Tiburcio Vasquez was a bandit who was active throughout California during the 1850s, '60s, and '70s. Vasquez was born in 1835 in Monterey, California, in what was at the time, Mexico. He became famous for committing numerous burglaries, cattle thefts and highway robberies. He participated in several prison breaks. He was also implicated in several murders, though he denied ever killing anyone.
But Vasquez was no ordinary outlaw. He was a gentleman bandit; personable, charming, handsome, well-dressed, and educated. He was fluent in both Spanish and English. He was a ladies man who loved to demonstrate his chivalry. Unfortunately, his appetite for sleeping with multiple women, some of whom were his friends' wives, made him some enemies.
It was well known that Vasquez was not a killer, that he repeatedly warned his followers not to kill, and his reluctance to take life, even when his own was in grave danger, was without doubt responsible for the surprising few killings during his 23 years as an outlaw. The constant report from those who knew him best was: "Oh, Vasquez was not so bad"; "There were many in those times who were far worse than he"; "Vasquez was a likable fellow and always a gentleman."
Vasquez acknowledged much of his criminal activity, but claimed that his acts were justified because of the injustices perpetrated against the Californios (native born, Spanish speaking Californians of Mexican descent) in connection with the American takeover of California. During the mid-nineteenth century, Americans, who had been flowing into the state in growing numbers, were seen as unwanted invaders by the native Californio population. Americans, on the other hand, believed that the conquest of California was part of their manifest destiny. And in 1847 Americans took over California by force under questionable authority. Under American control, many Californios lost portions of their land through legal and illegal means. As Americans seized the state's political affairs, Californios also lost their political influence. Along with the loss of political and economic power, many Californios felt they were mistreated and discriminated against by the newly arrived Americans. In the midst of this hostile climate, Vasquez portrayed himself as a defender of the Californio.
He started his life of crime quite young. At the age of 15 he lived in the town of Sonora California, in the heart of gold country. Vasquez, a natural born leader; was also bold and arrogant. He had a beautiful sister and one night at a dance with him she resented the remarks of an American at the party. Vasquez, claiming that she had been insulted, demanded an apology and in the ensuing brawl stabbed the American.
Fearing the wrath and retaliation of the Americans, Vasquez and some of his young Mexican followers fled the town. Soon after this, a robbery and murder at a mining camp nearby was blamed on him and as he was no longer seen around Sonora it was said that he had joined the band of Joaquin Murrietta, then at the height of his career. Over the years Vasquez rolled with heavyweight and fearless California bandidos such as Anastacio Garcia and Procopio Bustamante among others.
Nov. 17, 1852, we hear of Vasquez at a dance hall in Monterey where he was the life of the party. When a Deputy Sheriff tried to put him out for making too much disturbance, a shot was fired and the officer was killed. Vasquez was accused, though it was later determined that another man at the party probably fired the shot. He was now a hunted man with a price on his head.
By 1856, Vasquez was stealing horses. A sheriff's posse caught up with him near Newhall, and he spent the next five years behind bars in San Quentin prison. There he helped organize, and participated in, four bloody prison riots which left twenty convicts dead. After his release, he committed numerous burglaries, cattle thefts, and highway robberies in Sonoma County in 1866. He was captured after a store burglary in Petaluma and sent to prison again for three years. His "trademark" was binding his victims' hands behind their back and leaving them face down in the dirt.
In 1870, after numerous bandit raids, he was shot and badly wounded in a gunfight with Santa Cruz police. In 1873, he gained statewide, and then nationwide, notoriety. Vasquez and his gang stole $2,200 from Snyder's Store in Tres Pinos, now called Paicines in San Benito County. Three were killed, but not by Tiburcio. Posses began searching for him, and Governor Newton Booth placed a $1,000 reward on his head. Sheriff John H. Adams from San Jose pursued the band to Southern California; Vasquez escaped after a gunfight. Vasquez hid for a while in Southern California, where he was less well known.
Vasquez returned to the San Joaquin Valley. On November 10, 1873, he and his gang robbed the Jones store at Millerton in Fresno County. On December 26, 1873, he and his band sacked the town of Kingston in Fresno County, robbing all the businesses and taking 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 the law down on Vasquez. Posses were formed in Santa Clara, Monterey, San Joaquin, Fresno, and Tulare counties. In January 1874, Booth 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.
After stealing silver, horses, and sticking up stage coaches in Bakersfield and Soledad Canyon, Tiburcio and his crew hid out in what was later named after him, Vasquez Rocks, in between Santa Clarita and Palmdale. These rock formations proved a great hideout for him and his gang. Shallow caves, deep crevices, and numerous overhangs created a maze for any posse to thread. The tallest rock, 150 feet high, provided an excellent lookout point.
By the spring of 1874, Vásquez had hatched a grand scheme to raid Los Angeles and rob one of the city’s two banks. He holed up at the adobe house of “Greek George” Caralambo, in what is now West Hollywood. But before he could put the plan into effect, Greek George informed lawmen the bandit was at his adobe, romancing his sister-in-law, Modesta Lopez. Greek George was motivated in part by a huge reward: $6,000 dead or $8,000 alive.
Once again Tiburcio’s romantic urges would be his downfall. On the morning of May 14, 1874, a posse of highly capable lawmen from Los Angeles surrounded Greek George’s adobe. Vásquez jumped through a window but was brought down by a shotgun blast. First jailed in Los Angeles, he was taken to San Francisco by steamer, then by train to Salinas, and finally to trial in San Jose. Thousands of gawkers came to visit him in the jails. Men made him gifts of wine and cigars, while starstruck women, both Anglo and Hispanic, decorated his cells with flowers. When he was brought to trial for one of the Tres Pinos murders, the main witness against him was his gang member, Abdon Leiva whose wife Vasquez had seduced. Convicted and sentenced to death, Vásquez was hanged on March 19, 1875, by his nemesis, Sheriff Adams, before a huge crowd of Anglos in San Jose.
In an era when most Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deprived of basic civil liberties and able to obtain only the most menial labor, rightly or wrongly, Tiburcio Vásquez came to symbolize their struggle for social justice. Today his name is recalled in the Tiburcio Vásquez Health Center in Alameda County and Vásquez Rocks Natural Area in Los Angeles County. There is even a high school north of Los Angeles named after him. Tiburcio Vasquez Elementary in Salinas recently had its name changed after public outcry. And to this day, in the cemetery at Mission Santa Clara de Asís, admirers place fresh flowers on bandido Tiburcio Vásquez’s grave.
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