Black Star Canyon's Indian Massacre

Did Orange County's only Indian massacre really happen—or is it a necessary white lie?

Black Star Canyon's Indian Massacre
Photography: Rickett & Sones | Model: Mark Saalwaechter | Design: Dustin Ames

At the end of October, The Orange County Register did what any Southern California media outlet looking for an easy Halloween story does: send a reporter to Black Star Canyon.

"It is rarely that one encounters nowadays a pioneer of gold times in Southern California, still living, happy and healthy, and possessed of both the initiative and inclination to record his remembrances of things past."

The remote site, reached only by a sidewinding trail deep in the OC wilderness that leads into a long-abandoned Indian village and a tranquil valley out of a John Ford picture, has served as a collective horror show for generations of county residents. The verified crimes committed over the years—a cold-blooded murder in 1899, an overturned bus that lay in a ravine for decades with nary an explanation, the horrific 2001 rape of two teenage girls after cholos beat their boyfriends unconscious—are chilling; its few permanent residents, more than happy to menace hikers with shotguns, further sully the area with an aura of otherworldly menace. Add urban legends that paint it a focal point for Satanic rituals, ghosts, witches covens and secret Ku Klux Klan initiation rites, and it's a wonder Don Bren hasn't come in to bulldoze the spooks out of existence.

For its Black Star coverage, the Register tapped one of its much-ballyhooed new hires, former Victorville Daily Press city editor Brooke Edwards Staggs, to try her luck with a night visit. Teaming up with self-proclaimed "paranormal investigators," her Oct. 29 piece read better as an adventure à la The Hardy Boys: "As we walk farther, [my photographer] pauses, looking puzzled. His flash keeps turning itself off, he says, fidgeting with the camera he knows all too well." She mentions having heard of "American Indian massacres" that happened in the region. As if to lend gravitas to Staggs' claim, the Register three days later ran an essay by Ellen Bell, a member of the Irvine Historical Society and author of Irvine: Images of America, to tell readers what really happened up there in the hills.

From Sleeper’s 1968 edition of the Rancho San Joaquin Gazette
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries
From Sleeper’s 1968 edition of the Rancho San Joaquin Gazette
Joseph Edwards “Judge” Pleasants
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries
Joseph Edwards “Judge” Pleasants

"Like most urban legends, it's hard to separate the stories from the facts," Bell proclaimed. "In the case of Black Star Canyon, however, some truth lurks behind the tales."

She proceeded to describe what nearly all county historians deem Orange County's only Indian massacre. In 1831, per her telling, a band of Shoshone horse thieves terrorized the Californios of Southern California. Desperate for help, they contracted the services of William Wolfskill, a mountain man of renown who had just led a band of fur trappers from New Mexico to Los Angeles across what would later be named the Old Spanish Trail. Tracking the bandits, the Americans found them munching on horse meat in a part of Black Star Canyon now known as Hidden Ranch, near the Indian village. "Wolfskill's armed men easily overwhelmed the Native Americans, who fought back with bows and arrows and a few old Spanish muskets," Bell noted. "Most were killed on sight. A few managed to escape into the canyon."

The same saga, with some details added and others dropped for the sake of brevity, appears in Orange County history books, in multiple regional overviews, and merits a mandatory mention any time a reporter files a dispatch from Black Star Canyon. It's an important moment in our historical time line because it was one of the earliest American forays into what would become Orange County, and thus a founding myth.

And it could all be one giant, unverifiable, necessary white lie.

A Weekly investigation has found there is no concrete evidence the 1831 bloodbath ever happened: no artifacts, no primary testimonials, all hearsay. The source material for the story recounted by Bell and so many others wasn't a first-hand account by men who were there, but rather a third-hand reference—a historian writing in 1931 that a 91-year-old man told him that Wolfskill had confessed to the slaughter 70 years earlier. It was never mentioned during Wolfskill's lifetime, never brought up by his biographers, not found in the private papers of confidantes and can't be cited any earlier than 1929. Such convoluted sourcing deserves an F from a community-college history professor and would be laughed out of any newsroom, yet the alleged happenings at Black Star Canyon have satisfied OC's historians for more than 80 years. They've never questioned it because doing so draws attention to the shoddy techniques of pioneer chroniclers, men who set the template for our story by documenting the county's past with an eye toward burnishing its reputation at all times—and if that meant embellishing an Indian massacre that may or may not have happened, then so be it.

*     *     *

In 1931, three books appeared that sought to position Orange County as a region on the rise. One of them was Adelina Pleasants' History of Orange County California, a three-volume study that traces our trajectory from the original Juaneños to the padres to the glorious present: more than two-thirds of the collection is devoted to paid biographical sketches and pictures of county businessmen, politicians and farmers. The region's elite quickly bought up copies to celebrate what they and their ancestors had accomplished: transformed badlands into paradise.

Adelina was the wife of Joseph Edwards Pleasants, one of the first Americans to permanently settle in Orange County. Born in 1839, Pleasants had arrived in Northern California as a 49er before leaving for Los Angeles in 1856, where he found a job with William Wolfskill. By then, Wolfskill was one of the wealthiest men in Southern California, traipsing around the region using the honorific Don Guillermo. He had set up the first commercial Valencia orange groves in the Golden State on his ranch (near where Union Station now stands) and is credited as having sold the grapevines that Anaheim's German colonists used to establish their socialist utopia. Taking advantage of the fire sale of ranchos that had occurred after the Mexican-American War, Wolfskill boasted of lands in Northern and Southern California, including Rancho Lomas de Santiago, the gargantuan swath of hills in present-day north Tustin and Irvine that eventually became part of the Irvine Ranch.

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32 comments
Penny Stirling Johnson
Penny Stirling Johnson

Something like this really did happen outside Tucson and apparently one of our honored founding fathers was one of the leaders of the massacre.

Terry Finnegan
Terry Finnegan

Very good article! This Sr. Gustavo fella continues to write VERY well. No, I'm not shocked of that fact either. White man rewriting actual fictional history, no not shocked at that either.

OC Weekly
OC Weekly

Why don't you like the piece!

fretsward
fretsward

Sorry I left my decoder ring at home. But then again, its the same dog and pony show: All La Raza -- All the time. Race baiters redux, or perhaps the chosen spirituel, rakish, vulpine, or philomath with side orders of risible. It does consequently --I might add bring the question and additional queries in regards to the occurrence of haemolytic disease. 

I recall a certain episode: "Lassie." "Lassie."

Timmy and Lassie are on The Great Snipe Hunt. Timmy thinks he hears one and reaches between 2 boulders. The boulder moves and traps Timmy's arm.

"Oh fcuk Lassie, the boulder has moved and trapped my arm." "Go and get help!" No? You won't go until I renounce my culture theft?"

What's that Lassie? Pretendians should be the suitable moniker since they professed to have no tribal bloodlines while claiming to be Native American. For them, being Native American means that no tribal lineage is actually required. Only avatars and claims will suffice. Having no real claims to being autochthonous, the illusion and fantasy with images of scantily-clad women petting wild animals, or images with feathers or some type of Coccus, Ichneumonidae or Hybrid.

Impostors will pretend to be Native American, without being Indian or having any Native American lineage or teachings, the use of ceremonial pipes, smudging, the use of Native names, the making of Indian paraphernalia such as prayer arrows, tobacco ties, the use of feathers, the use of cornmeal and tobacco in offerings, the use of braided sweet-grass for blessings, the making of medicine bundles, eagle feathers, the ceremonial use of medicine wheels with the four directions, the insulting whooping to drums, the practice of purification in seat-lodges and the proverbial vision quest. 

You would never report that over 100,000 American citizens have been killed by illegal aliens since September 11, 2001. In Mexico City, there were celebrations for the attacks. The death toll in 2006 alone far overshadowed the total numbers of US soldiers killed in the combined Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In California, those who have never held a valid license and are driving for the first time since they entered the country illegally are involved in a fatal accidents and far too many ridiculous collisions on our streets it should be considered a national emergency. Every day in the US, 27 Americans are murdered by illegal aliens and another 23 innocent citizens are sentenced to death by illegal alien drunk drivers. Gives an entirely different meaning to "shovel ready."

On 9 March 1916, Pancho Villa ordered nearly 100 Mexicans to make a cross-border attack against Columbus, New Mexico. They attacked a detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment (United States), burned the town and seized 100 horses and mules and other military supplies. Eighteen Americans and about 80 Villistas were killed. 

In January 1916, a group of Villa's men attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and killed several American employees of the ASARCO company. The passengers also included eighteen Americans, fifteen of whom worked for American Smelting and Refining Company. There was only one survivor, who gave the details to the press. Villa admitted to ordering the attack.

In addition to plundering homes, taking captives, and seizing horses and mules, southern plains men exerted great energy and took great risks to kill Mexicans, slaughter thousands of pigs, cows, goats, and sheep, set fire to dwellings, barns, and granaries. In October 1844, for example, several hundred raiders attacked settlements in northern Tamaulipas. While they took many horses and captives, they also burned to death men, women, and children at Los Moros, killed many men who came to help, and later killed hundreds of residents of Rancho de la Palmita. 

In 1916, (The New York Times, March 10,1916, p. 1.) in our own century, Pancho Villa and his revolutionary soldiers—or drunken banditos, take your pick—rode out of their Mexican sanctuary and into Columbus, New Mexico shouting their battle cry, "Mata los gringos!" (kill the gringos!). And kill the gringos they did, and they burned and they looted. Before they were driven back to Mexico by the hot pursuit of the American Army, Pancho Villa's bandito revolutionaries killed 17 Americans, both civilian and military, male and female (T.R. Fehrenbach, Fire and Blood. Macmillan, 1973, p. 524. Charles C. Cumberland, Mexico, The Struggle for Modernity, Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 366.).

Today, Pancho Villa is a Mexican folk hero. La Raza is not part of the federal Confederacy. Just an anti-American social club.

Speaking of adding: Add regurgitated propaganda that infers Latinos are Native Americans, duplicity, arrogance, isolated illegal aliens neighborhoods, the Klan with the Tan demands, protest for the jaw-dropping imagined right to never-ending pitch for the excuse to invade this country, the blatant abuse of our 14th Amendment that is filling the country with people who are under the jurisdiction of Mexico, and its a wonder Jose Angel Gutierrez or Cecilia Munoz hasn't come in to bulldoze the Gringos out of existence.  

After the Pretendian victory dance and La Raza cake, you can put away the Chicano studies textbooks, revisionist history, picket signs, insist we should Press "1" for English numskullism, stomp your feet, and bleat that such discussions will not hurt your feelings. 

"A Weekly investigation has found there is no concrete evidence the 1831 bloodbath ever happened: no artifacts, no primary testimonials, all hearsay."

Yet another salacious headline and myth guised as news. I'm certain you'll delete my comments as always. 

Happy Thanksgiving. I believe it's safe to say you've reached the rank of spelunker...

tongue_twister_for_t
tongue_twister_for_t topcommenter

What's with these stupid gd HB (Huntington Beach) cops in their whirly bird flyin' over Costa Mesa at 9:30 pm at night spotlightin' the Mormons in the parking lot of their church with their FLIR on. Costs the taxpayers $800.00+ per hour for this stupid crap. Course the Mormons are weird anyway. Tell 'em to go back to HB, They're outta their jurisdiction.

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

So when do all the libs give up all their money and worldly goods to ease their hurt broken hearts !!???!?


they talk a big game but wont do "the right thang"


come on lefty



marchell62
marchell62

A+ Gustavo! Regardless of what did or did not happen, Black Star Canyon is of historical importance.

All one has to do is hike to the village, California Historical Landmark #217, and rest upon the metates that once fed a village.

Despite the fear of the ever present crackling gun powder exploding in the distance, those of us who survive the pilgrimage to the secret place, sheltered by a grove of oak tress, pay homage to the sacred remnants of the indigenous people who lived there.

Sadly, the desecration of this sacred landmark continues today. The evidence of ignorance is recognized along the trail by discarded trash, graffiti, razor wire, and a stolen landmark sign, which once hung on an oak tree, reminding visitors they were entering a sacred space. The defamation of this culturally significant beacon is just one more manifestation of the continual massacre of a history of a people.

The OC Trail of Tears may or may not have ended in a bloody massacre, but it cries for the ethnic cleansing of a people from their homeland. With your cover story, we are one step closer to bringing them home.

jimgilchrist
jimgilchrist

Gustavo,


Are you sure that the Black Star Halloween tale wasn't written by the Orange County Register's Frank Mickadeit?  He is the only OCR amateur writer known for writing propaganda under the guise of fair and balanced journalism.  He is also the reason newspaper subscribers continue to decline.  The LA Times is a much better and more reliable newspaper.  The OC Register is for village idiots.


Jim Gilchrist, Founder and President, The Minuteman Project

David Derk
David Derk

Stupid people write for this mag. Complete dumbasses. "Unlike"

Em Sedano
Em Sedano

someone's editor fell asleep at the typewriter. "few permanent residents, more than happy to menace hikers with shotguns, further sully the area with an aura of otherworldly menace. "

Joe Provino
Joe Provino

I always heard that area was weird..

Catherine Turley
Catherine Turley

if there is no concrete evidence that the massacre took place, then you can be certain of absolutely nothing. white people have gone and will continue to go to any lengths to conceal the ugly truth of their actions.

Marc Morin-Lebel
Marc Morin-Lebel

As I read this story, the words from Fleetwood Mac's song came to mind: "Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies (tell me lies--tell me, tell me lies)....."

Sherry Ray-Von
Sherry Ray-Von

You couldn't think of anything else to write about on this holiday.

canycany
canycany

What a wonderful piece you have written. Thank you.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Black Star over the last three-plus decades (and having driven home to Hidden Ranch a former friend a number of times back in the late 70s), I can't buy into all the Halloweenish foo-fah. It is a magical place because of what it is; not because of what it isn't.

Now those "bleak hills" suffer from razer wire along the roadway (our human equivalent of lifting our leg to mark our property possessions) which elsewise encloses areas severely graded by people who really don't have a clue. The often apparent lack of wilderness ethic by visitors poses a fire danger with illegal campfires and a clean trail in the evening can turn into a beer-can studded testament to the disrespect the area is lashed with on a regular basis. It's shameful. If not for the local morning walkers, the place would look like a dump.

Having myself been faced several times over the years with a shotgun-wielding, threatening resident, I stopped going to the area for quite a while believing the resident entirely crazy enough to do harm.

Now it's bikes, sometimes strollers, urban visitors with off-leash dogs harassing wildlife (and in the warm months risking potentially lethal snake bikes to these dogs) and a long list of trespassers onto park lands.

The moans and cries, I have never heard except perhaps my own as I have observed the increasing disrespect given this area.

Early European settlers believed evil existed in the forests of the east and it frightened them. That same mentality seems to morph into other forms of superstition with each generation. But as one that dearly loves this land, I don't see the same things they do and I most certainly don't experience it in the same way or for the same reasons.

There's magic in them thar hills, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with ghosts or tales. It has to do with the land itself.





fretsward
fretsward

@Terry Finnegan There's always Chicano studies as the true history...

bphood
bphood

@GustavoArellano @fretsward I loved it...I am 3rd gen on both sides from Riverside....I know, the I.E. well somethings you just cant wash off. I say that to say I study so. cal history and most early accounts are fanciful at best...one tail after the next of far fetched bullshit...A good example of my point is the book "Spanish and Indian names of California" by Sancez / 1922 I am sure it is long out of print but my copy was at some point in a L.A. public Library...one laugh after the next this book...it seems the Spanish held themselves in an unhealthy level of esteem.

 
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