The Hunt for Tiburcio Vasquez: A Chase Through a Californio's L.A. | KCET
The Hunt for Tiburcio Vasquez: A Chase Through a Californio's L.A.
Since his creation in 1919 by pulp writer Johnson McCulley, the character Zorro has become internationally known as a benevolent outlaw thanks to his appearance in countless movies, books, and television shows. What is not well known is that one of the real-life inspirations for the character was a 19th century outlaw named Tiburcio Vasquez, who was hunted down and eventually captured in Los Angeles. At the time, Los Angeles was in the midst of evolving from a Mexican village to an American city and Vasquez served as a symbol of resistance to that change.
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 penchant for sleeping with multiple women, some of whom were his friends' wives, made him some enemies.
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) 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 much of 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 volatile climate, Vasquez portrayed himself as a defender of the Californio.
Vasquez's criminal exploits earned him such a notorious reputation throughout the state that the Governor of California put up a reward for his capture: $3,000 alive or $2,000 dead. The state legislature then set aside money to form a posse to capture the bandit, led by the state's foremost manhunter, Sheriff Harry Morse. And thus began the hunt for the great bandit Tiburcio Vasquez.
The hunt for Vasquez provides insight into L.A.'s transformation from a Mexican village to an American city. As American posses chased Vasquez through Los Angeles, they also symbolically chased the spirit of the rebellious Californio who refused to submit to American control.
Greek George's House
Melrose Place, West Hollywood and Eagle Rock at 5499 Eagle Rock View Drive, Los Angeles 1
In 1874, Vasquez was hiding out in the home of a man named Greek George, a former camel driver for the U.S. Army. Greek George's house was located in a rural portion of Rancho La Brea and was an ideal hideout. It was surrounded on three sides by dense shrubbery standing five to seven feet high and looking south, Vasquez had a clear view across the plain that stretched towards Los Angeles. Being the most hunted man in California did not stop Vasquez from continuing his criminal endeavors. Vasquez heard that a wealthy Italian sheep rancher named Alessandro Repetto had sold his wool crop and had a lot of cash on hand, so he set out with his men towards Repetto's house. On their way, Vasquez and his men camped out in one of the caves at Piedra Gorda (Fat Rock), which is now called Eagle Rock.
Alessandro Repetto's House
South Garfield Avenue near El Repetto Drive, Monterey Park
Repetto's house stood on a hilltop above a ranch where he raised sheep and goats. Vasquez entered Repetto's house by claiming that he was a sheep shearer. But Vasquez's fine clothes and un-calloused hands showed that he was no sheep shearer. Repetto called him out on his ruse and Vasquez admitted that he was a robber. Vasquez demanded $10,000 and his men tied Repetto to a tree and threatened to hang him unless he came up with the money. Unfortunately for Vasquez, Repetto did not keep his money at home; instead he had it safely deposited at the Temple and Workman Bank, in the heart of the commercial district in downtown Los Angeles. Faced with this problem, they decided that Repetto would write a check, and his nephew would go to the bank to retrieve the cash.
Temple and Workman Bank
Main and Temple Streets, Los Angeles
When Repetto's nephew arrived at the bank, he was so nervous that the banker, Francis Temple, became suspicious and contacted the Sheriff. Upon further questioning the nephew broke down and tearfully revealed the whole story. The Sheriff immediately started assembling a posse to capture Vasquez. At this point, the nephew became worried that the Sheriff's involvement might result in his uncle's death. He managed to convince the banker to give him 500 dollars in gold, and returned to Repetto's house, before the posse, to give the money to Vasquez. When the Sheriff's posse approached Repetto's house, Vasquez and his men mounted up and started racing north towards present day Pasadena.
360 North Arroyo Blvd., Pasadena and Devil's Gate Dam at 123 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena
With the Sheriff's posse behind them, they travelled up the Arroyo Seco (a seasonal river and watershed) through the Devil's Gate (named for a rock formation that looks like a devil) and escaped into the mountains. Vasquez even managed to rob a few people near present day Brookside Park (by the Rosebowl) during their escape.
Mission San Fernando
15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills) and Vasquez Rocks (10700 Escondido Canyon Road, Agua Dulce
Needing a place to stay, Vasquez, who enjoyed the support of many local Californios, travelled to the home of General Andres Pico, the old Californio soldier and hero of the Mexican-American War. Pico's house, which was next to Mission San Fernando, was one of the major social centers in the San Fernando Valley. Vasquez spent a few days at Pico's home while the posse that had been chasing him turned back to Los Angeles. Vasquez utilized multiple hideouts throughout California including the Vasquez Rocks, in between Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley.
Would Vasquez Attack Los Angeles?
The manhunt for Vasquez started getting coverage in newspapers throughout California. Whites in Los Angeles started to fear that Vasquez might actually stage an attack on Los Angeles. A California State Senator wrote the governor a letter stating:
"[a] large proportion of our people are Spanish, who are nearly all in sympathy with him. They furnish him all the information he requires, and they have such confidence in him as a leader, because of his daring and successful operations, that he could raise a body of two or three hundred men any time in this part of the state ... He could send his men ... into this part of the city and by a bold dash rob all of our banks and get away before a sufficient force of citizens could be gotten together to prevent it."
While such fears were overblown, they were not completely unwarranted. Vasquez later bragged to a reporter that "[g]iven $60,000 I would be able to recruit enough arms and men to revolutionize Southern California." More realistically, Vasquez later admitted that he had conceived of a plan to rob one of the two banks in Los Angeles. While working on this plan, Vasquez was again holed up at Greek George's house. During this time, the manhunter hired by the state, Sheriff Morse, was relentlessly searching for Vasquez. But after six long weeks of hunting for Vasquez and failing to capture him, Sheriff Morse decided to head back north.
In the end it was not a criminal act that led to Vasquez's capture, it was his womanizing. Vasquez caused a scandal when he had a child with his niece, Felicita Vasquez. Felicita's mother was furious with Vasquez and made her feelings known to her extended family, which included Jose Jesus Lopez, who described Vasquez as "a man of no principle at all." And Lopez's cousin, Cornelia Lopez, just happened to be Greek George's wife. Lopez's sister, Modesta, with whom Vasquez also had a sexual relationship, became furious when she learned that Felicita had borne Vasquez's child. Her anger grew when newspapers reported that Vasquez had visited a known prostitute. It is not clear exactly who did it, but some member of the Lopez family notified the authorities that Vasquez was hiding out at Greek George's house. The tip eventually made its way to Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland.
Forming the Posse
Spring and Fifth Streets, Los Angeles
Sheriff Rowland assembled a posse and arranged for them to meet at a corral located near Spring and Fifth Streets in downtown Los Angeles. At 2:00 a.m. the posse quietly headed out of town towards the home of Greek George. Sheriff Rowland stayed in Los Angeles so as not to arouse the suspicion of any Vasquez informants. The men approached Greek George's in the back of a wagon, which routinely travelled by the house (so as not to alert the bandit), and just before they reached the house, jumped out and laid themselves flat on the ground. When they approached the house on foot, they saw Vasquez sitting at a table being waited upon by a woman. When the woman noticed someone outside, she tried to close the door, but one of the men shoved his gun against the door and forced it open. Vasquez immediately made a break for the window but was shot in the left arm. Vasquez jumped through the window and made a run towards his horse. Another member of the posse fired and Vasquez was struck by two buck shots - one lodged in the back of his head and the other in his right arm. When another member of the posse leveled his rifle directly at him, Vasquez threw up his hands and exclaimed: "Don't shoot! I give up!" The great bandit had finally been captured.
While a wagon and mule were being procured to take the prisoner back to town, one of the posse members offered Vasquez a drink of whiskey from his flask. Vasquez accepted saying: "I like to drink with brave men, and you are all brave, like myself."
Grand Park, between Broadway and Spring Street, Los Angeles
News of Vasquez's capture spread like wildfire. By the time the lawmen and their prisoners got back to town and arrived at the jail they were met with a large crowd of onlookers. After Vasquez's wounds had been treated, one of the posse members produced a bottle of whiskey and offered him a drink. Vasquez cheerfully accepted and gave a toast to the President of the United States.
The capture was covered in newspapers throughout the country. Crowds flocked to the jail to see the famous outlaw. Women lined up with bouquets of flowers and fawned over the bandit. Vasquez was polite and met with his visitors and freely discussed his criminal exploits. But he denied ever killing anyone. While in custody, Vasquez also agreed to pose for a photographer.
The Merced Theater
420 N. Main St., Los Angeles
A playwright from the nearby Merced Theater (adjacent to the Plaza) quickly wrote a short play titled, "The Capture of Vasquez." Vasquez was flattered and agreed to lend the lead actors his clothes and allowed the actor to study his personality and voice so as to better impersonate him on stage. Some say that Vasquez even offered to join the cast and play himself in the play but the Sheriff refused to allow him out of his jail cell.
When Vasquez had recovered sufficiently to travel, he was taken by train to San Pedro and then onto a boat headed to San Francisco. Vasquez was subsequently tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His last word before he was hanged was "pronto."
And the differences of opinion regarding his legacy persist. Was he an opportunist who manipulated the grievances of native Californios to further his own criminal gains or a Robin Hood-type defender of the oppressed? Was he a thief and murderer who got what he deserved when he was hanged or a heroic symbol of resistance who refused to submit to the American conquest of California? Or a little bit of both. Even today, it depends on who you ask.
In 2013, a school district in California caused a great deal of controversy when they named an elementary school after Vasquez. Some thought: "why name an elementary school after a criminal who was hanged for murder." But as a retired teacher who was on the naming committee, Francisco Estrada, said: "The community does not see Tiburcio as a thief or a murderer ... we see him as a fighter for social justice of the Mexican-Californio whose rights have been deprived."
Even today, 170 years later, the scars from the American takeover of California can be seen. And the legend of Tiburcio Vasquez has grown to represent, for some, the struggle against oppression for Californians of Mexican decent.
On paper, the American conquest of California was already complete, but Vasquez represented the possibility of revolt or a challenge to the new American order. Americans needed to capture Vasquez so they could symbolically crush the rebellious Californio spirit and any idea of rebellion or a return to L.A.'s Mexican village past.
And when we compare the fiction of Zorro with the real life Vasquez, we see how California's Spanish and Mexican past becomes re-imagined. For example, in the most recent Zorro movie, The Legend of Zorro (starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones), California enters the United States by way of a referendum. Zorro and California's Mexican population are seen cheering the advent of California statehood in 1850. This re-imagined narrative distorts the fact that Americans took California by force from Mexico. Rather than cheering California's statehood, many native Californios actually took up arms against the Americans. But these historical facts apparently do not make for good movies.
The movie "The Legend of Zorro" premiered in 2005 at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles, blocks away from where Vasquez sat in a jail cell after his capture and where the first Vasquez-inspired play was performed. As the legend of Zorro continues to live on in the movies, let us also remember Tiburcio Vasquez, the real life Zorro whose career as an outlaw came to an end in Los Angeles and whose capture represented an important transitional period in the making of our city.
1 Historians have identified the present day location of Greek George's house in several different locations: The intersection of Kings Road and Fountain Avenue (Will H. Thrall, John W. Robinson, Ralph Rambo); Melrose Place, West Hollywood (John Boessenecker); and Laurel Canyon and Hollywood Boulevard (Jack Jones).
George Beers. The California Outlaw: Tiburcio Vasquez. Comp. by Robert Greenwood. (Los Gatos: Tailsman Press, 1960).
John Boessenecker. Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez. (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).
A History of California and an extended History of Los Angeles and Environs, James Miller Guinn. (Los Angeles: Historical Record Company. 1915), 192.
Jack Jones. Vasquez: California's Forgotten Bandit. (Carlsbad: Akira Press, 1996).
Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913. Harris Newmark. (New York: The Knickerbocker Press), 452-459.
Ralph Rambo. Trailing the Californio Bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. (Pioneer Series No. 3).
Samira Said. Villain or hero? Flap over California school named for bandit. CNN.com, January 3, 2013, (http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/03/us/california-school-name-controversy/).
Will H. Thrall. The Haunts and Hideouts of Tiburcio Vasquez. (Southern California Historical Society Quarterly 30, no. 2, June 1948).
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