Annotation: The seizure of Californios’ land and the vigilante justice directed against Mexican gold prospectors prompted banditry by some Hispanics. Squatters trespassed on the ranchos of the Californio elite, who defended their claims in court. But while their claims were usually upheld, the proceedings stretched on so long - averaging seventeen years - that many legal victories proved worthless. Legal expenses were so high that many Californios were forced to sell their land to repay their debts.
The most widely known California bandits were Tiburcio Vásquez and Joaquín Murieta.
Born in Monterey, California, to a highly respectable family in 1835, Vasquez grew to manhood during the Gold Rush, a time of great social unrest, racial strife, and violent crime. Although his brothers were honest but poor farmers, Vasquez, as he later admitted, ignored the teachings of his parents and became a gambler, a saloonkeeper, and finally, a bandit. As a teenager he fell under the influence of a notorious gunman and robber, Anastacio Garcia. In 1854 in a fandango house brawl, Vasquez and Garcia killed a constable and fled Monterey. This began his twenty year career in outlawry.
He was arrested and imprisoned several times for horse stealing, burglary, and finally, for the murder of three people during a store robbery. After he was turned in by a fellow gang member whose wife had become his lover, Vásquez was hanged in 1875. Many of the poorest Californios and Mexicans sympathized with him and provided him with support. As generations passed, his legend grew, his grave crimes were forgotten, and he became a folk hero.
In this newspaper interview, he describes the events that he claimed led him into banditry.
NOTE: Digital History gratefully acknowledges the assistance of John Boessenecker, whose forthcoming biography of Tiburcio Vásquez, to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press, will be the first book-length study of Vásquez since 1875.
Document: I was born in Monterey county, California at the town of Monterey, August 11, 1835.... I can read and write, having attended school in Monterey. My parents were people in ordinarily good circumstances; owned a small tract of land and always had enough for their wants.
My career grew out of the circumstances by which I was surrounded as I grew to manhood. I was in the habit of attending balls and parties given by the native Californians, into which the Americans, then beginning to become numerous, would force themselves and shove the native-born men aside, monopolizing the dances and the women. This was about 1852.
A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. The officers were continually in pursuit of me. I believed that we were unjustly and wrongfully deprived of the social rights which belonged to us. So perpetually was I involved in these difficulties that I at length determined to leave the thickly settled portion of the country, and did so.
I gathered together a small band of cattle and went into Mendocino county, back of Ukiah and beyond Fallis Valley. Even here I was not permitted to remain in peace. The officers of the law sought me out in that remote region, and strove to drag me before the courts. I always resisted arrest.
I went to my mother and told her I intended to commence a different life. I asked for and obtained her blessing, and at once commenced the career of a robber. My first exploit consisted in robbing some peddlers of money and clothes in Monterey county. My next was the capture and robbery of a stagecoach in the same county. I had confederates with me from the first, and was always recognized as leader. Robbery after robbery followed each other as rapidly as circumstances allowed, until in 1857 or '58 I was arrested in Los Angeles for horse-stealing, convicted of grand larceny, sent to the penitentiary and was taken to San Quentin and remained there until my term of imprisonment expired in 1863.
Up to the time of my conviction and imprisonment I had robbed stagecoaches, houses, wagons, etc., indiscriminately, carrying on my operations for the most part in daylight, sometimes, however, visiting houses after dark.
After my discharge from San Quentin I returned to the house of my parents and endeavored to lead a peaceful and honest life. I was, however, soon accused of being a confederate of Procopio and one Sato, both noted bandits, the latter of whom was afterward killed by Sheriff Harry Morse of Alameda county. I was again forced to become a fugitive from the law-officers, and, driven to desperation, I left home and family and commenced robbing whenever opportunity offered. I made but little money by my exploits, I always managed to avoid arrest. I believe I owe my frequent escapes solely to my courage. I was always ready to fight whenever opportunity offered, but always tried to avoid bloodshed.