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.

The only remaining avenue, Brown told Blacktooth: meet the “Great White Father” face-to-face. Brown would write a letter to Theodore Roosevelt. The tribe should send a delegation to Washington DC.

But they wouldn’t have to. Roosevelt planned to tour the Grand Canyon and Southern California in early May. A delegation could meet him when he whistle-stopped at San Bernardino and plead their case in person.

By this time Lummis, no longer in charge, had gone home to Alisal. Rumors claimed he wanted the removal in late April — have it over and done before Roosevelt’s arrival. And no matter when it happened, he told the Los Angeles Herald, “Reporters and members of the general public should butt out. If interlopers steered clear…every possible chance of friction, force, or hardship to the Indians will be eliminated.”

On April 23, the Riverside Morning Press said other ex-members of the Warner’s Ranch Commission “feared that any violent response of the Cupeño would reach the President.” They wanted to wait until after Roosevelt left Southern California. As a result, “active preparations to remove the tribe have been partly discontinued.”

The Union reported that the ex-commissioners heard that “a delegation of Cupeño were intent on meeting the President” at San Bernardino.

In early May, Sibimoat, Ambrosio Ortega, Salvador Nolasquez, and Santiago Jim Britten made the 107 mile trek to San Bernardino to deliver a petition to Roosevelt.

“We have remained quiet a long time, when we wanted to defend our rights,” the petition begins. “We feel that the truth about our situation should be told to the whole people so that they may see the great injustice and wrong done us.

“Much has appeared in the newspapers written by Charles F. Lummis against our old home. What he has written is not the truth…. Instead of keeping faith with us he…recommended Pala as our new home, which is a worthless place. Its owners are unable to make a living on it…. Boulders, rocks, and a sand bed [are] the hole Mr. Lummis has bought for us with the government money.

“We will be law abiding and loyal to the government, and now appeal to the American people and to our friend President Roosevelt to determine whether we have been treated right in taking away our old home.”

As the Cupeño delegation rode north, Roosevelt stood at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and gave one of his first conservation speeches. Lummis was by his side, thrilled that the president had heeded his and others’ urging to preserve national landmarks.

“Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance,” Roosevelt concluded. “The world and the future and your very children shall judge you according as you deal with this sacred trust.”

On May 8, Roosevelt’s tour reached Southern California. They would stop at Palm Springs, San Bernardino, Riverside, Pomona, and Pasadena. Large crowds formed at each bunting-draped depot. Since the McKinley assassination in 1901, Roosevelt was the first president with Secret Service men shadowing his every move.

As the gleaming new, oil-burning locomotive pulled into the San Bernardino depot, the excitement grew so loud, few could hear the local band playing “Stars and Stripes.” Secret Service men elbowed well-wishers back.

Sibimoat, clutching the petition, and Ortega, Nolasquez, and Britten stood at the rear, hoping to catch the president’s eye. When he stepped onto the platform, they waved their arms high. But so did everyone else, and the mass surged forward. According to the Union, the Cupeño were “rudely jostled away from the President’s carriage.” Roosevelt glad-handed dignitaries. Then at the insistence of Secret Service men, he hustled back inside.

Jostled? Or deliberately prevented from meeting the president? The Cupeño delegation never got close. The next day a runner came from the village: the removal was at hand. They mailed the petition to DC and raced home. They arrived late Saturday night, May 10, to the sounds of wailing.

Having grown wary of Lummis and Wright, and told the Cupeño refused to have them supervise the removal, William A. Jones, commissioner of Indian Affairs, appointed James E. Jenkins. The government inspector hired over 40 teamsters and local ranchers. He would pay each $5 a day for a wagon and team of horses.

They drove to Kupa in two groups: from Pala and San Jacinto. They arrived May 9 and camped near Agua Caliente creek, half a mile down the road from the barbed-wire roadblock. Jenkins wouldn’t begin the removal until May 11, he said. That way they “will be allowed one more night as a sad farewell to their old home.”

The sight of tents and rising campfire smoke signaled the end for the Cupeño. The flow of time as they knew it would stop. “Always,” a sense of the past completely alive in the present, would become “Now,” just a forward movement, minute to minute. Just after sunrise on May 11, whips cracked, horses neighed, and the caravan of wagons began winding up the road. Shrieks and moans, the barking of dogs, and confused cries of children punched the morning air. Jenkins signaled a halt near the gate. “Say nothing to inflame them,” he told the assembled drivers. An outbreak may be imminent.

The wagons entered the village around 7:30. Although some natives greeted them, ready to begin the move, others fled. Locked doors muffled the howls inside. Jenkins saw signs of readiness: packed boxes and some furnishings, even some wooden parts of houses torn down. But he may have realized the gravity of the situation for the first time. Some people behind barred doors vowed to shoot anyone who tried to break in.

Later that morning, Sibimoat, Ortega, Nolasquez, and 30 others confronted Jenkins. They would not move willingly, they said, until they could talk with John Brown, Jr., who was on his way.

Jenkins said he’d wait until noon. When the sun was directly overhead, he gave them an extension. At 1:30 p.m. Brown rode in on a soaking horse. He, Sibimoat, and Jenkins held a brief junta, and agreed on a larger one that night.

Jenkins ordered the wagons to turn around and head back to camp. Cries and whoops of relief taunted the exit. During the meeting with Jenkins, “the grim inspector,” Brown changed his mind. There was no other way: the people must leave Kupa.

That night Brown, Jenkins, Sibimoat and other representatives met at Francisco Chutnicut’s adobe house. Brown asked Jenkins to show his credentials and prove he was “charged by the President to carry out the removal.”

After Jenkins explained the official reasons, Brown told the assembly, “I have done all in my power. Now please go peacefully.”

Most agreed with the decision, witnesses said, but none did willingly. A reporter said Sibimoat “maintained to the last that he would rather die than be moved.”

Later, Sibimoat held a private junta with Cupeño leaders. Although they agreed to leave their ancestral home, he kicked dirt three times, spit on his hands, and uttered violent, curse-like words.

The leaders met again with Jenkins. They would go peacefully but only under two conditions: the government must pay for all their crops and trees; and before they left, they wanted to visit the graveyard and crematory mound one last time, and take the St. Francis Chapel bell with them to Pala.

Jenkins agreed.

In 1921, Carolina Nolasquez remembered that night: “We were there in our homes. All of a sudden the agent came. He said he would move us [to Pala] and we said no, we did not want to go.”

“’Down there it is better,’” the agent insisted. “But we did not want to go. Down to Pala. He said they would give us houses. He would give us something good upon bringing us there.

“Brown said it would be all right for us to come down there. And we said ‘all right.’

“The commissioner agent said that they would give us horses. They never gave us anything.”

Next time: The removal.


  1. C.E. Kelsey: “The government seems to learn very slowly that Indians are not all alike, and that different stock or races of Indians ordinarily cannot be put together.”
  2. Joel R. Hyer: “The local press appears to have spread rumors regarding the Cupeño whenever possible, and lauded the native people only when they seemed to acquiesce to the demands of the federal government.”
  3. Hyer: “According to tradition [when the Cupeño] gathered the night of May 11, José Maria Sibimoat…placed a curse on Warner’s Ranch and its white owners.”


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

Donaldson, Milford Wayne, ed., Cupeños Trail of Tears, May 12, 1903 (booklet for dedication of Trail of Tears plaque, May 3, 2003), Cupeño Cultural Center.

Hagan, William T., Theodore Roosevelt & Six Friends of the Indian (Norman, 1997).

Hill, Jane H., Roscinda Nolasquez, Mulu’Wetam: The First People: Cupeño Oral History and Language (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, 1840–1920 (East Lansing, 2001).

Karr, Stephen M., “The Warner’s Ranch Indian Removal: Cultural Adaptation, Accommodation, and Continuity,” California History 86, no. 4 (2009).

Kelsey, C.E. “Report of the Special Agent for California Indians to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs,” March 21, 1906.

Lewis, Frank D, “The Warner Ranch Indians and Why They Were Moved to Pala,” Overland Monthly 42, 1903.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer, Phil Brigandi, “The Mischief Record of ‘La Gobernadora,’” Journal of San Diego History (Winter/Spring, 2001), vol. 57.

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

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

Wallace, Grant, “The Exiles of Cupa,” Out West Magazine (July, 1903).

Articles in various newspapers.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

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