Indian Chief Was Tough Friend, Foe

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Although other great Native American leaders, such as Tecumseh and Crazy Horse, earned their place in history through heroic resistance to European incursion, Los Angeles’ greatest Indian personality earned his fame not only for bravery, but also for fervent, though unconventional, fidelity to the rule of law.

Influential among his own people as paramount chief of all the Cahuillas from Los Angeles to the territory of the Yumas along the Colorado River, Juan Antonio’s unwavering friendship--first with the Mexicans and later with American authorities-- ultimately earned him the formal title of captain-general--given by no less a figure than Gen. Stephen Kearny--and the admiring nickname “Watch Dog of the Valley.”

A local legend for his deadly skill with a bow and arrow, Juan Antonio cut quite a figure in the little pueblo of Los Angeles. He was short, about 5 feet 4, and stout with weather-crinkled eyes and wind-chapped skin. Contemporaries noted his commanding presence, and he always went about flanked by a dozen or more Cahuilla fighting men.


He was born about 1783 in San Timoteo Canyon in what is now Riverside County. Antonio’s early years are a mystery. But, as a young man, he emerged as a powerful leader of the Mountain Cahuilla bands and formed an unshakable alliance with Antonio Maria Lugo, former Los Angeles mayor and one of the city’s richest land barons. Pledging his friendship and loyalty to Lugo, Antonio protected his ranchos from horse thieves and cattle rustlers.

During the Mexican-American War, Antonio’s loyalty to the Lugo family never wavered. While other Native Americans deserted their Mexican allies to join the winning side, the Cahuilla leader steadfastly stood by his patrons.

During the fighting, Lugo and his men joined Antonio and 50 of his fighters to ambush a band of Luiseno Indians that had massacred 11 Mexican troopers. After the fighting, Lugo handed the captives over to Antonio, who promptly killed all of them.

Scolded for his “needless cruelty,” the Cahuilla leader said coolly that if it had been the other way around, the Luisenos would have roasted him alive.

Shortly after the American victory, Antonio figured in another bloody incident.

In 1851, a former captain of the U.S. cavalry and then adventurer, John “Red” Irving, arrived in the rough-and-tumble pueblo with a band of 30 heavily armed desperadoes. Hearing that two of Lugo’s grandsons were in jail for murder, Irving offered to break them out for $5,000. Lugo refused; honorable man that he was, he preferred to depend on his lawyer and the court.

Infuriated, Irving swore revenge on the Lugo family. When the young men, who ultimately won acquittal, were set free on $20,000 bail, Irving attempted a surprise raid on their San Bernardino rancho. But finding the place deserted, Irving’s gang decided to stay and broke open a whiskey barrel.


Hot on Irving’s trail, Antonio was joined by other Indian tribes. Armed with only bows and arrows against Irving’s rifles, Antonio and his men chased a dozen of the ruffian’s drunken cutthroats from the rancho, trapping them in San Timoteo Canyon and mercilessly killing all but one, who got away.

Public opinion was aroused against the Indians. But Los Angeles County Coroner and Mayor Alpheus P. Hodges and County Attorney Benjamin Hayes quickly rode to the scene, interviewed witnesses and pronounced the killings “justifiable.”

Just weeks after the Irving incident, tension gripped Southern California as rumors spread that Juan Antonio had joined forces with Antonio Garra, the chief of a large band of Cahuillas hostile to whites. According to the rumors, the pair planned to kill every white from Santa Barbara to San Diego, restoring the land to the Indians.

Juan Antonio acted quickly to end the anxieties. He sent a message to Garra requesting a face-to-face meeting. When Garra rode into Antonio’s camp, he was captured. As the captors taunted their prisoners, Garra’s son became so enraged that he attacked Antonio with a knife, wounding him in the arm and side. Worse was averted when Gen. Joshua Bean arrived. He took custody of Garra, who was later tried, convicted and shot.

Not long afterward, Antonio--accompanied by five of his men--marched into the pueblo proudly wearing an army officer’s coat and leather belt and buckle, gifts from U.S. soldiers grateful for his courageous actions.

Another time, townsfolk gathered outside La Placita Church as Antonio requested the release of a Cahuilla man who had been arrested for drunkenness. (A year earlier, in 1850, the newly incorporated City of Angels passed a notorious ordinance that allowed any Native American picked up for drunkenness to be auctioned off to the highest bidder for a week of labor.)


When the man was released to Antonio, the offender was told to lie down on his face in front of the church, where one of Antonio’s men proceeded to whip the prisoner 100 times with a strip of rawhide. The chief then ordered the man--weak and covered with blood--to stand and run back to camp about 80 miles away before the “rising sun. And if you fail, I will give you a thousand lashes more.”

In the early 1850s, after the Lugos sold their San Bernardino rancho to Mormon settlers for $77,500, Antonio’s services were no longer needed and he returned to his ancestral village in San Timoteo Canyon.

And even though state and federal treaties were signed, giving the Cahuillas a tract of land about 40 miles long and 30 miles wide between the San Gorgonio Pass and Warner Springs, white squatters encroached on their land and promises made by the government were broken.

Old and weary, deserted by most of his panic-stricken tribe, Juan Antonio, 80, staggered out of his hovel to die alone during the smallpox epidemic of 1862-1863.

Almost a century later, workers uncovered the graves of Antonio and 12 of his men about a mile from another mass burial, the one containing the remains of Irving and his band of outlaws. Antonio, the workers discovered, had been buried with his cavalry belt and buckle, Indian beads and an 1854 quarter.

Today, State Historical Landmark No. 749, near the El Casco schoolhouse in San Timoteo Canyon, commemorates the grave of the last paramount chief of the Cahuilla bands.


Rasmussen’s new book, “L.A. Unconventional,” a collection of stories about Los Angeles’ unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.