Here Come the Monte Boys: Vigilante Justice and Lynch Mobs in 19th Century El Monte
In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
"Law And Order Monte Boys Style" is the title of a chapter in one of the more recent histories of El Monte. Those six words capture the essence of the popular stories associated with the men of the nineteenth-century township.
Any written history of Los Angeles County has to at least mention the Monte boys. Their involvement with "the repression of crime" is characterized variously as the work of righteous citizens, frontier-savvy former Texas Rangers, or all-too-eager vigilantes. From the 1850s through the 1870s, and perhaps beyond, if there were bandits to be caught, murderers to be punished, or horse thieves to be hanged in the county, the men from Monte seemed always to be on the scene. Their contemporaries, at times admiringly and in other moments critically, referred to them generically as the Monte boys (little "b"). Popular histories have capitalized the "b," suggesting that the group was an organized institution, attempting to maintain the quality of life in old Los Angeles. 1
But who were these men? In the various accounts of their escapades, they were rarely mentioned individually by name. Other than residing in El Monte, owning fast horses, and wielding deadly weapons, we know little about them. Much of what is known comes from contemporary newspaper accounts and memoirs by neighboring witnesses. Why have they remained a centerpiece of local history? Their long-lasting fame suggests significance beyond their role in past events. Most importantly, how do the facts and legends about the Monte boys connect with El Monte and Los Angeles today?
El Monte took shape during the 1850s as a community of settlements along the banks of the San Gabriel River, about twelve miles east of the central plaza of Los Angeles. Located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, it functioned as a way station between Southern California and the interior Southwest. In the aftermath of the Mexican American War, many migrants from throughout the U.S. came through the El Monte area on their way to Los Angeles and other parts of the state. Some chose to stay in the region, while others returned after trying their luck in the crowded gold mining counties up north.
The stretch of willows alongside the river (El Monte means "the wooded place" in archaic Spanish) attracted farmers looking for fertile, well-watered land in the semi-arid landscape. Although the land was claimed under grants made to Mexican citizen and English immigrant William Workman and a few others prior to American sovereignty, the authenticity of some claims was uncertain, and the lack of enforcement provided an opening for squatters to establish small farms and ranches in the area.
Most of the Anglo-Americans settlers were Southern-born, and many had briefly settled in the western-most slave state, Texas, before heading further west. El Monte, in particular a clump of homes and businesses called Lexington, became known as an American town with a Southern flair. Lexington acquired a number of nicknames that suggest it was held in low regard by both residents and outsiders. Lexkill, Lickskillet, Porkerville, and Hell's Half-Acre, were some of the more colorful names, which no doubt referred to the living and social conditions of the town.
The Southern roots of its Anglo settlers showed through particularly in its residents' politics and approach to law enforcement. As fiercely partisan Democrats, their anti-Republicanism and pro-slavery sentiments prevailed right through to the end of the Civil War. Accustomed to the brutalities of slavery and imposing their own sensibilities of law and order on those they viewed as inferior, they stood out and fit in with the clash of cultures that marked Gold Rush California. 2
At a time when the American system of justice was thinly and loosely present in the West, citizens' committees of vigilance or militias were popular and acceptable approaches for dealing with criminal activity. While leading merchants, doctors, lawyers, and ranchers often formed these seemingly respectable committees, they often served as cover for mob justice that on numerous occasions resorted to lynchings.
The state of California tried to exercise some control over these groups of armed men, formed to aid a marshal or sheriff in protecting a town or a village against bandits or to fight Native Americans. Local militias could be chartered and receive free guns and ammunition through an application to the state. A group named the Monte Rangers petitioned for weaponry in 1854 -- apparently the second militia formed in the county after the Los Angeles Rangers. Organized to take advantage of the state's offer, the short-lived Monte Rangers may have helped start the legend of the Monte boys.
In 1856, after a Hispanic man was killed by an Anglo L.A. city marshal, the panicked white population of Los Angeles feared being overrun by a Spanish-speaking mob. The Los Angeles Star reported that, shortly after receiving the call for help, "a party of citizens from the Monte, mounted and armed, numbering thirty-six muskets, arrived in town, and were received with loud cheers." The firearms were likely the remains of 40 rifles given to the Monte Rangers by the state. The Monte Rangers also had each received a cavalry saber and a Colt revolver. The Colt may have been familiar to some of the Monte men who had "cut their teeth," in the words of the Star, fighting the Comanche as members of the Texas Rangers; these Colts proved a highly effective weapon for Texas Rangers who learned to fire revolvers from horseback while in pursuit or in close. 3
From 1856 forward, the men from the Monte became known for their actions on horseback outside of their own community. They rode to other settlements in Southern California to enforce their own brand of vigilante justice, and Mexican men frequently bore the brunt of their violence. Never identified at the time as the "Monte Rangers" or as any organized militia or law enforcement organization, they were essentially a well-armed mob on horseback. As summed up by one memoirist, "the 'El Monte Boys,' were long celebrated for their proclivity to seek out trouble and add to it." 4
In 1857 the press reported that the Monte men were cooperating with a "company of Californians [native-born, Spanish-surnamed Californios]" and other bands of armed men as they hunted the gang of Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel. The Flores-Daniel gang had ambushed and assassinated Los Angeles County Sheriff James Barton, triggering one of largest manhunts in the county's history. Through a combination of local intelligence gathering and superior horsemanship, the Californio company tracked down the bandit leaders, and then transferred them to the custody of the Monte men. Later that evening, the prisoners untied each other's hands under a shared blanket and escaped into the night. Although the Monte men recovered Flores, Daniel remained at large. "Monte is not popular just now," the L.A. correspondent for the Daily Alta California commented on the episode. As the correspondent explained, "the Monte men -- those frontier savages, who spent their whole lives fighting Indians," had gone soft. "Just at the moment when they were desired to be ferocious, they took a freak to being kind-hearted." 5
In all probability, though, the failure of the Monte men to retain Flores and Daniel had more to do with incompetence than kindness. The Spanish-language newspaper, El Clamor Publico, claimed that at least 12 Spanish-surnamed men were murdered in the wake of Barton's assassination, and that "of these, three were murdered unjustifiably." The Clamor implicated the Monte men in one particularly appalling incident. A man suspected of possessing Barton's shotgun was cornered by Anglos in a field near San Gabriel, when "citizens from the Monte" appeared and set fire to the grass. The Clamor reported that the suspect was shot dead as he ran from the blaze, and "immediately the head was cut off and taken to El Monte." The decapitation may have been inspired by that of the legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta, the scourge of Anglo and Chinese gold miners, whose severed head toured the state in 1853. But this brand of violence was new to Los Angeles County, where Spanish-surnamed people remained in the majority, and elite ranching families maintained a great deal of influence. Hispanic men had been lynched since the Mexican American War, but always in ways moderated by local custom and a spirit of cross-cultural cooperation. Trying to make sense of the orgy of Anglo violence that followed Barton's death, the Clamor's editor wondered, "What civilized man cuts the head off a cadaver?" 6
Other Angelenos also held poor opinions of the Monte and its eager vigilantes. With their tendency to dash about the countryside, supposedly in support of law and order, the men from Monte developed a notable reputation, not for bravery, but rather for reactionary ineptitude. The organizer of the Los Angeles Rangers, Horace Bell, scathingly called them out for the escape of Flores and Daniel under their watch. In his 1881 memoir he wrote that the "Monte gringos" had been "in some mysterious way outwitted" by their prisoners, who fled in the night from the "gringo camp." As Bell explained earlier in his book, "in its literal signification," gringo "means ignoramus." The Indiana-born, Southern-bred, Spanish-fluent Bell was a man of adventure and many contradictions, who himself had known the "disgrace" of being a gringo. He dismissed the Monte boys as ignorant and stupid, worthless for law enforcement, and outside the customs of Californio culture. Tolerated, even celebrated, by their fellow residents of El Monte, these men failed to impress their neighbors. 7
Another early arrival in American Los Angeles, Prussian Jewish immigrant Harris Newmark also wrote disparagingly of the Monte boys, using irony to draw attention to their flawed characters. Calling them "recognized disciplinarians," Newmark noted that "the peculiar public spirit animating these early settlers" was such that "no one could live and prosper at the Monte who was not extremely virile and ready for any dare-devil emergency." The "peculiar public spirit" made the Monte boys regular participants in "neck-tie" parties -- lynchings of untried suspects by mobs of self-righteous citizens.
A few days after the capture of the Flores-Daniel gang, the Daily Alta California reported that "the people have come in from the Monte, expecting there will be a hanging." Soon a public meeting was called, whereupon a judge argued for a delay in the proceedings to allow time for some of the twenty prisoners to prove their innocence. The crowd concurred with the judge, though "considerable opposition was made by the Monte men." Nineteenth-century El Monte had become known for its walnut groves, its pig farms, and its galloping horsemen, who could be counted on to show up whenever frontier justice reared its head.8
During the Civil War, in which California stayed part of the Union despite its sizable population of Southerners, the outlier reputations of El Monte and its boys reached new heights. On May 7, 1861, scarcely a month after guns firing at Fort Sumter signaled the beginning of the war, U.S. Army Quartermaster of Los Angeles, Winfield Scott Hancock, reported to his superior in San Francisco that "the 'bear flag' was paraded through the streets of El Monte" and "was escorted by a number of horsemen." As with the vigilante episodes of the 1850s, the horsemen parading the bear flag were not described by Hancock as the Monte Rangers or as a formal militia of any kind. They came together in a collective display of their Southern sympathies under a familiar California symbol. The image had its origins in the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, a movement by a small group of Anglo-American settlers to declare California independent from Mexico at the outset of the Mexican American War. Now, at the outset of the Civil War, secessionists used the bear flag in support of California independence from the Union. 9
The Confederate sympathies and anti-Republicanism of the majority of El Monte residents were well-displayed and well-known by their neighbors before and during the war. Those who held the strongest attachments to those positions left Southern California to defend them on battlefields thousands of miles away. But those who stayed behind demonstrated a telling willingness to defend the small town from the onslaught of a local pestilence -- smallpox -- that struck the Mexican and Native American population especially hard. Then an untreatable disease, smallpox traveled to the Western Hemisphere with Spanish conquistadors and spread across North America through the migrations of missionaries and settlers. The outbreak in Los Angeles County in 1862-63 coincided with the great drought-driven die-off of vast herds of cattle, ending the reign of the ranchos as the economic engine of Southern California. By January, 1863, 200 people had died from smallpox, and at least 200 more were afflicted in the county. 10
In contrast to community leaders in the city of Los Angeles, who took prudent measures to halt the spread of the highly communicable and often fatal disease, the men of the Monte organized a "Committee on Health" to keep its precincts free of those who possibly were carriers, sick, dying, or dead. Members of the committee were authorized and directed to prevent the "victims" (presumably those of the Catholic faith) from passing "through the streets and lanes of El Monte on their way to the San Gabriel Mission," and to "use any measure in regard to straggling Indians that may become necessary" to keep them out of the area. These orders focused exclusively on preventing the ill and potentially ill of being in proximity to the residents of El Monte. 11
In the much larger and more affected city of Los Angeles, officials conducted house-to-house surveys to keep track of the spread of the epidemic, marking quarantined homes with yellow flags, and designating a house four miles outside the city where the Sisters of Charity could nurse the sickest. The Hebrew Benevolent Society (HBS), founded by Jewish Angelenos in 1854, donated $150 to feed the poor and sick and appointed five of its members to solicit and distribute additional funds in support of the indigent "during the prevailing sickness." On the day that El Monte's "precautionary measures" were published in the Los Angeles Star, HBS announced its "Committee of Relief" in the same newspaper, drawing commendation by the paper's editor for its "practical philanthropy" and "munificent donation." The leadership of the Los Angeles French-born mayor, Catholic Sisters of Charity, and Jewish merchant members of HBS, exemplified the necessary cross-cultural collaboration demanded by the epidemic that threatened the entire community. The concerned citizens of El Monte struck a posture of isolation and wariness that only could have sent chills down the spine of any Mexican or Native American who had the misfortune of living there or traveling through. 12
After the Civil War, a new era began to unfold that transformed El Monte. Most California land claim disputes were settled and property values increased. The transcontinental railroad connected California to the rest of the nation. In 1873, the Southern Pacific Rail Road built a depot at El Monte, expanding the markets for local agriculture. Having built up their wealth and status, a number of El Monte's pioneer squatters left the area for better opportunities. The professionalization and expansion of police forces eliminated the need for vigilance committees. As the social upheaval of western expansion and the Civil War diminished, so did tolerance for random acts of mob justice. The last lynching attributed to the Monte boys happened in 1887, with the capture and hanging of four Anglo horse thieves. Accounts of armed horsemen from the Monte spontaneously dashing about the county as self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner ceased to appear in newspapers and memoirs.
Despite twentieth century histories that portrayed the early Anglo settlers of El Monte as resourceful pioneers, contemporaneous accounts tell a different story. Not unlike those in many communities established in nineteenth century California, descendants of those pioneers and town leaders preferred to emphasize a positive tale. Among the facts that fell away as the history was recounted were the community's squatter origins. Among the facts that were altered were the escapades of some men of the Monte. The bully boys of the self-proclaimed "American town" became righteous men who tamed the Wild West ways of L.A. County. And thus the most famous export of El Monte came to be a heroic legend, despite evidence of mob justice and lynchings.
As social norms and sensibilities have changed, many of the events and attitudes of the past have become unacceptable, regrettable, even shameful to us living in today's Los Angeles County. The ignoble assaults on Native Americans by European settlers, the squatting on lands once used communally or claimed by others, and the indiscriminate and discriminatory violence that made the West wild are just some examples of the dark side of how the U.S. and California came to be. The American town of El Monte has a particularly notorious place in the history of Los Angeles. For some contemporary residents, the notoriety of the El Monte boys serves best as a reminder of good prevailing over bad, civilized over uncivilized. For others, including historians who have separated fact from legend, that interpretation underscores how history can be distorted to assuage the guilty and erase the victims. The truth about the Monte boys helps illuminate the too easily accepted tragedy of mob violence, an insight still unfortunately relevant today. Perhaps now it is time to say that the legend of the Monte boys has outlived its usefulness and let the facts stand.
This essay is an edited version of what was originally published on Tropics of Meta on June 10, 2015.
1Jorane King Barton and the El Monte Historical Society, Images of America: El Monte (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006), 53.
2 [no author] A History of El Monte: the End of the Sante Fe Trail, (Los Angeles: El Monte Lodge No 424 - I.O.O.F., 1923), 64; William F. King, "El Monte: An American Town in Southern California, 1851-1866," Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 4, December 1971, 318.
3 Los Angeles Star, July 26, 1856; "Bond of Monte Rangers," March 25, 1854, California State Archives; Frederick Wilkins, The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers 1823-1845 (Austin, TX: State House Press, 1996), 184-185.
4 Horace Bell, On the Old West Coast: Being the Further Reminiscences of a Ranger-Major Horace Bell (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930), 310.
5 Daily Alta California, February 15, 1857.
6 El Clamor Publico, February 21, 1857; Paul Gray, A Clamor for Equality: Emergence and Exile of Californio Activist Francisco P. Ramirez (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2012), 46-47; El Clamor Publico, April 11, 1857.
7 Horace Bell, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999; Original publication 1881), 49, 406-7.
8 Harris Newmark, Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913, containing the reminiscences of Harris Newmark. (New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1916), 91, 324; Daily Alta California, February 15, 1857.
9The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies: Series I, Volume L, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: 1880), 479-480.
10 Michael E. Engh, Frontier Faiths: Church, Temple, and Synagogue in Los Angeles, 1846-1888. (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), 81.
11 Los Angeles Star, February 14, 1863.
13Los Angeles News, November 8, 1864.