Charles F. Price on his new book, the murderous Espinosas and Colorado's bloody history
In his new book, Charles F. Price illuminates one of Colorado's most unsettling and violent stories: the tale of the "Bloody Espinosas." Through careful research, Price tells the story of the three Hispanic outlaws in 1863 whose goal was to kill every Anglo in the Colorado Territory; they were responsible for an estimated 32 deaths before they were stopped. Price will read from and sign Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863, published by University Press of Colorado, at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Tattered Cover Colfax. In advance of this appearance, Price spoke with us about the gory tale, his unexpected findings and possible motivations for the rampage.
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Westword: How did you first come across the story of the Bloody Espinosas?
Charles F. Price: In a previous incarnation I was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. I lived in northern Virginia and there was a bookstore I loved to go to there called Bailey's Crossroads. I was in there one day and looking at a book about Western firearms and it had a photograph of this Army scout in his buckskin outfit holding his plains rifle and the cutline for the photograph said that his name was Tom Tobin and he had managed to track down and do away with these Hispanic serial killers, the Espinosas. I'm kind of an armchair historian and I had never heard of Tom Tobin or the Espinosas, so I was fascinated. My wife, Ruth, is from Salida and the Espinosas operated in Colorado and that's where Tobin hung out. There's a little bookstore there that I love to haunt, and I found a biography of Tom Tobin quite by accident and read it and it had an entire chapter about Tobin working for the Army and tracking down the Espinosas and killing them. It was quite a gripping story, but when I tried to find out more about it, the only things that I could find were highly sensationalized, sort of lurid melodrama types of things. There wasn't really a scholarly or objective history of these people who had set out in 1863 with the avowed purpose of murdering all the Anglos in Colorado. They managed, apparently, to kill at least 32; that's the estimated number.
It seemed to me that there was a fascinating story because there were ethnic and religious and political and ethical implications to the story that nobody seemed to want to focus on -- and when I discovered that there really hadn't been an academic treatment of it, I took it on my own shoulders. Now, I'm a novelist. This was my first attempt to write nonfiction. I wasn't sure I could pull it off, but actually I interested the University Press of Colorado in it and I survived all the fact checkers and peer reviewers and they decided to publish it. I'm very pleased. I hope it's a contribution to Colorado history and some of the ethnic and political concerns that it had then and that linger still in some ways.
What were you surprised to discover in your research?
Archibald Gillespie was an interesting character because he had been famous during the Mexican War but had fallen from favor due to drink and it was not very well known that he had been involved with the situation in New Mexico and Southern Colorado. He was sent by President Polk to California prior to the outbreak of the Mexican War to send some messages to Army officers who were operating out there in preparation for the war. And Gillespie, it turns out, was a very fascinating figure. He was quite the hero during the Mexican War but later fell victim to demon rum. He was basically run out of the service because he had been such a drinker, and was rehabilitated for reasons that escape me, and was sent in 1862 to New Mexico territory to do a census in the population of Southern Colorado and New Mexico of men of military age. It seemed to be a desire on the part of the Army to find out what manpower they might be able to call up if there was some other invasion of the Southwest. Gillespie was stirring up a lot of concern and antipathy among the Mexican population with his census, because they sensed that the purpose of the census might be to get them to be drafted in the U.S. Army, something they didn't want to do. It caused a great deal of unrest among the Hispanic population of Colorado and New Mexico, and to make it even worse the new regime of the Americans who had taken over the Mexicans were imposing all sorts of rules and regulations and laws which weren't even translated into Spanish so they could understand them. They were concerned about having to pay taxes that they hadn't had to pay before.
The Espinosas had been part of this unrest, and that was sort of the beginnings of their troubles with the U.S., because they had been part of a tax revolt and the U.S. Army sent a detachment down to arrest them and some shooting broke out and they killed an American soldier. And from that they went off onto their rampage. My book is the first time that's really been brought out, that Gillespie had this second life after he had fallen from power and from grace and was involved in creating the disturbances with his census. I found that quite interesting.
How did the Espinosas go from being involved in a tax revolt to going on a murderous rampage?
The Army had a fort at Fort Garland in southern Colorado and their involvement in the tax revolt caused a great deal of concern, plus they had attacked a Mexican teamster in New Mexico and word of that had gotten back to General Carlton, who was the commander of New Mexico, and he contacted the commander of Fort Garland, who instructed him to arrest the Espinosas because of the unrest they were causing. He sent a detachment down to where they lived in a little community called San Raphael almost on the New Mexico border in southern Colorado, and the Army basically raided their home and started a fire fight and burned the Espinosas' home and drove them out and, of course, terrorized their families. They said that was the reason they went on their rampage, that they had been attacked in their home.