Who was Antonio Garra?


by William Pink

Antonio Garra, best known for the “Garra Uprising” is still a mystery character as to who he really was. Historians say that he was a Luiseno Indian and raised at the Mission San Luis Rey which is located near the City of Oceanside, San Diego County. He is held by some Indians as a folk hero with many claiming their blood lines reaching back to him.

Antonio Garra, Sr. was educated at Mission San Luis Rey. Little is known of Garra’s early life, but the Daily Alta California (Dec. 18, 1851) stated that Garra was “a Quechan by birth (Phillips, 61),” and taken to Mission San Luis Rey at a young age. He spoke as many as five Indian dialects, as well as Latin. Garra was appointed “naat”, or headman, of the Cupeño, or Kuupangaxwichem in the Cupeño language. The Cupeño lived in two main villages, known as Kupa, and Wilakal (Brigandi). The San Diego Herald, Nov. 27, 1851, wrote that Garra, “is regarded by all who know him as a man of energy, determination, and bravery. As one of the most outstanding chiefs, his power and influence among the Indians is almost unbounded.” The Cupeño, who were considered mission Indians, unlike the Cahuilla, were subject to pay taxes to San Diego County. Garra, upset by the taxation of his people, organized a resistance movement to confront the injustices imposed on the Cupeño and other California Indians. By Timothy Wright, June 2006 Note: It was common for many of the Indians to speak several languages especially at Cupanga because it was a salt trading hub. James Brittain spoke five different Indian languages plus Spanish and English. So he spoke a total of seven languages.

Let’s first examine the name Garra. What does it mean? A simple translation to English is “Claw”. Naturally one would look at possible Quechan names (Yuma) to see if they had a name in their language that the Spanish would have translated to Garra. I could find none.

One day, while working with two Spanish speaking men, they kept saying, garra, garra. I asked them what garra meant to them and they said it meant “grab”. They went on to say that to call someone, “Una Garra” was an insult meaning “the Grabber”.

On page 226 of Strong: Aboriginal Society in Southern California, it is noted that Garra is a nickname. It also shows that Antonio Garra had no direct relation to any Cupeño Indians.

So where did Antonio Garra come from? Unless we dig Mr. Garra up and do a series of DNA tests we will never really no.

Historians say that Antonio Garra was from San Luis Rey while in the same breath they say he was from Yuma and a Yuma Indian. How is this possible and why would a Yuma Indian be taken to San Luis Rey Mission near the City of Oceanside? Well, maybe he wasn’t. What city lies south of the City of Yuma in Mexico. The City of San Luis or formerly known San Luis Rey. There was a mission with very little history to tell but logic says that when Antonio Garra stated that he was from San Luis Rey he was referring to the area of San Luis (Rey). The people of San Luis, Mexico refer to themselves as Luiseno.

So now we have Antonio Garra, a Yuma Indian from San Luis Rey, Mexico, without a real last name. So why was he interested in Cupanga (Warner Hot Springs)? First of all, it becomes necessary to overcome historical renderings of Native Americans as unintelligent and in need of a guardian. This opens the door to realizing that the Native Americans of this era were indeed intelligent scammers, schemers, capable of duplicity, and most of all in need since their populations had been ravaged by disease and settlers alike.

How did Garra become the Alcalde of Cupanga? More than likely he was self-appointed and able to communicate with outsiders more readily than the other inhabitants of Cupanga. The Cupeño people themselves felt no need to defend their lands since it was just accepted by them that Cupanga was theirs since the beginning of time. Anyone else’s claim was meaningless. Even John Warner had to meander his property boundaries to take in the hot spring located at Cupanga. Even with these imaginary lines being drawn the village of Cupanga lay outside the boundaries of the Warner holdings known as Valle de San Jose.

Taking a closer look at the actual settlement or village of Cupanga it becomes evident that the Cupeño people were living in areas away from the hot spring. One reason for this is that the sulfur smell of the spring can be overwhelming at times. Another is the need for fresh water. Agua Caliente Creek provided the much-needed fresh water for daily provision and also the blend of water needed to cool the flesh scalding water of the hot spring.

So, the Cupeño people did not settle in absolute proximity of the hot spring but rather they occupied the surrounding hills. Cupa means sleep water. Cupanga is the place of sleep water. Cupangawichum are the people who sleep in the water. Anyone familiar with the hot spring knows that you cannot sleep directly in the hot spring.

Who did occupy the hot spring or what is modernly known as Main Street? Antonio Garra was one such person. It was this main street that people mistakenly recognize as the hub of the Cupeño people. It was during the time of Garra that the hot spring was developed and quickly gained fame as a healing place. Bath houses were erected and the Main Street adobes were rented out to visitors wishing to cure their ailments. This is why Antonio Garra was there. He was an entrepreneur and making good money. He wanted to own the hot spring for himself. Hence the Cupeño called him Garra, the Grabber, the Land Grabber. He was appropriately named.

The Cupeño people went on with their daily lives often ignoring the coming and goings that affected the hot springs. They still had their homes and their sleep water. The Cupeño were accomplished cattle ranchers and it was difficult for the incoming settlers to compete with them. This provided an opportunity for Antonio Garra to rid the hot spring of the Cupeño and ease his claim to the hot spring itself.

San Diego County, in order to provide relief to the American cattle ranchers, decided to impose a 50% tax on the Cupeño cattle. This caused discourse amongst the Cupeño. Anyone familiar with cattle ranching knows that after a period of time an annual reduction of 50% of ones herd would result in the eventual decimation of the herd. Note: There is no evidence that Antonio Garra was involved in cattle ranching.

Throw into the mix, William (Bill) Marshall, “The Wickedest Man in California” and you get the Garra uprising. Obviously neither of these two men were Cupeño Indians. Yet they were able to hatch one of the most vicious rebellions with full blame falling upon the Cupeño people.

William Marshall was probably after the rights to graze cattle in Valle de San Jose while Antonio Garra had his sights fixed on the hot springs. Neither had rights to either. The Valle de San Jose was owned by John Warner and the area adjacent to the hot spring was in the possession of the Cupeño Indians.

So how were William Marshall and Antonio Garra going to get rid of the Cupeño people. It was simple. They employed members of the Ipai/Tipai tribes to attack Warner’s Ranch and homestead. Most of them probably came from Mataguay. Not one Cupeño Indian was involved in the uprising. It was the strategizing of these two men that allowed the full blame for the uprising to fall upon the Cupeño people.

The Cupeño people learned of the planned uprising and quickly warned John Warmer of the impending attack. This was the reason that John Warmer was able to survive the attack.

So where was this courageous hero Antonio Garra during this uprising which to this day bears his name. He was sitting (hiding) at home. His plot was unfolding, and he was not about to endanger himself since all he wanted was the hot spring.

Of course, the American settlers were extremely alarmed when they became aware of the uprising. The Americans were significantly outnumbered by the Indians and if the tribes did indeed manage to organize there was no way the settlers would be able to survive an organized attack. So where was this organized effort to rid Southern California of the settlers and claim the land back for the Indians. The uprising ended with full blame and finger pointing resting heavily upon the Cupeño people.

The settlers were quick to respond as they were deceived in to believing that it was the Cupeño people that led the uprising. They attacked the village of Cupanga, killing an unknown number of Cupangawichum and then burning the village to the ground. Several survivors were chased into Coyote Canyon where some were captured, tortured and executed. Not a single one of the actual participants in the uprising were ever captured or punished for what they had done.

What is interesting is that history reports that the village of Cupanga was burned to the ground. All the while Antonio Garra remained in his house on Main Street. It seems apparent that Main Street was not a part of Cupanga and was spared from being razed by the settlers.

Antonio Garra and William Marshall were eventually charged with organizing the uprising and were executed for their crimes. John Warner moved to Los Angeles with his family never to return although he maintained ownership over Valle de San Jose. This left an open void around the hot spring and it wouldn’t take long before others would take an interest in owning and managing the healing waters of the hot springs. While the Cupeño slept, the hot spring was soon being run by individuals and groups from other tribes, none of which were of Cupeño descent. For the next 50 years, the hot spring would have several Alcalde/Mayors. These would include family members of the Moro, from Sonoma County, Blacktooth, (El Diente Negro) of Baja, California, Nolasquez (Yaqui) of Mexico and Alexander Barker (a non-Indian married to a Cahuilla woman). Each wanting to make claim to the hot spring. None of them Cupeño. Alexander (Alejandro) Barker filed for title to the hot spring which triggered the infamous removal of the Cupeño people from their homeland.

The village of Cupanga was outside the boundaries of the disputed lands of the Valle de San Jose. Yet they were evicted from their lands none the less. Few, if any, realize that while the terms of removal of the Cupeño were being negotiated, very few Cupeño people participated in these negotiations. The true Cupeño Indians believed that they had the option to stay since they were outside the eviction area. As my grandfather James Brittain said, “We didn’t have to move. It was those people that voted to move. We didn’t vote to move.” He was clearly differentiating between the Cupeño people and the residents of Main Street.

To make things worse, the supposed Captain, Mayor, Chief, Alcalde, Net, Domingo Moro failed to notify the Cupeño people that the United States had opened their lands up for Indian occupation, and they could have indeed remained in Cupanga. Mr. Moro claimed these lands for himself. Land which he later sold for $20,000. A substantial amount of money for the time.
For too many years the Cupangawichum have allowed others to write and dominate their history. No more. This is the first in a series of articles that will finally bring truth to the history of the Cupangawichum.