With drawn six-guns, Tiburcio Vasquez rode rampant across early California to become one of the Golden State’s most colorful desperados.
Vasquez was second only to Joaquin Murrieta of Gold Rush infamy, yet to many he has become a California folk hero.
The passing of time has woven the myth and reality of Vasquez’s lawless exploits together. Some see him as a common bandit, while others glorify him as a revolutionary Robin Hood, a native Californio who fought against the Anglo invasion of the 1850s. And he may be the only American outlaw to have a public park named after him (Vasquez Rocks County Park).
Was he a notorious brigand or a freedom fighter? Regardless, his life was one of adventure, romance and drama—the stuff that makes legends. He was a handsome, educated and well-dressed gentleman, yet tough as nails, an excellent pistol shot and a superb horseman liked and admired by many—including some of those he wronged.
Throughout Vasquez’s lawless career, he was known to carry Henry and Spencer repeaters, and 1873 Winchester rifles, but he was seldom without one or more of his trusty six-shooters. He preferred the heavy Colt .44 Dragoons and the lighter .36 caliber Navy Colts, although he was known to have carried other six-guns.
Since he lived a life on the run, one can assume that virtually any revolver that came his way was obtained either through honest purchase (although that was always with stolen funds) or simply by “relieving” them from his unwilling victims. Yet a scant few of his six-guns are documented today.
One revolver of note is a .44 caliber 2nd Model Colt Dragoon, serial no. 9381, taken from Vasquez when he was captured by the police in May 1874. Detective Emil Harris later recounted that they seized a “long bladed Bowie knife sticking in the floor” and “…six revolvers, two Winchester rifles of the model of 1873, then considered the best weapon made, and a Spencer seven-shooter [rifle], besides another dangerous looking knife and some saddles, bridles, etc.” These were all kept as souvenirs by the lawmen.
The deputies were armed with cap-and-ball Navy Colts when they arrested Vasquez. They considered the massive Dragoon to be obsolete, so they returned it to his sister Maria Antonia Lara. Through the years, this well-documented revolver was passed down, eventually winding up in the California Historical Society in 1941, until it was deaccessioned in 1988, when the society sold its gun collection to raise much needed funds. It is now in the collection of Vasquez historian John Boessenecker and is currently on display at the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes Mexican-American cultural center in Los Angeles.
This Colt, manufactured around 1850-51, is well worn and exhibits a heavy patina. Once a deadly weapon, it now serves as a silent reminder of the two decades when “El Capitan” Vasquez and his gang, the “hunted bandits of the San Joaquin,” terrorized much of California, where he left behind a mixed legacy of the gentleman bandit and the notorious robber. As the saying goes, “If this old gun could talk!”