Hero and Villain
A century and a half after Juan Flores terrorized Orange County, historians still can’t decide who he was
The next time you drive north on Highway 133 during the day, slow down just before the Interstate 405 North interchange and glance toward your right. Behold a fenced-off hill of grass, ready for the bulldozers that have denuded the area just south of it. Somewhere on the property is a large sign promising that another Irvine Co. housing development will soon arise.
Nowhere in this patch is there a plaque, a sign, any mention of its status as California State Historical Landmark No. 218: Barton Mound, dedicated to the memory of a slain Los Angeles County sheriff. But search long enough on the Internet, and you’ll discover the spot’s significance, as noted by the California Office of Historical Preservation:
Juan Flores, who had escaped from San Quentin, was being sought by James Barton with a posse of five men. Near this mound, Flores surprised Barton and three of his men; all four were killed. When Los Angeles learned of the slaughter, posses were formed, and Flores and his men were captured.
Another historical point of interest lost in a county that paves over its past with regularity. But the story of Juan Flores will never fade away, no matter how many tract homes and office parks get built atop where one of Orange County’s founding myths shot his way into immortality more than a century and a half ago. His saga is too outlandish, too valuable a piece of historical Play-Doh to cease being useful.
Pick up any general history of Orange County, and it’s guaranteed you’ll find Flores. He’s listed in a chronology of significant local events offered by the Orange County archives and in the textbook used for the Orange County history course last quarter at UC Irvine, Orange County: The Golden Promise: An Illustrated History. When South Coast Repertory commissioned a musical for children called Orange Trees in the 1970s that taught them about the county’s past, Flores figured in a vignette. The Living History Society of Mission San Juan Capistrano includes a Flores character alongside actors portraying Father Junipero Serra, explorer Gaspar de Portola and other pioneers. Chicano Studies professors invoke his name as a martyr on the altar of Manifest Destiny. Recently, KOCE-TV Channel 50’s Real Orange devoted a segment to Flores and his “Mexican bandidos.”
“I think the legend of Juan Flores proves durable because his name and reputation hearken back to an era of other noted antihero outlaws. Butch Cassidy, Jesse James—Flores is Orange County’s version of those guys,” says Chris Epting, who writes a history column for Orange Coast magazine and is the author of the recently released Images of America: Vanishing Orange County. He accompanied Real Orange host Maria Hall-Brown to find a tree where some of Flores’ friends were lynched. “The specific crimes tend to be forgotten, but the outlaw reputations tend to grow more mythical with age, creating folk heroes of a sort.”
What’s amazing about the Flores industry, however, is that it’s based on only a handful of primary sources and a couple of secondary testimonials given decades after he terrorized Southern California for a handful of weeks, each rife with biases or unsubstantiated remarks that future authors exploited for their own agendas. Was Flores a ruthless marauder? A Chicano revolutionary? A mythical figure? A flesh-and-blood person? A poor little rich boy? An innocent driven to crime out of necessity? Historians have debated his story for more than 150 years, but every retelling of the Flores tale yields more questions than answers, including the most basic one: Who was Juan Flores?
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The undisputed facts, as repeated by all tellers and verified by public records, are as follows: Flores was arrested in Los Angeles in 1855 for stealing horses but broke out of San Quentin State Prison a year later. He and other men rode down to San Juan Capistrano, where they robbed stores and murdered a German shopkeeper named George Pflugardt. Alerted by Capistrano residents, Sheriff Barton and five men left Los Angeles to try to end the mayhem (Orange County wouldn’t separate from Los Angeles County until 1889.) While Barton and his group rested at the adobe of Don Jose Andres Sepulveda (in present-day West Santa Ana), the local Mexicans warned him that a trap awaited him on the road to Capistrano. Barton ignored their advice, and Flores and his fellow robbers (who called themselves las Manillas, the Handcuffs) ambushed the sheriff’s posse where Barton Mound now stands, killing all but two. The survivors rushed to Los Angeles, while las Manillas returned to Capistrano to plunder anew.
Soon, four separate posses numbering dozens of men, Indian warriors and federal troops dispersed across Southern California to hunt down las Manillas. Flores and others were eventually captured near what’s now called Flores Peak in the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, but only after Flores slid down the mountain’s side a couple of hundred feet and nearly escaped. While in captivity at the Sepulveda rancho, he and two other men escaped under cover of night. In frustration, Andres Pico—the brother of Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor—hanged two other prisoners from an oak tree that still stands near Precitos Canyon, the very tree Real Orange showed to viewers.
At least 11 innocent Mexicans were arrested and lynched across Southern California in the chaos resulting from the search for Flores. Eventually, Flores was caught and jailed, but a mob lynched him before the courts could judge the 22-year-old. All of las Manillaswere captured and executed or lynched, with the last member not apprehended until 1859.
The only contemporary accounts of las Manillas appeared in four newspapers: the Los Angeles Star, Southern Californian, the Spanish-language El Clamor Público (The Public Clamor) and the San Francisco-based Daily Alta California; all reported that the leader of las Manillas was originally Pancho Daniel, but that Flores assumed the leadership role after Daniel was injured in the Barton ambush. Flores’ quick capture, admission to his role in the crime spree (he claimed to have only killed a Barton accomplice), and subsequent lynching ensured historians would connect his name alone with the crimes. Such notoriety—Barton was the first law-enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Southern California—also meant Flores quickly joined the pantheon of such California-based outlaws as Joaquin Murrieta and Tiburcio Vazquez in seeing their exploits enshrined, embellished and novelized in magazines and chronicles alternately romanticizing and demonizing Spanish California.
Flores didn’t get his life distorted until the late 1870s, when legendary California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft began interviewing the state’s pioneers for his archives, which the public can still view in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. From these early efforts, we have Cosas de California (Tales of California), an 1877 retrospective offered by longtime California resident Antonio Coronel. Interestingly, Coronel concentrated more on the exploits of Daniel than Flores, mentioning of the latter only that he rode with Murrieta—a charge newspapers at the time levied against Daniel, but never Flores.
A more substantial mention appeared in Horace Bell’s 1881 Reminisces of a Ranger: Or, Early Times in Southern California. The book remains a much-celebrated history of early Los Angeles, as famous for Bell’s exaggerations as it is for detailing the day-to-day life of early Los Angeles. A former vigilante himself who was involved in the pursuit of Murrieta, Bell remembered Flores, even nearly a quarter-century after the episode:
Juan Flores was a dark-complexioned fellow of medium height, slim, lithe and graceful, a most beautiful figure in the fandango or on horseback, and about 22 years old. There was nothing peculiar about Juan except his tiger-like walk—always seeming to be in the very act of springing upon his prey. His eyes, neither black, gray, nor blue, greatly resembling those of the owl—always moving, watchful and wary, and the most cruel and vindictive-looking eyes that were ever set in the human head.
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A cottage industry of Southern California histories and memoirs sprung up in the late 1800s as Southern California became increasingly developed, and inclusion of Flores virtually became mandatory. Soon, magazines such as Overland Monthly devoted to celebrating and documenting the West shared Flores with an American public thirsty for anything dealing with Old California. Bancroft’s epic History of California series in the 1880s included Barton’s murder. Each telling, however, added details never mentioned in the newspapers that actually covered the events.
In “Juan Flores, the Outlaw,” appearing in 1896 in Land of Eternal Sunshine, a journal published by the influential Southwestern historian Charles Fletcher Lummis, author Edwin B. Julian painted a scene of a “quaint old mission town” rousted from its “siesta” by las Manillas and created a protagonist to advance the narrative. The publication of The Curse of Capistrano in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, the first of his Zorro serials, combined the stories of Murrieta, Flores and others to create a new archetype: the California Robin Hood.
By the time the Los Angeles Times published a series on California bandits in 1925, Flores had transformed into a dandy. With no proof whatsoever, author Michael J. Phillips claimed in his Flores piece that he “had an eye for the picturesque. He loved to pose in the dusty plaza, attired in gaily colored garments, his belt sagging with weapons, an admiring bodyguard of lesser young Californians about him, applauding uproariously his utterances.” Phillips also told Times readers that Flores was “fond of the ladies” and “danced agilely at the fandangos” but secretly kept “the temper of a devil. It was ever a word and a blow with Juan. If the blow could be delivered in the back—why, so much the better.” His essay ended with the ludicrous scene of Flores greeting his lynching party: “He arose, stretched with the grace of a great cat, canted his bullioned sombrero at a reckless angle over one dark eyebrow, and grinned. ‘Coming, amigos,’ he replied and stepped jauntily out” of his jail cell to meet Fate.
Five years later, the Flores mythmaking machine was so out of control that it warranted a comment from Terry E. Stephenson in Caminos Viejos: Tales Found in the History of California of Especial Interest to Those Who Love the Valleys, the Hills, and the Canyons of Orange County, Its Traditions, and Landmarks. A former editor of the Santa Ana Register and a founder of the Orange County Historical Society, Stephenson devoted a chapter of his book to Flores, whom he called “the cruelest bandit known to the history of the Santa Ana valley.”
“Written history and tradition have distorted the story of the outlawry of Juan Flores,” wrote Stephenson. “Accounts have differed widely in detail.” But Stephenson boasted his account was better than others, since it relied on someone who was alive during the 1850s: Joseph E. Pleasants, who was in his late teens when Flores was captured. The 93-year-old man had witnessed Flores’ lynching and claimed to have spoken to those involved in capturing las Manillas.
Pleasants wrote his own Flores article for Samuel Armor’s 1911 anthology, History of Orange County, California, With Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development From the Early Days to the Present, the first large-scale history book written specifically about the county. Pleasants shared new details with Stephenson, all of which stretched facts. He claimed Flores “was the black sheep of a prominent and honorable California family living in Santa Barbara,” even though birth records show Flores was born near San Jose to a family of modest means. Pleasants also advanced a conspiracy theory about the role of an Indian woman known as Chola Martina (née Martina Espinoza).
“It was whispered that Chola Martina had been a sweetheart of Flores, that she tampered with guns for him [while Barton’s posse rested in the Sepulveda rancho] and carried messages to him as they lay hidden in the willows,” according to Caminos Viejos. Pleasants admitted to Stephenson that there was never any proof of sabotage with Barton’s weapons, let alone the treacherous role of Martina, “but there was little question at the time about it.” None of the newspaper accounts of the time mentioned any problems with the guns of Barton and his posse or an Indian accomplice, nor do Bell or Coronel bring up such charges. The earliest documented allegation of this urban legend is in a note accompanying an 1899 photo of a San Juan Capistrano house known as the Burruel Adobe on file at USC’s Special Collections Library. In it, Antonio Yorba describes it as the house where Espinoza lived. “Juan Flores was often in the house,” his note read, adding that Espinoza also sheltered the gang and “helped to kill Sheriff Barton and his posse and also the German Jew merchant of San Juan, George Pflugardt.”
“That the story was true was never admitted by the woman,” added Stephenson. “Old Martina, merely mumbled her replies to those who mentioned the name of Juan Flores to her [in her old age], shrugged her fat shoulders and held out her hand for alms.”
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The Burruel Adobe still stands, albeit in ruins near the corner of El Camino Real and Forster Street. That’s a better fate than befell the shop of Michael Kraszewski. He was a Polish Jew who ran a general store that the gang robbed before heading off to kill Barton. Kraszewski didn’t tell his side of the story until 20 years after the events, to Bancroft researcher Thomas Savage. Kraszewski’s account is crucial, as it remains the only full firsthand account of a Flores victim and introduced another wrinkle that subsequent writers warped.
Kraszewski claimed Flores told him Espinoza helped murder Pflugardt by entering his store and lighting a cigarette to notify las Manillas that they could enter, but he didn’t mention anything about her messing with Barton’s guns. The store owner didn’t bear much animosity toward Flores despite the robbery. “I liked his appearance quite well when he came into my store,” he told Savage. “He was civil in his manner and spoke agreeably. I remember noticing that his coat was torn and remarking to him that a vaquero should always carry needle and thread with him, and I gave him some.”
According to Kraszewski the robbers bragged about their power after returning from the ambush—that, in addition to murdering Barton, they had robbed the houses of prominent Angelenos and had “a force of 500 men” ready for action. “I began to have a suspicion that there was a political revolution of Mexicans against the government,” Kraszewski said.
None of the newspapers at the time of Flores’ exploits connected any political purpose to las Manillas, although a newspaper article claimed many Mexicans refused to cooperate with authorities when questioned about the outlaws. The Daily Alta California alone claimed Flores’ “thirst for American blood is so great that he wished to do all the killing himself.”
But Bell went beyond Kraszewski’s seditious theme in his Reminisces of a Ranger. He insisted that Flores and Pancho Daniel began las Manillas by “ma[king] known their intent to go to Los Angeles, raise the standard of revolt and rid the country of the hated gringos.” This “embryo revolution” moved to Capistrano, where Flores “raised the standard of revolt, dispatched couriers to notify the rancheros and invite them to his standard,” according to Bell. “Judging the temper of his countrymen by his own, he felt sure of a general uprising.”
The only problem with Bell’s depiction: Most of it is demonstrably false. He wrote that Pflugardt was, “in conformity with the rules of revolution, taken to the plaza and shot,” when all other accounts place Pflugardt’s murder at his shop. Bell attributed the Barton ambush to “a false messenger” that Flores dispatched to fool Barton, while Kraszewski and newspapers credited Capistrano residents with alerting the sheriff. He admitted to relying heavily on much of the information about the “Flores insurrection” from Andres Fontes, a Manilla who maintained he joined the gang only to personally kill Barton. Apparently, Fontes once happened upon the sheriff trying to rape an Indian woman and interceded; subsequently, Barton sent Fontes to prison. For such a salacious tale, it seems strange no one else reported it at the time, especially in an era where newspapers repeated all types of allegations with little care for verification.
Bell’s accuracy is further put into question in On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminisces of a Ranger, published in 1930, about a decade after Bell’s death but dictated in the early 1900s. On the matter of Flores, he wrote, “One ought to write true history or not history at all,” and bragged that las Manillas’ mayhem was now “dignified in history as the Juan Flores Revolution” but didn’t mention his role in propagating that angle. He described Barton as an “uncouth, illiterate man” and made the outrageous claim that las Manillas only formed because Barton’s supposed Indian mistress was Fontes' sister!
Nevertheless, the specter of Mexicans and revolution fascinated chroniclers. Bancroft, in his 1887 Popular Tribunals, maintained that las Manillas “threatened the extermination of the Americans, and a war of races seemed about to be inaugurated.” Stephenson called his chapter on Flores in Caminos Viejos “The Juan Flores Uprising” and, in a 1931 Los Angeles Times Magazine essay, claimed that Flores and his boys “declared they would drive the gringos out of California” despite there being no record of such a statement in any primary source.
Where Stephenson and his ilk invoked the Flores “revolution” to strike fear into white Americans, the progressive historian Carey McWilliams took it as an act of resistance. In his 1949 North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States, McWilliams included Flores’ name alongside a grab bag of other California Mexican “villains” and maintained their historical infamy was a result of the real racism experienced by Mexicans in California. “The subordination of Mexicans in the social structure of California cannot be understood apart from this early-day pattern of violence and intimidation,” McWilliams wrote, noting many of the bandits “were well-organized for guerrilla fighting.”
Leonard Pitt’s 1966 book, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890, went further: Flores was a proto-Chicano activist. Pitt argued that men like Flores were merely “disaffected youth” who turned to crime because of their families’ losses after the Gold Rush; indeed, many of las Manillas came from such backgrounds. But Pitt included no citation to his claim that the concurrent War of the Reform in Mexico “gave a glimmer of legitimacy to guerrilla actions and convinced some men to join Flores for vaguely political motives.” Pitt twisted Kraszewski ’s account so that the Pole had heard las Manillas “shriek anti-gringo curses” and “grim references to 500 confederate Mexicans lurking in the hills for the start of a massive invasion of the southland.”
This theme was picked up by Rodolfo Acuña, whose Occupied America remains the bible of Chicano studies. Acuña was a colleague of Pitt at San Fernando Valley College (now known as Cal State Northridge) and repeated the anti-gringo rebellion meme in his 1972 study, stating, “Writers of the time freely labeled Flores’ activities as the ‘Juan Flores Revolution,’” but cited only Bell. He didn’t bother with such professionalism in writing, “The Flores revolt split Mexicans in two: the ricos [land-owning Californios] backed the Euroamericans in suppressing the rebels, and los de abajo [poor Mexicans] supported Flores.” He also mocked El Clamor Público and those Californians who joined in pursuing las Manillas: “Many Mexicanos did not share the enthusiasm of El Clamor Público and the ricos and condemned their participation in suppressing the Flores-Daniel rebellion.” The proof? An unpublished student doctoral dissertation.
The allure of Flores as belonging to a long line of Californian revolutionaries fighting off brutal Americans spread across Chicano studies. References to Flores are replete in this discipline’s texts. “It is clear,” wrote Robert J. Rosenbaum in the 1981 release Mexicano Resistance in the Southwest: The Sacred Right of Self-Preservation, “that the thought unifying all of Flores’ riders was the desire to strike out against the Anglo American regime in one way or another.” In 1982’s The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890: A Social History by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Flores “generated heroic legends symbolizing the daily struggles of the Spanish-speaking.” To Earl Shorris in his 2001 release, Latinos: A Biography of the People, Flores “reflected the Mexican political tradition begun by [War of Independence heroes] Hidalgo and Morelos.”
The tradition continues. UC Riverside professor Armando Navarro wrote in his 2004 release, Mexicano Political Experience in Occupied Aztlan: Struggles and Change, that Flores “demonstrated potential for creating an insurgent social movement.”
In No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, authors Justin Akers Chacón, Julian Cardona and the noted Los Angeles social historian Mike Davis say of Flores, “Traditionally characterized as mere desperadoes, [they] were, in fact, social bandits or even guerrilla chieftains.”
Only one scholar has ever publicly repudiated such thinking about Flores. San Francisco attorney John Boessenecker also dabbles as a historian on the West, having authored multiple books and the introduction to a reissuing of Reminisces of a Ranger. He provides one of the most thorough retellings of Flores in the 1999 book Gold Dust & Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes, complete with citations and criticism of the anti-Mexican vigilante atmosphere that pervaded Los Angeles during the 1850s. But he blasted Chicano scholars for their rose-colored perception of Flores and others. “Such assertions distort the truth,” wrote Boessenecker. “While it cannot be denied that many Hispanic outlaws had been mistreated by Anglos . . . it is unscholarly and irresponsible to label them as heroes today simply because a minority of Californians saw them as such a century ago.
“The evidence is clear,” Boessenecker concluded, “that they were pillagers, not patriots.”
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The next time you drive north on Highway 101 during the day, slow down just before the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and glance up to your right. You’ll see a grove of trees among new buildings, part of downtown Los Angeles’ current redevelopment boom. Somewhere on the property is the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, one of the largest bas-relief military monuments in the country. This is also where, on Feb. 14, 1857, Juan Flores was hanged by a mob. According to eyewitness Harris Newmark in his Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913, there were so many people on hand to witness the lynching “that it is hardly too much to say that practically every man, woman and child in the pueblo was present, not to mention many people drawn by curiosity from various parts of the state who had flocked into town.”
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There is no marker commemorating Flores. But Scripps College professor Ken Gonzales-Day directs people to this site on his downtown Los Angeles walking tour, in which interested folks can visit places where Latinos were lynched. It sprang up as a side project of his well-received 2006 book, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935. Besides Flores, seven other men died at the hands of mobs where the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial now stands.
Gonzales-Day's book places special emphasis on Espinoza, whose role he attributes more to racialized fiction than facts. “The romantic, sexualized Mexican woman is very popular in stories of those days, as opposed to the dirty greaser,” Gonzales-Day says, noting census records give her age as 16 at the time of Flores’ Capistrano sojourn. “It’s about racial desire, of Mexicans crossing the boundaries.”
Gonzalez-Day also couldn’t find records of Flores stating any political views. “I don’t have enough info to see him as a revolutionary, so that leaves him as a victim, in my opinion,” he says. “Everyone has a right to due process, even if we know he’s guilty.”