History Features

The Bravest Lawman You’ve Never Heard Of

Bob Paul showed his mettle while senseless mobs struck violently against vicious Gold Rush killers.


Bob Paul was one of the greatest of all frontier peace officers. His extraordinary life of high adventure—first as a whaler in the South Pacific, then as a Forty-Niner in the Gold Rush, and finally as a pioneer lawman and detective in California and Arizona—always seemed to find him in the right place at the right time.

A close friend of Wyatt Earp, Paul is best known today for his important role in Tombstone’s Earp-Clanton feud of 1881-82. But Paul was already a famous lawman when Wells Fargo sent him to Arizona Territory in 1878. His five-decade career as a peace officer began in 1854 during the California Gold Rush and lasted until just before his death in 1901. He fought lynch mobs, tracked down stage robbers, investigated murders, pursued Apaches and jailbreakers, and killed five desperadoes in sensational gun battles in Arizona and Old Mexico.

During that half century of service on two of the West’s wildest frontiers, Paul helped invent law enforcement on the American frontier. His bloody gun battles with the Rancheria killers of the California Gold Rush, more than 25 years before the O.K. Corral gunfight in Tombstone, were as exciting as anything filmmakers could conjure.

Gold Rush Rancheria Killings

In the summer of 1855 budding young lawman Bob Paul played a prominent role in one of the most important incidents of racial violence in the Gold Rush. It began on a sweltering August 6, when a violent gang of bandidos rode down Dry Creek in Amador County, robbing each Chinese mining camp they came across. The leader was reported to be Guadalupe Gamba, and his followers were Manuel Castro and Rafael Escobar, plus six others later identified only by their first names or nicknames: “Macemanio” (probably Maximiliano), Trinidad, California, Bonito, a Californio known as Paisano, and a red-bearded American named Gregorio, or Gregory. Frightened Chinese reported the raids to Amador County Deputy Sheriff George Durham, who got a tip that the bandits were hiding out near Drytown. At dusk, with Constable J.D. Cross, he made a search of Drytown’s Hispanic quarter, known as Chile Flat. A Mexican woman was inside one of the houses, cooking, and the officers stepped inside and asked her if she had seen the robbers. She answered no, but then quietly pulled back a curtain to show the shadowy forms of several desperadoes who had hidden in a back room.

As Durham and Cross backed out, the bandidos broke for the back door and raced for their horses in a corral behind the house. Durham and Cross, six-guns in hand, sprinted after them. At a distance of fifteen steps the outlaws opened up with a thundering barrage of pistol fire. The officers, aiming at muzzle flashes, emptied their revolvers at the robbers, and thought they wounded two of them. After the bandits had fired some fifty shots they leaped into their saddles and escaped. While the two lawmen returned to the Anglo quarter to organize a posse, the bandidos rode three miles southwest toward the little mining camp of Rancheria. The camp had a hotel, store, livery stable, fandango house, and a water-powered quartz mill.

It was night when the freebooters galloped into Rancheria. Tethering their horses, they first stepped into the fandango house to get liquored up. Then, learning that there was considerable cash in town, they poured outside and in two groups simultaneously burst into the store and hotel, shouting “Viva Mexico!” One band entered the hotel, their six-shooters belching flame as they indiscriminately fired on everyone in sight. Several men seated at a table playing cards tried to take cover. A bullet tore Sam Wilson from his chair, killing him instantly. Another card player fell dead in a bloody pool. The hotelkeeper, Michael Dynan, was badly wounded at the bar. His terrified wife, Mary, began shoving their two children out a window when Rafael Escobar shot her in the back, killing her.

At the same time the second bunch of screaming outlaws broke into the Rancheria store. They shot and killed the clerk, Daniel Hutchens, and wounded the owner, Eugene Francis. Though bleeding heavily, Francis struggled with the robbers. A Mexican picked up an axe and chopped at his legs. Francis stumbled out the back door and collapsed. The bandits followed and hacked him to death. For good measure they also killed a local Indian who happened to be sleeping behind the store. The robbers broke open the store safe and stole $6,000. Then, after taking all the horses from the livery stable, they thundered out of town, repeating their battle cry, “Viva Mexico!”

The gang left six dead victims behind. It had been one of the Old West’s most murderous bandit raids. News of the “Rancheria Tragedy” created the wildest excitement. By morning hundreds of miners had poured into Rancheria. The killing of innocent people, including a woman, was beyond the pale, and while some men started in pursuit of the gang, others began rounding up local Mexicans. By afternoon, thirty-six had been herded into a makeshift corral, surrounded by two hundred armed guards. Three of the captives were identified as being with the bunch who had run from the fandango house to the store; one of them had Mary Dynan’s jewelry, and another had her husband’s watch. They gave their names as Puertovino, Trancolino, and Jose. The infuriated mob marched all thirty-six captives to a large oak tree 100 yards east of town. A motion was made that they all be immediately strung up. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and instead Puertovino, Trancolino, and Jose were given half an hour to pray and then were hanged from the tree.

Now the mob turned its fury on Mexicans whom they knew were innocent of the murders. Said one witness, “After the three were hung up, the citizens of Rancheria passed a resolution that no Mexican shall hereafter reside at the place; and every Mexican who shall be found at Rancheria after seven o’clock this evening should be requested to leave, and receive one hundred and fifty lashes in the bargain.” Enraged miners then set fire to the fandango house and all the Mexican jacales (huts) in town. The fire got out of control and threatened to burn the town before it was finally put out. The terrified Mexicans fled and took refuge in nearby Mile Gulch. Local Indians, angered by the death of their compadre and egged on by some of the mob, followed and attacked Mexican men, women, and children in the gulch. At least eight were slain as they tried to escape from the ravine. As one Mexican led his donkey out of the gulch, a trunk of clothes fell from its back. The Indians dropped their weapons, scrambled around the broken trunk, and started donning the clothes. This distraction alone saved the Mexicans from more slaughter. Scattered corpses were later found near the gulch and hogs were spotted devouring bodies. How many were slain was never determined.

Next a mob descended on Gopher Flat, several miles from Rancheria. They had heard a report that one of the bandits was secreted there. He was found in a jacal, under a pile of clothes. Without ceremony, the vigilantes hanged him from a makeshift scaffold formed by a pair of wagon tongues. Then the mob drove fifty Mexicans from the camp and destroyed their homes. Another mob torched Chile Flat in Drytown, burned the Catholic church to the ground, and sent the town’s Chilenos and Mexicans fleeing. The day after...

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