GUNFIGHT AT CAMPO. Back in the 1870s, rustlers from both sides crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, stole cattle and horses, and drove them back. Potrero was known in those days as “Horse Thief Valley.” Campo’s Luman Gaskill got arrested for rustling cattle in Mexico. At his trial in Ensenada, Gaskill assured the judge he was “just trying to remove them to a better pasture.”
Luman’s brother Silas had a sometime friend called “Captain Billy.” Though Silas thought he was Mexican, Billy was a Kumeyaay native who spoke Spanish and frequented the border towns of Tecate and Campo. When an Indian murdered his brother in Mexico, Billy went south, sought and killed the man. After that, local legend goes, Billy refused to cross the international boundary.
The Gaskills prospered in Campo. They opened a two-story hotel August 16, 1875, and their wood-frame general store, built over Campo Creek,also served as an Army telegraph office, town meeting hall, post office, and tavern. They even held dances, where locals did the quadrille and the Virginia reel under a sign demanding, “No profanity or spitting in here.”
In 1875, Silas was 46, Luman 32. Word of mouth gave each a shady past, especially Luman, who may have fled to Campo after murdering a man in the San Joaquin Valley. And they were obviously making money from more than the trading post. Their herds of cattle and horses often expanded overnight. But then again Campo in 1875 wasn’t a place to question such things. Life was so hard that John B. Newcomb, the local schoolteacher, spared the rod but, writes Ella McCain, “Every morning he laid his loaded revolver on the desk.”
In the fall of 1875, at a Tecate saloon, Captain Billy overheard men plotting to raid the Gaskills’ store. The men, he knew, were what remained of Tiburcio Vasquez’s gang. Vasquez’s execution in San Jose, California, March 19, 1875, left Clodovio Chavez in charge. The redhaired Chavez had a hoof mark on his cheek and a reward on his head. His lieutenant/enforcer, tall and dark Cruz “Pancho” Lopez, killed a California shopkeeper. Both men fled to Baja to hide out. Members of the old gang joined them at Tecate.
Lopez wanted to raid Sonora, Mexico, where gold had been discovered. But the gang needed a grubstake. So Chavez and Lopez outlined a plan: two four horse-team wagons wait near the border, about a mile from Campo. The gang has a scout at the Gaskills’ compound of houses, hotel, store, and blacksmith shop. If all’s okay, Lopez and four others ride in. Six men, total: three get the draw on Silas; three on Luman. They signal the wagons, empty the store of supplies, ammunition, whiskey — maybe burn it down. Then head back across the border. Since the Gaskills wouldn’t suspect anything, the gang could take them by surprise.
It could have been for the times Silas fed him when he was hungry, because Captain Billy owed Silas a favor. So he rode east, up the grade to Campo, and warned the Gaskills about the raid.
Jim Hinds: “An extemporaneous town meeting was called. Some of the townspeople felt it wisest to flee and hide out until the bandits were gone, but it was ultimately decided that because of the proximity of Campo to the border it was important to take a stand against any bandit activity.” As the Gaskill brothers put it — even though they looted and murdered in Mexico — “We don’t condone this type of thing in Campo.”
Silas and Luman loaded six double barrel shotguns and placed them at key positions around the compound. In the store, Luman hid one behind the counter. He had a “needle gun”— a shotgun that fires sharp projectiles — in his house. Silas placed shotguns inside the blacksmith shop door and in the yard. The brothers were ready. And they waited.
On November 26, 1875, weeks after the warning, the Gaskills’ Army telegraph operator, Jack Kelly, reported that Clodovio Chavez had been gunned down in Arizona. With the gang’s leader gone, the Gaskills relaxed.“Since the report of Chavez’s death,” Kelly wrote in the San Diego Union after the gunfight, “we have been somewhat off our guard.”
On Saturday, December 4, 1875, before 10:00 a.m., Rafael Martinez entered the store. A resident of Campo, Martinez was a familiar sight. No one knew he was the Lopez gang’s scout.
Martinez had just passed Silas, outside, shoeing a horse. Inside he found Luman and Kelly, trying to keep warm on a crisp winter morning. Martinez stepped to the doorway, made a quiet signal to the south, and went back inside.
Lopez, Pancho Alvitro, Alonzo Cota, José Alvijo, and Teodoro Vasquez (a teenaged relative of Tiburcio) rode into town. All five entered the store. Then Martinez, Vasquez, and Alvitro went outside, supposedly to tend the horses.
Some accounts say Lopez asked Luman about “a long, strong” coil of rope — others, a handkerchief. Whichever: that was the signal to draw their pistols. Kelly believed the bandits just wanted to “frighten” Luman. But Luman shouted “Murder!” — his signal to Silas — and dove over the counter for the shotgun.
The shout surprised the bandits. Kelly: “As they could not run out of the store without being shot, they jumped over the counter onto Mr. Gaskill.” Lopez shoved a black-powder pistol at Luman’s chest.
McCain: “as Luman watched the man’s finger on the trigger, he realized he was going to pull it. He gave a quick jerk with his body, and the bullet hit him in the lung, missing his heart.”
As the ball went through his back, blood spurted from Luman’s mouth onto Lopez. Luman slumped behind the counter.
Thinking he had killed Luman, Lopez ran outside to assault Silas. Cota and Alvijo grabbed a can of gold notes but spilled it in their haste. What follows, writes Kelly, “was confusion. All commenced shooting at everybody and everything.”
Historians claim that the gunfight took about five minutes. In an interview years later, Silas said two — a closer estimate, since everything happened at once. And in a gunfight, two minutes can feel like forever.
At the cry of“murder,” Silas raced into the blacksmith shop. Vasquez, Martinez, and Alvitro charged him. Silas grabbed the shotgun near the door, came outside, and took Vasquez’s bullet in the shoulder. Flesh wound.
Silas shot back. Vasquez’s chest exploded. Martinez and Alvitro fled south of the building.
Silas ran through the blacksmith shop and jumped out the back. He caught Martinez by surprise and wounded him with a shotgun blast in the neck and left side. Martinez dragged himself to nearby bushes, where he hid. Both barrels now empty, Silas feinted a shot at Alvitro, who ran back toward the store.
A French ranch hand, coming to pick up his boss’s mail, heard the shooting and rode in to help. Lopez, Alvijo, and Cota killed the horse with a hail of bullets. Using the animal as a shield, and wounded by the volley, the “Frenchman” shot Lopez through the neck, then passed out.
Kelly came outside, firing. “As the revolver had only three loads, I concluded the best plan would be to run; and so I did.” He crawled under the store and stood in Campo Creek, which ran in a manmade culvert, for almost an hour.
Coughing blood, Luman dragged himself to the doorway. He saw Cota and Alvijo near the Frenchman’s horse and pulled the trigger, wounding Alvijo.
Fleeing Silas, Alvitro ran around the blacksmith shop into Luman’s field of fire. Luman’s second round sliced off part of Alvitro’s head.
Luman carried a small “bulldog” derringer but felt it no match against six shooters. So he crawled back into the building, opened a trap door, and lowered himself down to Campo Creek. Faint from loss of blood, Luman hid with Kelly. Luman hoped to wade to his house for the needle gun. Many say the waist-high, ice-cold water saved his life.
As Silas raced to the barn, looking for another shotgun, Lopez yelled “retreat.” He, Alvitro, and Cota climbed on their horses and rode east.
They ran into Simon Miller, a rancher coming to repay Silas a $40 debt. They robbed Miller, who said one had been “shot fearfully in the neck” (Lopez), one had his “head tied up”(Alvitro), and the other wasn’t wounded.
Hinds: “About three miles from Campo, they found that Alvitro’s wounds were seriously impeding their escape. Lopez helped Alvitro from his horse and propped him against a tree. He drew his pistol and, putting the barrel against Alvitro’s head, pulled the trigger. Although he initially escaped with his life, Cruz Lopez would ultimately die in Mexico a year later from infections caused by his wounds.”
Carried home by his son Wagner and Kelly, Luman shouted, “Just let me lie on the floor.” Convinced he would die soon, Luman didn’t want to bloody the sheets. They put him in bed. McCain: “Every time they turned him over, they could hear the blood gurgle inside him. The doctor told him the blood would be absorbed. He recovered, and lived many years.” Both Luman and Silas died in 1914.
At the Gaskills’ compound, young Vasquez lay dead, nine buckshot wounds in his right breast. He was “put in a rude box and buried.” Silas arrested Alvijo, whose injuries were severe.
Martinez escaped in the brush. But his wounds— three buckshot near his right lung, two lower down — and the December cold forced him to the Gaskills’ house at 4:00 a.m., where he confessed. Thinking Martinez would die soon, the local doctor, Millard, made him a bed by the fire. The next day Martinez promised Silas he’d work 12 years for the Gaskills without pay. Silas jailed him with Alvijo. A stagecoach would take them down to San Diego, in chains, on Monday.
The Frenchman recovered but died of complications in San Francisco about a year later. He went there to find better medical help.
The only person not wounded in the gunfight, Alonzo Cota, was an itinerant sheepshearer. Years later Cota was jailed in El Paso. The sheriff wired the Gaskills and said he’d deliver Cota to them for $1000. They declined.
When San Diego County sheriff Hunsaker arrived late Sunday, December 5, he found Martinez and Alvijo locked in a room, pale from loss of blood. They’d ride to San Diego the next day. Around 11:00 p.m., however, “Judge Lynch” paid them a visit.
Hunsaker had posted an armed guard. And he swore after the fact that “no apprehension was felt of any attempt [by townspeople] to molest the prisoners.” Nonetheless local “cowboys” — their faces painted black — overpowered the guard and tied him up. They hung Martinez and Alvijo from a nearby oak tree with a single piece of rope.
An inquest on Monday pointed to “a party of unnamed men” as the culprits. Ella McCain remembers: “All the cowboys were going around with black spots still on their faces, but no one seemed to know who did the hanging.”
- Challberg, Roger, president, Mountain Empire Historical Society: interview
- Chamberlin, Eugene K., Campo Stone Store (Interact, reproduced edition, 1998)
- Hinds, Jim, “Shootout in Campo: Scenario,” on display, Campo Stone Store; interview
- Kelly, Jack, special dispatches to the San Diego Union, December 5, 1875
- McCain, Ella, Memories of the Early Settlements: Dulzura, Potrero, and Campo (published by McCain,1955)
- Pourade, Richard F., The Glory Years (Copley Press, 1964)