The Place of Many Owls – The Esselen Village on the Carmel River

Antonio Tomas Juan Onésimo was born in Carmel in 1796. His father was born in the Indian village of Echilat in 1771. His mother was born in the Indian district of Sargenta-ruc.They say that, as a boy, Juan helped in the construction of the Carmel Mission – and that he was so beloved by the Franciscan padres, they gave him a rare and precious violin, and taught him how to play.

According to one account, Juan’s great-grandfather, a Rumsen Chief named Bohuranda, is said to have prevented an Indian massacre of Spanish explorers in 1770. Bohuranda was later baptized by Father Serra and given the family name Onésimo. Although Father Serra baptized many California Indians, the Onésimo family is said to be the only remaining direct descendants of local indigenous people who were given a baptismal name by Father Serra, himself.

Juan Onésimo married an Esselen woman named Ignacia Patcalansi, who was born at the Carmel Mission in 1800. Their youngest daughter, Anselma, born in 1831, married a Connecticut Yankee sailor named Bill Post and homesteaded in Big Sur.

Their oldest daughter, Maria Loreta, was born at the Carmel Mission, in 1817. Like her father, she was well-liked by the padres. In 1834, when Loreta Onésimo was seventeen-year-old, she married Domingo Peralta.

The priests at the Carmel Mission gave the newlyweds a wedding present – a 4,592-acre land grant in Carmel Valley, situated between the Rancho Cañada de la Segunda (north of Hacienda Carmel, and northwest of Quail Meadows) and Los Laureles (near present-day Carmel Valley Village). However, they received no written legal deed for this property.

A few years later the Catholic church lost all its land as a result of the Decree of the Congress of Mexico Secularizing the Missions, which transferred the ownership of all mission property from the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church to the Mexican authorities.

Domingo Peralta was Esselen. His wife, Loreta was Rumsen-Esselen. Because they were Indians, their claim to the land grant was easily challenged.

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California Indian “neophytes,” probably Costanoans and Coast Miworks, at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

On March 7, 1836, a “neophyte” Indian at the Carmel Mission named Baldomero was the recipient of a land grant of 2,000 varas (twelve and a half acres) in the Carmel Valley, “in all directions,” known as Rancho Corral de Padilla.

José Antonio Romero, a Mexican citizen who then owned Corral de la Tierra. Three years later, in 1839, he petitioned to acquire a land grant which encompassed the Rancho Corral de Padilla property belonging to Baldomero, as well as the land of his neighbor, José Agricio. Several Indian families were already homesteading on this land, including Domingo and Laura Peralta.

The acting justice of the Carmel Mission, José Amesti, remembered that Romero’s petition caused fear and insecurity among the Indians, who had reestablished a community on the property:

“[T]hey came to me and beg me to represent to the Government how dangerous he [Romero] is and how in consequence of his notorious bad conduct which they can prove they would receive manifest injury if the tract he solicits were granted to him.”

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

One can appreciate Loreta and Domingo’s Peralta’s bewilderment when the new governor claimed the land which had recently been given to them by the priests. 

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, the justice of the Carmel Mission, Marcelino Escobar, and Simeon Castro, alcalde of Monterey (the city’s leading officer, and later Superior Judge) – two Mexican citizens – opposed the Peralta’s claim to the grant. Ironically, in a few years, Simeon Castro would come to own Baldomero’s twelve and a half acres.

Under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States was (and still is) obligated to prevent the “alienation of lands” deeded to Indians under Spanish and Mexican rule. Ignoring the terms of the treaty, Governor Alvarado awarded the grant to José Antonio Romero on January 27, 1840, adding a stipulation that José Agricio would remain in ownership of his home and farm, and that some the Indian families who lived on the land would be permitted to remain. It was sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” solution that left the Indians who lived on that land without any legal title to their homes.

Many similar court rulings ensured that California Indians were dispossessed of ownership of their properties easily and frequently.

In his decree, Governor Alvarado made no mention of Domingo and Loreta Peralta, who continued to live on the property with their two children and Loreta’s father, Juan. The priests had assured them that the 4,592-acre land grant was theirs, but they possessed no deed or title to the property. Consequently, they were continuously hassled and harassed by Romero and his ranch hands about their unwelcomed presence there.

One fateful day, Domingo Peralta was found dead in a gulch. Loreta was left a young widow with two small children. No one was ever tried for his murder.

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James Meadows

James Thomas Meadows was born north of Norwich – in Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, England – in 1817. According to Monterey County Place Names by Professor Donald T. Clark, published by the Monterey County Historical Society (1991), “[Meadows] sailed on the whaling ship Indian in March 1835, and deserted in Monterey in 1837.”

However, the Sydney Morning Herald of New South Wales, Australia, reported on September 7, 1837, that the whale ship Indian was then in Australian waters. At this time in history, the production of whale oil for lamps and lubrication was on its way to becoming the fifth largest industry in the United States. Of about nine-hundred whaling ships, worldwide, seven-hundred and thirty-five of them were American. Fewer than one hundred ships visited the entire Alta California territory in 1837, therefore very few English whalers docked at the harbor in Monterey that year.

Consequently, it is much more likely that the teenage James Meadows signed on as a “green hand” on board the Toward Castle, a British whaling ship, under the command of Captain Thomas Emmens, that set sail from London on its third whaling voyage, on October 6, 1835. This would have put young seamen Meadows in Monterey, California, in November of 1837, at the time of his desertion – history and memory are sometimes at odds with one another. Meadows claimed to have jumped ship on account of the “cruel treatment” he received from the captain, which was par for the course aboard a 19th-century whaler.

Domingo Peralta’s family helped James Meadows hide out in Carmel Valley until after his ship had sailed. He remained friends with the Peralta family and found work as a vaquero at several local ranches, including Captain Cooper’s Rancho El Sur. Later he worked as a lumberman in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Jumping ship proved a fortuitous decision for Meadows – two months later, on January 7, 1838, the Toward Castle struck a shoal off the coast of Baja California due to errors in their navigational charts. Her cargo of 1,800 barrels of whale oil were lost, along with half the crew.

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Isaac Graham

Born in Fincastle, Botetourt County, Virginia, in 1800, Isaac Graham was a Tennessee rifleman, fur trapper, and soldier of fortune. He settled in Felton, in the Santa Cruz mountains north on Monterey, in the 1830s. Thereafter, the Mexican authorities referred to Graham’s wild settlement as “Roaring Camp.” But Graham, who was not a Mexican citizen, was peeved because he could not own land in Alta California.

In 1842, Graham erected the first water-powered sawmill west of the Mississippi River. Serendipitously, the old growth redwood trees in the Roaring Camp were not milled, and in 1867, the Big Tree Grove, located on the San Lorenzo River near Felton, became the first virgin stand of coastal redwoods to be protected from logging.

Graham was elected to the Santa Cruz City Council, in 1855. They say he travelled with the legendary Kit Carson and that he was at Daniel Boone’s bedside when Boone died.

In 1836, Graham leased a tract of land on the Natividad Rancho, eleven miles northeast of present-day downtown Salinas. He started a distillery there, producing aquardiente (distilled wine). Natividad became an important destination for travelers bound for Monterey, San Juan Baustista, or Santa Cruz. Its distance from the capitol made Natividad a frequent water hole for outlaw trappers, and deserters from ships at Monterey harbor – like James Meadows. Graham’s maverick mountain man swagger and ample supplies of aquardiente made him a popular character in that frontier community.

In the last months of 1836, an ambitious twenty-seven-year-old custom house clerk named Juan Bautista Alvarado left Monterey bound for Natividad. He spent the night at Graham’s cabin where he plotted with the Tennessee Rifleman to overthrow the Mexican government and to let foreigner’s buy land. Alvarado confided his plan to unseat the Alta California Governor and put himself in that office.

Juan Bautista Alvarado

To that end, Graham organized a militia of armed property-hungry foreigners, to facilitate Alvarado’s proposed revolution. Young and impatient, Alvarado gave the sitting governor of Alta California, Nicolás Gutiérrez, just two hours to surrender his authority. Graham fired a bullet through the roof of the governor’s office, and a few hours later, Alvarado became the new governor of Alta California. This sparked an international incident forever after referred to as the “Graham Affair.”

Graham and his men continued to serve as Alvarado’s bodyguards. However, at this time the British, Americans, French, and Russians were increasingly anxious to claim Alta California as their own. It wasn’t long before Alvarado regretted having aligned himself with Graham’s militia of English-speaking thugs. In April 1840, Governor Alvarado threw Graham and his henchmen under a bus, ordering his uncle, General José Antonio Castro to arrest every foreigner (non-Mexican) without a passport.

James Meadows, Isaac Graham and forty-five others ­ – about half American citizens and half British subjects – were rounded up and deported in chains, by ship to San Blas, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, 2,000 miles away. Then the prisoners were marched forty miles to Tepic, where they were incarcerated for fourteen months, until July of 1841. Understandably, they felt deeply betrayed by Alvarado and General Castro.

In May of 1877, James Meadows told Thomas Savage:

“I came to Monterey from London … in September 1837 – left the ship in Monterey, and lived here all that winter – in the spring of 1838 the country was in a state of revolution … There was a foreign [security] company that went as Alvarado’s body-guard (as he could not trust his own people) to the place called Las Flores [now encompassed by the Camp Pendelton Marine Corps Base, south of present-day San Clemente]– I was one of the privates [rifleman], & the company was commanded by Lieut. John Coppinger … I don’t know now and never knew whether there was any foundation for the charge that was proffered by the government here against Graham & other foreigners. I had nothing to do with any plotting against the government and knew no one that had.”

Detail of painting of the Carmel Mission, depicting Father Angelo D. Casanova, James Meadows and wife Loreta (Onesimo) by Joseph D. Strong, Jr., circa 1879

After the American and British prisoners in Tepic had won their release, most of them swore they’d never set foot in Alta California again. But twenty of them returned, vowing revenge on General Castro and Alvarado for their imprisonment, threatening to “make another Texas of California.”

When James Meadows got back to Monterey, he visited the Peraltas, the Esselen family who’d sheltered him when he first arrived, five years earlier. That’s when he learned that Domingo Peralta was dead.

In 1841, Meadows started a timber mill in the upper Carmel Valley, where he manufactured redwood lumber joists and scantling boards used in the construction of adobe brick buildings. In 1842, he married Domingo Peralta’s widow, Loreta Onésimo, and became a father to Domingo’s children. Although José Antonio Romero was still the legal owner of the 4,592 acres land grant in the Carmel Valley, Meadows assumed responsibility for Loreta’s ongoing claim to the property.

By 1846, the non-native population of Alta California consisted of about 1,500 adult men and 6,500 women and children. They primarily inhabited the small communities that had been established close to the coast, in the vicinity of the twenty-one Spanish missions.

Commodore John Drake Sloat

Commodore John Drake Sloat – a genuine New York Yankee – landed two-hundred and fifty American sailors and marines in Monterey in the summer of 1846, claiming California as a United States holding.

This suddenly destabilized the real estate market and land values plummeted. In a panic, José Antonio Romero sold the 4,592-acre land grant in Carmel Valley to William Garner, in January 1847. But James Meadows was politically well-connected and his friend Thomas Larkin (Captain Cooper’s half-brother) bought the deed from Garner and sold it back to Meadows.

Meadows also obtained ownership of the Lomas del Carmelo land grant – some 4,600-acre in Carmel Valley, on the north side of the Carmel River – between the present-day Quail Lodge Resort and the Garland Ranch.

In 1858, James Meadows became a naturalized American citizen. He helped establish the Carmelo School District, where he served as a trustee for the rest of his life. He donated the land for the first school in Carmel Valley, which he both constructed and furnished. Matthew P. Smith of Ohio, one of the first schoolteachers in the district, was invited to live on the Meadows ranch. Soon, James Meadow’s wife, Loreta also became a schoolteacher.

Loreta’s father, Juan, died in 1860, at the age of sixty-four, at his daughter’s homestead on the Palo Escrito, in Carmel Valley. In 1861, James Meadows filed a claim on the Palo Escrito property. The name Palo Escrito – literally “written stick” – had been used for this land grant as early as 1828 by Father Vincent de Sarria and Father Ramon Abella at the Carmel Mission. It was located seven and a half miles south of the town of Monterey.

Map indicating James Meadows land grant, 1898

In 1866, the 4,592 acre (seven square miles) Palo Escrito land grant was patented to James Meadows. It was “bounded by the Monterey Pueblo lands, easterly by Corral de Padilla, southerly by the Carmel River, and westerly by the Cañada Segunda [present-day Rancho Canada Golf Club].”

James Meadows very likely grew up in a Protestant family in England. His first language was English. He married an Indigenous Californian woman of the Roman Catholic faith. Spanish was the common language spoken in their home. James and Loreta Meadows’ four sons were born Californios of Mexican nationality, in a Spanish-speaking territory that was already breaking its ties with the government in faraway Mexico City.

Isabel Meadows, 1863

The Meadows’ fifth child, their only daughter, Isabella, was the first baby born in American California. She came into this world on July 7, 1846, the very day that Commodore Sloat raised the American flag over the Custom House in Monterey.

The Meadows’ Palo Escrito Ranch in Carmel Valley was the home of several local Indians, including Eulalia Cushar who, like Isabel Meadows, and her father, Juan, later consulted for Bureau of American Ethnology linguist and anthropologist John Peabody Harrington.

Harrington was interested in recovering the language, as well as the folklore and history, of the local pre-European inhabitants of the Monterey Peninsula. Isabel Meadows proved to be such an invaluable “informant,” he got her hired at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in, Washington D.C. They work together closely for a decade, until the end of her life, when she died in her sleep at the age of ninety-three, in 1939.

Isabel Meadows told Harrington, “In Indian times, there was no such thing as a bad year.”

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A March 3, 1851, act of Congress reaffirmed Congress’ exclusive preemptory right to all Indian land:

“All lands the claims to which shall not have been presented to the commissioners within two years after the date of the act shall be deemed, held, and considered as part of the public domain of the United States…

1877 map indicating a number of land grants (ranchos)

Now, the holders of Mexican land grants in California were required to prove the validity of their claim before the Commission to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in California. But some of the pre-contact Indian villages – the ancestral homes of the Indigenous people for thousands of years – were now encompassed within Mexican land grant property boundaries.

In his article, The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process, in the Wicazo Sa ReviewVol. 18, No.2, Autumn 2003, Dr. Philip Blair Laverty wrote about a lawsuit known as Thompson vs. Doaksum, that reached the California state supreme court in 1886.

Although the court ruled that the lands claimed by the Indian defendants were, in fact, within the boundaries of a recent Mexican land grant confirmed by the Board of Land Commissioners, it upheld the plaintiff’s ownership of the land, ironically undermining Indian land claims. This set another terrible precedent, making it even more difficult for an Indian person to prevail in a land claim dispute.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, between the United States and the Republic of Mexico, guaranteed citizenship and ownership of deeded lands to whomever possessed them, Indian or non-Indian. But like Jim Crow codes of the South, Indians in California faced systematic legal disenfranchisement.

In direct violation of the treaty, American lawmakers swiftly enacted white supremacist legislation that made it illegal for any Indian to testify against a white person in court, and dispossessed Indians of their property, and outright revoked the citizenship of all Indigenous people. Vagrancy was made a crime and those convicted of this offense were sold into chattel slavery as “laborers.

The Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians was introduced by Senator John Bidwell during the first state legislature in 1850. But by the time the governor signed it, legislators had removed most of the language that would have been beneficial to Indians. All references to Mexican land grants, and the words “from time immemorial,” used in reference to occupancy Indian villages, were omitted and replaced by language falsely claiming that neither Spain nor Mexico had ever acknowledged the aboriginal occupancy and possession of land by California Indians.

The Indians of the interior, who were allegedly “at war” with the American government were regularly referred to as “wild” and “murderous,” while the impoverished Indians in the Pacific Coast were labeled “tame” and “Christian.” This prevalent misperception that missionization had “domesticated” these Indians resulted in the erroneous assumption the so-called “Indian problem” in California had already been “solved.” Nevertheless, so-called “tame” mission Indians, like the Esselen, were excluded from treaty negotiations.

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Spanish law had guaranteed ownership of inhabited rancheria lands to the Indian residents and their descendants in perpetuity, even if the rancheria was located on a grant to a non-Indian individual. Under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States government was specifically obligated to recognize and prevent the “alienation” of these rancheria lands.

Although U.S. government officials made at least fifteen land grants to Esselen tribal members between 1820 to 1844, these Indian people didn’t have much success keeping their lands.

In our century, a lot of people believe that native American cultures are dead – that they’re no longer alive, or that they are merely “living fossils.” Descendants of the Esselen found themselves in a 21st-century bureaucratic nightmare, just trying to get the United States government to acknowledge that they are, in fact, members of an Indigenous American tribe. These days, it’s not uncommon to see cars with “Esselen Nation” license plate frames or bumper stickers declaring, “Esselen Nation is Not Extinct,” in Monterey County.

Alfred Kroeber

It certainly didn’t help matters when Alfred L. Kroeber, often referred to as “the father of California anthropology,” published the following oft-repeated misinformation in his influential Handbook of California Indians, in 1925:

“Long reckoned as an independent stock, the Esselen were one of the least populous groups in California, exceedingly restricted in territory, the first to become entirely extinct, and in consequence are now as good as unknown, as far as specific information goes – a name rather than the people of whom anything can be said.”

While the anthropologist John Peabody Harrington was generally liked by his Indian “informants,” and was often invited to stay at their homes, Alfred Kroeber was not. Some Amah Mutsun families tell a story from the early 1900s of Kroeber doing field work in San Benito County (adjacent to and to the east of Monterey County). They found Kroeber dismissive and disinterested, refusing to get out of his buggy to look at a site his Indian informants considered significant to their culture.

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John Peabody Harrington (right) making ethnography cylinder recording, 1924

Dr. Philip Blair Laverty wrote in his article, The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process, in the Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 18, No.2, Autumn 2003:

“For members of the Esselen nation, the bitter irony of the federal acknowledgment process, which requires evidence of a continuous, distinct, politically active tribal community, is that the Indian Service Bureau acknowledged their tribal community as the Monterey Band’in 1905-6, 1909, and 1923, but failed to establish the federal trust and fiduciary relationship with it as required by Congress. The Indian services bureau’s failure to do so has abetted the theft of Esselen lands, making it more difficult for the Esselen to persist as a tribal community. Furthering their official erasure, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber declared Esselen and Costanoan peoples ‘extinct’ in 1925. Kroeber’s assessment notwithstanding, Bureau of American Ethnology linguist and anthropologist John Peabody Harrington conducted fruitful research with ancestors of the contemporary Esselen/Costanoan people during the 1920s and 30s, recording over eighty thousand pages of notes that document the persistence of an Indian community in Monterey…

“Evidence of the attempts of Esselen Nation ancestors to recuperate a communal land base and the advocacy of one missionary in this regard are documented in the official land case record of [Captain] J. B. [Rogers] Cooper for the Rancho El Sur land grant. Included in the record is a translation of a plea for Indian title made by Fray José Maria del Refugio at the time of the original grant in 1834. The missionary begins by noting that the land is ‘the best which the mission has for keeping large cattle and horses.’ “

General José Antonio Castro

The Spanish priest, Father Del Refugio, supported Indian ownership of Rancho El Sur, stating that they are so much entitled to it that it should not be “taken from them [and] be given up to them as soon as possible…”

But General José Castro testified that “the Fathers of the Mission of San Carlos say that the said land belongs to the mission, but they never occupied it.” Juan Alvires, the acalade, corroborated his testimony. William P. Hartnell, an Englishman who served as the Mexican government instructor and interpreter, also agreed, testifying, “I have never heard of any other claimant for the said tract of land.”

It was three Mexican citizens against a small band of Esselen. While the court found, on September 21, 1855, that the mission did, in fact, occupy the lands in question, Judge M. H. McAllester ruled that Captain Cooper’ El Sur Rancho claim was nevertheless valid. His decision negated Indian ownership of their ancestral home, the pre-contact Esselen district of Sargenta Ruc.

Dr. Philip Blair Laverty concluded:

“In the final determination, the Indian claim to these lands were simply ignored by the U.S. land commissioners. Further, private citizens seem to have conspired against Father Refugio’s claim [supporting Indian ownership of the land], even insinuating that his testimony amounted to a lie, in order to open the land in question for private ownership.”

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Diseño (pen and ink hand-traced map) of the Rancho El Potrero de San Carlos, the pre-contact Esselen village of Tcayyitk (place of many owls)

 

Although incidents of this kind prevented Indians from holding on to their land grants, in 1837, Governor Alvarado did award one communal land grant to a Christian Indian from the Carmel Mission named Fructuoso del Real. The property, located on the southern bank of the Carmel River, had been part of the expansive holdings of the Carmel Mission.

Map indicating the location of the El Potrero de San Carlos rancho, 1898

Dr. Philip Blair Laverty explained in his article, The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process, in the Wicazo Sa ReviewVol. 18, No.2, Autumn 2003, that although the original grant itself is lost, evidence of this land grant was presented in the witnesses’ sworn depositions in the Rancho El Potrero de San Carlos land case hearing.

Each reference in this land grant indicates the “plurality of ownership” of this one square league (4,307-acres or 6.7 square miles) communal rancho. José Abrigo testified that the rancho property “is bounded on the north by the lands of the Indians and the entrance to the Cañada. The fence which encloses the lands of the Indians is the boundary of the Rancho on that side of it.”

Gabriel de la Torre´s deposition corroborated Abrigo’s assertions:

“On the north side of the Rancho is bounded by the lands of the Indians which are situated between it and the River Carmel. The lands of the Indians above mentioned were fenced in. The Alcalde stated that the line of this Ranch was to the fence of the Indians. They had more than three leagues in length on the river fenced in. Each Indian had about four hundred varas [yards] of land.”

Under long-standing English and American property laws, the presence of fences substantiated legal ownership of property – a willful and deliberate “improvement” upon the land and a commitment toward future occupation. At this time in history, a league was the equivalent of 2.6 miles. “Three leagues” – several miles of fencing – was a significant investment of time and labor.

Although the name Rancho El Potrero de San Carlos is today forgotten, the settlement in question is the pre-contact Esselen village of Tcayyitk (place of many owls) along the southern bank of the Carmel River. Tcayyitk is frequently referred to as La Rancheria, in anthropologist John Peabody Harrington’s 80,000 pages of notes. Twenty-first-century visitors to the former village site report that, at sunrise, one can still hear “many owls.”

Harrington’s “informant” (later referred to as a “consultant”) Laura Escobar lived at La Rancheria in the early 1900s. Her home served as a gathering place for local Esselen people, for there “was a temescal at Escobar’s place by the river.”

Captain Beechey provided an excellent description of the temescal – the traditional Indian sweat lodge ­– which he observed on his visit to the Carmel Mission, in 1826:

“At some of the missions they pursue a custom said to be of great antiquity among the aborigines and which appears to afford them much enjoyment. A mud house or rather a large oven, called temescal by the Spaniards, is built in a circular form, with a small entrance and an aperture in the top for the smoke to escape through. Several persons enter this place quite naked and make a fire near the door, which they continue to feed with wood as long as they can bear the heat. In a short time they are thrown into a profuse perspiration; they wring their hands and scrape their skin with sharp pieces of wood or an iron hoop, in the same manner as coach horses are sometimes treated when they come in heated; and then plunge into a river or pond of cold water, which they always take care shall be near the temescal…”

Thomas Santos Miranda and other Esselen Indians at Sur Rancheria, circa 1900

Harrington’s “informants” also refer to what they called the Sur Rancheria. This is the pre-contact Esselen district of Sargenta Ruc, situated between the Carmel Highlands and the Big Sur River, that was encompassed by what became later Captain John Rogers Cooper’s Rancho El Sur. The 1906 special Indian census documented one Esselen family still living there.

Today, a wooden California State Parks employee barracks stands close to the head of the Mount Manuel Trail, situated upon what once may have been the center of the pre-contact Big Sur rancheria community Jojopan (or “Ojaba”).

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Robert Louis Stevenson

The author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following paragraph after his visit to the Monterey Peninsula, in 1879, about a ceremony that took place in the ruins of the Carmel Mission:

“Their lands, I was told, are being yearly encroached upon by the neighbouring American proprietor, and with that exception no man troubles his head for the Indians of Carmel. Only one day in the year, the day before our Guy Fawkes [November 5], the padre drives over the hill from Monterey, the little sacristy, which is the only covered portion of the church, is filled with seats and decorated for the service, the Indians troop together, their bright dresses contrasting with their dark and melancholy faces; and there, among a crowd of somewhat unsympathetic holiday-makers, you may hear God served with perhaps more touching circumstances than in any other temple under heaven. An Indian, stone-blind and about eighty years of age, conducts the singing; other Indians compose the choir, yet they have the Gregorian music at their fingers ends, and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang. The pronunciation was odd and nasal, the singing hurried and staccato. “In saecula saeculo-ho-horum,” they went, with a vigorous aspirate to every additional syllable. I have never seen faces more vividly lit up with joy than the faces of these Indian singers. It was to them not only the worship of God, nor an act by which they recalled and commemorated better days, but was besides an exercise in culture, where all they knew of arts and letters was united and expressed … And it made a man’s heart sorry for the good fathers of yore who have taught them to dig and to reap, to read and to sing, who had given them European mass-books which they still preserve and study in their cottages, and who had now passed away from all authority and influence in that land – to be succeeded by greedy land thieves sacrilegious pistol-shots. So ugly a thing may our Anglo-Saxon Protestantism appear beside the doings of the society of Jesus.”

Bradley Varnum Sargent

The “greedy thief” to whom Stevenson refers, was land baron and attorney-at-law Bradley Varnum Sargent. Born in New Hampshire in 1828, Bradley and his three brothers came around the horn on the Edward Everett and landed in San Francisco, in 1849, at the height of the Gold Rush frenzy. After making a killing in the cattle business in the San Joaquin Valley with his brothers, Bradley came to Monterey, in 1858. While his brothers, also Monterey County landowners, were registered Republicans, Bradley was a Democrat. The town of Bradley, on the Salinas River in Monterey County is named for him. He was later elected to the California State Senate. He was a Knight Templar Mason and member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Pioneer Society, and was outspoken in his hatred of Indians.

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Maria Guadalupe Romero, A Tamien Indian, was born at the El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe (present-day San Jose, California), in 1792. At the age of thirteen, in 1805, she married a Spanish soldier from the Monterey Presidio named José Tomas Patron y Gongora, at the Carmel Mission. Their grandson, Josef Ponciano Manjares, was born in Monterey, in November of 1831.

1896 Tularcitos Precinct of Monterey County list of voter cancellations. Notice how many men on this list happen to have “dark” complexions.

In 1867, Ponciano Manjares married an eighteen-year-old Mexican woman named Maria Manuela Paula Boronda. Ponicaino homesteaded a claim of on one hundred and sixty-one acres near the south fork or Rock Creek and Pine Creek, a few miles due south of present-day Carmel Valley Village, and close to present-day San Clemente Ranch. The area is still marked on 21st-century maps as Ponciano Ridge. Ponciano was the uncle of Tomasa Manjarres, who married Luigi Piazzoni.

Ponciano first registered to vote in 1866. But by the mid 1890s, voter suppression laws and policies made it harder for non-white citizens to vote. Some states started requiring people to register in person, while others instituted literacy and language requirements, registration fees, and proof of citizenship or identity.

Ponciano registered to vote in the 1896 presidential election, giving his height as 5′ 11″ and his occupation as laborer. But his name appears on the 1896 Tularcitos Precinct of Monterey County list of “voter cancellations.”

The document is designed for specific racial profiling, with boxes to identify the voter’s hair color, eye color and “complexion” – which, in Ponciano’s case, were “dark, black, and black,” respectively. What Ponciano, and the other men on this document, have in common is that they are all Indians and foreigners (women didn’t get the vote until 1920) .

Ponciano was homesteading on land claimed as part of Bradley Varnum Sargent’s 23,000 acre El Potrero San Carlos y Rancho San Francisquito.

According to Isabel Meadows:

“Sarches [Sargent] ordered Vincent Escobar to murder Ponciano [Manjarres] where P[onciano] was squatting [on Sargent’s land].”

San Francisco Call newspaper, July 19, 1898

Although this is very likely true, it was, in fact, five years after Bradley Sargent’s death in 1893, that sixty-seven years old Ponciano was shot dead by Vincent Escobar. For a number of years before his death, Sargent’s son’s and son-in-law ran Rancho San Francisquito, so it is possible that one of them, or one of Sargent’s brothers, ordered the eviction of Ponciano.

The July 19, 1898, issue of the San Francisco Call reported on the murder in a manner that reenforced a number of popular stereotypes:

“Vincent Escobar, a Mexican, employed on one of the Sargent ranches near this place, shot and killed Ponciano Manjares, an aged Mexican [sic] hermit, to-day and immediately came to Monterey to give himself up to the officers. The problem arose over land claim which Escobar had taken up and which Manjares disputed.

“Escobar, accompanied by Joe Andratte [a Swiss neighbor], was passing through a portion of Sargent’s San Francisquito Ranch at about 9 o’clock this morning, on his way to his own claim five miles further on, when he stopped by Manjares and told to get out. The old man swore he would allow no man to take up a claim in that locality, and if Escobar did not at once turn back he would kill him. Manjares then disappeared, and Escobar, knowing his assailant to be a man of ugly temperament, went on rapidly toward his claim.

Map indicating the boundaries of Bradley Varnum Sargent’s San Franciscquito Rancho, 1898

“While they were stopping to cook breakfast the two men saw Manjares approach with a rifle. As he drew near he leveled it at Escobar. Andratte endeavored to argue with Manjares, but the latter was thoroughly enraged and declared that if Escobar did not move at once he would shoot. Andratte rushed forward to get possession of the rifle, but was pushed aside, and just as Manjares pulled the trigger, Escobar, who had seized his own rifle from the ground, fired. Manjares fell, expiring instantly.

“Escobar came into town this afternoon, having walked from the scene of the killing, and gave himself into the custody of Constable Hernandez. Andrette and Jose Boronda [the younger brother of Ponciano’s wife, Manuela], the latter of whom heard the shots from a distance and reached the scene to find Manjares dead, arrived later and gave their account of the killing.

“Manjares … was known as a ‘squatter’ on other people’s land, had been in several affrays of like character, always making trouble and never owning land himself. Escobar’s claim was on government land, on which Manjares had squatted.”

The jury found that Vincent Escobar shot Ponciano in self-defense. Escobar paid no fine and served no time. The newspaper refers to Panciano as a “squatter” and characterizes him as a trouble-maker. Curiously, seven months after his death, on February 15, 1899, the late Ponciano was awarded the patent to his one-hundred and sixty-one acre claim.

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Isabel Meadows proved details about the village of Tcayyitk (AKA Rancho El Potrero de San Carlos):

“The ra. [rancheria] is 3/4 mile up the river from Sargeant’s [sic] Crossing … bridge with gate in its middle. The poor Indians were run off by Sargeant and where they lived there is no house and place where they lived is all grown up with williows, can only see the places by going to them and either by crossing the bridge by foot and walking up the s. [south] band of Carm[el] river or by fording the river at the right place on foot.”

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Helen Hunt Jackson

In his article, The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process, in the Wicazo Sa ReviewVol. 18, No.2, Autumn 2003, Dr. Philip Blair Laverty tells the following story:

In 1883, Helen Hunt Jackson, special Indian agent for Southern California, published a report on the condition of the Indians of California. Up the Carmel River not far from the Carmel Mission, an Indian guide brought her to Rancho El Potrero de San Carlos – the ancient Indigenous community of Tcayyitk (place of many owls).

It was a well-concealed village she called “[t]he most picturesque of all the Mission Indians’ hiding-places which we saw.”

A barely visible trail led down to a ford at the edge of the river, however Jackson couldn’t detect a trail on the other side. She wondered whether the inhabitants of the village deliberately avoided making a path, to further obscure the location of their homes:

“A few rods up from the river-bank a stealthy narrow footpath appeared, through willow copses, sunk in meadow grasses, across shingly bits of alder-walled beach it creeps, till it comes to a lovely spot – have basin, half rocky knoll, – where, tucked away in the nooks and hollows, are the little Indian houses, eight or ten of them, some of adobe, some of the tule-reeds; small patches of corn, barley, potatoes, and hay; and each little front yard fenced in by palings, with roses, sweet-peas, poppies, and mignonette growing inside.”

At the time of Jackson’s visit, the men happened to be away from the village, farming, fishing, or cowboying. Upon her arrival, the first woman Jackson encountered began shaking with fright. In her effort to calm the panicked woman down, Jackson bought all the lace she had for sale.

After they chatted some, the terrified woman attempted to demonstrate how she made the lace, but her hands still trembled uncontrollably. Jackson wrote, “there could not be a more pitiful comment on the state of perpetual distrust and alarm in which the poor creatures live, than this woman’s face and behavior.”

California Indian mother and children

Special agents Jackson and Abbot Kinney submitted their report to the commissioner of Indian Affairs on July 13, 1883. They emphasized the impending dispossession of the La Rancheria property on the Carmel River and made an official recommendation that the San Carlos Band (as she referred to the rancheria’s inhabitants) be placed under the jurisdiction of the Mission Indian Agency in southern California:

“In conclusion, we would make the suggestion that there are several small bands of Mission Indians north of the boundaries of the so-called Mission Indians’ Agency, for whom it would seem to be the duty of the government to care as well as for those already enumerated. One of these is the San Carlos Indians, living near the old San Carlos Mission in Monterey. There are nearly one hundred of these, and they are living on land which were given to them before the secularization act of 1834. These lands are close to the boundaries of the Rancho San Francisquito of Monterey [owned by Bradley Varnum Sargent, in upper Carmel Valley]. These boundaries have been three times extended, each time taking in a few more acres of the Indian’s lands, until now they have only ten or twelve acres left.”

Isabel Meadows, circa 1860

According to Jackson, the village was situated on property owned by the mission and rented to a local dairy farmer. She wrote that the village residents were Indians and thus had “no shadow of title [to the lands] from which they may be driven any day.”

Jackson spoke with Father Casanova, the parish priest in Monterey about the precarious position of the local Indians she referred to as the “San Carlos Band.” He told her fatefully, “they have their homes there, only by the patience of the thief,” referring to the predatory and murderous white neighbors like Bradley Varnum Sargent.

In the last six years of her life, Jackson was an important advocate for changes in Indian policy through the sheer force of her personality. She had become, as she put it, the “most odious thing in life … a woman with a hobby.”

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James and Loreta Meadows’ daughter, Isabella, was born in 1846, and grew up at her parents’ ranch in Carmel Valley. According to historian Linda Agren:

“When Isabel was about ten years old, her parents engaged an elderly Wacharon [or Gaucharron, a pre-contact village near present-day Moss Landing], woman, Maria Omesia Teyoc, to help at their ranch. The two adult women [Loreta and Omesia] conversed in Rumsen. Since she spent a great deal of time with Omesia, Isabel learned Rumsen words, gradually building up a comprehensive understanding of the language.”

Maria Nomesia Teyoc was born at the Carmel Mission, in 1791 – baptism number 1,551. She was always called Omesia or simply la vieja (“The Old Woman”).

Maria “Omesia” Teyoc

Both of Omesia’s parents were from the Rumsen-Mutsen district Calenda Ruc (literally “at the ocean village”) which extended approximately from  present-day city of Seaside, north to somewhere near present-day La Selva Beach.

Omesia was sixty-five years old when she began living with the Meadows family in 1856. She died at the age of ninety-two, when Isabel Meadows was in her mid-sixties. Omesia lived in great poverty along the bank of the Carmel River. She once lived with a group of other women not far from the ruins of the Carmel Mission. But the feelings of sadness that overcame them when they remembered all the friends and relatives who had die there was too much to bear, and they moved away from there.

There is a beautiful red wildflower that blooms in the Carmel Valley after the first spring rain. The Rumsen called it umŠiliwx. Omesia would always wear one in her hair, or through the large holes in her earlobes through which, according to Isabel, “the Indians had anciently worn tufts of quail feathers.”

Omesia was a was ribald and uncensored. She provided young Isabel with a litany of Rumsen phrases pertaining sexual activity, which sometimes got Loreta into trouble. Isabel told Harrington about the time her mother slapped her for repeating one of the more explicit phrases she learned from Omesia, “give me your penis.”

According to Louis Trevio, whose ancestors lived in the Rumsen villages of Tucutnut and Echilat, in Carmel Valley, “The citations [in J.P. Harrington’s notes] that begin with ‘Omesia said…’ are generally the most trusted in notes, because they are the words that Isabel [Meadows] remembers directly from Omesia’s lips.”

In 1902, Harrington recorded two wax cylinders of Rumsen women singing xaayeno songs, which are sung for the safe return of their sweetheart. Omesia taught Isabel a xaayeno song to sing to make her boyfriend return home.

Isabel Meadows was the last known speaker of the Rumsen language. She was an authority on the history of the local Indians. She also knew a limited Esselen language vocabulary that she’d also picked up from Omesia.

Isabel’s great-grandmother, Lupecina, who was about thirty-five years old in 1792, was brought from the Esselen village of Ensen (near present-day Spreckels) to the Carmel Mission. Lupecina’s daughter, Maria Ignacia (Isabel’s grandmother) was born at the Carmel Mission, in 1800. Lupecina’s death, at the age of one-hundred and sixteen, made the Stockton, California, Daily Evening Herald, on Monday, January 6, 1873.

Isabel remembered how, when she was a little girl, she liked to hang out with the old Indian women and hear them conversing in in the language of the Rumsen, even though most of them did not like the young people to listen to them speaking in their native tongue.

Carmel Mission in ruins, 1880

 

Isabel Meadows

And so, began Isabel’s accumulation of the memories and stories of Indian life before the missions. She could remember her great-grandmother, Lupecina, who was still alive when Isabel was an adult, explaining how, when the Indians were first brought to the mission, they wept in confusion and despair.

Meadows described how local Indians, like “fresh off the boat” immigrants, did their level best to assimilate, albeit with little success, into modern American culture and how Tomasa Cantúa’s house in Monterey became the location for the traditional Bear Dance, in the early 20th-century:

“Viviana told Isabel that in the old days when they danced the bear dance, they put on a blue blanket for a zapeta. Viviana was at the house of Tomasa Cantúa (on Abrigo [sic] Street in Monterey), and Tomasa Cantúa, and Isabel and Pancho Martinez were there. Tomasa Cantúa sent her husband (Manuel Cantúa) out for a bottle of whiskey from their bar, and they all drank some, and Viviana took her black shawl and put it around her hips like a zapeta, just like the bear dancer in the old days would put on a nice blue blanket de zapeta, and Pancho Martinez sang in the Carmelo [Rumsen] language a bear song (he and others also sang escondidas game songs in Carmeleño when they played escondidas) and Viviana danced. That was the first time Isabel had ever heard the song, and cannot remember tune or words. Viviana danced with her hands outstretched (unclenched), fingers in front of her imitating a dancing bear, holding hands first to one side then to the other, and suddenly she growled, as if she was ready to bite, destroying like a bear and dancing.”

*           *           *

John Peabody Harrington (left) and Isabel Meadows, circa 1935

Isabel Meadows wrote about the California Indian culture, post-genocide. Her subjects were the Indians whose families had survived three waves of invasive occupation: first by the Spanish, then by the Mexicans, and finally, by the Americans. Isabel told and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington:

“The government never helped the Carmel people, not with anything were they helped. The land they were given by the signatures of the padres didn’t hold, and they had to disperse to wherever they could go. Thrown out, they stayed among other people only to find their life as the most poor. And they were exposed to all kinds of vices and drinking. The American government, instead of caring for them like they cared for the Indian in other parts, seemed like it didn’t know that these Carmeleños [Rumsen] existed. Some died of sadness and others went away from there, dispersed and scattered elsewhere.

“They were the first ones to bring the padres to the Carmelo. They were the first people to be put there in the Carmel Valley. And now there are almost no Indian people of pure Carmel race nor speaking the language. So much have they suffered, forced to mix with the Mexicans and then with the gringos.

“I hope that one of the wealthy people of the Carmelo will be able to buy them a good piece of land, at least, to live on, to put their rancheria like before, to revive their language, and to make their story again in the world.”

Isabel Meadows described an indigenous community stuck in an ongoing cycle of inter-generational violence and historical trauma:

“Some died of sadness and others went away from there, dispersed and scattered everywhere. Some ended up living in Sacramento or Santa Barbara. Throughout all those places were Carmeleños [Rumsen] hiding that they knew the language. And many died with smallpox also, and with measles – they didn’t even know how to protect themselves. And years were ended with drunkenness. Before, in Monterey, it seems like every other house had a bar and these poor people drank until they died. Some drank from sorrow because they had been cast out. The history of the Carmeleño and of Monterey tells of many accidents and fights and stabbings and clubbings and everything that happened to the Indians when they were drinking. And many deaths resulted from the drinking of whiskey and wine. In this manner, the Indian people were finished off faster – with the drinking and with so much sorrow that they had been cast away from their land.”

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Perhaps this explains why the early American settlers who arrived on the Big Sur coast after the Civil War, saw so few Indians.

There were, however, numerous physical reminders of the presence of the Indigenous people who had lived in those canyons and mountains for thousands of years. The early homesteaders in Big Sur found flint arrowheads, the post holes of Indian houses, kitchen middens near creek beds, shell mounds on the cliffs, and human skeletons buried in the traditional knee-to-chest position.

In the 1920s, Howard G. Sharpe found the skull of a grizzly bear with an Indian spearhead embedded in its cranium, half a mile up Bixby Creek, in a thicket where the beast had crawled off to die.

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Categories: California History.