“Aye, Revenge on Their Murderers!”: The Barton Massacre of 23 January 1857, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A post two weeks ago on this blog discussed the last “Big One,” an estimated 7.9 earthquake that, on 9 January 1857, rumbled along the San Andreas Fault through a large swath of California, but caused relatively little death and destruction because of the sparse population of the affected areas. A different type of shock struck greater Los Angeles exactly a fortnight (two weeks) later when, on 23 January, Sheriff James R. Barton and a small posse he led to search for bandits wanted to murder and robbery in the mission town of San Juan Capistrano (part of Los Angeles County until the creation of Orange County in 1889) were ambushed and massacred in what is now Irvine.

The 1850s was a decade of extraordinary violence that, even with almost certainly exaggerated claims by the likes of memoirists Horace Bell and Harris Newmark that there was a murder a day in Los Angeles at one point, greatly overshadowed the statistics of our era. A detailed study, a little more than two decades ago, by an Ohio State University team led by the late historian of criminal justice Eric Monkonnen, found that the number of documented homicides was, at most, a few dozen at the peak during that decade, but, for a county population of under 10,000, that is still staggeringly high.

An 1857 lithograph of Los Angeles, published by Britton and Rey of San Francisco. The sanitized, placid view was drawn not long after the massacre of Sheriff Barton and three members of his posse hunting the Flores-Daniel Gang.

The reasons for such an astounding rate include a minuscule and underpaid group of law enforcement officers, a weak court system, a preponderance of young men with few constraints on their behavior, a highly fluid group of such men roaming the state, an overabundance of alcohol and firearms (always a deadly mix), and more. There were also plenty of bandits, individuals, small ensembles and large groups, including those that were Caucasian, Latino and, in some instances, of mixed ethnicity. With Los Angeles County, especially in the early Fifties, possessing a fair amount of wealth due to the Gold Rush cattle trade, it was often easy pickings for criminals operating both in the Angel City and among the outlying ranchos and farms.

Perusing the weekly newspapers of that decade, including the Star, launched in spring 1851 and published in early 1857 by Henry Hamilton (later such a vociferous supporter of the Confederacy that he shut his paper down before he was arrested and briefly confined on Alcatraz Island), the Southern Californian (1854-1855) and the Spanish-language El Clamor Público (1855-1859), it was very common to see reports of violence and complaints that too little was being done to stanch the bloodletting. The 24 January 1857 edition of the Star, for example, included the report that Los Angeles Marshal William C. Getman warned residents of “the present disturbed and dangerous state of society here” and asked for volunteers for a citizen cavalry company. A dozen men reportedly answered his request.

Los Angeles Star, 24 January 1857.

The paper added that “the first requirement of society is protection to life and property” and observed that, without this, “we need never look for an augmentation of population” and growth of the city and region. In its report, the Star noted that “one or two convicts, escaped from the State prison [at San Quentin near San Francisco], are connected with this band of robbers” that were said to be “committing depredations in the neighborhood of San Juan and other places in the county.” A separate article discussed a “spirited chase” by Getman of purported horse thief, who were “supposed to be one of a band of robbers who have their headquarters in the lower country.”

On the evening of the 22nd, the account went on, “the Sheriff, J.R. Barton, Esq., mustered a company, and went in search of the outlaws” and the paper concluded, “we hope these companies will shoot down the ruffians, should they find them” and opined that “we want no prisoners to saddle the county with their support for months, winding up with the farce of trial and acquittal.” This last point was a common complaint about the inefficacy of the administration of criminal justice and the oft-held view that criminals were all-too-often acquitted and not held to account for their actions. In turn, there were occasions in which citizens took the law into their own hands and engaged in “popular tribunals,” or mock trials, to find accused criminals guilty, with most sentences being executions of death, or simply stormed jails after impromptu meetings and lynched prisoners.

Star, 24 January 1857.

A separate article, though, followed up on the departure of Barton (who was a former son-in-law of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland) and his small cadre of men, but, because of the lateness of the hour when the sad news was brought to Los Angeles, only this was reported:

Last evening, about six o’clock, the city was thrown into the greatest excitement by the arrival of a messenger, bringing the fearful intelligence of the murder of the Sheriff, J.R. Barton; also, Wm. H. Little, Charles K. Baker, and ———– [Charles F.] Daly, who volunteer to accompany him.

The messenger, Mr. [Alfred] Hardy, was pursued for several miles, but being on a good horse, effected his escape. No further particulars [were] known at the time of going to press. A party has started off to the scene of the murder.

In its coverage, El Clamor Público, of the same date, reported that Barton “went out with a company of armed man in pursuit of a gang of robbers and murderers who are committing all sorts of depredations” in the mission hamlet and other areas of the county.” As they got to a location about where Interstate 5 meets the 133 Freeway, the posse “ran into thieves and in a desperate attack some of the best men in this city lost their lives.”

Star, 24 January 1857.

The young publisher, Francisco P. Ramirez, then observed that “it is impossible to give an idea of the feeling of pain and consternation that this sad news” brought to friends of the sheriff. He continued that, among those, who joined the cavalry company heading out to search for the bandits, “many Californios gave, with their accustomed liberality, horses and arms.” Ramirez then concluded with the note that “if they come across the thieves, they will receive a terrible and exemplary retribution for their crimes and evils that they have been committing for so long.”

The paper, moreover, echoed the report about Getman’s establishment of the cavalry company, noting he posted bills throughout town raising concerns about “the bad state of our situation.” El Clamor Público reported that there were thirteen or fourteen respondents to the marshal’s request and it concluded that “we are currently in a very alarming situation and all those who have an interest in the welfare and safety of their families and property should contribute something to maintain order and public peace.

El Clamor Público, 24 January 1857. Thanks to Paul Bryan Gray for making this available.

In its edition of the 31st, the Star went into far greater detail about what transpired with the ambush and massacre, noting that the late arrival of the news, but it observed that “it was at first hoped, that the rumor might be exaggerated” or that some of those who were attacked might have survived. This, however, was not the case as “the messenger [Hardy] was but too well informed, and we have now to deplore the loss to the county and society of four good and brave men.”

Barton, Baker, Daly and Little, the paper continued, were “nobly discharging a duty for which all had volunteered their services” and it asked, “will their deaths be unavenged—will the people rise in their might, and sweep the villains and murderers from the face of the earth—or will the present deep feeling be allowed to exhaust itself in idle complainings?” It added that “their blood cries from the ground for vengeance” and wondered when this would be wreaked against those that took their lives.

El Clamor Público, 24 January 1857

It was noted that Garnett Hardy, Alfred’s brother, was delivering goods at San Juan Capistrano and was warned of the presence of the gang, apparently referring to itself as Las Manillas, or The Handcuffs. It turned out that Garnett Hardy, doing his work as a teamster, was robbed of his horses by Juan Flores, a leader of the gang, and Juan Gonzales, with the two convicted and sent to San Quentin in April 1855. Purportedly, Flores sought revenge on Hardy at San Juan, but the latter sent a message to Alfred, who then contacted Barton, the response being to form the wholly inadequate posse, which included constables Baker and Little and volunteer Daly.

The morning of the 22nd, the Flores-Daniel gang robbed a house and store owned by the Polish-born merchant Michael Krazewski and, that night, attacked the stores of Henry Charles and Charles Pflugardt, the latter murdered after which gang members ate dinner while the corpse lay on the floor nearby. Finally, Manuel Garcia’s store was robbed, but he fled and, apparently, saved his life in so doing. The next morning, the sheriff and his men arrived at the Rancho San Joaquín, where Latino workers for the Sepúlveda family, which owned the ranch, warned them that “the robbers were in among the hills, that they were at least fifty in number, and would kill the hole party, should they meet them.” Barton, it was reported, scoffed at this information and pressed on.

Star, 31 January 1857.

A dozen miles from the ranch, the group got to a spur of the range known as the San Joaquin Hills and saw a lone rider, with Baker and Little heading out to see where the horseman was going. The report continued that “when they had advanced about 400 yards ahead of the party, they were suddenly attacked by a band of robbers, at least twenty in number, who rushed out from between the hills.” Barton and the others, including Daly and Frank H. Alexander along with an unnamed French-born guide, rode in that direction “but before they could reach them, the latter [Baker and Little] were killed.

It was stated that, “one of the robbers was heard to say to Barton, ‘G—d d—n you, I have got you, now” and the sheriff was said to have rejoined, “I reckon I have got you, too.” With both men pointing their pistols as they uttered these phrases, “the discharge was simultaneous, but Barton fell, shot through the heart,” while three of the robbers “fell on the first discharge,” according to what was brought back to Los Angeles. Daly, who was on a mule, tried to escape, but was easily overtaken and killed.

Star, 31 January 1857.

Hardy and Alexander “broke and run [ran] for their lives, and effected their escape, owing to the fleetness of their horses,” though the chase continued for a dozen miles until the Sepúlveda place was reached, with the first several hundred yards being the most fraught as “the balls whistled thick and fast around the fugitives, making the dust on the road fly up before and around them.” After a brief stop for water, the men, who heard more firing before the robbers turned back, split up, with Alexander riding to El Monte through the Whittier Narrows to raise the alarm and Hardy taking the route into the Angel City and providing the report.

When Hardy arrived and gave his account, “the most intense excitement prevailed throughout the community” and immediately talk concentrated on forming a party “to go out in pursuit of the robbers and exterminate them.” In a couple of hours, some forty mounted men, “started off in the good cause.” The following morning, a group of fourteen men headed out with carriages containing four coffins to retrieve the corpses. The positions of the bodies was described in some detail and it was noted that the contents of the pockets of the murdered men were emptied while items of clothing were also removed. Notably, Barton, Little and Baker, in addition to the wounds inflicted during the gun battle, were shot in the right eye, evidently a message of some kind, as it was stated that “the bodies had evidently been fired upon after death.”

Star, 31 January 1857.

As for the gang, the Star recorded that there were a number of men identified as having been among the ruffians at San Juan “and took part in the murder, though how this was known went unexplained. Flores and Francisco “Pancho” Daniel were accounted the leaders, with the latter apparently being the killer of the sheriff, but with his being wounded, Flores, said to have killed Baker, assumed leadership. Others included James Silvas, named as the killer of Little, Antonio Maria “Bariles” (Varela), Gonzales, a man known as Benito, Faustino Garcia (said to have been the brother of bandit Anastacio Garcia—these purportedly the cousin of Tiburcio Vásquez, later jailed in 1857 for robbery in Los Angeles County and, nearly two decades later, captured and executed after a long run of crimes throughout the state), and the twin brothers Dolores and Lorenzo Ruiz.

Sunday morning, it was reported that the bodies were recovered and were on their way in a caravan, so “the citizens turned out and met it at the river, and accompanied the remains to a house appropriated for their reception, to await preparations for their burial.” Shops and other business closed “and the emblems of mourning were generally displayed,” including flags at half-mast, houses dressed in crape “and every evidence exhibited respect for the dead, and every honor paid to their memory.” A coroner’s inquest, as required by law, was held and a funeral was held on Monday.

Star, 31 January 1857.

Barton and Little were Masons, so their brethren were in attendance for the services “which was also attended by almost our entire population” as a half-mile procession represented “the largest turn out of citizens ever made in this city.” The Los Angeles Band, the masonic members, the four hearses accompanied by pallbearers, the Mechanics’ Institute membership, citizens walking along and carriages conveying women along with a contingent of equestrians comprised those in the procession.

We’ll continue with part two on Wednesday with the manhunt for the Flores-Daniel Gang and then look further at the events that transpired that took the Barton massacre into extremes of vengeance and retribution, including on some who had no part in the killings. The attitude of many Angelenos at the time was expressed in the verses, penned on the 26th, by a teenage girl named Josephine Smith, but who went under the nom de plume of Ina Coolbrith. Later, a renowned poet, the young woman was only known at the time in the Angel City for her published works. In this case, “Lines on the Recent Massacre” encapsulated the view of many and here are some samples:

Aye, lay them to rest in the damp, cold earth,

And, “let there be wailing and weeping,”

For no voice but God’s can again call them forth

From the graves where they’re silently sleeping . . .

Then hark, to the sod on their coffin lids fall,

As their forms to the grave we have given;

Never, no never to behold them again,

Till we meet them, all glorious, in heaven . . .

Parents, brothers and sisters, will mourn for the lost,

For, alas, they can never regain them,

And in heart-breaking sorrow will pray to their God

For revenge on the ones who have slain them.

Aye, revenge on their murderers! Is there no true man,

Not one, to act as the avenger

Of their four noble beings who lost their own lives

In defending this people from danger.

Go, seek for the inhuman, ruffianly horde,

Nor strive, as ye do, to avoid them,

Go forth in the names of the brave men they’ve killed,

And rest not untill [sic] you have destroyed them.

And they, who are sleeping in death’s cold embrace,

Time can ne’er from our memory estrange them;

Then, O! while the sod is yet damp on their graves,

Go forth, in God’s name, and avenge them.

Leave a Reply