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Campo The Forgotten Gunfight

capture-20141210-124312As Tiburcio Vasquez uttered the word “Pronto” on that March day in 1875, the trap door swung open and the leader of one of the most notorious gangs of bandidos the state of California has ever seen dropped from the gallows. The rope snapped his neck, putting an end to the life of the convicted killer.

But was Vasquez, whose capture and execution made front page news as far away as Paris, really a killer? Raised in the Bay Area, Vasquez turned to a life of crime at an early age. Starting out as a two-bit horse thief, he worked his way up the ranks until he became one of the most infamous Californios bandidos, second only to the legendary and somewhat fictitious Joaquin Murrieta. Sure, Tiburcio Vasquez was a criminal. But although he served three separate terms in San Quentin for various robberies and crimes, it was never proven at his trial that he had ever killed anyone. For most of his career, he was a relatively unknown small-time outlaw. It was in 1871 that his exploits began to gain the attention of the law and by 1873 he had become a household name throughout the West, and soon the world.

It was in the spring of that year that he finally put together a sizable gang. It was no coincidence that it was at about the same time that he had recruited Clodoveo Chavez, a poor young vaquero who lived near Hollister, California, to join the gang. Chavez was a well-built young man, who idolized Vasquez and was soon one of Tiburcio’s most-trusted m. It was in August of 1873 that their escapades first took a deadly turn which would ultimately lead
to Vasquez’s hanging. In the small town of Tres Pinos, south of Hollister, three innocent bystanders were gunned down during a daring daylight robbery of the entire town. Even though it couldn’t be proven that Vasquez pulled the trigger (which he probably didn’t), he was found guilty by the San Jose Third District court and sentenced to hang on March 19,1875. Whether or not Vasquez pulled the trigger was a moot point under California law, however, as he was certainly guilty of being an accessory to murder by virtue of his position as leader of the gang.

Stage road by Campo store.

Stage road by Campo store.

Somewhere along the way, a cutthroat killer named Cruz Lopez joined the gang. His expertise was easily recognized by Chavez and it didn’t take long before Lopez was his right-hand man. They crossed the border about 40 miles east of San Diego where they took up residence in the small Mexican border town of Tecarte (today known as Tecate). With the law chasing them throughout all of California, Chavez decided it would be best to leave the state for a while and, with a major gold strike taking place in the Mexican state of Sonora, Chavez figured it would be safer to continue their vagaries south of the border.It was a good plan, but like most good plans, it didn’t go quite as expected. Chavez knew that the trip to Sonora would require supplies as the cold winter was fast approaching. He learned that there was a small town called Campo just over the border on the American side only 10 miles from Tecarte. Campo was a tiny town with a small store and a blacksmith shop, owned by brothers Lumen and Silas Gaskill. This would be the perfect place to get his much-needed supplies, he figured.

Chavez had no problem raiding an entire town, as he had been doing it with Vasquez for years. He told Lopez to hole up in Tecarte for a while and he would ride to Sonora to look things over. He never expected to run into a childhood friend that recognized him – one who knew about the $2,000 reward on his head. It was this childhood friend who helped collect the bounty as Chavez was caught by surprise at a ranch in Texas Hill, Arizona, on Thanksgiving Day, 1875, less than two weeks before the fateful raid on Campo.One other part of the plan didn’t go as expected, either. These two Gaskill brothers who owned most of Campo were
not a couple of pushovers like many of the other small-town merchants that they were accustomed to robbing. These Gaskills were men of a different breed. Though now 45

Campo Reenactor

Campo Reenactor

Most historians think the story ended with the hanging of Vasquez. But it didn’t. Clodoveo Chavez took command of the gang and publicly vowed to avenge the death of his “captain.” Chavez continued to commit ever more daring robberies in and about central California. But as his fame grew, so did the reward on his head and things eventually got so hot he was forced to move south toward the safety of the Mexican border. Now 45 years old in 1875, Silas Gaskill was as tough and strong as anyone.In 1850, at the age of 21, Silas left his family’s Michigan home to join the California Gold Rush. Traveling by foot and with only a bedroll, muzzle loading rifle, $17 in his pocket and the clothes on his back, he took off on his own. The trip was long and perilous, so Silas sought out a wagon train headed for northern California. Upon finding one, however, the train boss demanded $200 for his journey, but Silas was able to negotiate a deal with the man to pay him out of his first earnings upon reaching the goldfields. But, after showing his expertise with a rifle by keeping the cooking pots full of game during the crossing, Silas’s debt was forgiven entirely long before reaching California.

After arriving at the gold camps and not having much luck at panning for the yellow metal in the cold streams, Silas found that his hunting skills could make him more money than his mining skills. An old rancher came into the mining camp one day and offered anyone $50 to kill a grizzly bear that was preying on his cattle. Silas took him up on his offer and soon returned to camp with the guilty bruin. After collecting the $50 bounty, he then sold the bear meat to the miners, as beef was very expensive and hard to come by at the height of the gold rush.

When asked many years later, Silas stated that he had by his own recollection killed 302 grizzlies. Silas Gaskill and his little brother, Lumen, weren’t the kind of men to run from the sign of trouble, so it just might be that the remaining members of the Chavez gang bit off a lot
more than they could chew when they rode into Campo on that December day in 1875. Only one of the bandits who rode in that day survived the gunfight. The Gaskill brothers were not taken entirely by surprise as they had been tipped off by a friendly Mexican that had befriended the brothers. The Gaskills had taken the man’s claims seriously and called in the neighboring ranchers to help defend the town. The man had said that he had overheard the bandidos planning the robbery in a cantina in Tecarte and had ridden to Campo to warn the Gaskills.

But what he didn’t know was when the bandits were going to rob the town. They were still waiting for Chavez to come back to lead the attack. But this was not to be. Chavez had been ambushed and killed by Luis Raggio and three other bounty hunters at the Barker ranch in Texas Hill, Arizona. The singing wires of the telegraph relayed the word of the death of Chavez from Yuma to San Diego and it didn’t take long for the bandits in Tecarte to find out about it. It
didn’t take the townsfolk of Campo very long to find out about this, either, as Campo had a telegraph office right in the back room of the Campo store. When the Gaskills heard that Clodoveo Chavez had been killed they, figured that without their leader, the rest of the bandits wouldn’t dare try to rob a whole town. And with winter coming on, the ranchers who had responded to guard the town needed to get back to their ranches and they left for home.

LH GaskillThe Gaskills stashed some guns here and there and then went about their business. The bandits went about their business, too. Cruz Lopez, as Chavez’s right-hand man, then took over the gang and decided that the best thing to do was to carry on with Chavez’s original plan. He would send six men into Campo to do the killing and had six others waiting outside of town with wagons to ride in and loot everything that they could load into the wagons and then make fast for the Mexican border, little over a mile away.

Lopez sent one man on ahead to scout out the town, someone who was known to the Gaskills who would not draw unnecessary attention and who was ordered to warn the rest of the gang if he saw a sizable resistance in Campo. So the ground work was laid out for one of the biggest civilian gunfights of the Old West.

As Cruz Lopez led his force into Campo on that clear, sunny Saturday morning, he must’ve chuckled to himself about how easy this was going to be. He could see his scout loungingabout town and could see that he had the element of surprise on his side. Campo looked ripe for the picking. Lopez took three men with him to rob the Campo store, where Lumen was keeping shop, and directed three men to take out the other brother in the blacksmith shop.He surely smiled as he stood in the doorway of the small store as he gave the signal to commence with the shooting. Lopez’s crafty mind must have raced with thoughts of grandeur at what he was about to pull off.

“This is going to be so easy,” he must have thought. “I’m going to be as famous as Tiburcio Vasquez, or even Joaquin Murrieta.” But the ruthless killer was about to get a taste of his own medicine. The metallic taste of lead from the shotguns of the Gaskill brothers put an end to Lopez’s lofty ambitions and out of the six men who rode into Campo that day, only one lived to tell the tale.The Gaskill brothers didn’t get away unscathed either. Silas was wounded in the
arm and his brother Lumen was shot in the chest at point-blank range by Lopez, the bullet going through the top of his lung and coming out his back shoulder. Lesser men would surely have died of the wound.

A local ranch hand was riding into town as the battle commenced and he got off his horse and joined the fracas, but was mortally wounded by a bandit’s well-placed six-gun blast. When the smoke had cleared and the dusted had settled on that December day in 1875,there were more casualties in The Great Campo Gunfight than at the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.Though today Campo boasts 3,251 residents, it remains a small, sleepy town. But the Campo Gunfight has not been totally lost to history as it is still reenacted once a year by the Gaskill Brothers Gunfighters, a local reenactment team led by Epi Lopez of Potrero, California.

Tourists can visit the site of the Campo Gunfight by visiting the stone store and museum located in the middle of the small community. It sits on the site of the original store that was robbed by the bandidos on Saturday, December 4, 1875. It was also the site of a book signing of the first full-length book written about the affair. Bryon Harrington, a longtime member of the Gaskill Brothers Gunfighters and a local historian, completed a novel based on the true story of the Campo Gunfight.

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The novel, entitled Campo: The Forgotten Gunfight, By Bryon Barrington, is aptly named because the gunfight never got the attention that most of the other Old West gunfights received. Most Western historians and history buffs have never heard of it, despite the fact that there were more casualties than at  the OK Corral. After more than 12 years of research and two years of writing, this novel is
now complete and can be purchased through amazon.com by author or by title. Simply click on the cover..

6 Responses so far.

  1. Claude LeMond says:

    In the late 1960’s I was riding a motorcycle in the San Diego CHP working the East end of the county and Campo was the
    East end of my beat. It was tiny little place with no law enforcement problems but I learned the history of the area. It was so very interesting

  2. Amie says:

    I’m a 4th generation in this town . I wonder if my great great grandmother was here during all of that

  3. flyingcrows says:

    Rancher Hanson spent the night with the Gaskill brothers after selling his cattle. Hanson had settled in Mexico and came up to sell his cattle. The next morning after a night at the Gaskill brother’s ranch, Hanson’s buggy had bullet holes in it, his money bag was gone and Hanson was no where to be found. The Gaskills were building the second floor of the stone store at the time. Walls downstairs are about 8 feet thick and about 6 feet thick upstairs. Hanson was never found nor his money.

    • admin says:

      Sounds like that might be a story within itself….

      • Bryon Harrington says:

        That is true. The Gaskill brothers probably did have something to do with the disappearance of Capt. Hanson. He was a ship Captain who sold his ship in Ensanada and bought a large ranch in the Laguna Hanson mountain range south of the border. He was last seen in Campo and was on his way to San Diego. His wagon was found in Campo behind the blacksmith shop with bullet holes in the seat that were filled in and painted over thou no “body” was ever found and no charges were filed against the Gaskills. Lumen Gaskill the younger brother however was caught weeks later on the Laguna Hanson ranch rebranding Hansons cattle by the Mexican police and he was sentenced to ten years in Mexican prison but only served two years and was released on good behavior. The Gaskill brothers were implacated in other murders before and after they settled in Campo in 1868. That’s the way it was on the early frontier in the American Southwest……… The law was miles away or nonexistent at all…. You had to watch your own back and the jackels were always nipping at your heals…..