The blackest of crimes committed against Warner Ranch Indians.

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

Charles Fletcher Lummis
  • Charles Fletcher Lummis

Visitors to the Indian village at Kupa were often struck by the silence. No loud voices, no sudden shouts. Even children played quietly. A stillness spread from the bowl-shaped Valle de San Jose below, past Warner’s Ranch, and up to where Cupeños busied themselves with the tasks of the moment — tasks their people had performed since time for them began.

On May 15, 1902, when Charles Fletcher Lummis approached the village in a surrey, howls and ha’s echoed from the boulder-strewn hillside. It was hard to tell if the shouts were excitement or concern.

Lummis brought the grimmest possible news: the year before, the United States Supreme Court declared the Cupeños trespassers on their own land. Now Congress had appropriated funds to purchase a new property for them that, once claimed, they must make their home.

“One could conceive of a pleasanter position,” Lummis wrote, “than that of an advocate of the government…toward a people who knew nothing of the political machine, but have the old notion that law and equity ought to be identical.”

Lummis, photojournalist and freelance writer, was famous for having walked from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, 3507 miles and 6,513,541 steps (he used a pedometer). The self-styled crusader championed various causes. In 1901 he formed the Sequoya League to improve the lot of Native Americans. Its motto: “to make better Indians and better treated ones.” Finding a new home for the Cupeños would show the way.

Lummis rode past sturdy, whitewashed adobe houses with thatched roofs. When he reached the center of the village, anxious eyes approached. The Cupeños were desperate for news. But Lummis delayed. He’d make an announcement, he said, in the schoolhouse after lunch.

On May 13, 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the California Supreme Court’s decision: J. Harvey Downey and his stockholders legally owned Agua Caliente — aka Kupa. It did not matter that the Cupeños lived there centuries before the Spanish came. In the original case, Barker vs. Harvey, attorneys for John Downey, J. Harvey’s uncle, argued that no natives were on the site in 1844, when John J. Warner obtained the land grant. And they never filed a claim to the Board of Land Commissioners in 1851.

Much of Downey’s case hinged on a letter Juan Marron wrote in 1844: “I beg to state that the said Valle San Jose is, and has been for the past two years, vacant and abandoned, without any goods or cultivation on the part of San Diego.”

The land was used for grazing cattle and horses. Since no one allegedly lived there, Warner won the title.

Courts from San Diego to Washington DC read “vacant and abandoned” to mean no Indians were on the property. But in 1893, Warner said that wasn’t true. Eighty-five years old and gravely ill, Warner gave a deposition at his home in Los Angeles. The southern half of the valley was abandoned, he said, not the northern, which included Agua Caliente/Kupa. He “never heard of them being displaced.” The original grant even stipulated that he could not interfere with roads and other usages,” meaning the native village.

As for the land commission claim of 1851, the Cupeños didn’t think they had to file one. The original Mexican grant said the title holder should “not molest the Indians that thereon may be established.”

Also in 1851, the state demanded a $600 tax from the Cupeños. How could this happen if they didn’t at least own the land by “possession”?

On November 4, 1901, San Diego’s much revered Father Antonio Ubach wrote a plea in the Los Angeles Herald: “It will be the blackest of crimes to turn these Warner Ranch Indians out of their homes…. They were born in Mexican territory, and were as much Mexican citizens as the whitest man up to the present day. It was stipulated that [when California became a state] the United States would abide by all that the Mexican government had done during the Spanish and Mexican regime.”

Warner’s deposition, one by 92-year-old Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor, and testimonies from more than 25 people failed to win the case. On December 29, 1896, San Diego Superior Court judge W. L. Pierce ruled Warner’s testimony inadmissible, and that the Cupeños’ ancestors were “wild,” desert Cahuilla — not Mission or Pueblo Indians — and thus had no rights.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1901, the San Francisco Chronicle called the verdict: “A GOOD THING FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.” The Indians “had kept 27,000 acres of excellent land…out of the hands of home builders and has contributed little to the sum of progress.”

After his lunch, Lummis held a junta — a meeting — in the schoolhouse at Kupa. Every man not sheep-shearing 90 miles away at Saugus, and many women, attended. Lummis, who chronicled his crusade in Out West Magazine, spoke in Spanish to “as decorous and respective a gathering as ever assembled anywhere.” But he didn’t break the news.

The next morning he held an hour-long junta, this time at his quarters. In a “direct talk,” he “told these harried people the exact status of their case.” J. Harvey Downey, the principal owner, wanted $245,000 for the entire 30,000 acres, an exorbitant price that included four other small native villages. The Cupeños wanted the government to buy their 900 acres for them. Lummis said Downey would never sell. They wanted this tract most of all.

Along with houses, orchards, cultivated fields, irrigation ditches, and a reservoir, Kupa had a hot springs — called Agua Caliente by outsiders — where visitors in increasing numbers paid to bathe and relax.

In those days, San Diego County had several hundred springs, each named in Spanish for a dominant trait: agua fria (cold water); agua tibia (tepid water), amargosa (bitter), hedionda (stinking). The sulphur springs at Kupa are caliente: hot. The temperature averages 138 degrees Fahrenheit.

By 1846, Warner’s Ranch had become a halfway station between Yuma and Los Angeles. Exhausted travelers could stop and refresh themselves, graze horses and mules on the tall, valley grass, and, with permission, soak in the salubrious waters.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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