Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863

Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863

by Charles F. Price


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Season of Terror is the first book-length treatment of the little-known true story of the Espinosas—serial murderers with a mission to kill every Anglo in Civil War-era Colorado Territory—and the men who brought them down.

For eight months during the spring and fall of 1863, brothers Felipe Nerio and José Vivián Espinosa and their young nephew, José Vincente, New Mexico-born Hispanos, killed and mutilated an estimated thirty-two victims before their rampage came to a bloody end. Their motives were obscure, although they were members of the Penitentes, a lay Catholic brotherhood devoted to self-torture in emulation of the sufferings of Christ, and some suppose they believed themselves inspired by the Virgin Mary to commit their slaughters.

Until now, the story of their rampage has been recounted as lurid melodrama or ignored by academic historians. Featuring a fascinating array of frontier characters, Season of Terror exposes this neglected truth about Colorado’s past and examines the ethnic, religious, political, military, and moral complexity of the controversy that began as a regional incident but eventually demanded the attention of President Lincoln.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607328049
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 05/14/2018
Series: Timberline Books Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 438,665
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 17 - 18 Years

About the Author

Novelist-turned-historian Charles F. Price is a full-time writer living in North Carolina and has previously published five novels. Season of Terror is his first nonfiction book.

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Season of Terror

The Espinosas in Central Colorado March-October 1863

By Charles F. Price

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-237-5


"Alarming Intelligence And Intense Excitement"

First Murders in the Pike's Peak Country

That year, came early to the Front Range of the Rockies and to the great cleft in the mountains to the south where the Arkansas River broke out onto the plains. While frosts were still common at night, by the middle of March the weather had warmed and the grass had started and some of it was standing an inch or two high. "Already its emerald tinge is mellowing down the dark brown of the prairies," one newspaperman exulted. By every account the winter then passing had been the mildest since the settlement of Colorado Territory, "remarkable for the evenness of temperature and slight fall of snow."

To be sure, storms and winds had been unusually severe in the mountains themselves, but even given the turbulence on the high peaks, some observers thought accumulations of snow up there had been only two-thirds the quantity of the previous year. At the foot of the range, snow had not been uncommon but had usually melted away under bright sunlight within a day of falling. An exception was a "severe storm" of snow over a two-day period in mid-December, which "seriously delayed" the mail coaches. Still, not once all winter had the temperature in Denver City dropped below zero.

In fact, wrote Thomas Gibson, editor of Denver's Weekly Commonwealth, on the first day of March, a Sunday, "Spring came upon us ... as the swelling buds of the cotton-woods show, and they know their business better than anyone can tell them, and have stood too long in this latitude not to be well aware when the time has come to start their young leaves out into the open air."

The unseasonable weather seemed miraculous, so much so that one Thursday in mid-March the editors of both the Mile-High City's weekly newspapers, normally at daggers drawn on any issue of substance, found in it a rare comity. "Saturday was one of the most lovely and beautiful days which mortals anywhere were blessed with," Gibson rhapsodized. "The air was mild as June, and all nature seemed in the highest enjoyment of the Spring Life which was warming into being everywhere. Overcoats were a burden, and men actually spoke of the necessity of ice."

Nor was Gibson's rival and gadfly, William Byers, editor of The Rocky Mountain News Weekly, inclined to stint on the ecstatic hyperbole. "A lovelier day than yesterday never smiled upon the inhabitants of this mundane sphere. The sun shone all day undimmed by a single cloud, and just enough air was moving to pleasantly fan the cheek through open casements. No June weather in the Eastern States ever excelled it in balmy brightness and sunny magnificence. The afternoon was unusually hot, more like July than March. Spring is upon us. Improve the time."

Farmers on the Fontaine qui Bouille in the valley of the Arkansas were already obeying that injunction. They were sowing their wheat. Earlier an agrarian enthusiast there, who signed himself R. Stubbs, had written to the News Weekly from near Colorado City:

Spring is opening under favorable auspices for the people of this section. Many new farming claims are being taken, and old ones further improved. ... A greatly increased breadth of land will be cultivated in the coming season. Reapers, threshing machines, corn shellers, &c., will be introduced before another harvest, and now that we have got such a good flouring mill in our midst, may not the people of this valley congratulate themselves that they are entering upon a career of usefulness and prosperity, second to none in the whole country.

Little more than a fortnight after Stubbs penned this letter, and only fourteen miles south of Colorado City on a tributary of the Fontaine qui Bouille, a family named Priest was improving their time by settling on their own claim in a narrow, roadless canyon "filled with majestic pines," a place becoming known as Saw Mill Gulch because a group of enterprising men were building a new mill there. One of these, fifty-five-year-old "Uncle" Henry Harkens, was an acquaintance of the Priests. So was the owner of the property, Murdoch McPherson. Helping with the construction of the mill were Alden Bassett, a man named Judd, and four other laborers McPherson had employed in Cañon City.

Almost three years before, Harkens, with McPherson and his extended clan and a family headed by Franklin William Bruce, had set out together from Wisconsin to prospect for gold in Colorado Territory. Harkens and McPherson prospected at the boom camp of Buckskin Joe in South Park, where the Priests came to know them, and the Bruces settled in at California Gulch on the west side of the Snowy Range, today's Mosquito Mountains. Now, on a clear, frosty evening, after a pleasant reunion with old friends, Harkens guided the Priests to the location of their new home, a mile from the site of McPherson's unfinished mill.

A surround of softly pleated hills sheltered the canyon, their summits mostly bare, composed of ruddy earth and outcrops of cinnamon and pale pink rim-rock. Piñon, dwarf oak, juniper, and scrub pine speckled their girths, and the growth thickened lower down so the bases of the hills were darkly cloaked with the big pines that were going to feed the saws of the new mill. A fast-running creek wended its way through the canyon; its force would be enough to turn the wheel of the mill. The canyon floor was still choked with sage, greasewood, and pale gray clumps of aspen yet to leaf out. A wildly beautiful but brooding and lonely place was this Saw Mill Gulch. The Priests agreed to pitch in and help hack a road through the canyon "to haul lumber away from the mill when it got to running."

It happened that the Bruces, too, were farming now only twenty-odd miles south of Saw Mill Gulch on the other side of the Arkansas, at a place on the prairie known as Hardscrabble. The fifty-eight-year-old Bruce, his wife, Ruth, and their four children were holding a claim on Hardscrabble Creek. They had settled there in 1861 after leaving California Gulch and laying over for a winter in Cañon City. Bruce had built a house six miles south of the Arkansas and taken an irrigation canal out of the creek, one of the earliest such diversions recorded in the Arkansas Valley. He had successfully grown crops for two seasons and beginning this spring he planned on bringing in another.

The Bruce farm stood on a broad unbroken plain sloping almost imperceptibly down to the Arkansas, seamed and wrinkled with deep arroyos. The soil was a light tan, spotted in places with white patches of alkali left behind where ponds of winter snowmelt had dried up in the sun. Dwarf junipers and cholla cactus grew here and there. But the arid appearance was deceptive. Around his farm, Bruce's irrigation canal had made this bleak-looking prairie yield a green bounty. And the setting was a breathtaking one. In the distance among the hills north of the Arkansas, snowcapped Pike's Peak seemed to float suspended, more like the dream of a mountain than the thing itself. On the south frowned the low, olive-colored summits of the Wet Mountains. Arching over it all was a vast blue vault of sky.

But Franklin Bruce, as he was known, had seen an opportunity beyond farming to better his prospects; he would supply finished lumber to the new settlers roundabout the Hardscrabble. So as the fine weather continued, he and his sons, Russell and Thadeus, were knowingly or unknowingly following Murdoch McPherson's lead by building their own sawmill amid thick stands of spruce and fir on the upper reaches of the stream six miles south of their farm. All about them stood a forest of ponderosa, a wood less suitable for building material than their chosen spruce and fir. Above them rose the red sandstone ramparts of the Wet Mountains. Like McPherson, Harkens, and the Priests, they, too, were improving their time.

We do not know whether these men, all linked by former connections but separated by the different choices they had made upon arriving in Colorado, had come together in the Arkansas Valley by prearrangement or by happenstance. The distance between them suggests their decisions may not have been collaborative. The only firsthand account we have is that of Priest's son, Henry, told to a woman named Elsie Keeton some two-thirds of a century after the fact. Henry, who must have been very young at the time of the events he describes, confirms that Harkens was a friend from their days at Buckskin Joe but makes no such mention of McPherson, though one historian has shown they were indeed well acquainted.

Whether Bruce and the Priests had previously met, we do not know. What we do know is that the population of central Colorado just then was in flux and many others were making similar new choices. Though the Territory was immense, its white population, always small, had actually dwindled over the past three years. The 1860 Federal Census had enumerated approximately 43,500 people, but by the time of the special Territorial Census the following year, only 25,331 were counted. By 1863 that total must have dropped even further.

Why? The gold strikes of 1858–59 had ignited a stampede from the East into the Golden, Clear Creek, California Gulch, and South Park fields, but placer mining had reached its pinnacle in 1862 and now was declining as more and more of the placers played out and hard-rock mining, requiring costly equipment to break through cap rock and extract the ore, became necessary. Disillusioned gold-seekers gave up and left the Territory to pursue more promising options elsewhere; hardier souls disdained them as "go-backers." Union and Southern sympathizers returning East to join the respective Civil War armies, and increasing depredations by hostile Indians, also accounted for a portion of the exodus. And as mining activity fell off, so did business in the mercantile centers such as Denver, Cañon City, and Colorado City that had furnished the boom. The latter two towns "virtually disappeared" during the war.

With so few people concentrated in only a handful of settlements, it was not remarkable that nearly everybody in Colorado seemed to know everybody else, or know of everybody else, in the same way the Bruces knew Murdoch McPherson and Henry Harkens as fellow travelers westward and the Priests knew Harkens and McPherson from the Buckskin Joe goldfields. Nor was it strange that some of those who had lingered in the Territory were now forsaking the long chances of quick wealth and were choosing instead to settle on the land and work it for a living, as had the Bruces, the Priests, McPherson, and his partner, Harkens.

Whether it was by chance or according to plan, these once peripatetic friends were now settling down within forty miles of each other, probably with as much of an eye to permanence as such restless spirits could muster. But before this supernal month of March was done, they would be linked not only by companionship and memories of shared adventures in the gold camps, but also by a catastrophe that would shatter their lives and consume all central Colorado with a contagion of fear.

On Wednesday, March 18, nearly a week after their arrival in the gulch, the Priests were working on the new road while Harkens, McPherson, and Bassett kept busy at the mill-site, Harkens daubing the logs of the cabin and hanging a blanket for a door while his partners applied themselves to construction of the mill. At quitting time McPherson and Bassett decided to visit the Priests to check on their progress with the road. Harkens set about cooking supper.

Returning near sunset from looking over the roadwork, McPherson and Bassett approached their cabin expecting to find supper waiting. Instead, the building stood dark. "I wonder what's the matter that the old man doesn't have a light?" McPherson remarked.

Bassett replied, "You must remember he daubed the cabin today and hung a blanket for a door, so we couldn't see a light if he had one."

Increasingly suspicious, they approached the cabin and, according to Henry Priest, "the first thing that met their gaze was Harkens, lying dead within six feet of the cabin door, his head split open with the ax, and two ugly gashes in his left breast. McPherson thought the murderer must still be in the cabin, so he cocked his gun, and with the barrel cautiously pushed aside the blanket which served as a door. There was no one in the cabin, but everything was topsy-turvy."

The cabin had been plundered, a suitcase of McPherson's had been cut open and the contents scattered about, and a one- hundred-pound sack of flour had been emptied just inside the door. Bassett and McPherson "thought the woods were full of Indians and ... expected to be scalped any minute." They fled in a panic back to the Priests' where they gasped out the story that Harkens had been killed by Indians. According to Henry Priest:

Father wanted to go right over and put the body in the cabin where it could be safe from wild beasts, but mother and McPherson and Bassett were so frightened and so sure he had been killed by Indians they would not let him go, so we stood guard all night and at daybreak father started down to the nearest ranch, five miles distant, for help. When he reported the killing a man rode on to Fountain, which was five miles further, and reported the murder there, and by noon there were twenty-five men at our house, and we all went to Harkens' cabin to see what had happened to him and whether there were any Indians about. We found Harkens had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a Colts [sic] Navy revolver, then the murderers had taken the ax and split his head open from the top to the mouth, and then, judging from the appearance of his head and the ax, they had hit him on each side of the head with the head of the ax, and two pieces of skull and his brains lay on the ground at the top of his head. He was also stabbed twice in the left breast; two four-inch gashes about three inches apart. He must have been killed shortly after McPherson and Bassett started down the canon, for he had not yet cut the wood with which to cook supper.

It may be reasonably asked how, in the absence of modern-day ballistics, the murder weapon could be identified at once by manufacturer and model, especially since the bullet hole in the forehead, possibly but not necessarily useful in establishing its caliber, would have been eradicated by the ax wounds Priest describes. Equally questionable, after the passage of sixty-six years, is Priest's ability to describe Harkens's other wounds so particularly. But these are trivial questions when measured against the savagery of the crime, which shocked and horrified the surrounding community.

The Priests and their neighbors searched the area of the cabin and the mill for clues:

The murderers must have still been ransacking the cabin when they heard McPherson and Bassett returning, for judging from their pony tracks they had mounted them and hastily ridden away toward the red cliffs west of the cabin. They had ridden right through the pine tree tops, which were scattered about where the logs for the cabin had been cut, and in one pile of the tree tops we found a chunk of beef they had lost in their flight. They rode back to the red cliffs where there was a sheltered place in a gulch by a ledge of rock and here we found they had evidently cooked their supper; then they mounted their horses and had taken the old trail to Colorado City. This old trail passed within a few rods of father's house, and while we were standing guard the night of the murder the bandits must have passed right by us.

Having satisfied themselves that the murderers had left the area, the saddened party began digging a grave for Harkens. While they were so engaged, two horsemen came down the canyon "at a brisk pace." They proved to be peace officers, identified by Priest as "a sheriff and his deputy from Hardscrabble." They were trailing two men who, they reported, had murdered McPherson's old Wisconsin friend, Franklin Bruce, at his mill-site in the Wet Mountain foothills the day before the killing of Harkens, and at about the same hour. The group gathered around Harkens's half-dug grave was thunderstruck. Bruce, the sheriff related, had been shot several times after walking to the door of his blacksmith shop.


Excerpted from Season of Terror by Charles F. Price. Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

Foreword Stephen J. Leonard xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1

1 "Alarming Intelligence and Intense Excitement": First Murders in the Pike's Peak Country 11

2 "Most Horrible and Fiendish Murders": The Bleeding of South Park Begins 33

3 "There Has Been Considerable Excitement": The First Colorado Cavalry Steps In 49

4 "The People Are Scared Nearly to Death Here": The Murderers Strike at the Vitals of South Park 61

5 "Fallen into the Hands of Hard Men in an Evil Hour": The Lynching of Baxter 75

6 "Glorious News! The Mysterious Murders Unraveled at Last": One of the Slayers Slain 91

7 "Desperate and Lawless Bravos": The Brothers Espinosa 109

8 "Revenge for the Infamies Committed Against Our Families": Serial Murder as Vendetta 137

9 "Malicious Interference Was the Cause": The Scapegoating of Captain E. Wayne Eaton 157

10 "Times Have Become Quiet Again": Panic Recedes in South Park but Murder Moves Elsewhere 193

11 "Ready for Any Duty, Untiring, and Full of Energy": Samuel F. Tappan Takes Up the Hunt for the Espinosas 207

12 "If This Woman Is Found Dead, Tell the People the Espinosas of the Conejos Killed Her": The Attack on Philbrook and Dolores Sánches 221

13 "I Drew His Head Back over a Fallen Tree and Cut It Off": Tom Tobin Ends the Terror 239

14 "The Brightest Success Rewarded Them for Their Toils": Tobin Brings in the Heads 265

15 "Who Is There to Gather the History of This Wretch?": The Espinosas Remembered 277

16 "Times with Me Have Sadly Changed": Destinies 285

Appendix A Location of the Death Site of Vivián Espinosa: Alternative Theories 293

The Perkins Theory 293

The Walker Theory 297

Appendix B John McCannon's Attempt to Claim the Espinosa Reward 303

Bibliography 309

Index 323

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