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.

On December 3, 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearney’s U.S. “Army of the West” had barely made it across the desert. At Warner’s way-station they were on half-rations, their animals worn out.

Lieutenant William H. Emory, Chief of Topographical Engineers, kept a diary. The army “came to a magnificent hot spring.” It erupts “from the fissure of a granite rock…and charges the air with fumes of sulphuretted hydrogen.” A cold spring ran nearby. “The cold and warm water may be commingled to suit the temperature of the bather.

“The Indians have made pools for bathing. They huddle around the basin of the spring to catch the genial warmth of its vapors, and on cold nights immerse themselves to keep warm.”

“A day will come, no doubt,” Emory concluded, “when the invalid and pleasure seeking portion of the White race will assemble here to drink and bathe in these waters…and sit under the shade of the great live oaks that grow in the valley.”

Emory wrote the entry on December 3. Three days later the Army of the West fought, and many say lost, the Battle of San Pasqual.

In the 1880s, visitors paid 25 cents for a bath, $1 for a week’s stay. When Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the popular novel Ramona, inspected the village in 1882, she said “they have a small revenue from the springs.”

At the turn of the century, wooden troughs diverted cool water into deep blue bathing pools. Cupeños also constructed rough-wood, ramada-like bathhouses. They did visitors’ laundry and sold intricately woven baskets — some costing $20 — blankets, hats from fibrous plants, and coco mats. People now paid $25 a week. In the commissioner’s final report of 1901, the natives were making a “large annual income” — an estimated $1800 from saddle mats alone — and had been “practically self-supporting for a number of years.”

Many noted the Cupeños’ health. Laura M. Cornelius, a teacher at San Bernardino: “the Indians never missed a day in going down to the baths. As a consequence they are little troubled with diseases commonly attended upon primitive life.”

In an affidavit filed June 14, 1897, Agua Caliente stockholder Walter T. Vail wrote: “the medicinal properties of the springs [are] equal to any in the country; were it not for the Indian occupation, they would be visited by many more people than presently is the case.”

Developers envisioned a spa/resort for the invalids coming en masse to Southern California. Henry T. Gage, another stockholder, estimated that “the springs and the adjacent land were worth $100,000, and their rental would produce $10,000 annually.”

“Mammon got its eye on the hot springs,” wrote Mary Haw Smith in the Los Angeles Herald, “and with its usual mercilessness, it found agents and ways to accomplish its ends.”

Harvey agreed not to enforce his claim until Congress enacted steps for the new land and the removal. For his forbearance, “friends of the Indians” owed him $2700. When Lummis came to Kupa, Congress had allotted $100,000 for a new home and removal.

At the second junta, Lummis told the Cupeños their “exact status.” Now they must “ponder overnight and decide what they would like best after their old home.”

“It is safe to say,” Lummis wrote, “there was little sleep in Agua Caliente that night.”

The next day, May 17, “the case was again put before them.” For the first time, Cupeños replied.

Lummis wore his signature outfit: rumpled, Spanish-style, green corduroy suit, red Navajo sash, sweat-browned Stetson sombrero. When he began speaking in Spanish, Celsa Apapas, a “fine-looking young woman” in a long dress, came forward. In English she said that “under the stress of deep feeling,” the Cupeños would speak in their own language and she would translate.

Cecilio Blacktooth, captain of the tribe for 1902, came forward. His clothes were Western — denim jeans, white flannel shirt, brown vest — but his words were ancient: “We thank you for coming here to talk to us in a way we can understand. It is the first time anyone has done so.”

He paused as Apapas translated. Then raised his voice: “You ask us to think what place we like best next to this place where we always live. You see that graveyard out there? There are our fathers and our grandfathers. You see that Eagle-nest mountain and that Rabbit-hole mountain? When God made them he gave us this place. We have always been here. We do not care for any other place!”

“But,” Lummis asked, “if the government cannot buy this place for you, what would you like best?”

“There is no other place for us! If you will not buy this place we will go into the mountains like quail, and die there, the old people, women and children.

“If Harvey Downey says he own this place, that is wrong. We do not go on his land. We stay here on ours…if you give us the best place in the world, it is not so good for us as this. We ask you to get it for us.”

Silence followed. Then Chinon Moro, an old Cupeño, stood up: “We do not know what lies beyond where the sun rises in the morning. We do not know what lies behind where the sun goes down at night. We only know our home…we have been here since the beginning. The good spirit gave us our home. Si, señor,…vivirimos aqui siempre — “Yes, sir, we will live here always.”

Lummis listened. But did he understand? Where he saw a “humble village in a rocky ravine, to which they are pathetically attached,” the Cupeños saw a host of sacred sites. Here is where Mukat and Temayawit came out of the water, then the mud, and “went outside through the door” — “Themselves they lay/ Where the dust was/where mist was/ Themselves they lay/ Where it rose in a cloud, where it came up” — and created the world.

Here is where the First People soaked a green, hair-like plant that made the water bubble, boil, and gush into their hot springs. Did Lummis think the people could transport sacred geography?

Here is where, near the beginning, rival tribes burned Kupa into “nothing but ashes piled up.” The only survivors, Kisily Pewik and his mother, fled to Soboba in the San Jacinto Mountains. But the hot springs was their gift, their home. So they returned. Kisily Pewik became like a bear and defeated the intruders. He married two Luiseño sisters from Rincon and had three sons: Kaval, Blacktooth, and Norte. These are the Cupeño lineages — and Cecilio Blacktooth was a direct descendant of the original pumtumatulnikic (“black tooth”).

That vineyard near the hot springs? Antonio Garra’s father bequeathed it to him, and another up the hill. In 1851, when the state demanded a $600 tax on the Cupeños, and threatened to take their cattle if they refused to pay, Garra united parts of several tribes and led the Garra Uprising of 1851. Against his wishes, on November 21 dozens of warriors burned down Warner’s ranch house and store and drove away his cattle. In retaliation, Major E.H. Fitzgerald and his “volunteers” assaulted Kupa. As before, the village was burned “into ashes.” This time, the natives felt the full force of what the “White Father” and his government could do.

Along with being where Kisily Pewik and his mother fled, the Cupeños had another connection with Soboba. In 1883, San Bernardino businessman Matthew Byrne purchased 710 acres in Rancho San Jacinto Viejo, including a native village site. He wanted the government to remove its “wards” from the property. The case went to court. Five years later, the Supreme Court affirmed the Soboba’s rights: precedents, carried over from Mexican law, protected permanent villages, even within the boundaries of rancho grants. It was only a possessory right, the court ruled, “but it was enough.”

For many years, the Soboba victory gave the Cupeños hope. Treaties made under Mexican law and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 should protect them as well. But now, Lummis told the assembly at the schoolhouse, they must move. But, he assured them and his readers, he would find a “better home.”

Next time: In Search of the Unwanted

Quotations

  1. Gordon Johnson: “Once this had been our land, where we birthed our children, prayed to our Creator, suffered our injuries, celebrated our triumphs, and died our quiet deaths. The hot springs here had been our power.”
  2. Shasta Gaughen: “The Cupeños…occupied desirable land. Had they inhabited a barren landscape, bereft of commercial opportunities, they might be there to this day.”
  3. Phil Brigandi: “It seems clear that the courts had no intention of letting the rights of one little tribe of Indians overturn four decades of high-priced litigation.”

Sources

“The Warner Ranch Case,” Nineteenth Report of the Executive Committee of the Indian Rights Association, 8–9.

Amero, Richard W., “Eviction at Cupa”

Brigandi, Phil, “In the Name of the Law: “The Cupeño Removal of 1903,” parts one and two.

Gaughen, Shasta Christina, “Against the Odds: Indian Gaming, Political Economy, and Identity on the Pala Indian Reservation,” doctoral dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2011; “Chemesh Ataxem Kuupangax: We are the People from Cupa: Making Place Among the Cupeño….”; interview.

Hill, Jane H, and Rosinda Nolasquez, ed., Mulu’Wetam: The First People (Banning, 1973).

Hill, Joseph J., The History of Warner’s Ranch and Its Environs (Los Angeles, 1927).

Hyer, Joel R., We Are Not Savages: Native Americans in Southern California and the Pala Reservation, 1840–1906, second edition (East Lansing, 2001).

Johnson, Gordon, Fast Cars and frybread: Reports from the Rez (Berkeley, 2007).

Lummis, Charles Fletcher, “The Sequoya League: To Make Better Indians,” Out West Magazine, 20 (March, 1904); “The Exiles of Cupa,” Out West Magazine, 16 (May, 1902); “Turning Over a New Leaf,” Out West Magazine, 18 (May, 1903).

Phillips George Harwood, Chiefs and Challengers: Indian Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California, 1769–1906, second edition (Norman, 2014).

Shipek, Florence, Pushed into the Rocks (Lincoln, 1986).

Thompson, Mark, American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis, and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (New York, 2001).

White, Philip M., and Steven D. Fitt, Bibliography of the Indians of San Diego County: The Kumeyaay, Diegueño, Luiseño, and Cupeño (London, 1998).

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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