Hand-Colored Photograph of Cahuilla Indian and California Desert Legend Fig Tree John
14.5" x 9" photograph with extensive hand-coloring, showing Fig Tree John standing outside of his home with an unknown white man. Photograph has small spots of damage and is slightly rippled. There is a penciled caption of some kind at the bottom, but it is partially cut off, and we have been unable to decipher it. Undated, ca. 1915. Fig Tree John -- who preferred to be known by his Spanish name, Juanita Razon -- was a member of the Torres Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians. He received his moniker for having reportedly planted the first fig trees in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. According to Harry C. James (The Cahuilla Indians, 1960), "early survey parties into Coachella Valley found Fig Tree and his family living in an arrowweed jacal-type house at a spring near Salton Sea...Although the Southern Pacific Railroad had been granted ownership of the section of land where Fig Tree lived, it never questioned his right to live there. In fact, when the Colorado River broke through it in 1905 and re-flooded the Salton Sea, the railroad made not the slightest protest when Fig Tree began to reap a financial harvest by salvaging ties from the flooded railroad and selling them to ranchers around Mecca, who badly needed good fence posts. As more and more people came into Coachella Valley, Fig Tree began to fear that he might lose his land. Armed with an ancient Winchester--which had lost some of the parts essential to its ever being fired--the old man assumed a most belligerent attitude and ordered any trespassers off his property. This led to his being rated a pretty tough character....[However], there are stories of his kindness on many occasions to both whites and Indians who staggered onto his oasis [and] most of the white settlers around Mecca were fond of him....Around 1910, Fig Tree acquired a buggy which from then on he and his wife used for their trips into town of to the various Indian ceremonies. At some earlier period he had acquired the impressive costume which he always wore on such occasions. This consisted of an ancient coat with large military buttons and a battered old top hat." Among the many stories told of Fig Tree John were that he had a secret gold mine in the mountains, that he had been a scout for John C. Fremont and received his signature outfit at the conclusion of his employment, and that he was 136 years old when he died in 1927. Edward Corle's 1934 novel "Fig Tree John" was inspired by the real Fig Tree, but transformed him into an Apache with a grudge against all whites - much to the dismay of people who knew him.