Now & Then: The Espinosa Brothers – Part Three

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

This is the third and final part of this article covering the Espinosa brothers. This portion also contains excerpts from records written by eyewitnesses of the events.


by Nelson D. Walker

While investigating the Espinosa incident I talked to five different ranchers whose families had been ranching in the local area since the early 1900’s.  I asked these individuals if they were familiar with the incident and if they had any knowledge of where the ambush occurred.  Two of the individuals had heard about the incident but had no knowledge of where the ambush occurred. Three individuals, however, were very familiar with the incident and expressed certainty that the ambush site was located near the top end of Espinosa Gulch. Two of the individuals were specific in describing the site at Nash Spring, just east of Big Baldy. The third individual was not able to describe the exact location of the site but remembered his father showing it to him when he was a boy while rounding up cattle in the Bare Hills near Big Baldy.     

A man named Victor Miller wrote an article about the Espinosa incident for the Pueblo Star-Journal and Sunday Chieftain, dated March 9, 1969.  Miller was a rancher and part-time writer who specialized in the history of the Old West and wrote numerous non-fiction and fiction stories for newspapers and magazines.  Miller did much of his writing between 1940 and 1975.  He resided on his ranch near Cotapaxi, about 30 miles west of Cañon City, where he and his mother established a homestead in 1922. Miller had a keen interest in the Espinosa incident and had the opportunity to interview local ranchers and residents to locate where the killing of Vivián Espinosa occurred.  During the time Miller conducted his research there were many more people still alive who knew about the Espinosa incident and where it occurred.  This information enabled him to locate the site of the ambush.

Besides providing a summary of the murderous attacks and the subsequent manhunts that ended the Espinosa’s lives, Miller’s article included a high-quality photograph taken at the site where Vivián Espinosa was supposedly shot and killed by Joseph Lamb and Charles Carter.  Two men are shown standing in the foreground of the photograph and they are identified as Frank Lamb (Joseph Lamb’s son) and Victor W. Miller (writer for the Pueblo Chieftain and Pueblo Star-Journal).  According to the article, Frank Lamb had never been to the site until Victor Miller invited him to visit it.  Both can be seen standing in a flat clearing in front of a tall rock outcrop with very distinctive fractures in the face of the rock.  After obtaining a photocopy of this photograph, I was able to hike to the exact location where Miller and Frank Lamb stood by using the photograph to find the distinctive rock outcrop.  I can say with certainty that the spot where Miller and Lamb were standing is located near the upper end of Espinosa Gulch at Nash Spring. Comparing  the images of the rocks next to the numbers in the following two photographs confirms that both were taken at Nash Spring (See Exhibits 2 and 3).

Exhibit 2 – Newspaper photo of Frank Lamb (L) & Victor Miller at Nash Spring, circa 1969 (Pueblo Star-Journal and Sunday Chieftain, Sunday, March 9, 1969).
Exhibit 3 – Photograph of Nash Spring taken by Nelson Walker with his dog Mattie (lower left), January 2001.

In 2018, I was re-reading A Cowboy and His Horsesby Paul Huntley.  Huntley was born in 1893 and began working in Fremont County as a cowboy at a very young age.  He was 21 years old when he bought his first herd of cattle and he continued in the business until 1970, retiring at age 77.  During the last decade of his life he wrote a column for the Canon City Daily Record that included stories about his days as a cowboy and rancher.  Many of these stories were later included in two books that he authored; Black Mountain Cowboys and A Cowboy and His Horses. 

While reviewing A Cowboy and His Horses, I opened a fold out map showing the locations of the historic ranches in Fremont County and saw crudely scrawled across the portion of the map where the Bare Hills are located, “Esponoza [sic] Killed Here” (See Exhibit 4). I hadn’t noticed the notation previously, but after seeing it I now strongly suspect that Paul Huntley’s map was most likely the source for Nancy Calvin Hirleman’s, “Historical Map of Fremont County, Colorado”. 

Paul grew up in Fremont County during the time when there were still people who were either alive when the Espinosa incident occurred, or were first descendants of those who were alive when it happened.  Consequently, he would have learned about the incident and would have been told where Espinosa was killed, which explains why he located the spot on his map.

Exhibit 4 – Map with Notation, “Esponasas [sic] Killed Here” from A Cowboy and His Horses by Paul Huntley.[1]

[1] Paul Huntley, A Cowboy and His Horses (Cañon City: Master Printers, 1977).

Lastly, as mentioned earlier, I have dedicated a great deal of time analyzing the movements of the posse based on the written accounts of the two principal participants of the manhunt and ambush: John McCannon and Joseph Lamb (See Exhibits 5 and 6).  Along with their testimonies, I have also employed sophisticated computer mapping software, Terrain Navigator Pro (TNP) to create highly accurate maps to depict and test various scenarios of the posse’s movements.

Both Lamb and McCannon are vague and inconsistent in describing the actual times that important events occurred.  This is unfortunate because it requires that we speculate about the actual amount of time and distances that it took for the posse to move from one place to another. There are only two instances in Lamb’s and McCannon’s accounts where clock-times are mentioned. 

The day before McCannon’s men discovered the Espinosas’ camp (May 7), Lamb says that the posse stopped “…about four o’clock…”.  The only other instances where clock-times are used are on the evening of May 8, when McCannon’s group arrives in Garden Park at McFarlin’s Ranch.  Here, Lamb says it was about 9 o’clock at night, while McCannon says it was about 11 o’clock, a difference of two hours, or when considered in terms of the distance that the posse might have traveled in two hours, a difference of about 3 miles.

In addition to the rare instances where Lamb or McCannon mention clock-times, it is possible to deduce the approximate times when events occurred and to estimate the distances that the posse traveled by referring to the U.S. Naval Observatory sun and moon data.  For example, on the morning of May 8th both Lamb and McCannon say that the posse resumed following the Espinosas’ trail at sunrise.  Considering that the posse had spent the night in a “cold” camp (no fires), the men were cold, hungry, and probably didn’t sleep very well that night.  Thus, it is reasonable to presume that the men would have been eager to start on the trail as soon as there was sufficient daylight to follow the tracks of the Espinosas’ horses.  According to the Naval Observatory data, sunrise on May 8, 1863 occurred at 4:53AM, however, the first light of day would have started about thirty minutes earlier, at 4:23AM. 

For the purposes of this analysis, however, we will simply assume that the posse started on the trail at 5:00AM.  After starting on the trail Lamb states that they only traveled a “few miles” before encountering the outlaws’ horses.  McCannon only says that, “… we soon found the trail leading down into a canon on the west side of Four Mile Creek, and near a dense thicket of willows.  Here we found the two horses, one hobbled in a little park on the south side of the gulch.” Both descriptions indicate that the posse had only marched for an hour or so before encountering the horses, which would have been about 6:00AM.

As soon as the horses were discovered, Lamb says that the posse held a short council to make a plan on how they would surround the outlaws’ camp; after which, they separated into three groups.  Once again, we are left to guess about how much time elapsed while the posse moved to their respective positions and Vivian Espinosa was shot and killed.  Based on Lamb’s and McCannon’s testimonies, however, it doesn’t appear that it was a very long time.  Considering that the four men who were sent to go into the gulch below the camp didn’t have enough time to get there before the shooting started, it is reasonable to assume that no more than thirty minutes had elapsed, thus making it around 6:30AM when Vivian was killed.

Immediately after Vivian’s demise, Felipe makes a brief appearance at the edge of the park, but then evades the posse by escaping to the top of a ridge or hill.  At this point Lamb explains that the posse “rushed” to the top of the hill and briefly searched for Felipe without success.  The men then returned to the outlaw’s campsite to inspect and gather the outlaw’s plunder when Felipe suddenly reappears and fires several shots at Lamb from the “ledge of rock” above him.  Again, the posse rushed to the top of the hill, but this time, according to Lamb, they spent an hour or two searching for the outlaw before returning to the campsite.  Thus, after Vivian was shot, about 6:30AM, between 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours would have passed while the posse made the two rushes to the hilltop and searched for Felipe.  Consequently, when the posse finally was able to concentrate on scrutinizing and gathering up the outlaw’s camp, it would have been about 8:00AM at the earliest, or 9:00AM at the latest.

Finally, in their narratives neither Lamb nor McCannon indicate how much time the posse took to pack up the outlaw’s plunder before starting on the trail to Canon City.  Given that the men had not eaten since 5PM on the previous day and had experienced very little sleep in the past 24 hours, it can be presumed that they would have wanted to be on the march as soon as possible.  McCannon does mention that the men with the pack animals (Thomas Wells and company) had lost the trail.  This meant that, except for what could be packed on the Espinosas’ horse, all of the rest of the outlaws’ loot had to be carried on the men’s backs; which would have a significant impact on how fast the posse could travel.  For the purpose of this analysis, I have assumed that it took the posse two hours to pack up the loot and start on the trail.  This means that they could have commenced marching as early as 10AM, or as late as 11AM.  Furthermore, because of the men’s weakened condition and the additional luggage they carried, I am assuming that they would only be able to average a maximum of 1.5 miles per hour.  Under Lamb’s account where he says they arrived at McFarlin’s Ranch at 9PM, then the posse would have marched for either 10 or 11 hours to reach the ranch; which translates to 15 to 16.5 miles.  Under McCannon’s testimony where they arrived there at 11PM, then the posse would have marched for 12 to 13 hours, or 18 to 19.5 miles.

This brings us to what I believe is the most significant question concerning the location of the site where Vivian Espinosa was killed: If the ambush occurred at Grape Spring, then why did it take the posse 10 to 13 hours to reach McFarlin’s Ranch?  This is a crucial question, because Grape Spring is located less than 2 miles from the north end of Garden Park, and the distance from the north end of the park to the south end is only 4 miles.  Thus, at a pace of 1.5 mph the posse should have been able to march from Grape Spring to the south end of Garden Park in about 4 hours.  Unfortunately, the exact location of McFarlin’s Ranch has been lost.  Was it located near the north end, near the middle, or at the extreme southern end of the park?  In any event, the distance from Grape Spring to the south end of Garden Park is no more than 6 miles, and if McFarlin’s Ranch was located somewhere in between, then the posse would have had an even shorter distance to travel in order to reach it.

Exhibit 5 – Joseph Lamb – Excerpts from a letter to J.A. Isreal, March 9, 1897

….About the second day of our separation William Young and myself found the trail near Platte Cañon. We followed the trail to a miner’s cabin a short distance from there. They had cut kindlings and made preparations to camp, but did not like the situation or for some reason moved on. We then returned to where we had agreed to meet the rest of the party. The next morning we took the trail and followed it by the petrified stumps and on to the head of Four-Mile Creek. We went on down Four-Mile, passing three of their camps, two of which had live coals in them. At that we were expecting to be led into a band of them at any time for none of us knew how many there were. 

At the south end of Four-Mile Park, the trail left the creek and took to the hills on the west. There we halted about four o’clock and cooked our meal. By this time Edgeton had lost his mind and became very noisy, which had affected him since we left Platte Cañon. So we held a council and decided to send part of our party to Cañon City with him as he was not a fit man to have along.

It then began to look like coming to a show-down. The party with Edgeton camped for the night and Charles Carter, Captain J.A. McCannon, Julius Sanger, William Young, Jim Foley, William Sherwood, Fred Fredrick and myself started on the trail and followed it until dark. We took shelter in the brush that night without bedding or fire which was not very pleasant, waiting until daylight and then took trail and traveled out a few miles, when we came to their horses.

There we halted and held a short council and decided to send four of our men around the hill to get into the ravine below them, which proved to be a bad move. Then Charles Carter and Julius Sanger took a position west of the horses, while Captain McCannon and myself took our position north of the horses.

The other party had to go so far down that they did not get to the camp in time and while we were waiting, I saw one of the murderers coming toward the horses. I informed Captain and he told me to aim low enough not to lose my charge and I told him not to be alarmed. The victim then came up and began unhobbling his horse, when I fired and he fell back. Then I arose and began re-loading my gun. The Captain asked me where I hit him. I told him about the third rib in the left side. He then got on his elbow and started to fire his pistol. I shouted to McCannon to look out just in time for him to dodge behind some willows. By this time Sanger fired at him with a shot gun, hitting the horse in the neck. The victim then fired a shot at Sanger without doing any harm. Then Carter raised his rifle and fired at the Mexican’s breast, hitting him in the head.

On hearing the shooting, the other murderer came out of the ravine where they were camped. I saw him and pulled up to fire at him when the Captain shouted, “Don’t shoot Billy Young”, who had gone below to get below the camp. I lowered my gun to be sure and when I moved, he saw me and dodged out of sight. He was nearly the same size as Billy Young and dressed the same, so it was hard to tell the difference, and as we had elected our captain to give orders, I felt it my duty to obey them, but if I had fired I would have been sure of killing the other murderer. But I do not blame the Captain, for he thought he was doing what was right.

After I had taken my gun down the murderer ran into the ravine and got to the top of the hill before we could get sight of him. I again pulled up my gun to shoot at him, but he got behind a tree. We then rushed to the top of the hill, but could not find any trace of him. So, we went back to their camp to pack up the plunder and start our journey, when he came back to a ledge of rock above us and fired two shots at me, one passing through my hat rim near my left ear and down in front of my breast, passing through both shirts, and the other one passed over my head and hit a rock near-by, scattering pieces of rock and lead all over us. By this time, I realized where the shots were coming from and seized a shot gun and fired toward the smoke of his gun but failed to hit him, but stopped the firing.

We then made another rush to the top of the hill and searched for him an hour or two without success. We then went down and packed up their things, which consisted of cots, boots, buffalo robes and other things the men they had killed, and saw I had shot out his third rib which I said I had aimed for, and told me I was a good shot.

By that time we would like some breakfast for we had had nothing to eat since the night before and the Mexicans had nothing in their camp but beaver meat; so we had to start for Canon City. We arrived at Garden Park on the Four-Mile about nine o’clock that night and were happily surprised when we found McFarlin on his ranch and that Thomas Wells had arrived and ordered supper. He had gone down supposing we would come that way….

Exhibit 6 – John McCannon – From “An Account by a Participant”[1]

.…On returning to camp, the party to the east discovered the tracks of two horses going south.  We at once came to the conclusion that this was a clew [sic], so, accordingly, early the next morning, we were on the march in pursuit of what we were satisfied were the murderers.  We stopped a few minutes at Addleman’s ranch to examine the tracks, when, to the astonishment of all of us, John Endleman began to sing and yell, by turns, and, it being a serious affair, as we could not send him back or leave him, so I detailed two of the strongest men I had to keep a steady watch on him, and to gag him when he became too noisy. We soon struck the trail leading to the head of Four Mile Creek.  The next day after doubling two of their camps, we found a fire still burning, about one mile below the beaver dams, on Four Mile Creek.  We camped one mile below where we found the fire, and got our suppers, as the country to the south was high and barren mountains, and the trail led across them.  We lay in camp until dark, the night being clear, with a full moon. I then called on the men to volunteer for a night’s march, and wanted those who could stand a forced march, as I was determined to see what and who they were as quickly as possible.  Joseph M. Lamb, James Foley, Charles Carter, William Youngh, Julius Sanger, Frederick Fredericks and John Landin volunteered.  We followed the trail about three miles on to a high shale ridge, or mountain, and not being able to track farther, we laid down in a neighboring gulch until daylight, when we soon found the trail leading down into a canyon on the west side of Four Mile Creek, and near a dense thicket of willows.  Here we found the two horses, one hobbled in a little park on the south side of the gulch.  I dispatched James Foley, William Youngh, Frederick Fredericks and John Landin to go around the bluff and get into the cañon below, and to carefully push their way along up the cañon, while we covered the horses with our guns. In short time, the largest of the Espinosias [sic] came out of the willows and commenced taking off the hobbles that held his horse.  Joseph M. Lamb fired, the ball breaking the second rib on the right hand side, passing directly through, breaking the second rib on the left hand side.  Julius Sanger fired next with buck shot, but the horse stumbling over the desperado, it received the charge.  The Espinosia [sis] raised up on his elbow, and commenced firing at me, as I had left my position to look after the other one, supposing that Lamb’s and Sanger’s firing had done the work.  Charles Carter then fired, the ball striking the desperado between the eyes, ranging back, killing him instantly.

The other one came in sight, but got off without a shot through a mistake.  I had my gun leveled on him, when Julius Sanger cried out: “For God’s sake don’t kill Billy Youngh!”  They were about the same size, and were dressed alike.  I dropped my gun to get a better look, and he, seeing the motion, threw himself over into the ravine and was seen no more, although he fired from the high-table lands afterward, cutting Lamb’s hat and coat.  We were unable to pursue him, not having had anything to eat since 5 o’clock the evening previous.  The men with the pack-animals lost the trail, and went to Cañon City.  We found in their camp property of twelve of their victims, together with a memorandum book, in which they claimed to have murdered twenty-three men.  At about 11 o’clock that night, we got to the settlement on Four Mile Creek, being thirty hours without anything to eat and without sleep.  I found by morning that three of the men were unable to travel, so I hired a team to haul them to Cañon City, where we rested two days, and then returned home to Lake County….

Now: At the start of this blog Nelson Walker’s note t the readers was clear and concise for the intentions of this blog. Nelson has done this narrative justice with a historical account that was written as a gripping mystery. It is educational, entertaining, and enlightening in some of Fremont County’s early history with locations, people, and events of that time.

His attention to detail in presenting and preserving history on how posses were summoned, formed, and then went tracking is fascinating. These posses had keen eye-sight that could pinpoint locations with only a small amount of evidence. There were “sharp shooters” like Joseph Lamb who could say what target they would hit…and then did just that! A posse would capture the out-laws and then bring them to justice as it was at that time. Of course, as we saw early on, they sometimes demonstrated that the men caught and brought to justice were not the men they were after; something that still happens today.

Part One

Part Two

[1] History of the Arkansas Valley: Illustrated (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers, 1881), 576.

Works Cited

History of the Arkansas Valley: Illustrated. Chicago: O. L. Baskin & Co, Historical Publishers, 1881.

Huntley, Paul. A Cowboy and His Horses. Cañon City: Master Printers, 1977.

Perkins, James E. Tom Tobin: Frontiersman. Pueblo West: Herodotus Press, 1999.

Price, Charles F. Price. Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado March – October 1863. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013.

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