For half of the 19th century, California was the mining center of the West. As welcome as the strikes were, getting the ore to towns was a perilous and deadly business. Wagons and coaches carried the precious material to towns and brought payroll funds back over isolated wilderness trails, making them easy prey for unscrupulous highwaymen.
Many men took to a life of crime to grab some of those lucrative pickings. From 1856 to 1913 there were 458 stagecoach hold-ups in California. Over a ten-year period, nearly half a million in gold was stolen from these wagons and stagecoaches.
The chief target of the highwaymen was Wells Fargo because they transported most of the money and gold to and from the Sacramento Valley. The armed guards posted on the wagons were often no match for masked outlaws with loaded shotguns who jumped out of hiding along these roads in the middle
Tom Bell was called “Outlaw Doc” since he was a former physician. He was sent to prison for stealing five mules but escaped in1855 and formed a gang with five other outlaws. In 1856, Bell was the first man to rob a California stagecoach. When surrounded by sheriff’s deputies and vigilantes, he gave up without a fight while sitting on horseback along the quiet banks of the meandering Merced River near Firebaugh’s Ferry in Central California. The posse summarily hung him.
Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo was considered by some to be a Mexican Patriot. The popular legend of Carrillo was that of a “Mexican Robin Hood” or the “Robin Hood of El Dorado” who took from the rich and gave to the poor. The fictional character Zorro was inspired by tales of Murrieta’s exploits.
Black Bart had no gang. However, he often put wooden sticks on boulders to trick stagecoach guards and others into thinking they were rifles held by hidden outlaws. He added to this subterfuge by often calling out to his pretend gang, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys!”
Working totally alone, he pulled off twenty-eight hold-ups. Bart was skinny, short and bald, and didn’t own a horse. He walked to his hold-ups, carrying an old rusty shotgun that didn’t work. He never even loaded it.
Bart’s outlaw get-up was a long white linen duster over his clothes, a flour sack over his head with slits cut for his eyes, and a derby hat on his head. In a deep, flat tone he’d demand, “Throw down the box.” Of course, the box was the Wells Fargo security chest full of money or gold.
Bart’s real name was Charles E. Boles. He was a courteous bandit, particularly to the ladies and he never took their jewelry. His targeted coaches and wagons with Wells Fargo money chest, never fired a shot, and always got the box. On his last two hold-ups he left poems he composed in the empty box.
How highwaymen went about their thievery.
They’d lay in wait at an elevated spot behind a tree or a boulder usually at some point where the coach or wagon would have to drive down an incline or bend in the road, forcing them to creep along slowly. At just the right moment, a masked man, or gang of them, jumped out with shotgun or shotguns in hand. After the robberies, they usually fled into the bush.
Tom Bell and his gang attempted a stagecoach robbery on August 12, 1856, but the Wells Fargo guards drove them off. However, a woman passenger—Mrs. Tilghman, an African American lady and the wife of a popular Maryville barber—was killed in the gunfight. A posse who took after Bell caught one of his gang members, who told them where Bell was hiding out. But before the sheriff got there, a rancher, who in the spur of a moment had put together a posse, lynched Bell.
Joaquin Murietta was wanted dead or alive with a $5,000 bounty offered by the state of California. Furthermore, in 1853, California’s State Legislature passed a resolution authorizing a group of cowhands and ex-soldiers to go after Murietta with orders to kill Murietta and his men. The California Rangers were formed to stop these groups and put an end to Murietta. They were ordered to return with proof of death. After hunting him down for two months the California rangers caught up with on July 25, 1853. A shootout ensued.
In an attempt to escape, Murietta leaped on his horse and rode down a 15 ft embankment. Ranger William Henderson shot Murietta’s horse, leaving the outlaw on foot. Then Ranger John aimed at Murietta and shot him dead. For proof of death, the Rangers chopped of Murietta’s head and also the hand of an outlaw who rode with him —Three Fingered Jack. They pickled each body part in a jar of whiskey. The head and finger were taken from town to town like a freak show and people paid $1 each to see them.
Black Bart, the most noted of all 19th century Sierra stagecoach robbers, was finally caught after eight long years. Black Bart served about four years in San Quentin and was released on January 21, 1888. He was fifty-four years old. After that, Black Bart disappeared. Apparently, he died in 1900 while hunting game in the High Sierra. But as with other 19th century highwaymen, his legend lives on.
California highwaymen characters are an important sub-plot in my latest book, Bay’s Desire, book 9 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain Historical Western Romance series. Available now!
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