Robert M. Utley’s Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers is a thorough yet readably non-didactic history of the early Texas Rangers. Beginning with their inception shortly after Mexican Independence and spanning to 1910 and the reorganization of the Rangers into the unit of state lawmen recognizable today, Utley, in this first of two volumes on the subject, presents both a story of a vast and tumultuous frontier desperate for order, as well as a close study of the nature of the men that brought it. It confronts the two dichotomized perceptions of these men – one mythically heroic the other disdainfully condemning – and then presents an engaging narrative that gives credence to both.
In the few years following Independence, Mexico’s northern province of Coahuila y Tejas was a sparse land largely uninhabited save for raiding bands of Comanches, Apaches, Cherokees, Kiowas, and Kickapoos. Envisioning a buffer between these marauders as well as added economic revenue, Mexico granted Stephen F. Austin and three hundred-some Anglo-American migrants large tracts of land to settle. For this buffer to work (and it never really did) Mexico granted Austin civil and military powers over his fellow settlers. With the memory of a temporary and short-lived mounted militia that preceded it, plus what would appear to be inspiration from the English colonial units that “ranged” the eastern wilderness before America’s own revolution, Austin implemented a system of citizen soldiery in which landowners served for a time based on acreage owned. It marked the beginning of the Ranger tradition, and its primary purpose of protecting Anglo settlers from Indians became a hard-fought struggle that would last for more than sixty years. It was not until July of 1835 however that the Ranger corps would finally sanction by law its first Ranger captain, Captain Robert M. Coleman, and, in effect, officially “fix the origins of the Texas Rangers to a time and a person” (Utley, 19).
With Texan Independence came tension with the country it broke from. Even after Santa Anna’s defeat and Texas’ declaration of sovereignty, Mexico was rue to recognize Texas as independent, let alone its boundary claims to the Rio Grande, and in the years leading up to the Mexican-American War the Rangers found yet another steady foe in their neighbors to the south. The character of the unit evolved, and under the notable leaderships of men like Jack Hayes, who introduced to his Rangers the now-synonymous Colt revolver, the Rangers became a roaming force of predominately young, healthy, bold, adventurous, and short-fused marksmen. They scrapped opposing Mexicans with the same vehement non-discretion that they did hostile Indians, and even after annexing themselves to the U.S. and joining forces in the War, the Rangers maintained a style of fighting all their own.
Over the next sixty-two years the Texas Rangers were ever-changing and oftentimes struggled to secure an identity. As the state budget webbed and waxed so fluctuated the number of Rangers employed. Following the Mexican-American War the unit gained national notoriety and at the turn of the century was finding itself widely romanticized through comic books, ballads, dime novels, and even feature films. By 1881 the Indians were nearly whipped and Mexico had let go its lost daughter, focusing increasingly inward on domestic problems. These respites in violence gradually allowed the Rangers to become less a militia and transform into the well-oiled, model division of state lawmen they are today. But despite these numerous successes, the Rangers simultaneously suffered many embarrassing incidents that would over time accumulate and tarnish its legend. Various accounts emerged of unprovoked, racially-charged attacks on Indian tribes. Mexican prisoners, under the dubious pretext of trying to escape, were killed or brutalized. Atrocious lapses in judgments, such as the killing of Sam Bass or the political skirmish that, with the help of the Rangers, escalated into the El Paso Salt War, were widely printed. These incidents and others became fodder for a strong anti-Ranger sentiment referred to by Utley as “revisionist.”
Utley’s objective then – to recount a heavily-researched and accurate first history of the Texas Rangers – is also his thesis; that the Rangers were not always men of “sterling character” and neither were they uniformly deplorable. Rather, “the historical reality lies somewhere between the extremes” (Utley, xiii).
In writing Lone Star Justice, Utley drew upon nearly four-hundred books, articles, and government documents from institutions across the West. This exhaustive research amounts to a history meticulously supported (as evidenced by the thorough chapter notes) and objective since Utley does not hesitate to include the Rangers’ less proud moments along with those admirable. Thus, by the end of his book Utley has both dispelled the mythically-impeccable image of the Texas Ranger as well as challenged the blanketing defamations posed by revisionists. It is tempting to search Utley’s words for hints of bias, he being an Anglo Texan and well-written author of Texas history, but the effort turns up fruitless. There are too many acknowledgements of the things regrettable in the Rangers’ past to call Utley subjective or romantic, too many allowances that yes, the revisionists have some ground to stand on.
Still, Lone Star Justice does not reduce the legend of the Texas Rangers. Conversely, the book bolsters it. Through well-supported facts working into a well-presented narrative, Utley explains how what began as a small-yet-resilient band of citizen soldiers matured into an agency of law enforcement that would inspire the justice systems of nearly every state in the Union. We discover that the history of the Rangers is in many ways the history of Texas – even, to some extent, America. They contained real-life heroes in their ranks as well as a few villains. Ultimately, the Rangers brought law and order to an enormous stretch of land where such things once seemed impossible. And perhaps that is what’s so remarkable; that they did it despite being only human.
Utley, Robert. Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2003.
Ever since a Georgian by the name of Green Russell discovered a placer deposit along Cherry Creek and set off the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, prospectors from Russell’s home state and those surrounding swarmed the burgeoning mining camps of the Rocky Mountains. But in 1861, finding themselves suddenly in Union territory as their southern brothers headed to war, Colorado’s displaced rebels seethed under censorship and their own inaction. They were, as one newspaper put it, waiting for a finger to tap them on their gun-ready shoulders.
That tap, that flurry of instigation happened more than is widely known in the young Civil-War-era Territory of Colorado.
On the morning of April, 24 1861, the people of Denver looked above them to see the Confederate Stars and Bars flying over a Larimer street warehouse. A unionist by the name of Samuel Logan, promptly climbed up and tore the flag to the earth to much applause (despite the influx of southern sympathizers in the territory, the vast majority still paid allegiance to the Union). And so marked the only occasion in the history of the city where a Confederate flag ever flew over the streets of Denver.
In the days that followed the south did not give up on Colorado. Perhaps more accurately, the Texans did not give up on “winning the west.” When war did break out, those sympathizers that did not return home formed militia groups in ming camps around Colorado’s Rocky Mountain range, including Fairplay, Leadville, Canon City, and, most infamously Mace’s Hole near Pueblo, CO. In this hideout recruited southerners grouped, trained, and readied until by the time nearby Fort Garland learned of their presence and immediately shut it down Mace’s Hole boasted over 600 trained rebel soldiers.
Of course, the most conspicuous of the Confederate pursuit of Colorado was Sibley’s 1861-1862 invasion of New Mexico. In late 1861 nearly 3,000 Texans led by General H. Sibley departed El Paso and marched northward into New Mexico with the intent of capturing the pathway of the Santa Fe Trail, and, most importantly, the renowned mineral resources of Colorado and California. Along their quest Sibley and his three-thousand Texans found victory at Valverde, then Albuquerque, and then capitol, Santa Fe (although the latter two were handed over without incident). Just days after sacking Sante Fe however, a force of Colorado Volunteers surprised Sibley in what is called Glorieta Pass (about 15 miles NW of Santa Fe). It was a decided victory for the Coloradans, and the Texans retreated home never again to make an attempt at Confederate “Manifest Destiny.”
Early in 1864 however, with the war still very well anyone’s ball game, one Texan man by the name of Jim Reynolds decided to take his own personal attempt at manipulating Colorado for the good of the Confederacy. Some claimed him to be something of a Confederate Robin Hood, one who stole from the rich and the poor and then gave to the south. Others saw him a stalwart enemy of the Union out to hamper their cause in any way he could. And still others labeled him just another gun-pointing thief, his ruse of giving his booty to a “cause” somehow making him noble. Considering that none of Reynolds loot ever did make it back to Texas and the Confederacy, this latter description is probably the most accurate.
Jim Reynolds was born in Texas in the 1840s and arrived in Colorado’s South Park area around 1863. Here he was a poor worker and one with short dedication. He stumbled from one territorial job to the other – miner, rancher, farmer, bartender, rarely holding a position for more than a few days. And all money he ever made was said to go straight into the bottle.
Perhaps realizing this, Reynolds and his gang turned to robbing. It was more exciting, demanded less hours, and paid a whole lot better. The citizens of Fairplay soon began to notice how the pockets of Reynolds and his men were always fatter each time a wagon was seized up in the mountains.
During one botched robbery attempt, Reynolds was apprehended. But in those days of crude, cabin-style jail-houses, Reynolds promptly escaped, rejoined his gang, and fled the territory.
It was the height of the Civil War and the gang returned to their home state of Texas. Somehow escaping enlistment, Reynolds soon learned that the largest problem facing the southern states was a rapidly diminishing treasury, and so made a promise with some of the Rebel officers to return to Colorado where gold is pulled out of the streams every day and organized security is few and far. He urged them to send him and his posse (this time a larger one) back to this land of South Park he knew so well so that when he next returned it would be with enough stolen Union gold to help the southerners finance their war.
Purportedly commissioned by the Texas Confederate Forces, Jim led his guerillas northward through New Mexico on the long dry stretch back into the central Rocky Mountains. About halfway through the territory, the gang captured a wagon carrying over $60,000. Robbing throughout New Mexico had not been part of the original plan, but most men simply agreed not to allow the opportunity to slip by. And, needless to say, with so much money in so many hands, the gang’s leader Jim Reynolds (sensing a mutiny) immediately found himself re-preaching the virtue of their mission, how the Confederacy needed this money much more than themselves. The gang however, up to their bellies in gold and silver, did not listen and instead split the booty squarely and most of the gang took their loot and departed right there, leaving only nine of the original and most ardent posse members: John Bobbitt, John Andrews, Jack Robinson, Tom Knight, Jake Stowe, Tom Holliman, Owen Singleterry, Jim Reynolds, and his brother John.
The diminished posse reached South Park and convened at Adolph Guirand’s ranch between Hartsel and Fairplay. From there, the posse moved toward Fairplay and began their daily ambushes and pilgrimages. They began small: holding up individuals at knife-point, breaking and entering empty-looking homes, before graduating to wagons and large ranches.
At one such ranch, apparently upset for the lack of treasure found on a victim by the name of Major deMary, Reynolds took the passenger prisoner and forced him into humiliating clothes.
The gang worked their way to McLaughlin’s stage station which was rumored to always keep an abundance of currency on hand. Once there, the gang immediately captured the station, even going so far as to order the station cook to wine and dine them. By the time the passengers had emptied their pockets, all the horses were rounded, and the lockbox had been pried open, Jim Reynolds is said to have made away with upwards of $100,000 from McLaughlin’s station.
The gang did not delay in keeping their good luck rolling, robbing large South Park ranch estates out of thousands of coins, livestock, and collectibles, including the Omaha House, the Michigan House and the famous (but now gone) Kenosha House.
Needless to say, by now a variety of posses existed in Fairplay, all combing South Park for the bandit Jim Reynolds. One such posse man by the name of Mr. Berry, was caught by the Reynolds Gang his first night out. Fortunate for Berry however, the gang was in good spirits that night and, after some teasing let him go.
Released into the night, Berry ran all the way to Junction House, located not far from Evergreen. From there Berry continued into Denver by train with his story.
Although they did not suspect it, several posses were now closing in on Jim Reynolds. As the gang slept unassumingly in the deserted Omaha House, several posses snuck their way – over one-hundred posse men in all.
But in the morning Reynolds sensed danger and, knowing the country around him well, ordered his men to carry all their loot up Handcart Gulch (near present-day Kenosha Pass) and hurriedly build a makeshift camp. A corral was built for the horses, a rockwall mounded for protection to shoot behind and, perhaps most telling of all, a large hole was dug and then inconspicuously covered.
Ultimately it was a posse out of Breckenridge led by one Jack Sparks that noticed the late-night campfires of Jim Reynold’s tree-surrounded hideout. A firefight broke out in the night and, as Sparks’ men pressed forward, Reynold’s men, in the dark confusion, mounted their horses and fled.
At daylight, Sparks’ posse surveyed Reynold’s hideout, discovering the body of Owen Singleterry – apparently the only fatality of last night’s blind bullets. Sparks and his men buried Singleterry, sticking a knife in a tree directly above the gravesite then, failing to notice anything else suspicious at the site, departed.
By now the Reynolds Gang had dispersed all throughout the territory in hopes of evading their posses. Tom Holliman was found asleep in a hotel by Sparks’ Posse and captured. Jim’s brother, along with two other gang members, were given pursuit but ultimately made it back to the New Mexico Territory. It’s believed that Stowe was actually shot during the gunfight at Handcart Gulch and died shortly after, while Andrews met his maker via a saloon brawl in Texas.
As for Jim Reynolds, he and three others retreated into the hills and remained at large for a two days, for on the second day an either very bold or else very desperate Jim Reynolds reappeared in Fairplay, looking for food and water. The men were immediately apprehended, though no portion of the stolen loot was ever discovered.
At this point the story becomes shrouded in mystery. Because Colorado was not yet an official state in the Union at the time of Reynold’s arrest, his case was handed over to the local Union military. One story told is that the army held a secret trial for all the members of the Reynolds Gang and, finding them guilty of conspiring against the Union, sentenced them to hanging.
Of course, questions immediately arose regarding the military overstepping its boundary. In response, it was decided that Jim and his fellow guerillas march all the way to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a proper military tribune. Led by Captain Cree, the 3rd Colorado Cavalry escorted the gang members into the plains.
Amazingly, the very next day the Captain returned to Denver, claiming that he had had no choice but to shoot all five prisoners for they had escaped and were turning on their captors. A few weeks later a traveler on his way to Fort Leavenworth came upon the old ghost town of Russellville. There, strapped hand to hand around one thick elm tree was Jim Reynolds and his remaining posse men – all of them shot to death. Eventually Captain Cree would reveal that never had he actually been given orders to escort the five prisoners all the way to Fort Leavenworth, but instead his orders had been to fatally dispose of them at the first opportunity.
But the most enticing mystery of the legend of Jim Reynolds is still one that looms unanswered today: the yet-to-be-found whereabouts of Reynolds Confederate loot.
Toward the beginning of the 20th Century a treasure hunter named Vernon Crow was out in search of the lost treasure of Jim Reynolds. He retraced the spots between Kenosha House and the other ranches until finally coming upon the infamous Handcart Gulch. There, after pushing for some ways through the thick of aspen and pine, Vernon came upon a large pile of rocks and, the biggest clue of all, a rusted knife handle sticking out of a tree directly above yet another piling of rocks. In one corner of the hideout were the remains of an old impromptu horse corral. Immediately Vernon began to unearth the stone piles, coming upon nothing except deep dirt in the case of the larger mound. Under the second mound under the knife handle Vernon found exactly what he was looking for. Or, that is, exactly what he should have been looking for if he had been familiar with the story. For under those stones lay a bullet-ridden skeleton many decades dead.
Hastily Vernon recovered the grave and departed the area. To this day wherever Jim Reynolds hid his Confederate loot remains a mystery: one waiting for some keen and very lucky hiker in the wilderness around Colorado’s Kenosha Pass.
Newspaper Headlines for Jim Reynolds
August 13, 1864: Lt. J. S. Maynard (AAAG of the District of Colorado) reports that during a skirmish several of Captain Reynolds men have been captured by Lt. Shoup near Black Squirrel Creek (in El Paso County) not far from Pueblo, Colorado;
August26,1864: Newspapers report Captain Reynolds was captured however his brother (John Reynolds) and several others escaped;
September 10, 1864: Newspapers print the “Black List” of approximately 100 suspected local “secessionists” in Colorado;
September 13, 1864: During a special election 75% of Coloradans voted against statehood (4,676 to 1,520);
For several weeks after the special election, many local newspapers reported that the failure of the statehood amendment was due to a very strong “anti-state party”, the majority of which were “Copperheads” (secessionists or Southern Sympathizers).
December 9, 1864: Newspapers report that James Reynolds and several of his men were shot and killed while attempting to escape while being transported from Denver to Fort Lyon by a detachment of Company A, 3rd Colorado Cavalry.
It was a hard time in history, and even some the most depraved of horrors fell under the greater shadow, absorbed or else forgotten.
The country was at war. Eyes and resources were cast eastward where, following a string of decisive Confederate victories, the union verged on collapse. Even in the West a new theater of the war was being fought as Texan rebels under General Henry H. Sibley invaded New Mexico.
On top of this, settlers waged a second, concurrent war against its native population – The Great Plains Indians War – and all throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas, and Nebraska residents fought to expand settlement and protect it against opposing and still well-numbered tribes.
Yet, in 1863, as wars raged and goldfields beckoned, a Mexican outlaw named Felipe Espinosa quietly became one of America’s first serial killers and foreign terrorists.
Set against the record of other notorious American murderers, Felipe’s tally is uncanny. Wild West lore exaggerated Billy the Kid into infamy as having killed twenty-one men in the late 1800s. In truth, the young gunslinger had a part in only nine. The still-at-large Zodiac killer who made his name across Northern California during the 1960s claimed in letters to the police that he had killed thirty-seven. Investigators, however, agree on a much smaller number, believing the Zodiac to have committed at the most only five with possible copycat killers furthering his cause.
Felipe Espinosa, in twelve months, shot, stabbed, and mutilated an estimated thirty-two people.
Some reports of the day claimed the number was upwards of sixty.
At first, no one knew who was responsible. Violence wasn’t anything rare in this time and place, but never before had residents of the area witnessed violence like this. They were gruesome, brutal jobs, conducted seemingly at random. The weapons used were sometimes long-range and quick, other times handheld and dull. Along the Rockies, corpses trailed like footprints
The account that follows is a compilation of 150 years of written articles and first-person accounts. The details come from newspapers of the time, interviews, letters, and even the diaries of the story’s two key players: Tom Tobin and Felipe Espinosa. There exists very little of such material, even less than what could have been possible as, frustratingly, much, including the two diaries before they were adequately copied, was lost in the May 19, 1864 Cherry Creek flood, which swept away great portions of downtown Denver, including several offices of government and all those belonging to the Rocky Mountain News. Given this fact, later retellings of the story often vary, the result of a century and half of playing telephone. Thus, this account features both the story’s most reoccurring and historically prudent themes and accounts.
Part II: Felipe Espinosa
Of his physical appearance, little is known aside from the reports of his one trademark feature: his mouth. Newspapers of the time describe a “jack-o-lantern grin” of oversized and gapped teeth – his canines pronounced and hanging lower than any other tooth.
Born in 1827 in what was then Northern Mexico, he was proud of his heritage, a patriot. In his declaration of war, titled “A Statement of Principles”, Felipe wrote to representatives throughout Colorado and New Mexico that six of his relatives were killed in the Mexican-American War, and that for each one he would take a hundred American lives.
Also important to Felipe’s character was his intense faith. The influx of Baptists and Presbyterians into New Mexico in the mid-1800s likely upset Felipe as it did many Hispanic families living in the area at the time, many of whose roots traced to Spanish colonial rule. To Felipe, this migration was a dangerous, potentially-damning convolution of the country’s Catholicism. In the new American Southwest, the Espinosas belonged to a deep-rooted religious organization called Los Hermanos Penitentes, the Pentitente Brotherhood – a society transplanted to New Mexico in the sixteenth century by the Conquistadors. In many ways, the group represented a regional form of Opus Dei, notorious for their means of expiating sin: self-flagellation, standing on cacti, placing stones in their shoes, and binding themselves to wooden crosses. In the late 1800s, partly because of these extreme practices, pressures from the church and state government were brought against the society, ultimately banning it. Today the abandoned meeting places of the Pentitentes, moradas, can still be seen around New Mexico and southern Colorado. Chapters of the brotherhood still exist and meet today, albeit with less extremism. Nonetheless, in the mid 19th century Felipe Espinosa was a devout member of this organization, and later, when he became a wanted man, it is even believed the brotherhood sheltered Felipe on a few occasions and gave him information vital to staying ahead of the law.
The family originated from El Rito, New Mexico, about forty miles west of Taos. In 1848, with the close of the Mexican-American War, a sensitive question inevitably arose: what was to become of the Hispanic citizens like the Espinosas who suddenly found themselves living in America? An article in the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed stating that all Mexicans living in the new American territory would keep their land, and not only that, would be allowed the option of remaining a citizen of Mexico or else transferring to American citizenship. But like many treaties throughout American history, this stipulation was not to be honored. In the San Luis Valley an animosity was quick to arise between Mexicans and Americans.
The tension was exacerbated in 1861 with the creation of the Colorado Territory and its southern boundary line which suddenly cut many southern Colorado Hispanics from certain New Mexican conventions they had known for centuries. For instance, when Anglo bureaucrats began visiting the region to issue new laws and taxes, they neglected to consider that the vast majority of these citizens could not read the English-written documents handed them. Discontent spread further as rumors circulated that the newly arriving military forces would begin drafting men into their armies.
Just a year old, already rebellion stirred in Colorado Territory.
Part III: Wanted
Between 1862 and 1863, poor and living inside a cramped jacale with his family outside the village of San Rafael (near present-day Antonito, CO), Felipe took to banditry. Joining him was his younger brother, Vivian.
One day, the two stopped a freight wagon along its way from Santa Fe to Galisteo. The vehicle had with it only one driver, a Mexican as it would have it who was once neighbors with the two in Conejos. When they were through looting the wagon, the brothers decided to have a little fun. Tying the driver under the tongue of the wagon so that his face barely cleared the rocky earth, the two whipped the wagon’s horses into a frenzied dash. The man was pulled for miles, his head plowing through every bump in the path. By the time the wagon was finally spotted and stopped, the driver was within an inch of his life, his face a bloody pulp. He managed to live and eventually describe his assailers.
It was to be the first of many bounties placed on the heads of the Espinosas
The charge to capture the two bandits fell to the only military and law enforcement center in the area, the newly-constructed Fort Garland. There, a Lieutenant Hutt took charge of the pursuit, assisted by a U.S. Marshal named Austin.
Conducting a series of interrogations throughout the area, officials collected both the identities of the bandits and the place of their residence. Hutt and Austin determined it unwise to simply approach the home without first knowing what awaited them.
Thus, a plan was hatched.
Lt. Hutt and a few additional soldiers would approach the farmhouse under the guise of recruiting volunteers for the army. The great shortage of soldiers in the territories and the escalating battles with frontier Indians meant it had become commonplace for recruiters to comb the countryside seeking new volunteers. The goal was to separate the brothers from the rest of the family, to have them outside and unassuming when the arrest was made. Austin meanwhile was to keep post on an overlooking hill, keeping a close eye on the interaction in case things broke down.
But as Hutt approached the house, Vivian stepped out the door to greet him. He was unarmed, seemingly unalarmed and unsuspecting. When Baldwin calmly described to Vivian his offer, the boy at first appeared interested. He asked how much it would pay, where they would be stationed, and for how long he would have to serve. To each of these questions the lieutenant calmly answered, growing to his surprise very optimistic all the while. Vivian appeared to chew over each of these details, then, abruptly, to Hutt’s dismay, declined. Frustrated, Hutt snatched Vivian by the arm and declared him under arrest.
A gunshot fired from inside the house. The front window exploded and Luther Hutt, shot through the chest, collapsed.
Within seconds the world was a hailstorm of gunfire. Felipe had sent his younger brother to receive the troops, all the while keeping a rifle bead through the front window. Now, as Austin and the remaining soldiers spattered the mud-chinked home with bullets, Felipe and Vivian crawled along the house’s floor, rising occasionally to fire back through the window as the other family members relayed ammo.
Austin and the soldiers surrounded the residence. The brothers made a break through the rear, blazing into the spreading perimeter of soldiers. A corporal was struck and instantly killed. Austin leapt atop his horse and took chase, but before he could close in the horse misstepped and tumbled, crushing Austin beneath and leaving him with injuries from which he would never fully recover.
The Espinosas meanwhile were gone, vanished inside the forests of the Sangre de Cristos.
Part IV: Rampage
The two ran deep into the Rockies of central Colorado, stealing two horses along the way. There was no turning back.
It was during this time that, according to popular myth, Felipe received a dream in which he was visited by the Virgin Mary. Sent directly by God, Mary came to Felipe to bestow upon him a duty to kill.
Divine or not, Felipe had a vendetta, a private war, and fleeing southern Colorado where they were known and wanted men, the Espinosas brought their crusade to a rocky, canyon-filled country outside Canyon City, CO. Prior to 1863 locals knew the area as Sawmill Gulch. Today, the signs along the road winding through read, “Dead Man’s Gulch.”
It was late in the evening when Jim Harkins, known affectionately by those around him as “Uncle Jim” was found murdered in his cabin. He had just moved to Sawmill Gulch and all that day had been at work building a sawmill with three other men. Around supper time, the men decided to take a break as Harkens would go to his cabin and prepare dinner for the group. However, upon later arriving at the old man’s cabin, Harkins was already dead. The Sunday Gazette would later describe the murder scene:
Harkens had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a Colt navy revolver, then the murderers had taken the ax and split his head open from the top to the mouth, and then, judging from the appearance of his head and the ax, they had hit him on each side of the head with the head of the ax, and two pieces of skull and his brains lay on the ground at the top of his head. He was also stabbed twice in the left breast.
At first they suspected Indians, but the theory was immediately questioned when the next morning, while conducting a sweep of the area, the sheriff came upon another body. Just a couple miles from Henry Harkins’ cabin, the body of William Bruce was found lying outside his ranch home, hacked to pieces in similar fashion except this time, inserted into a bullet hole in Bruce’s forehead, protruded a crucifix made of sticks.
Felipe and Vivian stalked the Rockies, moving north and killing at random. They preyed on isolated, unguarded communities – seeking out victims alone and far from help; places where gunshots, or screams, could not be heard for miles.
Given their criterion, it was the sparsely populated mining settlements of South Park that would prove to be the ideal stage for the Espinosas’ rampage. Here, the brothers orbited lonely mining camps where men tended to work high on the mountains and often alone. The Espinosas crept upon their targets and observed them for sometimes hours. When two businessmen out of Denver named Seyga and Lehman were found dead outside the popular Kenosha House, some believed the killers’ waited in the dark for some unsuspecting prey to wander too far from the busy hotel. With long-range rifles they cut victims down, then went to work on the corpses. Bodies of well-known residents were found hacked and mutilated to a point often beyond recognition. They were disemboweled, decapitated, their hearts sometimes cut out. Crosses were slashed into their chests, stakes sometimes driven through their chests and into the earth. Newspapers, before his identity became known, simply began referring to Felipe as “The Axeman of Colorado.”
Paranoia rippled across the territory. Everyone was suspect. No stranger was safe from scrutiny. In one scenario, a prospector by the name of Foster had just arrived in the town of Alma in hopes of finding a claim to work. The town immediately concluded he must be the killer. They captured Foster and promptly dragged him to a tree for hanging. He was seconds before his death before South Park’s famed minister, John Dyer, subdued the crowd and convinced them of his innocence.
By this time, Colorado governor John Evans had increased the bounty, as well as appoint a small detachment of First Colorado Infantry to comb the region. Leading this detachment was a Colonel John Chivington, a man who, two years later, would become infamous for his part in the Sand Creek Massacre. When the brother of a prominent lieutenant – Lt. George L. Shoup (Shoup would later go on to become a Sentor and Governor of the state of Idaho) was found dead and mutilated, Shoup himself doubled the reward for the capture of the culprits.
It was a lumberman name Matthew Metcalfe who became Felipe’s first target to get away. Metcalf was driving a team of horses through South Park’s California Gulch one day, an open wagon of lumber behind him, when from around a turn stood the Epinosas. They said nothing, only fired. The bullet smashed into Metcalf’s left breast and sent him flying backwards onto the wagon’s lumber. The horses reared in their harnesses and then dashed wildly down the path. The Espinosas simply stepped aside and watched as the runaway wagon disappeared towards town. Later in his diary, Felipe would merely write, “killed a man in a wagon.”
Except he had not. Metcalfe, according to statements, had stuffed inside his front pocket that day a condensed booklet of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The papers had slowed the bullet and left Metcalf alive to tell the story.
The Axe Man of Colorado had a face.
Part V: Manhunt
A posse was formed in Fairplay under John McCannon. The ground was soft and wet from snowmelt, and it wasn’t long before the men discovered a fresh trail of hoofprints. Following the path the men came upon an equally-fresh victim, a man butchered beyond all recognition except that of his brother. Tragically, that brother just so happened to be a member of McCannon’s posse at the moment. McCannon later recounted that the sight sent the man into incapacitating fits and the brother was quickly escorted back to town.
The others wasted no time in keeping on the trail. They rode all day and through the night, exhausted men and horses peeling back along the way. Still, they drew nearer, and they sensed it. The anxiety built to a dangerous high.
It was shortly after daybreak when the group crested a ridge and spied two horses tethered in a grassy meadow far below. The horses’ owners were not in sight but campfire smoke wafted through in the air. Either the killers were resting, or it was a trap.
McCannon split the group in two. He and three others would sneak down the forested slope to the North and hunker below the site. The other four were to slip into some bushes below.
They moved into position, their guns drawn. Finally, from the thicket emerged a dark-skinned and burly figure. He appeared to suspect nothing as he whistled and went about untying a horse. Joe Lamb could take it no longer. He drew a bead on the Mexican’s chest and fired. The man cried out, fell, yanked out a pistol and began firing from his side. A man named Sanger blasted a shotgun which only took down the horse. Finally, Fred Carter, his rifle aimed square, squeezed the trigger and sent the bullet that tore through Vivian Espinosas’ brain.
Amid all the commotion, a second figure suddenly ran out from inside the trees. “For God’s sake,” McCannon shouted, “don’t shoot, that’s Billy Youngh!” thicket. The man wore an expensive-looking suit (he had actually recently acquired it from a victim who happened to shop at the same store as Youngh, a member of McCannon’s posse sent to approach from the opposite direction) that looked just like that which Youngh was wearing. However, when the man lifted his face from his dead brother to reveal his dark features and black bushy beard, already the men were too late. Before McCannon and the others could could take aim Felipe Espinosa had already disappeared once more into the thicket.
It was growing dark by the time the posse gave up on the pursuit and returned to Vivian’s death site. As the men clustered around the body, a shot rang through the air. The bullet smashed into a tree just inches away from Joe Lamb’s head. Looking up at the ridge above them, a thin, blue smoke rose from a silhouetted gunman. With that, he was gone.
On Vivian’s body, however; McCannon found many victims’ belongings, gold, and, in the dead horse’s saddlebag, Felipe’s diary. The pages were a descent into madness: descriptions of murders and mutilations, incoherent and politically-charged diatribes, transcribed and perhaps imagined conversations with family members, unsent letters, and underlying it all, a divine righteousness.
One passage included an early draft of a letter that Felipe, following Vivian’s death, would mail to Governor Evans. According the Weekly Commonwealth, the letter read in part:
They [the Anglos] ruined our families – they took everything in our house; first our beds and blankets, then our provisions. Seeing this we said, “We would rather be dead than see such infamies committed on our families. These were the reasons we had to go out and kill Americans – revenge for the infamies committed on our families. But we have repented of killing. Pardon us for what we have done and give us our liberty so that no officer will have anything to do with us, for also in killing, one gains his liberty. I am aware that you know of some I have killed, but of others you don’t know. It is a sufficient number, however. Ask in New Mexico if any other two men have killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed thirty-two.
It was a quiet summer after that. As stealthily as he had come, Felipe had disappeared. Some thought he may have retreated to Old Mexico, others that he hunkered low with family members or sympathizers. Many reports have Felipe at some point returning to that meadow, to Vivian’s corpse, and carrying south a severed arm to be buried.
But by October 8, 1863, Felipe had resumed his crusade, and once more with an accomplice: 14-year old Jose Espinosa, a nephew.
The two were thought to be drunk that day, passing a bottle back and forth as they waited to ambush a box canyon along what would become La Veta Pass in southern Colorado. A wagon approached, one carrying a Mexican woman named Delores Sanchez and her companion, a white man known only as Philbrook.
The Espinosas attacked and Delores and Philbrook scattered in opposite directions. Both Felipe and Jose took after the man. However, not wanting to get off their horses, they lost Philbrook in the steep and rocky mountainside. They whirled back to go find the woman.
Delores all the while had been hiding behind a rock until another wagon came bustling down the road. Frantic, she popped out and explained to the wagon’s two Mexican drivers what happened. They told her to get in the wagon and hide.
Moments later, the Espinosas trotted up.
According to the report, the two demanded that the drivers tell them what ethnicity they were. When the drivers assured them they were in fact Mexican, the Espinosas asked if they had seen a woman run by. The drivers said they had not, but as soon as they did Delores, for reasons unknown, revealed herself and began pleading for their lives.
She was raped. And when they were done Felipe and Jose bound her and promised to return once they found her gringo companion. By then, however, Philbrook had traversed the hard mountainside all the way to Fort Garland where he alerted Colonel Tappan of the situation. A patrol was sent out, and Dolores soon found in desperate shape; hiding, yet again, after having freed herself.
Safe at Fort Garland, Delores and Philbrook detailed their encounter with the Espinosas. It was the best description anyone had ever given of Felipe. The time had come to end him, and Tappan knew exactly the man to do it.
Part VI: Assassination
Thomas Tate Tobin was an American adventurer, tracker, trapper, mountain man, guide, US Army scout, and beginning the day Colonel Tappan summoned him to Fort Garland, bounty hunter. He was born in 1823 in St. Louis. When he was 14 years old he came west to Taos, New Mexico with his brother Charles to hunt beaver. A few years later, Tom began contracting with Bent’s Fort as a scout. He also worked in a whisky distillery in Arroyo Hondo, shortly north of Taos. In January of 1847, following Mexico’s surrender and the United States’ subsequent occupation of New Mexico, a revolt broke out among New Mexicans and native Indians in Taos. The rebels charged the home of New Mexico’s first U.S. governor, Charles Bent, broke down the door, shot bent several times with arrows, then scalped him in front of his wife and children. The next day, a mob of 500 Mexicans and Indians laid siege to the distillery in Arroyo Hondo. After a long battle, only two of the workers managed to escape – one of them Tobin, fleeing on foot from the blazing structure. Soon after, Tobin helped lead the scouting parties that would eventually capture many of the insurrectionists and put them to death.
In the years that followed, Tobin worked as an army scout, leading campaigns against Indians alongside Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Kit Carson, with whom Tobin was lifelong friends and said to be the only man to surpass Carson in tracking, shooting, and scouting abilities. He was a short, stout, bowlegged mulato. It was said he could “track a grasshopper through sagebrush” His reputation became known all throughout the southwest, and in October of 1863, Tobin was in the prime of his life.
Summoned to Fort Garland, Tobin interrogated Philbrook and Delores for everything they could tell him about the Espinosas. He wanted to go about the mission alone, but Tappan insisted on sending a small detachment of soldier along. The Colonel didn’t think Tobin fully appreciated the capabilities of Felipe Espinosa.
Tobin set out the next morning with fifteen Union soldiers and a boy to tend to his horse every time Tobin dismounted to inspect the trail. For three straight days and nights, followed the two outlaws from campsite to campsite – fresh ash still smoldering in the fire pits. Tobin was keen to every smell; every stick broken; every blade of grass bent or kicked askew. They stopped only for a few hours of sleep a night. Tobin allowed no fires. Those in the company that complained or grew exhausted he sent back.
At last, early morning on the fourth day, Tobin noticed magpies circling in the distance. Approaching the site, a thin column of smoke appeared rising within a grove of cottonwoods. The magpies floated patiently. Tobin instructed his men to stay where they were and to wait with their guns cocked. The tracker then dropped to his stomach and began army crawling nearer the camp, his old Hawken muzzleloader out front.
Felipe and Jose sat warming their hands by a small fire, a dead ox beside them with fillets cut from one haunch.
Their backs to him, Tobin watched.
Pulling his hands away from the fire, Felipe suddenly rose and stretched his arms wide.
Tobin squeezed the trigger. The big Hawken bucked and boomed. Felipe whipped in a half-circle, clutched at the gaping hole in his side and as Tobin would later report, called out, “Jesus favor me!” before collapsing backward into the fire.
Tobin worked fast, deftly cycling another slug into the rifle. Jose took for the woods. He ran until he was just a tiny shadow flickering through the trees, and just as he was about to lose him Tobin aimed and fired. The ball caught the boy in the spine and sent him crashing into the earth.
Meanwhile, Felipe, still clinging to life, pulled himself out of the fire. Tobin rose emerged from the trees. He drew out his Bowie as he approached the dying man.
Felipe, his breaths running out, wheezed curses. Tobin, snatched him by the hair, dragged him, and bent Felipe’s head over a log.
“Do you know who I am?” Tobin recalled asking him.
“Bruto. Bruto.” Felipe replied.
Tobin lopped the heavy blade down, hacking twice to fully sever the head.
Upon his return to Fort Garland, Tobin immediately strode into the office of Colonel Tappan.
“Got them,” he announced.
“Got what,” Tappan asked.
And Tobin reached into the flour sack he was carrying and pulled out the heads of Felipe and Jose Espinosa.
Part VII: The Aftermath
The assassination of Felipe Espinosa would later make Tobin a famous man around Colorado. It remains today a famous chapter of Tobin’s storied career.
There was some controversy later in his life (none of it Tobin’s doing) regarding the bounty attached to Felipe Espinosa. At the time of his death, the bounty Governor Evans had placed on Felipe’s head had risen to $5500. Of this however, Tobin would not see a cent, not from Governor Evans anyway. When the Espinosas were dead and no longer a threat, Evans revealed to Tobin, the whole state for that matter, that the capitol simply did not have the money. They were depleted between the costs of the war, of financing not only the soldiers and forts throughout the territory, but also what Lincoln called for in the East. As this revelation became something of interesting gossip around the area, speculation arose that Tobin had only accepted the commission for the reward money involved, not simply to be valiant. Tobin on the other hand, maintained all the way until his dying day that he never even knew there was a bounty.
Whatever the case, in order to make up for the promised bounty, Governor Evans instead gifted Tobin with an elaborate coat. Only one more like it existed, and that had been presented to Tobin’s friend Kit Carson. The military would also gift Tobin a limited edition Henry rifle. Later, after the Civil War and following Governor Evans resignation, Evans’ successor Alexander Cummings would raise a purse with the help of donators from around the territory and present it to Tobin as a sign of the peoples’ gratitude. The amount of the purse was thought to be less than half the original bounty.
In his old age, Tobin became a prosperous rancher, operating a large ranch near Fort Garland. Although he never knew how to read, Tobin would also become president of the county’s school board. Tobin’s daughter later married the son of Kit Carson. Years following, Tobin would try to stab his son in law for abusing his daughter and the son-in-law would strike back with a hammer to Tobin’s head and a shot at his face (Tobin, amazingly, survived). A few days later, the two were said to have “ironed out their differences..” Tobin lived a long life and died in 1904. Today his wagon can be seen at the Fort Garland museum.
No one knows for sure what became of the heads of Felipe and Jose Espinosa, though for a short period of time they’re thought to have become something of a traveling act around the state of Colorado. Floating in a jar of alcohol, the heads reportedly sat on the desk of the editor of the Fairplay Flume, and later in the offices of the Rocky Mountain News. After that, however, seemingly the heads disappeared. One 1980s newspaper article is aptly titled “Where is Felipe’s Head.” Recently, a few employees at Colorado’s Capitol building recalled hearing that an unlabeled, preserved head was discovered stored in the Capitol’s basement and incinerated.
Vivian’s spurs are on display in the courthouse museum in Colorado Springs. Two pistols belonging to the Espinosas are in the collections of the Colorado Historical Society. Back in the 1960s, a survey was conducted at the scene of Vivian’s death, led by descendents of the posse. They found a rusted rifle, as well as pieces of a human skeleton.
Descendants of these figures still live throughout Colorado and the southwest, including descendents of both Felipe and his victims. Felipe fathered three children with Maria Secundina before disappearing on his rampage. They were, in order: Maria Vincenta (b. 1855), Jose Domingo (b. 1858) and Maria Manuela (b. 1862).
And thus, until the next major piece of the tale reveals itself, ends the story of Felipe Espinosa.