Now & Then: The Espinosa Brothers

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Now: I first became aware of the Espinosa Brothers when I met James Perkins at the El Pueblo Museum and Book Store on November 3, 2000.  I purchased a couple of his books including, Tom Tobin: Frontiersman.  The story captivated me, especially when I read that the brothers started their rampage in Fremont County where they killed William Franklin Bruce in April of 1863, as he was leaving his sawmill near Hardscrabble Creek.

According Perkins account, the body of Bruce was brought back to Cañon City and buried east of Skyline Drive, between the hogbacks and pig backs where the tunnel goes through Skyline Drive. Bruce’s grave and about 4 or 5 others were in that vicinity but no grave markers have been visible for many years. Bruce’s widow Ruth died on May 22, 1891; her grave is in the New Hope Cemetery, north of Wetmore, Colorado.

When I was considering writing this blog, I was advised by a local geologist, Dan Grenard, that I might want to see if Nelson Walker would co-author it with me.  I contacted Nelson and he said “yes”. Nelson has a reputation of having walked, hiked, explored, and climbed most of Fremont County during his days with the Unites States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and still does to this day.

I consider Nelson’s following narrative to have greatly enhanced and enriched this blog and I personally thank him for saying “yes”. 


By Nelson D. Walker and Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Note to reader:  The following narrative is largely based on two important narratives that have been written about the Espinosa incident; Tom Tobin: Frontiersman by James Perkins, and Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March – October, 1863 by Charles F. Price. Some descriptions, such as certain details about the movements of the posse between May 6-8, as well as speculations concerning the location of the place where Vivian Espinosa was killed, were based on conclusions drawn from the analysis of statements from the only participants in the manhunt who left written testimonials about it; John McCannon and Joseph Lamb.

McCannon’s and Lamb’s accounts differ in many respects and often did not provide sufficient geographical details for accurately reconstructing the actual path that the posse took in following the outlaws’ trail to their hideout.  Without such details we can only speculate about the posse’s travel routes and the location of the place where Espinosa was killed.     

Then: In 1863, Cañon City lay within the Territory of Colorado, as the State of Colorado would not be created for another thirteen years.  During the spring of this year, the citizens of southern Colorado Territory were terrorized by a series of mysterious murders.

The first murder occurred on March 16th, just south of the present-day community of Wetmore.  The victim was a farmer and part-time sawmill operator by the name of William Franklin Bruce.  He had been shot in the chest and his head had been cleaved open with an axe. Several cross-like symbols were also carved across his chest with a knife.

Two days later, another man was murdered on a branch of Fountain Creek, about fifteen miles south of present-day Colorado Springs.  This man’s name was Henry Harkens (sometimes spelled Harkins).  By an odd coincidence Harkens was also in the sawmill business.  He was killed outside of the cabin he and his two partners were building.  He, too, had been shot, his head split open with an ax, and mutilated in a similar manner as William Bruce.  Apparently, the killers had been spying on Harkens and his two partners from the rim rock above the cabin site.  When the two partners departed from the cabin to fetch supplies, the murderers surprised and killed Harkens.  Today, Henry Harkens’ grave rests next to Highway 115 on a little knoll with a white rail fence surrounding it.  It is located near the bottom of Dead Man Hill, a few hundred feet north of mile marker 36 on the east side of the highway.

After the murders of Bruce and Harkens, all was quiet for the next three weeks.  Then, on April 9th, the bodies of two men were discovered along the road between Fairplay and Denver, near a roadhouse named Kenosha House.  The names of the men were Binkley and Shoup, and they had been killed on the evening of April 8, but their bodies were not discovered until early the next day.  Apparently, the two had been ambushed while asleep in their campsite.  Binkley’s body was found at the campsite with a gunshot to the chest.  Shoup’s body was found about 400 yards away from the campsite where it appears he had run away after being stabbed several times, then collapsed and died from loss of blood.  

By now, word had spread throughout the territory that someone was going around picking off the local citizenry.  In addition to the sheer brutality of the murders, what made the killings even more frightening was the fact that no one had a clue about who was doing it… or why.  At first, it was speculated that the culprits were Indians, or possibly a renegade band of Confederate sympathizers, however the methods employed by the killers didn’t support either of these theories. Robbery didn’t seem to be a motivating factor either, as nothing of great value had been taken from the victims.

The next killing occurred a day or two after the Shoup and Binkley murders. The exact date of the killing is unknown, because the victim’s body was not discovered for several days afterwards.  The victim’s name was John Addleman, who lived alone in a small cabin on an isolated farmstead located near the present-day community of Lake George.  Addleman had also been shot to death, and his body had reportedly been mutilated.  Today, his grave can be seen where it rests next to Teller County Road 90, located approximately 3.3 miles west of US Highway 24.

On May 2nd, a man named Carter was shot and killed about 3 miles northwest of Fairplay at a place called Cottage Grove. Two days later, two men named Lehman and Sega were ambushed and killed three miles northeast of Fairplay on the west side of Red Hill.  The two men were traveling together on the road to Denver when the attack occurred. One of the victims was killed by a single gunshot, while the other suffered a gunshot through a wrist before his head was bashed in with a rock. 

Lehman and Seyga were both miners from California Gulch, which is located on the west side of the Mosquito Range near Leadville. Both were well known to many of the other miners working in the Leadville area. Upon hearing about their murders, the residents of Leadville and surrounding mining camps held a town meeting to recruit volunteers for a posse to hunt down the murderers. 

The names of the seventeen men who volunteered were as follows: Joseph M. Lamb, Julius Sanger, O. T. McCannon, Thomas S. Wells, C. F. Wilson, William R. McComb, John Gilbert, Frank Miller, Frederick Fredericks, William Youngh, James Foley, John Landin, Charles Nathrop, John Holtz, John Endleman, William Woodward, and John McCannon.  John McCannon was elected captain of the party.

The posse left the Leadville area almost immediately after its formation and crossed the Mosquito Range via Weston Pass. From the pass they followed the South Platte River down into South Park, stopping at a place called Weston Ranch.  Here, McCannon established a base camp, which would be occupied for the next few days and from where he sent out reconnaissance teams to search for the murderers’ trail. During the stay at Weston Ranch, several new volunteers joined the posse, including J.A. Spaulding, John Brown, Charles Carter (brother of the murdered Carter), and Dr. Bell, bringing the number of posse members to twenty-one.

While its operations were based out of Weston Ranch, the posse was involved in a terrible act of injustice, which began when Captain McCannon received reports about two suspicious men seen hiding out near Tarryall. Upon being captured and interrogated by the posse, the two men identified themselves as Baxter and Snyder, but denied having any connection with any of the recent killings. 

In efforts to force confessions of guilt, the posse employed a barbaric form of enhanced interrogation by repeatedly hanging each man by the neck until they were close to unconsciousness. Eventually, after several attempts without attaining the hoped-for confessions, Snyder was released on the condition that he leave the area and never return. Baxter, however, admitted to being a fugitive from the Park County Sheriff. He was taken to Fairplay and handed over to a troop of U.S. Calvary, which was also scouting the area in search of the murderers.  McCannon later claimed that he gave the troop instructions for Baxter to be taken to California Gulch and tried in a miners’ court; however, as soon as he and posse departed, some recruits of the 2nd Colorado Regiment hung Baxter instead. This time the hanging resulted in his death.

Shortly after the Baxter affair, the real killers attacked again. A man named Edward Metcalf was hauling a load of lumber from Alma down to Fairplay.  When he was about three miles from Fairplay, Metcalf was suddenly struck in the chest by a powerful force that nearly knocked him off the seat of the wagon.  By a stroke of luck, the bullet that hit him was deflected by a small book and a packet of papers that were stuffed inside the breast pocket of his heavy overcoat. Some reports say that the papers included a copy of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

The team of oxen bolted at the sound of the gun shot and took off down the road.  Metcalf quickly regained the reins and was able to glimpse behind to see two men in Mexican attire with rifles in their hands.  After regaining control of the oxen, Metcalf abandoned the wagon and ran on foot the rest of the way into Fairplay to report what had happened. Word of the incident and the identity of the villains as being Mexicans were immediately dispatched to McCannon at Weston Ranch.     

At first, the posse had some difficulty in following the murderers’ trail eastward across South Park as the ground was soft and muddy from melting snow.  The outlaws’ trail led back towards present-day Lake George, near where Addleman was murdered a month earlier.  At this point the trail was lost, which prompted McCannon to divide the posse into two groups; sending one group north and the other east to search for sign of the Mexicans’ trail. 

On May 6th, two of the members of the group searching the sector, Joseph Lamb and William Youngh crossed the tracks of two horses heading south on what is referred to as an Old Indian Trail.  That afternoon the two groups reunited at the Addleman’s farmstead to share their findings. Upon learning about the horse tracks, the posse marched eastward to where Lamb and Youngh discovered them on the Old Indian Trail, and camped there for the night.

Early on the morning of May 7th the posse started on the trail again, heading south down Oil Creek (known today as Fourmile Creek). About this time one of the posse members, John Endleman, became boisterous and unruly.  He apparently was suffering a mental breakdown resulting from the stress of the hunt for the murderers. After following the horse tracks on the Old Indian Trail for several hours, the posse encountered three camp sites in which the coals of the campfires at two of the sites were still warm.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, McCannon ordered the posse to stop for dinner and to decide what should be done about Endleman. They had reached a place where the killers’ horse tracks left the trail, leading off into the hills to the west. Endleman’s loud outbursts made it impossible for the posse to close in and catch the killers by surprise, so they decided to split the posse into two groups.

The plan was for one group, consisting of volunteers, to continue to follow the killers’ tracks into the hills, while the other group camped for the night and take Endleman directly into Cañon City the next morning. John McCannon lead the group following the horse tracks, which included: Joseph Lamb, Charles Carter, Billy Youngh, Julius Sanger, Jim Foley, William Sherwood, and Fred Fredricks. The group escorting Endleman was led by Thomas Wells, and consisted of the remaining eleven men in posse: J.A. Spaulding, John Brown, Dr. Bell, C. F. Wilson, William R. McComb, John Gilbert, Frank Miller, John Landin, Charles Nathrop, John Holtz, and William Woodward.

After finishing their dinner and determining how to deal with Endleman, McCannon and his men left the Old Indian Trail and were able to follow the horse tracks for several miles until darkness made following the tracks impossible. They spent the rest of the night in a cold camp without a fire.  At daybreak on the morning of May 8th, they broke camp and traveled only a few miles when two horses were spotted in a small clearing along the bottom of a gulch.

McCannon held a conference and quickly devised a plan that divided the men into three groups in order to surround the clearing where the horses were hobbled. One group, consisting of Youngh, Sherwood, Foley, and Fredricks. They took positions downstream, below the outlaws’ camp.  The second group, Carter and Sanger took position west of the horses, while McCannon and Lamb positioned themselves north of the horses.

McCannon, Lamb, Carter, and Sanger were only in position for a short time when a man emerged from the willows to tend to the horses. Speaking in a whisper, McCannon ordered Joseph Lamb to shoot the man.  Lamb complied with a shot that hit the man in the left ribcage, which did not kill him outright. As the outlaw rose to one knee and fired his revolver, Julius Sanger fired back, missing the outlaw, but hitting one of the horses in the neck and killing it. Just as the outlaw raised his revolver a second time, Charles Carter shot the man in the head, killing him instantly.

A few moments later a second outlaw emerged from the willows at the edge of the clearing, but in the dim light of the early morning McCannon mistook him for Billy Youngh and yelled for his men to hold their fire. The outlaw turned and disappeared into the dense vegetation of the gulch.

As it turned out, the men who were heading below the camp did not have time to get into position before the shooting started. After the posse regrouped, they were discussing the situation when a man suddenly appeared on the outcrop above them and fired two shots, barely missing Joseph Lamb. The man then turned and ran away. The men rushed after him but he disappeared. McCannon determined that it would not be wise to pursue the second man.  The rugged terrain and dense brush and forest provided too much cover for him and there was also the chance that someone could be shot by mistake by another posse member.

The posse then spent several hours gathering up the items from the camp that the murderers had taken from the victims they had killed, which included mostly articles of clothing, trinkets, and personal effects. The most important item collected was a diary or memorandum that belonged to one of the killers.  After gathering the plunder, the posse backtracked to the old Oil Creek Indian Trail. They continued southward on this trail towards Cañon City until they arrived between 9 and 11 o’clock in the evening in Garden Park at a place called McFarland’s Ranch. The next day, wagons were sent to McFarland’s Ranch to transport the men and the plunder down to Cañon City.         

From the diary collected at the ambush site, the posse discovered that the killers were brothers from New Mexico, Vivian and Felipe Espinosa.  Excerpts translated from the diary included the brothers’ vow to kill as many Americans as they could and a claim that they had already committed twenty-three killings. 

Vivian, the man that was killed, was the youngest of the pair. After the ambush, Felipe made his way back to his home in northern New Mexico, near San Rafael.  He then recruited a young nephew from Taos, Jose Vincente Espinosa, who joined him in resuming the murderous mission. The pair was confining their activities closer to New Mexico, in and around the southern end of the San Luis Valley.  After committing several attacks, the Territorial Governor placed a $2,500 bounty on the pair, dead or alive.

Soon thereafter, a small party of soldiers led by Tom Tobin, who was a noted frontiersman and had served as a scout for the Army, hunted down and killed both Felipe and Jose near the present-day town of La Veta.  Tobin alone shot and killed both men, and then delivered their heads to the commander of Fort Garland and applied for the bounty.  Thirty years later he was finally rewarded $1,500 for his trouble.

To be continued….

Part Two

Part Three

2 thoughts on “Now & Then: The Espinosa Brothers

    1. Hi Larry,
      While there is no definitive reason, the chain of events has much to do with their bitterness with the treatment they received from the U.S. Government. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, the borders between the U.S. and Mexico were redrawn, leading to tensions between people who had lived on their land for generations in Mexico (which was suddenly U.S. land) and American settlers. The Espinosa brothers had a land claim that was not honored by the government that they eventually abandoned. The U.S. Army was then sent to arrest the brothers for robberies that were attributed to them. This led to a shootout in which all their property was confiscated. Some accounts differ on the exact chain of events, including what led to the shootout that effectively started the killings.

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