June, 2003 Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts


Slice of History

El Bandito, Vasquez
by Cecile Page Vargo

Somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15, young Tiburcio Vasquez found himself in trouble with the law. Perhaps it started at the dance where he defended his beautiful sister when Americanos in attendance insulted her. Vasquez reportedly stabbed the offender and fled, possibly joining up with Joaquin Murietta and his band of men. A year or so later, he was accused of murdering a local lawman at another Fandango, and stealing a horse, as well. Tiburcio Vasquez, who came into the world in 1839, was the well-educated son of a respected Monterey family. Now he was a man with a price on his head. Along with a group of followers with a common grudge against the Americans who had taken their beloved California from them, Vasquez would hold a reign of terror up and down the state for over 20 years.

Vasquez haunted Northern California with a series of robberies and horse thefts which eventually landed him in San Quentin Prison sometime during the 1850’s. By 1863 he was hustling as a gambler, but apparently wound up in prison once again. Upon his release from another sentence in the 1870’s he was well on his way to becoming famous for his crimes.

A Bandito is Made

In August of 1873, the entire band of desperados, with Vasquez in the lead, raided Snyder’s General Store at Tres Pinos, in Monterey County , killing three men, including Snyder himself. From there they escaped to Elizabeth Lake in Southern California , with a posse trailing behind them from Northern California and one from Los Angeles headed towards them. Comfortable and familiar with mountaintop country, the men headed through what is today known as Vasquez Rocks and on to Little Rock Creek. As they camped near the present day site of Little Rock Reservoir dam, officers at last overtook them and shots were exchanged, but no one from either party was harmed. In fear of being ambushed on unfamiliar ground, the posse retreated to Elizabeth Lake once again. There they realized that Vasquez had arrived ahead of them and had turned back to Little Rock Creek, somehow managing to pass them on the way. From there, more than likely, Vasquez headed to a hideout deep in the San Gabriel Mountains known as Chilao. After several weeks of seclusion, Vasquez and his lieutenant, Cleovaro Chavez began recruiting more men, which they would send out in small groups of twos and threes for holdups and stock rustlings.

Late fall of 1873, Vasquez and Chavez were headed north once again, to the town of Kingston, on the Kings River in Fresno County. With a dozen or more men working under them, they tied up thirty-five citizens and proceeded to plunder the entire town. By January 1874, California legislature authorized fifteen thousand dollars for Vasquez capture; three thousand dollars of which would be awarded for his head. Every sheriff from San Jose to Bakersfield was now hot on his trail. Meantime, the band scattered to various areas, while both Vasquez and Chavez spent time with family and friends back at Lake Elizabeth and in San Fernando Valley . Occasionally they would continue to hold small-scale robberies and rustle more stock.

Raid at Coyote Holes

The silver bullion trail that led from Los Angeles up to Owens Valley and the mines appeared to be a promising target for Vasquez as February 1874 came to an end. With Chavez at his side, they rode into Coyote Holes near the road that led to Walker Pass , shooting their rifles into the station building to announce their presence. The station-keepers wife, Mrs. Billy Raymond, was startled to find that the infamous Tiburcio Vasquez was standing at her door. Everyone was ordered out of the station and relieved of their weapons and valuables by Vasquez, as Chavez stood guard with a Henry rifle. Vasquez fired off more shots, and several more men appeared from the stage stable. As they were ordered to sit down so they could be searched, one visibly drunk man pulled out his revolver and badly aimed at the bandit. The return shot from Vasquez went through the drunk’s thigh. He was reminded by Vasquez that had he chosen too, Vasquez could have easily killed him. All residents of Coyote Holes, minus the one wounded man, were ordered behind the house tied up and left in the sagebrush, while Vasquez and Chavez hid in the stagehouse to await the next arrivals.

He Needed Gloves

Following a two hour wait, with one bandit keeping a watchful eye on the men in the sagebrush, and the other watching the road from Walker Pass , a Concord was finally seen kicking up dust as it drove in from Havilah. Beside the driver sat the silver bullion king from the mines at Cerro Gordo , Mortimer Belshaw. As the driver approached the bandits, he prepared to make a run for Indian Wells. Vasquez ordered them to halt, and Belshaw advised the driver to follow his orders. As the stage screeched to a stop Vasquez ordered all passengers out. Two travelers climbed out and squatted in the road beside Mortimer Belshaw. Chavez’s rifle muzzle was on them as Vasquez went through their pockets coming up with 5 dollars in coin and ten thousand dollars in mining stock from one man alone. As Vasquez demanded the same man’s new pair of gloves, the man started to give trouble, insisting that in the cold February weather he needed to keep his hands warm. Surprisingly, Vasquez handed the man two dollars from the 5 he had stolen from him in return for the gloves. Meanwhile, the other traveler had managed to hide his watch in his overshoe but was forced to turn over 40 dollars in gold coins, as well as a spyglass. Mortimer Belshaw, himself, handed over a silver watch, a meager 20 dollars in gold coins, and a pair of boots. A much dismayed Vasquez warned him that he had better not be caught traveling the same road again without a thousand dollars on him, or it would be his death. The bandits then began searching the Wells Fargo treasure box, finding only a set of law books.

As the Concord stage passengers were ordered to a spot on the hillside, the jingle bells of two north bound Cerro Gordo freight teams were heard. The mule skinners were robbed of their coins and ordered to join the rest of the group in the sagebrush. Vasquez warned the sixteen victims one last time before mounting his palomino and taking off with Chavez, and eight stolen stage horses. The mining stock they had stolen was scattered to the winds. Four of the stolen horses were released as the robbers bound off behind the rocks overlooking the Coyote Holes Station.

Disappearing in the Dust

As the dust of the bandits horses settled and it appeared safe, Mortimer Belshaw appropriated four tired mules from the freight wagons and hitched them to the Concord so he could head north to Owens Valley .and spread the news of the robbery. Others began searching the desert brush for the scattered mining stock certificates. Station keeper Billy Raymond was discovered tied in the sagebrush where he had been intercepted by the bandits before they got to Coyote Holes Station. The prominent rocks to the south, we now know as Robber’s Roost, hid the remains of Vasquez’s campfire.

Two days later, Vasquez and Chavez stopped the Los Angeles/Havilah stagecoach approximately two miles south of what is now Ravenna Station. Here they tied up the passengers, and rode off with three hundred dollars worth of loot, as they headed into the town of Soledad . In Soledad they stole a wagon and six horses from the livery stable, then ran across another Cerro Gordo freight team and robbed them, as well. They would hide in the Soledad Hills, perhaps visiting with Chico Vasquez, Tiburcio’s brother, who had a home there. This time would also be used to rally an army of 200 banditos, and raise funds for more arms and equipment before they would take off and plunder and terrorize Los Angeles and points further south.



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