Those Peaceful “Torture Trees”

October 1, 1963

The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
October 1963, Volume 9, Number 4
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By H. K. Raymenton

When a tree is twisted like this one in Felicita Park, it is likely to become the starting-point for a legend.In Felicita Park, near Escondido, there is a grove of majestic live oak trees. Some stand straight and hold their fantastically writhing branches against the sky. Others have trunks so bent that they arch over and lie along the ground. The boles of some appear thick and sturdy from one side and show themselves hollow from another. All seem ancient, true patriarchs of the forest, a thousand years old, at least.

Today these trees, in a park whose name signifies happiness, are enjoyed by the children who throng about them, swinging in the branches and playing hide-and-seek in the cavernous trunks. Only laughter and shouts of joy are heard, yet there is something sinister about the grove, something that stirs the imagination uneasily. The twisted limbs of the venerable oaks hint that more than nature has so deformed them.

An air of mystery, of awesomeness, hangs over the place which sets the visitor wondering if these trees did not once witness dark deeds and strange happenings.

Story Tells Of Swift, Terrible Punishment For Guilty

Such a grove could not fail to give rise to legends and, indeed, many legends have grown up about them. According to one, this was the judgment grove of the Poways, the fierce aborigines of the region. Here the chiefs met in council to try those who had offended against the laws of the tribe.

If found guilty their punishment was swift and terrible. They were bound to the limbs of the great trees ’round about, high above the ground, and saplings were grafted into the oak which grew and encircled the hapless victims in bonds of ever-pressing wood. Here they remained, perhaps for years, attacked occasionally by ferocious birds of prey, carefully tended to keep life within them that their sufferings might be prolonged until death brought a merciful release.

Indians In Poway Region Had No Distinctive Name

This legend, embellished with many ghastly details, has spread beyond the bounds of Escondido. It has been incorporated in an article that was given nation-wide circulation. Thousands of people have read it and believed it implicitly. It is the sort of story to receive popular acceptance, and in years to come it may be quoted as a scientific fact. Although anthropologists would be inclined to regard it skeptically, only one group of research workers, those of the Museum of Man, are in a position to refute it or confirm it.

Consulted about the legend of the “torture trees” of Escondido, the late Malcolm J. Rogers, curator of the museum, was able to point out many glaring errors; in fact, he was able to show that every idea embodied in it is false. Analyzing it, he demonstrated that the entire story is the figment of someone’s imagination.

To begin with, anthropology knows no such Indian designation as “Poway.” Poway is the approximate pronunciation of the name of an Indian village near the site of the present village of Poway.

The Indians of that region had no distinctive name for them. selves. They had a vague term for themselves that might be translated as “the people,” and their neighbors were called “those to the north,” “those to the east,” and so on.

Modern ethnologists class them linguistically as Northern Diegueno Indians, although this classification is not universally employed. When the Spanish arrived they had been in the area for 600 to, 700 years, but they were not the aborigines. In fact, they were relatively late-comers.

As they were not aborigines, neither were they fierce. Probably no Indians in North America were milder. They were totally incapable of imagining, let alone executing, the barbarous tortures that characterize some of the eastern Indians.

Crime was not punished in any way, for crime, as we understand it, was non-existent among them. Having no social organization, no offenses against society were recognized. An offense against an individual met with retribution from the individual or his relatives, but this led to no blood feuds. The severest punishment meted out by the group, even for murder, was ostracism.

The Judgment Ring, presided over by chiefs, would have been impossible as there were no tribes and, consequently, no chiefs. The closest approach to organization was clan groups. During their very infrequent and very short wars between two clans temporary leaders 7ere chosen, but they were in no sense chiefs, and resumed their positions as ordinary members of their groups when the war was finished.

Roamed Hills And Ate Acorns, Seeds

These Indians were not hunters; they were not even farmers. They roamed the hills and forests gathering acorns and seeds for food. Certain sections of the area were recognized as collecting zones for certain groups, but there were no definite boundaries to the zones. If one group repeatedly trespassed too flagrantly on the section of another this might lead to a quarrel and to a brief fight, which was all the warfare they knew.

Despite its lurid history, Felicita Park has for years been an outstanding recreation area in San Diego CountyThe live oak trees of Felicita park are magnificent specimens, but it is an error to ascribe to them a thousand years of age, as is sometimes done. It is difficult to determine the age of a live oak, but it is possible that some of the most ancient in the park are as much as 400 or 500 years old. Their branches are fantastically twisted, and many of the trunks are hollowed, but nature has done this for them, not man.

A prison cell with bars of living oak is an ingenious notion, but one that would never have occurred to the Indians of San Diego county. They knew nothing of tree surgery. Grafting was unknown to them, and even if it had been, months would have been required to effect the graftage of an oak limb and a scion.

The picture of shrieking victims writhing in the tree-tops, attacked by ravenous birds of prey, is one to make the flesh of a civilized man creep, and it would have horrified, the gentle natives of this region even more so. Incidentally, no California bird will attack a living creature as large as a man.

Tale Elaborated To Include ‘Living Death’

According to an elaboration of the legend, cowards, those who had shown the white feather in battle, were punished with the “living death” imprisonment, but in a different manner. Instead of being bound to a branch they were placed in a, wooden cell, hollowed in one of the massive trunks near the ground, and confined there by living bars. Here they remained, the objects of contumely of the whole tribe. During games of skill, such victims were used as targets by braves most adept in the art of tomahawk casting. The trick was not to hit but to miss, closely. It was only by accident that a brave might over-estimate his skill and split a head with a keen stone blade..

This scorn of the coward is explained by the fact that Indians, and especially these Indians, looked upon cowardice as the worst of all human failings. Without exceptional bravery they could not live in a wilderness, surrounded on all sides by physical dangers, and carry on constant warfare with neighboring tribes.

Alas for this part of the legend! The Indians of this region did not consider cowardice a human failing. It was a quality of no use to them. So far from living in a wilderness surrounded on all sides by physical dangers, they inhabited the most peaceful spot in America. It was a wilderness, but it supplied them with all needs for their subsistence. Aside from rattlesnakes they had no natural enemies.

Relations Friendly

The predatory Indians, of whom they would have been victims, lived hundreds of miles away. There were no enemy tribes, and their relations with neighboring groups were always friendly. There was constant visiting back and forth, for trade and sociability. Their existence was almost idyllic.

Savage braves hurling tomahawks at cringing prisoners was a scene never witnessed in Felicita park. There were no braves and no tomahawks. “Brave” was a term used by whites to designate young, active warriors. Without wars the Indians of this county produced no braves.

The tomahawk, a small metal ax, frequently with a helve that served as a tobacco pipe, was a European introduction. The only weapon of the Dieguenos was a wooden club that was not even tipped with stone. It was not a formidable weapon, but quite adequate for the gentle, somnolent natives of the region.

Lived In Peace

Those who must have blood and suffering mixed with their Indian lore may resent this reduction of a good story to a myth. The cold eye of science, however, searches for the truth and accepts only what can be proved. The staff of the Museum of Man has been forced to remove the husk of romance from many a local legend, but in so doing it has revealed the kernel of fact. Future historians will turn to its findings rather than to the ebullitions of the legend makers.

Far more interesting and significant than fiction of death and horror is the known fact that the Indians of this county achieved a greater density of population than the natives of any other part of what is now the United States, about one person to the square mile. This is remarkably dense for a people in the collective stage of civilization. What is marvelous is that, despite the density of population, they lived at peace.

We civilized white men give overcrowding the chief share of blame for our wars and civil strife, yet the Dieguenos were relatively as crowded as are the Europeans of today. Instead of endowing them with cruel imagination, which they did not have, we could better study their psychology and political economy. It would not be the first lesson the white man has learned from the red.