Times Past

The gangs of San Luis Obispo

Special to The TribuneJune 8, 2013 

Throughout most of the 1850s, what was then our tiny mission pueblo was under the control of a well-organized gang led by Irish immigrant Jackie Powers and a virulently anti-Norte Americano band of Californios led by Pío Linares and Joaquin Valenzuela.

These bandits lived off the fat of the land by stealing the gold-laden saddlebags of ranchers returning from selling cattle and sheep to the hungry miners of the state’s Mother Lode.

Powers’ first base of operations was in Santa Barbara, where he had an “understanding” with Sheriff Valentine Hearne. Whenever there was evidence of a robbery or murder committed by Powers’ gang, Jack would claim that he “was in Los Angeles gambling” or “at the races in ’Frisco.” He often was where he said he was, but Hearne, not wanting a fight with another “Anglo,” never checked.

Powers’ downfall in Santa Barbara came about when he tried to take over all of Santa Ynez Valley. This cut into the pride and resources of a fellow Irish immigrant, Nicholas Den.

Den had arrived in Santa Barbara in 1836. By converting to Catholicism and becoming a Mexican citizen, he was eligible for a Mexican land grant. In 1842, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado awarded him the much-prized, 15,000-acre Rancho Los Dos Pueblos, from modern-day Goleta to El Capitan State Beach.

Then in 1846, Gov. Pío Pico granted Den the 35,573-acre Rancho San Marcos. When Powers tried to interdict the roads from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara by seizing Mission Santa Iñes and the surrounding Rancho San Marcos, he was treading on Den’s turf.

In 1853, Den caught Powers’ gang stealing his cattle. He had no trouble organizing a large posse of heavily armed men. A greatly humiliated Powers withdrew into the Arroyo Burro district near the opening of Santa Barbara’s San Roque Canyon.

The Arroyo Burro was actually on land belonging to Den. Den sought a court order, ultimately prevailing with a judgment of the state Supreme Court, evicting Powers.

Newly appointed Sheriff William W. Twist was required to serve the order. Twist brought along a posse of 200 men. Before the posse could get to Arroyo Burro, part of Powers’ gang descended on them, shooting a hole through the district attorney’s hat and badly knifing Sheriff Twist. A battle ensued, thousands of bullets were fired and the posse withdrew.

Powers and his gang left San Roque Canyon only when they heard that a much larger group of “San Francisco-style vigilantes” or “a company of Marines from Mare Island” was coming south along the El Camino Real. Although there’s little evidence of such a group being on the trail, Powers fled to Los Angeles. He left Pío Linares and Joaquin Valenzuela to move their base of operations to San Luis Obispo.

Our community was ripe for the taking by the outlaws. Henry J. Dalley had been elected sheriff in April 1850. He resigned a year later, saying that the job was “too dangerous and not worth my life.”

Sheriff Francisco Castro followed former Santa Barbara Sheriff Valentine Hearne’s example of largely ignoring the gang’s crimes.

In November 1857, the Powers-Linares-Valenzuela gang went too far. Two Basque cattle buyers, Pedro Obiesa and M. Graciano, bought some stolen cattle from Frolian Servin, one of Linares’ men, near Paso Robles. Servin rode into San Luis Obispo to tell the leaders of the gang that the Basques were carrying a great deal of money.

This news was too great a temptation for Powers and Linares, who were drinking at Albarelli’s billiard room and saloon, probably what is today called the Sauer-Adams Adobe in San Luis Obispo.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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