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The Outlaw Espinosas and Gilpin County

Why Marshall Hunt was on the hunt

By Forrest Whitman

Between March and October of 1863 two brothers, Felipe and Vivian Espinosa went on a rampage in Colorado Territory. They killed and stole without seeming reason or pattern. Citizens looked to the United States Marshall, Alexander Hunt, to stop their rampage. Hunt was often in Central City and went out from Gilpin County to hunt for the brothers after they were first suspected of being the perpetrators. Newspaper columnist Dornick cleverly said that “Hunt was on the hunt.” He said, “Hunt hunted us up and marshaled us into court.” What was really going on with the Espinosa brothers? Was this really a “Mexican revolt” against the U.S. government? Why did Hunt never catch the brothers?

Were Colorado’s Mexicans in revolt?

  There had been Mexican unrest in Colorado since the territory was taken from Mexico and forcibly put into the U.S. in 1846. One can see the Mexican point. They woke up one morning to discover that they’d been Mexicans, or rather New Mexicans, but were now U.S. Citizens. They didn’t understand the new laws or the new government. Few of them spoke English and fewer still read English. In the past they’d paid nominal taxes to the Mexican government in Santa Fe, but now taxes were a serious matter. Now they had County Commissioners where in the past they’d had ahuntamientos, voluntary groupings of local officials. Major Archibald Gillespie arrived in southern Colorado to take a “military census.” This was creating the fear that men would be drafted to fight the Civil War. There was huge fear in Southern Colorado and northern New Mexico among the local population. In fact there had been one actual revolt. It would be hard to call the unrest of 1863 a “revolt.” Still, it was against this background that the Espinosa story played out.

In 1863 the fear of the Espinosas (though often it wasn’t known for sure who they were) was wide spread. This very newspaper reported in May of 1863 that a posse was hunting the Espinosa band. That incident was gripping – that month a group of men from Gold Run in the Blue River country were assaulted by a group of desperadoes as they peacefully went along the road. According to the May 9 edition of the Register-Call, four men were taken into custody by the vigilantes and two were hanged, one fatally. Three apparently escaped with their lives. In fact, none of the band had anything to do with the Espinosas, but fear leads to mob rule sometimes. The editorial writer in the Central City paper opined that taking the law into one’s own hands was never a good idea. Still, Alexander Hunt, territorial marshal, was not able to catch the Espinosas. Even though Hunt was popular in Central City and had many ties in the town, he was much criticized. Journalist Dornick hinted that Hunt was spending too much time in the pleasant environs of Central City rather than footslogging in southern Colorado or South Park where the desperados were known to be operating.

The Mexican/Indian Revolt of 1847

  The background for this whole story was the “Mexican War” of 1846. When President Polk took over New Mexico he was a firm believer in “manifest destiny.” It was, in his view, the destiny of the United States to own the southwest. He sent General Stephen Watts Kearney to conquer New Mexico, parts of Colorado, California and everything in between. It worked. Felipe and Vivian were teenagers when that takeover happened. They were also teenagers when the revolt of Mexicans and Indians took place in January of 1847, but they could hardly have missed the event. Governor Charles Bent was killed and the rag tag revolutionary band went on to attack the new “Gringo” institutions wherever they could. Even men like Tom Tobin were assaulted. Tobin was married to a Mexican woman, had converted to Catholicism, and was generally well liked around Taos. But, he was still brutally attacked. Of course the revolt was short-lived. The leaders were hanged and the rebels disappeared. Some historians think the Espinosa brothers were fighting in that revolutionary force. We’ll never know.

The Personal Outrage against the Espinosas

  The Espinosa brothers were hardly respected members of their community. Now living in southern Colorado, they were often accused of petty theft. They were accused of stealing sheep and horses. But, they went too far when they held up and robbed a wagon filled with trade goods for a store owned by a priest. Marshal Hunt was called in, but delegated the task of punishing the Espinosas to the army. This is probably what started the whole rampage. The army arrived at the rancherita of the Espinosas. While they did not catch the brothers, they did find the women at home. The army proceeded to strip the place of everything they could find. All the animals, household goods, even the covering of the beds went. Remember that this was winter in southern Colorado.  The women and children were left weeping as the soldiers torched the outbuildings and rode away. Could Marshal Hunt have calmed down the affair? Would civilian justice have dealt more kindly with these two petty thieves? Again, we’ll never know. What did happen was a year-long vendetta by the two brothers.

The vendetta

  From March 1863 until October of 1863 the Espinosas went on a wild rampage. They probably killed ten people, all but one Anglos. They stole indiscriminately wherever they went. Newspapers were full of accounts of killings, often pinned on the Espinosas. Some at the time thought it all had something to do with Felipe’s membership in the Penitentes. While the official Catholic Church discouraged these groups, they still flourished in southern Colorado. Each Easter season they engaged in heavy self-flagellation and re-enacted the crucifixion of Christ. Their “moradas” or “temples” can sometimes be seen even today, though the group is probably no longer active.

Others speculated that the Espinosas were trying to get another revolt going against the U.S. Government. The Civil War was in full swing back in the east. Some letter writers were sure the Espinosas were in league with the Confederates. Whatever the reasons, the press at the time had this as the big Colorado story. The whole territory of Colorado was living in fear. It was the Marshals job, technically, to capture the Espinosas. Actually Hunt turned things over to the army almost completely. He had the whole state of Colorado to worry about, and this was only one challenge he faced in imposing the rule of law instead of the rule of various vigilantes. The army actually did a good job, albeit a somewhat slow one. They did track the brothers and did kill Vivian in a skirmish, but were unable to capture Felipe.

Enter Tom Tobin

  In mid, or possibly late 1863, Felipe recruited his enthusiastic young nephew Julio to go on the warpath with him. By now it was clear the Espinosas were completely out of control. The famous scout Tom Tobin was brought in by Colonel Tappan of Fort Garland to take up the hunt. Tom Tobin then lived in the area of Fort Garland. He knew the Espinosa family. He even had a pretty good idea of where they’d be hiding up in the La Veta Pass country. Tobin tracked the Espinosas successfully and led a small group of soldiers to their camp. Likely only five soldiers were in the party and they stayed back. Despite whatever concerns Marshal Hunt had for due process, Tobin simply shot and killed Felipe on sight. The young nephew ran, but was shot down as he fled near the soldiers and died almost at once. When Tobin approached the dying Felipe the desperado asked, “Do you know me?” Tobin’s answer was not recorded. As an odd footnote, Tobin paid some of the living expenses for the Espinosa family for the rest of his life.

Central City and Vigilant Justice

  Marshall Hunt had a big job and a big territory. Did he do enough to establish the rule of law? Was the journalist Dornick right in asserting that Hunt spent too much time in pleasant Central City instead of being out on the road?  Those questions will always be with us, but this story is fascinating. What were the Espinosas up to?  Where was Marshal Hunt?

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