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Old West Legends IconOLD WEST LEGENDS

The Bloody Espinosas - Terrorizing Colorado

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In the spring of 1863, residents and travelers through Colorado Territory feared for their lives as account after account of vicious murders were reported and lone riders disappeared, only for their bodies to be later found in a remote a gulley or hidden in the brush of the mountainsides. The murders were a mystery. No one knew who was responsible as the perpetrators left no clues. Numerous look-outs were posted throughout the regions of the killings, but they had no idea who to look for -- Indians, a gang, or a lone vagabond desperado. 


The first victim was found in May, 1863, his corpse mutilated and the heart hacked out of his chest. During that summer, twenty-five more people were attacked and killed in a similar fashion. Only when a wagon was attacked along a road to Fairplay, Colorado and the driver was lucky enough to get away, were the murderers finally recognized.


San Rafael, Colorado. William G. Harber, May 1960. Denver Public Library

San Rafael, Colorado. William G. Harber, May 1960. Courtesy Denver Public Library.




They were Felipe and Jose Espinosa, who led a gang made up of their cousins, who soon took on the nickname of the "Bloody Espinosas." The Espinosas who came from Vera Cruz, Mexico, had witnessed the killing of six family members when their town was shelled by the U.S. Navy during the Mexican-American War.

Living near the village of San Rafael, Colorado the Espinosas were not only embittered by the earlier killing of their family members, but also because they claimed their land grant in Conejos County wasn't being honored and numerous white settlers were squatting upon their property. The Espinosa brothers had earlier been suspected of horse stealing, but now they were wanted for murder.


According to local legend, Felipe Espinosa claimed to have had a vision from the Virgin Mary telling him to kill 100 Anglos for every member of his family lost during the Mexican-American War. However there are several differing accounts of why the killed. Hotly pursued by lawmen, Espinosa sent a letter to Governor John Evans, threatening to kill 600 "Gringos," including the governor, if he and the other members of the gang were not granted amnesty and some 5,000 acres in Conejos County, Colorado. The Governor soon called upon the U.S. Cavalry to help track down the murderers.


Somewhere along the line, Felipe's brother, Jose was killed, but his place was taken by a cousin named Julian Espinosa and their deadly vendetta continued as more and more men were killed. By their own admission, the Espinosas killed some 32 people.


Following the ambush and murder of a man and his wife on La Veta Pass, Colonel Sam Tappen, commanding officer at Fort Garland, called upon well known frontiersman and scout, Tom Tobin, to use his tracking skills to find the murderers and bring them in dead or alive. Accompanied by a detachment of 15 soldiers, Tobin set out to find the outlaws. A few days later, Tobin left the camp alone, accompanied only by a Mexican boy. Within just a few days, he had tracked the outlaws and when a gunfight erupted he shot both Felipe and his cousin, Julian. He then returned to Fort Garland, with their heads in a sack. Though he anticipated receiving the $2,500 reward on their heads, he only received $1,500.


In an interview with Denver Westword in July 2013, Charles F. Price, author of the book "Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863", contends that the Espinosas rage against Anglos and the U.S. began after the Mexican War and during a time when the Hispanic population of Colorado and New Mexico were facing concerns over new laws and possible taxes they would have to deal with under the U.S. Government.  Price says the Espinosas were part of a tax revolt, which led to them killing an American soldier, and it was that incident that started the bloody rampage.  Price also indicates that the soldier was part of a detachment sent to arrest them, and that, under orders, their house was burned. 


Legends of America, updated December 2013.


More information: Read historic text "The Terrible Espinosas; A Memory of Early Days in Colorado", written for the New York Times, February 17, 1884 (link takes you to the New York Times archive, which has additional link to story in PDF form).


Other suggested reading/book: Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863 by Charles F. Price - University Press of Colorado.

Also See:

Outlaws of the American West

Fort Garland - Frontier Outpost on the Plains

Colorado (main page)

Old West (main page)

Old West Photo Print Galleries


Tom Tobin in later years

Frontiersman and Scout, Tom Tobin later in life


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Old West Photo Art makes a great addition to any Western Decor.


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