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Agua Mansa: Californio Roots in the Inland Empire

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Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

On a day in the 1840s, Lorenzo Trujillo sucked the poison from an arrow wound in the shoulder of the man known as Don Benito Wilson, just after a violent battle with a Native American named Joaquin in narrow canyon near the Mojave River.  Joaquin and his followers had stolen horses again and again, defiant and successful, and the Trujillos' job was to recover the livestock.

Trujillo's son Doroteo had been shot in the back, and another son Esquipula, shot in the nose and left disfigured for life, and Teodor shot in the foot.  The settlers killed Joaquin and his three followers, then fought the rest of Joaquin's men in the canyon, but eventually had to carry Wilson back to Agua Mansa, the settlement in the Santa Ana River valley protected by the Trujillos.

Don Benito Wilson was Benjamin Wilson, born in Tennessee, fur trader and trapper, eventual rancho owner, ancestor of General Patton, and Mayor of Los Angeles, for whom Mt. Wilson is named. But not if Lorenzo Trujillo hadn't saved his life. And today, standing at the gravesite of Trujillo in the Agua Mansa pioneer cemetery, it's ironic to think of something mentioned by a friend, who told me recently a few strangers had suggested her cousins "Go back to Mexico." This must have been due to brown skin and Spanish surnames. But my friend and her cousins are not from Mexico. Their maternal grandmother's family has been in Santa Ana since the late 1700s, when that place was still Rancho Santa Ana, and its citizens called Californios.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Agua Mansa is a good place to remember that California. Over 2,000 people are buried on this hill above the Santa Ana River. Lorenzo Trujillo, his sons Doroteo and Esquipula, and many more Spanish surnames inscribed on cement or stone or wood crosses.

Last week, in this dryland cemetery which is true to the landscape of New Mexico and early California (grass in winter, wildflowers in spring, sere and golden and brown in summer and fall), it was clear that the entire history of Southern California played out here, as much as any pioneer cemetery in America. Right now, with such dissent and anger over immigration and nativism and who belongs where, Agua Mansa is a vivid reminder.

Lorenzo Trujillo was a genizaro. He was born to Native American parents, possibly Comanche, Apache or Pueblo, in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It was a settlement of genizaros, a term used for captives ransomed by Spaniards from the Comanche and Apache Indians. Trujillo was baptized in 1794 (though his birthdate is unknown) by settler Juan Estevan Trujillo. Who knows what name Lorenzo Trujillo might have already been given, and what he had to forget? His adoptive parents taught him the Spanish language, culture and Catholicism. He married in 1816 and had seven children.

Abiquiu was a stop on the Old Spanish Trail, which linked Santa Fe with Los Angeles. By the time they made the trek to the Santa Ana River valley, Trujillo and his four sons were already known as veteran "Indian fighters," recruited in 1838 to keep livestock and "gentle horses" safe for the ranchos. They made the journey from New Mexico, through Colorado, Utah and Nevada, then down the Cajon Pass. It took three months to get to Rancho San Bernardino, where Don Antonio Lugo's rancho kept losing horses.

The Native Americans of Salt Lake, of Nevada, and of the Mohave River area made forays "every full moon," according to California historians, especially Chief Walkara of the Utes. Trujillo was given land in exchange for "protection against thieves and marauders of every hue." (A few years later, when the Gold Rush ran out of gold, bands of broke Texans worked their way along the Inland ranchos and stole everything from trunks to blankets to food and horses.)

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Trujillo worked for Don Lugo until a falling out, and then he received land from Don Juan Bandini at his Rancho Jurupa, a few miles away. Trujillo founded La Placita, on the east side of the Santa Ana River, and other settlers stayed in Agua Mansa, Spanish for Gentle Water, on the west side. By the mid 1840s, this was the largest community between New Mexico and Los Angeles.

The settlers dug irrigation ditches and canals, planted grain, grapes, and raised livestock. It seemed like paradise, and plenty of immigrants thought so, too.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Cornelius Boy Jensen was a sea captain born on the Danish island of Sylt in 1814, landed in San Francisco where his crew promptly deserted ship for the mines of the Gold Rush. Jensen didn't take to mining, but ended up in southern California, where at Mission San Gabriel, the 40-year-old married Mercedes Alvarado, 16 and a native Californio. They had twelve children and ran a store at Agua Mansa. Her sister Refugio Alvarado married Jensen's cousin, Peter Peters, also born in Sylt. They are all buried at Agua Mansa.

Isaac Slover, born in 1786 in Kentucky, was one of the first American fur trappers in Taos. He married a New Mexican woman, moved to Agua Mansa and loved to hunt bear, which he did until one fateful 1854 encounter with a grizzly. His grave marker reads "Pioneer Hunter Trapper Killed By a Bear Near Cajon Pass."

Louis Robidoux, a descendant of French men who came to Canada, then to St. Louis, also came from New Mexico to Agua Mansa, and married Guadalupe Garcia, and had nine children.

Benjamin Wilson, saved by Lorenzo Trujillo, married into the Yorba family. Yet, he and Jensen fought in The Battle of Chino against Mexican forces during the US Mexican War of 1846-48, were captured by Mexicans, could have been found guilty of treason and shot. But they were released, and prospered. (Even more ironic, "Don Benito" Wilson ran for the California legislature under the "Know-Nothing" party, a minor party opposed to immigration in America.)

During all this, La Placita and Agua Mansa thrived. Lorenzo Trujillo, ever faithful, built an enramada for Catholic worship, and then the communities built a church. But in 1862, after fifteen days of rain, the Santa Ana River flooded the entire valley. Only the church bell that had called the people to run for the hills (no one died!), the cemetery, and Cornelius Jensen's store remained. Adobe buildings literally melted away in the water, reduced to the soil and straw they had been before, and gravel and sand covered the land and crops. After that, two years of historic drought, the worst in California history, meant the place never recovered. People moved to the hills of Highgrove, and San Salvador, where communities still thrive.

Students at San Salvador School,1897; most are direct descendants of original Agua Mansans | Photo courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum
Students at San Salvador School,1897; most are direct descendants of original Agua Mansans | Photo courtesy of the San Bernardino County Museum

The cemetery is not barren but stoic and golden and yes, a little scary. According to Michele Nielsen, curator at San Bernardino County Museum, many of the markers were vandalized before the fence was built. Wooden crosses had already burned in a grass fire. Marie Espinosa Wood, descendant of pioneer families, campaigned to save the cemetery beginning in 1955, clearing the ground, building the fence, holding fundraisers with tamales, tacos and tostadas.

Under pepper tree branches waving like ferns in the wind, I see offerings left by family (a bowl of shells, Mexican pottery, a serape, flowers and angels). At one gravesite, squirrels have dug recent tunnels, and atop one of the mounds of earth they've excavated under the marker, I see what looks like a fingerbone.  A three-inch stem of gray bone that looks like a phalange.  Near it is a larger round, ossified bone that could be something else.  I'm not an expert.  But standing here makes me think that humans arrive, they fight, they marry and have children, they build houses of adobe and brick, or of wood, or someone else builds it with drywall and stucco in developments of ten thousand. Rains swell the rivers and wipe it all away, or fires reduce it to ash, or drought takes away the crops and lawns. Houses disappear, or are foreclosed upon, and someone new tries again. Over and over - the history of humans in any landscape, no matter their skin color, religion, or place of origin. Their bones are arranged in the same way. Fingerbones are five on each hand, no matter where we come from.

On Oct 28, a sculpture will be dedicated at the cemetery by descendants of Lorenzo Trujillo. According to Nielsen, when she talks to people whose ancestors are buried at Agua Mansa, some identify as Native American, some as Mexicanos whose parents came in the 1920s to work in the railyards, and some as Chicano. Some, like the descendants of Louis Robidoux who came to replace the wooden cross which burned in a grass fire decades ago with a new concrete marker, who came from all over the United States, say they are American.

This is now the "Agua Mansa Industrial Corridor." The steel structures and towers right against the cemetery to the north and west are concrete batch plants -- E-Z Mix concrete and Angelus Block, the largest maker of block, pavers, and retaining wall components in California. Further down the narrow winding road is Tombstone Paintball, with a plywood fake town and other obstacles where people can shoot at each other, just like they did in the old days.

But I picture Lorenzo Trujillo and his sons, riding after stolen horses through narrow canyon passes, genizaros and Californios still watching from this bluff.

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room." She teaches at UCRiverside.

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