Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

A Brief History of the Pajaro Property Protective Society: Vigilantism in the Pajaro Valley During 19th Century - Part 3
by Phil Reader

Part 3


The advent of the Pajaro Property Protective Society on February 26, 1870, marked the beginning of a year long frenzy of vigilante activity, which was to shock and outrage that section of the citizenry which dwelt in the town of Watsonville. But to the hardworking ranchers and stockmen of the valley, it gave the cause for rejoicing because it relieved them of the constant fear for their safety, the safety of their families, and that of their livestock. For Matt Tarpy, Charlie O'Neal and the others, however, it was a troubled time that found them tired and weary from untold hours in the saddle defending the interests of the society's members from the depredations of one outlaw or another. Both men proved themselves worthy of the trust which had been placed in them and exhibited nothing but bravery and valor under fire.

It began interestingly enough on the very night that most of the farmers were in Watsonville attending the organizational meeting. While they voted on the constitution and by-laws of the protective society, a bandido named Francisco Redondo was busily helping himself to several prize horses from the corral on a small spread in the southern end of the valley. As it turned out the ranch belonged to none other than Charlie O'Neal, who would emerge as one of the Lieutenants under Matt Tarpy, who was charged with apprehending those desperados who ventured into the area.

Redondo, who had already served a term at San Quentin for rustling cattle in Tuolumne county, took three horses from O'Neal's and several from other ranches and drove them down to San Luis Obispo where he sold them off. The rancher who had bought them became suspicious of the transaction and wired Watsonville with a description of the animals. Before long O'Neal, Tarpy and four other men were on their way south to reclaim the horses. They got a detailed description of the miscreant and set off back to Watsonville scouring the hills along the way.

The party overtook Redondo at an isolated spot in San Miguel Canyon and ordered him to dismount. Matt Tarpy rode up to take hold of the reins on the Mexican's horse, but as he did so, the thief drew his revolver and aimed it at his head. Tarpy was able to deflect the shot, but took the full force of the gun's stock on the side of his head and was knocked to the ground. Redondo turned his horse and attempted to escape only to be cut down by fire from the rest of his pursuers.

After returning the stolen horses to their rightful owners, the vigilantes took the body of the slain outlaw to the office of Justice T. S. Roberts, where it lay on exhibit until an inquest could be held the following day. A coroner's jury found that Redondo had been killed in self-defense.

Two weeks later, on March 15, 1870, Tarpy and O'Neal were called on again to trail a horse thief, this time up the Pajaro River and into the Gilroy area. They found the missing stock in a crudely constructed corral near the summit of Pacheco Pass. They captured a Mexican who was camped nearby and brought him to Watsonville where they gave him over to the custody of Constable Dick Barham. Barham brought the suspect before Justice Roberts who bound him over for trial on a charge of grand larceny. Afterwards, he was put in the calaboose over night for safe keeping before he was to be taken to Santa Cruz to await the next session of the County Court.

However, this was not meant to be, because when Barham went to the jail the next morning to fetch his prisoner, he found that the door had been broken open with a crow-bar and the Mexican gone. There were various rumors circulating around town as to the manner of his departure, the most common of which was that he had been taken out, lynched and the body buried. But no one seemed to know anything for certain. Not even the name of the unfortunate man.

Removing a suspected horse thief by force from the the jail and quickly disposing of him was to become a familiar pattern in Watsonville during the year of 1870. It was to be repeated no less then nine times. Tarpy and his men would bring them in and turn them over to the law, then they would mysteriously disappear. Only on two occasions would the bodies of these unfortunates be found and these cases were so sensational that they made their way into newspapers columns all across the state.

The first occurred on the night of Tuesday, May 17. Several days earlier, the corpse of Antonio Guerrero, commonly known as Indian Bill, was found in his cabin a few miles below town. His skull had been crushed, and he had been both stabbed and shot. Suspicion for the crime pointed to a Mexican named Valentine Varaga, who had been living with the murdered man. Constable Barham rode out to Whisky Hill, where Varaga could usually be found and arrested him. He delivered the suspect for questioning at a Coronor's inquest. Since his testimony was undisputed at the time, he was freed and allowed to return to Whisky Hill.

This action so incensed the people that they sent Justice Roberts to ask the Pajaro Property Protective Society to look into the matter. The Society ordered Tarpy and his men into the field to investigate. After interviewing several of Indian Bill's neighbors, suspicion again fell on Varaga who they said habitually quarreled with Bill. When the vigilantes arrived at Whisky Hill, they learned that Varaga had just left, riding north towards Santa Cruz. They overtook him near the five-mile house and brought him back to Watsonville for more extensive interrogation.

Tarpy was able to extract a confession of guilt from Varaga who admitted that he had participated in the murder. He said that he had knocked the man down with the barrel of his pistol, but that it was two brothers, Gregorio and Jesus Gomez who had finished the bloody work by stabbing and shooting the victim. He was killed because he knew too much about a robbery which the three had committed, and they feared that he might inform on them.

After the vigilantes deposited their prisoner with Constable Barham, they set out after the Gomez brothers who Varaga had told them were hiding at the New Almaden Mines over in the mountains of Santa Clara county. The New Almaden area was a wild untamed region inhabited by Mexican and Californio quicksilver miners, who made it a practice to shelter the numerous bandidos of their own race who hid out in their midst. Showing no fear, the group of Americans led by Matt Tarpy rode boldly into Spanishtown at New Almaden and captured the brothers in the saloon where they were drinking. When back at Watsonville, they were turned over to Barham and the saddle-weary vigilantes now returned to their prospective homes.

The following Monday, the three desperados were tried in the courtroom of Justice Roberts of Pajaro Township. At the hearing, Valentine Varaga and Jesus Gomez admitted their guilt, implicating the other Gomez brother who had steadfastly declared his innocence. The three were returned to their cells for safekeeping and two armed guards were placed at the door, while Barham made arrangements for their transfer to Santa Cruz.

That night about 12 o'clock, thirty or forty men made their appearance and compelled the guard to hand over the keys to the jail. The prisoners were removed and the guard ordered into the cell. Then the mob disappeared into the night with their captives in tow.

At daybreak the next morning, the citizens of Watsonville were treated to the revolting sight of the lifeless bodies of Varaga and the Gomez brothers dangling from the top of the Pajaro bridge. Among those to glimpse this scene was the sister of one of the men who stood on the bridge wailing aloud as the dead men were being pulled up. She was so overcome with grief that when, at last, the onlookers succeeded in getting one of the bodies up to the railing, she rushed upon it, almost knocking one of the workers over the side of the bridge. This caused her forced removal from the area. Afterwards the gruesome task was done, the three bodies were placed in a mortician's wagon and taken to Whisky Hill for burial.

When word of the lynchings found its way into print across the state, the citizens of Watsonville were subjected to a constant bombardment of criticism from all sides. It became the thankless task of the Watsonville Pajaronian to act as apologist for the city. And for this, they too, were taken to task in the most virulent manner.

In reaction, citizen turned against citizen and group against group. The most vocal of which was a clique of businessmen led by John T. Porter, who pointed the finger of suspicion at The Pajaro Property Protective Society and most particularly at Matt Tarpy with whom he had a long-standing feud dating back to 1868 and the fraudulent naturalization charge.

This attacked forced Tarpy to defend himself and the Protective Society in a long "open letter" which appeared in the Pajaronian on May 27, 1870. In it, he disputed the accusations, deferring to the fact that it was he and his men who had pursued and captured the desperados at their own expense and at great personal risk; also they had voluntarily turned the prisoners over to the law. If they had wanted to lynch the men, he said, they could have accomplished that long before returning them to Watsonville. Besides on the day of the hanging, he, himself was up in San Francisco on business. If anyone was to blame, he finished, it was the town marshal and the constables, who had long and dismal recording of enforcing the law and insuring the safety of the prisoners.

The last known lynching in the Pajaro Valley took place several months later on the night of Monday, September 26, 1870, and it followed the same old pattern. Horse thief Sacramento Duarte, a three term veteran of San Quentin prison, was caught at Whisky Hill with five stolen horses in his possession. He was tried in Justice Lucius Holbrook's court and found guilty of Grand Larceny.

Constable Dick Barham lodged him in the Watsonville jail and sat up all night guarding the fellow. The following morning, he was called away to San Juan in a vain attempt to capture a suspect in a murder case. He returned to town dirty and tired after the all day chase. Because he had not slept in almost 36 hours, he decided to just go home and sleep before checking in on this prisoner.

At dawn, the constable went to the calaboose and noticed that the door had been pulled off of its hinges. Upon entering, he found what he had suspected, Duarte hanging by the neck. At a Coroner's inquest, the jury rendered the standard verdict which was issued in these cases - "The prisoner died from strangulation, caused by some person or persons unknown." This was the last time that the Watsonville jail was ever used.

For several days the usual amount of rumors flew around the valley as the townspeople and the ranchers squared off again. Porter and his group blamed the Protective Society and Tarpy responded by condemning the breakdown of law and order in the region. But soon the arguments died down and the year ended quietly enough with a final body count of fourteen known lynchings.

Meanwhile, the outside committee of the Pajaro Property Protective Society, headed by Matt Tarpy, had been quietly going about collecting intelligence on the outlaw gangs who were operating in the area. By now most of them were fluent in Spanish and they were adroit in the use of various disguises. They traveled throughout the district becoming familiar with the hideouts and routes used by these horse thieves. Some would actually make their way into the bandits camps, and, through the use of deception and bribery, learn the names and methods used by the desperados.

In a newspaper interview, Tarpy estimated that there were no less than three hundred men in the central coast area who were in some way connected with the gangs. The committee compiled a "hit-list" containing the names of thirty of the most daring law breakers. It included the infamous Tiburico Vasquez, "Charole" Lorenzana, the Rodriguez brothers of Branciforte and from Monterey, the three Rankel brothers. They published parts of the list in the Pajaronian together with a warning to the ranchers of the vicinity to keep a watch out for them.

During the fall of 1871 after Vasquez and the Rodriguez brothers went on a larcenous spree in the San Juan area, which included the holdup of the Visailia-bound stage and the robbery Protective Society member Tom McMahon, the committee went back into the field again. They were so persistent in their pursuit of the bandits, that even Vasquez himself, in a later newspaper interview, had to give Tarpy and his men credit for their tenacity. In fact, it was their tip as to the location of the hiding place of the gang in the Santa Cruz mountains which allowed Deputy Sheriff Charlie Lincoln to lead a sneak raid on the Lorenzana ranch which eventually brought an end to their activities in the area.

Also in 1871 and 1872, they helped solve the earlier murders of William Roach and Alex Wilkins. Tarpy turned the names of those suspected of involvement in these crimes over the authorities in Watsonville. But in spite of all of their hard work, it appears that no one ever acted upon these leads.

By the spring of 1872, Tiburcio Vasquez felt safe enough to go back into business. And so along with Jose Castro and another road agent, he robbed the San Benito Stage near the Pinnacles Road and escaped with several hundred dollars. One of the passengers on the coach recognized Castro as a member of the gang. A few nights later, Castro was visited at his home by a vigilante mob, who hanged him from a tree in his own front yard. This too was laid, by some, at the door of the Pajaro Property Protective Society.

There were those in Watsonville who had long waited for the opportunity to rid the area of the influence of the farmer/rancher block, the Protective Society, and Matt Tarpy in particular. On March 15, 1873, Tarpy, himself, handed them this opportunity. It was one of those exciting, controversial, and historically important events which has become so confused that the genuine facts may never be known.


Over the years, Matt Tarpy had enlarged his holding in the mountains above the Pajaro Valley to well over 1500 acres. In 1868, he sold 400 of these acres to Murdock and Sarah Nicholson. The boundaries to this parcel of land were never clearly defined and a dispute broke out between Tarpy and and the Nicholsons, with each declaring that they were the true owners of a wooded section which lay along San Juan Road. Litigation was filed with the court, but no action was taken on the case for a number of years.

Late in February, 1873, Tarpy began to harvest wood on the disputed land. Murdock Nicholson rode out to protect his interest and an argument ensued during which both men threatened each other. A few weeks later, Nicholson was called away to San Francisco on business and while he was gone, Tarpy moved a cabin onto the property which he proceeded to rent to the hired man who tended his ranch.

On March 14, the man collected his belongings and began to move into the cabin, but upon arriving, he found Sarah Nicholson and two young men, John O'Neil and John Smith, already therein. They said that they were there at the advice of their lawyer and that they intended to stay. The hired man rode into Watsonville and reported these events to his boss.

Tarpy immediately mounted up and headed off towards the cabin, carrying a pistol and his Henry rifle. When he reached the ranch, it was already dark and he positioned himself across the road from the building. The windows were lit up and voices could be heard coming from within. He fired several shots into the roof of the cabin and ordered everyone out, shouting that they were trespassing on private property. The shots alarmed Mrs. Nicholson and she and the two men fled out the back door under cover of the darkness.

The following morning, she returned to the cabin at first light to see what damage had been done. As she and O'Neil approached, Tarpy emerged from the roadside and seeing that the man was armed, Tarpy leveled his rifle. What happened next has been the subject of controversy for the last one hundred and twenty years.

There are two versions, one told by the Tarpy family which said that O'Neil went for his pistol and Tarpy fired in self-defense. As he did so, Mrs. Nicholson stepped in between the two men to prevent any blood shed and she took the full load of buckshot into her midsection. The Nicholson version had Tarpy killing the woman in cold blood after shouting, "I'll kill you, you God Damned bitch." No matter which account is correct, the results were the same, Mrs. Sarah Nicholson lay dead in the middle of San Juan Road after one of the shots passed completely through her heart.

O'Neil bolted and disappeared into the woods. Soon afterwards, Tarpy rode into Watsonville and surrendered himself to Constable Schade of Pajaro. He was then taken to Salinas City and turned over to Sheriff Andrew Wasson. The following day, Judge James Breen commenced a hearing on the matter after which Tarpy was bound over to Superior Court for trial. Afterward, the lawmen took him to Monterey where he was placed in the county jail.

Word of Mrs. Nicholsons killing swept like wildfire through the Pajaro Valley and the telegraphs hummed carrying dispatches to every corner of the state. That night a large public meeting, under the direction of John T. Porter, was held in Watsonville to discuss what should be done about the situation.

At this gathering, a resolution was passed condemning the shooting and demanding swift action be taken against Tarpy. An angry mob milled around the streets all through the night and into the next day.

That afternoon, two men, Melvin Gilkey and George Slankard, both of whom were sworn enemies of Matt Tarpy, led the mob, now over 250 strong, on a march to Monterey. As they proceeded along the route, their number swelled to about 400. By the morning of the 17th, this unruly crowd reached their goal and surged through town demanding Tarpy.

When the mob later reached the jailhouse, it was learned that Sheriff Wasson was on guard, so several of them quickly captured and bound the Sheriff while others hammered their way into Tarpy's cell. When they emerged with the hapless prisoner, they were greeted by a loud cheer after which he was placed on a wagon and driven away.

As they wound their way through the old California capital, there occurred a most pathetic and heart wrenching scene. Moving up the street in the direction of the jail were Tarpy's wife, Winifred, his aged mother Bridget, and 7 year old daughter Mary, accompanied by Padre Angelo Casanova of Carmel Mission. The women of the horrified little party pleaded for one last opportunity to embrace their loved one, but the angry crowd rudely shoved them aside and continued on their way. They followed along behind wailing and pleading, but were quickly out distanced.

About four miles south of town, near the site of the present airport, the mob came to a stop under a tall pine tree. After allowing Tarpy a few minutes to speak, they quickly carried out the execution.

During the next few weeks, the Tarpy lynching was the subject of many lurid headlines across the state as story after story rolled off of the presses. They soon became so exaggerated and distorted that Tarpy's friends found it necessary to write a long "open letter" to Governor Newton Booth explaining their side of the story and asking him to investigate the events surrounding the shooting and lynching. But for political reasons, their request came to naught and no investigation into the death of Matt Tarpy was ever made. So in time, the Nicholson version of the controversy became a part of local history.

In later years, the descendants of both Tarpy and Nicholson were locked in a legal battle over the disputed land which was not resolved until 1916, when the courts ruled in favor of Murdock Nicholson. Winifred Tarpy and her three daughters blamed the lynching on Tarpy's old enemy John T. Porter, saying that he had organized and financed the mob in response to the fact that Tarpy had exposed Porter for some of his crooked dealings in the 1860s. There is some proof to substantiate this argument. But as time passed, the excitement over the shooting and lynching faded slowly away.

With the death of Matt Tarpy, the history of the Pajaro Property Protective Society draws to a close. That it was effective in achieving its published goals is beyond question. The gangs of rustlers and horse thieves which for so long plagued the area were either broken up or forced to move their activities to other locations. Many of their leaders were identified and killed outright or put in prison. The greatest of them all, Tiburcio Vasquez, was on the run and would be captured and executed in 1874. Two of the Rodriguez boys were dead, as was "Charole" Lorenzana. Jose Rodriguez was operating in San Mateo county and Ignacio Rankel sat in San Quentin along with Procopio, the nephew of Joaquin Murrieta.


The very existence of the Protective Society pointed out the many weaknesses of local law enforcement during this early period. The sheriff's office needed to fund the recruitment of more full-time deputies to be stationed in the Watsonville area, and the power of city marshals and township constables needed to be extended. The next few years would witness these changes as well as the realignment of the judicial system all across California. This strengthening of legal recourse and procedures would in turn inspire more confidence among the citizenry and they would be less likely to consider taking matters into their own hands. By 1880, following years when Robert Orton and Elmer Dakan established themselves in the sheriffalty, law and order was to come to the Pajaro Valley, and its citizens could, at last, go about their business without fear.

But the cost of bringing about these changes had been fearfully high in economic and human terms. It would require the passing of a whole generation to eliminate the tensions, both racial and political, which had given birth to the years of vigilante activities. The families of Matt Tarpy, Murdock Nicholson and the countless Spanish and Indian victims of this "local inquisition" paid a staggering personal price too - the loss of a loved one. In looking back on this era it is quite easy to romanticize these events and put them in the category of "stories" and "tales". In the long run, however, it is perhaps where they best belong.

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

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criminals, lynching, Pajaro Valley, vigilantes, Watsonville


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