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Black Star Canyon's Indian Massacre

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

Neither Stephenson nor Sleeper seemed to have bothered with other accounts of the Old Spanish Trail crew, which spun a different adventure.

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There is nothing mentioned about any Wolfskill-led massacre in any of the documents on file in the J.E. Pleasants Papers, held in the UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives. In the boxes of material are letters Pleasants and his wife wrote to Wolfskill's children, friends and siblings; preliminary inquiries Adelina made into the county's past; and voluminous newspaper clippings mentioning Wolfskill's relatively brief time in Orange County as owner of Rancho Lomas de Santiago. But until Stephenson, none of the ample writings on Wolfskill mentioned the carnage, even though it would've naturally fallen into the narrative of one of the most celebrated explorers of the West.

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

Born in Kentucky in 1798, Wolfskill's dad had entered the state along with Daniel Boone. Father and son moved to Missouri, then, in the early 1800s, to the fringes of America's then-western territories, where the threat of Indian attacks was such that Wolfskill's biographer wrote, without exaggerating, "By the time he had reached the age of 14, [William] had learned to handle a long . . . rifle with amazing facility." He arrived in Santa Fe in 1822 and followed the fur trade from Colorado to Mexico, enduring Indian attacks, befriending a young Kit Carson (who came from the same Kentucky county as he) and even doubling as a moonshiner with "Taos Lighting" whiskey.

In 1830, Wolfskill gathered about 20 Americans, Frenchmen and New Mexicans to try to find a new route that would open up trade between New Mexico and California. No diary of the journey exists other than Wolfksill's ledger, held at the Huntington Library in San Marino. But the creation of what became the Old Spanish Trail was a momentous occasion in Southern California. It's mentioned in all the major histories of the Southwest—yet none of them up until Shadows of Old Saddleback mention the Wolfskill massacre that Stephenson via Pleasants insisted was the expedition's coda. In fact, the reminiscences of the Old Spanish Trail's opening by the men who experienced it don't paint a triumphant conquest at all.

The Wolfskill campaign went from New Mexico to Utah to Nevada and finally into California. It was a hard trek. Wolfskill nearly led his men to their deaths in Utah after a wrong turn resulted in the camp being snowed in; one of the men who went, Ziba Branch, recalled in 1859 that they "had to subsist on the flesh of their horses and mules" to survive. J.J. Warner, a Wolfskill contemporary who first met him in Taos and arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 1831, wrote in a 1907 document that the trappers, "suffering from cold and scarcity of food, demoralization and disorganization," abandoned their leader upon reaching Los Angeles, "leaving him without means or resources and a heavy debt."

In Utah, the Utes warmly greeted the Wolfskill party, feeding them and allowing these white men to attend the funeral of one of their chiefs. As generous along the trail were Mojaves and Shoshones, so much so that Ned Blackhawk, author of Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires In the Early American West, quipped that the explorers' "wanderings along the trail had not only depended upon different Indian bands, but also tempered these seasoned traders' interest in such future travel."

Wolfskill and his men reached Mission San Gabriel in February 1831, embarrassed by their bedraggled appearance in front of clergy and Californio elite and fearing their wrath. Instead, according to the memoirs of George Yount, who was the first American farmer in the Napa Valley and served as Wolfskill's second-in-command, they received a warm welcome due to "their scrupulous honesty [that] had preceded them there."

"Apartments neat, clean and sumptuous were allotted to them," Yount's biographer wrote, "and they were fed richly and attended like guests of distinction and renown . . . every delicacy at the [mission] priest's command was sent them, and no effort was wanting to promote their happiness."

After two weeks of fiestas, according to Yount, he and Wolfskill sent men back to New Mexico and "passed a few weeks in exploring the region." Yount eventually set off to hunt otters in Catalina; Wolfskill, with the help of the Mission San Gabriel priest and others, built a schooner and sailed to Baja California. After returning, he set up his agricultural, cattle and rancho empires.

"In reality, he had one of the kindest of hearts," wrote H.D. Barrows, founder of the Southern California Historical Society, teacher of Pleasants in his youth and son-in-law of Wolfskill, in a 1902 journal. "Finally, in honesty, and in most of the sterling qualities that are accounted the base of true manhood, he had few superiors."

Barrows was Wolfskill's indefatigable biographer, writing about him in 1855 for the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin and his obituary for the Wilmington Call, one of Southern California's earliest English-language newspapers. He pulled no punches in describing his father-in-law's encounters with those whom he dismissed as "savages" and "red men."

But he never mentioned any Black Star Canyon war.

*     *     *

Barrows stretched his hagiography just a bit: 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 and let authorities know after the fact, mocking them for their tardiness. In 1861, Wolfskill and other Southern California landowners gathered a posse to track a gang of horse thieves, with Pleasants leading them from Rancho Lomas de Santiago to San Bernardino, where they successfully apprehended the criminals; he would relate the experience in his Touring Topics series.

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