The original occupants of the Coachella Valley were the Cahuilla (pronounced Ka-we-ah) Indians. They occupied areas from present-day Riverside to the Colorado Desert, and from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Anza-Borrego area.
The bands settled in villages, and based on their location, they later became known as either Mountain, Pass or Desert Cahuilla. Life centered around these villages, which were occupied all year, with occasional departures to hunt, trade, visit or gather plants and food.
However, not all of the Cahuilla were comfortable with village life. There was the occasional recluse—and a desert character named Fig Tree John became the most notable.
Fig Tree John was a Desert Cahuilla chief of the Agua Dulce clan, but he preferred to be left alone. He lived at a spring near the Salton Sea—and he claimed he was born in the late 1700s. That would have made him around 130, or even older, when he died of the flu in April 1927.
His given name was apparently Juanita Razon, and he claimed he was once a guide for Gen. John C. Fremont. (Fremont was in the area in the late 1800s. President Abraham Lincoln appointed Fremont to be the commanding general of the Department of the West; he also served as governor of Arizona territory from 1878-1881.)
Mystery always surrounded Fig Tree John. Because he allegedly spoke Apache, some claimed he was really an Apache renegade. According to Harry C. James in the book The Cahuilla Indians, the rumor started when a white friend brought an acquaintance to visit. The guest thought Fig Tree John looked like an Apache, so he spoke a few words in Apache. Old John nodded his head, seeming to understand—which gave birth to the rumor.
Based on that, a writer named Edwin Corle (1906-1956) wrote a fictional novel called Fig Tree John, about an Apache modeled after the Cahuilla chief. Corle was a New Jersey teenager in 1920 when he first saw the Salton Sea from a train window—and became inspired by the area. After becoming a magazine writer, he returned many times, and the legend of Fig Tree John caught his imagination. Exploring the area, he noticed the name “Fig Tree John” on a sign near the west shore of the Salton Sea. It pointed toward a sustainable water hole where the recluse had lived. By then, Fig Tree John and his wife were dead, and his son and his son’s wife had left the area.
Undaunted, Corle traveled the area during the 1930s, seeking more information about the desert character. He received conflicting information, including info from former neighbors thinking Fig Tree John might have been an Apache.
Fig Tree John received his name because of the black mission figs he planted around his springs. His original springs near Travertine Point were inundated with the filling of the Salton Sea in 1905-1907, so he moved his primitive jacal of arrowweed and mud north to Agua Dulce Spring. He also salvaged railroad ties from the flood and sold them for a profit.
A recluse, he put a barbed-wire fence around his springs and kept trespassers off with an ancient Winchester rifle, which some said was actually inoperable due to missing parts. His menacing attitude compensated for the possible lack of a proper weapon. He acquired a black stovepipe hat and a long military coat with brass buttons—which he often wore, even while his feet were bare.
Around 1910, he and his wife acquired a buggy to take them to various fiestas and social events. Fig Tree John, of course, looked resplendent in his quasi-military attire. His crusty countenance and dignified appearance made him a favorite for those wishing to take photos or sketches. The old man agreed—for a fee, of course. His son, Johnny Mack, said that his father was given the clothes at “some important Indian meeting in Los Angeles.”
Fig Tree John was known as a shrewd trader and had a string of horses. According to one rumor, he paid for his purchases in Banning with gold dust, setting tongues wagging about the possibility that he might have come across a lost gold mine in the Santa Rosas. Other stories claimed that it was not in Banning, but Mecca, where he once paid a storekeeper in gold nuggets. Did he get the gold through his constant trading, or did he really have a mine? While most historians doubt the veracity of the mine’s existence, it does make for a good tale, especially when a character like Fig Tree John is involved.
Even though he liked to appear menacing, stories leaked out about how he rendered aid to those in need who might chance upon him. Many white residents spoke favorably of Fig Tree John, too. Cornelia White, who owned property in downtown Palm Springs, including the Palm Springs Hotel, was with him on a long desert trip, and found him to be both an excellent guide and a trustworthy companion.
Fig Tree John died on the Martinez reservation in April 1927, and was buried in the Catholic cemetery there. His son claimed he was 136 when he died, and an article in the January 1941 Desert Magazine by Nina Paul Shumway mentioned that his feet were indicative of great age, “horny and splayed like an eagle’s.”
Regardless of his actual age, Fig Tree John lived for a long time—and was quite a character indeed.
Sources for this article include The Cahuilla Indians, by Harry C. James (Westernlore Press, 1960); The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California, by Lowell Bean and Harry Lawton (Malki Museum Press, 1965); Fig Tree John by Edwin Corle (Liveright Publishing, 1934); and a Desert Magazine article by Nina Paul Shumway (January 1941).
Just received and read the article. Fascinating. Fig Tree John could have lived to 136, could be an Apache, could be whatever, but he was certainly an interesting character.
Nice story. Hope you and Leila
are enjoying life. I recently heard from Steve Niemann, he met up with Todd’s son Jace. Sounded great. Was nice to see pic of him. I believe last time was at family gathering in Santa Barbara near end of 20th. Century or beginning of 21st.
I will be traveling to Bandon for Alzeimers Walk, Sat. June 18. Hope to see you two there.
Bye for now, lovingly, Joe
Very interesting piece of history Greg. Thank you for sharing.
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