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The Rampage of the Espinosas, second of two parts

Article by Charles F. Price

History – November 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

ON APRIL 29, 1863, the bodies of five of the six men murdered by the Espinosas in South Park were buried in a little cemetery atop a windblown hill behind the town of Fairplay — where they still rest today. A few days later on May 3, a group of vigilantes, under the command of miner John McCannon, gathered there to pay respects to the slain before setting out to avenge them.

McCannon, a charismatic figure, had brought 16 men across Weston Pass from California Gulch, the home of victims Lehman and Seyga. Five South Park men, including Charles Carter, brother of the latest man killed, had joined him. Theirs was one of many bands of armed civilians and patrolling militia anxiously scouring South Park for the assassins.

Tom Tobin, from a photograph.
Tom Tobin, from a photograph.

As they bowed their heads over the graves, a messenger brought word of “suspicious characters” who had been spied earlier at Snyder’s ranch near the crossroads between Tarryall and Jefferson. The posse struck out at once, reaching Snyder’s by nightfall.

Mrs. Snyder refused to admit them. But someone inside opened fire, killing a citizen’s horse. Possemen surrounded the place and waited for sunup, then broke in, seizing Snyder and another man, Baxter.

A correspondent for the Weekly Commonwealth gleefully reported, the posse “examined them both by a little choking process with a rope to elicit any confession of crime they felt disposed to make under the pressing circumstances.” Snyder somehow convinced the mob of his innocence, and they released him — in what condition is unknown. According to “Dornick,” the correspondent, incriminating evidence was discovered on Baxter and he was “found to be” a member of an outlaw gang; thus “the citizens delivered him over to the soldiers,” who, on May 4, hanged him. “The habeus corpus was suspended,” Dornick jeered.

But Pvt. Ostrander’s diary told it differently: The posse indeed surrendered Baxter to the militia, but later “we met some of the citizens” who demanded Baxter be given back. The militia acquiesced. The mob “took him out in the timber and hung him to a tree. O’ it was a horrible sight to see the fellow hung and he all the time protesting his innocence even to the last breath.”

A similar militia concession to extralegal means would finally lead to the death of one of the Espinosas. The Weekly Commonwealth reported that soldiers, under Lt. Wilson, “were on the trail (of the killers) within a few miles of Cañon City when the party from California Gulch intersected them” — on about May 7 — “and being nearly worn out, they gave up the chase to the citizens…who< were likely to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit.”

At daybreak on May 8 the possemen crept up on Grape Spring, the Espinosas’ refuge since the killings of Bruce and Harkens. A man emerged from the willows to check on a pair of hobbled horses. This was Viviàn, the younger of the Espinosas, though the possemen could not know this. They saw a Mexican, and that was enough.

WITHOUT WARNING, they cut loose. Viviàn fell badly wounded but managed to return fire twice before Carter put a rifle bullet in his head. Felipe ran to the top of a nearby butte and tried to fight back but was driven off by a fusillade of gunfire. He escaped with only a rifle, a pistol, and the clothes he wore.

Possemen decapitated Viviàn, buried the rest of him, gathered up the plunder they found in the camp, and made a jubilant entrance into Cañon City where they exhibited their trophies. Dornick described the scene: “There is nearly a cart load of traps which they had taken from those they killed … even to the old pocket hair combs and the spectacles of old Mr. (Harkens) … and clothing from nearly every one of the others known to be killed….”

Dornick examined Viviàn’s head, finding it “the most fiendish human in expression of countenance and shape of head that was ever seen.” Also displayed were Viviàn’s writings: the brothers’ pledge “to kill Americans while they live;” their boast of having “killed many in South Park;” and a promise to “go down to the Plains to kill more.”

While South Park celebrated its delivery from terror and McCannon’s “citizens” went home to a heroes’ welcome at California Gulch, Felipe Espinosa made his way back to the Conejos where, on May 30, he murdered another Anglo, William Smith. He may have killed another man too, named Leon Constantine, at Huerfano Butte. Clearly the Espinosa reign of terror was not over.

At one point that summer Felipe returned to Grape Spring, exhumed his brother’s body, and cut off Viviàn’s mummified feet for keepsakes. Back in San Rafael, he coaxed his 16-year-old nephew, José Vincente, to take Viviàn’s place as his accomplice in exterminating Anglos. For a time the pair lurked in a ravine near La Veta Pass, taking pot-shots at travelers, but without killing anyone.

THEY EVEN CONSIDERED assassinating Colorado Governor John Evans; or perhaps President Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay; New Mexico Superintendent of Indian Affairs Michael Steck; or Lafayette Head, Ute Indian agent and patriarch of the Conejos Grant, when those worthies assembled at the Conejos Agency in early October to make a treaty with the Eastern Utes. But the group’s military escort under the new Fort Garland commander, Lt. Col. Samuel F. Tappan, discouraged that bold, if not insane, scheme.

Their next crime was far less grand. It was, in fact, sordid enough to call into question the notion of the Espinosas’ divinely-inspired crusade. More importantly, it might even suggest that Felipe’s belief in heavenly guidance had died with Viviàn, his fellow zealot. That act was the rape, on October 10, of a Hispanic woman, Delores Sànchez, traveling from Trinidad toward Costilla in a buggy with a man named Philbrook. A few miles from Fort Garland, Felipe and José tried and failed to waylay Philbrook, who escaped. The woman, berated by Felipe as “the prostitute of the American,” was detained and abused.

She survived and was struggling toward Garland when soldiers found her. At the fort, Col. Tappan listened to her story, then sent for Tom Tobin, who lived nearby at his ranch on Trinchera Creek. Tobin interviewed the woman, who was an acquaintance. She said she had heard her attackers say they were the Espinosas.

Tobin was a man in the mythic mold of his friend Kit Carson, a frontier type even then passing from the scene. Mountain man, trapper, plainsman, Indian scout, Tobin, like Carson, was a living legend. Tobin’s tracking skills were said to be so keen that he could trail a grasshopper through sagebrush. He even looked the part, wearing fringed buckskin and a feathered bear-fur cap, carrying a .54-caliber Hawken rifle and a Navy Colt revolver in a holster made from the rump and tail of a buffalo. Hanging from Tobin’s neck was a leather disc edged with pips to which were attached percussion caps for the Hawken, allowing him to load, cap and fire the single-shot rifle in seconds. And he was a dead shot.

Tappan asked Tobin to bring in the Espinosas. Ironies abounded. Tobin’s mother was a mulatto, and his wife, who was Hispanic, may have been Felipe’s aunt. In order to marry, Tobin had joined the Church of Rome. This man of mixed blood and Catholic faith would now seek to capture or kill Felipe, a mass murderer bent on seeking vengeance against those he maintained had trespassed upon his ethnic and religious heritage. Nor was this all — Tobin and Felipe may have known each other, as well as perhaps being uncle and nephew by marriage.

Tobin wished to track the Espinosas alone, but Tappan insisted he take an army escort. Reluctantly he agreed; soon he would repent. Tobin left Garland after midnight on October 12 with Lt. H.W. Baldwin, 15 troopers, a civilian named Loring Jenks and a Mexican boy, Juan Montoya, who would tend his horse.

“I found the assassins first day out,” Tobin later said. This was on the rim of Sangre de Cristo Canyon. “Me and four soldiers chased them … but they got away from us.” Later the Montoya boy again spotted the Espinosas “but could not make Lt. Baldwin understand…. They were then just going out of sight over the ridge….” Next day, the 13th, the party came across pony tracks that Tobin knew were made by Utes. Nevertheless, he lamented, “the soldiers scattered in all directions,” thinking the sign was left by the Espinosas. Jenks and all but six troopers and Lt. Baldwin got lost and never rejoined the party.

The smaller group camped the night of the 14th on Mount Mestas at the eastern end of La Veta Pass, and the next morning Tobin led them off the spine of the Sangres, down along Pass Creek. Presently he found the tracks of two oxen and a man and boy; he followed them until he found one ox wandering and surmised the Espinosas had butchered the other. Magpies and crows circling over trees in the distance confirmed the guess; so did footprints leading in that direction.

But heavy brush and fallen timber obstructed the trail, making it impassible for horses. Lt. Baldwin and a soldier waited with the mounts while Tobin, five troopers and young Montoya painstakingly made their way through the woods and fallen trees toward Felipe’s camp.

“I took a step or two…and saw the head of one of the assassins,” Tobin said. It was Felipe, resting with his back against a log. A dry stick snapped when Tobin stepped on it, and Felipe snatched up a pistol. “Before he turned around fairly I fired and hit him in the side; he bellowed like a bull and cried out, “‘Jesus favor me,’ and cried to his companion, “Escape. I am killed.'” José darted from a ravine. “I tipped my powder horn into my rifle, dropped a bullet from my mouth into the muzzle … while I was capping it. I drew my gun up and fired at first sight and broke his back above his hips.”

Tobin knelt over Felipe, who still held his revolver. “Do you know me?” Tobin asked, and identified himself. Why did he do this? Did he boastfully want Felipe to know the name of his killer? Or was this a last wistful exchange between men who knew one another, or even between relatives? We cannot know. Felipe only swore and fired at a soldier, but missed. The others riddled Felipe with bullets.

“I then caught him by the hair,” said Tobin, “drew his head back over a fallen tree and cut it off. I sent (Montoya) to cut off the head of the other fellow; he cut it off and brought it to me.”

Like Viviàn, Felipe left some writings. One was a request for a pardon from Gov. Evans, weirdly coupled with a threat to keep killing Anglos if the pardon were denied, “for, also in killing, one gains his liberty.”

The other was a letter to his wife: “I, Felipe, on this the forty-third night of my company with the angels. I am blessed with the milk from the breast of the Holy Mother Mary! I am covered with the cloak of the Holy San Salvador! I am defended by the sword of Holy St. Paul!

“I am looking after animals and my enemies.

“They have hands and cannot touch me;

“They have feet and cannot catch me;

“They have eyes and cannot see me;

“They have ears and cannot hear me.

“I am as free as Our Lord was originally. Amen — Jesus! Flying along a narrow path, I met Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ be my father; Mother Mary be my mother; Holy St. Clement be my sponsor, so that the devil may not meet me by day or night.

“I will be sitting on the lap of the Virgin Mary, until I die in her arms. Amen — Jesus.”

Charles F. Price is a free-lance writer in North Carolina with many in-laws in Salida. His most recent book is Nor the Battle to the Strong, a novel of the American Revolution in the South.