At the urging of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California, the U.S. Army established Fort Tejon in 1854. Fort Tejon soon became the headquarters of the First US Dragoons.
REAL LIFE: The dragoons remained stationed at Ft Tejon until July 1861 when they were called back East as part of the general realignment of Regular Army troops after the outbreak of the Civil War.
The fort’s mission was to suppress stock rustling and protect settlers from attacks by discontent Californios, and American Indian tribes, including the Paiute and Mojave, and to monitor the less aggressive Emigdiano living nearby. The Emigdiano, who were closely related to the Chumash of the coastal and interior lands to the west, had several villages near Fort Tejon. After the earlier Spanish and Mexican colonial effort to suppress the local Indians, referred to as the “Indian Reduction”, they were generally cooperative with the European-American settlers and the U.S. Army.
The fort lay along the Stockton-Los Angeles Road. From 1858, it was also part of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which followed the same route around Tulare Lake and as far as Visalia. The Butterfield main station is situated 15 miles to the northeast where the Kern “River” disappeared into the ground. An additional station is planned for Fort Tejon proper.
The fort is considered very small for such an important posting – with a permanent compliment of only 255 men.
Sebastian Indian Reservation
Edward F. Beale established this as the first Indian reservation in California in 1853. The reservation is located in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley nestled against the Tehachapi Mountains, ranging from Tejon Creek and Tejon Canyon, west to Grapevine Canyon (Canada de las Uvas).
Fort Tejon was built 25 miles (40 km) to the southwest. The fort became so closely associated with the reservation that many actually called it the Tejon Indian Reservation.
The 75,000 acre Tejon Reservation was within the private Rancho El Tejón Mexican land grant – but Beale devised a plan for the federal government to acquire/purchase the land and designate it as a reservation. Beale named the reservation after United States Senator William K. Sebastian of Arkansas, Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. The plan worked, and Sebastian supported Beale’s plan to form a series of reservations, garrisoned by a military post, on government owned land.
The reservation became operational in September 1853, and some California Indians moved in voluntarily.3 Among the tribes of Mission Indians the reservation held, were 300 Emigdiano Chumash, whose homeland had included Tejon Canyon. In 1854, Lieutenant Beale reported that 2,500 Indians were living on the Sebastian Reservation.
The Indians were to support themselves by farming. However, Indians on the reservation were frequently forced to supplement their income working as field and ranch hands for the surrounding settlers. This undermined one of the primary goals of the reservation – i.e. to isolate the settler and Indian communities to prevent violence.
In early 1854, with political change in Washington, Beale’s detractors charged him with embezzlement of government funds. Settlers in the San Joaquin Valley resented the agricultural competition from the Indians, and claimed that too much land had been set aside for them. He was removed from his office, but was exonerated of the charges. Colonel Thomas J. Henley, Beale’s replacement, appointed Colonel James R. Vineyard as the resident agent at the Sebastian Reservation.
Throughout 1855 and 1856 crop failures and drought are common on the reservation. To make matters worse for the Indians, gold was found along the banks of the Kern River, and miners flooded into the area. Sizable herds of cattle and hogs now grazed upon roots and acorns. As these sources of food became depleted, the Indians research near-starvation levels and began to pilfer stock.
Matters reached a head in the summer of 1856. Responding to the escalating violence, Vineyard ordered the U.S. Army to intervene and relocate, pacify and contain the Indians to the reservation. The deployment was not authorized or supported by the Dept of California headquarters in San Francisco, so the commander at Fort Tejon refused to comply.
California Militia companies did organize at Visalia- under the local command of Capt Foster DeMasters and with the support of Gen Beale (who had been appointed by the governor as overall commander of the state militia). The increasing notoriety of the campaign lead to more and more officials lining up behind the settlers, including the local sherriffs and (eventually) regular Army officers from Fort Miller (near Fresno). After two months of skirmishes and raids, the Indians sued for peace and were returned to the reservation.
Fort Tejon Earthquake
The great earthquake of 1857, which became known as the Fort Tejon Earthquake, was centered nearly 100 miles away. The earthquake became associated with the fort by name because the area near the epicenter was sparsely populated. The most reliable report of the event was issued from the fort, nearly 93 miles distant.
The Fort Tejon earthquake occurred at about 8:20 AM (Pacific time) on January 9, 1857. It ruptured the San Andreas Fault for a length of about 220 miles, between Parkfield and San Bernardino. Displacement along the fault was as much as 30 feet in the nearby area. Based on the (uncertain) distribution of foreshocks for this earthquake, it is assumed that the beginning of the fault rupture (the epicenter) was in the area between Parkfield and Cholame, about 60 miles northwest. Nevertheless, it is usually called the “Fort Tejon” earthquake because this was the location of the greatest damage, most of the area being unpopulated at the time.