The curse of the Pogonip

October 31, 2006
A Halloween tale: The curse of the Pogonip
By Terri Morgan
Santa Cruz Sentinel correspondent

According to legend, the white fog that hovered over the San Lorenzo River looked like a ghostly mist to the American Indians who came from the Central Valley to do battle with the Ohlone Indians residing along its banks. The invaders called the foggy area "Pogonip," which some history books translate as both "white death" and "river mist" from the group's native tongue. So it was only fitting that later generations, who still call the area above Santa Cruz the Pogonip, thought the spooky site was haunted.

The war-like invaders, legend has it, came to what is now Santa Cruz intent on taking over the riches of the region. The rocky shores of the Central Coast were home to countless abalone, which were harvested by the Ohlone not only for their meat, but for their shells, which were used to make fishhooks and jewelry.

"The Ohlone lived peacefully among their neighbors and were unprepared for battle," said Santa Cruz historian Ross Gibson. "They were unequipped for hostilities and were completely massacred."

The invaders may have won the battle, but they lost the war. The mourners gathered atop what is today known as Mission Hill to dance to commemorate their dead, and unfamiliar with the custom, the Central Valley natives thought the dance was a precursor to a counter attack and began climbing up the hill to resume hostilities, according to Gibson. At that point, an earthquake hit, and rocks began raining down on them, Gibson said, prompting them to leave the coast and return to the Central Valley.

Though the invaders were gone, the Ohlones believed the attackers left the area with a curse. Any murder or misfortune, from then on, in the region was attributed to the curse.

"It was mostly a superstition held by the Indians living at the mouth of the Pogonip," Gibson said.

That myth spread and was adopted by the European settlers who moved into the region in the late 1700s. Many considered the area to be haunted, especially after workers planting orchards on the battleground below the Mission discovered numerous skeletal remains of the fallen warriors, according to Gibson.

The Ohlone kept the tale of the curse alive through storytelling.

In the 1800s, some of the remaining American Indians befriended a beggar woman, named Josefa Perez, who lived for a time on the streets of Santa Cruz, according to Gibson. They shared the legend with Perez, who in turn passed it on to settlers before she passed away in 1890, Gibson said.

If not for Perez, the story, along with the curse, would have faded entirely. And while the story remains, Gibson is convinced the curse has dissipated.

"It's had a long history of good fortune as well, so I wouldn't say it was damned for eternity," he said. "The curse needs to be taken as a piece of history and not a prophecy of all times."

The curse is non-existent to several people who have spent time in the Pogonip area. Park Ranger John Wallace, who regularly patrols the lands bordering UC Santa Cruz, laughed out loud when asked if he'd ever seen a ghost on the property.

"No ghosts, just a lot of history up there," he said, referring to the old clubhouse. "Once in a while, an alarm will go off in the clubhouse. Maybe because of a bat flying or a mouse setting off the sensor. But I've never heard of any ghosts up there."

The former Salz tannery site, which settlers had considered cursed several hundred years ago, also is apparently ghost-free. Ceil Cirillo, director of the city's Redevelopment Agency, has also spent a lot of time at the future home of the Tannery Arts Center. She also laughed when asked if she'd seen any evidence of the supernatural at the site.

"No," she said. "There's rumors of bats being there, but no ghosts."

(Santa Cruz Sentinel