To the old Mexican families living in North Santa Barbara County, Salomon Pico was one of their own. They could expect to be left alone by Salomon when on the road. But this was not true of other bandits who drifted into the area, drawn by the lure of unprotected gold and minimal consequences.
Juan Francisco Dana of Rancho Nipoma was a member of the Vigilante Committee active in the San Luis Obispo area during what was termed “the bloody fifties”. In The Blond Ranchero, Dana mentions well known criminals in that part of the country such as Joaquin Murrieta, Juan Soto, Pio Linares, Joaquin Valenzuela, and Jack Powers. The one time Dana encountered Salomon upon the road his safety was ensured by virtue of his relationship to the old Mexican families. But Jack Powers was another story.
Area ranchers faced a problem distinguishing outlaw from vaquero. Dana describes a man who worked for him, a “perfect rider”, in his words, who gentled horses. His name was Pio Linares. Not until later did Dana learn the man was an outlaw. In this way, too, Jack Powers concealed his nefarious activities from ranchers like Dana. Charming, attractive, and an outstanding horseman, Powers ingratiated himself everywhere.
On one occasion, the Dana family made a substantial cash sale of stock. Knowing a large amount of gold was present, outlaws attacked Casa Dana. The attack failed, and the identity of the outlaws at the time was unknown. An unsuspecting Juan Dana later had occasion to attend to Jack Powers, who had a puncture wound in his leg which he claimed came from a fall from a horse. Dana thought it looked like a bullet wound, and later, after Powers had left, found a bloody slug on the floor. Soon after that Powers’ true nature came to light. In this way, bandits of the area could conceal their activities and gain an advantage.
Among those reputed to be in Powers’ gang were El Mesteño (Luciano Tapia), Nieves Robles, Joaquin Valenzuela (alias Joaquin Ocomorenia), Pío Linares, Blanco, Grijalva, Frolian Servin, Rafael Herrada (nicknamed El Huero), and Jesus Valenzuela. At one time the gang was large enough to seize the Santa Inez Mission from there planned the theft of a large herd of cattle. The cattle belonged to Nicholas Den, who learning of the plan, brought together a force of 100 men and routed the gang. Powers would later cause more problems in Santa Barbara.
Other outlaw gangs in the area were those led by Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel, who rustled cattle and committed armed robbery and murder from San Luis Obispo to San Juan Capistrano. These men were often seen by their countrymen as folk heroes.
By the 1880s in North Santa Barbara County, local cultural differences were less a factor with highway robbery than pure greed . On January 2, 1882, the southbound San Luis Obispo stagecoach to Santa Barbara was stopped and robbed at Santa Inez. During the robbery, the stagecoach horses bolted and ran, and the frustrated outlaw fired several shots at the stagecoach as it went down the road. None of the shots took effect, and the bandit rode off in the gathering dusk. Wells Fargo Detective James Hume, who had followed the career of Kentucky born Dick Fellows, recognized his signature operation.
“On January 8, 1882,” writes Harold Edwards, “the same stagecoach, with the same driver was stopped at the same place by the same bandit in the same manner. The take from the robbery was only ten dollars. The frustrated outlaw took the stage driver’s watch before allowing the coach to proceed.” A detective in the Santa Barbara area, Charles Aull, assigned to investigate the holdups, was eventually successful in tracking down Fellows, and the watch he had stolen was found in his possession. He was tried and convicted in Santa Barbara.
The great majority of stage holdups occurred on the San Marcos Pass road, where steepness and tired horses forced the vehicle to slow down. In some cases, the passengers were asked to disembark and walk up a particularly steep stretch, making the robbers’ job easy.
An old timer in Los Alamos Valley once told me of a conversation he had with a woman who had lived along San Antonio Creek north of Los Alamos. Her porch faced the Santa Rita Hills and the road that once carved its way from the Santa Ynez River Valley. It’s a lovely area, and she described how one late afternoon she watched the stagecoach appear out of the canyon in a cloud of dust, the horses straining at their halters, the sun illuminating the coach brightly––and saw it robbed.