History Friday – The Notorious Bandit Vasquez

He was of an old-and well-respected Hispanic Californio family, was Tiberico Vasquez; born in Monterey, the capital of what little government burdened the far-flung Spanish and then Mexican province which is today the state of California. (And such a state is in, these days, too – but I digress.) He was born sometime between 1835 and 1840; his family home in Monterey is now part of the local historical district. He was handsome, well-dressed and well-educated. He could read and write, had charming manners, and a touchingly gallant way with the ladies … which eventually spelled his doom, if the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush had not already end the idyllic isolation in paradise for the old Californio families. They had lived lives of casual comfort, such as it was, a life based on cattle ranching and a profitable trade in hides, of bountiful hospitality among the great land-owning families and their friends, rounds of celebrations, of grand balls and fandangos, and genteel amusements such as bear-and-bull fights, and flirtations in the shade of the olive and citrus orchards planted here and there.

No more of that; by the time Tiberico Vasquez was in his teens, everything had changed; the old aristos were no longer in charge. And he might have withdrawn, in the manner of old aristocrats everywhere, to the comfort of those still-intact communities and those properties still held, ignoring the vulgar and thrusting foreigners who had taken over … but for a public dance in a saloon/theater/dance hall in Monterey which ended in a near-riot and the death of an American lawman. Perhaps the young Tiberico was only involved in being present at the ruckus, but he fled the scene in company with another man, Anastasio Garcia, who had already notorious locally as a thug and bandit. Garcia proved to be an apt mentor; soon Tiberico Vasquez established his own reputation, mostly as a horse-thief. He was caught and convicted a couple of times, served a few stretches in the state pen, and half-heartedly attempted to go straight, but never quite made it. He claimed to be a dedicated Mexican patriot – but in fact, was ecumenical in his robberies, being at least as likely to take from the Californios as well as the Anglos. His gang’s usual MO involved tying up the victims after taking whatever money and items of value they had on their person, and ransacking the immediate premises for anything else of value.

But in 1873, Tiberico Vasquez succeeded in making his usual haunts in Northern California too hot to hold. The robbery of a general store in Tres Pinos, a little hamlet near present-day Hollister resulted in the murders of three Anglo bystanders; all of them unarmed and gunned down by the Vasquez gang. The resulting reward offered by the state was substantial. Vasquez, two of his most trusted gang members, Clovido Chavez and Abdon Lieva, Lieva’s attractive young wife, and a number of stolen horses fled for relative safety in Southern California. They hid out for a while in a canyon somewhere in the San Gabriel Mountains … and all would have been well, save for Vasquez’ having an affair with Abdon Lieva’s wife. Furious, Lieva swore that he would revenge himself for having been made a cuckold; he left the camp, surrendered to the law and sang like a demented canary, spilling everything he knew – including the location of the hideout. Vasquez and Clovido Chavez escaped by the skin of their teeth, and established a new hideout, farther back in the rugged and brush-covered San Gabriels. Recruiting a new gang, Vazquez set up shop again; robbing stages, stage stations and the occasional local rancher/farmer known to have large amounts of cash on hand. One of their regular hideouts was in the Chilao-Horse Flats area, another in a rock-strewn stretch of badland near Soledad Canon, which is still known as Vasquez Rocks. Very likely you will have seen that particular tract – a very distinct set of angled layers of rock – on television and in movies, as it was and still is used frequently for location shoots.

By the next year, the reward offered for Tibercio Vasquez had risen to $8,000 captured alive and $6,000 dead. The sheriff of Alameda County was authorized to recruit a posse and put forth every effort to capture Vasquez. In this, Sherriff Harry Morse had the cooperation of his fellow county sheriff, William Rowland. If Tibercio Vasquez knew of this development, he did not care, for he and his crew emerged from the hills and began a new round of depredations. After all, he had spent two decades evading the law and tweaking the noses of Anglo authority. He had every reason to assume that his luck would hold out indefinitely, although cooler heads had tried to convince him to take refuge in Mexico. But the robbery and capture of a local sheep rancher set off another close pursuit. Vasquez fled into an area of step canyons and near-impassible brush, now the Angeles National Forest. He narrowly escaped, but lost his horses’ saddle and one of his pistols – found decades later by a boy hiking a wilderness trail.

But during the following weeks and months – no one knows who – told them exactly where Vazquez and his gang were hiding. They were sheltering at a small ranch in what is now North Hollywood, owned by Yorgios “Greek George” Caralambo. Decades earlier, Greek George was one of the camel-drovers hired in the Middle East for the US Army’s experimental Camel Corps. When the experiment didn’t work out, Greek George settled in California, married a local girl and started his ranch. It had prospered; the original flat-roofed adobe house had been enlarged by frame additions. Perhaps it was Greek George who informed the authorities when he discovered to his horror that his hospitality was being taken advantage of, as he was an otherwise respectable and law-abiding citizen. One of Vasquez’s present or former gang members may have talked, for a reward or as a plea-bargain with the law. It was even speculated that his own relatives might have informed on him; for having made romantic overtures to his own niece, having moved on from the former Mrs. Abdon.

A young deputy sheriff disguised himself as a drifter looking for work, and after days of hanging around Greek George’s place saw and recognized Vasquez. Hurriedly – and under cover of darkness, a carefully selected posse of six Los Angeles lawmen assembled and departed in secret. But they did take a newspaper reporter along with them. Sheriff Rowland was not in the group; being well-known in town, and known to be one of those in pursuit of Vasquez, he feared that his absence from his usual rounds would be noted – and Vasquez warned. But how to approach the ranch without letting Tiberico Vasquez that the jig was up? The posse had a bit of luck around sunrise when they intercepted two local men, on a regular trip into the nearby foothills to cut firewood – the woodcutters would pass by Greek George’s place. The reporter and the law officers hid in the back of the empty wagon. Vasquez had noticed the wagon, as he and one of his men were about to sit down to breakfast in the ranch’s kitchen, but he recognized the woodcutters, and paid them no more mind.

Four of the posse arranged themselves under cover, cutting off all escape routes, while two of them crashed through the front door, weapons in hand. Vasquez leaped out the nearest window – and straight into range of a lawman with shotgun, coming around the corner of the house. Wounded in a blast of buckshot, Vasquez surrendered. Property stolen in recent robberies was found in the house, along with a veritable armory of weapons. Taken to San Jose to stand trial for the killings at Tres Pinos committed by his gang, Vasquez insisted that he himself had never killed a man, he was only defending the rights of his people, and that he was an honorable man. The jury didn’t buy it, and despite appeals for clemency, and having acquired then (and ever since) a degree of dark celebrity, he went to the gallows in March, 1875.
Earlier this year, he had an elementary school named after him; needless to say, it was a controversial decision.

(Crossposted at www.ncobrief and at www.celiahayes.com)

9 thoughts on “History Friday – The Notorious Bandit Vasquez”

  1. I used to go hiking in Vasquez Rocks.

    Richard Henry Dana, on his voyage around the Horn to California, help throw bundles of hides from San Juan Capistrano mission off a cliff to shipmates below who would then ferry them out to the Pilgrim anchored offshore. The area is now Dana Point. The hide ships were notorious as smelly and of low repute with other seamen. Joshua Slocum, with a wicked sense of humor, encountered one of these ships on his voyage around the world. He hailed the ship in the Atlantic on his way and inquired about their trip. They told him they were from California and had a cargo of “furs,” a less disreputable cargo. He replied, “And here and there a horn ?”

    Dana wrote another book, about his return to California, called “24 years after.” San Francisco was now a busy city and Los Angeles, while still a pueblo, had a dry goods merchant names Harry Vroman. Vroman’s bookstore is still in business in Pasadena.

  2. To put this bandito into a broader historical and social perspective, look at “The Decline of the Californios.”


    Vasquez was by no means an isolated case of Californios gone bad. On the other hands, many integrated quite well and one served as state governor for a short period. However, on the whole, they were ill-prepared intellectually or socially to compete with the rush of Yankees coming into the state following the Mexican War.

  3. Well, Whitehall – looking at how many Yankees/Anglos/Americans and other nationalities poured into California in the Gold Rush and the years afterwards … no one people could have coped with the sudden rush, no matter how well prepared. Suddenly every verity and assurance was overturned…

    As it turned out – according to family lore (and it’s only lore and a half-remembered tale), one of my great-uncles married into one of the old Californio families. My grandmother Dodie’s brother; and I didn’t realize it myself until just a few years ago, when I reassessed my memories of Great Aunt Nita and Great Aunt Rose, in light of having lived in Texas for so long. They were Hispanic very much in looks and a little in mannerisms and speech, although they never spoke Spanish in front of us. They were very assimilated, and possibly didn’t even speak it very much themselves. I wish I knew what their family name was – but everyone who would likely know that is gone, now.

    California was just one of those places in the West which changed so joltingly over twenty years – that the people who remembered the ‘before’ could hardly credit the ‘after.’

  4. According to the article on the school they wanted to name it after him for “fighting against injustice” – by stealing horses and robbery I suppose.

    BTW a fellow in my car club, from an old California family (his great-something grandmother lived in Michigan Bar when a Leland Stanford was a store keeper) – said something interesting – that the old Californio families – many were against Mexican rule in California – don’t know the truth of this

  5. California was settled by the Spanish (duh!) with missions, presidos, and pueblos. The missions had been some of the first and held huge land grants from the king and had captured the bulk of the native population as the main labor force. By the early 1800s, Spain’s hand was weakening all through the Americas and in Mexico City, a revolt made Mexico (including Alta California) independent of Spain.

    One of the early moves of the new government was to strip the lands and laborers of the missions and transfer them to those who would support the new government, ensuring their loyalty. The Indians on the missions became wage earners for their new patrones.

    Not everyone got an adequate slice of the pie. Fighting occurred in the new province of Alta California between rival factions, some were loyal to the king, some were “progressives” wanting a democratic government, and some were happy to see their land-owning aristocracy strengthened. The latter group got control although the progressive groups were mollified and retained some role in governance and society – I think Mariano Vallejo was in the latter group. The fighting wasn’t terribly destructive or bitter but it did happen.

    So some factions within Californio society remained following the Mexican War and annexation.

  6. Thanks, Whitehall – I touched a bit on the backbiting between factions in Alta California in the 1840s, with the Micheltorena War, as my characters in To Truckee’s Trail got caught up in it. Basically, governor sent from Mexico City did not play well with the established landowners, and wound up getting thrown out of California on his ear.
    The Californios were so very far out on the far edge of things, that they had been pretty much accustomed to doing as they liked, whether the authorities in Mexico City or in Spain liked it or not.

  7. California was once part of a Mexico that was merely a geographical expression, with many diverse ethnicities, clans, tribes to which each person owed their allegiance, their affections and their sense of belonging. Tiberico Vazquez was criollo, son of spaniards landowners who came to settle the land. Because the spanish crown (their country suffering dutch disease) had banned imports of wine and many other products from their american colonies, highly dependent on the motherland and lacking innovation, many criollos lost their income source, their Haciendas collapsed and the long wars of independence in Mexico and Central America only worsen their economic disaster. The spanish crown ousted, no new institutional forces emerged to maintain order, Texas revolved, Yucatan and many other provinces. There were many many Tiberico´s in our history, altough most of them ended like Tiberico, some of them went to become the Pancho Villa´s and Emiliano Zapata´s of our revolution, but by then México was not a geography anymore, but an ideal, a nation, and had created more institutional forces (Obregón, Madero, Carranza´s constitutionalists) and were capable of opposing these caudillos, and their final fate was violent too.

    But the culture of the strong man still hounds Mexico, in communities, in social leaderships, in crime and in politics the same.

  8. Thanks, JoseAngel – with the input about the ‘strong man’. Sigh – alas, that is what happened in Mexico far to many times. A caudillo like Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was like the bad boyfriend, that Mexico just went going back to, over and over, against every sober advice.

  9. The “Man on a White Horse” meme doesn’t just haunt Mexican politics, but that of damn near every Hispanic culture worldwide. Just look at the checkered history of the Hispanic nations, including Spain and Portugal. It’s a cultural meme that has been around since the reconquista days and is very hard to get rid of.

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