July, 2003 Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts


Slice of History

El Bandito, Vasquez, Part 2
by Cecile Page Vargo

The narrow canyons and unusual rock formations near Lake Elizabeth , now called Vasquez Rocks, were like home for Tiburcio Vasquez and his men.  They not only found safety  in its many  nooks and crannies, but  family and friends lived nearby.   Lieutenant Cleovaro Chavez was placed here to  handle operations north of the Antelope Valley .  Horses were stolen from nearby ranches and exchanged for new ones  that Vasquez had  stolen further south, to make it less apt for them to be discovered.

The San Gabriel  Mountains north of Los Angeles also came in handy for the banditos.  Big Tujunga Canyon was the most popular route when they needed to travel north or east.  Three miles above the present Big Tujunga Dam, a narrow gorge with tremendous rock walls and various side canyons  proved to be a good spot to hole up in.  The end of the road also branched off to trails leading to other favorite spots, such as Chilao, Little Rock Creek, or the previous mentioned Vasquez Rocks.   Vasquez was also able to take some time off from his life as a highway bandit, and tried his hand at mining in nearby Mill Creek.  Near the Monte Cristo Mine he was said to have had an arrastra for crushing ore.

East of Big Tujunga, on the southern slope of Mount Lukens , and  north of  the town of Montrose , Vasquez found Dunsmore Canyon .  Here, a mile from the mouth, just where the canyon splits in two branches, a huge oak tree formed a natural screen where he could hide, yet he could easily observe anyone else who might try to come up the trail.   There were passes in all directions except the north. All of Los Angeles County south of the San Gabriel Mountains , was easily reachable from here.   Behind the camp and over the ridge was the Dark Canyon-Vasquez trail that allowed him to get to the Arroyo Seco and Big Tujunga and on to more trails.

Long before Newcombs Ranch became a favorite stopping spot for a  bite to eat for modern travelers going up Angeles Crest, East Chilao  provided a remote  refuge for Vasquez.  West Chilao and Horse Flat, with a long narrow valley, and a secret trail, provided grazing grounds for stolen San Fernando & San Gabriel Valley horses.  Mount Hillyer , overlooking Horse Flat, provided a rock fortress from any lawmen that might wander up after the bandits.  Horses were often stolen from the United States government in Yuma , Arizona , taken up to Chilao where they were re-branded then sold down in San Fernando Valley . One time, a  pair of  extra large mules were stolen and brought to camp, also,  but were too easily recognizable because of their size, and wound up being shot instead, so there would be no chance of the thieves being discovered.  Before horses were taken to the Valley to be sold, Vasquez and his men picked the best for their own private use.

On April 18, 1874 Vasquez headed into the hills near El Monte .  Vasquez, Chavez, and three new recruits,  came to Alessandro Repetto’s Ranch, posing as sheep shearers.  Once they were invited in the house, they pulled out their guns and began demanding money.  Repetto was only able to produce eighty dollars in coins, but Vasquez new better.  Repetto was forced to show his books which proved his real worth which was safe in a bank in Los Angeles .  If Repetto did not write a check for eight hundred dollars, Vasquez promised to tie him to an olive tree on the ranch and hang him.

Repetto apparently did not believe the threat, and objected to writing the check.  Only after he was tied to the trunk of the olive tree and pinned down with a pistol at each of his ears, did he finally agree to write the check, which was then handed to his  nephew who was forced to ride 6 miles into Los Angeles to cash the check.  At the Temple bank in Los Angeles , Repetto’s nephew was observed by the president of the bank who knew his uncle Alessandro.  After an inquiry about his uncle, he began to cry and revealed the whole story.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Billy Rowland, who had missed capturing Vasquez and Chavez in previous chases into the mountains, was alerted of what was going on in Repetto’s Ranch in El Monte .  As the Repetto nephew was given money so he wouldn’t come back to Vasquez empty handed, Rowland  rounded up a posse and headed up to the ranch himself.  The posse was discovered on their way up  by one of Vasquez men, and the banditos mounted their horses and hurried away.  Before heading up Dark Canyon from the Arroyo Seco they  stopped in the Pasadena Colony Lands and held up Charles E. Miles of the Los Angeles Water Company.  After talking him out of his $250 watch, Charles companions thought it best to contribute to Vasquez as well.  The famed gang then proceeded to overtake a Pasadena settler and relieve him of $15.00, before heading on into the mountains just as darkness fell.  Vasquez camped in a grassy area just below the crest of the divide. Seven hundred feet below him, at the end of the road to Dark Canyon , Billy Rowland and his posse camped as well. 

As the sun rose the following morning, both groups of men took off once again.  Vasquez and men headed towards the bend of Big Tujunga and wound up at Grizzly Flat.  Amongst the thick chaparral, Vasquez’s horse  fell in a gully and broke its leg.  Vasquez himself, leapt off the animal as it fell, recovering without injury.  He shot the horse, and continued on foot, taking the saddle and his two guns with him as he went.  Eventually, the saddle, and  one of the pistols were abandoned or accidentally lost.  Vasquez hitched a ride with another gang member  and they rode well out of reach of  Sheriff Rowland and his posse once more time.  A pistol with the initials T. V.  carved on the barrel  was  recovered 9 years later by 16 year old Phil Begue of La Crescenta.  It was eventually sold by Begue’s son to historian Will Thrall.  The saddle wound up in the Los Angeles County Museum many, many, years later.

Newspapers of Los Angeles spat out headlines in outrage.  The editor of the Los Angeles Express demanded Vasquez and gang be exterminated no matter what the cost.  Travelers left town in groups, armed with weapons in case they would become the bandits next victims.  Many were afraid  Vasquez would ride in to  the city of Los Angeles and create havoc there as he had the areas to the north of them.  Storekeepers and citizens were warned to be armed and ready at all times.

May 8, 1874 , the price on Tiburcio Vasquez was eight thousand dollars if he was caught alive, six thousand if he was  brought in dead.  An unnamed betrayer alerted Rowland to the bandit’s current hide out hoping to get  a share of the reward money for the information.   By 1:30 am May 14,  Undersheriff Albert Johnston and eight other men formed a posse and left a corral at Spring and Seventh streets in Los Angeles .  Billy Rowland was purposely left behind as his absence in town to join a posse  would alert spies to send word ahead to Vasquez of what was going on. 

Two miles past Cahuenga Pass , on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd & King’s Canyon, Vasquez was staying at the house of “Greek George” Allen, who had come to Los Angeles in 1858 as a camel driver during the construction of the Butterfield Stage Road.  Greek George’s home had been a refuge for the Vasquez gang for over a month. By mid day on May 14, Tiburcio sat in the kitchen of Greek George’s eating lunch.  His palomino horse was tied to trees near the northwest corner of the cabin.  The Greek himself had gone to Los Angeles for news of what Sheriff Rowland was doing.  His wife and baby and one other member of Vasquez band of men were in his home.  A little after one o’clock Vasquez heard a wagon drive up but was not alarmed as it was driven by native Californians.  

A hundred yards away 6 armed men suddenly charged the house.  Greek George’s wife saw them, and screamed as she hurried to shut the kitchen door.   Los Angeles City detective Emil Harris was able to wedge the door open with his Henry rifle and get inside.  Vasquez jumped from his spot at the table, and headed out the window.  Officer Frank Hartley aimed at him, and fired his shotgun.  The charge struck Vasquez and he dropped to the ground for a moment, to get back up again and head for his horse.  George A. Beers, a correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle, who was part of the posse, came around the corner of the building and fired at Vasquez point blank, hitting Vasquez in the shoulder. 

As Vasquez now found himself staring into the muzzle of Officer Hartley’s gun, he threw up his hands and  let them know they had got him, and asked not to be shot at again.  As blood ran from wounds in his arms and legs, the posse closed in on him, and Vasquez claimed he was Alejandro Martinez.  Undersheriff Johnston told him that he had his photograph for years and knew exactly who he was, so the ruse was up at last.  Meantime, the posse that remained inside the house captured Vasquez’s companion.

The posse with Vasquez attended to his wounds. He rose to the occasion of his capture and complimented them on a job well done.  Someone apologized for wounding him, and Vasquez told them he had been a damned fool for attempting to escape.  After being assured by the Chronicle reporter that his wounds were not serious, Tiburcio winked and said   “You dress my wounds and nurse me careful.  You  boys get eight thousand dollars!  If you let me die, you only get six.  You get two thousand dollars for being kind.”

Back in Los Angeles with Vasquez as their prisoner, a large crowd waited outside the City Courthouse.  Sheriff Rowland appeared at the jail with a bottle of whiskey for Vasquez, which was cheerfully accepted, and the bandit made a toast to the president of the United States .  Later Charlie Miles came to visit his cell and Vasquez handed him the $250.00 watch he had stolen and apologized for robbing such a “genial a gentleman”.  Allesandro Repetto even appeared at the jail cell one day, and told Vasquez that “the little account could be settled with God.”  As Vasquez thanked Repetto and started to mention repayment, the rancher interrupted him and told him that was unnecessary, only requesting the bandit not make a repeat visit to his home.  Vasquez in turn offered to reimburse him at the earliest opportunity if he was lucky enough to serve a short term of imprisonment.

Vasquez was becoming a celebrity.  The Merced Theater put together a burlesque production called “The Life of Vasquez”.  The actor who played his part was granted  many interviews with Tiburcio in jail, and was  even allowed to borrow his clothes for the show.    His cell became a major tourist attraction for thousands of people.    Women would profess their love for the famous bandito, bringing flowers and money for his defense.  He would pose for photographs and sign autographs. 

Tiburcio Vasquez was taken from his cell in Los Angeles on May 23, 1874 and taken to Monterey County to stand trial for the murders he had committed at Tres Pinos years before.  He was tried and convicted, and hung on March 19, 1875 in San Jose .  As rumors spread that the Mexican government was sending troops to his rescue,  admirers gathered to watch the bandits life come to an end.  As the hangman put the rope around his neck, he replied “Pronto”.  The trap door dropped under his feet and his neck was broken.  An observer wrote that “he died a man and a Californian”.

Following his execution, Vasquez body lay in state at the Santa Clara home of his cousin Mrs. Guadalupe Bee.  Hundreds of men and women came to pay their last respects.  After he was buried, his sister Maria was afraid grave robbers would cut off his head and exhibit it as Joaquin Murietta’s had been.  Day and night for a week, Maria guarded the grave.  Public officials came and opened the grave to reassure her that her brother's body was safe.  To this day Tiburcio Vasquez rests peacefully in the Catholic Cemetery at Santa Clara , California .       


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