Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

A Brief History of the Pajaro Property Protective Society: Vigilantism in the Pajaro Valley During 19th Century
by Phil Reader

Part 1


"No arrests: for nobody cares."

"Horse Stealing - Hardly a night passes in Pajaro that horse thieves do not visit the ranches around and carry off horses. Saturday night last about sixty head were stolen, from various ranches - a band of forty from one. The thieves turned loose the colts and poorer horses, and decamped with the balance. No arrests; for nobody cares." So lamented the Pajaro Times during the spring of 1864.

On another occasion a reporter for the Times wrote, "On the same night four horses were stolen in this neighborhood - two from Mr. Millard and two from William F. White. The telegraph wires were cut that night, and its fair to presume by the thieves" .... "There can be no doubt of the existence of a fearless and ingenious band of horse thieves in this vicinity. One thing is certain, should any of these rascals be caught, the citizens of this place will not want for the punishment inflicted by the tardy course of law."

On September 22, 1866 in the Times again, "HORSE THIEVES - The last few weeks there had been a perfect feast of horse stealing throughout Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. No arrests have yet been made, and no jury will ever have a chance to try such culprits when arrested."

And again, "The Pajaro Valley the past week has been the theater of robberies and murder - almost every day brings to light some new crime" .... "In this town we have two constables and two night watchmen; and the people demand of them vigilance. Such a thing as an arrest for crime is almost unheard of here."

And so it went throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

On September 3, 1866, the strangled body of William Roach, controversial ex-sheriff of Monterey county was found stuffed into a well near his ranch at Corralitos. Then on the night of September 25, 1869, Alex Wilkins, a popular Negro barber from Watsonville, was robbed and murdered as he rode home from a Fandango hall at Whisky Hill.

Upon reporting the Wilkins killing, the Watsonville Pajaronian remarked, "The officers know well who the assassins are, and they will probably be caught. We are informed that there are at present quite a number of desperate characters at Whisky Hill and in the settlement at the willows, on the San Jose road. Some means should be taken to break up that settlement and Whisky Hill as well." In spite of the sensational nature of the crimes, the prominence of the victims, and the ready assurances of the newspaper reporter, no action was ever taken by the authorities on either of these murders. No arrests were made, no trials held, and no justice meted out.

The above quotes quite readily attest to the ineptness of local law enforcement during the crucial early decades following the advent of statehood in 1850. The codification of statutes and the systems of jurisprudence were still in their formative stages as was the jurisdictional boundaries of municipalities. The elective office of County Sheriff was considered one of political patronage, a plum doled out by the patriarchal leaders of the currently reigning political party. A background in law enforcement was seldom a prerequisite for nomination to the office. The duties of the sheriff, at the time, included those of tax collector. While the salary was minimal, it could be augmented by the collection of taxes and fees of varying types of which the officer was allowed to keep a percentage. This percentage, in some circumstances, ranged upwards to 50%. While reporting and auditing procedures were limited or non-existent.

In the foothill counties of California where various mining taxes, including the infamous Foreign Miner's Tax, were levied, the "collector's fees" reached staggering proportion. It was a system ripe for plunder and the foundation of many a fortune was laid by these early sheriffs. Santa Cruz and Monterey counties were no exception. The quality of men who filled the position here can be assessed by the fact that no less than eight former sheriffs from these two counties would be either jailed or substantially fined as a result of cases stemming from malfeasance while in office.

When the occasional man possessing the double virtues of honesty and bravery did manage to find his way into the sheriffalty, he was quite often rendered ineffective by a shortage of manpower to assist him in accomplishing his duties. He was usually allowed but one part-time deputy and had to rely on a volunteer citizenry to make up the posses which had to be formed from time to time. This, in addition to the wide ranging geographical isolation of the region, did indeed make the establishment of a peaceful and orderly community a practical impossibility.

Nowhere was the absence of law and order more acutely felt than in the Pajaro Valley. Distant as it was from the county seats of Santa Cruz and Monterey, it sat unprotected from the marauding bands of outlaws and horse thieves who plied their trade along a broad corridor which ran down the coast between Alameda and Santa Barbara counties. As they passed through San Juan Bautista driving their herds of stolen stock before them, it was quite easy to sneak over the hills into Pajaro and pick up a few more prized horses or cattle from the ranches there. Another attraction in the valley was the village of Whisky Hill (now Freedom) where the fandango halls and brothels always welcomed these bandits.

During this time, Watsonville was a divided community. In the town itself, the commercial and business district was experiencing a period of rapid growth. Its American born constituency was at odds with the foreign born farmers, ranchers, and stockmen that lived in the outlying areas of the valley. The division was not only cultural, but also political and religious. The farmers for the most part, were Irish Catholics, who voted Democratic as a block; while the business element was both Protestant and Republican.

The two groups took their politics quite seriously. Elections, whether local or national, were hard fought emotionally charged affairs. The Civil War years, in particular, brought a number of extremely volatile issues to the forefront - including those of states rights and slavery - and once again, the community was polarized. The majority of the townspeople supported the Union while the Irish and southern-born farmers sided with the Confederacy. Time after time these two forces clashed for control over the reins of government and, on occasion, they stood on the brink of open warfare.


Abraham Lincoln carried the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864 for the newly formed Republican Party and the ensuing great Civil War appeared to vindicate his platform assuring that party's domination of the American political landscape for the next generation. These events left the Democrats hopelessly splintered, thoroughly demoralized, and bearing a taint of disloyalty. With Lincoln's assassination in 1865, reconstruction of the nation was left to the radical Republicans in the legislature who moved quickly to consolidate their power.

On a local level, the war years saw a similar shift in power. Up to this point, Santa Cruz county had been solidly Democratic, but the 1856 election marked the beginning of the erosion of its influence. With the ranker of the early 1860s, party membership was sent into a tailspin; reaching an all-time low following the war. Yet a cadre of politically active old-line Democrats continued to wield a tremendous amount of power over local voters.

Perhaps the most controversial election held in Santa Cruz during the 19th century was the poll that was taken on November 5, 1869. At issue was the presidential race between General Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the late war, nominee of the Republican Party and former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who ran under the Democratic banner. Strategist for the Seymour campaign knew that their only hope for victory was to focus public attention on the question of money and repayment of the war debt.

During the war, Lincoln's government had issued well over $400 million in greenbacks and, at the war's end, much of this "new" currency was withdrawn from circulation. The Democrats now proposed the reissuing the notes, thereby encouraging inflation. This idea held great appeal for farmers and ranchers with long-term mortgages, who would likely to benefit from this "softening" of money. For their part, the Republicans worked to keep the passions of war alive. In a savage campaign, they waved the "bloody shirt" alleging wartime treason by all who had supported the Democratic Party.

The local press - consisting of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Santa Cruz Weekly Times, and the Watsonville Pajaronian - were all staunch Republican periodicals and, in a rare display of unity, they launched a series of scathing, well-orchestrated, emotionally based attacks upon the character of all local, state, and national Democratic candidates. One common ploy was to call into question the patriotism and loyalty of anyone supporting the opposition. These personal antagonisms bordered on slander and were the cause of a number of violent incidents, the foremost of which took place August 28, 1868 on Main Street in Watsonville.

For several months, Charles Cottle, editor of the Pajaronian, had been taking editorial pot-shots at Rev. O.P. Fitzgerald, the popular Democratic State Schools Superintendent. In mid-August, Fitzgerald arrived at Watsonville to attend the Teacher's Institute. At the conclusion of the meeting, "Old Fitz" adjoined to a nearby saloon for a round of drinks before catching a late train. Upon hearing of the superintendent's "indiscretion", Cottle dashed off an editorial accusing Fitzgerald of "provoking the contempt of every decent man" for going "into a certain rum-hole in this town with a crowd of men and with them drink at the bar!" ... "this for a Methodist minister and a man who holds the position he does in our educational department."

"Think of this man, who has the education of the children of this great State in charge, lending his influence to the side of drunkenness, gambling, and of everything which whisky leads to! Spot him, good men! Watch him, fathers! Keep a firm eye on him, mothers! Pray for him, Christian associations!" the editor concluded his mocking treatise.

The "rum-hole" to which he was referring was the Temple Saloon, located in the Hildreth building on the corner of Main and Maple streets; its owner was Charlie O'Neal, a long time Watsonville resident and a functionary in the Democratic Party. O'Neal took great exception to the way Mr. Cottle had characterized his establishment, as well as the personal smears upon Fitzgerald.

A few days later, he caught the unsuspecting editor out on Main Street and decided to treat the miscreant to a dose of his own medicine - southern style. The barkeep administered such a sound thrashing to the wayward journalist that it became necessary for him to spend a few days in bed, far away from the rigorous demands of his lofty editorial post. This incident was, of course, widely reported and was most frequently alluded to as the extreme to which a Democrat would go to "force his mongrel political ideals upon his fellow man."

Another strategy employed by the Republicans on the local as well as national level was to accuse the Democrats of the wholesale issuing of forged naturalization papers to many of the new Irish and German immigrants who were flooding into the country during this time period. These bogus documents would allow the newcomers to register to vote in the presidential election. And, in spite of the fact that Grant and the Republicans were swept into office during the November balloting, many states and counties pressed on with their investigations into the alleged voter frauds. In Santa Cruz, twenty-three people were indicted by the Grand Jury on charges of naturalization fraud. One of these was Matt Tarpy, a rancher, and another leader in the local Democratic Party.

Their trials were held during the month of February, 1869, at the United States District Court in San Francisco with Judge Ogden Hoffman presiding. Tarpy's hearing became a show trial which made headlines all across the nation. Testimony, which the prosecution attempted to suppress, brought out the fact that a "a $5,000 fund had been collected by prominent Watsonville Republicans to insure that Tarpy was convicted." One witness, Mr. Thomas Monahan, stated under oath that he had been offered money to change his testimony.

The next day, the jury returned a verdict of innocent in the Tarpy case, this very same judgement would be rendered in all of the subsequent hearings. The one exception being the case against Isidore Morris, who was found guilty. But even that verdict was overturned upon appeal.

In all, the 1868 election, marked as it was with violence, bitterness, and deception, only served to heighten the division that already existed between the two groups. The Democrats emerged from another defeat, smarting and resentful of the vicious tactics which had been employed against them. And in the Pajaro Valley the farmers and stockmen, now led by Matt Tarpy, still faced the almost nightly onslaught of horse thieves and cattle rustlers. Alienated as they felt they were from the established legal and governmental resources, and disillusioned by the ineptness and corruption of law enforcement officials, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

History of the Pajaro Property Protective Society, Part 2.

Copyright 1995 Phil Reader. Originally published by Cliffside Publishing, 1995. Reproduced with the permission of the author.

View similarly tagged articles:

Civil War, criminals, lynching, Pajaro Valley, vigilantes, Watsonville


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