The Glory Years, 1865-1899

CHAPTER NINE: The Big Gun Fight at Campo

One by one, or in small groups, horsemen carrying pistols or carbines filtered into the area of the little Mexican town of Tecate just below the international border, at a point about fifty miles east of San Diego. It is a high country that slides off quickly into the series of low, easy valleys which formed one of the early routes of travel between Yuma and San Diego. This was the railroad route originally favored by Ephraim Morse and Gen. Rosecrans.

Two miles above the border was the settlement of Campo, where the Gaskill brothers had a store, a mill, a small hotel of sorts, a post office, a large residence, a blacksmith shop and a number of houses. It was all theirs. They ran large herds of cattle over a 900-acre ranch, and there were some people who wondered how they accumulated them. They also raised sheep and hogs and had 400 hives of bees, and were the largest shippers of honey in San Diego County and perhaps in the United States.

The Gaskills, Lumen, 32, and Silas, 46, were handy with guns, as men had to be in the remote areas where many staked out their own domains, and before coming to Campo, they had hunted and killed bears for a livelihood in northern California. The reputation of the Gaskills was such that cattle rustlers from Mexico generally gave Campo Valley a wide berth in their sweeps through San Diego County. They usually crossed the border at Jacumba near Pete Larkin’s stage station, and then circled through Buckman Springs, Pine Valley, Descanso, Viejas Valley, Horsethief Canyon, and then turned south through Cottonwood Canyon and crossed the border to Tecate.

While in the mountains, at an elevation of 2500 feet, Campo is east of the higher ridges, and the winter storms usually drop most of their rain and snow before reaching the small valley. In 1875 there were a number of large oak trees scattered across the valley and some sycamores along the creek which ran through the center of the little settlement and passed directly underneath the store. The cold running water was used as an improvised refrigerator.

Campo was an important settlement, as it was there that the stage coaches and the ten-mule freight wagons stopped to rest their animals after the long climb up the mountain slopes from the west and from the east on the new Yuma road by way of Jacumba that ran entirely within the United States. The Army maintained a telegraph office in the rough wooden building which doubled as a store and cantina.

Tecate, a squatters’ settlement and a hideout for cattle rustlers, was on the abandoned Mexican rancho of one of the former grand Dons of San Diego, Juan Bandini. The ranch was raided and plundered many times by Indians during the chaotic period of the Mexican rule of California.

The armed riders arriving at Tecate included remnants of the outlaw gang of Tiburcio Vasquez who had been captured at Rancho La Brea, near Los Angeles, on May 21, 1874, and tried and hanged. His followers had scattered. One lieutenant, Clodovio Chavez, continued robbing and killing in San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, then drifted into Arizona.

Two other members of the outlaw band, Pancho Lopez and José Alvijo, swung north to the Panamint and Lone Pine areas of east central California, where they murdered a storekeeper and then fled south into Baja California.

While temporarily hiding out and working as a ranch hand on the Barker Ranch at Texas Hills, Arizona, ninety miles north of Yuma on the Gila River, Chavez was recognized and shot to death on November 26 by another rancher, Clark Clotvig, who had tried to take him into custody. Three days later Clotvig’s ranch was shot up by six hard-riding Mexican horsemen.

Rumors persisted that the gang was reforming despite the two deaths, under Pancho Lopez, and as they were in need of more guns and ammunition to arm a larger band they were planning to recruit for outlaw operations in Sonora, they intended to conduct a raid somewhere along the border. The apprehensions of the Gaskills at Campo and of other border ranchers were heightened by the appearance of the mounted gunmen at Tecate. They all seemed to have plenty of money. They gathered, camped and waited.

Many years later Silas Gaskill said in an interview:

“I was working at the forge when I learned that the robbers were going to raid us. A Mexican was hanging around the shop and he seemed to be pretty nervous. I was busy and paid no attention to him. He waited until he could talk to me alone. Then he slipped up and whispered in my ear. He said Pancho Lopez and his gang were coming to clean us out. I had been on good terms with the informer and fed him occasionally when he was broke. Anyhow, he put me on guard.”

The Gaskills weren’t easily frightened. They cleaned and loaded six muzzle-loading shotguns and placed one each in the store, the blacksmith shop, the house, the stable, the post office, and one outside near the post office where it could be grabbed by anyone who might want to join the fight.

On November 30, 1875, four days after Chavez had been killed in Arizona, Pancho Lopez was seen in the general store at San Rafael, forty miles below Tecate, and reportedly witnessed Louis Mendleson, the owner, give his clerk, Henry A. Leclaire, $600 in gold to be delivered to Steiner & Klauber in San Diego. Leclaire left San Rafael in a buggy with two horses and a passenger. The passenger was Don Antonio Sosa, former territorial governor of Baja California. That was the last time the two men were seen alive. Sosa himself had been a rough handler of rustlers. Contemporary news reports say that while governor he had pursued five horse thieves into San Diego County and captured and summarily executed them by gunfire.

On the morning of December 4 two farm wagons with their drivers rattled through Campo and down the road toward Tecate. On the way they met six armed horsemen heading in the direction of Campo. They exchanged greetings and went on. The horsemen were to slip inconspicuously as possible into Campo and open the attack, and then the wagons were to return with nine more men who had been hidden in the brush just over the United States side of the border. In mid-morning Pancho Lopez and his band of killers casually rode into Campo and dismounted, attracting little attention as it was a stopping place for many travelers, and sauntered toward the store and cantina.

Two of the men, Alonzo Cota and José Alvijo, preceding Pancho Lopez, went into the store. Not much is known about Cota but Alvijo had been with Pancho Lopez in raids at Panamint and Lone Pine. Loafing inside the store was Rafael Martinez, one of the gang who had been sent into Campo several days earlier. He moved outside, where he joined Teodoro Vasquez, a relative of Tiburcio Vasquez, and Pancho Alvitro, a fugitive wanted for murder in Los Angeles. Most reports say six bandits rode into Campo and one was waiting at the scene, making seven in all. Lopez took a position near the store doorway, from where he could be seen by the men both inside and outside.

At the moment Lopez raised his hand to give the signal for his men to open fire, a Frenchman on a gray horse rode into town to get mail for his employer, a sheep rancher at Las Juntas. He also was armed. As the two men in the store, Cota and Alvijo, reached for their guns, Lumen Gaskill yelled “murder” and dropped behind a counter and scrambled toward his shotgun. Cota and Alvijo dived over the counter. Cota grabbed Lumen by the hair and Alvijo placed the muzzle of a gun against his chest and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through Lumen’s chest, puncturing a lung, and he began to bleed from the mouth. The two bandits left him for dead.

Upon hearing Lumen’s cry and the shot, Silas Gaskill, who was repairing a wagon in front of the blacksmith shop, leaped after one of his cached shotguns leaning just inside the shop door. He grabbed the gun and whirled just as Vasquez charged into the shop doorway with a six-shooter in hand. The bandit fired first. His shot was followed by the blast of Silas Gaskill’s shotgun. The bullet struck Silas in the side and nicked his arm. In return, Vasquez took the charge of buckshot in his chest at close range and was dead before he hit the ground. Alvitro and Martinez scurried behind the blacksmith shop. Silas ran around the other side and met them coming around a corner. He dropped Martinez with a shot from the second barrel. Alvitro then had only one thought in mind, to get away from that shotgun. He raced toward the mill and hid behind a pile of lumber. Silas ran toward the house to get another shotgun.

Meanwhile the Frenchman who had just ridden into town hurriedly dismounted and put the horse between himself and the bandits and began firing at their leader, Pancho Lopez. One of the shots hit Lopez in the neck and knocked him down, though he returned the Frenchman’s fire while sprawled on the ground. Cota and Alvijo, coming out of the store after shooting Lumen Gaskill, and seeing the wounded Lopez, opened fire on the Frenchman and wounded him in the arm.

While Silas was shooting it out with the three bandits in the vicinity of the blacksmith shop, and while the Frenchman was shooting it out in the street with the other three, Lumen Gaskill, bleeding profusely but far from dead, dragged himself along the floor of the store and reached his shotgun under the counter. He crawled to the door and from the floor fired at Alvijo who was standing by the Frenchman’s horse. The charge smashed Alvijo to the ground.

Running toward the house for another loaded shotgun, Silas passed a stranger named Livingston who had dashed into the settlement to find out what the shooting was all about, and handed him his empty gun. Unable to find another loaded gun, Silas emerged from the house to see Alvitro, who had recovered from his early fright, walking toward Livingston with a pistol pointed at him. Silas grabbed the empty shotgun away from Livingston and aimed at the bandit. Alvitro once again turned and fled behind the blacksmith shop, and as he went around a corner he came into range of the wounded Lumen who was still lying prone in the doorway of the store. Lumen fired the second barrel of his shotgun and wounded Alvitro.

The accounts all differ somewhat, and a correspondent for The San Diego Union, the telegraph operator, on the scene at the time, said he also had exchanged fire with one of the bandits and then scurried for safety under the store, where he found Lumen standing in the icy creek. Lumen had emptied his gun and though faint from loss of blood, had slipped down through a trapdoor and into the water.

The fight had lasted but five or six minutes. Lopez and Alvitro, both wounded, and Cota rode out of town. The two wagons which were to have brought nine more gunmen into action never arrived. It is believed the men had heard the furious shooting and decided the battle was not going as had been anticipated and fled across the border. Silas Gaskill’s account given forty years later says Alvitro had been wounded so seriously that Lopez helped him off’ his horse, sat him down in some bushes, and put a bullet through his head.

The telegraph operator who had remained hidden in fear, returned to his key and clattered out the details of the attack to San Diego. Ranchers in the area also began descending upon Campo. The wounded José Alvijo had been left behind and he had crawled away into the brush and rocks where he intended to hide and then make his way back across the border. Rafael Martinez, not wounded seriously, was taken into custody. The body of Vasquez was buried near the blacksmith shop.

The same afternoon a hastily-formed posse of ten ranchers went east on the Yuma road in search of the fleeing bandits. Indian tracking parties were sent out to scour the countryside and returned at 3 o’clock with the news they had found one body three miles west of Campo, near the road. It was assumed to be that of Pancho Alvitro. Positive identification was never recorded. Other ranchers brought guns and ammunition, food and supplies for a full-scale defense, as it was anticipated that the bandits would regroup, assemble their companions around Tecate, and return to the fight. Lookouts were placed on the surrounding hilltops.

At 4 o’clock the next morning José Alvijo, cold and riddled with buckshot, staggered up to the Gaskill home and begged for help. Sheriff’ Hunsaker and three deputies arrived from San Diego and put the two prisoners, Alvijo and Martinez, under guard. That night while the sheriff’ and two of the guards were away for a few minutes, or so it was reported, a group of ranchers appeared, tied up the remaining guard, and carried off the prisoners. The next morning some Mexicans from Tecate found the two bandits hanging from a tree by a single piece of rope.

The hangings aroused the population of Tecate, many of whom were in sympathy with the bandits and themselves engaged in occasional cattle rustling. Aroused Mexicans for miles around moved toward Tecate, and lookouts on the American side of the border reported as many as eighty camp fires dotting the valley floor around the town.

A short time after the shooting Simon Miller, a rancher on the road from Yuma, arrived at Campo and reported that three Mexicans, two of them bloody and bandaged, had held him up and stolen the two horses he had with him. The body of the clerk of the store at San Rafael, Henry A. Leclaire, who was to deliver $600 in gold to San Diego, was found twenty miles away outside San Rafael. He had been shot through the head. One of the two horses with his buggy also had been shot but the other one was still in the harness almost dead of thirst and hunger. The former governor of Baja California, Antonio Sosa, who had left with Leclaire, was still missing and so was the gold.

Fear was rife in Campo, and Silas Gaskill wrote to Allan Klauber in San Diego on December 14:

“We have been told by parties from Ticarte that they intend to try us again; that they are determined to rob us before they give up. They say they will try it next time with a force sufficient to go through us. It seems rather tough that we can’t be protected in some way from being robbed and murdered here at home; minding our own business, does it not? I wish you would use what influence you can for us and see if we can’t get some protection in some way. The government ought to protect the Postoffice and Military Telegraph Office here. They will have to be discontinued; probably both officers will be killed in the next attack.”

Much of Northern Mexico, especially the state of Sonora, was in a state of rebellion and it was not certain whether the armed men gathering at Tecate were to join the revolt or avenge the deaths in the Campo raid, and The San Diego Union stated in an editorial:

“We cannot afford to have so dangerous a neighbor as Sonora now is. With starvation and anarchy in that state, bands of vagabonds, beggars and bandits will be continually crossing to the American side of the line, as they have been doing for the last two or three months, with such results as we note in the vicinity of Campo and along the whole border east and west of the Colorado.”

A committee was formed in San Diego, to augment the guard at Campo, to seek military assistance, and to reach some sort of truce between the American settlement of Campo and the Mexican town of Tecate before a major border clash occurred. On the committee were Ephraim Morse, chairman; W.E. Begole, W.W. Stewart, W.W. Bowers, A. Klauber, H.H. Wildy, Douglas Gunn and Charles A. Wetmore. Wildy, San Diego’s district attorney, was placed in charge of the posse and Wetmore was sent to San Francisco to see Gen. John M. Schofield, commander of the Army’s Pacific Division.

Wildy found seventy to 100 armed men camped around Tecate, and with food running short, some kind of action could be expected soon. Two of the three bandits who had fled from Campo were reported in the vicinity of San Rafael and the people there were as afraid of the armed bands north of them as were the residents of Campo.

The body of the former governor of Baja California, who had been with the murdered Leclaire, was found on December 16, not far from the scene of the crime. His head had been smashed and his throat cut. Sheriff Will Hunsaker went to San Rafael and learned that at least fifteen men were in the gang that had planned the Campo raid and that Lopez had been responsible for the murder of Leclaire and the former governor.

On January 3, more than a month after the attack, Company G, 1st Cavalry, arrived at San Diego aboard a steamer and moved into the old barracks at New San Diego. They had forty-three men, fifty horses, two wagons and an ambulance. A detachment of ten under a Lieut. Storey reached Campo on January 11, 1876. The situation was quieting down, and Lieut. Storey became the only casualty. He dropped his pistol and shot himself in the hip. He left four men to guard the settlement and returned to San Diego.

The Frenchman who had ridden into the midst of the fight died while enroute to San Francisco, evidently from infection of his wound. As for the bandit leader, Pancho Lopez, Silas Gaskill learned that he had died of a neck wound a year after the fight.

So ended the events that surrounded the famous gunfight at Campo. One man had been killed outright in the gun fight; two had died of their wounds; another had been killed by his companion; two had been lynched, and two others had been wounded. Two other persons had been murdered for gold. Only one identified member of the gang, Alonzo Cota, apparently survived. What happened to the sixth bandit who rode into town, if there was a sixth, was never established. According to the recollections of Silas Gaskill, several years later the sheriff of El Paso notified him that he had Cota in custody and would deliver him for $1000. The Gaskills were not interested. They were busy with the development of the ranch and lived out their normal lives. It was the last raid of organized bandit gangs in Southern California. Cattle rustling, however, persisted on an extensive scale for many years.

In that same year, in midsummer, members of a gang of Sonoran horse thieves were reported operating along the border, and on July 17, a mare belonging to a pupil was stolen from the yard of the little country school in Milquatay Valley north of Campo. Two of the older boys at the school, identified as Andrew and Zachary Elliott, and a youth from Tecate, Manuel Melendrez, started in pursuit and enlisted the aid of local ranchers. Three separate parties were formed to hunt down the thieves, and one of them, led by Deputy Sheriff Charles Hensley, crossed the border and received permission from the alcalde of Tecate to pursue, capture and return the thieves.

The three boys got to them first. Their story was that the two thieves refused to surrender the horse and opened fire. One of the boys was slightly wounded, but, in returning the fire, they killed both of the Mexicans. In a letter to his brother, Lumen, who was at San Diego, Silas Gaskill wrote:

“The devil is to pay. The Mexicans have arrested the two Elliott boys, and a party went down to see about it and the Mexicans have arrested them — seventeen of our men — the whole neighborhood is up in arms…the boys who are at liberty are concentrated on this side of the line.”

One of those held was Deputy Sheriff Hensley. Later reports indicated there were only eleven Americans in all in custody, including the Elliott boys. All were taken to San Rafael. San Diego’s district attorney, H.H. Wildy, and another deputy, Ned Bushyhead, went to San Rafael in company with Fr. Ubach and finally after many hearings and arguments, all except the Elliott boys were released. Wildy appealed to the United States Department of State and was appointed a special envoy to intervene on their behalf. A trial developed the information that the Mexican youth, Melendrez, also had obtained written permission from the alcalde of Tecate directing him to take the thieves into custody, and if fired upon, to shoot back. The Elliott boys were freed and the border once again quieted down. Sometime later according to dispatches in The San Diego Union, it was learned that the judge in the case had been arrested and convicted of accepting a bribe of $1000 to release the boys, and had been secured with ball and chain and packed off to seven years of imprisonment at La Paz in southern Baja California.