One of the things that I love most about the Santa Clarita Valley is its double-layered Old West heritage – double-layered because it was not only the place where the events most associated with the Old West took place, but where those same happenings were later portrayed to the rest of the world in thousands of westerns shot since the beginning of cinema.
One of the sites in the valley seen in hundreds of westerns and science fiction films over the years is Vasquez Rocks, named after the outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez, who was said to have used its other-worldly landscape as a hideout.
The first part of the story of Vasquez, who met his end at the bottom of a hangman’s rope during this week in 1875, is today told by the President of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, Dr. Alan Pollack.
While he never gained the same level of fame during the 1870s as bad guys Jesse James and Billy the Kid, California had its own legendary outlaw during the same era in Tiburcio Vasquez.
Vasquez was born in 1835 and grew up during California’s romantic Spanish Rancho period, and like most Mexican Californios, felt that his culture was being increasingly marginalized by the rapid influx of Americans from the East during and after the California Gold Rush.
Vasquez began his life of crime after being accused of stabbing and murdering Monterey County Constable William Hardmount during a fandango in 1854. In the early days of his career he stole cattle and horses, and robbed freight wagons and stagecoaches before spending most of the 1860’s in and out of San Quentin prison, from which he was finally released in 1870.
Vasquez was just getting started.
In August, 1873, Vasquez led a gang of eight men into Tres Pinos, (modern day Paicines, south of Hollister, California) taking over the town and killing three men in the process. After Tres Pinos, Vasquez became a most-wanted outlaw with a posse chasing him all over the state.
Vasquez had a fatal flaw which eventually ended his career … he was a womanizer.
After Tres Pinos, he had fled to a ranch at Lake Elizabeth near the Antelope Valley. There he had a tryst with the wife of Abdon Leiva, one of his own gang members. After Leiva caught the illicit couple together, he angrily quit the gang and turned himself in to William Jenkins, who brought him down to Lyon’s Station in Newhall and turned him over to Los Angeles officers. Leiva would eventually testify against Vasquez at his murder trial in San Jose.
Vasquez committed another infamous robbery, sacking the town of Kingston in Fresno County in December, 1873. The following month, California Governor Newton Booth offered an award for the capture of Vasquez to the tune of $2000 dead, or $3000 alive (the amounts were subsequently increased to $6000 and $8000).
During the next few months, Vasquez would elude capture as he was chased by Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland and Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse. He robbed a stagecoach at the Coyote Holes stage station on the road between the Cerro Gordo silver mines in the Owens Valley and Los Angeles. He then headed south, eventually ending up in Soledad Canyon where he hid out in a strange geologic formation that today bears his name – Vasquez Rocks.
Tomorrow, Alan will complete the story of Tiburcio Vasquez’s criminal career.