Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

CV’s First Inhabitants – Warfare


As I continue my series on our local native people, the Tongva, I’m hitting the particular subjects that I personally am interested in, and hopefully my readers find those interesting too. There’s just too much to cover, so I’ll wrap it up soon.

I think we tend to imagine the life of the Tongva as peaceful and idyllic. I know I do. And in many ways, it was. They had plenty of food, enjoyed good health and had a perfect climate. But they were human, and thus had a dark side. For instance, they had terrible forms of capital punishment, they kept slaves and they were ruled by chiefs who inherited their positions by birthright rather than by popular choice.

And they sometimes had very brutal wars.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

The reasons for declaring war on another village are familiar to us today: trade disputes, competition for resources, perceived insults and just plain traditional “Hatfield and McCoy” style multi-generational enmity. According to William McCawley’s book “The First Angelinos,” the village that was located in today’s Sierra Madre warred for many years with the village in San Gabriel, and the coastal Tongva and the inland Tongva traditionally didn’t get along.

War was declared by the chief after consulting with the elders, and a community planning meeting was held at the chief’s house. Sneak attacks and ambush were their favored tactics. They chose a date for the attack, organized materials and fighting men and, if more troops were needed, asked neighboring villages for help.

On the day of the attack, the chief led the troops, followed by the old men, women and children. The attack was a village effort. At the onset of the attack, arrows, often dipped in rattlesnake venom, were shot at the surprised village. The warriors closed for brutal hand-to-hand action using specialized clubs. Two examples are shown in McCawley’s book, one a hardwood club flattened on three sides to form sharp edges, the other resembling a medieval mace with sharp spikes. If a village was being attacked, flaming torches were thrown onto the roofs of the homes. During the battle, women and children retrieved arrows shot by the enemy for reuse and assisted the medicine men and healers in treating the wounded.

If one side prevailed, the results were horrific. Opposing warriors who were captured or too wounded to flee were usually decapitated on the spot. If not, they were bound and dragged back to the winners’ village to be tortured to death. Any women and children from the vanquished village who didn’t escape were taken as slaves. So, war for the Tongva was all-out and complete.

A less violent form of conflict was often used because total war was so devastating. “Song duels” were performed over several days by the opposing villages. Obscene and insulting songs were sung to their opponents while the performers stamped their feet menacingly. (It reminds me of “rap battles” that were popularized by today’s hip-hop culture.) This obviously was a better way of letting off steam, but just like today, retribution for grievances was determined by the village leaders.

So if the Tongva were such fierce warriors, why did they seemingly just roll over for the Spanish? Well first off, they didn’t. There were many resistance movements and revolts that I will cover in future columns. But there were other factors at play as well.

The Tongva had just experienced cultural trauma from mysterious European diseases that preceded the Spanish and decimated the population. As well, the villages did not always cooperate with one another, and the Tongva did not present a united front. They were generally a friendly and generous culture, so didn’t resist immediately. And they were out-gunned. The armored Spanish troops on horseback completely outmatched the club-wielding Tongva warriors. The Spanish even brought artillery with them. They seemed invincible to the Tongva, so many simply submitted.

The Spanish records of contact with the Tongva tend to infantilize the native people. But I don’t think that was the case. They could have been fierce opponents to Spanish conquest but they were conquered by germs and steel.