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Juan Flaco's feat remains one of the truly great sagas of American history. He rode 52 hours to carry a message for help for the Los Angeles garrison, covering more than 400 miles.
Captain Archibald Gillespie, commander of Fort Hill at Los Angeles, looked around at his depleted garrison of fifty men, then down at the paper in his hand. "September 23, 1846," he read aloud. "Captain Gillespie, you are hereby ordered to surrender the fort within twenty-four hours, or you and your men will all be killed. Signed, José Maria Flores, Commander of the Mexican Military Forces at Los Angeles."
Gillespie glanced up at his men, and a grin spread from his thin lips to his keen gray eyes. "Men, you have heard the ultimatum, but we are Americans - we don't surrender while there is yet hope. Man your posts!"
As the men filed out of the tiny enclosure, the Captain called out, "John Brown . . . Juan Flaco, wait . . ." He laid his hand on the shoulder of the tall, lean young man. "I've got a job for you, John, a hard one. It's your privilege to refuse."
The tall, angular boy with the bronzed face and the soft brown eyes turned. "I won't refuse, sir," he said softly.
"It's this. We're outnumbered by the Mexicans more than ten to one. Our situation is desperate - to put it mildly. Our only hope is to get help from outside, from Monterey. I want you to ride to Monterey to inform Commodore Stockton of our plight. Now, get some rest, and report to me just before daylight."
The next morning, shortly after three o'clock, Juan Flaco - "Lean John," so called because of his long, sparse frame, saluted briskly. "I'm ready, Captain Gillespie."
"Good," and he took out a cigarette paper on which were scrawled three words. "Here's the message - hide it well."
Flaco rolled the message into a tiny pellet, hid it in his long hair, as the Captain went on. "It's more than four hundred miles to Monterey. The county's dangerous, full of Mexicans, and almost worse, Indians. The Mexicans know that a desperate war is being fought for the possession of California. Give them a wide berth. Now, goodbye!" The two men shook hands. "And good luck . . ."
Juan Flaco mounted his horse, and under cover of darkness rode out of the fort, down the hill, heading due north, towards Monterey, but alert Mexican sentinels, posted around the fort, spotted the lone rider, bent low over his horse's head, and gave pursuit.
Juan dug in the spurs, galloping toward the shelter of a long line of willows. the Mexicans fired once, twice. Blood spurted from a wound in his horse's shoulder, but still he galloped on, ears laid back, his nose pointing ever northward. Up ahead, Flaco saw a thirteen foot ditch. Could the horse make it? Flaco held his breath, dug the spurs hard, and the valiant animal jumped - and cleared the ditch. Flaco breathed a long sigh of relief, but he knew his horse's strength, and he knew too that no horse could keep up this fearful pace with a bullet in his shoulder.
Flaco turned, looked back. In the graying dawn, he saw that his pursuers had turned back, were giving up the chase. Now his horse was slowing; now he could scarcely put one foot in front of the other; now he stopped and fell to the ground, dead.
Young Flaco stared about him at the deserted September landscape. There was no house, no sign of habitation as far as he could see. He started walking, always due north.
The sun came up, blazing hot on a cloudless day, but still the youth never once slackened the killing pace. He never rested, never hesitated. He knew the trail well, had covered it often, and he kept his clear brown eyes fixed on that northward trail.
He walked twenty-seven miles before he spied a young man - an American, by the looks of him - on the trail ahead. He shouted, and the young man halted for a talk. His name was Tom Lewis and he had not heard that the Mexicans had surrounded Los Angeles, had demanded the surrender of Captain Gillespie and his garrison. He'd just go along with Juan Flaco, if Flaco didn't mind. No, of course not. Flaco was glad to have a companion, just in case some Mexicans or Indians happened along.
It was midnight the next day when the two boys entered the straggling mission settlement of Santa Barbara. They stopped for only an hour, just long enough to rent some horses and stock up on food. Then they were off, galloping towards Monterey.
The following day they reached the Mission of San Luis Rey. Young Lewis was all done in. "You'll have to go it alone, Flaco. Good luck . . .:
And Flaco galloped on alone, all that day, and till midnight of the next, before he finally reached Monterey. "I want to see Commodore Stockton," he told the livery stable owner.
"Sorry. He's gone to San Francisco."
Flaco stared about him. "Then I'll see the ranking officer." He rode over to the post, talked to the officers there, and explained the urgency of his mission. They supplied him with the fastest horse at the post and bade him God-speed.
Now mounted on a race horse, Flaco blinked the sleep and dust from his red-rimmed eyes, and again headed north. At San Jose, he stopped only long enough to change horses and to talk with Thomas Larkin, the first and only American consul ever stationed on American soil. Then, mounted on a fresh horse, Flaco started his last lap. He reached San Francisco that evening, a little over four days after he had left Los Angeles, five hundred miles away.
He stood straight, tall, and leaner than ever before, before Commodore Stockton. He took out the message and the officer read it. "Believe the bearer." That was all.
In a few words he told the story of General Flores' demands, the plight of the beleagured garrison, the need for urgency. "If indeed it is not already too late to save the fort and our men," he added at last. "Fifty against more than five hundred. It is impossible that they could hold out so long . . ."
At once Stockton ordered Captain Mervine to set sail for San Pedro with three hundred and fifty men. Fremont made ready to proceed southward at the head of a battalion.
But they were too late. Gillespie and his gallant men held out for a week, then were forced by lack of powder and food to surrender. The Californians treated them with marked generosity and courtesy, even allowing them to march out of town quietly toward San Pedro, where they boarded a ship for Monterey.
In the meantime, General Kearny and his men, traveling overland from Santa Fe, were suffering from the heat and near starvation. At San Pasqual, they were attacked by General Andrew Pico, and routed, with eighteen men killed and many more, including Kearny, badly wounded.
The situation of the Americans was desperate. Kearny sent a message to Commodore Stockton, who, by now, had reached San Diego, and he, in turn, dispatched 200 men, chiefly marines and seamen, to the rescue. Then, with Kearny and his men safely in San Diego, he made plans to recapture Los Angeles.
The two commanders joined forces, marched overland as far as the San Gabriel River, where on January 8, 1847, they met the enemy and defeated them. On the following day, the last battle of the war in California was fought, the Battle of La Mesa, and the Californians, having suffered cruel losses, left the field and scattered in all directions.
It was on January 10 that the Americans entered the City of the Angels, marched up the street to the Plaza, and Captain Gillespie hoisted the American flag on the government house - the same flag which he had hauled down in September, shortly after Juan Flaco had left on his famous ride northward to Monterey.
To this day, Juan Flaco's feat remains one of the great sagas of American history. He rode fifty-two hours to cover more than four hundred miles, and not once did he stop to rest or to sleep, but only to change mounts or to snatch a bite to eat. Moreover, the entire route lay through dangerous territory, infested with wild animals, Indians and enemy Mexicans. In places, the trail was unmarked: water was scarce, often unobtainable, and the weather was scorching hot. Yet young Flaco finished his gruelling mission without injury and in fine physical condition. Surely this young man is worthy of a larger niche in history than he is now accorded. He deserves to be placed in the American Hall of Fame beside such well-known heroes as Fremont, Stockton, Jefferson, and Paul Revere, whose spirit and courage he so faithfully emulated.