Times Past

Desolate region was a haven for bandits preying on cattle riches

Special to The TribuneMay 26, 2013 

Mission Santa Inés, sketched by German artist Henry Miller in 1856 — just three years after it was seized by Jackie Powers.


The small mission pueblo of San Luis Obispo was known as El Barrio de Tigre — the town of the wildcat.

Our region suffered both from isolation and prosperity.

During the Gold Rush, the world was rushing to the Mother Lode and the counties of the Bay Area. The huge increase in population created a seller’s market for the numerous herds of cattle and sheep in the now largely depopulated Central Coast and Southern California ranches.

Basque sheep herders had been brought to California at the end of the mission period. By the early 1850s their saddlebags were filled with gold. They grew rich driving cattle and sheep up the coastal trails and over the passes into the San Joaquin Valley where they were sold in the feed lots of Stockton.

There, in what came to be called “Fat City,” the trail-weary animals would be fattened on grains and beer mash and shipped onto Sonora, Columbia and Jamestown. A steer might fetch as much as $200 on the hoof.

The seller would have to be careful on his way home through the sparsely settled Central Coast. And a man should never boast of what he carried in his saddlebags.

Travelers along the El Camino Real reported finding human skeletons tied to trees, bleached white by the burning sun.

An anonymous special correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin wrote of his concerns in 1853: “I know scarcely a month has passed ... without the disappearance of several travelers, or the finding of dead bodies or skeletons on the roads.”

Over the past several weeks, we’ve described several figures who were blamed for these disappearances and murders.

Solomon Pico, a son of California’s well-known Pico clan, has been named as a “person of interest,” but as we learned last week, he moved his operations to Los Angeles and points south in 1851.

Joaquin Murieta’s legend became an unforgettable part of California history with the publication of “Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit” in 1854.

Joaquin’s life “officially” ended when he was killed and decapitated by a posse at Arroyo de Cantua northwest of Coalinga on July 25, 1853. Thereafter, any violence along the El Camino would have to be blamed on others.

But there were other “Joaquins” who were probably involved in all manner of skulduggery along the El Camino. One of them, Joaquin Valenzuela, also called Joaquin Ocomorenia, was a well known figure in San Luis Obispo, where he would die infamously at the end of a rope.

These “Joaquins” were in fact part of a large gang of bandidos working for a charismatic Irish immigrant named Jackie Powers. By the early 1850s, Powers and his gang were able to dominate the Santa Ynez Valley, seizing Mission Santa Inés and Nicholas Den’s famed Rancho San Marcos, which controlled the pass into Santa Barbara.

Powers’ headquarters was in an abandoned adobe in San Roque Canyon near present day Stevens County Park by Foothill Road and Cañon Drive in Santa Barbara.

Powers came to California with Col. John C. Stevenson’s First Regiment of New York Volunteers.

Commonly known as Stevenson’s Regiment, it was recruited from the new immigrants of the rough and tumble “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood.

The regiment disembarked in Santa Barbara, only to find that the war was over. Within a year, Powers and his shipmates had further cause for rejoicing when news of the Gold Rush spread.

Powers soon became a prosperous gambler. Another member of the regiment made a name for himself as a newspaper editor and frontier attorney.

The careers of Jackie Powers and Walter Murray intersected in mortal combat in the spring of 1858.

To be continued.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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