Temecula Massacre

Temecula Massacre
By Anne J. Miller, Ph.D.

Often considered just an isolated incident between two Native American tribes, the Temecula Massacre was actually one event in a sequence of events in the Mexican-American War. The first event was the Battle of San Pasqual on December 6, 1846 when the Californios, lead by Andrés Pico, killed over twenty of U.S. General Stephen Kearny’s men.

Following this battle, some of the Californios went to a rancho in Pauma Valley. A number of Luiseño Indians, sympathetic to the Americans, captured eleven Californios in Pauma Valley and later killed them. When word of this event, known as the Pauma Massacre, reached Los Angeles, Mexican General José María Flores ordered José del Carmen Lugo of the San Bernardino area to capture the Luiseño Indians responsible for the Pauma Massacre. In January 1847, José Lugo with some Cahuilla Indians came to the Temecula Valley in pursuit of the Luiseño Indians and killed a number of them, reportedly in the canyon in the area of the current Vail Lake Dam.

From various different accounts written soon after this Temecula Massacre occurred, it is estimated that about 38 to 40 Luiseños were killed. The actual number will never be known because the severe rains and flooding in the canyon after the massacre would have made recovery of the victims difficult. When the Mormon Battalion arrived in Temecula on January 25, 1847, they reported the Luiseños were burying their dead in the cemetery that today is located south of the Temecula Parkway. Many years later, José Lugo reported that perhaps a hundred Luiseños were killed, but no other evidence has been found to support his claim.

A Look Back: The Temecula Massacre
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Special to The Press-Enterprise

The Temecula Massacre stands out as one of the bloodiest events in the region's history, but local historians point out that some mysteries and misconceptions still surround the conflict.

In a canyon just west of Vail dam, dozens - possibly more than 100 - Luiseño Indians were ambushed and slaughtered in January 1874. Victims of the massacre were buried in a cemetery closer to the village. Today, the cemetery remains in a shopping plaza off Temecula Parkway.

Though sometimes thought of as a spontaneous clash between two American Indian tribes, this skirmish was actually set in motion weeks earlier by a significant battle in the Mexican-American War, said historian Anne Miller, who has studied the massacre.

"It isn't just something that happened," Miller said. "There were reasons for it that really started with the Battle of San Pasqual."

Weeks before, in December 1846, Californios - Mexican and Spanish settlers who lived in California before it was annexed by the United States - waged a brutal attack on American forces led by General Stephen Kearney in the San Pasqual Valley. In response, a group of Luiseño Indians, who like many in this region, were sympathetic to the Americans, captured and executed 11 Californios in Pauma Valley, Miller said.

To avenge the deaths of the Californios, the commander of the Mexican army ordered a group that included Cahuilla Indians to kill the Luiseños.

The Cahuillas lured the Luiseños out of hiding in a steep canyon, then ambushed them, leaving between 30 and 100 dead. Heavy rains following the massacre hampered recovery efforts so the precise death toll remains a mystery.

"Local Indians were afraid to go back out there," said Darell Farnbach, president of the Vail Ranch Restoration Association. "The bodies were left about three weeks."

Early accounts pin the death toll at about 40, historians said. Years later, reports surfaced that more than 100 Luiseños had been killed during the attack. Miller's research suggests far fewer than 100 were killed, she said.

While the cemetery off Temecula Parkway is well-known as the final resting place of these Luiseños, they aren't the only ones interred here, Miller said. It's likely the cemetery was in use before the battle and a certainty that citizens were buried there for years after, she said.

Today, the cemetery is protected by high walls, but any grave markers have disappeared. All that remains inside is grass.

If you have an idea for a local historic person, event or place for A Look Back, contact Assistant Metro Editor Mark Acosta at 951-375-3725 or via email.