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Illustration by Owen Freeman

The Long-Forgotten Vigilante Murders of the San Luis Valley

How history forgot Felipe and Vivián Espinosa, two of the American West’s most brutal killers—and the complicated story behind their murderous rampage.

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The killers moved with vicious efficiency, dispatching their victims at the edge of America’s frontier. One murder became two, then five, then eight, and then drifted higher into double figures. Seemingly each month in the new Colorado Territory, another man was found shot or mutilated. On March 16, 1863, 58-year-old Franklin Bruce was first in the string, shot near his sawmill outside Cañon City. One month later, five men were murdered near the gold mining settlement of Fairplay; one was shot in the arm before being chased down a hill and shot again. When residents discovered his body, the man had been stripped and attacked with a tomahawk.

All of the victims were white men, settlers who’d arrived from elsewhere in North America. Residents speculated on the killers’ identities—they were Confederate guerillas spreading havoc across Union-controlled land, perhaps, or Native Americans defending their territories. Early on in the spree, no one had survived to identify the attackers.

One afternoon in late April, Edward Metcalf was leading a team of oxen over a mountainous trail near Fairplay when a bullet struck him in the left breast. Metcalf recoiled but didn’t fall: The bullet was stopped by a bundle of mail and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that Metcalf had tucked into his jacket. The oxen bolted at the sound of the weapon, sending Metcalf’s wagon careening over the trail. A second shot was fired, but the wagon struck a rock, and Metcalf was bounced out of the way. At the echo of gunshots, a nearby resident grabbed a rifle. He saw two men as they scrambled away.

When news of the shooting reached town that night, a group of at least six men tracked down the injured man. They found him with a cut on his forehead. “The people are scared nearly to death here [and] none but the bravest dare go out at all,” a private in the 1st Colorado Cavalry wrote in his journal the next day.

Though Metcalf didn’t get a close look at his would-be murderers, he and the man who rushed to his aid saw enough to create a rough description. One of the shooters was taller than the other. Both were dark-skinned—people of Mexican descent, they assumed. It wasn’t much, but it was something. The West’s most feared killers had finally been seen.

The Colorado Territory in 1863 was a merciless place. Just five years earlier, though, it had been a land of possibilities. When two men discovered gold in a placer deposit along Little Dry Creek (possibly in present-day Englewood) in 1858, it sparked excitement unlike anything seen since the California gold rush a decade earlier. Tens of thousands of prospectors traveled from their homes on the East Coast and in the Midwest, crossing the plains to reach the Rocky Mountains. The new residents built cabins and sawmills and encampments with names like Denver City, Colorado City, Golden City, Tarryall, and Gold Hill. By 1860, an estimated 43,000 residents were living within the territory, of which the vast majority were white men. All of them were hopeful they’d soon be rich.

The promise of wealth was short-lived. Rocky Mountain winters were harsher than anticipated; travel was treacherous and time-consuming. Food quickly ran out. Gold never materialized in the quantities the settlers expected. Just three years after the Colorado gold rush began, it was over. By 1861, with the Civil War beginning to rage, nearly 10,000 residents fled the territory, abandoning the land they’d thought would be rich with gold and returning to their former homes broke and broken.

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Life at the southern edge of the Colorado Territory was hardly easier. In the high-elevation San Luis Valley, about 7,000 Hispano settlers had built dozens of “plazas”—small villages of adobe and thatched-roofed structures—along the Conejos and San Antonio rivers that flowed east into the Rio Grande. The communities were named after Catholic saints (San Jose, San Judas de Tadeo, San Rafael) or geographic identifiers: Los Brazos (arms), La Isla (the island), Mesitas (little tables). The residents often raised crops and goats and cattle, but even by frontier standards, many families lived in poverty.

The Hispano men and women—residents of the Southwest descended from Spaniards who lived in the region before annexation—arrived in what’s now Colorado as early as the 1840s, many from Taos County in New Mexico. They took advantage of Mexico’s communal land grants that encouraged northward expansion. The new settlers both traded with and fought against Native American tribes; some even bought and sold a small number of indigenous slaves.

Between the 1820s and the 1840s, governance of the valley shifted from Spain to Mexico to the United States—each country with its own laws and taxes. In 1848, after the Mexican-American War ended, most of the men and women within this Hispanic heartland became American citizens and residents of New Mexico, with a language and culture that connected their plazas to the territorial capital in Santa Fe. That changed in 1861, when the U.S. government handed over a patch above the 37th parallel to the new Colorado Territory. The reasoning was mostly aesthetic: Straight borders looked better on maps.

A map showing parts of Mexico that became a section of the Colorado Territory. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Almost immediately after assuming control of the land, Colorado’s government regarded its new citizens as a necessary nuisance. With the addition of the San Luis Valley, Colorado gained badly needed population numbers—an important distinction if the territory wanted to achieve federal support for statehood—yet the cultures failed to mesh.

It’s difficult to overestimate the level of disenfranchisement the valley’s Hispano residents felt in the early days of Colorado’s existence. Life as New Mexicans had given them a safety net—language and religion chief among the cultural touchstones—but the white Protestants now immigrating into the territory were akin to an invading force. Adding to their unease was the construction of Fort Garland, an Army outpost created in 1858 to protect new Anglo settlers from Native American bands in the valley. Hispanos couldn’t help but think the garrison was also a warning to them.

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After the borders were redrawn, Hispanos and their Anglo counterparts began battling over land rights. Mexican property law had been based on generational caretaking and was often sealed with handshake deals. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848, the American government promised to honor those historical Mexican settlements, but American laws soon threw ownership to territorial officials who most often ruled in favor of white settlers. As more property fell into the hands of the pioneers, longtime communal grazing land was suddenly cut off.

Confusion mounted: Taxes were levied in the valley without explanation. Hispano men had their names recorded for potential conscription into the Union Army. In 1862, a count was taken of weapons and ammunition among plaza residents, escalating distrust among the Hispano population. Food and livestock were recorded for potential seizure by Army soldiers.

During the Colorado Territory’s first legislative session in Denver, the government did not initially provide a translator for the valley’s Spanish-speaking representative, ensuring the residents wouldn’t be part of important early territorial decisions. After bills were passed, government officials refused to translate those laws into Spanish, arguing that printing costs were prohibitive and that the Hispanos in the region weren’t American citizens, so the government shouldn’t have to provide translations for them.

Almost overnight, Colorado’s southern border became the epicenter of discontent within the territory. Residents didn’t understand why the government was collecting certain taxes and why their land rights were now in disarray. White settlers could feel anger growing toward them. “Mexicans of Costilla and Conejos counties are holding secret meetings and organizing for an armed resistance to the collection of taxes,” the Rocky Mountain News Weekly reported in August 1862. At an August 17 meeting between several Hispanos and Adolph Mayer, Fort Garland’s new commander, plaza residents gave the Army major “every assurance—in words—that they were loyal citizens, and anxious to render every aid in their power for the Union cause. All of which I do not believe,” Mayer wrote to his superiors. The Rocky Mountain News erroneously reported that a company of soldiers had been ordered to Fort Garland to stop any “emergency” in the valley. Should there be a fight, the article read, Anglo settlers and Army soldiers were prepared to flatten the plazas.

On November 6, 1862, Fort Garland soldiers seized two muskets from a Hispano resident who allegedly complained about the American laws at a community meeting. A month and a half later, during the attempted arrests of some plaza residents by a deputy marshal, two Hispano sheriffs refused to help. Four men were eventually arrested. “The Utes have been growling considerable about their annuity, and the Greasers a great deal more about the taxes,” the Rocky Mountain News editorialized, using a derogatory term for the region’s Hispano residents. “It is said that some…Greasers…have sworn to pay their taxes with the rifle.”

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In January 1863, 10 soldiers and two officers were dispatched from Fort Garland and made their way 35 miles southwest to a plaza on the southern bank of the Conejos River. One of the officers dismounted his horse and walked to a home. He was there to arrest two men: Felipe Espinosa and his younger brother, Vivián.

More than a century and a half later, the exact reason for the military visit is unclear, and little is understood about the Espinosas and their lives within the San Luis Valley at the time. Primary sources tell the brothers’ story—and the story of southern Colorado’s Hispano residents—almost exclusively through the lenses of the territory’s white settlers, government officials, and military officers. Essential facts are processed through contemporary biases, translated by nonnative Spanish speakers, and muddied through generations of retelling. Stories are confused; narratives have been exaggerated for dramatic effect.

What we do know is this: Felipe and Vivián Espinosa each had a wife and several children and lived among extended family. Both could read and write. At the time the soldiers arrived at their plaza (named in a newspaper report as San Rafael, but more likely the plaza of San Judas de Tadeo, based on government records), Felipe would have been 39 years old and Vivián 26. Vivián was perhaps five-foot-six; Felipe was a little shorter.

The pair first show up as boys in a Mexican provincial census from 1845, then later in an American head count of territorial New Mexico in the 1850s. The brothers and their families appear in an 1860 U.S. census and then on federal rolls from the weapon and ammunition count two years later, when five firearms and two-and-a-half pounds of ammunition were found in the entire San Judas de Tadeo plaza. Felipe owned one carbine—a short rifle—and a half-pound of ammunition. Vivián is recorded as having neither weapons nor ammunition.

Sometime in 1862 or early 1863, a priest from Taos reported to New Mexican military authorities the robbery and beating of a freight runner named Juan Flugencio Gonzales. According to one story, Gonzales was hauling goods for the priest when he was stopped on a road by masked thieves, beaten, and tied to his wagon. The robbers then took the horses and the wagon’s contents. After Gonzales was found, he implicated the Espinosa brothers and a third unknown person in the crime. The priest sent word to Santa Fe about the attack; military officers at Fort Garland were, in turn, notified, which triggered Lieutenant Nicholas Hodt and a company from the 1st New Mexico Cavalry to be sent to the Espinosas’ plaza sometime in mid-January 1863. When Hodt spotted Vivián Espinosa, he asked if the two could talk. In an effort to arrest the brothers peacefully, Hodt concocted a reason for his visit: With the Civil War now entering its second year, he would tell the Espinosas that this was part of a military recruiting trip. Vivián asked Hodt to return in the morning.

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It took five days for the soldiers to return to the plaza. By then, any pretense of military recruitment had disappeared: Hodt and a deputy marshal named George O. Austin found the brothers at home and held them in a room. Hodt left to gather his men. When he returned, the brothers had broken through a wall and “procured arms, guns, pistols and bows and arrows, and commenced firing the arrows from the doors and windows,” Austin—writing under the pseudonym “A”—reported in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News.

The lieutenant at some point ordered the home to be set on fire. In Austin’s newspaper report, the Espinosas “made a rush out of the door, discharging a shower of arrows.” The aftermath would have been a comedy of errors had it not been so serious. (One soldier was killed during the fight.) Hodt, according to Austin, fired “all the charges from one pistol” but apparently didn’t hit anyone. He drew a second weapon, but it wouldn’t stay cocked. Frustrated, Hodt threw the gun, which discharged when it hit the ground. The lead ball struck Hodt in the forehead, wounding him. Austin chased the Espinosas across the frozen Conejos River, but his horse slipped and fell, breaking Austin’s leg above the ankle. Soldiers followed the Espinosas into the San Juan Mountains but eventually gave up.

With at least one Espinosa home burned, the Army and a marshal confiscated the family’s belongings, including 11 cows and oxen, one steer, four beds, one trunk, and two water buckets. The decision to seize virtually everything left the Espinosas’ wives, children, and extended families destitute. The incident also likely incited the brothers to their murderous rage.

Within two months of the plaza assault, dead settlers began to turn up across the central Rockies. Felipe Espinosa wrote letters and poems in which he asked for protection from the Virgin Mary and from various Catholic saints. Among his writings, he drafted a letter to John Evans, Colorado’s territorial governor. Americans, Espinosa is said to have written, “ruined our families—they took everything in our house; first our beds and blankets, then our provisions…. These were the reasons we had to go out and kill Americans—revenge for the infamies committed on our families…. 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 I have killed, but of others you don’t know. It is a sufficient number, however. Ask…if any other two men have killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed thirty-two.”

James Addleman’s grave near Fort Carson. Addleman was allegedly murdered by the Espinosa brothers. Photo by Robert Sanchez

Two days after Franklin Bruce was murdered outside his sawmill near Cañon City in March 1863, Henry Harkens was gunned down. James Addleman was killed sometime after Harkens, near Wilkerson Pass, about 50 miles west of present-day Colorado Springs. On April 8, 1863, outside Fairplay, Jacob Binkley and Abram Nelson Shoup were executed at a temporary encampment along a road to Denver. Binkley was shot in the back. Shoup was stabbed three times before he ran 400 yards down a gulch, where he collapsed and died. On April 25, Bill Carter was shot and killed northwest of Fairplay. On April 26, two men, Frederick Lehman and Sol Seyga, were murdered, this time northeast of town. Rumors circulated that a crucifix had been cut into the chest of one of the victims; another had his head crushed with a rock.

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Each killing seemed to be an act of blood lust more than outright robbery. “All, from the first, have been marked with a peculiar singularity—the most fiendish and diabolical atrocity,” a Rocky Mountain News article read. “In some cases, the amount of money, or valuables, has been so trifling that it seems incredible that it should excite the cupidity of the most black-hearted murderer to commit such a terrible crime.”

After the murders of Lehman and Seyga, a group of men dispatched themselves and located several campsites. The next morning, May 9, eight men went out on horseback and discovered a trail that led into a canyon along Four Mile Creek. They entered a valley where they spotted two horses, both of which had hobbles tied around their ankles to prevent them from wandering off.

As the posse flanked both animals and waited, Vivián Espinosa emerged from a thicket and began removing the hobbles. At that moment, one of the posse’s members was ordered to shoot. He hit Vivián on his left side, knocking him on his back. Vivián rolled onto his elbows, pulled out a pistol, and fired several shots. One of the posse’s members returned fire with a rifle, hitting Vivián in the face and killing him. After Vivián’s death, Felipe appeared on a ledge above the men. He fired two shots but missed, and then disappeared.

The Espinosas’ campsite became a free-for-all: The posse rifled through the possessions and eventually took the plunder to Cañon City, where it was “laid out for examination…and a large and excited crowd gathered round and examined it till a late hour,” the Weekly Commonweath and Republican reported. The belongings included “[a]rticles of clothing, trinkets, and personal effects” of several of the Espinosas’ victims, leaving the Commonwealth to conclude that “these demons” had murdered at least 12 men.

For more than a century, the Espinosas’ story was mostly forgotten, showing up every decade or so in newspapers or magazines, though less as historical scholarship and more as a period curiosity. One story in True West magazine from 1960 includes a drawing of the brothers, both of whom are wearing sombreros.

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In nearly all of the histories, the brothers are simply Spanish-speaking, sociopathic killers without an origin story—or, at least, not one based entirely on facts. In one tale, Felipe and Vivián Espinosa’s parents, grandparents, brother, and sister were killed in the March 1847 bombardment of Veracruz, Mexico, by American forces. As that narrative went, Felipe thought he received an order from the Virgin Mary to kill 600 Americans—100 for each of his dead family members. In another example, the Espinosas pledge allegiance to the Penitente Brotherhood, a sect of lay Roman Catholics who operated “moradas”—meetinghouses—unaffiliated with the local church. It’s unclear if the Espinosas were Penitentes (later generations of their relatives have claimed a connection), but there’s no doubt Anglo settlers and soldiers in southern Colorado—many of them Protestant—would have viewed any Catholic meeting as a threat to American sovereignty. A narrative that included Spanish-speaking Catholics supporting a pair of Hispano murderers may have rung true among Anglos, furthering the belief that the valley’s residents were anti-American.

Hispano lives in the San Luis Valley were often treated as irrelevant to the development of the rest of the Colorado Territory. It was a place of “Mexican and half-breeds,” the Rocky Mountain Directory and Colorado Gazette opined to readers in 1871. “[T]he class of inhabitants…are not particularly noted for enterprise and thrift; hence very little has been accomplished in the way of development.”

That ignorance about and malice toward Hispano frontier life is reflected in the news coverage of the Espinosas’ murders, too. Names, dates, and circumstances of the killings differ. Details are fantastical and biased, incited by nascent media intent on selling newspapers. The January plaza visit that seems to have sparked the Espinosas’ rampage, for example, appears to be an incomplete retelling. Based on the Rocky Mountain News Weekly account from the marshal, there’s room to wonder whether the brothers—in addition to the alleged robbery—also might have been agitators against Anglo settlement and American laws that had confused their communities and led to earlier Hispano arrests. Bringing a unit of Army soldiers to the Espinosas’ plaza would also seem to show that authorities worried about a revolt if the brothers were detained. It seems those concerns were warranted: In the Rocky Mountain News Weekly account, family members rushed to the Espinosa home and passed weapons to the brothers. Eventually, the marshal worried that American troops would be overrun by the plaza’s residents.

A deeper understanding of the Espinosas’ motivations doesn’t exist in these retellings. Contemporary Colorado historian Frank Hall once claimed he had the brothers’ memorandum book but had lost it. The judge, historian, and journalist Wilbur Fisk Stone—who covered the murders for the Rocky Mountain News and other publications and helped translate the Espinosas’ letters (but didn’t keep a translated copy for himself)­—hardly mentions Colorado’s Hispano border communities in his five-volume, nearly 5,000-page History of Colorado that was published in 1918 and 1919. The Espinosa brothers are not included at all.

Ultimately, with so little after-the-fact attention paid to the Espinosas and their plaza neighbors, it’s worth wondering: Were Colorado’s Hispanos deemed so unimportant that even their vigilante killers were mostly forgotten?

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“All is quiet in the country in regard to jayhawkers and murders, especially since the capture and summary execution of the Mexican Espinosa near Cañon City,” the Weekly Commonwealth reported after Vivián was killed. “The one who escaped has not yet been taken or heard of.” On June 9, 1863, the 3rd Judicial District in Pueblo mistakenly identified Felipe Espinosa as the man who’d died, issuing an indictment against “Bivian Espenosa” and asking that the deputy marshal find the bandit in preparation for a September trial.

Felipe returned to his family’s plaza several times, bringing small trinkets for his wife and perhaps hiding with the help of relatives and his former neighbors. While he was in the plaza, Espinosa would have seen the devastation that had been brought upon his family. He may also have dropped off letters implicating himself in the murders and threatening more violence against Anglos. At some point shortly after Vivián’s death, Felipe recruited a new accomplice: his sister’s son.

If little is known about the Espinosa brothers, there’s even less information about Felipe’s teenage nephew. He might have been 14, and his name could have been Jose or Julio or Julian. Ultimately, it’s unclear why Felipe asked the boy to join him. Had he recruited a killer to take his brother’s place, or did Felipe need a trail assistant who could help set up campsites, care for horses, and cook meals?

Whatever the explanation, a number of murders—including one Hispano man—were recorded across the southern portion of the Colorado Territory over the next several months, but it’s impossible to know whether Felipe and his nephew were responsible. By early fall 1863, at least 11 killings in southern and central Colorado had been attributed to the Espinosas.

An illustration of Fort Garland, which was established in 1858 to protect white settlers in the Colorado Territory. Photo courtesy of Ken Wiedemann / Getty Images

Sometime around October 11, 1863, a carriage carrying a Hispano woman and an Anglo driver was ambushed in an area near present-day La Veta—halfway between present-day Walsenberg and Fort Garland. The attackers were “barefooted and called each other brother,” according to a Hispano eyewitness. One of the men—presumably Felipe—identified himself and his companion as the fugitive Espinosas. After the driver escaped to get help—“Where is the gringo?” one of the Espinosas is said to have asked—the Espinosas “took the lines off the harness and tied the woman hand and foot and abused her disgracefully,” according to a contemporaneous account of the incident.

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News of the ambush quickly reached nearby Fort Garland. With the killers now at the fort’s doorstep, it was time to strike. Thomas Tobin, a well-known tracker, trapper, and mountain guide, was called from his nearby ranch and outfitted with a group of about 15 soldiers.

In mid-October, on their third morning hunting the Espinosas—reportedly somewhere near La Veta Pass—Tobin and his men found oxen tracks. They found one ox on the trail and suspected that the Espinosas had taken the other to kill and eat. As Tobin and three other men walked and crawled through the forest, one of them saw “a number of crows” flying overhead, indicating that the men had killed the second ox. More trackers joined Tobin’s group, and they eventually saw a campsite “in a spot almost inaccessible from all sides and commanding a view of the entire surrounding country,” according to the Weekly Commonweath and Republican. The men cocked their weapons.

Tobin watched Felipe carve a piece off the dead ox, put it on the fire, and sit against a log. Felipe had a scar on one of his cheeks, a black beard, and long fingernails that curled inward, Tobin later reported. As he rested, Felipe heard a snap—possibly a branch breaking—and reached for his gun. Tobin fired his rifle and shot Felipe in the chest.

“Jesus, por favor!” Felipe cried out, according to Tobin’s account. Felipe yelled for his nephew to run, but when the boy appeared, Tobin shot and killed him. Felipe, meanwhile, began crawling across the forest floor, then braced himself against a tree. One of Tobin’s men advanced. Felipe raised his weapon, fired, and missed. The other men unleashed a volley of bullets, striking Felipe multiple times. With Felipe dead, Tobin walked to the fugitive, grabbed the man by the hair, and cut off his head. The teenage boy was also decapitated.

Thomas Tobin, the tracker, trapper, and mountain guide who killed Felipe Espinosa and his nephew. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library/Western History Collection (Thomas Tobin artwork by Herndon Davis) 

Among the items at the campsite were a Colt Navy revolver, two rifles, one sidesaddle, one pair of small shoes, one memorandum book, a pen holder, a knife, and several letters. In the letters, according to a translation that appeared in the Weekly Commonweath and Republican, Felipe wrote that he was “blessed with the milk from the breast of the Holy Mother Mary! I am covered with the cloak of the Holy St. Salvador! I am defended by the sword of the Holy St. Paul! I am looking after animals and my enemies. They have hands and cannot touch me; They have feet and cannot catch me; They have eyes and cannot see me; They have ears and cannot hear me.”

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For more than a century, historians, writers, and artists were guilty of creating a mythologized version of the American West—of Manifest Destiny, the movement that was said to set America and Americans apart from every society in human history. That ideal, perhaps, was most glorified in Colorado, with its emphasis on the hard-living settlers who managed to tame the West and its inhabitants. If the Espinosas were bogeymen who confirmed every Anglo settler’s worst stereotypes, then the brothers eventually found an equally mythic place within Latin-American culture.

The Chicano Movement of the 1970s gave rise to a new narrative, reimagining the pair as Hispano protagonists fighting on behalf of an oppressed people. Songs and at least one screenplay have been written about the pair. The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa, a novel published in 2014, sought to untangle the brothers’ faith and familial past as a way to understand their murderous motivations. Wild West Exodus, a British tabletop game, includes a version of the brothers, with Felipe described as a “rogue, desperado, thief, mariachi, and to many, a bold freedom fighter.”

Historians have finally begun to examine that record, investigating the plight of civilizations wiped out or marginalized by settlers. “These citizens were made to feel like they were foreigners, and the historical record traditionally treated them that way,” says Virgina Sanchez, a genealogist and historian who has studied life within southern Colorado settlements and is the author of Pleas and Petitions: Hispano Culture and Legislative Conflict in Territorial Colorado. “The Espinosas are an important part of that history if you’re using them to understand the deeper, day-to-day hardships and prejudices that faced non-Anglos trying to survive within their own country.”

Nick Saenz, an associate professor of history at Adams State University who has studied Hispano settlement in southern Colorado, argues that while the Espinosa brothers are “like folk heroes” within the San Luis Valley—if not outright celebrated, then happily accepted—it’s a disservice to history if the narrative focuses only on the murders. “This is really the story of two distinct groups of people, with different languages and cultures and ideas of what this land should be, and they find themselves smashed together in the same place at the same time,” Saenz says. “More than anything, this is a story of survival. Ultimately, one side got to tell that story.”

One morning this past summer, James Peterson punched a code into a wall-mounted pad and pressed open a door to the fourth-floor archive at the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver. He flipped a light switch. Amid the concrete walls were 48 rows of 12-foot-high shelving that contained evidence of more than 12,000 years of human existence.

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It’s a collection that began when the Colorado Historical Society started gathering artifacts near the turn of the 20th century, initially as a way to protect the legacy of pioneers who settled the state. Today, under the History Colorado moniker, the group stores some of the state’s artifacts inside a $100 million, 200,000-square-foot behemoth. Among the millions of items—everything from a paleoindian spear point to a chairlift from the original Aspen ski slopes—is likely the largest repository of Espinosa-related items in the world.

On this day, Peterson, History Colorado’s assistant curator for artifacts, was cataloging Espinosa-related guns from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. He had at least a dozen weapons on plastic tables stationed near the metal shelves, ranging from typical frontier-type revolvers to single-shot muskets to something that might fit inside a woman’s purse. Each weapon was cradled with a foam pad in its own light blue box, set atop white Tyvek paper. Near the end of one table was a Colt Model 1861 Navy revolver. At some point, the gun may have belonged to one of the Espinosas.

Pistols, now in the History Colorado Center’s collection, allegedly used by the Espinosa brothers. Photo by Aaron Marcus/ courtesy of History Colorado Center

Much of the barrel and the cylinder gleamed steel gray. The wooden grip was chestnut-colored and had the slightest bit of wear. The revolver was given to the society in 1943 as part of a trove, found inside a trunk, that included Spanish spurs, moccasins, and a pair of chapellets, all of which were alleged to have belonged to “the notorious San Luis Valley Espinosa bandits of the 1860s,” according to History Colorado’s records.

Whether this is true is a matter of debate. The trunk’s artifacts were given to the society by a man whose father had collected them. How that man—who lived in central Colorado in the 1880s—came to own the items is unknown.

Two other revolvers—a Colt Army Model 1860 revolver and an 1858 Remington New Model Navy revolver—were supposedly found with Felipe and his nephew when they were killed by Tobin’s crew. The Colt was given to the society in 1897, and the Remington arrived in 1929. (Both are part of Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects—a downstairs display at History Colorado that includes a ski suit from the 10th Mountain Division and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s New Balance sneakers.)

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The authenticity of those two revolvers has also been disputed. Author and historian James E. Perkins, who studied the murders as part of a 1999 biography of Thomas Tobin, writes that each weapon was made in New York in 1863, meaning neither gun had much time to make it to Colorado and then find its way to the Espinosas. Also, it’s not difficult to imagine that an accomplished tracker like Tobin would have recognized the value of new revolvers and perhaps kept them for himself.

The item with the best documented provenance is a black copper pot that had been stored at an off-site archive and is now at History Colorado for further study. The pot was taken from the site of Vivián Espinosa’s May 1863 death, possibly somewhere near present-day Westcliffe. The pot later was donated to the society by one of the posse members’ granddaughters. The Espinosa brothers were said to have been boiling beaver meat in it when they were ambushed and Felipe escaped into the wilderness.

Regardless of their origins, it’s impossible not to feel a bit of romanticism about the items—even if they once might have belonged to vigilante killers. “Wouldn’t that be neat if it were, though?” Peterson asked as he stood over the lone Colt revolver on the table. Light from overhead danced along the edges of the brass trigger guard. “That’s the funny thing about history,” Peterson said. “The more you learn, the more you find out so much of it might be wrong.”

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