When the medicine men of the I'alliklik tribe of California Indians saw their people turning away from their native gods in favor of the new religious forms brought to them by the Spanish padres they were determined to preserve the symbols of their own primitive faith — and so they hid their feather robes, ceremonial wands and magic blades of obsidian in a remote cave in the mountains which border the California desert. Here they remained for nearly 100 years — until the discovery, reported in this story.
— Desert editor Randall Henderson
Tucked high in a ledge slanting across a wind and water scoured face of a desert ridge within sight of Castaic Junction in northwest Los Angeles county, California, is a cave from which came some of the most famous Indian material ever to be discovered in the United States.
While archaeologists knew that the only mounted "perforated stones" ever to be discovered in the United States came from the region, they had never been able to locate the cave from whence they came. Their only clue was a statement by Dr. Stephen Bowers, the collector who handled the material, "… from a cave in the San Martin mountains in Los Angeles County."
My first lead to the location of the cave came some years ago while I was engaged in archaeological work in Piru Canyon drainage. It happened while I was camped on the old I'alliklik Indian Rancheria of T'akwishbit, "Place of Ball Lightning."
One evening while looking over the arrowpoints, bone and wood artifacts, and basketry fragments which had been dug from a cave in nearby Hazel Canyon, William W. Lechler, who had lived in the canyon since the days of the Indians, casually remarked:
"This is pretty good stuff. But the greatest Indian find ever to be made around here was many years ago by the Pyle boys. They got baskets as big as washtubs; feathered robes, and clubs made of wood and stone in the San Martins. Everett Pyle is still alive and lives in Fillmore!"
With this information I immediately contacted Dr. John P. Harrington, ethnologist of the Smithsonian Institution. Together we went to Fillmore, and from Everett Pyle, then in his 80s, we heard the story of the Cave of the San Martins.
During the 1880s Everett and his brother McCoy Pyle lived with their mother Mandy Pyle in Mud Springs Canyon three miles northwest of present Castaic Junction. When not helping with the bees and livestock the boys spent their time hunting through the nearby canyons and ridges.
May 2, 1884, McCoy went westward over the old Indian trail toward the San Martins to look for deer. Picking his way upward along the sandstone scarps he went over the apex of the ridge and started down the south slope. Fifty feet below the summit he spied a black opening in a nearby ledge.
Working across the crumbly face McCoy reached the lip of the cave. Hoisting himself inside he looked into the shadows. Before him, partially covered with dust, lay many Indian baskets ranging from small asphalt covered water jugs to giants three feet in diameter!
McCoy looked into the baskets. He saw feather robes and headdresses cunningly woven with flicker and condor feathers. There were also four finely shoped [sic] stone ax heads, and assorted ceremonial obsidian knife blades and some crystals.
But most important of all were four ceremonial wands or scepters. Shaped like doughnuts these perforated stones were decorated with red ochre designs, and were mounted on their original wooden handles with aslphaltum, the waterproofing and glue of southern California's primitive Indians.
McCoy hurried back to the ranch and broke the news to Everett. Together they rounded up a couple burros and returned to the San Martins. After several trips to the cave the boys finally had all of the treasure safely stored in the milk house at the ranch.
It happened that Stephen Bowers was in the region looking for Indian relics. Hearing of the Pyle discovery he hurried over to Mud Springs Canyon. He purchased the collection for $1500. Everett reminisced, "… that seemed like all of the money in the world — it was like finding a gold mine."
Bowers sold part of the collection, including the ceremonial wands, to Professor F.W. Putnam of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. What happened to the rest of the material is not known. Bowers sold Indian artifacts to museums all over the World.
Upon examining the material Henry W. Henshaw of the Smithsonian Institution wrote, "While perforated stones have been rather commonly found in southern California, these are the only ones ever found in the United States mounted on their original handles.
"After careful consideration of these implements, I am convinced that their peculiarities accord best with the idea that they were the property of medicine men, or conjurers, and were probably used in dances, superstitious ceremonies, such as rain making, curing the sick, etc."
Bidding Everett goodbye John and I headed for the San Martins. From Castaic Junction we traveled southwest down the Santa Clara River over Highway 126. Then we turned north and started up a small canyon which Everett called the "Cove."
One mile's twisting drive on the dirt road brought us to the base of a ragged ridge. Looking up, we estimated that the summit was 1000 feet above. After checking the landmarks given us by Everett we were sure that we had located the elusive San Martins.
Scanning the area below the eastern pitch of the ridge we soon located the wild cherry tree that had been given us as a marker. Slipping on our haversacks and canteens we broke through the heavy growth of sage and started to climb the ridge.
We found the base of the San Martins to be composed of a conglomerate predominately of fossilized oyster and pectin shell. We soon learned that this tricky formation which may be wonderful country for rockhounds, made tough climbing.
At the end of a 30-minute climb we reached a level space 75 feet below the summit. We took our bearings. The lone wild cherry was a stone's throw across a ravine. Then we got the right angle. Under a ledge to the left of the tree the Cave of the San Martins opened in the chrome colored sandstone like a distorted mouth.
Detouring the dangerous traverse direct to the cave we climbed to the summit. From there the whole country spread out before us. To the west — the peaks of San Cayetano poked up through the clouds drifting in from the sea. Beyond — lay the Padres National Forest, the habitat of California's giant condors.
Eastward — in the land of the long gone Vanyume Indians — the headings of the Rio Santa Clara fingered upward through Bouquet, Mint, and Soledad Canyons. Above, the heat waves shimmered upward from the desert to fade into the blue-black dome of the Sierra Pelona.
After a few moments' rest we started our descent to the cave. Finding foot and handholds on occasional clumps of sage we braked our downward momentum until until [sic] we reached the mouth of the cavern.
When we jumped over the lip we saw that it was not a large cave. The mouth was 21 feet across; the dome was 10 feet from the floor; and it ran back into the conglomerate 16 feet. A glance at the fire-blackened ceiling told us that the cave had known human habitation.
[Inset in the original]
According to Richard Van Valkenburgh, who is recognized as an authority on archaeological subjects, there are many theories as to the purpose for which the prehistoric Indians made the "perforated stones" described in this story. Richard says: "It is my contention that they were used for various purposes; ceremonial when made of steatite and serpentine, and decorated; digging stick weights; weights for nets; the smaller ones for weights on drills, etc. I rather doubt if they were used as weapons, for the war club of this area generally was a hunk of hard wood, usually a knot."
Suddenly John called out, "Van, Everett sure gave us the right dope. There is no question that this is the cave where McCoy made his discovery. There are some inscriptions here carved in the sandstone and among them is 'MAC — 1884'!"
At the same time my toe caught on something just below the powdery surface of the floor. Looking down I saw that it was a large fragment of asphalt coated basketry. Then I remembered what Everett had said, "We left a big basket in the cave because it was crumpled."
The discovery told us that we might learn more if we probed into the floor fill. Starting at the front we worked back with trowels and brushes. When we finished, we knew a lot more about the Indians who had left their treasures there over 100 years before.
Small blue and rose colored glass beads found just below the surface told us that the cache found by McCoy had been placed in the cave around 1800 A.D. The lack of hearths told us that the cave had not been used for permanent living, but as a hideaway.
Three pottery sherds of black decoration on gray ware turned up on the lower levels. Sharply contrasting with the local Mojave desert red and gray plainwares, these sherds were later identified by the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They were Verde black on gray of the 13th century!
Coupled with the Pyle discovery of diorite stone axes, one of which was still in the possession of Everett, it seems that the I'alliklik had trade contacts that reached eastward beyond the Colorado River. Probably they traded sea shells from the nearby coast for the worked stone and pottery of Arizona?
When John and I finished our work we rested on the lip of the cave and watched the casual shifting of the summer's sunlight into the misty blue of twilight. As I looked into the deepening green shadow that was the Rio Santa Clara my thoughts drifted back over a hundred years to the pageant of what had happened passed before me.
1. Presumably Hasley Canyon.
2. If this William W. Lechler "lived in the canyon since the days of the Indians," then Van Valkenburgh is likely referring to William Sr., born about 1863.
He had (at least) two sons who lived in the area: William W. (October 3, 1909 - October 26, 2001) and Harry H. (February 11, 1912 - January 16, 2005).
Like his father, Harry Lechler collected local Indian artifacts — and later historical objects — and kept them in the private
Lechler Museum, which he opened on his Piru
property in 1943. He closed the museum and sold its contents at auction Aug. 27, 2000, at which time the artifacts scattered to various private collections. One of Harry Lechler's
two long flicker feather bands, similar to those found in Bowers Cave, was purchased by an area museum; the other's whereabouts are unknown.
3. In the present-day Valencia Commerce Center, south of Hasley Canyon Road.
4. They might not have been a very big tribe, but their descendants aren't entirely "gone."
In this January 1952 edition, Desert magazine editor Randall Henderson writes the following about Richard Fowler Van Valkenburgh:
Richard Van Valkenburgh sold his first story to Desert Magazine in 1939 — in fact it was the first story he sold to any publication. During the intervening
12 years, he has written 40 illustrative feature articles for Desert.
His writing career began when he was a member of the Indian Bureau staff at Ft. Defiance, and later at Windowrock, and all of his early manuscripts were about the Navajo
Indians whom he learned to know very intimately after he learned to speak their language.
Later Van left the Indian service and lived for several years at Tucson where he wrote a series of radio programs which were presented over the Tucson station KTUC
for 132 weeks. For the past year he has made his home at Santa Barbara but for health reasons has done only limited writing.
In submitting the story "We Found the Lost Cave of the San Martins" for this issue of Desert Magazine, Van stated that his health has so far improved
he plans to return to the Navajo country. "During the 13 years I lived with the Navajo I collected a lifetime of material" he writes, "the only obstacle
to its publication being the need for photographs. But now I havce a Graflex and when I return to the Indian country I will be in a position to get the pictures
which editors always want."
Few writers know the Navajo as well as Van Valkenburgh, and Desert's editors will welcome more of his manuscripts from the Indian country.
Van Valkenburgh did return to Navajo country but he didn't last long.
Born June 16, 1904, in Norwalk, Los Angeles County, Calif. (see death certificate),
Richard Fowler Van Valkenburgh graduated from
Compton Union High School in 1922 and worked for Standard Oil and Richfield Oil from 1923 until 1928, at which time he began working
as an archaeological assistant with the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Art and Science (now called the Natural History Museum).
In 1934 he began research in Diné (Navajo) archaeology and ethnology. He went
to work for the Bureau of Indian affairs but resigned in 1942 in protest over actions he believed were adverse to Diné welfare.
After "rediscovering" Bowers Cave in Hasley Canyon/Castaic Junction in 1951 (as he reports in the January 1952 edition of Desert magazine), he returned to Diné country and worked with the tribal council to establish land claims.
He died of a heart attack June 19, 1957, at Window Rock in Apache County, Ariz. He is buried in the Navajo Cemetery at Fort Defiance, next to the Diné leader Chee Dodge.
Van Valkenburgh's grave was unmarked until 1967 when Diné craftsmen cut a headstone and placed it in a ceremony that included a Diné honor guard.
Incidentally, in the same January 1952 edition, the Desert magazine editor updates the status of another writer who had a story published in the October 1951 edition
(regarding the Hawkeye Natural Bridge in northern Arizona),
saying he'd been handily reelected to the Phoenix City Council in November. His name was Barry Goldwater.