Campo, the Forgotten Gunfight by Bryon Harrington (www.CampoGunfight.com, 2009 Campo, 372 pp.)
Review by Miriam Raftery
July 3, 2011 (Campo) –Few San Diegans are aware that a Wild West shoot-out deadlier than the famed O.K. Corral confrontation occurred in our own East County.
A patron in a Tecate cantina overheard a notorious group of banditos boast of plans to rob the entire town of Campo, a frontier settlement near the Mexican border. So he rode north and tipped off the Gaskill brothers, owners of the Campo Store. The brothers asked San Diego’s Sheriff to send a posse for protection—to no avail. Left to fend for themselves with their lives on the line, the townspeople planned a defense. Then they mounted a vigil that lasted for weeks, until the fateful showdown on December 4, 1875.
The OK Corral shootout in Tombstone, Arizona lasted just 30 seconds and killed three men. The Campo gunfight, which took place six years earlier, lasted over five minutes and resulted in deaths of more outlaws-- some by gunfire, others by hanging.
Bryon Harrington has brought this colorful tale to life and rescued it from the dustbin of history. His own life mirrors the true-life characters he writes about. The author’s fascination with the Old West began as a child in Vermont, where he watched Western movies and read novels by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. As an adult, he settled in San Diego’s backcountry and joined the Gaskill Brothers Gunfighters, a reenactment group. He became noted western actor, quick-draw artist, bullwhip expert, gold prospector and skit director for the “Hole in the Wall Gang” reenactors troupe.
But the tale begins long before the actual shootout, as Harrington traces the bloody trail of robberies and cold-blooded murders committed by the outlaws under the command of Tiburcio Vasquez. After Vasquez was brought to justice for his crimes in northern California, other band members fought for control of the leadership. Learning of a rich gold motherlode far south in Mexico, the bandits under leadership of Cruz (Pancho) Lopez schemed to acquire supplies from the citizens of Campo for a trip south to steal gold from the miners.
Few Americans had ever heard of the now-famed O.K. Corral gunfight until the exploits of Sheriff Wyatt Earp and those he squared off against were immortalized in a book and later, a movie. Harrington hopes to similarly draw attention to the forgotten gunfight in Campo with his writing.
Harrington spent more than a decade researching his book. Campo: The Forgotten Gunfight reads like a novel. Thus the story blends fictionalized dialogue with historical facts to create a compelling read.
The Gaskill Brothers, marksmen who owned the Campo Store, muster help from community members and a resident Kumeyaay Indian to help defend their town.
This is a tale of courage and cowardice, violence and vengeance, despair and determination. There’s even a touch of romance thrown in.
While some characters seem stereotypical, the author succeeds in creating multi-dimensional characters in many cases, such as Rafael Martinez, who reluctantly joins the banditos in hopes of earning enough money to persuade his prospective father-in-law to allow Rafael to marry his sweetheart.
Lumen Gaskill was shot through a lung in the Campo Store, yet kept on firing a double barrel shotgun—and survived. After the gunfight, Lumen and his brother, Gaskill, fortified their store with thick stone walls.
The Gaskill’s Old Campo Store is still there today, now a museum dedicated to preserving their legacy and this important part East County’s Western heritage. A stump from the tree where two of the banditos were lynched can still be seen outside.
The site stands atop an old wagon train road that dates back to the 1860s along what's know known as Historic Highway 94. It is now a state historic landmark.
When the wind whispers through the trees along the banks of the Campo Creek, one can imagine voices of the past—starting with the whispered warning from an informant of an attack planned on the town.
Harrington brings to life those long forgotten voices, along with vivid images from the past in Campo: The Forgotten Gunfight. Irecommend this book to all who want to learn more about our region’s vivid history—and the men who saved their town from falling prey to a cutthroat band of desperados.