Salomon Pico robbing stagecoach

My research of late has taken me to Alta California and the restless pioneering souls who first settled it. I am pursuing links to certain colonial families but as often happens while hunting treasure I stumbled across an entirely unexpected gem. I call this one Devil Town.

Here’s the story. Along with the Missions and Presidios established by the Spanish in Alta California once they awoke to the fact that the Russians, the English, and the Americans were more than a little interested in occupying these fair lands, they also initiated three civil settlements: Los Angeles, San Jose, and Villa de Branciforte. The pioneers in these settlements were neither priests nor soldiers – they were civilians.

Villa de Branciforte was located across the river from Mission Santa Cruz. And it became clear right from the start that the interests of these colonists were very different from the aims of the church.

Many of the town’s first settlers were refugees from Mexican law, told to “go colonize or go to jail”. They immediately engaged in a riotous lifestyle of song and fandangoes, bull and bear fighting, gambling, and horse racing through the middle of town.

In the Mission across the river, the Neophyte Indians, who dearly loved such entertainment, had to work in the fields and orchards to the accompaniment of the distant sounds of music and laughter. More than a few times they snuck off to join the festivities only to be soundly censured upon their return by the disapproving Fathers, who complained bitterly to the Spanish authorities about the sinful city across the way. The authorities made half-hearted attempts to rein in those carefree spirits, but since the settlers had never received the housing and supplies they had been promised, they were not inclined to listen. The frivolities went on.

There were good people in Branciforte, but the wildness eventually overflowed its boundaries. The young men of the town ran about the countryside stealing horses along with the hearts of the local senoritas. Fathers literally locked their daughters away, to no avail. Real trouble began when a lad from the Robles family, supported by his brothers, ran off with a young lady without her father’s permission. When found, they offered resistance but were finally captured by the soldiers who roped the boys like livestock and forced them to walk to town, a great insult to their pride. When they attempted to break free, shots rang out and a brother was killed and another wounded. Bad feelings simmered for weeks. Then one of the brothers, angered by the insults of a group of Americans, rode his horse into an adobe where they were drinking and gambling and challenged them. He was shot off his horse.

The story goes on. A sister of the Robles brothers married a man from the town named Rodriguez who had managed to fritter away his part of a large family ranch through drinking and gambling. They raised eight children. Their sons grew up to stories about their wild uncles and inevitably three of them demonstrated a disposition toward the same wild ways. Meanwhile, the Americans had taken over their land, and gold seeking strangers were trampling the birthright of the proud Branciforte clans. Hard feelings festered.

The line was crossed during a knife fight at a Fandango when a Rodriguez boy was cut. Seeking vengeance, young men from both families set an ambush but attacked the wrong party and accidentally killed an innocent American. In a classic case of overkill, the Americans jailed those brothers that they could catch, their parents, and even several of their young siblings. Before the trial could begin, angry vigilantes broke into the jail and removed one of the Rodriguez boys, weighed his body down with stones and tossed him into the surf to drown.

For the Robles and Rodriguez boys who had managed to escape, the bandit life had begun in earnest. From these beginnings came an era of California bandits made famous around the world by pulp fiction writers such as Johnston McCulley. And nearly all of the Mexican bandits, from Tiburcio Vasquez to Pio Linares and Joaquin Valenzuela can trace their roots back to the Villa de Branciforte.

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