Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

Copperheads--Part 3
by Phil Reader


The next band of Confederate guerrillas to hide out at the mountain camp among the redwoods above Corralitos was the Mason-Henry Gang. This band of cutthroats was led by John Mason and James Henry, two southern boys who hid their depredations behind the semi-respectability of the secessionist cause.

The group was formed at the ranch of Judge George Belt, a wealthy merchant, who had been the alcalde of Stockton in 1849. Belt, a native of Tennessee, vigorously espoused the cause of the seceding states all through the Civil War, and to this end he armed and outfitted several bands of partisans including the Mason-Henry Gang. Using guerrilla tactics he hoped to establish the much-touted Pacific Republic; consisting of California, Nevada, the Arizona Territory, and Mexico.

During the month of October, 1864, as the Civil War on the east coast was reaching a climax, he called together a number of young secessionists from the San Joaquin Valley. Mason and Henry rose to prominence in the band. Under their tutelage the gang quickly deteriorated into one of the most savage brood of hooligans to ever operate in the state. But because they called themselves Confederate soldiers, they managed to maintain a level of support among the copperheads in the area. Murder was their forte and they rode up and down the San Joaquin threatening to kill every "black republican" (abolitionist) they chanced to meet.

The first crimes attributed to the Mason-Henry Gang were two murders committed on November 10, 1864. There was a stage route, operated by the Butterfield Line, which ran north out of Los Angeles, over the Tejon Pass, and up the valley to Sacramento. As this road passed the east side of Tulare Lake there was a stage stop kept by Hr. Robinson, a 33 year-old native of Maine. The station was named Elkhorn, and a small settlement had sprung up around it.

Several days prior to the 10th, the presidential elections had been held in which Robinson, a strong Union supporter, had taken an active part. Following the voting a raucous party was held at the station and Robinson had gotten roaring drunk. While in this state, he had made certain remarks slurring the morals of all southern women.

Word of this incident reached Mason, Henry, and the boys who were camped in the area. They immediately saddled up and rode over to Elkhorn and inquired as to Robinson's whereabouts. The station keeper's wife said that her husband was working in a field a few miles from the house. The gang rode up the trail and happened upon Robinson who was heading home.

They drew their revolvers and surrounding him, asked if he had indeed insulted Confederate womanhood in such a way. He, of course, denied saying anything. Mason pointed his pistol directly at Robinson's face, forcing him to kneel on the ground and look directly into the barrel of the gun.

"Now swear to me that you never said anything like that about our women." He demanded.
The terrified man so swore and got to his feet.
"I'm going to kill you anyhow." said Mason, "You're nothing but a damn black Republican and should die."

He pulled the trigger, but the pistol misfired. Robinson made a dash for freedom but he was quickly cut down as the rest of the gang opened fire. He was hit several times and died almost immediately.

The gang galloped eight miles up the road and came to the next stage stop which was kept by Joseph Hawthorne. He too was shot and killed simply because he supported the Union cause. They searched the body for valuables and ransacked the station, which was just a tent, for food and whiskey.

They proceeded north, crossed over Pacheco Pass, and went into hiding at Tom Poole's old camp in the mountains above Corralitos. Word of the sensational murders spread quickly and the newspapers dubbed Mason and Henry "The Copperhead Murderers". California Governor Fredrick Low offered a reward of $500 for the arrest of each of them.

While in hiding, the gang frequented Watsonville where Henry was known as Spotty McCauley, and Mason as John J. Monroe. The local secessionists continued to shelter them as they made periodic raids up and down the San Joaquin.

At one time during the summer of 1865, there were two companies of Ramon Pico's Native Californian Cavalry in the field looking for the gang. But no one could locate their hide out at Loma Prieta. In June, 1865, a posse of nine soldiers and five citizens led by John Hicks Adams of San Jose searched the area around the Panoche Valley in southern San Benito county in search of the gang after receiving a reliable tip that the cutthroats were planning a raid on the ranches there. But a system of spies set up by the secessionists had warned the band of their approach, so by the time Sheriff Adams and his party arrived at Panoche, Mason and Henry were already retreating towards Corralitos.

Although the war had ended in April with Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the gang continued to fight, moving their headquarters to the San Bernardino Mountains. But time was running out for them.

On September 14, 1865, James Henry was betrayed by a drunken gang member to San Bernardino Sheriff Ben Matthews. The sheriff gathered together a posse and they found Henry camped at Santa Jacinto Canyon, about twenty-five miles from town and killed him in a shoot-out.

James Mason continued to run with a $500 reward hanging over his head. The following April, while hiding in the mountains near Fort Tejon, he tried to recruit one Ben Hayfield, an Indian fighter of some repute, into his gang. But Hayfield had other ideas, as he was aware of the reward offered for Mason, and planned to collect it.

The two men were always suspicious of one another and kept a close eye on each other's movements. One night when they were preparing to bed down, Hayfield made his move, creeping across the room with his pistol at the ready. Mason saw him and reached for his own gun, but it was too late. Mayfield's shot passed through his neck, killing him instantly. The last of the guerrillas died as he had lived - through the barrel of a gun.


The Confederate hideout below Loma Prieta passed into the hands of lumbermen and many of the redwoods were stripped away. Logginq roads crisscrossed the mountains making the area easily accessible. On January 4, 1884, it was to witness one last flurry of violence, when the Tejada and Leal gang up from Watsonville hid out at the old campsite while they waited for their deadly showdown with Under Sheriff John Gaffy and his posse.

Condensed from: It Is Not My Intention to Be Captured. Copyright 1991 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader.

View similarly tagged articles:

Civil War, Corralitos, secessionists


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