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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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!


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 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 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


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.



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.


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.


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


@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 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 laugh after the next this seems the Spanish held themselves in an unhealthy level of esteem.

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