The American desert seems to attract a lot of interesting characters whose lives are surrounded by many terrible stories that are difficult to distinguish from fact or fiction.
Back in the Southern California frontier days, we had one heck of a character — known as the Fig John Tree.
The man’s life was full of mystery – some stemming from a fantasy novel written by Edwin Corley in 1935. The Native American, whose name is the title of the book, was apparently the prototype for Corley’s fictional hero. According to the book’s introduction, Corley first became acquainted with this complex character while driving leisurely through the San Giorgoño Pass, down the Salton Sea and into the Imperial Valley. Note the name of the Fig John tree on a road sign near the western shore of the Salton Sea, pointing toward a muddy watering hole.
After learning that the fig tree and his wife are dead, and that their son and wife are gone, Corley roams the desert from Yuma to Mecca in search of information. A farmer, whose property was adjacent to the fig tree land, told the author that the man in question was not from the California tribe but from the Apache nation.
The first time I heard about this person was about 20 years ago, when I got an email from Duncan McGregor, a San Bernardino resident. He mentioned a picture of an older Native American man passed on to him by his grandparents. Standing in front of the camera, the man is wearing a silk opera hat, an oversized military coat with metallic buttons, and a jacket and holding a small American flag.
Grandparents, who settled in San Bernardino during the 1880s, always called this curious client “Old Indian John.” They’d see him in downtown San Bernardino during the Fourth of July festivities.
MacGregor had wondered for years if this photo matched up with his memories of reading an old newspaper column in the San Bernardino Sun during the early 1960s when longtime columnist Earl Boy wrote about a Native American named Fig Tree John, who lives in either Cajun. Or in the Lytle Creek area. Supposedly, the old man always wore his best clothes–a top hat, a Union army coat, a jacket, and waving a flag–when coming into town for local festivities with a wagon of figs to exchange whiskey.
This unique story definitely caught my eye. The research I’ve come across, while not completely resolving the Photo-Buie article’s relationship, clears up the false identity conjured up by Edwin Corle. Some wonderful anecdotes were also raised.
As it turned out, Tin Tre Jun was a member of the Cahuila tribe, who actually preferred to be known by the Spanish name of Juanita Razon. He was adamant about being Juanita, not Juanito.
Early surveying parties in the Coachella Valley found a fig tree and his family, who were part of the Wantsinakak Tamianawisim – more commonly known as the Agua Dulce clan – living in a spring near the Salton Sea. Legend has it that he got some important California black fig cuttings and planted them around the spring, where they grew well. These trees and his Spanish first name led to his nickname “the fig john tree”.
In his book “The Cahuilla Indians,” published in 1960, author Harry C. James states that John’s son, known as Johnny Mac (and sometimes, Little Fig Tree), stated that his father was born near a spring that bears the name today. Although the South Pacific Railway owned a portion of the land where the fig tree lived, no one questioned his right to live there.
Indeed, when the Colorado River erupted in 1905 and flooded the Salton Sea, the fig tree began reaping a Malian harvest by salvaging links from flooded railroads and selling them to ranchers around the city of Mecca, who desperately needed a good fence.
The people who knew him best insisted that the fig tree had a kind heart. On many occasions, weary travelers teetering in the desert have found refuge in his oasis. He always had plenty of water and a place to rest.
Most of the settlers around Mecca were fond of the old man. When he could no longer make hunting trips to the Santa Rosa Mountains or secure enough food from desert plants or from his own garden, they were more generous in their trade with him.
As more and more newcomers moved into the Coachella Valley, the fig john tree feared the white man would steal his land. When fear turned into anger, he gained fame as a tough guy. Armed with a broken Winchester and wearing a cold poker-shaped expression – the old man threatened to shoot any intruders.
The fig was a shrewd merchant and often used the chain of his horses as bait. After they sold a horse to a passing prospector, he and his wife rode a fig tree in the general store in Mecca. He made his purchases with gold dust or small pieces, which led to the belief that he had a secret gold mine somewhere in the Santa Rosa Mountains. Even recently, the occasional prospector has been setting out to find the missing gold of the fig john tree.
Around 1910, Fig Tree John and his wife began traveling by buggy into town and to its many festivities wearing his much-loved wardrobe—an old Connecticut coat with military buttons engraved and a tattered hat—given to him at a Native American meeting in Los Angeles.
Although there is no documentation as to when the fig tree was born, and various press reports have given it conflicting ages, the general consensus is that it lived for more than a century.
On August 24, 1913, the Los Angeles Times reported that John Fig Tree attended an “Indian Festival”.
“The fig tree is a striking figure of the Indian Missionary tribe,” the article states. He is said to be 102 years old and bear the scars of fifty battles. He mocks his tribe’s present-day hunters who shoot rabbits and squirrels, because in his day the brave would bring home the enemy’s scalp as trophies for the hunt.
“John attends the Indian festival going on in Banning Reservation. He wears his usual military uniform in military blue, brass buttons, and a heated high-hat with a red ribbon. This uniform was given to him by a fan a few years ago and is as good today as it was five years ago.”
Fig John, who was rumored to have served as a mentor to John C. Fremont, died in the Cahuila Preserve in Martinez on April 11, 1927. His son Johnny Mac confirmed that his father was 136 years old at the time.
You can contact Nick Cataldo at [email protected] and read more local history articles at Facebook.com/BackRoadsPress.
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