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The Legend of Tahquitz

The Cahuilla Indians believe that Tahquitz, a devil-spirit, lives in these San Jacinto mountains, and has evil powers. He likes to make strange noises and groans to terrorize the people. He possesses unique abilities to assume all kinds of disguises and to entice men, women, and children to his cavern as slaves. Worse yet, sometimes he eats them. Tahquitz had been a spirit for good and for healing. Shamans (medicine men) had prayed to him for help — but later he turned evil.

The Cahuilla had chosen a new, powerful and wise leader, Algoot. He had a son, who, like his father, was well-liked and good. One day, this young warrior and two of his friends decided to slip out of the village and climb San Jacinto Mountain and find Tahquitz. They were not afraid, and laughed at the idea that he could harm them. With shouts of laughter and skill, they climbed the rugged peak.

Chief Algoot did not know that these young warriors had gone to find the demon Tahquitz, but learned of it hours later. At first he felt no fear, then suddenly he sensed that something was about to happen. He knew that his son was the strongest and bravest of youths and that he shouldn’t worry about him, but decided to go find him.

Alone, he ascended the mountain. As he climbed higher, clouds gathered, thunder rumbled, lightning cracked, and Algoot became frightened for his son. He climbed with superhuman strength and speed. The clouds had drifted away when he reached a quiet little valley several miles below the hidden cave of Tahquitz. There he came upon his son’s two companions stretched out unconscious on the grass. Algoot was terrified, and wondered what had happened to his beloved son. He gave medicine to the young men and wakened them. They begged to leave before telling their story, but Algoot was frantic and urged them to tell him what had become of his son. Each of them wished he had been the one who died so that he wouldn’t have to tell him the terrible news.

Algoot listed to them tell the story: Everything had been exciting until they reached Tahquitz Valley. Suddenly, loud roars and eerie noises, reverberating echoes, came closer and closer, but they did not retreat at that first sound of danger. Darkness, lightning, and thunder had crashed all around them, getting more and more terrifying. The two friends wanted to run away, but Algoot’s son would not stop. They were scared and overcome with fear when the terrifying demon monster appeared in front of them.

With one fierce sweep of his rawhide wrapped battle-axe, he crushed the skull of the brave youth. Tahquitz cold-bloodedly tore off an arm to eat while he carried the body over his shoulder back to his cave. As the two watched this repulsive sight, and heart the crunching of bones between his teeth, they fainted and knew nothing until Algoot revived them.

Anger filled Algoot, and as the young braves watched, he seemed to swell into a giant and tower to the tops of the trees. Eyes aflame, he vowed to the gods that he would never rest until he had either killed Tahquitz or had been killed by him. Quickly and silently, he hurried with the boys to his home in the valley to plan his attack.

Telling no one, Algoot started training his body for the conflict. He ate foods to give him strength and power; drank no injurious liquors, went to bed with the sun and rose at earliest dawn; took long hikes, climbed the steepest mountains; wrestled Grizzly Bears; and followed the trail of Mountain Lions which he killed with his bare hands. He ran long distances until his heart and lungs doubled in size, and his muscles were tougher than the fibers of the hardiest trees. Many moons passed, as he continued his training.

Finally one day, Algoot called all his people together and told them he was going to avenge the death of his noble son. He asked for their prayers that he might succeed. He was leaving, and would not return until Tahquitz was dead. With loud shouts, the tribe gave their approval to the brave words of Algoot, and watched him go.

Climbing with huge strides up to the area near Tahquitz’s hidden cave, Algoot called out to the demon-giant with a loud, sneering, and taunting voice. Tahquitz did not answer, so Algoot moved closer, yelling, “Killer of young children and women, coward, braggart, come out and fight.” Tahquitz, pretending to be just awakening, stretched and yawned and came to his cave entrance and asked Algoot what he wanted. Repeating his dare, Algoot told Tahquitz to “Come out so I can spit on you and avenge the death of my son.” Tahquitz glared with fury, and agreed to fight him and a dozen more men to even the match. Tahquitz decided on a sneaky plot so that he could kill not only Algoot but many of his people. He told Algoot to go back to the valley where the San Jacinto River flows from his mountain into the lake. There the demon would meet and kill Algoot and crush his bones between his teeth. Tahquitz wanted the people to watch the conflict in a place where they could not escape and hide.

Algoot knew he had to be ready for trickery from the wicked Tahquitz, but he agreed, and went down into the valley, to the area we know as Lakeview, where there was a large lake called Algooton (now Mystic Lake). The San Jacinto River emptied into this lake, but there was no outflow to Elsinore as there is now.

With wild roars, Tahquitz came off the mountain, throwing huge boulders at Algoot. The people were frightened, fearing that their leader would be killed. Algoot had prepared well for this fight, and jumped quickly aside so the rocks would not hit him. He picked them up and threw them accurately back at the monster, often hitting him because he couldn’t dodge them as well as Algoot could. Tahquitz roared with rage, but Algoot paid no attention and kept fighting. Just as Algoot was winning, the demon, having the power of a wizard, changed his form and disappeared from the eyes of Algoot. Then he reappeared, and they again threw huge rocks at each other. The battle raged for hours. You can still see the piles of these rocks in the San Jacinto and Lakeview valleys.

Algoot began to get the better of his foe despite the deceptions. In despair, Tahquitz turned himself into a giant sea serpent, hoping to frighten Algoot into giving up the battle. Instead, the hero rushed the hideous creature and grappled with his long and slippery body He held it so tightly that Tahquitz writhed and slithered and wrenched his form and lashed the water and all the surrounding country with a tail in his frantic efforts to shake off Algoot. During one of these lunges, his tail cut a deep gash through the Nuevo Hills so that water flowed out to form Lake Elsinore many miles away. As the lake drained away, Algood strangled the serpent Tahquitz of the drying, muddy land. The people rejoiced that Algoot had avenged the death of his son. The abominable scaly serpent was dead, but Algoot decided there would be no peace until it was burned and completely destroyed. The people brought big piles of green and dry wood and prepared a funeral pyre to burn the body. Exhausted, Algoot went up to a quiet spot on a hill to rest. After a while, he returned with a great armful of wood to add to the pile the people had brought. When they had a large and long enough pile, they placed the body of the serpent upon it and set it afire.

Silently, the people watched the fire burn the serpent. However, they made one great mistake by using some green wood. If only dry wood has been used, Tahquitz would have been entirely and forever destroyed, but in the hot smoke of the green wood, the spirit of Tahquitz escaped into the sky. Although Algoot had slain the devil Tahquitz, his spirit was not dead, and he returned to his cave. The Cahuilla felt the earth quake as Tahquitz rolled Lily Rock across the entrance to his cave. There he still makes terrible noises and never appears except in disguise. He makes the earthquakes, and sends thunder and lightning. Wickely he watches for the chance to seize the spirit of the dead. That is why the Cahuilla do not leave a dead body until it is buried. During this time, they believe that the spirit is hovering nearby, watching over its former body. Tahquitz has no power to take it after it is burned or buried. Even today, some Indians still hate and fear Tahquitz so much that they will not go into the high mountains of the San Jacintos.

The Desert and Pass Cahuilla had trails into the high country and leading to all major peaks. The legends of the mythical demon Tahquitz were very real to some Mountain Cahuilla, and therefore they would not go into the back country. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, Frank Wellman herded his cattle up the Devil’s Slide because it was the most feasible route over the ridge. There was no USFS Devil’s Slide Trail, switchbacked as it became, but was a bone-breaking dangerous scramble up and down the mountain from Strawberry Valley to Tahquitz Valley and back. The cattle and cowboys went around and over loose boulders, fallen trees and through thickets of Whitethorn, Manzanita and Chinquipin and topped out a quarter of a mile south of Saddle Junction. Jim Wellman, Frank’s son, stated that because of their phobia of the evil spirit Tahquitz, who lived in a cave behind Lily Rock, some Cahuilla cowboys, who lived as close as Garner and Strawberry Valleys, would not go above Strawberry Valley. “White” cowboys did Wellman’s herding.

In 1993, Katherine Siva Saubel, a Cahuilla, as a protector and keeper of the Cahuilla culture and an advocate for Indian rights, was the first native American to be elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame. She had been a Commissioner of the Native American Heritage Commission since 1985. In 1994 she received the first Art and Cultural Award from the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institute.

As a Cahuilla elder, she said that there are three or four versions of the Tahquitz Legend. He is and was a deity who used to be good and healed people. He is still appealed to by shamans to help cure the sick. She said that Tahquitz did misuse his powers, he did do very bad things, and he thus became an outcast. He is still present and the people still call to him for healing.

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