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How the woman faced the outlaw

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Abby West Minturn is buried on the banks of the Chowchilla River, not far from where she had an encounter with the outlaw, Tiburcio Vasquez.


The woman was alone in a strange land. She had been yanked from her beautiful, two-story home on Narragansett Bay and dragged to the desert in the San Joaquin Valley by her dreamer of a husband. Shortly after that, he had the audacity to just up and die, leaving her to face the wilds of the wilderness alone.

That is just the beginning of a story I told at the Madera County Courthouse Museum in honor of Women’s History Month.

As I was preparing for this presentation, I remembered a special tidbit of the tale that bears repeating here. It’s about how the woman met a notorious California outlaw and survived.

The outlaw and the woman came to Madera County at about the same time, but not together. She was born in Rhode Island, the descendant of a long line of illustrious New England Yankees. He was born in Monterey, the son of a dispossessed Californio. Their paths would cross only once, but she would never forget him, nor would history.

Tiburcio Vasquez first landed on the wrong side of the law in 1857, and by June of 1870, he began a four-year reign of terror that finally led to his demise. In that same month, Abby West Minturn and her husband, Jonas, were packing their belongings and preparing to move from Narragansett Bay to the San Joaquin Valley. The woman was about to meet the outlaw.

While Abby Minturn set about to beautify her new home on the Chowchilla River by planting flowers and trees, Tiburcio Vasquez set up his new headquarters in a two-room shanty on Cottonwood Creek. From this vantage point, he relentlessly robbed stages, stores and inns in the area.

In a short time, Vasquez found central California too dangerous for him, so he decided to stage one more robbery at Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos and then transfer his operations to the vicinity of Los Angeles. On his way, he and his men stopped at the Minturn homeplace for provisions. Their visit that night over 150 years ago was vividly recalled by Abby’s grandson, Ward B. Minturn, in his memoirs.

“In 1873, the band of Mexican outlaws led by Vasquez, passing through the country on one of their raids, stopped overnight at the cook’s house, about 100 yards from Grandmother’s homestead, and demanded supper and breakfast and feed for their animals. This was of course granted them, and they never in any way bothered the family, although the children were nearly scared to death.”

What Vasquez didn’t know was that Abby, who throughout the ordeal acted quite unconcerned, always kept a loaded gun in her room. While she instructed the cook and the children to go on about their business as usual and to give the bandits whatever they wanted, she moved her firearm to a secure spot near the front door. Little did the outlaws know that every time they approached the door, their plundering raid was in danger of being cut short.

With a sigh of relief, Abby Minturn watched the next morning, as Vasquez and his crew packed up and headed out for Tres Pinos. What happened at that place must have made her weak at the knees when she heard about it.

The Vasquez gang swooped down on the hamlet, and in the confusion that followed, killed three people and escaped with eight horses, $1,200 in cash, and other valuables.

The Governor immediately put a price tag of $8,000 on the head of Tiburcio Vasquez, who remained hidden until December of 1873. Finally he raised his head again, this time at the town of Kingston in Fresno County. There they captured and tied up thirty-five men and then proceeded to leisurely plunder a hotel and two stores of $2,500. They then quickly followed this feat with two stagecoach robberies.

In mid-May of 1874, Vasquez’ career finally came to an end in Los Angeles County when a cuckolded husband betrayed his hideout. The outlaw was wounded and later captured by a small posse. Removed to San Jose for trial, Vasquez was hanged on March 19, 1875.

In the meantime, Abby West Minturn went on about her business; she played her part in laying the foundation for civilization in the northern end of the county. She was active in the social life of Madera until her death in 1899. Her adventures on what was then called the “Fresno Plains” were numerous, and among the most memorable was her encounter with Tiburcio Vasquez. She made it part of her family’s history and in so doing, she also made it a piece of Madera County’s past.


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