One of the habits Laureen has when we travel, and I believe everyone should, is using her phone to search for interesting sites near us when we stop.
No matter where we are, there seems to be someplace we haven’t visited or — in this case — never even knew existed.
After visiting friends in San Diego recently, we stopped off in Escondido for fuel. While at the pump, Laureen delved into her habit and asked me, “Did you know that a battle was fought near us during the Mexican-American War?”
“Nope,” I hadn’t heard of it before.” (Sad, honestly, for a guy who’s lived in Southern California most of his life.) “Where?”
“Five miles east down Highway 78.”
Enough said. Fueled up, we were ready for a new adventure.
The San Pasqual Battlefield, a State Historic Park, is located one mile east past the entrance to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on 78.
A gentleman who works as an aide at the park, Gil, was a fount of knowledge concerning the history of the San Pasqual Valley. Gil regaled us with tales from every moment of the battle, but he ended up offering a rather poetic take on the war itself.
“You know, many people don’t talk about the Mexican-American War in school. Certainly not this battle,” he said. “It’s a chapter in both our histories that doesn’t put us in any positive light. It really was a battle of greed and power from both sides of the border. There really were no clear winners — especially here on this battlefield.”
Turns out, when walking through the museum at the state park, one could see how both sides, at least here, made many strategic mistakes that resulted in the loss of many lives.
The Californios had made enemies of the local natives, the Kumeyaay (also known as the Ipai), who had sided with the Americans, giving them aid and assistance when needed. The Americans believed they could easily overcome the Californios, and made many tactical mistakes — far too many to discuss here.
“Both sides claimed victory,” Gil said. “The Americans lost more men in the battle, but very soon after, Pico and the Californios were forced to capitulate on Jan. 10, 1847, to the American forces. This ended the fighting in California.”
It’s fascinating but truly sad that the bloodiest military action in California during the war between the U.S. and Mexico occurred near Escondido. Again, how did I not know about this?
Turns out, in December 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny was traveling through an area north of San Diego, east of what would become Escondido, to bring battle against a group of Californios (people of Hispanic descent, still living in California after Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain) under the command of Captain Andres Pico. On President Polk’s orders, these loyalists to Mexico needed to be removed from California at all costs.
Unfortunately, that cost was 22 American soldiers of the First Dragoons, as well as six Californios. The weather was damp, so the powder to fire muskets was wet and wouldn’t fire, leaving Kearny’s men to fight hand-to-hand combat with the Californios.
The American soldiers stood no chance, with only swords and non-functioning muskets.The Californios were armed with long lances capable of killing an enemy from several yards, and lariats that could easily capture or make an enemy combatant ineffective.
As we looked out the large glass windows, which allow visitors a panoramic view of the battlefield, it was hard to digest how death came so easily in such a beautiful valley. We read the informative descriptions about the battle — the reasons behind it — but it didn’t make reality any easier to swallow.
Fewer than 100 yards from where we stood, men had fought and died during the cold and wet days of a December that played out 154 years ago.
On the way out of the museum, we said our thanks to Gil, who told us of another location worth checking out.
“After this,” he said, “it’s always nice to have something fun to visit.”
Kit Carson, the famous frontier scout, had been with Kearny during the engagement. As a result, the Kit Carson Park and Amphitheater is located in Escondido, right off Interstate 15.
This 285-acre park has it all for outdoorsy types, including the only American sculpture park by the late, international artist, Niki de Saint Phalle. The sculpture garden, dubbed Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, was Phalle’s way of depicting California’s mythic, historic and cultural roots.
Unfortunately, the garden was closed when we went. Looking through the fence, though, we were able to glimpse some of the marvelously huge and imaginative creatures that were molded by a visionary mind.
We’re definitely planning another visit.
And so, when out of town, check around for places nearby worth seeing. We know there are plenty and, like me, you just might learn something new.
For more information on the San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park, visit www.Parks.CA.gov/?page_id=655. For more on Phalle’s Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, visit www.Escondido.org/queen-califias-magical-circle.aspx.