Fig Tree John in his
signature silk top hat. (Photo: Palm Springs Historical Society/Special
to The Desert Sun)
In his 1971 introduction to the re-printing of the 1934 book, New
York University English Professor Walter James Miller observed,
Fig Tree John is not only one of our greatest novels about
the predicament of the American Indian, it is also one of the best
studies of the white mans weaknesses as perceived by the red
man. Hence Edwin Corles little classic is far more relevant
for us today than when it first appeared in the 1930s. For now the
white man, somewhat humbled by his own follies, is almost willing
to learn something from other ways of life, almost ready to see
himself as the ofay-watchers have always seen him.
The book is again relevant today, as it was in 1971 and when it
first appeared in the middle of the Great Depression, and its introduction
is also strangely resonant.
The introduction, as all introductions do, heaps praise on the
novel, particularly noting its sensitive exploration of clashing
traditions. It ends with the admonishment that, Portraying
both cultures at their best and their worst, Corle makes no judgements
(but) simply makes us regret that these two great peoples
never meshed their talents while both of them were still in their
The book, its author and its namesake subject are a fascinating
page in the history of the multiple cultures of the Coachella Valley.
The real-life person, Fig Tree John, known also by his Spanish
name, Juanito Razon, was credited with planting the first fig tree
in the Coachella Valley and cultivating more. He was a member of
the Torres Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians. Fig Tree John was
said to walk barefoot through the hot desert sand. He was known
to wear a silk top hat and a military coat. His haunting and elegant
image makes it easy to understand why he inspired the young short-story
writer Edwin Corle to pen an entire book.
Corle was a boy when he saw the Salton Sea and the Arizona and
California deserts for the first time. Corles imagination
was captured: There he heard Mexicans, Indians, and whites
tell their fascinating tales. He would embellish scores of
these stories and imbue them with authentic character earning the
admiration of avid readers and bibliophiles like the erudite Lawrence
Clark Powell, Librarian at UCLA.
Fig Tree John in front
of his home circa 1918. (Photo: Palm Springs Historical Society/Special
to The Desert Sun)
Corle was born in New Jersey in 1906 and as a youngster traveled
through the Southern Californian deserts. He was educated at the
University of California, Berkeley, earning his undergraduate degree
in 1928. For two years he was a graduate student at Yale University.
He contributed non-fiction articles and short stories to the Atlantic
Monthly, Harpers, The New Yorker and Scribners. Corle died
just one month past his 50th birthday in 1956, having a tragically
abbreviated, but productive, life. His descendants are still here
in the desert.
"Fig Tree John" was written when Corle was only 28 years
old and is arguably his masterpiece.
Corle fictionalized the life of the peaceful Cahuilla Indian, making
John a renegade Apache with a violent grudge against all whites.
When the novel was first published in the middle of the 1930s, those
who remembered the real-life man were upset.
Fig Tree John was already the stuff of mythology early in the 20th
century when The Los Angeles Times noted, Fig Tree John is
a striking character
He is said to be 102 years old and he
bears the scars of fifty battles
He is dressed in his customary
uniform of army blue, brass buttons and all, high stovepipe hat
with red band.
The Times recounts how John proved himself a hero by rescuing the
sons of Ulysses Grant, Jr., who had set out from San Diego for Colorado
when their machine broke down while bucking the sand.
The Grants were without water and would have perished without the
kindness of the Cahuilla Indian. The legend of Fig Tree John is
now mostly remembered by the story that Thomas L. Pegleg
Smith, another colorful desert character, who, when close to death,
confided the whereabouts of his hidden gold mine to Fig Tree John,
the trustworthy Cahuilla, who kept the secret safe (the search for
the lost gold mine is another fascinating story for another day).
Unlike the fictionalized character, Fig Tree John meshed the best
talents from the cultures around him, embodying them all. He was
witness to their clash.
The last report of him in The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 10, 1926,
remarked, A single link connected Riversides pioneer
past with its modern present day when a monument to Louis Rubidoux
and General Fremont, the first colonizers of this section, was unveiled
at the site of the old American fort here. That link was Juan Razon,
better known as Fig Tree John, 130 years of age, who eighty years
ago served General Fremont as a scout during the Mexican war. Whether
Fig Tree John, a Mission Indian, is really 130 years of age or not
is impossible of substantiation
Garbed in an old blue uniform of the Union army, Fig Tree
John stood out among the throng of Riversiders like a century-old
oak growing in a grove of saplings.
In striking contrast to Edwin Corle, Fig Tree John, or Juanito
Razon, lived remarkably long. The exact date of his birth is unknown.
But, he died on April 11, 1927, on the Cahuilla reservation at Martinez.
His son and daughter, Johnnie Mack and Minnie Mack, grew up there,
eventually married and moved to the San Jacinto Valley. His son
always maintained that Fig Tree John lived to be 136 years old.