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.

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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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