There were laws against kidnapping Indians, but the ranchers of the 1850s didn't pay much attention to them. Whenever certain Contra Costa ranchers needed cheap labor, a vaquero was sent to raid the Indian villages to the north.
On June 10, 1850, Ramon Berryessa came to Contra Costa County with four Indians, who had been abducted from Clear Lake. Two were adults and two were boys of about 11.
On his way to Martinez, Berryessa stopped at the Soto ranch in Pinole. He was welcomed and fed breakfast, as were his captives. By noon he was back on the road. It was the last time that any of his friends saw him alive.
The next day, William Hendricks spotted a saddle by the side of the road and near it was Berryessa's body. He had been stabbed several times.
A posse was organized to search for the missing Indians. It didn't take long to find them. They were hiding in the tules across the Carquinez Strait. The Indians were brought to Martinez for trial.
Dr. Samuel J. Tennent, who lived in Pinole with his wife, Rafaela, was in Martinez that day. He felt sorry for the little boys and persuaded Judge Absalom Peak, who was presiding at the preliminary hearing, to let him take the boys home to his ranch.
Rafaela welcomed the 11-year-olds. She insisted the two be baptized and given the Christian names of Diego and Jose Maria.
The trial of the adult Indians was not held until September. By this time the two had been locked up
It turned out that young Jose Maria was the son of the Indian chief in the Clear Lake area. He knew several Indian dialects. When the time came for the trial, Jose Maria translated what the captive Indians said to a third Indian, who then translated for the judge.
According to trial testimony, Berryessa was changing saddles when the Indians saw their chance to escape. They grabbed him from behind and ordered the boys to get Berryessa's sword. The boys handed the men the sword and one after another the two took turns stabbing Berryessa.
As one of the Indians thrust the knife into Berryessa's body, he yelled, "Why should you ill treat me, I am a man."
The jury found the two guilty of manslaughter. There were sentenced to two weeks in jail, which they had already served, and fined $1 and were told they could go home.
The judge told Diego and Jose Maria they could go back to Clear Lake, too. But the two decided they'd rather live with the Tennents in Pinole. The judge gave Tennent custody and the authority to keep the "earnings of the said Indian boys, Jose Maria and Diego, until each shall attain the age of majority."
The story of Diego and Jose Maria was written by the late Mary Tennent Carleton in 1966 for the Contra Costa County Historical Society. She was Samuel's granddaughter and had heard the story from her father, James Hugh Tennent.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.