Michael White (Miguel Blanco) & Rancho Muscupiabe

The Old Spanish Trail had become increasingly used as a pack mule trail between New Mexico and California, and with this traffic came the opportunity for those to take advantage of the distance and desperate nature of the land.

Crowder (Coyote) Canyon in the Cajon Pass north of San Bernardino
Hundreds and sometime even thousands of stolen horses from the ranchos would burst through Coyote Canyon beginning their ‘journey of death’ across the Mojave.

California horses were beautiful creatures, and the mules were taller and stronger than those in New Mexico and they were easy to steal.  The rolling hills and plains presented clear paths to the  Cajon where numerous hidden canyons and washes were available to slip into and prepare for the furious run across the desert. Horses would be stolen in herds from many different ranchos at once. Hundreds of horses, even thousands could be commandeered and driven by just a few experienced thieves.

Crowder Canyon, Cajon Pass, toll road, wagon road
Narrows, Crowder Cyn., Cajon Pass

Chief Walkara, ‘Hawk of the Mountains’ and the greatest horse thief in all of history along with his band of renegade Chaguanosos , and notables such as Jim Beckwourth and Pegleg Smith would work together in this illegal trade. During one raid they were said to have coordinated the theft of 3,000-5,000 horses, driving them to Fort Bridger to trade for more horses to run to New Mexico to trade again. Horses would fall from exhaustion every mile and the local bands of Paiute would feast on the remains.

The rich ranchos of southern California.

In 1843 Michael White was granted one league of land at the mouth of the Cajon Pass called Rancho Muscupiabe. At a point overlooking the trails leading into and away from the canyon he was expected to thwart the raiders and horse thieves that were plaguing the Southern California ranchos. In theory it was a good plan but in practice it did not work so well.

Devore, ca.
From the piedmont between Devil and Cable canyons, Miguel Blanco could keep an eye out for the horse thieves entering the Cajon.

He built his home of logs and earth and constructed corrals for his stock. However, the location between Cable and Devil Canyon only served as a closer and more convenient target for the Indian thieves. His family was with him, but after six weeks until it became too dangerous. He left after nine months without any livestock and in debt.

The Old Spanish Trail went down this slope to behind Miguel Blanco’s rough-hewn homestead. Indians would watch from this forest for Miguel to leave and they would slip down and steal everything that could be stolen.

Miguel sold his property, however, Miguel had misread the grant, letting the rancho go for much less than it was worth. The land described on the grant was roughly 5 times larger than Miguel thought.  Blanco brought a suit but lost.

Muscupiabe Rancho, Michael White, Miguel Blanco
Muscupiabe Rancho

As the late 1840s and 1850s rolled by wagon roads were being developed in the canyon minimizing the effectiveness of the maze of box canyons being used to cover the escape of desperadoes on horseback. With California becoming a state frontiersmen such as Beckwourth and Peg Leg Smith would not steal from fellow Americans. Horse-thieving under U.S. law had become a crime where before it was just stealing horses from Mexicans. That was only serious if caught in the act. Americans would never extradite them. For the most part, that was the end of the horse stealing raids.

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Victor Valley Crossings

Fr. Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés, (April 12, 1738 – July 18, 1781) was a Spanish priest who crossed the Mojave Desert in 1776. This map shows his route across the Victor Valley. Following the Mojave River after crossing at Oro Grande he walked through what is now downtown Victorville bypassing the rocky narrows and connecting back with the river near today’s Mojave Narrows Regional Park. Following the river to where the West fork and Deep Creek join to form the Mojave. He visited with the Indians then made his way up Sawpit Canyon and over the mountain ridge descending into the verdant sycamore grove that is known today as Glen Helen.

This map shows the route of Fr. Garces in 1776 during his crossing west. His diary it describes him being taken to an Indian village in the mountains.

50 years after Fr. Garcés made his way across the Mojave from the Colorado River, in 1826, Jedediah Smith retraced the trail of Garcés along the river then up and over the mountains. In 1827, one year after his first crossing, Smith had lost most of his men in a massacre at the Colorado River. Desperate for the safety of civilization, Smith, after crossing the Mojave River in Oro Grande, made his way directly to the Cajon Pass bypassing the San Bernardino Mountains.

The direct route over the summit and down the pass eliminates the steep climb and descent over the San Bernardino Mountains.