Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

CV’s First Inhabitants – Conflicts With Mission San Gabriel


As I had said in previous columns, the Tongva people, although friendly and generous, could also be fierce and deadly warriors. So why were they so easily dominated by the handful of Spanish that came north? Germs and steel.

Like native peoples all across the Americas, European diseases swept ahead of the explorers, destroying cultures, and the survivors were finished off by superior firepower. So it went for the Tongva.

After the initial encounter in September 1771 with the founders of San Gabriel Mission, natives from many of the local villages came to view the priest’s painting of the Virgin Mary. As I speculated in my last column, they may have mistakenly thought the amazingly colorful painting was an image of one of their own Tongva deities. As the number of natives in the compound increased, the priests began to get nervous. The captain of the guard decided to limit the number of natives to five at a time, and barred the rest. This deeply offended those who were barred. They had welcomed these strangers, fed them and helped them put up their stockade. They began to jostle for entrance to the stockade, and tensions deepened.

Within only a few days after the initial contact at the river, the truce was fraying. After the stockade was built, the captain of the guard sent two of the soldiers back to San Diego, leaving only eight solders at the new mission. One day a large group of young warriors demanded entrance. They were armed with war clubs. They were here for trouble. They pushed past the guard at the entrance, knocking him down and trampling him. They angrily threatened the priests for the insult of barring their entrance. The seven remaining soldiers rallied, fired their muskets and pushed the warriors out of the stockade. Things were not going well, so the captain sent a fast messenger to San Diego to quickly send more soldiers.

For a few days a tenuous peace endured, but on the night of Oct. 8 several soldiers went to a local village, forcibly tied up the men and raped several women, including the wife of a tomyaar (chief). The next morning an angry crowd gathered outside the stockade, but the soldiers, now reinforced, were able to drive the crowd back. In the meantime, the tomyaar, whose wife was raped, gathered warriors from surrounding villages and marched to the Mission stockade. The tomyaar was out for blood.

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

As dawn broke, the offended tomyaar and his warriors set another ambush at the Mission. While half the attackers surrounded the compound, the other half concealed themselves nearby, waiting for an opening to rush the compound. The Spanish soldiers were organized, though, and broke the siege with musket volleys.

Now the fighting became heavy. The hiding warriors joined the main force and unleashed volleys of arrows at the armored Spanish. The soldiers responded with musket volleys of their own, killing several natives including the tomyaar leading them. This unnerved the attackers and, just at that moment the soldiers charged out through their gate, the warriors fell back, and watched as the soldiers cut off the head of the fallen tomyaar, and impaled it on a long pole. The warriors, now completely demoralized, went back to their villages.

That evening several of the soldiers visited a nearby village, and roughed up the residents in a show of force. The next morning the soldiers woke to the sight of smoke from signal fires, as the villages around the new Mission called in more warriors. The priests visited the villages and were able to calm things down, but just five days later, the soldiers in the compound saw numerous warriors gathering in the trees around them. Luck was with the Spanish, for just then a contingent of fresh soldiers rode in and the warriors fell back.

At this point, the Tongva abandoned the villages near the Mission. The Mission was shunned, and it was several months before the fathers could entice any of them back. The priest’s dreams of mass conversions were put on hold.