The Flight of Bearfoot Manuella Cibimoat

If we cannot live here, we want to go into those mountains and die. We do not want any other home.

~ Cupeño Captain Cecilio Blacktooth
(as translated by Celsa Apapas)

The original name is Cupa. With the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1795 it became Agua Caliente. The first American to claim it in 1844 called it Warner Springs. Bearfoot Manuella Cibimoat called the village home until May 12, 1903, when her people were evicted after a lengthy legal battle. To her credit, the ninety-one-year-old Cupeño woman did not go peacefully.

The night before the removal, women in long dresses chanted dirges around the fires. Nobody slept. In the morning, wagons showed up to haul the Cupeño and their belongings to the reservation at Pala. Bearfoot was having no part of it. When the teamsters threw her household goods into a wagon she shouted at them, “Here I will stay, even if I die, even if the coyotes eat me.”

She yelled defiantly at journalist Grant Wallace, shaking a package of hardtack at his camera. Her long hair flew in a rage. She turned and walked away, past the hot springs and the granite boulders pockmarked with her people’s grinding holes. She climbed toward the sacred peaks that guarded the village — and disappeared.

When a reporter asked why the old woman would flee, Isabella Owlinguish said that when she and Bearfoot were young they were held prisoners at the Pala Mission. Isabella “threw off her shawl and shouted ‘see!’ and showed great calloused marks on her thin shoulders. ‘These we had to keep fresh our memories of Pala mission! What we suffered there … Bearfoot could not forget. She would not look again upon that place … Does the white man think it strange that we did not want to come?’”

A few weeks after the Cupeño reached the reservation at Pala, two of the leaders went into the mountains to talk to Bearfoot. They convinced her to join her exiled people at Pala where she eventually died and was buried. So ends her recorded story.

But I can’t get her picture (from Out West magazine, July, 1903), out of my mind. It’s the only historic photograph I’ve seen where a native woman is visibly angry about what is happening to her people. She’s fighting back. She’s pissed off and not afraid to show it. She’s resisting! Bearfoot may have come to the reservation in body — but not in spirit.

Grant Wallace concluded his article in Out West magazine with the observation, “There would seem to be no reason why these Indians should not soon be happier and more self-reliant at Pala that (sic) at Warner’s Ranch.”

One look at Bearfoot’s face makes it plain he hadn’t heard a word the Cupeño people said.


One day, when I was a little girl, my family traveled backwards. We piled into our car with my grandparents and drove into the mountains northeast of San Diego. We were going to visit old friends of my grandmother’s who lived on a ranch in the backcountry. Eventually, my dad turned off the narrow highway onto a dusty drive. It lead to an old building that looked more like a Western movie set than a real house.

A gray-haired couple came out onto the covered porch and welcomed us. We were herded into their generous kitchen where we ate sandwiches around a big table. As the grown-ups settled in for a long visit, they encouraged my brother and me to go outside and poke around.

Wagon wheels and rusting pieces of equipment lay about the farm yard. Battered corrals and fencing stitched together a ragged chain of barns and outbuildings. Down a faint dirt track, we discovered dozens of stone pestles and mortars covering the ground — manos y metates. Some of the manos were so long and heavy we couldn’t lift them. We looked up into the scrubby trees. Were they for grinding acorns?

When the adults met up with us, our hosts explained that generations of Indian* families had lived and worked at the ranch until recently. After they were gone, the couple collected all the manos y metates they came across and brought them back to the house.

It looked as if an entire village had vanished and these tools were all that remained. As the other folks wandered off, my mother stayed with us. She knelt down and began to touch the stones one by one. The way she did it — quietly and reverently — nestled deep inside me.

Whenever I think of that place, all I remember clearly are the manos y metates. I’ve tried several times to find the ranch, but my memory lacks details and the adults are long gone. Was it south of Agua Caliente, or north? Was it near the highway or set back a ways? The specifics elude me. I’m beginning to wonder if that ranch still exists as a physical place. Maybe it only survives in my mind’s eye.

*They were probably Kumeyaay or Cupeño people whose descendants are among the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

In Her Own Name

Casa de Juana Briones, Los Altos, California, 1962.

When I bought my first house, it never occurred to me that just a few generations earlier I might have lost all claim to it when I got married. Women’s property rights in America went through a lot of changes between my great-grandmothers’ time and mine. The new United States of America largely adopted British common law. That system defined a married woman as chattel of her husband. He controlled her property, her earnings, and even her children. Once an American woman married, she ceased to be a separate legal entity. For instance, the Tennessee legislature in 1848 declared that married women lacked “independent souls” and thus should not be allowed to own property.

Out West, it was a different story. Under Spanish and later Mexican law, married women could own property. When Mexico surrendered California to the United States in 1848, the United States guaranteed the property rights of former Mexican citizens, including women. The California state constitution even went so far as to specifically protect a married woman’s right to own property. It would take the rest of the states more than fifty years to catch up.

Juana Briones de Miranda, a woman of Spanish and African descent, was one of many who benefited from Mexican, and later, California property law. In 1844, after separating from her abusive husband, she bought the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purísima Concepción near what would become Los Altos, California. Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago technically guaranteed Mexican people their property rights, in practice the American government made it extremely difficult to claim those rights. Against these odds, Juana Briones succeeded in retaining her title. She litigated her case for two decades, eventually taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court where she received an American patent in 1871. She was one of twenty-four Mexican women “rancheras” who proved their land claims under United States law by 1886.

Plat Map for Juana Briones’s Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, 1863.

Juana Briones built a large adobe house on her rancho, planted apricot orchards and raised thousands of cattle. She passed enough of her land to her daughters to ensure their financial independence. Her house in Los Altos Hills survived more than 150 years before it was demolished in 2011.

Juana’s fight to retain title to Rancho La Purísima Concepción in her own name paved the way for future generations of women like me to own property and pass it on to our daughters. Juana’s original adobe may no longer be standing, but every married woman who owns a house is part of Juana’s house. Let us remember our intrepid foremother: pioneer, rancher, farmer, businesswoman, curandera, and force to be reckoned with. Thanks, Juana Briones, for having our backs.

The second woman from the left in this photograph may be Juana Briones.

Tracing the Cherokee Trail

Cherokee Trail marker on the ridge north of Currant Creek looking east ~ near the Buckboard Crossing of the Green River, Flaming Gorge

“This is the most desolate looking country that I ever saw.”

When John Lowery Brown made this observation on July 19, 1850, he was talking about this stretch of trail in southern Wyoming. Standing here a few weeks ago with his diary in my hand, it seemed little changed in 168 years. It’s still mighty desolate country. I couldn’t help but think about the even more desolate country that lay ahead on Brown’s route. To the west, things were going to get a lot worse for him and his companions — a group of Cherokee Indians caught up in the Gold Rush to California.

What? You never saw a Western movie about the Cherokee 49ers? Me neither. It’s yet another chapter of colorful American pioneer history that didn’t capture the European-American imagination. It’s so obscure, it’s almost like it never happened. Almost.

I stumbled upon a tantalizing clue studying a National Park Service California Trail brochure. Unfolded, it revealed a map that was nearly four feet long. A web of solid brown lines showed the many ways gold seekers traveled between Missouri and California. Toward the bottom of the map I noticed a dashed line wandering across the southern Plains all by its lonesome. It was labeled “Cherokee Trail.”

Huh? I thought the “Cherokee Trail of Tears” ended in Oklahoma? What’s it doing clear out here in Colorado? Then I remembered a smattering of “Cherokee” place names in the Sierra foothills. There’s a one-horse town, a river bar, a ridge, a camp, a flat, a creek or two — maybe this Cherokee Trail wasn’t about tears but about something else.

The “Cherokee Trail of Tears” refers to the forced march of people from their homes in southern Appalachia to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) in 1838. They were evicted with little warning, incarcerated in stockades, then made to walk more than a thousand miles through a very cold winter. More than 4,ooo people died from starvation, exposure, and sickness. The events leading up to this horrific removal were complicated but a pivotal component was the discovery of gold on ancestral Cherokee lands in 1799 and 1828.

These early U.S. gold rushes played right into the Cherokee’s hands — at first. They became skilled at placer mining. In fact, they excelled to such an extent that the white men in power eventually took the rich land without even pretending their unscrupulous means were legal.

Many Cherokee families found Oklahoma a pathetic substitute for their homelands. Most tried to make the best of it. They set up schools and started newspapers that were published in both Cherokee (Tsalagi) and English. But when the California gold strike came along, hundreds jumped at the chance to put their placer mining skills to use again — hopefully under more egalitarian circumstances.

The Cherokee advertised for non-Indians to join their wagon trains. One big advantage to throwing in with them was “the Cherokee can pass across the prairies with perfect safety from the molestation of the Indians … as they are on most friendly terms …” They were skilled at keeping the peace between nations when it was in their best interest.

The Cherokee also knew what they were doing when it came to traveling long distances. After the deadly “Trail of Tears”, (over which they’d had little logistical control) they were painfully aware of all the provisions that had been lacking. They weren’t going to let that happen again. And although the Cherokee were skilled farmers, they had also continued to hunt and gather. They knew how to live off the land.

The Cherokee made the crossing with little sickness, few deaths, at least one successful birth, minimal losses of stock, and only one minor inter-tribal hostility. The Cherokee companies sent home articles and letters describing their passage. Several diaries chronicling the journey survived.

In California, many of the Cherokee enjoyed success in the placer mines. Others set up shop or went into farming. An impressive number nurtured the fledgling newspaper business as writers, editors, and publishers. The most famous was John Rollin Ridge, who wrote The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta in 1854. It was the first novel published in California, the first novel published by a Native American, and the first American novel to feature a Mexican protagonist. The story eventually morphed into the swashbuckling character of Zorro — fictional book, comic, and film star in America, Mexico, Europe, and even India.

Basically, these industrious and creative folks got to California and kicked butt.

As I stood on the Cherokee Trail near the spot where John Lowery Brown and the Cherokee ox teams crossed the Green River in Wyoming, it was strange to realize that I knew Brown would make it safely to California and back again to marry his sweetheart. But on the 19th of July in 1850, he had no idea if he’d survive another day.

I looked at the faint trace of the trail as it descended toward the river at a place that’s still called Buckboard Crossing. I touched my lips and blew a blessing into the wind. Good luck fellow travelers! I’ll see you on the other side.

Packed Away

“I felt instinctively that should she ever decide to move one of the surrounding mountains to the other side of the canyon, she would go about it calmly and deliberately, some evening after supper, perhaps. And she would move it – every stick and stone of it – and would ask no help.”

~ Nell Murbarger
“Josie Pearl, Prospector on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert”
Desert Magazine, August, 1954.

The West is rich in stories about strong, independent women. You may have to scratch the surface to find them, but they’re always there. Of course there’s your standard-issue pioneer wives, cowgirls, and widowed ranch women who run the place singlehandedly once their man is gone. But there are others who don’t fit the comfortable categories we’re used to pinning on them. Lately I’ve been thinking about two such gals. They never knew each other but they have one odd thing in common, an extravagance I find hard to explain.

The first is Nellie Bly Baker O’Bryan. Early in life, Nellie seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a gutsy mountain mama. She started out working as a secretary for Charley Chaplin’s film company, First National Studio. Chaplin noticed her and invited her to play bit parts in his silent films. Eventually Nellie acted in 13 films alongside the likes of Joan Crawford, Edna Purviance, and Chaplin himself. She wasn’t a star, but work was steady and the pay was good. She’d made it in Hollywood.

By 1939, Tinsel Town had lost its luster and she took off for the rugged Sierra. She bought the ramshackle remains of a remote mining camp named Lundy near Mono Lake. She built her home out of boards scavenged from weathered shacks. Eventually she constructed four more cabins, a store, and a restaurant and christened her place the “Happy Landing Resort”. She lived year-round in this remote, avalanche prone canyon and became California’s first licensed fishing and hiking guide. Nellie toughed it out in Lundy until she was almost 60.

I once heard a story about Nellie’s first winter. She was freezing in her makeshift cabin during a typical Sierra blizzard. Snow blew through the cracks and she’d thrown every quilt and blanket she owned on the bed. Through her shivering she remembered a full-length fur coat packed away in a trunk. In desperation, she dug through the trunk, found the coat, turned it inside out, wrapped herself up in the furry cocoon and got back into bed. She said it was the first time she’d been warm in a week.

Many years after hearing Nellie’s story, I encountered the tale of Josie Pearl. She was a bona fide desert rat whose “retirement” cabin sat in a canyon on the edge of the Black Rock Desert. Josie had lived in boomtowns most of her life. She waitressed, ran boarding houses, prospected, and mined — mostly for gold. She was good at it too. When journalist Ernie Pyle visited her in the 1930s, he wrote, “Her dress was calico, with an apron over it; on her head was a farmer’s straw hat, on her feet a mismated pair of men’s shoes, and on her left hand and wrist $6000 worth of diamonds! That was Josie — contradiction all
over …”

Pyle noted something else that, after Nellie’s story, came as no surprise. Inside Josie’s rough cabin was an “expensive wardrobe trunk with a $7,000 seal skin coat inside …” Of course! No intrepid Western hermit woman would be without one.

There’s no mention of Josie ever sleeping in her fur coat. Or maybe she did sleep in it but didn’t think it worth mentioning. We’ll never know. The funny thing is, every winter when the blizzards start blowing, I think about those fur coats packed away in trunks. Now I’m not a fan of wearing furs. I was brought up when magazines featured Greenpeace pictures of pathetic baby harp seals about to be bludgeoned. But I realize that fur coats used to have a mystique for women that they don’t have now. They represented luxury and status. In cold northern cities, they actually kept you warm. But when Nellie and Josie were young, well-off married women, a warm fur coat was hardly necessary in Hollywood, California or Goldfield, Nevada.

So why did these women haul expensive fur coats out to their ratty cabins in the  sagebrush? It’s hard to imagine many opportunities to dress up in your fur and heels. If they didn’t have a practical use, what purpose did they serve?

Maybe they were like money in the bank — you could always take them to Reno and pawn them in a pinch. But jewelry or coins would have been handier for that.

Maybe it had to do with a certain feminine ideal they couldn’t part with? As long as they owned a fur coat, they were in some magical way, a “lady” by association. Maybe they remembered a woman who felt at home in a more glamorous world.

And they didn’t want to forget her.


In my last post I wrote about the Confederate monument in Waverly, Missouri. That summer morning, I met two little girls playing near the statue. That got me thinking about the statues I grew up around and the impact they had on me. Like the contested Confederate monuments in Charlottesville or Richmond, we also had a towering man on a horse. The statue was “El Cid Campeador” in San Diego’s Balboa Park. It was created in 1927 by Anna Hyatt Huntington, a famous American sculptor. El Cid was a flamboyant Spanish knight brandishing a flag. He looked down on you with furrowed brows, a dagger poised on his belt. So, we too had our mounted military hero with a flag from an extinct nation state.

But that was not my favorite statue. About fifty steps away, in the courtyard of the Hospitality House, was a fountain called “La Tehuana” (Woman of Tehuantepec). She was sculpted in 1935 by local artist Donal Hord. I remember being drawn through the dark Moorish arches into the light of the open courtyard by the sound of falling water. There the stone woman sat, endlessly pouring water from her olla. I had to look up into her serene face, but not too far up. She didn’t tower above me. Instead, it felt like she welcomed me into the embrace of the courtyard and the blue tiled fountain. I could dip my fingers in the water and reach — but never quite touch — the water pouring from the olla. I thought of her as Mother Earth.

I loved her long hair that trailed in two thick braids down her back. Like my hair. And how she sat crossed legged in bare feet, the way I often did. As a little girl, I didn’t think about why I ran to this fountain every time we went to Balboa Park. But looking back on it now, I think I felt validated in her presence. Here, in this public place, women in bare feet with long braids were honored. “La Tehuana” made me feel monumental too.