Tiburcio Vasquez, Highway Robber

by Bruce Anderson, November 25, 2010

Tiburcio Vasquez was, for a time, the best known outlaw in America and, as described in a just-released biography called Bandito by San Francisco-based John Boessenecker, certainly among the most active highway robbers in America's flush history of banditry.

Vasquez was a Californio, that doomed race of Spanish-descended Californians who began arriving in the state when it was a northern frontier of Mexico, some of them conquista­dores who rode in to what became San Francisco with Junipero Serra while Serra himself, ever the ascetic, walked the whole way from Mexico City.

It's always striking how fast our history is moving, especially when you consider that Father Serra staggered into the Bay Area a mere 224 years ago. Serra's string of missions were California for the next seventy years or so until the missions were secularized, i.e. became the private prop­erty of connected Mexicans. California became the native home of several thousand rural aristocrats presid­ing over vast ranchos from San Diego to, of all places, Hopland here in Mendocino County, the whole of it casually administered out of Mexico. These brief gen­erations of "Californios," whose ancestral home was Monterey, which is where Vasquez and, earlier, General Vallejo, were born.

The Californios, and their gracefully vigorous rancho lives were overwhelmed by the Gold Rush of 1850, the Californios dispossessed. By then, California had been formally annexed by the United States. Vasquez was one of many dispossessed Cali­fornios who spent the rest of his life dispossessing Yan­kee travelers of whatever valuables they had on them, right down to their watches and boots, if the boots were new and the watches were gold watches. His biggest heist occurred when he and his gang robbed a whole town near what is now Fresno.

In between forays holding up stage coaches, rural stores, bars, and the occasional Anglo whore house, and in between stays at San Quentin where he organized an all-time record four break-outs, Vasquez, revered by Californios and Mexicans, depended on remote settlements of his admirers to hide him from the law, what little law there was from 1850 to 1870 or so. (Lynch law was more prevalent than the courtroom type.)

Vasquez had flair. He read poetry and even wrote some. He also sang his way into the arms of many women, married and single. Bandito is a wonderful of picture of California as it was from the Gold Rush through the full establishment of a coherent state, which only really commenced about 1880.

Vasquez, inciden­tally, hid out for a while at the Feliz ranch based in Hopland, and there's an account of him being chased into the hills above Anderson Valley in 1865 by the legen­dary Mendocino County lawman, Doc Standley.

I was pleased to see that Boessenecker's fascinating biography of Vasquez is dedicated to the late Jack Reynolds, who died in Willits about ten years ago. Jack's late wife, Rosalie, is also cited by the author for her help with his marvelous book. Rosalie is fondly remembered by many in the Anderson Valley where she lived for many years following the death of her husband. The author says the Reynolds, retired from the antiquarian book business, were of huge assistance to him in locating the source material for his project. Boessenecker is clearly a formi­dable researcher.

He has tracked down people, towns and even two-shack hamlets deep in the Coast Range that haven't existed for a hundred and fifty years. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the true history of the Golden State.

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