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Prologue to a Gunfight

The 1875 shootout at Campo, between the Gaskill brothers and a Mexican gang, has been retold so many times in the past 12 decades, it’s tough to separate fact from fabrication. Accounts can’t even agree on how the younger Gaskill spelled his first name. Some say “Lumen,” others “Luman.” His death certificate says Luman Humphrey Gaskill, buried in the Los Angeles cemetery, May 17, 1914. The certificate adds that he was 70 years, nine months, and 17 days old. We’ll go with that.

Luman earned a reputation as a healer. Incarcerated at Ensenada in 1886 for rustling Jacob Hanson’s cattle, on several occasions Luman left the jail, under armed guard, and made house calls.

Luman Gaskill. When a kid in the vicinity yelled, “That’s murder,” Luman allegedly shouted back, “Not if you don’t tell nobody!”

Luman Gaskill. When a kid in the vicinity yelled, “That’s murder,” Luman allegedly shouted back, “Not if you don’t tell nobody!”

In the late 1880s, after he and brother Silas built the famous Campo Stone Store, Luman recorded home remedies in a ledger:

For Rattlesnake bite: Rub the wound full of gunpowder and then Pour on a good Charge on the top of all and then Put fire to it and Burn it that will Cure it on all dum brutes.

To Cure Habitual Drunkenness: When Whiskey gits the Best of aman and he can’t quit Drinking this will Distroy all Desire for liquor Sulphate of Iron 5 Grains Magnesia 10 Grains Pepermint Watter 11 Drachms Spirits of Nutmeg 1 Drachm to be taken 2 a day.

The makeshift M.D. was also a prime suspect for Jacob Hanson’s murder. In 1885, Hanson came to Campo from his Mexican ranch, Laguna Hanson. He parked his buckboard at the Gaskills’ store. The next day, buckshot holes pocked the seatback. By that afternoon the vehicle had a fresh coat of paint. Hanson’s personal effects, his billfold among them, were inside the store. But no Hanson.

Years later, Andreas Adams, implicated along with Luman and James Ward in the murder, told the San Diego Union: “Gaskill and Ward got off easy and had better let well enough alone. There is no question in my mind that they are guilty of the murder of Captain Hanson, but it could not be proved.”

Another Union article (March 15, 1889) claims that Luman fled to San Diego because he killed a man in the San Joaquin Valley. Word-of-mouth also persisted that Luman handcuffed and shot a teenaged Mexican boy at Campo. When a kid in the vicinity yelled, “That’s murder,” Luman allegedly shouted back, “Not if you don’t tell nobody!”

Some say that one’s just legend; others, that bodies like Hanson’s had a way of disappearing among the large oaks and larger granite boulders of the Campo backcountry. But whether or not Luman committed these crimes, people believed he could. His reputation for cold-blooded murder was as real — especially among the Spanish speaking people, on both sides of the border, who hated him — as his gift for healing.

Older brother Silas (born February 16, 1829) brought his parents and Luman to Mendocino County in 1857. He wanted to be a rancher and miner. Prior to the 1880s, grizzly bears were so plentiful they became the state’s mascot. One day a Sonoma County man offered $50 to anyone who could kill a grizzly making frequent assaults on his ranch. Silas shot the bear — and 302 others, he boasted, in the 11 years the Gaskills stayed in Mendocino.

In 1868 the Gaskills moved to Campo, then called Milquatay. The Indian name means “big valley,” though settlers nicknamed it “New Texas,” since so many came from the Lone Star state, most being Army deserters. The bowl-like Campo valley sweeps north/south, rising to a wide vista at the Mexican border, only a mile from the growing village. Luman had no boundaries. To people on both sides, the border wasn’t one either. Bandits, rustlers, smugglers crossed it, stole and robbed, and returned to safer territory.

The Gaskills purchased land from Thomas Burris. His “X” is on the deed. Luman went into business with August M. Gass, who had a wooden store. In 1870, the Gaskills instituted the area’s first post office and renamed the town Campo. After Luman and Gass had a falling out, Gass sold his property to the brothers. They built another, bigger store, of rough-hewn wood, over Campo Creek (where the Highway 94 bridge crosses the creek). A trapdoor allowed them to preserve goods in the cold water.

The store sold general merchandise, had a post office and military telegrapher on duty, and was Campo’s center for entertainment. “Some say this was a grocery store that sold liquor,” writes Vollie Tripp, “some say it was a saloon that sold groceries.” By 1875, the brothers also had a blacksmith shop, livestock in the thousands — cattle, horses, hogs, angora goats, 400 hives of bees — and a house/hotel. Vi Price, an African-American woman, ran the hotel. Her tough-as-tacks reputation rivaled her employers’.

When her family moved to Campo in 1871, Ella McCain’s father worked for the Gaskills as a blacksmith. “They were not in business for their health, and as there was no competition, they charged exorbitant prices, paying father a dollar a day wages.

“One day a Mexican from below the border came in to have work done on his wagon. They charged the man $20 for a small job. Father resented this and felt sorry for the man, too, so he quit.”

“They wore white hats by day,” says Roger Challberg, president of the Mountain Empire Historical Society, “and black hats by night.”

Until 1940, Campo was the center for Customs and Border Patrol. To avoid U.S. “line-riders,” smugglers came to the store in darkness. They traded “gold, silver, whiskey, you name it,” says Challberg, for manufactured goods. Luman’s arrest, for rustling cattle across the border, shows that the Gaskills sometimes worked the night shift in Mexico.

“They were wealthy,” says Challberg, “at least to people who didn’t have money.” And since they were only a mile from a foreign country, their store made them a “ready source of revenue.”

Tiburcio Vasquez was either a murdering thief or a Robin Hood who took back what the gringos stole from the Californios and Mexicans. Born near Mission San Juan Bautista in 1837, Vasquez became the state’s most famous bandito, along with Joaquin Murietta. Vasquez is most famous for the day his gang tried to hold up an entire town, Kingston, on the south bank of the San Joaquin Valley’s King’s River.

Though wounded several times — with two of the shots near lethal — Vasquez swore he “always avoided bloodshed.” He even ordered teenaged Victor Gardenas not to join his gang “because this is a sad life. Sometimes you don’t eat or sleep, always waiting for the enemy to overcome you.”

A posse finally caught him at Rancho La Brea, near Los Angeles, May 13, 1874. They put him on a train to San Jose and locked him in the Santa Clara County jail. While he awaited trial, Vasquez became a celebrity. Ninety-three women visited him in a single day, says one legend. At his execution, on March 19, 1875, he told the hangman,“Pronto!” — “Hurry up!”

With Vasquez gone, California governor Newton Booth still had a reward out for Clodovio Chavez, a heavyset, redhaired man with a hoof mark on his cheek. Clodovio — some say “Cleovaro” — was Vasquez’s first lieutenant/enforcer. Word had it he fled to Mexico with other members of the original gang, among them Cruz “Pancho” Lopez. They looted general stores and stagecoach stations along the way.

One account has Chavez and Lopez riding to the home of Mrs. Ben Sheckler of Potrero in the fall of 1875. They asked for breakfast and the chance to rest exhausted horses. They were in a hurry to get to Baja — so pressed for time, it turns out, they didn’t rob Sheckler’s houseguest, a Mrs. Whittacker, of her $500 watch and diamond earrings. Or, not wanting to call attention to themselves, did they covet a larger prize?

Other members of Vasquez’s gang began drifting in to Tecate, just across the border. Newcomers included Jose Alvijo, Pancho Alvitro (wanted for murder in Los Angeles), and Teodoro Vazquez (a relative of Tiburcio). Gold had been discovered in Sonora, Mexico. Lopez planned an assault on the mines. But, since much of the trip would be through desert, the gang needed a large grubstake. Talk turned to the perfect raid: Gaskill’s general store had horses, goods, and — rumor had it — gold, all in great supply. Also, at this time, the Gaskills were unknowns, just domesticated family men and, so ran the logic, probably “pushovers.” The gang could strike first, then bring in wagons to haul away supplies.

In a San Diego Union interview, Silas Gaskill calls him a “Mexican”; others say he was a Native American named “Captain Billy”— in any event, an informer heard the plan and rode to Campo, warning the brothers. “I had been on good terms with the informer and fed him occasionally when he was broke,” said Silas. “He put me on guard.”

Silas and Luman loaded several shotguns. So they’d never be empty handed in an emergency, the brothers hid them at strategic points on the property: the blacksmith shop, the house, near the post office. In the store, Luman had a double-barrel behind the counter, plus pistols elsewhere. The brothers waited.

Sometime in October, Chavez and Lopez split up. Lopez went to Mexico. On November 30 he was spotted in a San Rafael general store, 40 miles below Tecate. He also became the chief suspect in the murders of Henry Leclaire and Don Antonio Sosa, onetime governor of Baja. They headed for San Diego in a buggy. “That was the last time the two men were seen alive,” writes Richard Pourade. Like the Gaskills, Sosa thought nothing of borders. “While governor, he had pursued five horse thieves into San Diego County and captured and summarily executed them by gunfire.”

Chavez went to Arizona. He got a job breaking in horses at the Baker (some say “Barker”) ranch, about 90 miles east of Yuma on the Gila River. Luis Raggio Jr., working at the nearby King Woolsey ranch, was a boyhood acquaintance of Chavez. While picking up supplies at the Baker Ranch, Raggio noticed a large, familiar-looking, red-haired man. The scar on his cheek cinched it. Wondering if there was still a reward for Chavez, Raggio wrote to Judge James Breen of San Juan Bautista. Early in October, the judge replied that the reward, announced early in 1874, now stood at $2199.42, dead or alive.

Raggio, Harrison Roberts, and Clark Clotvig rode to the Baker ranch. They wanted Chavez alive. Since dead bodies didn’t travel well, this would make him easy to identify when they took him to Northern California for the reward.

On November 26, 1875, they found Chavez digging a ditch, his rifle not far away. Raggio shouted, “Throw up your hands!” Chavez jumped for the rifle. Clotvig fired twice. Chavez collapsed 17 buckshot in his side, and died.

The telegraph announced Chavez’s death. When the Gaskills heard it on their wire, according to Ella McCain, they assumed the raid wouldn’t happen and “became careless about guns and ammunition.” Even word that a gang of six “hard-riding Mexican horsemen”— led by Cruz Lopez? — shot up the Woolsey Ranch a few days later failed to alert the Gaskills. They relaxed their watch.

POSTSCRIPT: Raggio, Roberts, and Clotvig took Chavez’s body to Yuma. The question became, How to transport it, without it decomposing, to get the reward? A Dr. Loring, from nearby Fort Yuma, had the answer. He decapitated the head and placed it in a five gallon can. He filled it with alcohol.

Roberts took the can on a buckboard, first to San Diego and Los Angeles — displaying his prize at both cities — then north to San Juan Bautista. Though many, including Chavez’s father (who saw it in Los Angeles) disputed its authenticity, Roberts says “all the principal men” of San Juan Bautista identified the head as Chavez. Roberts rode to the state capital to collect. He got there too late, however: January 10, 1876. The reward’s two-year limit had expired.


SOURCES

  1. Challberg, Roger, president, Mountain Empire Historical Society: interview
  2. Crawford, Richard W., “Frontier Medicine,” Stranger Than Fiction: Vignettes of San Diego History, San Diego, 1995
  3. Gardenas,Victor, interviewed in the Fresno Bee, June 13, 1934
  4. Hinds, Jim, military historian, Alpine Historical Society Archivist: interview
  5. McCain, Ella, Memories of the Early Settlements: Dulzura, Potrero, and Campo (published by McCain, 1955)
  6. Pourade, Richard, The Glory Years: The Booms and Busts in the Land of the Sundown Sea, Union Tribune Publishing Company (1964)
  7. Tripp, Vollie, “When the Town of Campo Was Young,” Mountain Empire Historical Society, private collection
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