Watching the Yaquis from Los Angeles (1894-1937)
Enduring resistance in the face of extermination
John P. Schmal
The Sonora Roots of Los Angeles
Published on LatinoLA: January 7, 2010
From its founding in 1781, Los Angeles has had an important cultural link to the Mexican state of Sonora. A significant number of the inhabitants of Los Angeles during its first few decades were natives of Sinaloa and Sonora. And many of those migrants from the south were of Yaqui, Mayo or Totorame descent. By the time they came to California, most of those people were Christianized indios, mestizos and mulatos who were citizens of the Spanish Empire and had lost many elements of their original indigenous heritage and culture. Nevertheless, for many Angelinos, a distinct bond between Los Angeles and Sonora remained. And some Angelinos recognized their genetic link to the Yaqui Indians of southern Sonora.
Los Angeles is 616 miles (991 kilometers) from Guaymas, which lies just north of the historic Yaqui territory of pre-Hispanic times. This may not seem like a long distance from modern day standards but, from the standpoint of the early settlers, there was a long stretch of desert and potentially hostile Indians that stood between the Spanish towns of southern Sonora and the young pueblo Los Angeles. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Sonora was considered "La Madre Patria" of Los Angeles, but the land in between was "No Man's Land."
In Southern Sonora, many descendants of the Indians had become willing participants within the Spanish empire. Some young men made a living by working in the mines, while others tilled the fields. Still others joined the military, which was the best way for a young Indian man to leave the social class he was born into and earn greater respect from the community, the authorities and his peers.
While many indigenous people of southern Sonora were assimilated, several thousand Yaquis decided to maintain their traditional way of life. They referred to themselves as "yoremes", a word that means man or person. And they referred to the Spanish Caucasians as "yoris."
In 1740, the Mayo, Yaqui and Pima Indians of Sonora and northern Sinaloa rebelled against Spanish rule. This was their first major rebellion and this event would be followed by a long series of revolts by the Mayos and Yaquis lasting well into the nineteenth century. Although the Pima and Mayos would eventually make peace with the Mexican Government and become pacified, the Yaquis continued their resistance well into the twentieth century.
Reporting Indigenous Disturbances to the Public
Early in its history, the Los Angeles Times informed its readers about the Native American insurrections taking place in both the U.S. and Mexico. In an article entitled "The Indian War Cloud," dated May 22, 1885, the L.A. Times pointed out that "Within a radius of five hundred miles from Tucson there are serious Indian disturbances now in progress, among the Papagoes in the United States, among the Apaches in the United States and Mexico, and among the Yaquis in Mexico." The article furthermore states the "the Yaqui nation have always maintained a virtual independence of the Mexican government."
During the 1880s, the confrontations that took place between several Native American tribes and the U.S. Government occupied considerable space on the front pages of many American newspapers. But the active resistance of Native Americans in the United States was coming to an end. On September 4, 1886, Geronimo, the leader of the Chiricahua Apache, surrendered to the U.S. Army in Arizona. Then, on December 29, 1890, the last major battle on American soil ended with the defeat of the Lakota Sioux at the Wounded Knee Massacre, also known as the Battle at Wounded Knee Creek.
The Yaquis Take Center Stage
With the end of Apache and Sioux resistance, the Yaquis in northwestern Mexico became the last representatives of defiance to governmental authority. And, soon, the Los Angeles Times and other American newspapers were following their activities with careful and sometimes very biased scrutiny.
A Campaign to the Death
On February 7, 1894, the Los Angeles Times reported that "a campaign to the death" was being organized "against the rebellious Yaqui Indians of Northern Mexico." The newspaper stated that this campaign – under the command of General Luis Torres – would not end "until the Yaquis are exterminated, if that is the only way that they can be subdued." The mentality of the time seemed to offer only two options for the rebels: surrender and capitulation – or extermination! The same article indicated that General McCook of Denver – a friend of General Torres – would be prepared to deal with the Yaquis "if an escape is attempted across the border into the United States to form a union with their cousins, the Apaches."
Three months later, on May 3, 1894, the Times reported that Yaqui Indians had "recently ambushed Mexican troops and killed and wounded 200 soldiers before they could escape." The article described the Yaquis as a "fierce and warlike race." The article explained that five hundred Federal Government troops had been pursuing "the savages" into the Sierra. After five days, the trail led the Federal troops through "a very narrow and deep canyon with precipitous sides rising 2,000 feet." The Yaquis – hidden a thousand feet above the trail behind thick brush – attacked by pushing "huge masses of rock and boulders" on the Federal troops.
The Abused Yaquis
Although most newspapers saw the Yaquis as some sort of terrorist threat, there were some individuals who saw the Yaquis in a different light and tried to share that opinion with the rest of the world. In a Nov. 14, 1894 Times article entitled "The Abused Yaquis: Some Very Serious Misrepresentations Corrected," William A. Watson, the Vice-President of the Sonora and Sinaloa Irrigation Company, criticized an earlier article written by E. J. Johnson. Indicating that Mr. Johnson had "relied more upon hearsay than from… actual observation," Mr. Watson wrote that:
"The great majority of the Yaqui Indians are hard-working, industrious people. They are largely employed in Southern Arizona, through the Guaymas and Yaqui valleys and the State of Sonora would have a hard time to get along without them. They constitute the larger part of our employees on the canal and we find them the most reliable labor we employ. It seems hardly fair to condemn the whole of this people because of a few renegades…"
Fear of Spillover
Fears that the Yaqui-Mexican conflict would spill across the U.S. border were confirmed by a Times article of August 13, 1896 that reported that "about 4 o'clock this morning the citizens of Nogales on both sides of the international line were aroused from their sleep by a fusillade of shots." The townspeople soon concluded that 75 Yaqui and Tomochio Indians had attacked Nogales with the intention of "securing arms and money" for their campaign. Six Mexicans – including two custom-house guards – were killed, as were eight Yaquis.
Two days later, another Times article explained that the attack had actually been made by a mob consisting of "all sorts – Pimas, Yaquis and "Mexican peons." It appears that this was not really an organized attack by the Yaqui nation but the misguided actions of several "followers of a magnetic healer and prophetess," Santa Teresa de Cabora (described as a "living saint").
However, over the years, fears of the spillover would continue. The Times of May 11, 1898 reported that a force of 100 Indians "composed of Apaches, Papagoes and Yaquis, had banded together" and were moving towards Nogales. No article followed up this event and it is likely that this was nothing more than a rumor. Clearly, many crimes committed by common bandits were quickly been blamed on the Yaquis, fueling the fear and resentment towards these people and their cause. In addition, some journalists were quick to link the Yaquis with other indigenous groups, such as the Apaches, Pimas or Papagos, planting the idea of a grand Native American conspiracy in the minds of their readers.
Absurd Theories about the Origins of the Yaquis
In a Times article published Sept. 7, 1896, the writer stated that "to be a Yaqui in Sonora may not be a crime but it some times a misdemeanor." The article explained that the police in Guaymas had roamed about town "rounding up all the Yaquis they could find, and putting them in jail." In the same article, the author quoted the absurd belief of some people that "the Yaquis are the Tartars of Mexico." According to this wild theory, during the twelfth century, an expedition of "100,000 Tartars" had sailed in junks to capture an area of China. However, a storm disrupted their journey and swept them eastward into the Pacific Ocean, never to be seen again. Some people theorized that the Yaquis were descended from the Tartars in these junks and gave very feeble evidence to advance the theory.
On September 8, 1896, the Times reported uneasiness in western Sonora about the Yaqui insurrection. These fears were intensified by reports that "large numbers of the peaceful Indians have quit their work on the ranches and railroads, and are flocking into the mountains, where the leaders are supplying them with arms and ammunition."
On May 18, 1897, a peace agreement was signed in Ortiz between the Yaquis and the Mexican Government. At this time, 389 Yaqui men surrendered, as did sixty families. They turned in a large number of firearms to General Torres. However, as Mexicans and foreigners continued to encroach upon their territory, peace was short-lived and hostilities soon resumed.
Tales of Slaughter
On August 3, 1899, the Times printed an article with the headline "SLAUGHTER AMERICANS." The article reported "that roving bands of Indians" were killing both Mexicans and Americans living in Mexico. The article explained that "Fears are expressed for the safety of the large number of American prospectors who have been pouring into the Sierra Madre Mountains during the year." During the next few months, the Times reported on several occasions that 2,500 Yaquis were being mobilized in the area of Sahuaripa. To oppose this force, a force of 6,000 Mexican federal troops was organized.
But the Los Angeles Times reported on December 1, 1899 that Yaquis were once again proposing peace, explaining that "the main feature of the proposition is that the Indians shall have restored to them all their original territory." However, the newspaper doubted that President Porfirio Diaz would "consider the proposition favorably, for the reason that since the signing of the treaty of peace with the Indians a few years ago [May 18, 1897] valuable concessions have been granted to Americans and Mexicans for rich placer mining property in the region which the Yaquis now desire to have restored to them." In effect, the Yaquis were probably justified in their grievances against the government.
Battle of Maxocoba
On January 18, 1900, Mexican General Lorenzo Torres, commanding a thousand soldiers defeated a Yaqui force at the Battle of Mazocoba. More than 397 Yaquis died and over 1,000 Yaqui men, women, children and wounded men were taken prisoner. Some of the Yaquis committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs. The Mexican Government lost 54 dead and 125 wounded.
After Mazocaba, Colonel García Peña estimated the rebel strength at between 900 and 1,040. It was also reported that 920 Yaqui males had perished in battles during 1899 and at Mazocoba in 1900. Now, in an effort to resolve the Yaqui rebellion, Colonel García Peña led a new, unprecedented force of 4,832 federal and state troops against them. By the end of 1900, an estimated 300 Yaquis were still holding out in the Bacatete Mountains.
Slaughter of Yaquis
The hostilities between the Yaquis and the Mexican government became so intense that some newspaper articles began showing concern for the Yaqui plight. In a special correspondence to the L.A. Times from Tucson – published on June 14, 1902 – it was reported that "the Mexican authorities are acting… with the utmost severity." It was pointed out that a few days earlier a force of 600 Mexican soldiers surrounded 400 Yaquis men, woman and children in a canyon near Minas Prietas. In the resulting confrontation, 87 men and 130 women and children were killed.
The newspaper pointed out that "every Yaqui found on the road or without employment… is killed by Mexicans without trial or respite." The article also stated that most Yaquis professed friendship with Americans and that "stories of the killing of American miners" were fabricated by Mexican authorities or the press.
Deportation of Yaquis
Early in the twentieth century, the Sonoran Government – under Governor Rafael Izábel – decided on a course of action that it believed would reduce the Yaqui population and bring their resistance to an end. The Government began to deport them. Between 1902 -1908, somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 Yaquis (out of a population of 30,000) were deported to henequen plantations in the Yucatán and the sugar cane fields in Oaxaca. This deportation became evident in the census, when Yaqui speakers began to appear in the southern Mexican states, far from their native land. In the 1910 census, for example, 1,072 Yaqui speakers were tallied in the State of Yucatán.
The deportation of the Yaquis actually hurt Sonora's economy and Sonoran hacendados protested the action because they needed Yaqui labor to cultivate and harvest their crops. At the same time, many Yaquis fled north into Arizona, where some 10,000 Yaquis still live today. The deportation led to an intensification of guerilla activities that only provoked further government persecution. During the first decade of the century, the Los Angeles Times and other California and Arizona newspapers followed the course of events very carefully and provided detailed analysis to their readers.
Hunting Down the Rebellious Yaquis
On May 7, 1906, the Times reported that "the Mexican government has started upon a new policy of hunting down the rebellious Yaquis." The article pointed out that Dr. Lorenzo Boldo, a Californian, was put in charge of an irregular force of "American adventurers" and Opata and Pima Indians, who would hunt down the Yaquis in the rebel strongholds. The article also mention that the Yaquis were "being supplied by Mormon colonists with arms and ammunition," although this was quickly denied vociferously by Mormon representatives.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, rangers near Douglas had arrested a dozen Yaquis "under suspicion of being hostile." However, it was later learned that these Yaquis "were laborers on a ranch near the border and that they had been scared into flight by a report from a passing Mormon that Mexican soldiers were on the way to gather them up and deport them." But that Mormon later admitted that this was just a joke.
On August 16, 1920, the LA Times reported that "the Yaquis have been pacified permanently." According to the article, Governor F.A. Berquez had reported that the Mexican government was spending $100,000 a month "toward the development and civilization of the tribe." Through this arrangement, Yaquis were furnished "with food, agricultural implements, horses and live stock." At this time, the Mexican government estimated that the 6,000 Yaquis living in the main tribal towns of Cocorit, Vicam, Turin, Potum and Bacum were being joined by some Yaquis who were returning from exile in the United States.
A month later, on September 14, 1920, the Times quoted Governor Berquez who complained that the Yaquis had "been a thorn in the side of the Sonoran and the Mexican governments for forty-eight years." But now, Berquez claimed that he had received assurances that the Yaquis were "completely pacified and ready to settle down" and return to peaceful agricultural pursuits on their reservation lands.
However, the peace was short-lived and new outbreaks took place during the next year. On January 19, 1921, the LA Times indicated that a small band of Yaquis had "resumed the warpath" and killed three Mexican cowboys south of Guaymas. It was alleged that the towns of Cocorit and La Dura were raided by the Yaquis and the Mexican government forces quickly responded to the incident.
Last Major Battle
Historians agree that the Yaquis fought their last major battle at Cerro del Gallo (Hill of the Rooster) in 1927. On April 28, 1927, the L.A. Times reported that Mexican Federal Troops had captured 415 Yaquis, including 214 women and 175 children. For the next few months, various skirmishes were reported by the Times. Finally, on October 2, 1927, the newspaper reported that General Francisco R. Manzo, Commander of the federal forces in Sonora, had informed President Calles that he expected the Yaqui chieftain, Luis Matius, would soon surrender after holding out in the Bacatete Mountains for more than a year. By the end of the year, Mexican garrisons were established in all Yaqui pueblos and villages.
During the 1930s many Yaquis settled down to a peaceful existence in their Sonoran homeland. Although some small outbreaks took place, major hostilities had come to an end and Yaquis worked hard to live in peace with their neighbors and the authorities. In 1934, the Yaquis found a new and important ally in the person of President Lázaro Cárdenas, a mestizo from Jiquilpan, Michoacán.
President Cárdenas opened up negotiations with the Yaquis to ensure that peace would continue. The L.A. Times of May 22, 1936 reported that "President Cárdenas, proud of his Indian blood," had served notice that his government would provide extensive benefits for the Yaquis. These plans included:
• Construction and improvement of irrigation canals in Yaqui territory
• Construction of a dam along the Yaqui River
• Establishment of agricultural and industrial schools at Vicam
• A comprehensive program of cultural uplift for Yaquis
During the next year, President Cárdenas signed a treaty with the Yaquis. This treaty created the Yaqui Zona Indígena, which included approximately half of the territory that the Yaquis had claimed as their traditional homeland. Cárdenas also recognized the Yaquis' right to rebuild on new sites traditional pueblos which had been taken over by yoris. Although the Yaquis lost two of their traditional towns (Cócorit and Bácum), two new towns (Loma de Guamúchil and Loma de Bácum) were established to compensate the tribe for their loss.
Today, the Yaquis live in peace. The Mexican census of 2000 tallied 12,467 Yaqui speakers in the State of Sonora, as well as a smaller number of Yaquis in nearby states (Baja California and Sinaloa). Their present-day territory is primarily in the municipios of Guaymas, Bácum, Cajeme and Empalme. A century ago, the Government of Sonora was actively and openly seeking to exterminate the Yaquis. Today, Sonora is proud of its Yaqui population.
The Yaquis of Arizona
On September 18, 1978, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona became federally recognized. The Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation is located within the Tucson metropolitan area in Pima County. In the 2000 census, the reservation had a resident population of 3,315 persons, of which more than 90 percent were Native American. The Yaquis of Arizona represent a northern extension of Sonora's Yaquis and many of them are descended from refugees that fled the war a century ago.
Dedication: This article is dedicated to my friend, Teddy Whitefeather, whose Yaqui ancestors came to Los Angeles during the Yaqui rebellion a century ago.
Evelyn Hu-DeHart, "Yaquis Resistance and Survival: The Struggle for Land and Autonomy, 1821-1920" (University of Wisconsin Press, 1984).
Shelley Bowen Hatfield, "Chasing Shadows: Apaches and Yaquis Along the United States-Mexico Border, 1876-1911" (University of New Mexico Press, 1999).
John P. Schmal, "Sonora: Four Centuries of Indigenous Resistance," at
Los Angeles Times Articles:
"The Indian War Cloud," May 22, 1885
"Against Yaquis," February 7, 1894.
"A Yaqui Ambush: Two Hundred Mexican Soldiers Fall; The Troops Are Led into a Deep Canyon; Boulders Rolled Upon Them Followed by Bullets," May 3, 1894
"The Abused Yaquis: Some Very Serious Misrepresentation Corrected," November 14, 1894.
"Yaquis Swoop Upon Nogales: Deadly Fight at the Mexican Town," August 13, 1896.
"Followers of Santa Teresa: Raid on Nogales Made by Fanatics," August 15, 1896.
"Short Shrift for Offenders Against Mexican Law: A History of the Recent Yaqui Insurrection," September 7, 1896.
"Guarding Against Yaquis," September 8, 1896.
"Indian Outbreak," May 11, 1898
"Slaughter Americans: Yaqui Indians Kill Them In Mexico," August 3, 1899.
"Yaquis Mobilizing: Such is the Report Received from Ortiz, Mex.," October 14, 1899.
"Yaqui Rebels Are Now Suing for Peace: But They Want Their Lands With It," December 1, 1899.
"Slaughter of Yaquis: Two Hundred Mowed Down in Canyon: Mexicans' Campaign of Extermination," Jan. 14, 1902
"Mexico Goes After Yaquis: Guerilla Warfare to be Declared on Redskins," May 7, 1906.
"Expect Yaquis Will Settle on Rich Land: Tribe Furnished with Food, Farm Implements by Mexican Government," August 15, 1920.
"Extensive Irrigation for Land of Yaquis: Sonora Officials Plan Agricultural Work Amongst Indians," September 16, 1920.
"Reports Verify Yaquis' Victory: Indians Said to have Killed a Battalion," Sept. 17, 1926.
"Many Wounded as Federals and Yaquis Battle," May 10, 1927.
"Surrender Due in Yaqui Strife: Leader Expected to Accept Mexican Terms Today," October 2, 1927.
"Yaqui Tribes to Get Help," May 22, 1936.
John P. Schmal:
John Schmal specializes in Mexican genealogical research. He is a native of the L.A. area and attended schools in Inglewood, South Central and Westchester.