal folly. In doing so they misrepresent the will of their constituents.”
Walter Smith poo-poo’d the affair in the Sun: “This being the silly season for news…romance was piled on romance in this pleasant little comedy.”
On May 22, the Union published an “authentic verbatim report…of contemporaneous history-making.” One of its reporters snuck into the Hotel del, crawled on hands and knees, and hid under a bed as the major players met. The Union printed his “notes,” but did not name names.
“By the way…have you seen Worthing today?”
“Yes, on the street. He was going to be here tonight.”
“By the way, what is Janes doing?”
“Janes is a funny fellow…He has been putting out his paper again in Los Angeles and has been making it hum. He’s all right.”
Was he? The San Diegan noticed that “the Union failed to include Captain Janes’s name in the list of officials.” If the old salt was involved, then it was just a joke, since he’s a “self-styled thoroughbred tarrier…who looks upon water but doesn’t make further use of it.”
One popular suggestion: Janes told all to the Union. Merrill said “Janes thought there was boddle in [the plan] and he was not getting any of it.”
“I saw they were trying to play me,” Janes told the L.A. Times on May 24, “and I had nothing to do with it.” Other members of the conspiracy betrayed him. Plus, they wanted to annex Baja to the U.S. He wanted an independent state.
During the interview he unveiled a new plan: “If a simple revolution and the formation of an independent republic were contemplated,” he’d dive in “heart and soul,” even guarantee a vessel “in southern waters in a month manned by 1000 soldiers.” Of course, that would require $100 in cash for each one, and “$1000 for general expenses.”
Major Scott and his wife Ethel made an 80-mile midnight dash for the border on mules. They caught a vessel and Scott, wrote the Sun, “protested his innocence all the way to Bombay.” Later, Ethel wrote, “My husband is far too busy to think about it, and knows the people of California too well to take the trouble.”
President Díaz of Mexico decried the movement. He had “sufficient forces in Lower California to repel any invaders.” An unnamed Mexican official went further: “the United States’ actions are barbaric and Gothic aggressions. That usually characterizes the country’s foreign policy toward Mexico.”
Although U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine “assured the Mexican minister that…the filibusters would be prosecuted and put in prison for 20 years,” none of the plotters spent a day behind bars.
In 1892, Walter Gifford Smith wrote The Story of San Diego, one of the first full-length histories of the city. He left out that “pleasant little comedy,” the fandango filibuster.
1) San Diego Union: “How the best laid plans of Mice and Men Gang Aft Aglee.”
2) Walter G. Smith: “Had it gone through, our paper government would have learned, for the first time, of its success, through the newspapers.”
3) Arthur North: “The greater number of cartridges and cases of repeating rifles were buried in the sand near San Quintin. Doubtless, the accursed fleas…have made off with arms and ammunition.”
- Facio, Manuel Sanchez, The Truth About Lower California, reprint (Memphis, 2012).
- Hager, Anna Marie, ed., The Filibusters of 1890 (Los Angeles, 1968).
- Kearney, Ruth Elizabeth, “American Colonization Ventures in Lower California, 1861–1917,” Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1944.
- Martinez, Oscar J., Troublesome Border (Tucson, 1988).
- Martinez, Pablo, A History of Lower California: The Only Complete and Reliable One (Mexico, 1960).
- North, Arthur Walbridge, The Mother of California: Being an Historical Sketch of the Little Known Land of Baja California (San Francisco, 1908).
- Rolle, Andrew F. “Futile Filibustering in Baja California, 1888–1890,” Pacific Historical Review (May, 1951).
- Smith, Walter Gifford, “Complete statement of his own relations to the 1890 Filibustering Episode, 1889–1890,” Ms. San Diego History Center.
- Stout, Joseph A., Schemers and Dreamers: Filibustering in Mexico, 1848–1921 (Fort Worth, 2002).
- Articles in various newspapers and magazines.