John Boessenecker is the author of “Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez” and other books about the Old West. Last month, he spoke as part of State Library Foundation’s “Food for Thought” program.
What interests you in the outlaws of the old west?
When I was growing up in the early 1960s, that was principally what was on television, all the westerns: Rawhide, Bonanza, Gunsmoke. When I got into high school I wanted to find out if there was a wild west here in California, and I found out that there was. I started researching and writing about it, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
How does California compare to more famous western states like South Dakota with Deadwood and Dodge City in Kansas?
Well, in California, because there has been so much development here and so much mobility and immigration, a lot of that history has been, not necessarily lost, but overpowered by the others things that have happened in this state. But my focus is on the violence of the old west, particularly here in California which has pretty much been forgotten. The Gold Rush was far more violent than anything we hear about today.
Why did you decide to focus this book on Tiburcio Vasquez?
Vasquez, next to Joaquin Murrieta, is the most famous Hispanic outlaw of the old west, he’s a folk hero in the Hispanic community. The difference between him and Murrieta is that the Murrieta is about 90 percent confusion and myth, whereas Vasquez is historically authentic. No one had written a bio on him, and part of that is because the information on him is buried really deep. It took many, many years of research. In this case, I’d been collecting info on Vasquez for 40 years at the time I’d finished the book.
Do you feel that discrimination and racism played a role in Vasquez’s life of crime?
He claimed it did, but what’s more significant is that he was held up as a folk hero by the Latino community. At the time he was hanged in 1875, the governor of California was Romualdo Pacheco, who was the only Hispanic ever to be governor of California. Tiburcio Vasquez was better known than Pacheco, and that says a lot about the level of racism and discrimination because these people were oppressed and needed something that would give them hope even if that was a bandit. Vasquez defied the Anglos, he escaped from posses, he thumbed his nose at the sheriff, had one love affair after another, raided towns, robbed stores and stage coaches. At the same time people in these rural communities, a lot of the Californios, the native Hispanic settlers, had been dispossessed of their ranchos and moved up into the remote areas of the coast range and that’s where Vasquez hid out largely, and he made many friends. He was very gregarious, he wrote poetry, played guitar, danced and sang, he was just the life of the party. He had a reputation because of his personality. To people who actually knew him he was very popular, and people who didn’t know him liked him for what he stood for.
You mention that he sensationalized himself. What role do you think that played in the overall perception of his crimes?
There’s no doubt that he was a criminal. The dark side of his personality is that he betrayed some of his gang members by having affairs with their wives. He was involved in nine murders, and he always claimed that the other guy did it, but at some point that excuse runs thin. So, in fact he was an outlaw, and an opportunistic person, but what makes him significant is the way he was viewed by the Hispanic community. And maybe on one level they recognized he was an outlaw, but when people are oppressed they’ll grasp anything that gives them hope even if that’s an outlaw. He was a folk hero during his own lifetime, he’s not a creation of novelist or Hollywood. In fact, I don’t thinkthere’s been a novel or a film about him.
You currently work as an attorney in San Francisco. Do you feel the historical crime of the old west can teach us anything about how to deal with modern crime?
With respects to Vasquez you can see what happens when an entire class of people is dispossessed of their land and their political power, which is what happened to the Californios, because this was their country and within a decade they became strangers in their own land. With respects to the violence in the old west, the lesson there is that when we see that the national homicide rate is about eight per 100,000, and in some of the really violent homicide capitols like New Orleans and Detroit the rate is about as high as 40 per, which is very high, but in many of these communities of the old west, particularly in California gold rush you had homicide rates up to 100 to 500 per 100,000. So rates of violence today are minuscule compared to the frontier. If you see a photo of the Brewer surveying party in the early 1860s, the first surveyors to go over California, you would think that they were outlaws, they’re armed to the teeth with rifles, pistols, bowie knives, and that wasn’t just for show. California was very dangerous then, you wouldn’t go riding out in the wild without protection.