The Assassination of Sheriff James Barton by the Mexican Juan Flores

Hero and Villain
A century and a half after Juan Flores terrorized Orange County, historians still can’t decide who he was

The next time you drive north on Highway 133 during the day, slow down just before the Interstate 405 North interchange and glance toward your right. Behold a fenced-off hill of grass, ready for the bulldozers that have denuded the area just south of it. Somewhere on the property is a large sign promising that another Irvine Co. housing development will soon arise.

Nowhere in this patch is there a plaque, a sign, any mention of its status as California State Historical Landmark No. 218: Barton Mound, dedicated to the memory of a slain Los Angeles County sheriff. But search long enough on the Internet, and you’ll discover the spot’s significance, as noted by the California Office of Historical Preservation:

Illustration by Mark Andresen
Juan Flores: Hero, Villain & 
Ladies' Man?
Illustration by Mark Andresen
Juan Flores: Hero, Villain & Ladies' Man?

Juan Flores, who had escaped from San Quentin, was being sought by James Barton with a posse of five men. Near this mound, Flores surprised Barton and three of his men; all four were killed. When Los Angeles learned of the slaughter, posses were formed, and Flores and his men were captured.

Another historical point of interest lost in a county that paves over its past with regularity. But the story of Juan Flores will never fade away, no matter how many tract homes and office parks get built atop where one of Orange County’s founding myths shot his way into immortality more than a century and a half ago. His saga is too outlandish, too valuable a piece of historical Play-Doh to cease being useful.

Pick up any general history of Orange County, and it’s guaranteed you’ll find Flores. He’s listed in a chronology of significant local events offered by the Orange County archives and in the textbook used for the Orange County history course last quarter at UC Irvine, Orange County: The Golden Promise: An Illustrated History. When South Coast Repertory commissioned a musical for children called Orange Trees in the 1970s that taught them about the county’s past, Flores figured in a vignette. The Living History Society of Mission San Juan Capistrano includes a Flores character alongside actors portraying Father Junipero Serra, explorer Gaspar de Portola and other pioneers. Chicano Studies professors invoke his name as a martyr on the altar of Manifest Destiny. Recently, KOCE-TV Channel 50’s Real Orange devoted a segment to Flores and his “Mexican bandidos.”

“I think the legend of Juan Flores proves durable because his name and reputation hearken back to an era of other noted antihero outlaws. Butch Cassidy, Jesse James—Flores is Orange County’s version of those guys,” says Chris Epting, who writes a history column for Orange Coast magazine and is the author of the recently released Images of America: Vanishing Orange County. He accompanied Real Orange host Maria Hall-Brown to find a tree where some of Flores’ friends were lynched. “The specific crimes tend to be forgotten, but the outlaw reputations tend to grow more mythical with age, creating folk heroes of a sort.”

What’s amazing about the Flores industry, however, is that it’s based on only a handful of primary sources and a couple of secondary testimonials given decades after he terrorized Southern California for a handful of weeks, each rife with biases or unsubstantiated remarks that future authors exploited for their own agendas. Was Flores a ruthless marauder? A Chicano revolutionary? A mythical figure? A flesh-and-blood person? A poor little rich boy? An innocent driven to crime out of necessity? Historians have debated his story for more than 150 years, but every retelling of the Flores tale yields more questions than answers, including the most basic one: Who was Juan Flores?

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The undisputed facts, as repeated by all tellers and verified by public records, are as follows: Flores was arrested in Los Angeles in 1855 for stealing horses but broke out of San Quentin State Prison a year later. He and other men rode down to San Juan Capistrano, where they robbed stores and murdered a German shopkeeper named George Pflugardt. Alerted by Capistrano residents, Sheriff Barton and five men left Los Angeles to try to end the mayhem (Orange County wouldn’t separate from Los Angeles County until 1889.) While Barton and his group rested at the adobe of Don Jose Andres Sepulveda (in present-day West Santa Ana), the local Mexicans warned him that a trap awaited him on the road to Capistrano. Barton ignored their advice, and Flores and his fellow robbers (who called themselves las Manillas, the Handcuffs) ambushed the sheriff’s posse where Barton Mound now stands, killing all but two. The survivors rushed to Los Angeles, while las Manillas returned to Capistrano to plunder anew.

Soon, four separate posses numbering dozens of men, Indian warriors and federal troops dispersed across Southern California to hunt down las Manillas. Flores and others were eventually captured near what’s now called Flores Peak in the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, but only after Flores slid down the mountain’s side a couple of hundred feet and nearly escaped. While in captivity at the Sepulveda rancho, he and two other men escaped under cover of night. In frustration, Andres Pico—the brother of Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor—hanged two other prisoners from an oak tree that still stands near Precitos Canyon, the very tree Real Orange showed to viewers.

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