In the 1976 book, Saga of Rancho El Tejón, Frank Latta extensively used interviews he did with that famed rancho’s longtime majordomo, or foreman, José Jesús López, also known as J.J., the eldest child of Geronimo and Catarina López. With this installment, the interviews turned to a discussion of Geronimo’s involvement in the Mexican-American War, specifically the events surrounding the final surrender by Andrés Pico that ended the conflict in California.
First, however, J. J. López observed that, “When the Americanos came to take California, my father was an unattached young man. So it was up to him to go into the California Army.” This was particularly a force commanded by Governor Pío Pico, while military chief José Castro of northern California commanded his own force. According to J. J., the two decided to meet and strategize about defending California from the invaders and did so at Santa Margarita north of San Luis Obispo. Geronimo was with Pico’s force on that trip north as a sort of cavalry man, riding his own horse and carrying only a long knife rendered from an old sword by an Indian blacksmith hired by Geronimo’s father, Esteban, for the purpose.
To prepare for his joining the army, J. J. continued, Geronimo drilled with Andrés Pico “on the mesa across the river about a week all told,” this location appearing to be the flat lands of Paredon Blanco or what later became Boyle Heights. In this “basic training,” Geronimo “drilled as a lancer. He tied his big knife to the end of a pole with rawhide and used it as a lance.” J.J. also stated that the Californios had muskets that they used for hunting birds, but that these were hardly suitable for battle. This gives some idea of the formidable disadvantage the Californios had in weaponry to defend their homeland against the invading American forces. Given this, it is impressive that the Californios managed to retake Los Angeles and other areas and put up a spirited defense.
J. J. also stated that inter-Californio conflicts frequently arose, which was certainly true as revolts and quarrels broke out frequently, such as the February 1845 incident at Cahuenga Pass that brought Pío Pico to the governor’s seat after he faced off against then-governor Manuel Micheltorena, an appointee of Mexico City who proved highly unpopular in Alta California. As López observed, “The battles had been funny affairs. The armies, about forty of fifty rancheros and their vaqueros, would laugh and talk about them until time for the next one. Once they fought for three days, with the only casualty one wounded mule—which recovered in two weeks.” The Pico-Micheltorena skirmish wasn’t much more than that as a horse was killed and a bullet passed through a man’s hat.
As noted here previously, Geronimo López did have an important role at the surrender by Andrés Pico to John Charles Frémont, which also took place near Cahuenga Pass in January 1847. As related by his son, “My father carried the flag of truce to Frémont at the surrender at Cahuenga. He was only a boy at the time. He had been orphaned young and was raised by his grandmother, Luisa Cota de López, wife of Claudio López.” This last observation was partially confirmed in an earlier post here relating to the 1836 census, in which Geronimo was in the household of his grandmother. He was, however, not completely orphaned. That is, his mother had died, but his father, Esteban, was alive and did remarry. It may well, though, that Geronimo did not get along with his step-mother, explaining why he was on his own at a young age and, as stated above, “unattached.” Indeed, J. J. followed this statement by noting that “From the time he was sixteen years of age he was on his own.”
J.J. continued that,
When father carried the flag of truce to Frémont he was retained as a prisoner, as were all of the Californio forces. A flag of truce was sent from each side. Montenegro was with Frémont. He came with his flag to meet father. During the night father decided he did not want to take a chance on the tender mercies of Frémont and his men. So he slipped out of camp and ran to the Rancho La Providencia (present Burbank) of his future father-in-law, Pedro López. There he obtained a horse and riding rig and got away to San Gabriel, where everyone was his primo (pree-mo) or cousin. There was a dance at San Gabriel that night and father attended it. He stayed at San Gabriel until the trouble had blown over and he knew what was going to happen.
Next: the marriage of Geronimo and Catarina López and the conclusion of this fascinating series of recollections of their son.