Native Americans have been traced back at least 6,000 years at Warner Springs. These pre-historic tribes were the fore-runners of the Cupeña Native Americans who occupied the land from as early as 1700.
In approximately 1830 John Trumbull Warner left Connecticut and headed to California, joining a trading expedition headed by famed mountain man Jedediah Smith. Warner passed through the Warner Springs area (known then as Rancho San Jose de Valle) and Temecula in 1832 on his way to Los Angeles. Later in Los Angeles, John Warner met and married Anita Gale, who had been raised as a ward of the widowed mother of Pio Pico, who would later become the governor of California under Mexican rule. Soon thereafter Warner became a naturalized Mexican citizen and changed his name to Juan Jose Warner.
In 1844, Warner applied for a land grant that awarded him ownership of the 48,000-acre Rancho San Jose de Valle. Here, he established a successful cattle ranch and trading post under the name Warner’s Ranch. He and his wife Anita moved into the adobe building next to the hot springs while they built the ranch house and trading post several miles away at the intersection of the road connecting Los Angeles and San Diego to Yuma, Arizona.
The Mexican-American War (1846-48) followed in the wake of the 1845 annexation of Texas (which Mexico considered part of its territory) and preceded California’s statehood. General Stephen Watts Kearney, led by Kit Carson, marched through New Mexico and Arizona, and then passed through Warner Springs on the expedition that led to the Battle of San Pasqual. (John C. Frémont would later become a U.S. Senator from California and run for president of the United States.)
By 1849, John Warner operated part of the Ranch to serve travelers on the Gila River Emigrant Trail (part of the Southern Trail) and opened the only trading post between New Mexico and Los Angeles. John Warner was later elected to the California State Senate, where he diligently fought for Native American rights and protection. He became a newspaper publisher and served as the first president of the Southern California Historical Society.
The Butterfield Stage at Warner Springs Ranch
The Butterfield Overland Mail Company established a station at the Ranch in 1858 and rebuilt the demolished buildings. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, stagecoach service was discontinued and the army established Camp Wright, a cavalry outpost at the ranch to protect the route from Southern California to Fort Yuma, and to intercept secessionist sympathizers attempting to the join the Confederate armies in the south.
]Former California Governor John Downey purchased the ranch in 1880 to graze his cattle and sheep herds. In 1892, after years of disputes with the Cupeños living at the ranch, Downey sued for an order to evict the Native Americans from the ranch. After a decade-long legal battle, which continued after Downey’s death in 1894, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Cupeños. The eviction order came in 1901, and their exodus two years later became known as the “Cupeño Trail of Tears.” Bureau of Indian Affairs agent Jim Jenkins arrived with 44 armed teamsters to carry out the order. Their belongings were piled into horse-drawn carts and the tribe was relocated to the Pala reservation approximately 40 miles away.
William Henshaw purchased the Ranch in 1911 and Henshaw Dam was completed on Christmas Day 1922. The flood gates were closed and it started filling on December 26. In 1978, the level of the lake was lowered to 40 percent due to the Elsinore Fault Line running beneath it and because of earthquake concerns. At one point in its history the lake's expanse reached the junction of 76 and 79 and surrounded "Monkey Island."
Old timers did not say a person died, they would say "he has gone West." They felt in the country where so many people moved west, there would be an opportunity to meet again someday. Julio Ortega was one of the last great Indian-European cowboys who worked cattle in the days when it was all done on horseback. He was an old man when I was a child at Warner Hot Springs and used to sit on the porch of the trading post, telling stories and greeting people.
Of Spanish and Diegueno, blood he had the features of a Spanish grandee nobility with blue eyes, white hair and a great mustache, along with the dark skin of a native American. He was the great-great-great grandson of Sergeant Jose Francisco Ortega who in 1769-1770 broke trail for Don Gaspar de Portola en route from Loreto to found the first European settlement in California at San Diego and Monterey.
Julio was born May 6, 1882 in nearby Santa Ysabel, and his ancestors lived in the Valle de San Jose when Don Juan Jose Warner lived there. As a child, he attended the Indian School at Mission San Diego de Alcala, and the school for Indian boys at Perris in Riverside County. He ran away from the strict military discipline there and returned to Warner's Ranch in 1894-1895. There, he learned the work of the vaquero, his occupation form age 10 until his late 80s, when due to two broken hips, he could no longer ride. He spoke of the work of the cowboy saying, "It was a 24 hour job. I was in the saddle most of the time. I slept in the open with my head in the saddle."
When he was 20 in April 1903, the government of the United States moved the Cupa Indians from Warner Springs to Pala. Commissioner Charles Lummis pinned a star on Julio and made him an officer. He guarded the roads, keeping the curious away from the Native Americans who had to make the move, then he returned to the ranch. Later, Julio worked for Walter Vail whose properties came to include not only the 47,000 acres of Warner's Ranch, but the Empire Ranch in Arizona and the vast tract of land called Rancho California.
He said the valley was much more beautiful when he was young: "There was water everywhere and the grass was so high. There were some 8,000 or more cattle here all the time, and Andres and Pio Pico had their ranches here. Governor Downey bought land here as well.” Once the ranch became a resort under Henshaw, Julio became part of it, working as a wrangler, greeting visitors and showing them to their casita on horseback. He was a fine story teller and his stories ranged from present to prehistory, and demonstrated that he was self-educated, particularly about his Native American and Spanish ancestors. In his later years, Julio lived on a pension in a cabin on the ranch and kept his old saddle, spurs and bridle inside.
Julio Oreta "went west" for the last time in the 1970s and left behind his wonderful stories, six children, 20 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. He is buried in the little cemetery on Mesa Grande.