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Profiles in Mojave Desert History
Chief Juan Antonio
1845 - Recruited to attack Luiseño in Mexican War, killed 33 to 100 at Temecula
Chief Juan Antonio and his band of Cahuilla Indians helped white settlers in the San Bernardino area defend their property and livestock against outlaws during the 1840s and 1850s. In late 1851, Juan Antonio, his warriors and their families, settled at nearby Saahatpa. During the winter of 1862-63, a smallpox epidemic swept through Southern California killing many Native Americans, including Juan Antonio. Cahuilla tradition asserts that the U.S. Government sent Army blankets that were contaminated with smallpox. After this disaster, Saahatpa was abandoned.
From Glimpses of California and the missions, by Helen Hunt Jackson
Their last great chief, Juan Antonio, died twenty years ago. At the time of the Mexican War he received the title of General from General Kearney, and never afterward appeared in the villages of the whites without some fragmentary attempts at military uniform. He must have been a grand character, with all his barbarism. He ruled his band like an emperor, and never rode abroad without an escort of from twenty to thirty men. When he stopped one of his Indians ran forward, bent down, took off his spurs, then, kneeling on all-fours made of his back a stool, on which Juan stepped in dismounting and mounting. In 1850 an Indian of this tribe, having murdered another Indian, was taken prisoner by the civil authorities and carried to Jurupa to be tried. Before the proceedings had begun, Juan, with a big following of armed Indians, dashed up to the court-house, strode in alone, and demanded that the prisoner be surrendered to him.
“I come not here as a child,” he said. “I wish to punish my people my own way. If they deserve hanging, I will hang them. If a white man deserves hanging, let the white man hang him. I am done.”
The prisoner was given up. The Indians strapped him on a horse, and rode back to their village, where, in an open grave, the body of the murdered man had been laid. Into this grave, on top of the corpse of his victim, Juan Antonio, with his own hands flung the murderer alive, and ordered the grave instantly filled up with earth.
There are said to have been other instances of his dealings with offenders nearly as summary and severe as this. He is described as looking like an old African lion, shaggy and fierce; but he was always cordial and affectionate in his relations with the whites. He died in 1863, of smallpox, in a terrible epidemic which carried off thousands of Indians.
Speech cited in unattributed newspaper article in the "Scrapbooks of Benjamin Hayes, " September 15, 1852, Vol 38, Bancroft Library, Berkeley.
My People Are Buried All Around
Probably no Indian leader of the region was more sympathetic to the Americans than Juan Antonio, a powerful Cahuilla chieftain from the San Bernardino region. While there were occasional tensions and misunderstandings between Juan Antonio and some American officials, he remained a friend and ally of the whites until his death. Yet, Juan Antonio's friendship and efforts to maintain peace did not lessen his sense of justice or dim his view of wrongs perpetrated on his people. On the occasion of demanding that prisoner who had killed another Indian be released from white custody in San Bernardino, Juan Antonio told an audience in December 1861 that:
My people come here to the white people, and walk about, and the white men give them whiskey, and then they try to get their squaws, and then they fight. My people are buried all around, killed by white men. I shall take my people all away from this place [San Bernardino], and then there will be no more of this.
I am an American??my people are all Americans, although we are Indians. If we should hear of armed men in these mountains, we should come and tell you, and help you to fight them. If bad men should come here to fight you, we should fight with you. This is our country, and it is yours. We are your friends, we want you to be ours.
Juan Antonio's speech was printed in the San Bernardino Weekly Patriot, December 7, 1861
Copyright ©Walter Feller. All rights reserved.
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