By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
“Written history and tradition have distorted the story of the outlawry of Juan Flores,” wrote Stephenson. “Accounts have differed widely in detail.” But Stephenson boasted his account was better than others, since it relied on someone who was alive during the 1850s: Joseph E. Pleasants, who was in his late teens when Flores was captured. The 93-year-old man had witnessed Flores’ lynching and claimed to have spoken to those involved in capturing las Manillas.
Pleasants wrote his own Flores article for Samuel Armor’s 1911 anthology, History of Orange County, California, With Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development From the Early Days to the Present, the first large-scale history book written specifically about the county. Pleasants shared new details with Stephenson, all of which stretched facts. He claimed Flores “was the black sheep of a prominent and honorable California family living in Santa Barbara,” even though birth records show Flores was born near San Jose to a family of modest means. Pleasants also advanced a conspiracy theory about the role of an Indian woman known as Chola Martina (née Martina Espinoza).
“It was whispered that Chola Martina had been a sweetheart of Flores, that she tampered with guns for him [while Barton’s posse rested in the Sepulveda rancho] and carried messages to him as they lay hidden in the willows,” according to Caminos Viejos. Pleasants admitted to Stephenson that there was never any proof of sabotage with Barton’s weapons, let alone the treacherous role of Martina, “but there was little question at the time about it.” None of the newspaper accounts of the time mentioned any problems with the guns of Barton and his posse or an Indian accomplice, nor do Bell or Coronel bring up such charges. The earliest documented allegation of this urban legend is in a note accompanying an 1899 photo of a San Juan Capistrano house known as the Burruel Adobe on file at USC’s Special Collections Library. In it, Antonio Yorba describes it as the house where Espinoza lived. “Juan Flores was often in the house,” his note read, adding that Espinoza also sheltered the gang and “helped to kill Sheriff Barton and his posse and also the German Jew merchant of San Juan, George Pflugardt.”
“That the story was true was never admitted by the woman,” added Stephenson. “Old Martina, merely mumbled her replies to those who mentioned the name of Juan Flores to her [in her old age], shrugged her fat shoulders and held out her hand for alms.”
* * *
The Burruel Adobe still stands, albeit in ruins near the corner of El Camino Real and Forster Street. That’s a better fate than befell the shop of Michael Kraszewski. He was a Polish Jew who ran a general store that the gang robbed before heading off to kill Barton. Kraszewski didn’t tell his side of the story until 20 years after the events, to Bancroft researcher Thomas Savage. Kraszewski’s account is crucial, as it remains the only full firsthand account of a Flores victim and introduced another wrinkle that subsequent writers warped.
Kraszewski claimed Flores told him Espinoza helped murder Pflugardt by entering his store and lighting a cigarette to notify las Manillas that they could enter, but he didn’t mention anything about her messing with Barton’s guns. The store owner didn’t bear much animosity toward Flores despite the robbery. “I liked his appearance quite well when he came into my store,” he told Savage. “He was civil in his manner and spoke agreeably. I remember noticing that his coat was torn and remarking to him that a vaquero should always carry needle and thread with him, and I gave him some.”
According to Kraszewski the robbers bragged about their power after returning from the ambush—that, in addition to murdering Barton, they had robbed the houses of prominent Angelenos and had “a force of 500 men” ready for action. “I began to have a suspicion that there was a political revolution of Mexicans against the government,” Kraszewski said.
None of the newspapers at the time of Flores’ exploits connected any political purpose to las Manillas, although a newspaper article claimed many Mexicans refused to cooperate with authorities when questioned about the outlaws. The Daily Alta California alone claimed Flores’ “thirst for American blood is so great that he wished to do all the killing himself.”
But Bell went beyond Kraszewski’s seditious theme in his Reminisces of a Ranger. He insisted that Flores and Pancho Daniel began las Manillas by “ma[king] known their intent to go to Los Angeles, raise the standard of revolt and rid the country of the hated gringos.” This “embryo revolution” moved to Capistrano, where Flores “raised the standard of revolt, dispatched couriers to notify the rancheros and invite them to his standard,” according to Bell. “Judging the temper of his countrymen by his own, he felt sure of a general uprising.”
The only problem with Bell’s depiction: Most of it is demonstrably false. He wrote that Pflugardt was, “in conformity with the rules of revolution, taken to the plaza and shot,” when all other accounts place Pflugardt’s murder at his shop. Bell attributed the Barton ambush to “a false messenger” that Flores dispatched to fool Barton, while Kraszewski and newspapers credited Capistrano residents with alerting the sheriff. He admitted to relying heavily on much of the information about the “Flores insurrection” from Andres Fontes, a Manilla who maintained he joined the gang only to personally kill Barton. Apparently, Fontes once happened upon the sheriff trying to rape an Indian woman and interceded; subsequently, Barton sent Fontes to prison. For such a salacious tale, it seems strange no one else reported it at the time, especially in an era where newspapers repeated all types of allegations with little care for verification.