Black Star Canyon's Indian Massacre

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

Wolfskill appointed Pleasants as his ranchos' foreman in 1861, a position Pleasants held until his jefe's passing in 1866. Afterward, Pleasants spent the rest of his life in the canyons of OC, going by the nickname "Judge." He was 92 years old when his wife's magnum opus was published, and historians across Southern California rushed to document his thoughts before he passed. The previous year, Touring Topics, the monthly magazine of the Automobile Association of Southern California (it now publishes under the name Westways), printed Pleasants' six-part remembrance of life in the Southland in the early 1850s. "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 Touring Topics editor wrote in his introduction. Pleasants went on to speak of his work for Wolfskill, a drought that devastated the region's cattle industry and proved the final death knell for the Californios, and a Fourth of July picnic.

William Wolfskill was no stranger to frontier justice. In 1836, he and others, angry that the Mexican wheels of justice turned too slowly in convicting two murderers, lynched the pair. . . mocking [authorities] for their tardiness.

Perhaps owing to ethics, Adelina did not devote any space to her husband in History of Orange County, California. Not so demure was Terry E. Stephenson, the former editor of the Santa Ana Register and the county's emerging historian laureate. In 1914, Stephenson had pushed for his paper to publish California's Most Productive County, a booster magazine highlighting the different industries, people and places that argued this county was worthy of worldwide attention. As a member of the Orange County Historical Society board of directors, Stephenson also sat on the committee behind Orange County History Series, Vol. 1, the group's first publication, also appearing in 1931. He praised the American founders of OC in its introduction, opining, "They came into a new land, met conditions with stout hearts, developed this [Santa Ana] valley, and laid a foundation in experience and performance by which we of today profit."

Closing the collection was "A Visit to Santiago Canyon," Pleasants' account of an 1859 trip he took with Wolfskill's sons and his son-in-law to hunt grizzly bears. It's a valuable eyewitness account of the area, untouched by civilization, but Stephenson would save Pleasants' best yarn for his own Shadows of Old Saddleback, a paean to OC's mysterious canyons, from Silverado to Williams, Modjeska to Santiago—and, of course, Black Star, which Stephenson noted was once called Cañon de los Indios (Indian Canyon) until the natives mysteriously disappeared.

William Wolfskill
Seaver Center for Western History Research, LA County Museum of Natural History
William Wolfskill
Main Divide, Santa Ana Mountains, circa 1960
Photo courtesy Orange County Archives
Main Divide, Santa Ana Mountains, circa 1960

It was here that the author revealed Wolfskill's sanguinary exploits. Confiding to readers he had never heard about "the bloodiest [battle] in the history of the mountains . . . until comparatively recent years," Stephenson wrote that Pleasants told him that Wolfskill had related his experience 70 years earlier. It was a necessary deed, according to Pleasants: Wolfskill's men carried out the fusillade to simultaneously curry favor with the Californios and show them how civilizations were formed.

"Their long rifles and evident daring offered to the troubled dons a solution to their horse-stealing difficulties," Stephenson wrote. "Americans were not any too welcome in the Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles, and it was with a desire to please the Spaniards in this foreign land a long way from the United States that the American trappers agreed to run down the Indian horsethieves."

The group tracked the Indians from Los Angeles through what's now Villa Park, into Santiago Canyon, and up brushy hills and steep mountains; they finally found them in Hidden Ranch, gorging on horseflesh. The Indians stood no chance.

"There were no better marksmen on earth than these trappers," Stephenson enthused. "They had killed buffalo. They had fought the Comanche and Apache. They were a hardy, fearless lot, else they would not have made their way across the hundreds of miles of unknown mountain and desert that laid between New Mexico and California."

The Indians were murdered, the horses were returned to their owners, and all was right with the world.

It was the first full-fledged account published of the events (Stephenson had worked in a reference in 1929, in a map of Orange County overseen by him that lists Black Star Canyon as having had a "Battle With Indians," complete with a drawing of Indians fighting white men. It was beautiful, a fine example of Beaux Arts—and it pegged the date as 1832). To find some publicity for his book, Stephenson invited Harry Carr, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist who wrote "The Lancer," to join him in the canyons for a May column. He met Pleasants, whom Carr deemed "the best source of history now living in California . . . with his stories of bandits, Indian fights and early-day romances," and recounted the Wolfskill slaughter, saying he took only "two or three gunmen" to "end . . . the business of horse-stealing expeditions forever."

Pleasants died in 1934; Stephenson passed away nine years later. Their work was complete: Their Indian imbroglio had permeated the Orange County psyche where it hadn't existed before. Assuming the mantle of Pleasants and Stephenson would be Jim Sleeper, an irascible canyon personality who last year. In publication after publication, he'd repeat the Black Star Canyon episode, always attributing it to Pleasants, and not afraid to add his own spin. Sleeper changed the date to 1833, and in an issue of the Rancho San Joaquin Gazette (the company paper of the Irvine Co., for which Sleeper served as historian for three years), he wrote that "an insatiable taste for broiled horse meat frequently led the local redskins from the paths of righteousness" and that the killings of Indians by Wolfskill's men "was no novelty."

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