The Gunfight on Pinole Creek

By William Mero

One of the most desperate gunfights in old Contra Costa occurred in 1867. A Chileno, Narato Ponce, was a notorious East Bay thug, murderer and horse thief. Shot nearly to pieces by Sheriff Morse in a bloody gun battle at the present intersection of Highway 580 and Tassajara Road, Ponce fled on foot into the Black Hills of Contra Costa. Ponce was bleeding badly from 13 buckshot and three pistol balls. The Governor of California, Frederick Low, placed a $500 bounty on Ponce’s head. Sheriff Henry Classen of Contra Costa assigned George Swain to assist the Alameda Sheriff, Henry Morse, to run Narato Ponce down.

In the Black Hills an old man was discovered who had tended the wounded Ponce. Treated to some tough, third degree questioning, the law officers learned that Narato Ponce was hiding somewhere near Pinole on San Pablo Bay. The lawmen began systematically searching the scattered adobes dotting Pinole Valley. At the upper end of the canyon was the jacal of Jose Rojas located next to Pinole Creek. Swain spotted a man half buried in the adobe floor beneath a bed. Seeing the glint of a pistol barrel Swain hastily retreated through the front door pulling his six-gun. Ponce closely followed brandishing a revolver. Swain turned and snapped off the first shot which missed. John Conway, an Oakland policeman, fired his Spencer rifle but also missed. More shots were fired as Ponce ran up the canyon.

Sheriff Morse was on the opposite side of the rain swollen Pinole Creek. Firing his Henry rifle – Morse missed three times confused by Ponce's flapping sarape. But Conway's Spencer rifle finally found its mark shattering the outlaw’s right hand. Cornered, the killer stepped to the edge of the creek, and took careful aim at Sheriff Morse with a six-gun in his left hand. Morse squeezed the trigger of his Henry rifle a split second before Ponce. The desperado fell face first into the mud. Shot through the abdomen, Narato Ponce was dead within five minutes. A coroner’s jury of four Anglos and two Hispanics ruled the shooting was justified.

The affair was warmly applauded by the entire law-abiding community of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. And coming so soon on the heels of an earlier gunfight with Narciso Bojorques, Sheriff Morse now enjoyed a nearly legendary, fearsome reputation among the remaining Bay Area gunslingers and killers.


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