Monday, August 5, 2013

Tiburcio Vasquez - California Bandido & Pistolero

Tiburcio Vasquez was born April 10th, 1835 and died March 19th, 1875.  He was born in Monterey, California, to Jose Hermenegildo Vásquez and Maria Guadalupe Cantua.

His great-grandfather came to Alta California with the De Anza Expedition of 1776.

Vasquez was not a very big man, in fact he was slightly built at only about 5 feet 6 inches in height. But his family had money, so they sent him to school where he became fluent in both English and Spanish.

He was a Californio bandido active in California from 1854 to 1874. Aside from Joaquin Murrieta, Tiburcio Vasquez was probably the most notorious bandit California ever saw.

His gang murdered the innocent while committing armed robberies and rustling horses and cattle up and down central and southern California for 20 years before being stopped.

In 1852, Vasquez fell under the influence of a noted pistolero Anastacio Garcia -- who was in fact one of California's most dangerous bandits of the time. But it was in 1854 that Tiburcio Vasquez was accused of shooting Monterey Constable William Hardmount in a fight with Anastacio Garcia at a fandango.

Fandango is a lively couples-dance from Spain and Portugal, traditionally accompanied by guitars and castanets or hand-clapping. Fandango can both be sung and danced. Fandango is still one of the main folk dances in Portugal today.

Constable Hardmount was shot and killed when he attempted to break up a fight between several men -- some from the East Coast, Mexico and Ireland. The suspects were fighting over rum. Vasquez shot and killed Constable Hardmount when he attempted to stop the fight.

Vasquez's accomplice was wounded by return fire. Vasquez escaped, but his accomplice was arrested and hung the following day in the center of town. 
Vasquez denied any involvement in the killing, but that was when he became an outlaw.

Vasquez and Garcia also played leading roles in Monterey County's murderous Roach-Belcher feud, which reached its end when Garcia was lynched in the Monterey jail in 1857.

Tiburcio Vasquez murdered while robbing and rustling horses and cattle. 

A sheriff's posse caught up with him near Newhall, convicted of horse-stealing, he spent the next five years behind bars in San Quentin prison in 1857. There he helped organize, and participated in, four bloody prison breaks which left twenty convicts dead.

He briefly escaped in 1859, was recaptured for (again) horse-stealing and was finally released after serving his full term in 1863. After his release, Vasquez is said to have made attempts to be law abiding but eventually returned to crime.

He committed numerous burglaries, cattle thefts, and highway robberies in Sonoma County in 1866.
Though members of the gang changed throughout the years, some included Abdon Leiva, who turned State's evidence against Vasquez.

In 1870, Vásquez organized a bandit gang which included the the blood-thirsty villain Juan Soto; Tomas Redondo, alias Procopio Bustamante, Procopio, or Red-Handed Dick; and Vasquez's chief lieutenant Clodovio Chavez.

In 1871, Juan Soto was killed in a gunfight with Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse. Sheriff John H. Adams from San Jose pursued the band to Southern California where Vasquez escaped after a sharp gunfight.

After that Vasquez was shot and badly wounded in a gunfight with Santa Cruz police officer Robert Liddell. He managed to escape and his sisters nursed him back to health. Vasquez hid for a while in Southern California, where he was less well known.

With his two most trusted men, he rode over the old Tejon Pass, through the Antelope Valley, and rested at Jim Heffner's ranch at Elizabeth Lake. Vasquez' brother, Francisco, lived nearby. After resting, Vásquez rode on to Littlerock Creek, which would become his first Southern California hideout.

Vasquez was popular in the Mexican community, and had many friends and family members from Santa Rosa in Northern California to Los Angeles in the south. Legend says he was handsome, literate, charming, played guitar, and was a good dancer.

Of course, I don't know about playing guitar, being a good dancer, or being literate, but by looking at a picture of Vasquez - most would not call him handsome. That said, and no accounting for taste, legend has it that all sorts of women were attracted to him and he had many love affairs.

To add to the legend, he supposedly enjoyed reading romantic novels and writing poetry for his female admirers and also had several affairs with married women. It's said that one such affair would eventually prove his downfall. Vasquez returned to the San Joaquin Valley.

In 1873, he gained statewide, and then nationwide, notoriety when the robbed and murdered three unarmed innocent men who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vasquez and his gang stole $2,200 from Snyder's Store in Tres Pinos, now called Paicines, in San Benito County, killing three innocent bystanders in the process. Posses began searching for him, and Governor Newton Booth placed a $1,000 reward on his head.

Then on November 10, 1873, Kern County Constable Mettler was shot and killed while attempting to serve an arrest warrant near Tehachepi. The man who killed him was a member of a gang of desperados whose leader was Tiburcio Vasquez.

On December 26, 1873, his band sacked the town of Kingston, robbing all the businesses and making off with $2,500 in cash and jewelry.

Governor Booth was now authorized by the California state legislature to spend up to $15,000 to bring Vasquez to justice. This brought out lawmen from Fresno, Tulare, San Joaquin, Santa Clara Kern and Monterey counties, all scrambling after the elusive leader. Posses were formed in Santa Clara, Monterey, San Joaquin, Fresno, Kern, and Tulare Counties.

In January 1874, Governor Booth increased the reward and offered $3,000 for Vasquez's capture alive, and $2,000 if he was brought back dead. These rewards were increased in February to $8,000 and $6,000, respectively.

Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse was assigned specifically to track down Vasquez. Heading towards Bakersfield, Vasquez and gang member Colodeoveo Chavez rode to the rock promontory near Inyokern now known as Robbers Roost.

Near that spot, at Coyote Holes, they robbed a stagecoach from the Cerro Gordo Mines, silver mines near Owens Lake. During the robbery Vasquez shot and killed one of his own men who didn't obey his orders.

The gang moved to Elizabeth Lake and Soledad Canyon, robbing a stage of $300, stealing six horses and a wagon near present day Acton, and robbing lone travelers. Vasquez was believed to be hiding out at Vasquez Rocks 40 miles north of Los Angeles. For the next two months, he escaped attention. However, he then made an error that led to his capture.

On April 15, 1874, he and his band held the prominent sheepman Alessandro Repetto for ransom. Pursuing posses from Los Angeles almost trapped the gang in the San Gabriel Mountains, but once again, Vasquez and his men escaped.

Vasquez took up residence at the adobe home of "Greek George" Caralambo in the northwest corner of Rancho La Brea, located 200 yards south of the present-day Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.

Greek George was a former camel driver for General Beale in the Army Camel Corps. Supposedly, Vasquez seduced his own niece. Either the girl's family or Greek George's wife's family betrayed Vasquez to Los Angeles Sheriff William R. Rowland.

He was finally captured in the Arroyo Seco area of Los Angeles when Sheriff Rowland sent a posse to a ranch there and captured Vasquez on May 14, 1874. He was moved from Los Angeles to San Benito County - then to San Jose for trial.

Greek George's adobe was situated near the present day Melrose Place in West Hollywood. This was coincidentally very close to where the movie industry would, in a few decades, set up shop.

Vasquez remained in the Los Angeles County jail for nine days. Once there, he had numerous requests for interviews by many newspaper reporters. But strangely, he only agreed to see three: two from the San Francisco Chronicle and one from the Los Angeles Star. He told them his aim was to return California to Mexican rule. He insisted he was an honorable man and falsely was claimed innocence because he had never killed anyone.

In late May, Vasquez was moved by steamship to San Francisco, California. He would eventually stand trial in San Jose.

Tiburcio Vasquez quickly became a celebrity among many of his fellow Hispanic Californians. He admitted he was an outlaw, but again denied he had ever killed anyone. A note purportedly written by Clodoveo Chavez, one of his gang members, was dropped into a Wells Fargo box. Chavez wrote that he, not Vasquez, had shot the men at Tres Pinos.

Nevertheless, at his trial Vasquez admitted participating in the Tres Pinos raid. Since all the participants in the robbery were equally guilty of any murder that took place during its commission, whether Vasquez actually pulled the trigger was legally irrelevant.

In January 1875, Vasquez was convicted and sentenced to hang for murder. His trial had taken four days and the jury deliberated for two hours before finally finding him guilty of one count of murder in the Tres Pinos robbery.

Vasquez started bargaining for clemency before being convicted by saying that their gang never took advantage of Hispanics, and that whites forced them into becoming criminals. Because some people will readily believe anything, even that which comes out of the mouth of a killer and thief, their gang was sometimes viewed as "folk heroes."

In fact, yes, his jail cell became a major tourist draw. Thousands, most of them women, came to visit. And supposedly Vasquez was charming to all, even posing for photographs and giving out autographs. Yes, believe it or not, he signed autographs and even posed for photographs. Vasquez sold the photos from the window of his cell and used the money to pay for his legal defense.

After his conviction, he appealed for clemency - but it was denied by Governor Romualdo Pacheco.

Tiburcio Vasquez met his fate on the gallows in San Jose on March 19th, 1875, when he was hanged at the age of 39 years old.

The Vasquez gang did not say that they were just lining their pockets with money taken at the point of a gun because they were too lazy to find honest work like the majority of the people in the world even back then. Instead, they tried to excuse their killings and robberies by saying that they were simply "punishing” the whites for discrimination against those of Mexican and Spanish decent.

And yes, some people are dumb enough to believe that line of bull. In fact, so much so, that before he was hanged on March 19, 1875, Vasquez was asked to dictate a statement explaining his actions:

"A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed we were unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us."

Once on the gallows, he was brief. The only word he uttered from the gallows was, "Pronto."

Vasquez's loyal lieutenant, Clodovio Chavez, fled to Arizona, where he was killed by lawmen in November, 1875, near Yuma, Arizona.

As for Vasquez' claims that his crimes were "the result of discrimination by the norte-americanos and insist that he was a defender of Mexican-American rights," well, doesn't that sound familiar? It should, after all, it sounds just like most of the excuses that come from criminal types - even today.

And yes, that's the way I see it,
Tom Correa


  1. I don't know what nationality you are but my ancestors that were Native and California had to deal with a lot of the racism discrimination lynching and justice has done to us by the anglos I see him as a adventure of manifest destiny a protector of the land giving the white man A Taste of their own medicine you never killed anybody you to stop saying that

  2. I am part Irish, part Italian, part Mexican, and part Cherokee from what I've been told. My ancestors too were discriminated against and I'm here to tell you it gets much worse. And if you're reading this, no I never killed anyone to defend my country. Never have, never will. Tiburcio Vasquez WAS indeed a legendary folk hero but that still doesn't change the fact that what he did was wrong. I've also heard that Vasquez favored the Colt Dragoon revolver because he could easily reload it after each and every shot. Another big user of the Colt Dragoon was Joaquin Murrieta. They are both legends in California. The Vasquez Rocks are actually named after Tiburcio Vasquez. I plan on making a movie about him called, "Vasquez" and it will be filmed in Spain. Wish me luck.


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