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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Chief Estanislao

His namesakes are Stanislaus County, and the Stanislaus River. He was Chief Estanislao, famous for leading bands of armed Native Americans in revolt against the Mexican government and the Spanish missions in 19th century California—and winning.

His people were the Yokuts. He was born about 1798 on the banks of what then was named the Rio de Laquisimes on the northern edge of modern-day Modesto, and his birth name was Cucunuchi. He would have been around twenty-three years old when priests at Mission San Jose visited the area, and insisted that he come to their mission to receive a Christian education. Later that year he did so, and was baptized as Estanislao (Spanish for Stanislaus), after a Polish-born Catholic saint. The name, of Slavic origin, meant “becoming glorious.” Evidently, the priests recognized his intelligence and potential.

Estanislao seemed to adapt well to mission life. He was taught to read and write, and was soon given a position as the highest-ranking Indian official at Mission San Jose. Father Narciso Durán, a talented musician/composer who organized an Indian choir and thirty-member orchestra at the mission, took a personal interest in the young man; it is believed that Estanislao participated in Durán’s musical programs.

However, it is also believed that over time Estanislao became resentful of the mission systems, which included Christian conversion, Spanish acculturation to the exclusion of native Indian culture, forced labor, and punishment of Indians who did not conform. Perhaps, it was his regular duties that caused him to rebel: it was he who supervised other Indian’s daily work, he who dispensed punishment; and he who was sent to capture and return runaways. Estanislao’s specific motivations are unclear. In any event, he fled the mission in 1828, taking several hundred Indians with him. In short order more Indians joined the revolt, swelling his soldiery to an estimated 1,000.

Establishing a camp in the Central Valley, the self-appointed freedom fighter and his followers began raiding several coastal missions and San Joaquin Valley ranches, driving off horses and cattle, but ending with no loss of life. His attacks were described as sudden, and successful. The man himself was described as six feet tall and as hard-muscled as a horse—the very image of a formidable warrior. Harassed padres and settlers alike pleaded for help from the Mexican California army.

Three separate military expeditions set out to crush Estanislao’s rebel band. All failed, partly because the Indian forces were superior in number, and partly because Estanislao had learned a few techniques of warfare such as trenches, palisades, and swift ambushes. He seemed undefeatable. Until, that is, a fourth engagement in the early weeks of 1829, which the Mexican military finally won by setting the surrounding woods on fire, thereby routing the Indians. This battle raged near modern-day Ripon, on the north bank of the Rio de Laquisimes, renamed the Stanislaus River around this time for the valiant chieftain.

Estanislao returned briefly to Mission San Jose in May, 1829, asking Father Durán to forgive him and his men. The priest went even farther, successfully petitioning Governor Echeandía for a pardon, which was granted that October. For some years afterward Estanislao lived among his people at the river. Then in August 1834, he once again took up residence at Mission San Jose, where it is said he prospered, and taught others the Yokuts language and culture. He died there on July 31, 1838, possibly from smallpox.

Stanislaus County took its name from the river, after California was admitted to statehood in 1850.

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