Re-enactors Bring History to Life in Famous Swallows Day Parade

Always on the look-out for adventuresome ways to live life, this past Saturday March 25 in my precious hometown, I joined a doozey of a fun endeavor. It was parade day in San Juan Capistrano, its 63rd Swallows Day Parade, one of the largest non-motorized parades in America. After two years of pandemic lockdown and a horse virus that quarantined our horses, the “Back in the Saddle Again” theme was a perfect fit for our community. We were ready to celebrate! .
On parade day, attired in my western get-up, I was excitedly making my way through the throngs of parade entries toward the mission’s horse-drawn floats on which we volunteer docents were to ride. Slipping past two huge red dragon heads, and five teams of majestic draft horses, my breath caught as I spotted a coffin with a sign above it reading: “James Barton – Died Heroically.”
I had stumbled upon a troupe of re-enactors who were staging part of one of San Juan Capistrano’s most notorious murder cases, the Barton Massacre. I knew the case. I knew of Sheriff Barton. I rushed up to the costumed actors and interviewed them as best I could in the minutes before the parade began. Taking their cards so that I could follow up later, I rushed to my designated wagon, clambered up the festively decorated float.
The crowds of cheering parade goers applauded our dray as it rolled along, and my mind drifted to the Barton case. After the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1848, there was much social unrest. Mid 19th Century Southern California was plagued by lawlessness and violence including the tiny pueblo de San Juan Capistrano. One of the most malicious of the marauding crews was the Juan Flores-Pancho Daniels gang which was dedicated to “killing every gringo.” The gang routinely held up stage coaches and terrorized citizens between San Diego and Los Angeles.
The murderous incident which caused Los Angeles Sheriff James Barton and six men to ride south was a particularly vicious series of raids which had occurred in San Juan Capistrano. Recently escaped from San Quentin for horse stealing, Flores was attracted to San Juan because his girlfriend lived here. One particular night the gang members robbed a local general store, killed the shopkeeper, and then blithely enjoyed the dinner the shopkeeper had prepared for himself, while the shopkeeper’s body lay on the table.
The small pueblo was desperate for professional law enforcement. Answering the cry for help, on the eve of January 22, 1857, James Barton, a Los Angeles sheriff, and his men prepared to capture the gang. Unbeknownst to the lawmen, a gang member was planted as a lookout in Los Angeles. Learning of Barton’s plans, the lookout quickly mounted his horse and rode out to warn the others of the Sheriff’s intention.
Tired after a long ride, Barton and his men rested at Rancho San Joaquin, the area today known as Back Bay of Newport Beach, where venerable rancher Don Jose Sepulveda warned them to stop the chase. He told them that the gang was large, maybe sixty men, and that the lawmen were far outnumbered. Don Sepulveda urged that it was simply too dangerous. Also, while the posse rested and ate breakfast, it is believed that a servant, sympathetic to Flores and Daniels’ cause, removed the bullets from the posse’s guns which had been stowed in an out-building.
Undeterred and unaware, Barton and his men mounted up and searched the local hills and canyons to the south. Tragically when they were in the area near Laguna Canyon they were ambushed. When they tried to return fire they discovered that they had no bullets. They ran for safety. Barton and three others were murdered while two of the posse got away to tell the story. That bloody incident became known as the “Barton Massacre.”
In response to the killing of the long time Los Angeles sheriff and his officers, new posses were formed, one led by General Andres Pico. Finally, Flores and 52 of his gang were arrested. On February 14, 1857, Flores was hanged in Los Angeles with several thousand spectators attending to witness his end. Reminiscent of that hunt, there is visible today a plaque off the 241 toll way in Orange County which reads: “Under this tree General Andres Pico Hung Two Banditos of the Flores Gang in 1857.” Others in the gang were rounded up and their ears were cut off and displayed as proof of their deaths. Daniels was captured the following year and hanged.
The Sheriff Barton funeral entry included 10 mourners, plus the “Widow Barton,” a clergyman, as well as the “Spirit of Barton” character, a hovering shroud played by actor Barry Clark. During the parade the mourners were seen as a somber processional accompanied by mournful music. Spectators loved it as the shrouded “Spirit” moved among the mourners swooping and hovering. The “Spirit” especially fluttered and floated near the “Widow Barton” who swooned as she felt the presence of her husband’s ghost!
San Juan Capistrano enjoys a rich history and The Code of the West Reenactment troupe brought some of that history to life in a most entertaining manner during the parade. The Moreno Valley Troup of fifteen members has been together for twenty years and is headed by Julia and Jon Arbough who direct and produce the historical re-enactments. They perform at many events and as a 501 C 3. They donate a generous portion of their earnings to such charities as Tunnel for Towers which helps 9/11 responders, The National Police Dog Foundation, and to Protect the Beagle Dogs. The non-profit group works out of Moreno Valley, California. In the Barton play, Joe Mortimer played the clergyman, Shelley Peters enacted Widow Barton, Julia Arbough was a mourner and her husband Jon acted as the escort to “Widow Barton.”
My take-away from participating in the parade and interviewing some of the troupe’s actors, is the knowledge that there are many extremely satisfying and worthwhile ways in which to invest our human energy and heart. The re-enactors have inspired me to continue my research into one of California’s most important matriarchs, Ysidora Pico Forster. Perhaps one year “she” shall appear in the Swallow’s Day Parade as well. Across my experience I sometimes have conversations with individuals who confide in me that they suffer “aloneness.” They do not feel lonely, but they feel an emptiness, an absence of people in their lives. I encounter that sentiment more often than one might suspect. It is a situation which can be remedied if one is willing to step out of their comfort zone and enroll in some of these different groups. Truly there are friendships waiting to happen. Maya Angelou liked to remind us that A FRIEND MAY BE WAITING BEHIND A STRANGER’S FACE. This is something I am privileged to frequently experience.
What intriguing ways to engage your spirit have you been thinking about. What adventure is on the horizon in your life? I would love to hear from you. My best, donna
Los Angeles Times. May 12, 2009. Mike Anton, “Hidden in O.C.’s Foothills, a gnarled reminder of California’s Past.”