‘Devil on horseback’ leads outlaw gang through California

Special to The TribuneJune 1, 2013 

Jack Powers held the entire Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey in his grip during the 1850s.

Powers was an Irish immigrant. He was only 10 years old when his family arrived in New York City in 1836. The Irish were treated with contempt by the established residents. Advertisements for jobs often bore the acronym NINA, standing for No Irish Need Apply. Young boys soon formed gangs for self-protection. In a short time, the gangs dominated the Lower East Side.

Gang organization and management were the talents that Powers brought to Santa Barbara as a sergeant with the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers in early 1847.

Part of the regiment was posted at Santa Barbara for 15 months. Then the regiment was disbanded. Powers remained in California, where he did his best to promote lawlessness.

Like many Anglo-Irish immigrants in the regiment, he took to the laid-back life of California. Although he was raised in New York City, Powers loved the plentiful horses. The vaqueros of the Santa Barbara ranchos began calling him “a diablo a caballo” — a devil on horseback.

There were good reasons for labeling Powers a diablo. Like many members of groups who had suffered discrimination, he held a deep prejudice against the Mexican Americans in California. He was often overheard referring to the Californios with abusive language. But that did not prevent Powers from using them for his own nefarious purposes. After his discharge, Powers associated and rode with some vaqueros of unsavory reputation.

While in Santa Barbara, he made many friends among the Californio elite. Powers’ horsemanship was highly regarded among these masters of the art. He befriended José Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega, owner of the Los Alamos Rancho. Noriega was the son of José de la Guerra, the venerable “el Gran Capitan” of the Santa Barbara Presidio, who ranked among the most honorable and highly respected Californio dons. But the son was often suspected of making the territory surrounding his rancho the most feared part of California in the 1850s.

This column recently recounted how the outlaw Solomon Pico used the Los Alamos Rancho until an encounter with a group of vigilantes caused him to permanently withdraw to Los Angeles and Baja California in 1851.

Powers’ hatred of authority, skill as a horseman and general love of “the sporting life” soon made him a leader for outlaw gangs. The gangs were composed largely of disaffected young Californios who were bitter over the Americanization of what had been their land.

Powers and his gang could easily ride 100 miles a day and could use the Los Alamos ranch as a haven and place of refuge for operations ranging as far north as San Antonio and Jolon and east as General E.F. Beale’s ranch and fort at El Tejon.

When posses were sent out to apprehend them, the bandidos would disappear from El Camino Real in northern San Luis Obispo County and, in several days, reappear in Los Angeles. Their trail was the western branch of El Camino Viejo, literally the “Old Road to Los Angeles,” following today’s U.S. Highway 33 to the Grapevine and then the lonely Tejon Pass. Their targets were the gold dust and gold coins carried by the ranchers and Basque cattle buyers who drove the plentiful herds of cattle from Southern and Central California to the Mother Lode counties. Butchers in the mining towns were willing to pay premium prices for beef on the hoof.

By 1853, all too many ranchers and Basque cattlemen with saddlebags fattened with gold met their end at the hands of Jackie Powers’ gang.

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

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