Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua

Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua

John Russell Bartlett

New York 1854


At San Diego:

No event that is worthy of mention occurred here, except a visit from a band of Diegueno Indians. The chief and several of his tribe were sent to me at my request by a Californian gentleman. They were miserable, ill looking set, with dark brown complexions and emaciated bodies; and though the weather was cold, they were but slightly clad. Articles of old and cast-off clothing, such as tattered shirt and pantaloons, were all that the best could boast of. One, I think the chief, had a piece of a horse blanket around his cadaverous looking body. I managed to get from them of vocabulary of their language; though I must confess that with the exception of the Apache, I never found one so difficult to express, in consequence of the guttural and nasals with which it abounded. I finally got the words so correct, that the Indians could recognize them, and give me the Spanish equivalents. I tried to write down some short sentences, but was obliged to give up the attempt as unsuccessful. I could not combine the words so as to be understood in a single instance. These Indians occupy the coast for some 50 miles above, and about the same distance below, San Diego, and extend about 100 miles into the interior. They are the same who were known to the first settlers as the Comeya tribe. I also found an Indian here from the upper Sacramento River. He had been taken prisoner by the American troops about three years before, and was now living with some of the officers. He was quick and intelligent, and answered promptly my questions relative to his tribe and country. I could not, however, ascertain the precise locality of his people, which he called the Heh’hana tribe – the H a deep guttural. I got from him a complete vocabulary of his language.


The geysers of Plutonic River, and returned to San Francisco:

An Indian village stood a few hundred yards from the house; and at my request Mr. Knight went out and brought me some three of the most intelligent among them, from whom I obtained a full vocabulary of their language. Like many other tribes of the country, and of this region in particular, they appeared to have no name for themselves as a people. By the white people these and all other Indians between the Sacramento and the coast, and thence through the central parts of the state, are called “Diggers” or “Digger Indians,” from the fact that they live chiefly on roots, which they collect by digging. I therefore set them down as Indians of Napa Valley. We had met with several small bands, and passed a few villages on our way up; but from none could I learn that they had any name for their tribe. This fact will account for the great diversity in the names of the California Indians as given by travelers. In examining the various books on this country and articles in scientific journals, I find tribes mentioned by names which are not elsewhere to be found; and in my inquiries I have found tribes who called themselves by names which I never heard before. This has induced me to believe that the small tribes are bands, which abound here more than in any other part of North America, when asked to what tribe they belong, give the name of their chief, which is misunderstood by the inquirer to be that of the tribe itself.

Their houses are circular, and from 12 to 30 feet in diameter, the interior usually excavated about 3 feet below the surface of the ground. Within this circle posts are planted, forked at the top upon which rest poles reaching from one to the other. The spaces between the posts are filled in with sticks or tules, against which the earth is firmly banked up outside. The roofs are dome-shaped, and in the smaller houses, supported by a single post in the center, on the four top of which rest two main rafters, with their outer ends planted in the ground. From these are stretched stout poles, about a foot apart and thatched with sticks and tules, or rushes closely interwoven, and covered with a solidly pressed layer of earth about a foot thick making the roof completely waterproof in the heaviest rains. In some villages the houses have but one aperture which is on the top of the roof, and serves for both door and chimney. This is entered by a sort of rude ladder, or by notches cut in the center post. Others have an opening at the side, so small as to not be entered except by crawling on the hands and knees. Around the sides of the interior are wide shelves, formed of poles and rushes nesting on four posts, which serve for beds.

In the view of the interior of one of their dwellings is seen a number of decoy ducks which they used to great advantage. Although the California tribes exhibit much skill at fishing and entrapping game, and the erection of their dwellings, they show little ingenuity in the arts of design. The accompanying rude figure in wood, of a woman and child, which is found on the coast, is all that I have seen of their carving.

The Indians dwelling near the great rivers of California make much dependence upon the salmon and sturgeon which they can take. For this purpose they use both nets and spears. When the river is wide, the nets are stretched by means of booms projecting from the banks, sometimes 100 feet into the stream. These booms are made of the trunks of trees, fasten together at the ends, and kept at right angle with the shore by stays of grape vine stretching from the boom to trees or stakes. Beneath the outer end of the boom is afloat or raft of tule, upon which is stuck a branch gaily trimmed with feathers and other ornaments, as a charm to secure success. Other charms, usually made up bunches of feathers raised upon poles, are placed along the bank, where are also one or two huts for the party in attendance. One of the party holds constantly in his hand a line attached to the net, by means of which he can feel when a large fish is entangled, whereupon the net is hauled in and the prize secured.

When the sturgeon is caught, the spinal marrow, which is considered a delicacy, is drawn out whole through a cut made in the back, and devoured raw, with rapidity quite startling to one not aware of the strength of an Indians stomach.

The spear is a very ingenious and effective contrivance. When thrown into a fish, the head, which is a bone with a line attached towards the point, detaches itself from the pole, which serves as a drag to weary out the fish. As soon as the pole can be seized, nothing remains but to haul the prey in.

The men either go naked or where a simple breech cloth. The women wear a cloth or strips of leather around their loins. A basket pointed at the lower end, is in universal use amongst them, for gathering the roots and seeds which form their chief subsistence. This is carried on their backs, supported by a band across the forehead. Their arms of defense are bows and arrows. Some tribes, however, make use of the spear or lance. In one respect the California Indians differ from all others. I allude to their beards, which are generally permitted to grow. It is true they are not as thick and bushy as in the white race, but short, thin, and stiff. I have never seen them extend beyond the upper lip and the chin. The hair of all California Indians I have seen is cut short.


At Monterey:

Monterey has always been noted for its excellent society; although the Americans have monopolized every other town in the state, it still preserves much of its original character. The old Californian or Castilian families are still in the ascendancy; but the young Americans and other foreigners are making terrible inroads among them, and carrying off their fair daughters. Many officers of the United States Army have married in California; and from what I heard, here and at other places, others intend following their example. The young señorita is certainly possessed many attractions and of those shut up in the secluded part of the world, without the advantage of a good education or of intercourse with refined society, they need not fear a comparison with their own ladies. In deportment they are exceeding gentle and ladylike, with all the natural grace and dignity which belong to the Castilian nation. Their complexion is generally as fair as the Anglo-Saxon, particularly along the seacoast, with large black eyes and hair. In this respect they differ much from the Mexican ladies of the interior, who are generally brunettes. In form they differ from their Mexican sisters. The latter are too often short and stout, while the Californian ladies are as slender and delicate in form as those from our Atlantic states. I was struck too with the elegance and purity of their language, which presented a marked contrast with the corrupt dialects spoken in Mexico.

The Californians as a people appear superior to the Mexicans, which may be attributed to two causes. Both countries, it is true, were colonized by the same race; but I think a superior class of men came to California, who have preserved their Castilian blood from all admixture with that of the aborigines. There were, doubtless, fewer of the poor class to who came here, owing to the greater length and cost of the journey, and the increase by immigration has been trifling since. The original colonists possessed large tracts of land, and have ever since continued in an isolated state, marrying among themselves, and enjoying a life of luxury and ease. The climate, unlike that of Mexico, is healthy and invigorating; while the humid atmosphere of the coast gives the fairness and brilliancy to the complexion unknown to the dry and burning planes of Mexico.

Although San Francisco will always rank first in the scale of Californian cities, by reason of its superior harbor and great commercial facilities, Monterey will become the residence of gentlemen of fortune, on account of its more genial climate and its distance from the noise and bustle of a great city. It will be to San Francisco what Newport is now to New York.


At Los Angeles:

I saw more Indians about this place than in any part of California I had yet visited. They were chiefly mission Indians i.e. those who had been connected with the missions, and derived their support from them until the suppression of those establishments. They are a miserable squalid looking set, squatting or lying about the corners of the streets, without occupation. They have now no means of obtaining a living, as their lands are all taken from them; and the missions for which they labored, and which provided after a sort for many thousands of them, are abolished. No care seems to be taken of them by the Americans; on the contrary, the effort seems to be, to exterminate them as soon as possible. One of the most intelligent of them, who was brought to me by the kindness of my friends here, was unacquainted with the name of the tribe to which he belonged, and only knew that it had been attached to certain missions. I obtained from him a vocabulary, which I found on examination to be the Diegueno language, with some words different from that obtained from San Diego.


At Mission San Gabriel:

These 5000 Indians constituted a large family, of which the Padres were the social, religious, and we might also say political head.

Living thus, this vile and degraded race began to learn some of the fundamental principles of civilized life. The institution of marriage began to be respected, and blessed by the rights of religion, grew to be so much considered that deviations from its duties were somewhat unfrequent occurrences. The girls, on their arrival at the age of puberty, were separated from the rest of the population and taught the useful arts of sewing, weaving, carding, etc., and were only permitted to mingle with the population when they had assumed the characters of wives.

When at present we look around and behold the state of the Indians of this country – when we see their women degraded into a scale of life too menial to be even domestics – when we behold their men brutalized by drink, incapable of work, and following a system of petty thievery for a living, humanity cannot refrain from wishing that the dilapidated mission of San Gabriel should be renovated, its broken walls be rebuilt, its roofless houses be covered, and its deserted halls be again filled with its ancient, industrious, happy, and contented original population.


At San Luis Rey:

The sargeant, at my request, sent for an old Indian of the neighborhood, who called himself the chief. On learning that an officer of the US government wished to see him, he made appearance with three others of his tribe. The old man presented himself in the dress of a Mexican officer – a blue coat with a red facings, trimmed with gold and lace, and a high military cap feather. He was quite communicative, and answered my questions readily. In giving me the words of his language, he enunciated them with great distinctiveness, and would not be satisfied with my pronunciation until all could at once recognize the word. When I had completed my vocabulary, and read off the native words, he evinced great pleasure as he repeated the corresponding word in Spanish, occasionally exclaiming Bueno or Muy Bueno! He called his tribe the Kechi.

On inquiring as to the state of things when the Padres were here, the old man heaved a deep sigh. He said his tribe was large, and his people all happy, when the good fathers were here to protect them. That they cultivated the soil; assisted in rearing large herds of cattle; were taught to be blacksmiths and carpenters, as well as other trades; that they had plenty to eat, and were happy. He remembered when 3000 of his tribe were settled in the valley, dependent upon or connected with the mission. Now he said they were scattered about, he knew not where, without a home or protectors, and were in a miserable starving condition. A few hundred alone remained to some villages up the valley, a few miles from the mission. He spoke with much affection of Father Peyri, its original founder who had resided here for 34 years. At no time, he said, where there more than 16 Spanish soldiers here, who occupied the building facing the mission, which is still standing.

Mr. Alexander Forbes, who met the venerable Peyri, and who has given us this account of his history, thus closes his remarks on the mission, and the affection entertained by the Indians for their pastor: “The best and the most unequivocal proof of the good conduct of these fathers, is to be found in the unbounded affection and devotion invariably shown towards them by their Indian subjects. They venerate them not merely as friends and fathers, but with the degree of devoted next approaching to adoration. On occasion of the removals that have taken place of late years, from political causes, the distress of the Indians and parting with their pastors has been extreme. They have entreated to be allowed to follow them in their exile, with tears and lamentations, and with all the demonstrations of true sorrow and unbounded affection. Indeed, if there ever existed an instance of the perfect justice and propriety of the comparison of the priest and his disciples to a shepherd and his flock, it is in the case of which we are treating. These poor people may indeed be classed with the ‘silly sheep’ rather than with any other animal; and I believe they would, in the words of the poet, even ‘lick the hand though it was raised to shed their blood’– – if this were the hand of the friar.”


At San Diego:

San Diego, like Monterey, is noted for its excellent society. There remain many of the old Castilian families here, who have preserved their blood from all admixture with the Indians. In this circle, all Americans and foreigners visiting the place have experienced such pleasure; for such is its refined and social character, that one almost imagines himself again enjoying the delights of home. The Californian ladies are said to possess all the finer qualities of the sex, whether of the head or the heart, and make most excellent wives. Such had been the attractions of these fair señoritas for the young American officers, that many have been induced to relinquish their commissions in the United States Army, and become planters or stock raisers in California.


At the Indian village of San Felipe:

June 2. Found ourselves in the valley without woods, in the lower part of which was a marshy spot with pools of water. Early in the morning our tents were thronged with Indians, who appeared to belong to the Diegueno tribe. They were a filthy looking set, half clad and apparently half starved. During the day, we saw many men and women wading about the marsh gathering roots and seeds of which two articles and acorns, their principal food consists. The women seem to be the chief laborers, the men lounging about the camp most of the day. The improvidence of the people seems almost incomprehensible. A very little exertion would have repaid them with all the wheat, maize, and vegetables, required for their subsistence. To these they might add a few cattle, which in this country, may be obtained for a mere trifle from the Ranchos, whose increase in this fine valley would give them a plenty supply of meat. As it is, they have neither corn nor meat, and spend 10 times as much labor in collecting the roots, seeds, and other wretched food they live on, as would be necessary by cultivating the soil to produce, fruits, and meets an abundance.

The village consists of 23 miserable old huts or wigwams built of straw and rushes. Some were covered with rawhides of various colors. A few small patches of ground were cultivated, not exceeding altogether a couple of acres. This was not for the want of land, as there were many hundred acres of good land around them, which by irrigation could be made furtile. From appearances near the village, I was led to believe that there had long been a settlement here, there being not only traces of former buildings in every direction, but also of acequias or trenches for irrigating the lands.


At Vallecita:

A band of Diegueno Indians live here, to whom the arrival of a train is an event of some importance. They made their appearance early this morning, dressed in their holiday clothes, and appeared more cleanly than any Indians we had seen. Nearly all wore clean white or fancy calico shirts, their only garment; pantaloons being regarded by all Indians as useless articles of dress. These people were formerly connected with the missions, and hence call themselves Christians; but they now live in a most degraded state of indolence and poverty. They cultivate beans and pumpkins, and pick up an occasional mule, which serves them for food; though their main reliance is upon the acorns, which they collect and store up in large baskets for winter use. The labor of preparing them for food is like almost all other labor, performed by the women, who were to be seen in front of every hut wielding their heavy stone pestles. When acorns are reduced to flour, it is washed to remove the bitter taste, and then cooked into a kind of gruel, or made into bread. These Indians were very attentive to us, bringing us wood (which is very scarce here) and water, and otherwise assisting about the camp. They seemed amply repaid with a few old clothes, or any fragments of food that remained from our tables. Our culinary department was always the great point of attraction to these poor creatures, who would often form a double circle around the campfires, much to the annoyance of the cook. The weather was excessively hot today, the mercury standing at 105°F in the shade under the bushes.


Fort Yuma:

Four miles below Fort Yuma are the remains of a fortification called Fort Defiance. This is the spot where we first encamped, and were unable to reach the water. It is an old ferrying place, and the scene of a massacre by the Yumas the year before our visit, the particulars of which I will state.

In 1849, when large numbers of people from the United States and the adjacent province of Sonora were emigrating to California, many came by the Gila and crossed the Colorado here. At this time, as there was no garrison on the spot, nor any white settlers, the Yumas derived quite an advantage from aiding emigrants to cross, having by some means of obtained a boat or scow for the purpose. A party of Americans, seeing a prospect of a lucrative business by the establishment of a ferry, dispossessed the Indians of their boat, drove them from the river, and would not permit them to help emigrants across or otherwise have anything to do with them. The leader in this affair was Dr. Langdon of Louisiana. The ferry was established at the rocky spur before alluded to; upon which, directly on the bank of the river, they built a rude fort wherein they could defend themselves. This, in contempt for the natives whom they had dispossessed of their rights, they called Fort Defiance.

The party which originally established the ferry was fitted out by JP Brodie, Esq., a gentleman living at Hermosillo in Sonora, of whom I have before spoken; he advanced the money for the purpose and retained an interest in it. While this gentleman had the direction of affairs, no further offense was given to the Indians, and emigrants were always treated well and fairly dealt with. Not long after, however, a man called Gallantin was employed by Dr. Langdon, or some other way became interested in the ferry. He turned out to be a bad fellow, and was supposed to be a fugitive from justice. He treated the Indians most brutally, and practiced all sorts of impositions upon the passing emigrants, charging about four dollars a head for everyone who crossed the river. He also extorted large sums from the Sonorans when returning to their homes from the mines, when he found or believed they had any considerable amount of gold with them.

When Dr. Langdon found out the character of Gallantin, he endeavored to get rid of him, but found himself unable to do so. About this time Gallantin took occasion to visit San Diego; and there his party got into a fight, in which a soldier was killed. Gallantin was arrested and imprisoned, but made his escape back to the Colorado with a supply of liquor. The men having fallen asleep, either from the effects of liquor or fatigue, the Yumas, who had watched their opportunity, rushed upon them with their clubs, and massacred every soul at the ferrry, embracing some 12 or 15 persons. Three men were at some distance in the woods cutting timber; these seeing from the actions of the Indians that something was wrong, succeeded in concealing themselves, and made their escape by joining a party of Mexicans who soon after came along. A large sum of money, all that had been saved by Langdon and Gallantin (estimated at from $15-$30,000) fell into the hands of the Indians; and this was freely used by them in supplying their wants from the emigrants who afterwards passed. They knew little of the value of gold, and would sometimes give four or five doubloons for an old worn out blanket, or gold eagle for a tattered shirt.

No sympathy was felt for the men who had thus lost their lives, but the event tended to encourage the Yumas in acts of violence, in which many innocent and un-offending parties perished. I heard of one occasion on which a party of emigrants crossed while the Yumas retained the ferrry. The Indians showed friendship for them, and assisted in making their fires and in taking charge of their animals. The party cooked their meal, and sat down quietly to eat; for although numbers of the Yumas were about their fires and the camp, their presence causes no uneasiness, as they were unprovided with arms. But on a sudden, at a given signal, they each seized a billet of wood from the fire, and knocked out the brains of the Americans.

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