Hispanic Gunfighters of the Old West


The truth is that tough hombres sprung from all ethnic groups. In this work we will concentrate on those with Spanish last names.

Over 35 well known Hispanic pistoleers or shootists have been recognized. From California to Texas, these men made a name for themselves gun in hand; some were common bandits, others were revolutionaries, lawmen and victims of racism.

California Bandits

The best known Hispanic outlaws might be those California boys Joaquín Murieta Tiburcio Vásquez and Procopio.

While Murieta’ story has been told many times it could be summarized the following ways. Born in either Mexico or Chile, he came with his wife to California during the Gold Rush. Supposedly she was assaulted by Anglo miners. When his brother tried to defend her, he was killed.

At the time, Hispanic and other minorities were prohibited from testifying against Anglo-Americans in a California court of law. Seeing that he could not get justice, Murieta, seeking revenge on all Anglos, took to a life of crime

Born in Monterey, Tiburcio Vásquez killed his first man as a teenager. It is not known if it was on purpose or an accident. Bu, from then on he did lead a life of crime that included cattle rustling, bank robbery and murder.

He was arrested and convicted twice for horse stealing and was detained one final time in 1874 for two murders. His cell became something of a tourist attraction. He was hanged the next year.

The full name of the man known as Procopio is still open to question. So far there are six possibilities. He was convicted of cattle theft but never or murder. In 1851, at the age of 18, he was set free for lack of evidence on the killing of an Anglo rancher.

Procopio was even accused of murdering women and children.

For a while, he rode with Tiburcio Vásquez and might have been the nephew of Joaquín Murieta. Procopio die in Mexico of natural causes.

El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is about a man born in Matamoros, Mexico, whose family moved to Manor, Texas when he was two years old. He became a farmer.

In what appears to be a case of an unskilled interpreter bungling the interrogation of Spanish speaking Cortez by Sheriff W. T. “Brack” Morris, the lawman pulled his gun and fired, hitting Cortez’s brother, Romaldo. Gregorio shot back and killed the sheriff.

Gregorio escaped, but his family, including his wife, was arrested.

When Gregorio Cortez was in the neighborhood of Belmont, he was found by other lawmen. In the class that issued, he killed another sheriff and one more man. Now, the Texas Rangers went after him.

He dodged the Rangers for days, but with a reward for his capture, Gregorio was turned in by acquaintance. He served 12 of a 50-year sentence.

Gregorio Cortez died in Mexico in 1916 of pneumonia. To this day, Mexican Americans ponder if he was a victim of racism. The song written about him appears to say so.

“Death to the Gringos” – The Cortina Wars

A native of Carmargo, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Juan Cortina was a rich rancher well respected on both sides of the border.

While in Brownsville on July 1859, Cortina saw an Anglo marshal pistol-whip one of hisformer vaqueros. Infuriated, he insisted that the lawman ceased. When the marshal rebuffed his petition, Cortina shot him and escaped with the beat up Mexican.

Late on September of the same year, Cortina was back at Brownville, at the head of a throng hell bend in proclaiming the Republic of the Rio Grande. Mexicans in jail were released and Anglos accused of killing Mexicans but had not been prosecuted were killed. Shouts of “Death to the Gringos” were heard all over town.

The Texas Rangers riposted, first by mounting an unsuccessful attack on Cortina’s ranch and then by pounding on any Hispanic in the area.

Eventually the Rangers as well as the U.S. and Mexican armies got the upper hand and Cortina disbanded his private army and moved to Mexico where he fought the French at the side of Benito Juárez.

New Mexico Wars and the Emergence of Elfego Baca

Two major conflicts in late 19th Century New Mexico involved Hispanics.

During the Lincoln County War, numerous Hispanics fought on all sides of the struggle; some were members of the Jessie Evans Gang and of the Seven Rivers Warriors. However, the gang known as the Regulators, which included Billy the Kid, had the most Hispanic members.

And then there was the Frisco War in which a young lawman named Elfego Baca held off 80 Anglo cowboys for 36 hours.

At the end of the 19th Century, New Mexico was still at wild place. Cowboys roamed the land and did as they pleased.

The town of Frisco, today Reserve, was the recreation center for a particular group. They came into town, got drunk fondled the women and took pot shots at the men.

A 19 year old named Elfego Baca had more or less appointed himself deputy sheriff of Socorro County and decided to put an end to the abuses. On December 1, 1884, Elfego arrested one of the cowboys.

On his way to the jail, two of the cowboy’s comrades try to stop the arrest. A gunfight erupted and Elfego killed one of them. The other fell of his horse and would die later.

When the rest of the hands tried to stop him, a second battle came about. His time, it was the deputy sheriff against almost 100 opponents.

Jumping inside the small house of one Geronimo Armijo, Baca proceeded to kill four more cowboys and to inflict bullet sounds on eight more. It is said that more than 4,000 rounds were fired into the house. The young lawman was lucky for the shacks floor was 18 inches below the ground and protected him from harm.

Just when the cowboys were running out of bullets, a judge and a sheriff from a nearby town appeared and calmed the situation.

Baca emerged unharmed to the cheers of the Mexican-American population. He would be tried for the shoot out but would, again, come out unscathed.

Elfego Baca went on to become lawyer, politician, publisher and a Wild West celebrity.

He died in Albuquerque at age 80.