A detail of a 1844 map by John C. Fremont shows the Stanislaus River. (Library of Congress)
An Indian warrior’s legendary fight for the Stanislaus River
In 1829, Mexican California deployed a small military contingent to subdue a band of rebellious Indians led by a young tribal chief named Estanislao near modern-day Modesto. When they made contact, according to a near-contemporary history, the Mexican commander Antonio Soto marched hotheadedly into a willow grove where the rebels were hidden only to meet a barrage of arrows, one of which pierced Soto’s right eye, killing him.
Six months after the failed foray, the Mexicans tried again with a larger force of more than 100 fighters, who amassed on the river bank opposite the insurgents’ camp. They fired a cannon and stormed the beach, but after hours of indecisive battle they were forced again to retreat in humiliation.
Days later, the presidios of both San Francisco and Monterey dispatched a third force, said to be the largest so far assembled in California. It was heavily armed and numbered more than 150 men under the command of Lieutenant Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the Californio who would later found Sonoma and help write the California Constitution. Again, the Indians responded fiercely, raining arrows and temporarily beating the Mexicans back. But the rebels were outmatched. Those who avoided capture fled to a village about 10 miles away. When Vallejo’s fighters caught up, they began a “merciless slaughter,” according to accounts cited by the historians Thorne Gray and Jack Brotherton. They shot three elderly Native women and hanged nine men and women from the trees.
The rebels were defeated, but their uprising aroused a Native resistance in the San Joaquin Valley that lasted more than a decade. By the 1840s, Indian raids not only made Mexican operations in the valley intolerable, wrote the historian Sherburne Cook, “they had also actually begun to drive in the Spanish frontier.” But everything changed in 1848, as the world rushed into California upon news of gold on the American River. Over the next two decades, the Americans took over and tore California’s tribal communities from their ancestral lands, forcing them onto five reservations established across the state.
Details are scant about the Indian leader Estanislao. He is said to have been born in 1798 to the Lakisamni tribe, part of the Yokuts ethnic group estimated to have once numbered in the tens of thousands. He was a mule breaker who spoke Spanish and was educated at Mission San José. One of Soto’s men described him as a tall, muscular figure “with a head of heavy hair and a heavy beard on his face.” After Estanislao’s defeat, Mexican histories say, he sought sanctuary at the mission and died 10 years later of smallpox. Folklore has him living out his days along the river where he had defied a nation.
When the explorer John C. Fremont mapped California in 1844, he labeled that river “Stanislaus,” anglicizing the name of the legendary Indian warrior. Stanislaus in turn became the name adopted by the surrounding county, a national forest, and a public university.
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