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Colorado Outlaws, The Bloody Espinosas

Updated on August 13, 2016

Conejos County, Colorado

A markerConejos County, Colorado -
Conejos County, CO, USA
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Unknown Colorado Mexican Bandito

Uncanny Death Toll

Being a lover of the Old West and the romantic notion of riding dusty trails and living the life upon the back of a horse with the blue sky above as the roof of your house. I have read and study everything I can get my hands on about Indians, Cowboys and of course the "Outlaws".

This is the story of a band of notorious outlaws called "The Bloody Espinosa's". Some have called them Americas first serial killers and the number of deaths contributed to them in a relatively short time is alarming at best and scary.

History has almost forgotten the "The Bloody Espinosa's" because at the time 1863 there was a war going on back east called the Civil War. At the same time in the west native Indians were still on the war path in a losing effort and trying to stop the ever growing white eye population from expanding into their land. In this hard and unsettle time in American history the "The Bloody Espinosa's" began a reign of terror across southern Colorado that left 32 people dead and the corpses mutilated and left to rot in the hot summer sun.

Some Law Dogs and newspaper accounts of the time claim the number was upwards of sixty.

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Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography
Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography
Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography
Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography

Outlaw Felipe Espinosa

Felipe Espinosa was born in 1827 near El Rito, New Mexico in what was then Northern Mexico and to my knowledge, there are no known photographs of him or his family. Newspapers in 1863 described Felipe of having a “Jack-O-Lantern grin”. He also grew up in a deeply religious Catholic home and himself was known to be on the extreme side of religion.

The Espinosa's clan belonged to a religious organization called Los Hermanos Penitentes, the Pentitente Brotherhood. A society brought to the New World, and eventually into Southern Colorado and New Mexico by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 15th and in the 16th century. In Southern Colorado during this time frame the sect was known as Opus Dei and were notorious for their means of expelling sin. They would bind themselves on wooden crosses, stand on cacti, place stones in their shoes. Part of their religious ritual involved self-flagellation which in many cases resulted in death of the one practicing it. In the mid 19th century Felipe Espinosa and family were devout members of the Los Hermanos Penitentes. .


Mexican-American War

Seed Of Hatred Was Planted

The Espinosa family hailed from the area near El Rito, New Mexico, about 30 miles west of Taos. After the Mexican-American war of 1848 the family of Espinosa who had been strong Mexican patriots found themselves living in what was now America. An article in the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed stating that all Mexicans like the Espinosa family living in the new American territory would keep their land and have the choice of remaining a Mexican national or becoming an American citizen. Like many treaties throughout American history, this stipulation was not to be honored. In the San Luis Valley of what is now southern Colorado, hatred and resentment began to arise between Mexicans and Americans.

The Colorado Territory was formed in 1861 and created Colorado's Southern border. Along with this new territory came new taxes and new laws created by the new governing Anglos. Most, of not all of the ex-Mexican nationals did not read or speak English and were confused by the new laws and taxes. Also with the new order in the Colorado Territory along came more and more military forces who began to draft the young men from the Mexican families into the army. Discontent had reached a boiling point for many of the Mexican families including the Espinosa's.

Felipe Espinosa was now 34 years old and his younger brother Vivian was 32.

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Mexican bandit, by Frederic Remington

Mexican bandit, Frederic Remington.
Mexican bandit, Frederic Remington.

Felipe And Vivian Become Banditos

In the 1862 to 1863 the Espinosa brothers of Felipe and Vivian were poor and hungry and became banditos. The Espinosa family had become bitter against America and anything related to the Anglos who they viewed as their enemy. Later the brothers would claim they started their outlaw life in revenge of the killings of six family members during the Mexican-American war. Whatever the reason was in the beginning, it was very clear that they hated all white Americans.

Soon the body count began to grow and the brothers were easy to follow because they left the mutilated corpse where ever they went. Their quest for revenge and blood was insatiable.

Near present-day Antonito, Colorado which was not far from their village the Espinoza brothers robbed a freight wagon. After looting the wagon of gold and valuables the Brothers earned their nickname "The Bloody Espinosa's" They tied the wagon driver under the tongue of the wagon so that his face was barely above the ground then whipped the horses into a crazed free for all run. The driver unlike most of the brothers victim's lived to tell the tale of his ordeal and identified the two bandits as Felipe and Vivian Espinosa. This was the first time the trail of mutilated bodies that had been left along the Rocky Mountain front range in this area had been associated with anyone. The wagon driver was horribly disfigured and blinded.


Fort Garland Colorado

Fort Garland Colorado
Fort Garland Colorado

The Bloody Espinosa's Escape To The Mountains

Drawing by Fredric Remington
Drawing by Fredric Remington

Shoot Out With The Army

Capturing the bandits fell to the local law and military authority in the area and that was located in the newly constructed Fort Garland.

The Espinosa brothers still lived in their home village San Rafael near what is now Antonito, Colorado. A military detachment of soldiers was sent from Fort Garland to capture the two outlaw brothers. The two brothers were at home when the attempt to arrest them was made. A shootout ensued as the Army detachment peppered the wood log home with weapon fire, knocking out most of the chinking in between the logs. The Espinosa brothers escaped after rushing out the back of the house into a hail of gunfire and blazing an opening with their own six shooters and shooting an Army corporal through the heart and wounding several others, the outlaw brothers headed west to the high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They made good their escape.

The military officials stripped the family home of all belongings, valuables, food and water, leaving the remaining Espinosa family destitute, even recovering some of the money from previous robberies. They did stop short of setting fire to the home and village.



From Felipe Espinosa Journal

"They ruined our family-they took everything in our house; first our beds and blankets, then our provisions. Seeing this we said, ‘We would rather be dead than see such infamies committed on our families!. These were the reasons we had to go out and kill Americans –revenge for the infamies committed on our families. But we have repented our killing. Pardon us for what we have done and give us our liberty, so that no officer will have anything to do with us for, also in killing one gains his liberty. I am aware that you know of some that I have killed, but of others you don’t know. It is a sufficient number however. Ask in New Mexico if any other two men have ever been known to have killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed thirty-two.”

South Park, Colorado Today

Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography
Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography

Now Identified There Was No Turning Back

According to Colorado legend and myth Felipe at this time had a dream and was empowered by the Virgin Mary, who had been sent by God and told him he had a duty to kill Anglos.

Even if the brothers wanted to there would be no turning back now. On the run in the Colorado central Rockies and stealing and looting and of course killing as many Anglos that they could they made a bloody swath across the mountains to an area known as South Park, Colorado.

A local newspaper in Canon City, Colorado described in an article on the death of Jim Harkins .

"Harkens had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a Colt Navy revolver, then the murderers had taken the ax and split his head open from the top to the mouth, and then, judging from the appearance of his head and the ax, they had hit him on each side of the head with the head of the ax, and two pieces of skull and his brains lay on the ground at the top of his head. He was also stabbed twice in the left breast".

In one such killing of the William Bruce, whose body had been found hacked to pieces and protruding from a bullet hole from in his forehead was a crucifix made from sticks.

The Espinosa brothers found the area of South Park to their liking. It was isolated and had many small and unguarded mining camps to wreck their vendetta against Anglos on.





Fairplay, Colorado in the region called South Park

A markerSouth Park Colorado -
Fairplay, CO 80440, USA
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"Dead Or A Live" Bounty Offered

As the body count continued to rise in the Colorado Rockies the Governor of Colorado John Evans established a bounty on the two outlaw desperados. He even sent a small detachment led by John Chivington to comb the area and apprehend the outlaw pair. Side note here, this was the same Colonel John Chivington, who would become infamous two years later for his part in the Sand Creek massacre. John Chivington Detachment was unsuccessful in locating and capturing the two banditos.


Drawing by Frederic Remington
Drawing by Frederic Remington
Drawing by Frederic Remington
Drawing by Frederic Remington

Vivian Espinosa Shot Dead By Posse

Due to the lack of progress by the military in Fairplay, Colorado a posse was formed to run down and kill the deadly Espinosa gunmen. The posse came upon a new and fresh mutilated corpse who happened to be a brother on one of the posse members. What they also found were fresh tracks in the wet ground due to the snow melt and after riding all night they followed and tracked the Espinosa's to their camp.

At dawn when the sun was high enough to give the posse members light to see by, they spied Vivian relieving himself by a nearby tree. The first shot was fired by the brother of the Espinosa's latest victim and entered Vivian's forehead and scattered his brain out the back onto his nearby horse. After the first shot all hell broke loose as the posse members began to fire into the campground blindly with no new targets. A shotgun blast killed Vivian's horse. Felipe, who had been protected as he stood in some deep timber began to return fire as he made his way to his fallen brother. After reaching Vivian it was evident that he was dead and nothing could be done Felipe mounted his horse and made his escape into the deep and dark timber all the time returning fire to posse as they tried to give chase. The posse lost Felipe within the trees and tried tracking him till near sunset with no luck. They returned to the Vivian Espinosa death site and just as the sun was ready to drop out of sight and darkness approached a shot was fired from the mountain side striking just mere inch's from one of the posse member head. Felipe had not gone far. That was the last shot as darkness prevailed. Felipe slipped away into the dark of the night.

Photo by Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography
Photo by Kurt Reifschneider of Midnight Wind Photography

Felipe Disappears....For Awhile

For some time Felipe Espinosa disappeared with no new sightings and no new corpses that bore his signature mutilations. Some believed that he had been wounded in his gunfight with the posse and had simply died from his wounds. Others believed he had fled to Old Mexico. One story was he returned to the site were Vivian was killed and he dug up his brother's body and severed an arm and took it home to be buried in Conejos County, Colorado. All Anglos in the southern and central mountains of Colorado hoped they had heard the last of Felipe Espinosa.

Felipe had not died and he had not fled to Old Mexico, what he did was he recruited his 14-year old nephew Jose Vicente to take the place of Vivian in his bloody and deadly banditry and murder against the Anglos whom he hated so much. Once he had an accomplice in place Felipe rode again and continued his revenge against the Anglos murdering and mutilating any all Anglos that he found alone and defenseless. The "Bloody Espinosa's" were in business once more.

Felipe Espinosa having returned to his previous ways the authorities at Fort Garland tried a different avenue in the pursuit of the "Bloody Espinosa's"

Tate Tobin

Thomas Tate Tobin

The authorities turned to none other than Tate Tobin. Tate was a tough and no nonsense man who during his life he had been a tracker, trapper, mountain man, guide, US Army scout and a true American adventurer. After being summoned to Fort Garland for a special assignment, he also became a bounty hunter and an assassin. He was set loose on the trail of "The Bloody Espinosa's". Felipe and his nephew would in the end find Tate Tobin to be every bit as ruthless, cunning, brutal and never to shy away from killing as they were.

Tobin left Fort Garland with a detachment of 14 soldiers in his pursuit of the two outlaws. Within a day he picked up the outlaw's trail after a Felipe and his nephew brutally attack a man and a woman traveling alone. The outlaw pair had planned to kill the man after making him watch them rape the woman, but somehow and the record is not clear, but the man and woman not only survived, but escaped and was able to give Tate Tobin an accounting of what happened and the direction the "Bloody Espinosa's" were heading.



Tate Tobin

Tate Tobin Relentless Pursuit

Tate Tobin's dogged pursuit of the outlaw's is legendary, for the three days and nights he tracked and trailed the two outlaws from campsite to campsite sometimes with ash still smoldering from their cook fires. His uncanny ability to detect any smell, observe any bent grass or broken twig kept him and the soldiers on the trail with very little sleep. Several of the soldiers complained or became exhausted and Tate sent them back to Fort Garland because they just slowed him down. Tate and his followers ate very little and were allowed no campfires of their own. "The Bloody Espinosa's" had no idea that Tate Tobin was trailing them and that hell had come with him.

On the morning of the fourth day Tobin located the two as they were cutting out a couple of steaks from an ox they had just killed and placing them on sticks to roast in the fire. Magpies had given away their position as the scavenger birds circled above the ox awaiting their time at the kill. Tobin instructed the soldiers to wait as he crawled forward with his old and antique Hawken muzzleloader. Felipe was standing by the fire waiting for his steak to cook and Tobin sighted him in and fired, with a hole in his side Felipe fell into the fire and caught aflame. Jose the nephew seeing his uncle get shot started to run toward the tree line. Tobin calmly reloaded his one shot muzzleloader and took aim at the fleeing outlaw. Having Jose in his sight Tobin took a breath and slowly squeezed the trigger and shot the last of "The Bloody Espinosa's" in the back severing his spine.

Felipe mortally wounded but still alive had been able to pull himself from the fire as Tate Tobin approached him with his bowie knife unsheathed and the blade glistening in the morning sun. Tobin grabbed the not yet dead Felipe by his long greasy black hair and dragged him over to a nearby log and with two swift strokes beheaded the feared Anglo hater. Tobin at this time went to the now lifeless body of the nephew Jose and decapitated him also. He then pulled out a flour sack he had brought just for this purpose and placed the heads of the notorious "Bloody Espinosa's" inside.

In less than a week Tate Tobin did what the local authorities and the military could not do in more than a year, he rid the countryside of the formidable Espinosa's.



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Bandito

Bandito by Joshua Gargalione Art Mexican/Spanish Outlaw Canvas Giclee Art Print
Bandito by Joshua Gargalione Art Mexican/Spanish Outlaw Canvas Giclee Art Print

Final Thoughts

Tate Tobin in the end did not receive the $5500 bounty that had been placed on the heads of Felipe and Jose because the state of Colorado simply did not have the money after financing several new forts across the region and what Abe Lincoln and Washington had been taking from the state treasury to help finance the Civil war in the east. The state of Colorado was broke.

Tate Tobin did receive about $1500 and a new coat and the never ending thanks from the people of Colorado. The military did gift Tobin a limited edition Henry rifle.

Tate Tobin remained in Colorado and became later in life a prosperous rancher and his ranch was located just a couple of miles from Fort Garland. Tate Tobin died in 1904 of natural causes.

The heads of Felipe Espinosa and his nephew Jose had been pickled in a jar's of alcohol and traveled around the state and was shown at county fairs. Later Felipe head sat on the desk of the editor of the newspaper in Fairplay, Colorado. Sometime later Felipe's head ended up on the desk of the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. Felipe's head disappeared soon after that, but not the tale.

Hard to believe that a tale such as this was almost lost to the passage of time because a bigger event was happening and in the making in the eastern United States. Felipe, Vivian and Jose all died in 1863 and the Civil war ended in 1864.



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