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Season of Terror

Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March–October 1863

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Season of Terror
    Book Description:

    Season of Terror is the first book-length treatment of the little-known true story of the Espinosas-serial murderers with a mission to kill every Anglo in Civil War-era Colorado Territory-and the men who brought them down. For eight months during the spring and fall of 1863, brothers Felipe Nerio and José Vivián Espinosa and their young nephew, José Vincente, New Mexico-born Hispanos, killed and mutilated an estimated thirty-two victims before their rampage came to a bloody end. Their motives were obscure, although they were members of the Penitentes, a lay Catholic brotherhood devoted to self-torture in emulation of the sufferings of Christ, and some suppose they believed themselves inspired by the Virgin Mary to commit their slaughters. Until now, the story of their rampage has been recounted as lurid melodrama or ignored by academic historians. Featuring a fascinating array of frontier characters, Season of Terror exposes this neglected truth about Colorado's past and examines the ethnic, religious, political, military, and moral complexity of the controversy that began as a regional incident but eventually demanded the attention of President Lincoln.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-237-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    Season of Terror springs from the intersection of two obsessions. The first emerged early in 1863 when two Espinosa brothers, Felipe Nerio and José vivián of San Rafael, a village near Conejos in Colorado’s San Luís valley, launched a vendetta that in eight months led to the murder of perhaps as many as thirty-two Anglo-Americans as well as the deaths and decapitations of the brothers themselves and their nephew, José vincente. The second passion flared more than a century and a quarter later when author Charles F. Price resolved to plumb the Espinosas’ bloody doings that terrorized pioneer Coloradans and...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xx)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The “year mentioned” was 1863. The place was the newly organized Territory of Colorado. The inexplicable carnage lasted eight months. No one knows how many were murdered; the generally accepted count is ten or eleven but the killers themselves boasted of having slain thirty-two, and such a number is far from implausible. They also tried to take the lives of two other men and they raped a woman. “Ask in New Mexico,” one of them wrote, “if any other . . . men have ever been known to have killed as many . . . as the Espinosas.”²

    There were...

  7. 1 “Alarming Intelligence And Intense Excitement ”: First Murders in the Pike’s Peak Country
    (pp. 11-32)

    That year, spring came early to the Front Range of the Rockies and to the great cleft in the mountains to the south where the Arkansas River broke out onto the plains. While frosts were still common at night, by the middle of March the weather had warmed and the grass had started and some of it was standing an inch or two high. “Already its emerald tinge is mellowing down the dark brown of the prairies,” one newspaperman exulted. By every account the winter then passing had been the mildest since the settlement of Colorado Territory, “remarkable for the...

  8. 2 “Most Horrible and Fiendish Murders”: The Bleeding of South Park Begins
    (pp. 33-48)

    Remembering his entrance into South Park at the height of its first frenzied gold rush in 1859, a prospector from Kentucky named Daniel Ellis Conner later gave a somewhat prosaic description, calling it “a fine, grassy, grazing country in the summer and perhaps forty miles across it. In the winter the snow falls two or three feet deep and remains until May. It is rolling country, interspersed with clumps of trees and small open parks, and at that time a great range for wild game and the Ute Indians in the summer.”¹

    But some quality beyond what Conner’s matter-of-fact minimalism...

  9. 3 “There Has Been Considerable Excitement”: The First Colorado Cavalry Steps In
    (pp. 49-60)

    As reports of the five unexplained murders in the Pike’s Peak country and South Park spread throughout Colorado, speculation on the identity of the killers tended to center on two theories: either they were guerrillas or they were jayhawkers. The early suspicion by the men at Saw Mill Gulch that Indians might have been responsible seems to have quickly dissipated, owing to the fact that no hostiles were known to be on the prowl.

    The terms guerrillas and jayhawkers sound synonymous to modern ears, but in Civil War–era Colorado they were not. Guerrillas was a term applied almost exclusively...

  10. 4 “The People Are Scared Nearly to Death Here”: The Murderers Strike at the Vitals of South Park
    (pp. 61-74)

    The gold camp of Montgomery, home to “Dornick,” the garrulous correspondent of the Weekly Commonwealth, lay in a high valley dominated by the rugged mass of a peak in the Snowy Range that residents had named Mount Lincoln. The settlement lay at the foot of Hoosier Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide toward Breckenridge, then a thriving camp of miners working the gold deposits along the Blue River in what is now Summit County.

    Despite its forbidding location high in the mountains, in an economic sense Montgomery was far from isolated; a branch of the grandly named Breckenridge, Buckskin Joe...

  11. 5 “Fallen into the Hands of Hard Men in an Evil Hour”: The Lynching of Baxter
    (pp. 75-90)

    John McCannon of Frying Pan Gulch¹ regarded himself as a leader of men. It was an opinion that may well have been justified. When he first appears in the historical record of Colorado Territory he already seems to have carried the title Captain, a rank he may have earned while supporting the antislavery side in the “Bleeding Kansas” troubles before coming west; he had served as quartermaster for the Kansas Free State Militia.² Or it may be that the men who later wrote about his activities during 1863 conferred on him retroactively a rank he did not actually earn until...

  12. 6 “Glorious News! The Mysterious Murders Unraveled at Last”: One of the Slayers Slain
    (pp. 91-108)

    After amusing themselves by lynching Baxter and repeatedly stretching the necks of Snyder and possibly another innocent victim, “Commandant” Wilson’s squad of the California Gulch posse “then scouted through the country as far northeast as Deer Creek, within forty-five miles of Denver.”¹ John McCannon later wrote he believed this movement drove the murderers from the upper end of South Park.² He may have been right. If the killers had originally entered the Park by ascending Tarryall Creek, it is likely they left it by taking same route downstream.³ This valley, sparsely settled and sheltered on both sides by the rough...

  13. 7 “Desperate and Lawless Bravos”: The Brothers Espinosa
    (pp. 109-136)

    On a bitterly cold Thursday, January 15, 1863, a detachment of ten soldiers of Company D, First New Mexico Cavalry, under the command of Second Lieutenant Nicholas Hodt, clattered into the Hispano plaza of San Rafael on the Río Conejos near the border separating Colorado Territory from the Territory of New Mexico.

    The troops had been dispatched from Fort Garland, the American military post located thirty-five miles northeast at the base of Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at the request of a deputy United States marshal named George Austin, who now accompanied them. Deputy Austin had called...

  14. 8 “Revenge for the Infamies Committed Against Our Families”: Serial Murder as Vendetta
    (pp. 137-156)

    In his abortive attack on the Espinosa home, Lieutenant Hodt had set fire to their dwelling. Tom Tobin remembered it as a house of logs,¹ perhaps a rude affair called a fuerte by the inhabitants of the San Luís Valley,² but more probably the typical Hispano jacal made of adobe mud packed around a frame of varillas, or upright cottonwood poles, with a flat or pitched roof consisting of layers of leaves and dirt covering a lathe of wood in a herringbone pattern³—a flimsy affair that would have quickly burned. Because of its framing of varillas, this type of...

  15. 9 “Malicious Interference was the Cause”: The Scapegoating of Captain E. Wayne Eaton
    (pp. 157-192)

    The next victim of the Espinosas wasn’t a miner or a sawmill owner or a mail-station operator. Nor was he a mule rancher on his way home from testifying in court. He was a soldier. Though he wasn’t a fatality, he did receive a severe wound—not a physical one but an injury to his good name, and because he was an officer in the volunteer service of the United States Army, such a wound could have spelled the end of his military career and dealt a ruinous blow to his life in the postwar world. He was Captain Ethan...

  16. 10 “Times Have Become Quiet Again”: Panic Recedes in South Park but Murder Moves Elsewhere
    (pp. 193-206)

    Euphoria spread throughout central Colorado in the wake of the killing of Vivián Espinosa. John McCannon’s possemen basked in a general glow of gratitude. Wrote an editorialist of the Rocky Mountain News Weekly:

    The people of California Gulch are entitled to a great deal of credit for the zeal they displayed in ridding the country of a desperado, and having performed the labor and spent the time necessary for that object it is no more than fair that other localities should stand the expense incurred. California gulch was not more directly interested than Denver or any other locality—not nearly...

  17. 11 “Ready for Any Duty, Untiring, and Full of Energy”: Samuel F. Tappan Takes Up the Hunt for the Espinosas
    (pp. 207-220)

    “The summer of 1863,” wrote Frank Hall, early Colorado legislator and later historian, “was marked by a protracted drouth which dried up the streams, and prevented growth of crops in the limited area then cultivated.” Then, “[e]arlier than usual, about the middle of October, one of the severest winters ever known in this latitude set in, with frequent heavy snows and very cold weather.”¹

    The extremes were indeed remarkable, since the winter of 1862–63 had been unusually mild and spring had come delightfully early.² But by the beginning of August the scorch of summer was so severe it had...

  18. 12 “If This Woman Is Found Dead, Tell the People the Espinosas of the Conejos Killed Her”: The Attack on Philbrook and Dolores Sánches
    (pp. 221-238)

    In 1863 the settlement of Trinidad in vast Huerfano County on the plains east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was only about three years old.¹ It consisted of a huddle of adobes and picket houses² mainly on the south bank of a stream French trappers called the Purgatoire (Purgatory) and Hispanos had earlier named El Río de Las Animas Perdidos en Purgatorio, or the River of Lost Souls in Purgatory.³ A wooden bridge crossed the river connecting the dusty village to a few other structures on the north bank and to a large grove of cottonwoods and willows. The...

  19. 13 “I Drew His Head Back over a Fallen Tree and Cut It Off”: Tom Tobin Ends the Terror
    (pp. 239-264)

    Tom Tobin was a man in the mythic mold of his friend Kit Carson, a frontier type even then beginning to pass from the scene. Mountain man, trapper, whiskey trader, and Indian scout, Tobin, like Carson, was a living legend if on a smaller scale than the universally famed and beloved Carson. Few outside northern New Mexico and southern Colorado had ever heard of him, though within that compass he was widely known, respected, feared, and even disliked. An acquaintance wrote that he was “hard and gruff and taciturn and fearless . . . [and] was never too well thought...

  20. 14 “The Brightest Success Rewarded Them for Their Toils”: Tobin Brings in the Heads
    (pp. 265-276)

    There are almost as many accounts of the delivery of the Espinosas’ heads to Colonel Tappan as there were people who participated in the event or claimed to have witnessed it. A point of general agreement, with one exception, was that Tom Tobin and Lieutenant Baldwin’s reduced detachment¹ returned to Fort Garland on the morning of Friday, October 16; Tobin himself, always befuddled about dates, says this happened on the eleventh of September. 2 They arrived “just after guard mounting,”³ that is, about nine o’clock.⁴

    Tobin, in relating his story later published in The Colorado Magazine, described what transpired;


  21. 15 “Who Is There to Gather the History of This Wretch?”: The Espinosas Remembered
    (pp. 277-284)

    The “Terrible Espinosas” were not soon forgotten. Like a recurring nightmare, the memory of their bloody onslaught came back again and again to the people of Colorado Territory who had suffered the contagion of dread the brothers and their nephew had unleashed.

    But fear of one sort or another was not an unfamiliar sensation on the frontier—danger was endemic to the lives all frontiersmen led—and they had learned to combat it with a dry and quirky humor, as this item in the same edition of the Rocky Mountain News Weekly that reported the Espinosas’ attack on Philbrook and...

  22. 16 “Times with Me Have Sadly Changed”: Destinies
    (pp. 285-292)

    On the day after Christmas in the first year of the twentieth century, an elderly Tom Tobin persuaded a friend¹ to write a letter for him to the Honorable George L. Shoup, senator from Idaho, in Washington, DC.

    It will be remembered that Senator Shoup, once a lieutenant in the First Colorado Cavalry, had lost a brother during the Espinosas’ murder raid through South Park. A few years earlier, upon hearing that Tobin had fallen on hard times, Shoup had sent the old scout, through an intermediary, $200 as an expression of “warm gratitude for his bravery and for his...

  23. Appendix A
    (pp. 293-302)
  24. Appendix B
    (pp. 303-308)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 309-322)
  26. Index
    (pp. 323-331)