A Salinan Story

By Debra Krol


Debra Krol, Writer and Salinan Story Teller

THE HEADLESS LADY OF JOLON
       Ghosts and disembodied spirits have been entwined with the 
history of the Santa Lucia Mountains since the creation of Mother 
Earth.

When I was a girl, such stories and legends were seared into my soul, providing fodder for many a restless night. Even after becoming a woman, I cannot pretend to be unaffected by tales of the supernatural.

     After all, what is a ghost but a hapless individual who has lost
the path to the spirit world &emdash;what Christians refer to as heaven, or
its opposite, hell? 

Most of the spirits that inhabit the region around Jolon and Mission San Antonio de Padua are of white people. Being more in tune with the spiritual forces that permeate our world, Indians tend not to lose their bearings after death. Thus, few Salinans are hanging about the old homestead, searching for the flower-lined way to the next level of existence.

The most famous ghost roaming the Santa Lucias is a tragic one.

A young family was riding in a shiny wagon to their new home along the Nacimiento River, which meanders its way down the western flank of the San Antonio Valley. The Hallorans had just arrived via train from Philadelphia and had no experience with the untamed, bridgeless rivers of the West.

In spring, the Nacimiento becomes treacherous with winter runoff. In 1898, the year of the tragedy, it was higher and faster than usual after heavy snowfall the previous winter. When Michael, his wife, Alice, and baby Clara stopped in the ranch town of Jolon to buy supplies, the local Indians and rancheros advised against proceeding.

"It's too dangerous to cross the Nacimiento now," said Celestino Garcia, a rancher who also managed the nearby Dutton Hotel. "You should stay here until the spring thaw is over."

"How long will that be?" asked the skeptical Halloran, always on the lookout for shady dealers.

"I'd say a week, maybe ten days," Celestino replied.

Remains of the old adobe Hotel Dutton in Jolon

"The river is like a mad animal. The undertow will suck your wagon in the water like a sack of frijoles. Maybe we'd find you a couple of miles downstream. Maybe not. Look, senõr, senõra, I'll even let you stay in my hotel free!" Celestino was as tight-fisted as the ruddy Irishman he faced, yet he knew that Creator would not look favorably upon him if he did not attempt to help his new neighbors.

"Yeah, and what's to keep one of you yokels from crossing and
 claiming my land?" the obstinate Halloran demanded.  "Senõr, if 
we wanted your land, we would have bought it," cried the proud 
Celestino. "Go and claim your land.  If you can!" The redheaded 
Halloran snapped his reins, and the wagon turned northwest, 
toward Ferguson's Ford. 
                  
"Dear, shouldn't we have listened to the Indian?" asked Alice. 
"He has lived here a long time." She hugged little Clara to her 
breast. 
                  

"Naah, they're just a bunch of ignorant Indians and Mexicans trying to scare us off," the stubborn Michael proclaimed. "They won't keep us from our land! Don't you worry, dear, we'll be under our own roof by sunset!"

As the wagon reached the ford, Halloran halted the team. The river was like all the Furies rolled together into one raging, ravenous, roiling mass.

Muddy gray water rushed along the bed, carrying branches, rocks, and the occasional unlucky steer along its path. The very water reeked of death and rotting things.

Halloran hesitated. But just for a moment: nothing was going to keep the obstinate Irishman from his land! He flicked the reins, urging the reluctant horses forward into the flood.

The horses, being more sensible than the ruddy white man who mastered them, tried to turn away from the ravening river. The now enraged Halloran whipped them into a frenzied rush into the Nacimiento.

As the ferocious current bore down on the laden wagon, Alice screamed and crossed herself, drawing little Clara even closer to her bosom. Try as he may, the now frightened Halloran could not keep the wagon upright; it flipped over as it were but an oak leaf tossed upon the surface of the torrent. Over and over the wagon turned, plunging its terrified occupants into the foamy water.

As the wagon rolled in the torrent, Alice became entangled in the reins; her head was ripped from her body as the horses fought to free themselves.

Her husband, the only survivor, and the horrified rancheros buried her. The priest and local Salinan shaman both blessed the gravesite, located on a hillside near the old Meyer homestead.

Baby Clara was never found.

"You wait and see," the shaman told Celestino and Librada Garcia the next day. "A ghost will appear in the valley. If a person is buried without the whole body, he or she will search for the missing parts. If the white woman does not find her head along the river, she will never be able to enter the spirit world."

The shaman's words soon came to pass. After the burial and Michael Halloran's sad journey back to Philadelphia, the local people of Jolon saw the headless spirit of Alice Halloran gliding along the bank of the Nacimiento, searching for her head. Other nights, she could be seen floating around the vicinity of her grave.

Celestino, along with some of his neighbors, continued to search for Alice's head when time permitted. "if we can find her head, we can at least give her peace," he would explain to the white settlers, who ridiculed the notion of ghosts hovering about, searching for lost body parts. They soon became believers when they spotted the apparition.

 

The legend of Alice Halloran grew until she was known throughout the San Antonio Valley and the Santa Lucias. Many slumberless nights were spent by boys camped out along the San Antonio, hoping to see the Headless Lady. Just as many girls were told by their mothers, "Keep close to home, or you'll end up like Alice Halloran, with no head!"

During World War II, the United States government bought up the northern San Antonio Valley and turned it into a training base. The old Jolon graveyard, where Alice lay in her restless sleep, was now part of Fort Hunter Liggett.

In the mid 1950's, two soldiers guarding the ammunition bunker built near the graveyard spied Alice one moonless night. She floated over to the men, wordlessly, perhaps to entreat them to aid her in her quest.

But the soldiers, who were from faraway states, had not heard the tale of the Headless Lady and were literally scared out of their wits by the ghost's appearance.

They were spotted the next morning when the dawn guard came to relieve them.

One man was lying with his limbs askew and his eyes wild in death from a heart attack. The other soldier was delirious and took many months to recover from the trauma and tell his story. The Army, not known as an organization intimidated by shapeless spirits, nevertheless, closed the bunker.

Among those to see the pitiful sight of Alice was George Gonzales, a Salinan Indian and a legend in his own right. "A right sight she was," George told Mary Larson, who is equally renowned as the keeper of many Salinan legends.

"She floated a little above the ground; she just held her hands out to me and pointed toward the river. It was like she was trying to say, 'Please help me find my head and my baby." I helped in the search for her head; I walked many miles, hoping to find a skull to bury with her. I don't think she will ever be able to walk the spirit path without an intact body!" the old Indian sighed. A few months later, old George made his own journey to the spirit world, leaving Mary to tell the tale of the Headless Lady of Jolon.

A new story, spread by a local rancher circulated around the valley in the 1960's. Alice was not a white immigrant, according to the story, but an Indian woman who had been beheaded after her husband found her dallying with another man. Fortunately, Mary, the Salinan Storyteller, set the spreader of the false tale straight in a hurry!

If you wish to see Alice for yourself, you'll need to go at night. The bright rays of the sun wash out the fragile aura of ghosts. Moonless nights are better than moonlit for the same reason.

Permission from the Army authorities is required if you want to visit the Jolon graveyard, as it is on Federal property. Another good place to view Alice is the Nacimiento-Ferguson Bridge, which crosses the Nacimiento at the old ford site on the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.

Perhaps you, too, will join those who can say they have seen the Headless Lady of Jolon. If you should be lucky enough to find her head, you will have helped Alice Halloran complete her journey to the spirit world.

 

HOW TO FIND THE HEADLESS LADY

To see the spot where Alice died, travel on US Highway 101 to Jolon Road. Formerly part of the old El Camino Real, the old Royal Road of the California Mission system, the county road runs from one mile north of San Miguel to just north of King City, which is about 110 miles south of San Jose. Both ends are accessible from the freeway.

Follow Jolon Road to the main gate of Fort Hunter Liggett. Approximately one-half mile north of the guardpost, turn west on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. You can see the bridge from the main road. The old ford is nearby, as well as a primitive campground open to the public. To obtain a camping permit from the Fort's Recreation Office, simply follow the signs along the main road. If you wish to make advance reservations, call (831) 385-0357.

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