Times Past

How stealing horses from early San Luis Obispo helped shape the Old West

Statue of Chief Walkara at Pioneer Heritage Gardens in Manti, Utah.
Statue of Chief Walkara at Pioneer Heritage Gardens in Manti, Utah.

“Their greatest exploit… was the stealing of twelve hundred horses from San Luis Obispo in April 1840.”

I was reminded of this passage from Hubert Howe Bancroft’s magisterial work “History of California” when I read an e-mail from Jon Funk: “I would like to know more about Chief Walkara’s raid on the ranches of San Luis Obispo, such as where the horses were stolen from, and the route that they were driven eastward.”

Walkara’s band became known as Los Chaguanosos, creating a swath of terror from what is now Utah and New Mexico to Southern and Central California. The estimated number of horses stolen from herds of missions San Luis Obispo and San Miguel has been revised upward from Bancroft’s figures, to more than 3,000.

Chief Wakara, anglicized as “Walkara” and sometimes “Walker,” was a leader of the Timpanogots Utes from what is now Utah. He became a legend of the Old West. Like the fabled Joaquin Murieta, he seemed to appear in many places at the same time.

He was joined in some of his raids by mountain men James Beckwourth, Thomas “Pegleg” Smith, Bill Williams, Tennessean Philip Thompson, John Rowlands and Dick Owens, for whom the Owens Valley is named.

By some accounts, Beckwourth and his fellow mountain men did not take part in the raids directly. They may have only traded with Walkara for whiskey and guns in return for horses. The mountain men drove the famed Californio Mustangs back along the Old Spanish Trail to Missouri, where they fetched $100,000 in gold, amounting to several million dollars today.

Ironically, just eight years after the raids, Beckwourth was a mail carrier for the Military Government of California when he discovered the victims of the San Miguel Mission Murders in December 1848.

As late as 1845, Benjamin “Don Benito” Davis Wilson pursued Los Chaguanosos over the Cajon Pass and into the Mojave Desert. While he failed to capture any of the Utes or their allies, renegades from the former Mission San Gabriel, he gained a good reputation for dealing with the Native Americans of Southeastern California.

During that expedition, Wilson sent 22 men on a bear hunt into the San Gabriel Mountains above San Bernardino. They discovered a large lake that Wilson named “Big Bear Lake.”

Wilson’s campaign brought a temporary end to the Indian Raids, which briefly resumed during the early American period. In 1854, Wilson gained control of Rancho San Pascual, present-day Pasadena. Mount Wilson above that city is named for “Don Benito.”

His daughter married a Virginian, George S. Patton, Sr. Seven years following Wilson’s death, a son was born. George S. Patton, Jr., who President Eisenhower frequently called “Old Blood and Guts,” did not inherit his grandfather’s more pacific nature.

The Walkara-Los Chaguanosos raids had a distinct impact on American history. They created waves of fear among the Californios during the last days of Mexican California. Those fears may have helped promote the American annexation in 1846-48. The pursuit of Walkara Los Chaguanosos opened many paths.

Walkara and Los Chaguanosos found watering holes along the very dry route east. The Old Spanish Trail became a practical route for travelers.

One of these was probably a pleasant meadow land in what is now southwestern Nevada. It’s called Las Vegas. Walkara might be called a father of the much rerouted Interstate 15.

In 1850, following a two-year struggle with the Mormon settlers in Utah, and surviving a deadly measles epidemic, Walkara was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.