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
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

"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.

*     *     *

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.

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.

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.

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."

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

*     *     *

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.

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.

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."

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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