Friday, January 29, 2010

Beautiful view of Carrisa Plains (thanks to )


This is a story told by my grandfather, Thomas Anthony Miranda. In the second part, I go back to the Carrisa Plains story with new information.

I wanted to get away. I’ll tell you what made me leave there: I could see a light from the Carrisa Plains every night, and I said, I wonder where the hell that light is? You could see it from the Carrisa Plains as soon as it got dark every single night. None of the guys knew what it was. It was that light that they had over here on Mt. Diablo. You could see it that far, about 300 miles. You could see it that far. We never could make out just what it was. You couldn’t see the Mountain in the daytime but as soon as it got dark, we could see the light. If the days were hot or there were fires, we didn’t see the light for two or three weeks at a time. When the earth would clear up and the air was clean, we could; we used to sit out there and we were wondering, especially me. I didn’t know how big the world was anyway.

I used to sit out there and look at the damn light. There was a Missourian there, and he said, that’s a big light, it’s a long way from here. We were told that it was 300 miles; we could see that light going around just like that. It looked like it wouldn’t ever stop.

I left the Carrisa Plains in 1914. I went to Santa Maria and that didn’t work; shoot, go around with a bunch of kids? I was a big man, fourteen years old, so I said, I’m going to get the hell out of here, I’m going to see the country, see the world.

What I wanted to see was where the hell that light was coming from.

I went to work down in the valley over here by Merced, worked there two or three months, came over here to San Joaquin and thought, where am I going to work now? I was standing around an office one evening about 4 p.m. and a white man came out, looked around and said, Hey kid, you want to go to work?

I said, Oh yeah.

You ever tend cows?

I sure have.


In the Carrisa Plains.

For Christ’s sake, where the hell is the Carrisa Plains?

I was a regular tramp, I had my roll of clothes with me, and that’s how I met Mr. Shonck and all his little Shoncks.

Mr. Shonck said to me, I don’t know how long this job’s going to last. You’re name’s Tommy? Job might last two or three weeks, or a month, or so, Tommy.

I stayed four or five years.

I stayed even after him and his wife separated. All that time he kept asking me, he says, Tommy, I’d like to know where’s those plains. I’ve heard of them, where are they?

I said, well, up in the hills. You ever been to Bakersfield?

No, he said.

Well then, I can’t tell you very well. If you get into Bakersfield, you just follow the sunset and you get right into the Carrisa Plains.

He’d say, I’ve heard of them. You ever work around Tulare Lake? I never been to Tulare Lake, but someday I’m going to get a farm at Tulare lake. By golly, one of these days we’re gonna go, he says.

Ah, we never got there. Poor old Al died, and we just never got there.


Who we are is where we are from. Where we are from is who we are. Simple. We are the land, the land is us.

Pico Blanco, a peak near Big Sur, was considered a place of emergence by local Indian peoples; some sources include the Esselen in this, though I have always heard that our place of origin was The Sur Rock, just off the coast of Big Sur.

Other people in the same geographical area, the Ohlone, credited the mountain the Spanish called “Mt. Diablo” as their place of emergence.

All three places are sacred; for various Indian peoples, all mark the place where the world began.
As the Esselen and Ohlone communities went into the Missions, forcibly encouraged to leave behind their individual cultures for a pre-made Mission Indian template planned by the Franciscans, beliefs and stories began to merge. Native cultures from different areas intermarried, lived together in close quarters, and shared survival knowledge. In a time of great loss, there was also great innovation and resourcefulness.

It isn’t hard to see how the specificity of which mountain was sacred for which community could be lost, while the knowledge that a sacred place of emergence, a mountain, did exist, and could be retained.

In researching my grandfather’s Carrisa Plains story, I learned that the light Tom yearned for as an adolescent on the Carrisa Plains was an airplane beacon placed on Mount Diablo. It’s ironic and bittersweet that he was yearning toward one of the places that the indigenous people of his birth region regarded as a sacred place of origin, that he chased after that light.

The name “Mt. Diablo” was, of course, another Spanish gift. A story told and retold in many forms (personal journals, newspaper stories, oral histories) explains the name this way: during the Mission era, a group of wily Indian runaways being chased by Spanish soldiers took refuge on Mt. Diablo. By the time the Spaniards arrived behind the Indians, night was falling; the Spaniards set up camp and decided to wait for morning to catch the Indians. Apparently the Indians were cornered, with no way out of their refuge. Though they hid in a thicket, the only possible escape was down the sheer mountainside and across the rough Carquinez Strait, a body of water that emptied into San Francisco Bay. Surprise! Somehow – only with the help of the Devil! – those Indians slipped through the Spaniard's fingers in the dark.

That’s the Spanish story. I imagine that there is much left untold.

Places of power were not tread on lightly; even if the Indians didn’t know the story of emergence on the mountain, they would have understood the power of the mountain’s reputation. Fleeing to the Mountain was likely an act of desperation, perhaps even a call to the energy dwelling in that place.

The entire mountain was infused with the power of creation, from root to cloud. The rocks, soil, meadows, streams, trees, sun – all sacred, sacred, sacred.

Onto this luminous landscape come a group of Indians, runaways from the nearest Mission.

Tired, perpetually hungry, nowhere left to call home, they are on foot while the Spanish soldiers and mercenaries pursue them on horseback. In a moment like that what thoughts, what impassioned prayers, come to your lips? What deep memories do you scour for the refuge of a canyon, a cave, a passage where you cannot be followed? What ancestors do you call on, what old medicine from your childhood, what stories, songs?

Even now when it seems the world has ended and the gods are preoccupied or angry with your people, even with the floggings, the sickness, the deaths of loved ones as well as leaders – even now, you feel the mountain drawing you. You feel the heat of it’s breath with the soles of your bare feet. Hear her heart, pulsing. Despite everything, this mountain remembers and bears the magnificent traces of creation.

You turn and follow that knowledge. Lead your people – perhaps a husband, children, beloved friends – up, up, onto the flanks of this Mother. Protect us, you pray: we have no tobacco, no sage, no feathers. We can make no offering. Hide us, Mother. Take us back into your womb.

Is that how it happened? The Spanish tell their story, the only one we read about in history books, eyewitness accounts. They chased the Indians into a thicket, dense green and dark. A sheer cliff on one side, the soldiers fanned out around them, there could be no escape. A person could fall, break a leg, a neck! The soldiers decide to bed down for the night, finish this job in the morning.

But in the morning the Indians are gone. The cliff is still there, the woods are still there, the soldiers are still there. But the Indians, huddled in the Mother’s arms, have miraculously escaped.

Of course, to the soldiers, this is far from a miracle. This is a disaster. The padres will be furious, the crops will go untended, the relentless grinding of wheat and corn slowed. There is no other kind of labor but these Indian neophytes, and soldiers might find themselves hauling logs and mixing adobe in the sun. No, this mountain was an evil place, with an evil spirit that the Indians have long worshipped – ay, el Diablo! It must be the devil helping them, those pagan animals! Yes, they must have called on the Devil himself, and he answered.

And that’s what they told the priest when they returned to the Mission, horses lathered and spent, soldiers dirty, exhausted and empty-handed.

But where did they go, those Indians? How did they escape the trap? Did they cross the straits borne up by the desperation of fear? Did they slip past the soldiers as the night watch slept? Did they hide themselves in the trees, in the very earth, in a cave, to emerge at last when the hoof beats were no longer heard? Did they die, trying to swim across?

Wherever they went and however they got there, the group of Indians were not lassoed like cattle, tied up, made to march back to the mission in the shame of capture and sin, the stocks, flogging, whatever the padre or soldiers dictated. They did not go back to the Mission. Wherever they went and however they got there, those Indians were free.

And that’s as much a miracle as any birth, or rebirth. That’s a story worth telling, worth remembering, worth yearning towards one hundred years or more later.

That’s a story worth following home.

Mt. Diablo (photo courtesy California State Parks)

[Part I of this story first appeared in News From Native California, Vol. 20, No. 1/Fall 2006]


Recently I spent time researching my ancestor, Fructuoso Cholom del Real, an alcalde at San Carlos Mission. He was one of the few Indians there to be given land when the mission was secularized, and he passed it on to his daughter, Estefana del Real, who married a Chilean soldier named Joaquin Gutierrez. Eventually, the land was lost - sold, usually out of necessity. Estefana was, I think, born two generations before Tom, my grandfather, and one of his direct Esselen ancestors.

I found a map of Estefana's land, "El Potrero del San Carlos," online. And even better, I discovered the location of that land: on the slopes of Mt. Diablo.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Old News

Ever wonder what happened to California Indians once the Missions were closed? Remember, San Francisco's Mission Indians suffered through the dual tragedies of Missionization AND the Gold Rush. More northern tribes were decimated by the door-to-door murder of Indians for land that might contain gold.

The following is a "found poem," which means that I took the content directly from a found source, in this case, California newspapers from the Gold Rush era. The power of a found poem lies in the brutal truth inherent in the original form, which often is overlooked due to its mundane nature.

Old News

It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
--William Carlos Williams "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"

Sacramento Union, November 14, 1851

A disturbance
took place at Los Angeles
on the evening of the 25th.

Indians got into a quarrel
over a bottle of liquor
and attacking the guard,
drove them off
the ground.

Sepulveda, the Marshal,
finding that he could not
contend with the Indians
and that they appeared determined
to burn the house
came to town
for assistance
and returned with
seven Americans.

How many of the Indians
were killed is perhaps not
positively known but
eight bodies were piled up
before Ivarra’s house.

The verdict
of the Coroner’s jury
was “that the deceased
came to their deaths
while resisting a sheriff’s possee
and that the killing
was justifiable.”

Among the killed
was the Indian Coyote.
He is represented
to have fought
with great desperation.

Sacramento Daily Democratic State Journal, Sept. 1, 1855

A white man bargained
with an Indian

to give the latter a horse
for a squaw.

The Indian,
not being able to suit

him from the stock of squaws
under his control,

went over and stole
a squaw from the Applegate Tribe.

Big Tom,
the white man,

was so well pleased
with the stolen squaw

that he would not give her up
to her people

when required, notwithstanding
he was urged thereto

by his partner
and the other whites.

The consequence was
the massacre of all the whites

by the Indians
and to mark

their particular animosity
against Big Tom

they cut him up
into a thousand pieces

at the same time

from mutilating
the others.

San Francisco Bulletin, January 7, 1858

Our readers will remember an advertisement
that appeared in our paper last spring,
stating that Bill Farr would fight a grizzly
bear, single-handed, on the 4th of July

at Tehama. His life seemed to be of no
consequence to him. We have frequently
heard him remark that he would as soon
be killed as not, and upon one occasion

we actually knew of his standing up
very coolly with a person as reckless
as himself, each taking a shot at the other’s
hat, a distance of fifty steps, as it remained

on his head. The result was that Bill’s
hat was shot through, and a small bunch
of hair cut away, while the skin on the other
man’s cranium was laid bare for three

or four inches by Bill’s half-ounce ball.
Bill was a terror to the Indians, having killed
a great many in his time; some of whom,
as he said himself, he shot to see them


San Francisco Bulletin, January 6, 1859

On Thursday or Friday last
two volunteers, Messrs. Hyslop and Olvany,
were looking for horses
about four miles from the camp
near Mad river
when they saw six Indians
and about the same number of squaws.
As they were without rifles
and mounted
they adopted Light Dragoon tactics
and charged upon the Indians
wounding some –
one mortally –
and took the squaws

The same day,
three men from the camp at Angel’s
came upon a party
of ten Indians
and had a bout with them –
killed one Indian,
wounded several –
two so badly
that they may almost be called
“good Indians.”

San Francisco Bulletin, May 12, 1859

An old Indian and his squaw
were engaged in the harmless occupation
of gathering clover

on the land of a Mr. Grigsby
when a man
named Frank Harrington

set Grigsby’s dogs upon them
(which, by the way, are three
very ferocious ones,)

and before the dogs were taken off
of the Indians, they tore
and mangled the body

of the squaw
in such a manner that she died
shortly after. It is said

the dogs
tore her breasts off her.
The Digger man

escaped without any serious
injury, although bitten
severely. Of course

it was the dogs’ fault
although Harrington had lived with Grigsby
over a year and knew full well

the character of the dogs
for this is not the first
instance of their biting persons.

But he only set them on
for fun
and they were

only Diggers.
There is talk of having Harrington
arrested but no doubt

it is all talk.

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