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San Diego History : Garra’s Uprising

Chief Antonio Garra of San Diego County’s Cupeno Indians was angry. On a summer day in 1851, Gara’s son rode into Old Town to make a partial payment on county taxes that Sheriff Agoston Haraszthy demanded Chief Garra pay. Should Garra fail in this, he was told, all of his cattle, horses, sheep and hogs would be confiscated. But paying his taxes wouldn’t guarantee him political representation or justice under the law. In fact, at that time whites could kill Indians without penalty of law.

Deciding it was time to strike back, Garra moved to unite the numerous Indian tribes of Southern California and expel the Americans from the region. He devised a three-pronged plan of attack: The Tularenos would strike at Santa Barbara, the Chuillas and Cupenos would hit Los Angeles and the Quechans would thrust at San Diego.

His plan also called for an attack on Camp Independence, along the Colorado River. Its munitions would be taken and its ferry seized, thereby denying American immigrants and soldiers an easy river crossing.

From Baja to Central California, Antonio Garra began delicate negotiations with the various tribes to forge an alliance. The results were mixed: the Luisenos and Chuillas would not fight; the Tularenos of Central California had concluded a separate treaty with the U.S. government and refused to break it; the Quechans, Cocopas and Kamias (living near the Colorado River) agreed to join the fight.

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On Nov. 11, 1851, a war party of Quechans and Cocopas was en route to Camp Independence when they happened upon white sheepherders. A small battle ensued. Five herdsmen and seven Indians were killed. From there, the tribes moved toward Camp Independence.

Under the pretext of wanting to trade horses, the Indians sought entry into the fort. Suspecting a trick, the camp commander refused entry to the Indians and ordered them to leave. When the Indians ignored his command, and the officer ordered that the camp’s 1-pound howitzer be aimed at the camp’s entrance. The Indians beat a hasty retreat.

From a safe distance, the Indians fired their arrows into Camp Independence, but to no effect. As the siege went on a dispute developed between the Quechans and Cocopas over how the sheep taken from the sheepherders would be divvied up. Dissolution set in and the Quechans (who were later to attack San Diego) abandoned the siege and headed home.

With the revolt crumbling, Garra traveled back home, where he learned that the Chuillas were about to assail Warner’s Ranch. Garra was unable to block the raid because he became ill.

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In the subsequent attack on his ranch, John Warner managed to shoot his way through the attackers--killing two Indians--and led his wife to safety.

Garra’s son also headed a war party that attacked and killed invalids taking the waters at the nearby hot springs.

Things had gone too far not to press ahead with the revolt. Garra wrote a letter begging Chief Juan Antonio of the Chuillas to join in the war. Chief Antonio replied by requesting a face-to-face meeting with Garra. It was a trap.

Jealous of the esteem the Chuillas people held for Garra, Antonio had made a deal to capture his rival and turn him over to Gen. Joshua Bean.

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Chief Garra and his son were taken to Old Town where they were tried for treason, murder and robbery. Garra’s defense attorney argued that his client couldn’t have committed treason since he never swore allegiance to the United States, and couldn’t be guilty of murder, since, as chief, he had the power to make war. Despite those arguments, Garra was convicted on all charges.

Before his execution by firing squad, Chief Antonio Garra addressed the crowd from Old Town: “Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for all my offenses and expect yours in return.”

map caption:

Source: “Kit Carson’s Long Walk,” By Henry Schwartz: “The Handbook of North American Indians”

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