The Black Hills of Contra Costa

By William Mero

Within the wilderness of the East Bay, were many small, isolated settlements where vaqueros and borregueros (sheepherders) raised a few cattle or sheep. During the 1850’s and 60’s many of these scattered settlements became the refuges of bandits and rustlers. One of the most infamous den of Contra Costa bandits was immediately east of Danville in the Black Hills. Scattered along the base of Mount Diablo were jacales or huts where outlaws lived shielded from the law by the rugged, remote wilderness. Some of the most infamous of the bad men were Jack Powers, Tom Bell, Pancho Altamirano, Pancho Ruiz, Joaquin Olivera, Pancho Blanco, and Obispo Arcia. Few sheriffs were brave enough to invade this outlaw haven from which desperadoes sallied forth to attack settlers and ranchers.

One of our first sheriffs from the early 1850s, John F. S. Smith, remarked that he was elected with the responsibility "..to assist the law-abiding citizens of my county in their struggle with the murderous, thieving element then surrounding us.." Much of outlaw power lay in ties to supposedly law-abiding citizens and ranchers. It was common knowledge the goods were being fenced and stolen cattle hidden on local Contra Costa ranches.

George Swain was one of the best Contra Costa lawman during its bloody, frontier era. As a young man, he began his turbulent career fighting the rustlers preying on the thousands of cattle roaming the vast John Marsh rancho. Swain could outshoot, outride and out rope most of the native born Californios. Sheriff Morse described him as " a brave and thoroughly reliable officer,…always be depended upon to do his full duty when in a tight place."

In 1866 one famous episode clearly shows George Swain’s courage and pluck. One of the nastiest cattle thieves in the East Bay was Eduardo Gallego. He boasted that that "no white man could take him." Tipped off that the fugitive could be found in a jacal at the foot of Mount Diablo, George Swain and his brother David met up with Sheriff Morse in Dublin. The bandits, Pancho Caravantes and Pancho Ruiz, another escapee from the Contra Costa County jail, were also rumored to be hiding with Gallego. Boldly plunging deep into the Contra Costa wilderness of the Black Hills, the tiny posse unexpectedly stumbled on a band of 30 heavily armed vaqueros mounting up to go on another raid. Spotting Gallego among them, the quick thinking George Swain made use of the element of surprise. He galloped out of the brush, put a six gun to Gallego’s head, and disarmed him of his knife and Navy Colt revolver. Suddenly handcuffed and shackled to his horse, Gallego was quickly whisked away before his companions could react.

In July 1866 George Swain again had the opportunity to prove his mettle. Tracking two outlaws and cattle rustlers, Juan Robles and Jesus Cruz, to a hideout in the Black Hills near Mount Diablo, Swain surprised them sitting around a camp fire. Instantly George covered them with his Winchester while Sheriff Morse slapped handcuffs on them. The cattle were recovered and returned to their Contra Costa owner.

But by the 1870s change was in the air in Contra Costa. Frontier ways were changing. The huge herds of fast, graceful pronghorns had disappeared. The last grizzly in Contra Costa County was killed near Oakley about the same time as Tiburcio Vasquez died in San Jose. Gone were the wolves, wild mustangs and graceful elk. The open range was being strangled by barbed wire and the iron rails. Yet a few things did remain the same. Mountain lions still prowled the shadowy canyons of the Black Hills and black bears lived on in the remoter regions of Contra Costa.

The fearsome reputation of the mysterious Black Hills has now faded from memory. Eventually the once dangerous Black Hills became part of the Mount Diablo State Park. Today families hike the former outlaw refuge without knowing its violent bandit past. Progressive California lawmen began using photography to assemble mug shots of known criminals. In a few years the new fangled science of finger printing began to be adopted by law enforcement. Memories of hard riding posses chasing fleeing outlaw bands slowly faded, living on only in Hollywood legend. A new era of criminal activity and criminal investigations had dawned.


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