The Unanswered Mysteries of Black Star Canyon
by Joel Robinson
Back in the fall of 2010, our team of canyon volunteers had just finished a haunted history reenactment in Black Star Canyon. It was about 10 o’clock at night. Jesse, one of the volunteers, and I parked past the first creek bridge to retrieve some large theatrical props. We began loading the props into his vehicle. The canyon was silent, except for our movement and voices. Even the creek wasn’t flowing. We almost finished loading when a prolonged moan interrupted the silence. We both froze. Our eyes grew wide with concern. “What was that?” I asked nervously, even though a dreadful idea was already in my mind. The moan sounded like a melancholy woman crying somewhere in the darkness. Jesse was curious, but a little worried. “Don’t you think it sounded like a crying woman?” I whispered. Jesse waited for me to give a logical explanation, when I blurted out, “Maybe it’s La Llorona.” I said this half-jokingly to mask my escalating fear. The moan came again, sounding even closer than before. This prompted further discussion about what else we might be hearing. We listened patiently in the stillness for the moan to return. I anxiously looked over Jesse’s shoulder, but there was no sign of anyone creeping towards us from the corridor of oak and alder trees. Then, the moan descended upon us once more. But this time, it was clearly coming from the tree canopy. Near the end of the eerie cry, the vocalization transformed into a series of rapidfire hoots, surprisingly similar to the recording of the siamang gibbon that is heard during the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland! Fear turned into amusement and relief. It was obvious that the gibbon sounds were not the cries of a ghost woman. “It’s just a western screech owl,” I assured.
For readers who aren’t familiar, a western screech owl looks like a tiny version of a great horned owl, but way more adorable. Their typical call is a series of hoots speeding up in pace like a bouncing ball. Owls are capable of creating a variety of strange sounds, some of which are very similar to human vocalizations. Even though we confirmed the harmless source of the sound, the experience still conjured up the idea that La Llorona could be lurking along Black Star Creek. I heard and read about a ghost woman dressed in white who was reportedly seen wandering the canyons at night. Was there a chance that the legend of La Llorona was tied to Black Star, recognizing that our region was historically ruled by Spain, Mexico and then the US by 1848? The plight of Indigenous people, especially women, during the conquest of California was extremely severe. During Spanish rule, soldiers forced Indigenous people into manual labor and raped the women. During Mexican rule, enslavement and abuse continued. When California was officially acquired by the US in 1848, Anglos murdered, burned and raped Indigenous people. The common practice was to kidnap Indigenous women and children and sell them into slavery. Considering this genocidal period of California history, it is likely that versions of the La Llorona story may have been inspired by horrific local events. How many Indigenous women were raped by soldiers? Were any of them compelled to drown their children? How many Indigenous children were kidnapped by soldiers and sold into slavery? Why did the early Spanish speaking colonizers name the place Cañon de los Indios, Canyon of the Indians, before the Black Star Coal Mine Company began operating in the late 1870s?
We know about the existence of the Indigenous archaeological site known as the Black Star Village (California Historical Landmark #217, CA-ORA-132), located on Rancho Escondido, Hidden Ranch, roughly four to five miles up the canyon. The Tongva (Gabrielino) and Acjachemen (Juaneño) tribes are well documented as occurring in this area for thousands of years. Was Black Star a refuge for Indigenous people who fled enslavement? Why was the next canyon south of Black Star named La Mujer Vieja, The Old Woman, before it was named Baker Canyon? These unanswered questions haunt those who explore Black Star. It only takes the mysterious sound of an owl to trigger the imagination. Just think, countless generations of owls watched from the tree canopy as the entire disturbing history of humans played out in Black Star Canyon. Maybe the owls were trying to tell us the full story of Black Star, but we lost the Indigenous ability to understand. We will continue to investigate the mysteries of Black Star Canyon and share them with you.