Jack Powers
American Bandito in Old California

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

California's "Wild West" actually did not start out so "wild." The Franciscan Missions as early as 1770 began to introduce the Spanish version of Christianity and the "white man's way" to the Native Americans of what at that time was one of the most remote places on Earth. Though the "civilizing" was not without its share of resentment and uprisings, killings and even massacres, the conflicts between the two cultures was nothing like that of the second American Wild West that started almost a century later after the Civil War.

Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821 started an new era, the Rancho Period, and the "Californios" created a society not unlike the plantation society of America's Old South and lived happily in this Garden of Eden until it was rudely interrupted and destroyed by the wild stampede of gold-crazed outsiders. But that's a different story. For now, let's take a look at California's "Wild West" – the 1850s.

That was a turbulent and violent decade. California was swiftly ushered into the United States as a full-fledged state a year and a half after the gold discovery and suddenly those who had lived on the land for generations were foreigners in their own homes.

From across the globe, thousands of desperate fortune seekers of every stripe swarmed into California, generating fifty years of normal growth in less than two years in one of America's most well-known stories. Professional men, clerks, farmers, sailors, soldiers, drifters, lawyers, con-men, card sharks, thieves, killers, deserters, Peruvians, Chinese, Greeks, Serbs, Irishmen, Englishmen, Frenchmen, tradesmen, professional ladies, laundresses – a boorish breed of scalawags never before present in California, suddenly were everywhere, taking what they wished, killing without cause or remorse. It was little wander that the Californios were often described as "grim old Spaniards."

American courts quickly followed statehood and they were neither blind to justice nor kind to the Californios, frequently ruling in favor of squatters who filed claims on former Spanish and Mexican land grants. The Californios, who routinely made enormous business deals on the honor of a handshake, often found themselves unable to produce documents proving ownership. Just as the Native American Indians would experience twenty years later on the Great Plains, many Californios suddenly found themselves stripped of their lands, wealth and pride, unwelcome and despised in their own country by the boorish Americanos.

Interestingly, many Californios had gotten to the gold fields first simply because they were already there. Memoirs of several indicate that they were very successful miners, gathering enormous amounts of gold lying on the streambeds that would soon be swarming with frantic gold-seekers.

Racism was a way of life in the mid 1800s. Anglos came with an attitude of immense superiority to everyone else and backed their depredations against all others – be they Chinese, Californios, Indians, or anyone else – with unhesitating gunplay. Murders, assassinations, and bald-faced genocide became commonplace. The newly arrived Americans were a violent lot, fighting even among themselves. Their behavior and attitude led to rape and murder of many of the Mexican-Californio families in the gold country and elsewhere. Such atrocities could not go unanswered and vicious banditry thrived where it never had before.

The names of Joaquin Murrieta, Juan Flores, and Salomon Pico (inspiration for the Zorro saga – yet another story) have become well known in California history. Murrieta, it is claimed, tracked down and killed 41 of the 42 Americans who raped and killed his wife, beat him senseless, and burned his home. Flores operated throughout southern California, while Solomon Pico, scion of the powerful Pico family, claimed the coastal area north of Santa Barbara as his own, robbing and killing any American who was unfortunate enough to cross his trail.

Jack Powers' name appears in several accounts of the time as another dangerous man whose firearms were his tools of the trade. He was not a Californio, but an Irish-American born in Ireland in 1827 and came to New York with his parents at the age of nine. He joined the American army at 19 to fight in the Mexican War in Stevenson's New York Volunteer Regiment and moved on to California at the war's end. He moved briefly to San Francisco and was an active participant in the infamous "Hounds" until the similarly infamous Vigilance Committee forced a discreet withdrawal to southern California.

In Santa Barbara, Powers found employment as a groom and horse trainer with the de la Guerre family, the most prominent family of the area. He was a superb horseman, excelling in the vaquero's craft and making quite a name for himself. He once made a bet that he could ride 150 miles in eight hours; he did it in 6 hours, 43 minutes and 31 seconds – an amazing feat.

He was a handsome and charming fellow, a consummate gambler, and his congenial nature and popularity quickly gained him entrance into the Californios' inner circles. Little did they know that he used their confidence to learn the vulnerabilities of their money and valuables, especially the shipments of gold brought by cattle buyers from the north. In those days the population was in the north and the beef was in the south; the Californios became very wealthy selling their cattle to San Francisco cattle buyers at enormous profits. Huge cattle drives were made up the Coastal Range to San Francisco, a distance far longer than the famed Texas to Kansas drives of 20 years later, devoid however of the threats of Indian attack and furious thunderstorms – this was California weather, after all.

The cattle buyers were easy prey for Powers and Pico and others who stalked them on the old El Camino Real. Powers gathered a gang of ruthless men and operated boldly and with great success - due to Powers' inside information - for most of the 1850s until one day his true identity was discovered.

In one fateful robbery attempt, Powers received a bullet wound in his leg and fled without his prize. He stopped at the home of Captain William G. Dana, near the present town of Nipomo, where he was well known and made welcome. Dana's son, Francisco, observed Powers' wound and, in spite of Powers' claim it was caused by a fall from his horse, the game was up. Suddenly, warrants for his arrest surfaced everywhere.

Even after he was found out, Powers and his gang continued to boldly operate with impunity for a couple of years, even barricading themselves against a 200-man posse from Santa Barbara – and winning. Eventually, the area became too hot even for Powers and he moved on to the wide-open town of Los Angeles, where he resumed his debauched lifestyle, gathering a gang of cutthroats and openly defying the law as he circulated openly in the gambling dens, strutting boldly among the most vicious dregs of Los Angeles society.

As twice before, he pressed his luck until the vigilantes began to impress upon him that his time was up and he was unwelcome in the City of the Angels. He fled to Sonora, Mexico just ahead of the hangman, stopping on the way to rob a store keeper in San Juan Capistrano. It is unknown if he was short on funds or just keeping in practice.

He again proved that you can't change a tiger's stripes. In 1860, at the age of 33, Jack was shot and killed by one of his own men when he tried to seduce the man's woman. The woman's willingness is unrecorded, but it was rumored that she helped her lover to unceremoniously toss Jack's body into a mesquite corral full of half-starved hogs. What was uneaten was later buried in an unmarked grave - a fitting and inglorious end for one of California's most notorious outlaws.

It also marked the end of California's "Wild West."

Bell, Horace; Reminisces of a Ranger; Yarnell, Caystile & Mathes, Los Angeles, California, 1881

Dana, Don Francisco; The Blonde Ranchero; South County Historical Society, Arroyo Grande, California

Tompkins, Walker A.; Santa Barbara History Makers; McNally & Loftin, Santa Barbara, California, 1983

Ross, Dudley T.; Devil on Horseback; Valley Publishers, Fresno, 1975