STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
The Story of Estanislao
There is a thread of romantic interest as well as of exciting adventure in the story of Estanislao, the swarthy Indian chieftain who embraced Christianity in the early decades of the last century and who, after several years of religious life and training at the Mission of San Jose, fled from the quiet environment of the Spanish padres, returned to the wild existence of his youth on the pristine plains of old Stanislaus, and became a freebooting bandit, rivaling the exploits of the brigands Joaquin Murieta and Tiburcio Vasquez of a later era, and harassing the inhabitants of the settlements and of the missions. It was Estanislao who gave his name to the river and the county of Stanislaus.
The historical background from which Estanislao emerged was suitable for the development of such a career as this crafty neophyte made for himself in the annals of the state. Aside from the fact of the constant warfare between the spiritual and the temporal authorities of the Mexican territory, there were friction and intense jealousy among the political leaders of the northern, and the southern jurisdictions of California which plunged the state into constant turmoil, halted the execution of the law, and prevented the co-operative progress of the sparsely-settled province. These incessant broils – bespeaking a lack of cohesion among the various elements of the state – prepared the way for its subsequent conquest by the United States.
Echeandia was the governor of the state at this critical epoch. He and his following accorded to the fathers the severest kind of treatment. They belittled the work and the efforts of the padres. In their campaign for the secularization of the missions in order to alienate the affections of the natives from their religious instructors and friends, they preached to the superficially educated, partially civilized, and none-too-loyal neophytes the doctrine of liberty and the equality of the converted Indians with the Spaniards.
This course of speech and action produced an unexpected effect on the neophytes attached to the missions. Where they had previously accepted religious instruction with docility and had performed the menial tasks allotted them in and about the missions with contentment, after Echeandia and those who shared his views had harangued them with their lofty talks, these peculiar ideas, instilled into the immature minds of the religious novitiates, caused a distinct change in their attitude. Thereafter they were neither as contented nor as obedient as they had previously been. They were prepared to embark on any adventure that promised excitement or loot of the whites. The seed thus planted for political purposes produced a crop of Indian disturbance and warfare.
The records of history are silent as to the date when Estanislao became a resident of the Mission of San Jose. He unquestionably came up from the Valley of the San Joaquin some time during the early years of the last century during the administration of Fathers Buenaventura Fortuni and Narciso Duran, the latter afterwards becoming a friend of Estanislao. The population of the pueblo was perhaps 250 whites and about from 500 to 600 neophytes – the latter result being accomplished through nearly 1,400 baptisms. The industries of the community were stock raising, agriculture, and the cultivation of hemp. The town was generally fairly prosperous. It was into this primitive community of Spaniards, Mexicans, and Indian neophytes that Estanislao came for religious instruction and education, and perhaps to gain a larger knowledge of the habits and customs of the whites. He was baptized in the pueblo chapel, and was given the name of Estanislao, probably after one of the saints of the church.
An Indian of considerable native intelligence, he received his education at the mission. It may have been possible that he attended the pueblo school and became intimate with those old-time teachers, Buelna, Labistido, and the one-legged soldier, Romero. He was apparently punctual in his devotions at divine worship. Showing more than ordinary ability and, apparently, a degree of loyalty to the mission that merited confidence, he was appointed one of its native alcaldes.
In this position he unquestionably acquired an influence over the neophytes. The office being that of a minor magistrate it was his duty, under the Mexican law, to dispense justice among them. Throughout his residence at the mission he must have witnessed all the notable events that transpired both at the mission and at the pueblo. He must have viewed with some interest the boundary contests between the mission and the pueblo of San Jose, for at this place the mission and the pueblo were separate jurisdictions. The exasperating boundary disputes between the Missions of San Jose and Santa Clara must have impressed the Indian mind. He may even have assisted in the raids after the gentile assassins of the Christian Indians, and may have been sent forth with the contingents that were dispatched after fugitive neophytes.
The visits of Kotzenbue, of Beechey, of Duhant-Cilly, and of Robinson – world navigators from the eastern hemisphere – to San Jose may have filled Estanislao with the yearning to explore the farther ends of the world from which these fair-haired and white-faced people came. When the citizens assembled in the plaza May 10, 1825, to take the oath of allegiance to the Mexican constitution which was administered by Alcalde Higuera, the change of government and the manifestation of patriotism on the part of the Californians perhaps made some impression on the future outlaw, while the florid address of John Miranda may not have fallen on ears deaf to the flights of the oratory of the speaker. Estanislao may have even participated in the three days' bull-fighting and the other festivities that succeeded this notable event. Nor indeed did the lack of good order and of thrift on the part of the San Jose citizenry fail to escape the crafty intellect of Estanislao, for it was only a few years thereafter that the fugitive neophyte made the San Jose Mission the object of his brigandage.
Whether it was due to the mixed feelings engendered by this exciting panorama of events, to the brutal treatment of the neophytes in the frequent floggings administered by those in authority, to the alarming mortality among the apparently converted Indians, to the menial tasks allotted to them, to the high-flown political philosophy of Echeandia, to a fancied rebuff from some superior, or to the plain call of the wild, Estanislao, either in the fall of 1827 or in the spring of 1828, induced a number of neophytes from the Missions of San Jose and Santa Clara to flee with him to the San Joaquin Valley.
On the Rio Laquismes, near the San Joaquin river, in company with other gentile Indians, Estanislao and his associate, Cipriano, erected fortifications. After the fatal contest of the following year in which Estanislao was defeated and in commemoration of this battle between his forces and the troops under General M. G. Vallejo, the name of this river was changed to the Rio Estanislao.
The flight of so able a leader with so many Indians, their fortification on the Rio Estanislao and the daring with which they conducted their operations against the missions and the soldiers of Mexico, caused the padres of San Jose and Santa Clara to assume that Estanislao was instigating an uprising of all the neophytes at these two missions. In stealing cattle, in looting, and in killing inhabitants, the Indians under Estanislao made themselves the terror of the ranches of the neighborhood. The authorities of the state were confronted with a large problem in the quelling of the activities of Estanislao and his associate, Cipriano. Father Duran immediately called upon Commandante Martinez for troops to destroy the fortifications and to bring back the fugitives to the missions.
An expedition of twenty men was organized to move against the rebellious Indians, but it was not ready to start until May of 1829. In the meantime the Indians continued their onslaughts and their insulting challenges to the soldiers. May 5, 1829, Sergeant Sanchez, with forty men and a swivel gun, left San Francisco for the location of the fortifications of Estanislao. In two days after, reinforced by troops from San Jose, he reached the spot where the Indians had entrenched on the banks of the Rio Estanislao near the junction of the San Joaquin. It was in a dense and extensive thicket which was difficult of penetration. Through this the solders (sic) endeavored to make their way. While this operation was proceeding the Indians charged upon the forces under Sanchez. The battle raged all day. Muskets were used by the men under Sanchez; muskets and arrows were the weapons of the Indians. The swivel gun was ineffective. At sunset Sanchez withdrew. On the following morning Sanchez and his forces returned to the combat. As before, it continued throughout the entire day. The siege was ineffective. Two of the assaulting troops were killed after entering the woods and eight were wounded.
Of the Indian allies eleven were wounded, one mortally. The exhaustion of the men and of the ammunition caused the siege to be abandoned. The Sanchez contingent retreated to San Jose. Sergeant Soto died from the effects of his wounds. Estanislao was unconquered.
The victory of the Indians over the Spanish solders (sic) was due to the insufficiency of the force sent against them. Estanislao and his ex-neophytes and their gentile companions, elated at their success, celebrated their triumph with the most extravagant feasting and dancing. The inhabitants of the neighboring rancherias, after the battle, admiring the pluck and the valor of the victors and allured by the victory, joined the forces under Estanislao, and made common fight against the soldiers of the missions.
A new expedition was prepared to dislodge the Indians on the Rio Estanislao. A contingent of forty men, under Sergeant Sanchez from San Francisco, marched to the thicket where the Indians were encamped. Observation showed that the Indians were too strongly entrenched. Sanchez reported that a larger force was necessary to fight the Indians successfully. An expedition from Monterey was at once organized to reinforce Sanchez. It was under the command of General M. G. Vallejo, who had risen to the rank of commander-in-chief of the army. This army was fully equipped with infantry, cavalry and artillery, and took with it a field piece for battering the palisades which the Indians had erected among their fortifications. It joined the contingent of Sanchez at San Jose, to which city he had previously retreated. Though not greatly experienced as an Indian fighter, Vallejo had just returned from a campaign in the Tulares, where he had, with thirty-five men, slain forty-eight Indians.
This combined force crossed the San Joaquin river May 29, 1829, by the use of rafts. On the next day they were at the scene of the former battle. They were met by a hail of arrows. Vallejo set fire to the wood. As the Indians came to the edge of the thicket the three-pounder on the opposite bank of the river destroyed many of them. In the afternoon Sanchez attacked the foe in the thicket, fighting for over two hours with a force of twenty-five men under him in the burning brush and retiring at dusk. On the next morning Vallejo entered the thicket with thirty-seven men.
He found the place defended by pits, ditches, and barricades skilfully arranged. Blood was seen everywhere. The Indians had fled in the night. Vallejo pursued them. The next day he attacked them in another thicket near their rancheria on a small stream near the Rio Estanislao. Vallejo surrounded this thicket. The Indians retired to their ditches and embankments. When his ammunition gave out, Vallejo was compelled to retreat. During the night the Indians tried to escape. Many were killed, though a few did succeed in evading the sentries. On the next morning not an Indian, with the exception of three squaws, was found alive in the fortress of Estanislao. Vallejo then returned to San Jose, where he arrived June 1, 1829. Though Estanislao was conquered, none of the neophytes were taken back to the mission. It was charged that after this battle numerous atrocities were indulged in by the Spanish soldiers and their Indian auxiliaries on members of the tribe of Estanislao.
The most interesting feature of the entire campaign was the fact that though he fought with his men constantly, Estanislao in the last extremity managed to escape from the slaughter. He delivered himself to Father Duran, who concealed the penitent neophyte for some time and then procured his pardon from Echeandia. The subsequent career of Estanislao is clouded in obscurity. It is possible that he remained at the Mission of San Jose for a few years, and pursued the path of an Indian of peace and religious predilection. He, however, appeared again in the annals of the year 1836, when the police judges of the pueblo of San Jose complained of the ever-increasing horse-stealing by the runaway Indians. One of those named as an evil-doer in this regard was Estanislao, who was accused of raising a band of renegades and gentile Indians with whom he over-rode the settlements, driving away the livestock, and causing the death of several colonists.
Tradition among the first settlers of Knight's Ferry gave Estanislao a residence among the friendly Indians of that settlement in the late 40's. When United States Commissioners Wozencraft and Barbour, representing the federal government in 1851 in the treaty making with the Indians of California, visited Horr's Ranch in this county to interview the chieftain Cornelius and his captains to secure a peace with their tribes, Cipriano, who evidently was one of the captains met, was engaged, with four or five other Indians, to undertake to visit and bring in the hostile tribes from the head waters of the Tuolumne river.
Cipriano, on March 25th, 1851, returned, bringing with him the two hostile chiefs, Willouma, chief of the Mercedes, and Potawackata, chief of the tribe of that name, to the parley held between Captain Cornelius and the United States Commissioners at the camp on the Mariposa river.
When the first Americans came into this part of California in the early 40's and settled in the mountains of the Sierras to the east of what is now Stanislaus county, the river still, among the Mexicans and the Indians, bore the name of the “Rio Estanislao.” The Americans anglicized it into “Stanislaus”, and the territory surrounding it was known as the “Stanislaus country.” When the legislature, in 1854, created the county, it was given the name from the principal river that courses through it and from the title by which the country was generally known. The Rancheria del Rio Estanislao, one of the five Mexican land grants within the limits of Stanislaus county and located in the eastern part thereof, derives its name from the Rio Estanislao that flows through it.
The records of history do not describe the exact location of the Indian battles mentioned in “The Story of Estanislao,” except to say that they occurred near the junction of the Stanislaus and the San Joaquin rivers. Since the settlement of this county by the whites, farmers living in the Salida country have at various times ploughed and dug up the remains of Indians and pieces of Indian implements of warfare. This has occurred on the old Elliott ranch and on the Hall ranch near Salida. On the Newman ranch, formerly the property of the Byrum family of Salida, the discoveries of these mute evidence of the conflict and of the departed race, have in the years past been quite numerous. In early days there were existing indications on this ranch of rude Indian embankment, pits and palisades. From the fact that in this locality, there have been found so many remains of Indians and of their instruments of militancy, credence may easily be given to the conjectures that it was on this property that the final struggle took place in which so many Indians were slain either during the contest or afterwards by the Mexicans, and their auxiliaries.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.