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The tale of the Juan Flores Gang and the Barton Massacre of 1857

Moments in Time by Jan Siegel
Moments in Time by Jan Siegel

By Jan Siegel

Murder, mystery and mayhem are all part of the folklore of San Juan Capistrano. This particular tale begins in January 1857. On the east side of El Camino Real—next to the rest rooms at the Historic Town Center Park—once stood the store of Michael Kraszewski.

Three men, one a nephew of Juan Avila, came into the store. Two of the men looked at a gun and took the gun outside to see how it would shoot, while Juan Flores stayed in the shop. Noticing Flores’ frayed coat, Kraszewski offered him some needle and thread.

The three left and Kraszewski realized that they had not paid for the gun. So, he took off after them. He caught up with them as they headed back to his store and, thinking that they were returning to pay for the gun, he welcomed them. But the men signaled for the rest of their gang, and Kraszewski was fortunate to be able to shut and bar the door of his store with the help of a friend before they came in.

However, the gang began to ram the door. Kraszewski hid with a big basket over his head and his friend fled out the back door. The gang broke the door down. They never discovered Kraszewski, but looted the rest of the shop. Kraszewski was frightened and, after making sure the gang had left, he went to hide at the home of Don Juan Forster at the Mission.

But the gang had not left. Later that night they returned to San Juan Capistrano. Reasons vary, but one tale is that Flores wanted to see his girlfriend, who worked for another shopkeeper, Thomas Burruel. The girlfriend, Chola Martina, had a shawl in a pawn shop owned by George Pflugardt down the street from the Avila Adobe. The shop also contained many guns and ammunition, which the gang needed. Martina was able to signal the gang and they shot and killed Pflugardt. After raiding the shop, they left again. The entire town was scared and frightened.

Word was sent to the Sheriff of Los Angeles, James Barton. He immediately formed a posse to go after the Juan Flores Gang. The gang was clearly armed and dangerous, and the Sheriff and his men rode right into a trap. The posse was quickly surrounded by the gang and gunned down at very short range. Sheriff Barton was among the men who were killed. A few posse members were able to escape and made their way back to Los Angeles. The posse then formed two groups—one went back to return the bodies to Los Angeles, and the other went after the Flores Gang.

It took over a month, but Juan Flores was eventually caught and hanged. He was 22 years old.

You can spend a “Moment In Time” and learn more about the Juan Flores uprising and the Barton Massacre by attending the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society semiannual meeting on Thursday, March 9 at 7 p.m. at the San Juan Community Center. Paul Spitzzeri, director of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, will talk about these crimes and how the Flores Gang was eventually caught. The meeting is free to the public.

Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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