Against the Inevitable

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

José Maria Sibimoat
  • José Maria Sibimoat

Four white men rode to Kupa in the rain. On the way they noticed torn-down fences and, in the midst of the planting season (on April 16, 1903) fallow fields beyond the native village. Maybe, thought William Collier, the Cupeño will move peacefully to Pala.

Hard stares from a gathering under tall cottonwoods at the government schoolhouse changed his mind. And when Ambrosio Ortega refused to shake the hand of Charles Fletcher Lummis, he, Collier, Dr. Lucius A Wright, and Frank Cosser entered the wood-frame building through a gauntlet of anger.

They came to mollify the Cupeño about the upcoming eviction. But none followed them inside. Captain José Maria Sibimoat, his people, and representatives from other nearby villages about to be evicted held a junta in the picket-fenced schoolyard. For an hour, the visitors heard heated words through the open door, Sibimoat’s above the rest.

The Riverside Daily Press called him “one of the most unstable and shortsighted of men.” He’d been elected captain for that year, the paper said, because “no one else wanted the job in the face of the coming troubles.”

Sibimoat’s behavior showed otherwise. He lived in one of the village’s few board houses, where he and his mother ran a restaurant for tourists. He also owned one of the tribe’s largest wagons, which he shared with those in need. He was a quiet man, people said, until named captain for 1903.

The natives filed in. They squeezed into the small desks and stood against the walls. Sibimoat eyed the four men: “We have lived at the Hot Springs long before the discovery of America. We will not leave our home, laws or no laws to the contrary.”

“But the Supreme Court has spoken,” said Dr. Wright, the local Indian agent. “The government’s position is fixed. It will not change.”

Waves of grumbles. “Once removed to Pala,” Wright added, “the government will pay for building houses and provide you with work until you become self-supporting.”

“If you move,” Lummis added, “in five years you will be the envy of all the Mission Indians.”

“We will not go!” roared Sibimoat. “The government wants to starve the people! No matter if they kill us or tear down our houses, we will be well and die and somebody will publish that the Indians were killed for being thieves and murderers. That’s the treatment we have come to expect from the white man. They don’t care anymore.”

Lummis and Sibimoat wrangled words. Collier rose, waved for silence: “The removal is at hand. It cannot be stopped. Please, go peacefully.”

“Leave us alone!” said Sibimoat. “We will take care of ourselves.” A hand-signal ended the meeting. Cupeño followed him out the door.

The visitors left convinced there was little hope for a peaceful removal. In a letter to William Jones, Lummis warned: “When the evicting officers pick them up or touch them, the crisis will come… gentle as they are, these people can fight.”

As if to aggravate them even more, J. Harvey Downey ordered all white tourists off his property. The San Diego Union reported that, as he ousted them from the hot springs, Lummis told the women “they would ‘have to boil out their sins somewhere else.’”

Sam Taylor, ranch foreman, built a wire fence across the road. Deputy sheriffs guarded the entrance to what became the “forbidden ground.”

On April 19, the Union announced that the natives would “blow up the houses and take to the mountains.”

“They would never blow up their ancestral home,” J. L. Patterson, one of the white tourists, told the paper. “Mr. Lummis does not know how to handle these people. They are the easiest people in the world to get along with, but one must not be impatient with them. They take time and carefully deliberate before they come to any conclusion. Mr. Lummis is hasty.”

Patterson brought his family from Grand Junction, Colorado, to the hot springs to cure his rheumatism. After 12 days his health improved. During his stay, he learned that the Cupeño actually owned the land. “After a careful study of Warner’s Ranch,” he told the reporter, “the hot springs was not in the line of the property belonging to J. Harvey Downey. Another survey was taken and still the springs were not. But on the third survey they were in.”

Later, William Collier, the Cupeño attorney for the drawn-out lawsuit, told Patterson “he thought the Indians really owned the land, but he ought not to say anything, [since] he lost them their case” (Union).

The white eviction blocked the Cupeños’ main sources of revenue: from the baths, lodging, laundry, sale of blankets, intricately woven baskets, and clothing. In effect, the owners and the sheriff’s department laid siege to the village. “They will be compelled to move,” the Riverside Press wrote, “in order to get food to eat.”

Or attempt countermoves to combat the inevitable.

On April 19, Cecilio Blacktooth and three other tribesmen rode to San Bernardino to buy horses. “We will never give in,” he told the Los Angeles Herald, “but will perish gladly if the last sight we see is our Agua Caliente.

“Some will scatter to other tribes, but the old men and women would not leave and have begged to be taken above Warner’s Ranch in the mountains…to look down upon the graves of their ancestors.” Pala is “so barren,” he added, “not even rabbits will live there.”

Blacktooth didn’t mention that at least 15 Luiseño Indian families already did. They lived on allotments assigned by the government ten years prior. The relocation would force them to share a reservation with another tribe.

Blacktooth bought 13 “broken-down” horses and mustangs. But for what purpose? Depending on a newspaper’s bent toward yellow journalism: they were either for the removal, to flee to the high country, or to fight.

While in San Bernardino, Blacktooth met with John Brown, Jr., Cupeño legal advisor for the past year. Brown had told them that the Warner’s Ranch Commission didn’t find sufficient land for the relocation; the government should save part of the ranch for them. Lummis and Brown’s other critics said his advice created false hope.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

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