Black Star Canyon's Indian Massacre

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

Pleasants wrote often about Orange County's past, even providing an eyewitness account to the 1857 lynching of Juan Flores, the Mexican bandit whose own story is a matter of historical contention (see my "Hero and Villain," Jan. 8, 2009). In his papers at the UCI archives, Pleasants left an unpublished summary of how he fought off Mexican horse thieves in Fremont Canyon in 1862, getting wounded in a gun battle. Yet never once in his writings did he mention the previous, pertinent exploits of his patron. Essentially, Pleasants kept Wolfskill's participation secret for 70 years, never publicizing it despite many opportunities to do so—then gave the exclusive to Stephenson.

Could it have been all made up? Could Stephenson been serving as a stenographer to an aging man who mixed his life with that of his boss?

Paul Apodaca—professor of American studies at Chapman University and a longtime curator of Orange County and California history, as well as American Indian art and folk art at the Bowers Museum—doesn't think so. "I think Pleasants told the tale, and Stephenson was truthful in the relation of it," he maintains. "I also believe Wolfskill told [Pleasants] that tale. Because there's no reason to not believe it. The context of Wolfskill in LA at that time, looking for work because there were no beavers, and the concerns about horse thievery all make it likely that he picked up a quick job from Mexican rancheros trying to pick up their horses."

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

Growing up in Tustin in the 1950s, the Black Star Canyon massacre "was part of the folklore of the native community, of the mountain community and of the historical community." Apodaca and his father would travel across Southern California's vanquished Indian villages—including the one up in Black Star Canyon.

The professor acknowledges "a number of indistinct elements to the [Wolfskill epic]." He doesn't understand, for instance, how a group of Indian horse thieves could camp out so near an Indian village without repercussions. "The Indians [in Orange County] all worked on rancho," he says. "They knew very well the feelings about stealing horses among the rancheros. They would be very unlikely to harbor horse thieves that would put them in danger with the rancheros they worked for and with."

He also points out that the thieves probably wouldn't have slaughtered horses for food, given they were so near cattle ranches and the abundant fauna in the canyons during that era. "And what happened to the dead bodies? If they were members, the villagers would've taken them, and even if they weren't, they wouldn't have abided dead bodies," Apodaca says. "Everyone knows that dead bodies will breed sickness. Those are all mysterious elements to the tale."

Told of the discrepancies and lack of documentation before Stephenson, Apodaca stands firm in his belief. "That doesn't surprise me at all. Especially in the 19th Century, the printed word had much greater importance than it does today," he says. "I think it's very likely that people held back words that would further alienate the [Indian] labor force and those that worked with them.

"I believe the tale," he repeats. "I think [Wolfskill] picked up a couple of extra dollars doing a job for someone. He might've killed a couple of Indians, or didn't kill anyone and told the story so they thought they got their money's worth."

What fascinates him more than facts, though, is what it all means. "The meta-narrative of OC historians has been to describe the county as created and civilized by white people," Apodaca says, cracking that Jim Sleeper "tried to describe all of OC as attributable to Iowa." "The role of Indians in that meta-narrative is for [whites] to prove their heroism and bravery against them.

"Folk tales do not reflect accurate historic information," he points out. "They reflect the values of the people who keep on passing the tale. That's important because there could be two folklores connected to the incident. The first folklore is one that is speaking of the value of Europeans in California in their relationship to Indians in a dominant position. The second folklore uses the same incident to create sympathy for the Indians—that contemporary people are using the [massacre] to think what a terrible thing that was—which is why they tie it to ghost stories today. The ghosts are punishing us for letting this happen."

Which returns us to the horror show.

In her unpublished notes about the history of OC's canyon country on file at the UCI archives, Adelina Pleasants lists its murders and crimes. When it came to Black Star Canyon, though, she didn't mention any Indian massacres, instead dismissing them as "bleak hills." And then, this: She added that Californios claimed the area was "haunted, and that the moans and cries could be heard there after nightfall."

It's impossible to know what really happened up in Black Star Canyon—whether there was a massacre of Native Americans, whether Wolfskill was involved, whether it's all a fable. But that's beside the point. People believe it happened, and that's what matters.

Apodaca is right: We need that massacre, whatever the circumstances. It gives us a sense of shared identity, regardless of how grotesque its roots may be. Investigating the past leads to inconveniencing the OC way—the biggest sin a resident can commit. So perhaps, when wondering what really went down up there, it's best to paraphrase the conclusion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford's iconic meditation on truth in the American West: This is Orange County, folks. When the Indian slaughter becomes fact, print the Indian slaughter.

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