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Modesto's statue of Estanislao recalls victories over missions

He has one of the best locations in downtown Modesto.

Standing near 10th and I streets, he is on the forefront of Courthouse Park, facing west into the sunset.

If he were alive, he could see the freight trains rumbling through town. He could observe the crowds of theatergoers gathered at the Gallo Center for the Arts and watch the activity around the courthouse.

But he isn't alive. He is a handsome bronze statue, created by local sculptor Betty Saletta. His name is Estanislao.

The muscular statue represents the man Thorne Gray, in his book "Stanislaus Indian Wars," called "one of the most formidable Indian chiefs in American history." Gray ranked Estanislao historically on a par with some of the most famous Indian warriors: Tecumseh, King Phillip, Pontiac and Geronimo.

In the history of California, the Indians were here first, for thousands of years.

Christopher Columbus gave them their name. When he landed on the island of San Salvador in 1492, he mistakenly thought he was in the East Indies and decided that he had discovered a new race of people. He called them Indians.

Early explorers Columbus, Cortez, Drake and Portola all found Indians along their routes. Those in our Central Valley were called Yokuts, derived from the word "yokoch," meaning "people."

For years, historians have written about the famous Indian Estanislao, who fought for freedom from mission and Mexican control.

He was born near the Stanislaus River about 1793. At the Mission San Jose, he received a general education, as well as religious training. The padres soon recognized his above-average intelligence and made him an alcalde, or leader, over the other Indians.

He was slender and about 6 feet tall, several inches taller than average. He was also known as a "breaker of mules" and had the bearing of a leader.

During this period, the Franciscan fathers were founding missions along the California coast, using Indians to perform the work. Many of the Indian laborers were treated cruelly and flogged for the slightest infractions.

This created a spirit of hatred and a desire for vengeance among the Indians, including Estanislao, who "seethed with revenge." Finally, they rebelled by harassing the padres, stealing their horses for food, driving off their cattle and persuading the Christian Indians to run away.

In 1828, Estanislao led the Stanislaus River Indians in a rebellion against the missions, culminating in two bloody battles from which courageous Estanislao emerged victorious.

Gray summarized Estanislao's achievements, noting that he became the leader of the famed rebellion against Mission San José in November 1828; defeated Mariano Vallejo and the entire Mexican army of Northern California; and freed the region east of the San Joaquin River from mission domination and secured it for its native peoples.

After the battles, Estanislao escaped and eventually returned to Mission San José. There he confessed his sins, received an official pardon and continued to live at the mission. He died in 1838, apparently from smallpox.

His courageous battles for freedom led to the naming of Rio de Stanislao, later Stanislaus River, in his honor.

Saletta says she was interested in Estanislao's story long before she started his sculpture. She expresses the hope that the statue will encourage people, especially children, to learn about him and his bravery.

Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at columns@modbee.com.

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