The Bandit Vasquez and the Crescenta Valley
Tiburcio Vasquez is one of the most colorful figures in California history. This bandit, both feared and admired, terrorized California from the 1850s until his capture in 1874. He was a romantic figure – handsome and literate. He fashioned himself as a Robin Hood figure, robbing only the invading Americans, but the not Mexicans.
The Mexican population was sympathetic to the bandit and unwilling to betray his movements to American sheriffs. During his last few years of crime he retreated to Southern California and the L.A. area where he had less notoriety.
He was very familiar with the canyons and trails of the San Gabriels above us, and regularly drove herds of stolen horses up to Chilao Flats near where Newcomb’s Café is today. There he would rebrand them and sell them north. His movements are for the most part unknown today, but one route to Chilao would have been Big Tujunga Canyon, and it’s fun to remember that the original name of Honolulu/Tujunga Canyon Road on the east side of CV was “Horse Thief Trail.”
San Gabriel Mountains historian Will Thrall identified the location of one of the bandit’s famous escapes near the Crescenta Valley.
The story starts in Montebello on April 15, 1874 when Vasquez and his gang descended on the Repetto Ranch. Repetto had just sold a flock of sheep and Vasquez was hoping to liberate the profit from the rancher. Unfortunately for Vasquez, Repetto’s cash was already in the bank in L.A.
Vasquez dispatched Repetto’s young nephew to withdraw the money or his uncle would be killed. The terrified boy botched the withdrawal, the L.A. sheriff was alerted, and a posse set out for Repetto’s.
Vasquez spotted the dust from the galloping posse and his gang took off towards the Arroyo Seco. Even with the law in pursuit, the bold bandit stopped near the present day Devil’s Gate Dam to rob some Pasadena water company workers.
From there, he cut across La Cañada to the Soledad Road (now Angeles Crest Highway) that had been cut up the mountain just the year before. The winding wagon road climbed the San Gabriels as far as Dark Canyon where it ended near the divide between the Arroyo Seco and Big Tujunga.
Darkness overtook both Vasquez and the posse just behind him. It was a moonless night and both the gang and the posse stopped until dawn. Vasquez said later that his camp that night was just 700 feet above the Sheriff’s posse, and he could have easily killed them all in the dark, but confident he would escape, he let them live.
When dawn broke, Vasquez and his gang went over the divide and straight down the mountainside into Big Tujunga Canyon. Their escape route is today called Vasquez Creek, near Grizzly Flat, just to the east of Mt. Lukens. On the way down the nearly vertical slope, Vasquez’s horse tumbled and broke a leg. Vasquez pulled off his saddle and continued down the slope on foot. At the bottom, he dropped his saddle and one of his pistols, hitched a ride with one of his gang, and escaped out the canyon mouth near Tujunga.
From above, the sheriff and his posse watched the bandits ride down the vertical slope and realized they couldn’t match their horsemanship. They turned around and raced back down the Soledad Road.
At full gallop they followed the road west across La Cañada, past where the Verdugo Hills Hospital is today, and along Honolulu through the future Montrose. Up on what is now Briggs Terrace, new settler Theodore Pickens probably heard the hoof beats and stuck his head out of his cabin to watch the dust trail of the posse as they galloped along Honolulu, up “Horse Thief Trail,” and over the pass to Tujunga. But Vasquez had already escaped into the desolate San Fernando Valley.
Next time you drive up Tujunga Canyon Road past Verdugo Hills Golf Course, imagine Vasquez and his gang driving a herd of horses up the road from L.A., laughing at the stupid Americanos they just stole them from.