Museum Blog

Tracking Down History

Tom Tobin was born in St. Louis, Missouri and claimed his birthday was March 15, 1823. On other occasions, the dates changed but it isn’t unusual for birth dates to be unclear as many people didn’t know or incorrect information was recorded on censuses. Regardless, his birth year is either 1823 or 1824 depending on sources.

You might be asking, “Who is Tom Tobin and what does he have to do with Fremont County?” Though Tobin spent very little time in Fremont County, he does play a large part in a string of murders that took place across the Territory of Colorado in 1863.

Felipe and Vivian Espinosa, brothers, were two of the many Hispano[1] people who lost their land after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Despite protections that should have allowed them to retain property rights, the brothers lost their land and moved to the area of Conejos County in Colorado. Driven to stealing horses and robbing freight wagons in desperation, the brothers were recognized when robbing a freight wagon belonging to a priest from New Mexico. An American military detachment from Fort Garland, Colorado was sent to capture the brothers but it was unsuccessful and a shootout left a corporal dead. Now the men were wanted for both robbery and murder. The brothers fled and Army officials stripped their home of all belongings, leaving the family without means of support. Incensed, the brothers set out on a campaign to murder as many Americans as they could.

The brothers are thought to have killed at least 32 people according to their diary entries. They were finally cornered by a posse just north of Cañon City next to Four Mile Creek. Vivian Espinosa was shot and killed but Felipe managed to escape after he was confused as a member of the posse based on his clothing. He returned to his family to recoup and his nephew, Jose, joined him in committing murders. Colonel Tappan, in charge at Fort Garland, recruited Tobin to help track down Felipe and Jose. Tobin was known to be an excellent tracker and scout. Tobin knew Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson, whose son, William, was later married to Tobin’s daughter, Pascuala. It was said Tobin’s frontier skills rivaled Kit Carson’s.

Tobin left Fort Garland with a group of soldiers and began tracking Felipe and Jose. Northeast of Fort Garland, Tobin and the soldiers found their camp. Tobin shot Felipe who called for Jose to run. The soldiers missed their shots but Tobin fired again and hit Jose. He returned the heads to Fort Garland but never received the entirety of the $2,500 reward.

Tom Tobin is remembered most for his part in capturing the Felipe and Jose Espinosa, but he was also a soldier, rancher, army scout, and tracker. He embodied the frontiersman that roamed across the west and led many men through the wilderness. Some accounts say he wintered in Cañon City between the years of 1863-1868 and his rifle certainly was at one time in the possession of the Holy Cross Abbey before being sold to a private collector. In another twist, his son was killed just outside Florence in 1899 when searching for an escaped inmate from the Colorado State Penitentiary. Tobin died in 1904 and entered into the legends of the “wild west”.

Happy Birthday, Tom Tobin!

The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

[1] A person descended from Spanish settlers in the Southwest before it was annexed to the US.

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