Finding Pomponio's Cave

In search of the man who rebuked the mission system

By Ryan Masters

Hiking the Santa Cruz Mountains backcountry after dark, I startle a deer and stop in my tracks, listening to it flee clumsily along the steep slope above me. Only us prey make noise out here. The first day of autumn is right around the corner. Dry oak, bay and madrone leaves carpet the forest floor and crackle loudly in the night as I walk. I am making an absurd racket out here. Perhaps these leaves are just another of god’s perfect counterweights. Winter is coming. Predators must fatten up. If the deer and I must move, the autumn leaves will give away our positions to every sharp-toothed hunter in the mountains.

I have been hunting as well—hunting a cave; the hiding place of a man who was, in turn, hunted by the Spanish nearly 200 years ago. Based on a sketchy description of this cave’s location and an even sketchier grasp of the geography here in the Long Ridge Open Preserve, I have traversed above the towering Skyline Slabs, magnificent sandstone cliffs that plunge into Aquarian Valley below. This is absolutely the wrong route. At one point, I descend between two of the slabs and find myself stuck in a precarious rock chute. The climb back out is harrowing and time consuming. Old climbing bolts mark forgotten routes along some of the cliffs. They don’t appear trustworthy any longer. This whole section of the mountains feels forgotten.

After a long traverse around the edge of the slabs, across steep slopes choked with scrub manzanita, chamise, ceonothus and monkey flower, I reach a lower section of the Peters Creek Waterfall. I descend toward the valley floor, poking my head in a variety of caves and cave-like openings as I clamber from boulder to boulder. No luck. When I reach the canyon floor, I find no discernible trail. A sign lettered with fading yellow paint on corrugated aluminum is nailed to a tree. It reads: “Caution (Pot Mota) Growers! Sheriff and MROSD [Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District] Know You’re Here!” Despite the posted warning, I don’t think anyone has been down here in ages. It is lush and green and overgrown. Giant ferns and redwood sorrel carpet the ground. Gargantuan boulders litter the creek bed. But I find no caves.

It has taken me too long to descend to this canyon. I am running out of light. I perform another quick search around the base of the waterfall for a cave but come up empty. Frustrated, I have no choice but to begin the brutal, arduous climb out. Along the way, however, I am rewarded with mellifluous light filtering through a forest of peeling madrone and sunset upon the magnificent sandstone faces of the slabs. As the last of the day’s light disappears, I am passing a series of tafoni-riddled boulders that easily rival those at Castle Rock State Park, which lies roughly five miles southeast. As I pass a small clearing, I spook a bobcat hunting rodents. It bounds away silently. Just as I retake the trail back to the Grizzly Flat trailhead and my car, the light is snuffed completely. I walk the last two miles in pitch night, my ridiculously loud footsteps crunching through the woodlands.

A week later, an archaeologist friend provides more specific directions to the cave. I return, this time using the proper trail, and find it in an hour. The cave is a hollow heart within large, stacked boulders near the crown of the waterfall. I scurry up the backside and peer into the gaping interior through a natural skylight. At the west end of the cave, a perfectly symmetrical cross is carved into the stone. At last. I have found the cave of Pomponio, the legendary Miwok rebel and warrior who bedeviled the Spanish for three years, from 1821 until his execution in 1824.

As a teenager, Pomponio led a small but memorable insurrection against the mission system, which governed Alta California at the time. For three years, he battled the Spanish, who had already occupied the San Francisco Bay Area and disrupted native life for 50 years. This cave in Long Ridge Preserve was just one of many hideouts scattered between present day San Rafael and Soledad that Pomponio and his small band of rebels used to evade capture. In 1823, Spanish scouts etched the cross into the rock as a warning to Pomponio that they were closing in on him. Alas, after numerous escapes, Pomponio's luck finally ran out. He was captured and executed by firing squad in 1824.

Man, Myth, Legend
So, who was Pomponio? In his brief life, Jose Pomponio Lupugeym (1799-1824) acquired near-mythical status among native Californians and non-natives alike. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish branded him a dangerous murderer, thief and rapist who preyed upon other Indians as well as Spaniards. He was ultimately executed for the murder of a Mexican soldier, according to Spanish accounts. Similarly, the non-Indian Californios apparently considered him an “unsavory character,” probably because they did not identify with the young Coastal Miwok man.

However, by all accounts, the other mission Indians, or neophytes, supported and protected Pomponio during his three years on the run. Perhaps the most objective description of the man comes from a Russian naval attaché named Dmitry Zavalishin who met the Coastal Miwok rebel when Pomponio was incarcerated in the San Francisco presidio. Zavalishin described him as a “Robin Hood figure” who was “courageous and resourceful.” He also confirmed that Pomponio was supported and protected by other Indians at the mission.

In his book, A Time of Little Choice, Randall Milliken recounts how the Spanish Mission system deconstructed and eventually disintegrated Bay Area tribes between 1769 and 1810. His groundbreaking research into the mission records not only illuminated the process of assimilation, it was also vital in re-establishing an understanding of the complex quilt of tribes and territories that make up what is generically termed the “Ohlone” nation. (My own understanding of the Spanish mission system’s influence on native culture and populations was deeply influenced by Milliken, whom I had the pleasure to work with while at Far Western Anthropological Resource Group in Davis, CA back near the turn of the millennium. I mention this because Randall passed away early in 2018, the year I am writing this. The importance of his meticulous research cannot be overstated.) As the book’s title suggests, Milliken asserts that the arrival of the Spanish to the San Francisco Bay Area quickly led the native tribes to a point of very limited options. As a result, resistance faltered, and many entered the mission (more or less) voluntarily once it became clear it was the only rational choice that remained.

Pomponio was by no means the first or most prominent mission-era Indian to rebel against the invaders and their socio-religious system. Chief Marin, the Coast Miwok leader for whom the north Bay Area county is named, is perhaps best known. (For more about Marin, I highly suggest Betty Goerke’s excellent book Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel and Legend.) According to Goerke, there is a great deal of evidence that Marin was a direct influence and supporter of the younger Pomponio. The Spanish believed, or at least asserted, that Pomponio was under Marin’s command. Regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, Marin was imprisoned in 1824 a result of his association with Pomponio.

Perhaps Pomponio was uniquely dangerous to the Spanish because he was a product of the mission system. While most rebels of the Mission period were Indians who either refused to assimilate or ran away after relocating from their native lands, Pomponio was raised in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. He was brought there at the age of four by his mother, who was entered into mission records as a member of the Guaulen (present day Bolinas) tribe. His biological father was a Huimen (present day Oakland) tribal member whose brother worked as the mission’s Miwok interpreter and witness at mission weddings from 1800 to 1805. However, by the time he was nine, most of Pomponio’s family had died from illness. Eight years later, his entire extended family was deceased. Left to his own devices and without a traditional support network, Pomponio began to question the legitimacy of Spanish authority. A rebel was born. By the time he was 21, Pomponio had been labeled “evil” by Father Juan Cabot of Mission Dolores. According to the padre’s dispatches to Gov. Pablo Vicente Sola, Pomponio and his band of six runaway Indians, “Los Insurgentes,” were raiding rancherias in present day Marin County, disrupting traffic and generally terrifying local Spanish.

Pomponio’s band of rebels were not Coast Miwok. They were young men from the East Bay, as well as San Diego, San Gabriel, Carmel and Soledad missions. As Goerke points out, their only common language would have been Spanish, further supporting the notion that Pomponio was less a thug and more a charismatic leader who could attract men from other tribes and language groups.

Secret correspondence among priests, the governor and the commandante of the San Francisco presidio revealed plans to capture Pomponio at his cave hideout here in the Santa Cruz Mountains in July 1823. Subsequent letters reveal this cabal’s disappointment in failing to find the wily native. However, it is noted that the soldiers left their calling card, the undoubtedly foreboding crucifix etched into the rock.

Ultimately, Pomponio’s insurrection was doomed for the very reason he may have been such an embarrassment to the Spanish. As a mission-raised Indian, Pomponio did not inherit the ability to live off the land. As a result, he was reliant on food from the missions and their surrounding rancherias for sustenance and supplies. By remaining in the Santa Cruz Mountains region, Pomponio evaded capture for years thanks to fellow natives at ranchos near the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz missions who supported him with food and supplies. While at large, Pomponio executed successful raids on a wide range of targets, including the San Francisco mission and presidio. He took hostage the son of a prominent corporal. He ranged across the entire San Francisco Bay Area, creating a legend that has lasted two centuries. He also escaped jail multiple times. However, it was only a matter of time before Pomponio was eventually captured for good. On Feb. 6, 1824, he was sentenced to death and killed.

A Legacy
The Catholic Church does not like to discuss the Mission system’s devastating impact on the native California population. Yet there is no denying history. The Franciscans established 21 missions in Alta California with two primary goals: create an Indian work force capable of producing enough grain for the military and regulate the Indians’ moral conduct and religious practices. The mission system’s collateral damage was nearly total—the natives’ food supplies were destroyed, their culture and beliefs were banned and their villages were decimated. Many smaller tribes disappeared altogether. By 1855, only 50,000 Native Californians survived. The ensuing age of the railroad nearly finished the job.

I sit in Pomponio’s cave and watch the afternoon sunlight move across the Spanish cross chiseled into the rock. Because so much of Native Californian culture was lost in the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s easy to regard the mission era only as a terrible time of mortality and assimilation. Yet it was also a time of great spirit, courage and even rebellion. I sit at the mouth of the cave. Beneath me, the waterfall drops precipitously down into the canyon below. I listen to the birds sounding off in the trees around me; to the trickle of creek water spilling away from bowl to bowl; to the sounds of prey moving through the leaves; for the sound of a predator slipping ever closer. I sit in this cave and listen to a powerful testament to spirit.

Goerke, Betty. Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel, and Legend. Heyday Books. 2007.
Jackson, Robert H. and Edward Castillo. Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians. University of New Mexico Press. 1995.
Milliken, Randall. A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1769-1810; Ballena Press Anthropological Papers. 1995.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the country at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes an occasional column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

More Goat Trails:

Read Ryan’s unique take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s California.
Read about a rainy-day hike, with newts!
Read Finding Frank Norris in the Santa Cruz Mountains