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Battlefield Victory : Mule Hill, the Site of 1846 Battle, Captured at Last for History

March 16, 1988|NANCY RAY | Times Staff Writer

It took Bill Aste 14 years, but he finally captured Mule Hill.

Aste's protracted battle, while less historic than the bloody Battle of San Pasqual in 1846 that put Mule Hill in the history books, ended Monday when the San Diego City Council routinely approved leasing to the state the 25-acre hillock near the North County Fair shopping center south of Escondido.

Mule Hill is where U.S. troops, including famed scout Kit Carson, retreated after the brief Battle of San Pasqual five miles to the east.

There, Gen. Stephen Kearny and his decimated troopers held the high ground, trying to hold on until reinforcements arrived. They ate their mules for want of better provisions. The Americans were outnumbered and were surrounded by Californios, the Mexican freebooters under the command of Capt. Andres Pico who were fighting U.S. military rule imposed in the area.

For four days, the American troops remained stranded on the rocky stronghold, awaiting rescue from San Diego. Then, during the night, the wounded Kearny decided that help would not arrive and ordered his troops to burn every piece of unnecessary gear in preparation for a dawn attempt to break out of the ring of enemies surrounding them.

Before the final battle, however, a column of U.S. Marines marched up the road from San Diego and routed Pico's band.

The incident, part of the only major Mexican-American War battle fought on California soil, was not heralded as a major turning point in the conflict between the two countries until more recent times when historians realized that, while the United States lost the battle, they won the war by committing the might of the country to occupation of the American West.

Aste, a retired Escondido restaurateur and founding president of the San Pasqual Battlefield Assn., started in 1974 to have the battlefield site--near the Wild Animal Park about five miles east of Escondido--and Mule Hill declared historical sites and acquired by the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

"The battlefield site was relatively easy," Aste said. "In those days, the city was willing to deed land to us for such purposes." So the 50-acre battlefield site and monument were developed with state park bond funds. But Mule Hill, according to the San Diego city property department, was not theirs to cede. It lay, a department official said, within Escondido's city limits.

So Aste began again, this time in his home city of Escondido, to complete the San Pasqual project by getting Escondido to set aside the site of the final chapter in the battle--Mule Hill. But, he said, "the San Diego property department was wrong." Mule Hill, near the northeastern shores of Lake Hodges, was within the San Diego city limits and was owned by the city's Water Utilities Department, which owns most of the San Pasqual Valley.

The mistake was understandable, Aste admits, because for decades, until the late 1970s, Mule Hill was lost. A historical marker on Pomerado Road in Rancho Bernardo is about a mile across Lake Hodges from the knoll where the wounded Kearny rallied his troops for the final battle. And, to most who stopped to read the marker, it was Battle Mountain, just to the south of the marker that was heralded as the site of the siege.

Finally, a short piece of pipe was attached to the marker. The pipe pinpoints the real Mule Hill for curious tourists who peer through it.

It took a Los Angeles historical researcher, Konrad Schreier, to find Mule Hill again, Aste said. During a weekend tour, trailed by about 150 local history buffs, Schreier used a metal detector to sweep the series of hillocks to find the siege site.

His search turned up some bits of battle artifacts--spurs and broken sabers and insignia from cavalry caps--which remained after the U.S. troops burned their unnecessary gear in preparation for their escape try.

With the site again pinpointed within San Diego, Aste renewed his campaign to capture the hillock as a historical site. But, this time, "I found that the city's attitude had changed," Aste explained. No longer was land there for the taking. Now the city was bound by a policy that city property must be leased or sold at market price.

"I started with (Councilman) Gil Johnson, and then (Councilman) (Wild) Bill Mitchell. Mitchell tried. He did his best, but nothing ever happened," Aste said.

"Then (Councilwoman) Abbe Wolfsheimer came along and she did it."

On Monday, the city Water Utilities Department land was turned over to the state, on a five-year lease, at a $100 annual rental.

Aste said state park bond money will be sought to fence the 25-acre hillock, to build an access road off Via Rancho Parkway and to erect a monument at the site. The monument would explain the site's significance and direct visitors to the San Pasqual Battle Monument to the east for further information about the historic event.

In the meantime, Aste will turn his persuasive talents toward interesting some Hollywood studio into turning the disastrous battle of San Pasqual into a historic film.

"A journalist named Ed Ainsworth wrote a novel, 'Eagles Fly West,' which is historically correct and would make a great movie script," he said. "What we need is publicity about this place, and I'm going to try to get it."

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