Times Past

Times Past: Tiburcio Vasquez was the honorable bandido

Tiburcio Vasquez, photographed shortly before his hanging.
Tiburcio Vasquez, photographed shortly before his hanging.

He was tried and sentenced in San Jose where he maintained that he had never personally killed anyone.

A professional photographer took pictures of a well-dressed Tiburcio Vasquez. The prisoner sold autographed photos from the window of his cell to raise money for his legal defense. They were purchased mostly by admiring women. Clemency was denied by Gov. Romualdo Pacheco, once the sheriff of San Luis Obispo County.

Vasquez is a legendary California bandido. Between 1852 and 1874, he terrorized the highways and small towns of both Northern and Southern California. Other than Joaquin Murieta, Vasquez was the most notorious bandit in California history. Unlike Joaquin, he is not highly fictionalized, but a real person whose life and death read like a highly imaginative Western novel.

Even his death became a California legend: His only word on the gallows was “Pronto.” Then he dropped to his death by hanging. The bandido calmly met his fate March 19, 1875, in the still standing 1868 Santa Clara County Courthouse across from St. James Park in San Jose.

His name lives on in the Vasquez Rocks near Palmdale, the site of so many “shoot ’em ups” in the early Western movies. His name can be seen on the Vasquez Community Health Clinic in Union City describing Vasquez as “an early Californian Robin Hood.”

There’s an important connection between San Luis Obispo and Vasquez. Robert Soto’s narrative of his family’s 235-year residence in our state, titled “An Old California Family: The Sotos of Cambria,” contains a wonderful account of an encounter between the Sotos’ relation, Vasquez, and the famed “cattle king,” Henry Miller. They met in a San Luis Obispo barroom sometime in the early 1870s.

Soto credits the Vasquez story to an article written in this paper by Rodney Johnson on May 4, 1956.

The German-born Miller was half of Miller and Lux, who owned 1.4 million acres and additionally controlled nearly 22,000 square miles of cattle grazing and farmland in California. Aside from the Southern Pacific Railroad, they were the most important real estate owners in the second half of the 19th century.

Miller was riding down the Pacheco Pass toward his ranch headquarters at Los Baños in the San Joaquin Valley when he was confronted by four masked bandits. Miller immediately handed over his money but complained that he had nothing left to help him complete his journey. The gang’s leader handed Miller two gold coins, saying, “Pay me back the next time you see me!”

Three months later, while sitting in the lobby of a San Luis Obispo hotel, Miller overheard the voice of Vasquez in the adjoining barroom. Miller walked into the bar and handed Vasquez $20, saying “Here’s the money I owe you. Thanks very much for the use of it.”

Thereafter, Vasquez, the honorable bandido, circulated word that he would personally shoot anyone who even looked at property belonging to Miller, “the man who always paid his debts.”

Robert Soto will sign copies of his book, “An Old California Family: The Sotos of Cambria” today from 1-4 p.m. at the Cambria Historical Society’s Bianchini House, 2251 Center St. in Cambria’s East Village.

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