By Ariele Johannson
If you've watched a reenactment of the 1875 Campo gunfight, you may have wondered what led up to the conflict and wanted to learn more about this fascinating tale. Here are the true details behind one of East County's most infamous historical episodes.
The leader of a Mexican gang, or Californios banditos, was Clodoveo Chavez and his most trusted man, Cruz Lopez. Chavez had recently threatened revenge on the gringos, because his “captain,” the infamous Tiburcio Vasquez had been jailed in San Jose for two murders. Vasquez pled innocent, and it is possible he never committed any murders during his “career.”
However, according to Bryon Harrington, author of Campo: The Forgotton Gunfight “Vasquez rode unchecked through the remote regions of the northern goldfields to the rugged outskirts of Los Angeles for much of his 22-year reign of terror, a notorious highwayman who served three terms in San Quentin before finally being captured in 1874 and hanged in San Jose a year later” (355). After this, the gang was eventually driven out of Central California and headed south toward Southern California and Mexico. The gang split up and most rode through Horsethief Canyon, later rejoining Cruz and Alvijo in Tecate, Mexico. Tiburcio’s nephew, Fedoro Vasquez, was riding with the gang.
The prevailing atmosphere which created the justification for lawlessness by Mexican or californios banditos was the conflict caused by the 1849 California Gold Rush. The clash was between the native population of California-at that time mostly Indian and Hispanic-and the encroaching Anglos (Americans and immigrants from the East); some of whom brought greed and prejudice.
Even though the natives established many claims in the gold lands early on and taught the “gringos” how to find gold, the natives end up largely being shut out of the mines. One law passed by the California legislature in 1850 required a $20 a month tax for foreigners only. The label of “foreigners” fell on the native Mexican and Indian population. The fallout was that approximately 10,000 Mexicans lost their entire claim for failure to pay the tax before the law was repealed the following year. Lynchings of mainly Mexican men were frequent; about 200 in the years between 1849 and 1853. Harrington states that the natives “were still all-too-routinely rounded up, beaten, and driven from the diggings, or even killed on the scantest of pretexts” (351).
Another law denied the land rights of the californios previously guaranteed by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War. One result of these and other betrayals was the fueling of Mexican retaliation in the form of gangs of banditos. This unresolved conflict formed the backdrop for the Campo Gunfight story.
Leadership of the gang changed again: Clodoveo Chavez died in the Arizona territories, and Cruz Lopez, a homicidal maniac, became the head man. Chavez was gunned down in Yuma County, Arizona Territory by bounty hunters for a $2000 reward. Morse, a bounty hunter known as El Diablo, had been on Chavez’ trail but ran out of money. Colvig, another bounty hunter, and others shoot and decapitate Chavez. After the inquest in Yuma to establish identification and release of wrong doing, they take the severed head of Chavez in a pickle jar to Los Angeles to collect their reward.
Chavez had wanted to stage a daring raid on the town of Campo. Cruz planned to go ahead with that plan. The gang was going to Sonora to hide out and needed supplies.
The main characters in Campo are two brothers who own the town: Silas and Lumen Gaskill.. The Gaskill brothers send a request for help to Sheriff Hunsaker in San Diego. Jack Kelly, the telegraph operator, sends the telegram. The request is refused. Should they make a stand or let the banditos rob the whole town? They decide they have worked too hard, and they are sick and tired of being intimidated by this gang. Men ride out to outlying ranches to warn families and recruit men. Everyone gathers firearms. Campo is guarded each night by four men. Nothing happens for days, and they become anxious. Is the gang going to strike or not?
Then word comes on November 26, 1875 via telegram: leader Clodoveo Chavez has been gunned down in Yuma County, Arizona Territory by bounty hunters for a $2000 reward. Morse, a bounty hunter known as El Diablo, had been on Chavez’ trail but ran out of money. Colvig, another bounty hunter, and others shoot and decapitate Chavez. After the inquest in Yuma to establish identification and release of wrong doing, they take the severed head of Chavez in a pickle jar to Los Angeles to collect their reward.
The town of Campo breathes a sigh of relief. The men who came to help Campo gradually disappear over the next few days. Unfortunately, this is a mistake. They assume the gang won’t carry out their plan without their leader. This oversight leads to Silas later getting shot in the gunfight-with only two rounds in his shotgun and before he can reload. He and his brother, Lumen, are aided in the gunfight by Frenchy, a sheepherder for a Mexican rancher named Ynda.
Meanwhile, a man named Estrada who lived near Tecate became suspicious of his daughter’s boyfriend, Rafael Martinez. (The Estrada family is fictional-the only characters who are.) Maria had been crying all day refusing to reveal what Rafael told her before he rode off. His neighbor tells him Rafael has joined the Chavez gang. Rafael and Maria love each other, and he just told her he has to go away for a long time. He and his friend Cota only just joined the gang. Rafael and Cota are Tecate boys working as sheepherds on area ranches. All of their young lives, they have heard stories of the famous Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang. Rafael’s recent involvement in the gang is a secret and, he knows, a mistake. He found that out when he witnessed a brutal murder by Lopez. But, he cannot get out of the gang now. Cruz would kill Maria and her family and hunt Rafael down.
The night before the raid, Cruz sends a reluctant young Rafael Martinez to Campo with orders. He is to scout the town, and if there are four men able to defend Campo, he stays and waits for them to arrive. If there are more than four, Cruz tells him to ride out and meet them on the trail to warn them. Rafael, mourning the life he knows he will now never have with Maria, sees four men. So, on the morning of December 4, 1875, the gang sneaks into town led by Cruz Lopez. By this time the gang is twelve men strong. Extra recruits are told to wait within hearing distance, hidden in the boulders and chaparral with a wagon they will use to haul away the loot.
Following Cruz’ directions, Alvijo and Cota (Rafael’s friend) go into the Campo Store. Fedoro Vasquez (Tiburcio’s Vasquez’ nephew) hides near the Blacksmith Shop, waiting to get Silas Gaskill. Those in the store capture Lumen Gaskill while Rafael and others search for the cash box. Cruz Lopez trains his gun on Lumen and yells out orders to his men Then Lumen is shot bad; the bullet goes through his left lung and out the back. Alvijo and Cota leave him and search for the cash box. Not finding it, they exit the store with other items. But Lumen, bleeding and weak, somehow manages to get his shotgun. He sees Alvijo shoot Frenchy outside.
Lumen hits Alvijo with buckshot and stops him. But now the gun is empty. Lumen struggles to his house to get another weapon with the help of his small son who comes out to meet him. He manages to grab his needle gun, which he uses to shoot another bandit, Alvitro. In the meantime, Silas takes a shot at Rafael and stops him. Then he goes to his brother and carries him to a bed in the house where they can stabilize him. The women tend to his wounds. Incredibly, he survives.
Frenchy, so called because he was from France, is a historical character. He worked for a Mexican sheepherder in the area named Ynda and used to go into Campo for supplies. He did not die in the gunfight but was able to stagger away after being wounded. However, he died about two weeks later from his wounds, never seeing his beloved France again.
The Gaskill Brothers became heroes. Later, they sold their land and moved to San Diego. It is likely they met Wyatt Earp who lived in San Diego in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. The famous U.S. Marshall fought it out with the Clanton Gang at OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. But, the Campo Gunfight eclipsed Earp’s gunfight, in terms of scope and casualties; that is before it was forgotten.
View story on a reenactment of the Campo Gunfight, with video: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/12956
Read interviews with the reenactors: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/12957