The end of the Jack Powers Gang

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneJuly 20, 2013 

The alleged burial site of the bones of bandit leader Jack Powers at the old Jesuit/Franciscan Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori north of Rio Rico and Nogales along Interstate 19 in southern Arizona.

COURTESY PHOTO

A violent era in the history of San Luis Obispo ended in the summer of 1858. Here’s what happened to some of the last of the Powers-Linares gang who fled the Committee of Vigilance.

Frolian Servin was captured in September in Santa Barbara. Amazingly, Servin hired Walter Murray who had been both the prosecutor and the judge at the Vigilante “court” to defend him.

Murray sought and received a change of venue to Monterey County, where Servin pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to San Quentin, where he died in 1864.

Jesus Valenzuela disappeared.  He was the brother of the infamous Joaquin, one of the first men to be hanged in Mission Plaza by the San Luis Obispo Committee of Vigilance. 

Jack Powers, the Irish-born leader of the Californio bandido gang,  fled to Mexico by steamer.  Once there, he reportedly killed his former subordinate, Rafael Herrada, nicknamed El Huero (the blond or light-skinned one) in a drunken quarrel.  He later took up ranching in the Mexican state of Sonora in the mountains northeast of the state capital at Hermosillo.  Sonoran folklore asserts that in November 1860, he fought with one of his own men over a woman. She and her lover murdered him and hurled his body into a mesquite-fenced enclosure filled with starving hogs. Powers’ skull and a few remaining bones were reportedly taken for burial to the old Jesuit/Franciscan Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori in Arizona Territory, north of the town of Nogales, Sonora.

Another version has Powers cast into the remote mountain ranges where he was devoured by coyotes.

Ironically, Powers’ murder occurred about the same time that Salomon Maria Simeon Pico was executed by a Mexican firing squad. During the early 1850s, Pico, a cousin of the last Mexican governor of California,  Pío Pico, had led a group of Californio bandidos who terrorized El Camino Real between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The Pico gang was based in the hills just south of Orcutt.

Salomon Pico, like both the semi fictional Joaquin Murieta and the later very real bandido, Tiburcio Vásquez, is seen as a defender of the Californios in their continuing resistance to an American takeover. 

When conditions dictated that he flee to Mexico, Pico moved to Santo Tomas, Mexico, where he accepted a position as captain of the guard for the military commander of the frontier of Baja California, Colonel José Castro. Castro handed out generous land grants in return for support for his corrupt regime.  When he was shot by a political enemy, Mexico City appointed a new commander to clean up the Baja California frontier.

Col. Feliciano Ruiz de Esparza was directed to rid La Frontera of all Californio bandidos who were allegedly “corrupting” the district. On May 1, 1860, Pico was arrested and executed along with 15 other “refugees” from Norte Americano justice.

The demise of Jack Powers and Salomon Pico ended the first “bandit” epoch of California history.  Their end was followed by the outbreak of the Civil War and the “great drought” of 1863-64 which devastated the economy of our region.

The recovery came with the dairy boom and the resumption of regular stage coach travel. That brought on Tiburcio Vásquez and “Black Bart,” the English born “gentleman bandit,” Charles Earl Bolles. The railroad era that followed had its bandits also, most notably the sometimes Cholame-based Dalton Gang. These stories all provide future material for Times Past. 

     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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