A Family Caught in the Middle of a War

Amid Chino's pastoral acres, where dairy cattle now graze peacefully, a bit of California history was made in fire and bullets.

The little-known, inconspicuous State Historical Landmark No. 942, set in front of a fire station on Eucalyptus Avenue, commemorates the "Battle of Chino," the first victory by Mexican forces in the Mexican-American War.

More than 150 years ago, the first of five brief but bloody Southland assaults that made California part of the United States left one man dead and several wounded--and one rancher's reputation ruined for nearly a century.

The Battle of Chino did not by itself change California's history, but it marred the reputation of the state's richest cattle baron, Isaac Williams, whose Chino rancho was the site of the fighting. It would take 92 years and the political firepower of a state senator before the word "traitor" was lifted from Williams' name.

The Pennsylvania-born Williams and three of his brothers arrived in California in 1832. They soon opened a store on Main Street in Los Angeles, where the Children's Museum now stands.

Four years later, at age 37, Williams became a Mexican citizen and Roman Catholic in order to marry Maria de Jesus Lugo, the 13-year-old daughter of Antonio Maria Lugo, a former Los Angeles mayor and one of the city's richest land barons.

As a wedding gift, Lugo presented the couple with 4,000 head of cattle and 22,000 acres of Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, to which Williams would add another 13,000 acres. Lugo gave land and cattle to all his children, but two of his sons resented how easily Williams acquired his new prosperity. Their hostility would endure and reap bitter consequences.

Although Williams was a shrewd businessman, ruling his fiefdom of land and 75 Indian laborers and servants like a feudal baron, he was known for his boundless generosity.

Putting his Yankee know-how to work, he built in quadrangle fashion a hacienda 250 feet long on each side, with an open court in the middle. It would later be described as the "largest and best arranged private home in California."

Williams' young wife did not live long enough to enjoy it. She died at 18 giving birth to their fourth child, who would follow her in death not long afterward.

Williams never remarried, but he fathered as many as six illegitimate children, whom he acknowledged in his will.

Left with three young half-Mexican, half-Yankee children to raise, Williams avoided taking sides as the tension between American and Mexican forces escalated over control of California.

By August 1846, California had fallen to American forces virtually without a shot being fired. At first, the American flag was raised in Los Angeles without resistance. But when Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton and Maj. John C. Fremont pulled out of Los Angeles, leaving the prudish, widely disliked Lt. Archibald Gillespie in charge, all hell broke loose.

A force of 300 armed Californios took Gillespie and his 50-man garrison by surprise and demanded an unconditional surrender. Gillespie secretly dispatched a call for help to Stockton and to a Los Angeles civic leader and fellow Yankee don, Benjamin "Benito" Wilson, who was himself busy tracking a fleeing Mexican general east of Los Angeles.

Wilson, too, couldn't abide Gillespie, and so he took his sweet time in returning to Los Angeles, stopping by Williams' ranch with his 20 men for ammunition and food.

Williams' brothers-in-law, Lugo's sons, had resented Williams' prosperity, and also hated Gillespie. Now, they saw a means of payback and patriotism. They rounded up 50 men and surrounded the Chino ranch on Sept. 26.

Angry that his brothers-in-law would intimidate his family--their own nieces and nephew--Williams sent a courier with a plea for help. What made him controversial even 100 years later is that he begged for help not from American forces but from the commander of the Mexican forces. That help never arrived.

Even under Williams' roof, Wilson was furious and would later accuse his host of being a traitor.

Pitifully low on ammunition, but not willing to withdraw, both groups were shouting taunts back and forth. But the next day, as the close-quarters quarreling grew louder, an American shot a Californio in the head, killing him. The gunfire resumed on both sides, seriously wounding several men.

Both sides had expended the last of their bullets, so the Californios tried to smoke the Americans out. They set fire to the roof of the "best arranged private home in California."

Williams helped his young children to climb onto the part of the roof that was not ablaze. As both sides taunted him with cries of "coward," he waved a white flag and begged for mercy. The Mexican Californios extinguished the flames, and Williams lowered his children into the arms of the enemy.

Then all the Americans in Williams' hacienda surrendered and laid down their empty guns. The house and ranch were looted of horses, food and clothing, and the victorious Californios marched their prisoners to Los Angeles, where they were paroled to the senior Lugo, who cared for the wounded and reprimanded his sons for imperiling his grandchildren.

The volunteer soldiers were soon freed when other American forces reoccupied Los Angeles. But it would take nearly four more months and four more battles before a peace treaty was signed shifting control of California to the United States.

Williams repaired his rancho, and within three years it had become a life-saving way station for thousands of gold seekers en route to the Mother Lode. They came along three trails that converged near Williams' home: the Spanish and Salt Lake trails over the Cajon Pass, and the Southern Emigrant Trail through southern Arizona. Feeding and clothing the destitute and starving, Williams took pity on the haggard fortune-seekers, even going into the desert to rescue dying stragglers.

In 1850, a resolution in the Senate of the soon-to-be new state commended Williams and John Sutter--the owner of the mill where the Gold Rush began--for using their homes to help thousands of emigrants.

But a week later, the resolution was rescinded. Word had reached the Legislature--reportedly from a still-angry Benito Wilson--that Williams had acted in a "treacherous" manner four years earlier, betraying his American friends during the Battle of Chino.

His name stained by a seemingly vindictive official act, Williams wrote to the state's first Legislature to defend himself. Somehow in the bureaucratic chaos before statehood was ratified by Congress, Williams' letter was lost, and his insult stood unchallenged for decades. Not even the children he saved could help him; his son died young and his two daughters, Merced and Francisca, who became heiresses, were both widowed young.

Almost a century after Williams' death in 1856, he was vindicated by a man he never knew. State Sen. Ralph E. Swing of San Bernardino introduced Resolution No. 24, honoring Williams' generosity and rejoining his name with Sutter's in 1942.

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