Jack Powers (John Power) (1827 – November 1860) was an Irish-American gambler, outlaw, highway-robber, gang leader, and murderer in southern and central California during the Gold Rush era. For a time in the 1850s, robberies and murders committed by his group of bandits made the stretch of El Camino Real between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara the most dangerous route in the state, and he and his gang had almost complete control of the small city of Santa Barbara. He was eventually driven out of town, but only after intimidating and defeating the sheriff and a posse of 200. He eventually fled the area, and after a brief career running a ranch in the Mexican state of Sonora, he was murdered in a fight over a woman, and his body was fed to a pen of starving pigs.
Born in Ireland as John Power, he came to the United States with his parents in 1836, and settled with them in New York City. While there he learned gambling, courtly manners, and how to ride a horse; he also made the acquaintance of many street toughs in the run-down districts of the Bowery and Hell's Kitchen. When the Mexican-American War commenced in 1846, he joined the New York Volunteers with many of his friends from the streets of New York, and went west to be a soldier. The New York Volunteers was a unit organized by Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson to occupy and settle California, and men in the unit were promised land in the region should the war be successful.[1 ]
By the time his unit had reached San Francisco, sailing around Cape Horn, Powers had already become a sergeant, in charge of the Company F of Stevenson's regiment which was tasked with occupying Santa Barbara. When they landed at West Beach the war was already over for Santa Barbara: John C. Frémont had captured the town on December 27, 1846, and accepted the surrender of the Mexican forces in Los Angeles two weeks later. Powers and his men from the Bowery entered the town in early 1847 as an occupying force.[1 ]
It did not take long for the charismatic Powers to become popular with the locals. He had good looks, good manners, and his horsemanship impressed even the local caballeros, who expected the ability from a gentleman, but not from a Yankee. But when Powers' unit was mustered out on August 7, 1848 after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, he left town, going north to San Francisco. Many of his men went instead to the gold fields, intending to get rich. Powers intended to do so as well, but using his peculiar talents: those required a city.
Powers' skill as a gambler paid off richly in San Francisco, where he amassed a fortune in the gambling halls in that rowdy frontier town. Briefly he was involved with the Barbary Coast-neighborhood gang of toughs known as "The Hounds," which took part in robbery, murder, and rape of the non-"American," and particularly Hispanic and Catholic, residents of the city; many of the members of this gang were fellow refugees from the streets of the Bowery, Five Points, or Hell's Kitchen in New York. Powers fled town to avoid being lynched by vigilantes, and returned to Santa Barbara around 1849, where he found a job caring for the horses belonging to the influential De la Guerra family.[4 ]
It was a profitable choice of employment, for he intended to be a highwayman, and De la Guerra owned numerous ranches along the length of El Camino Real, all with good horses; charged with their care, and out of sight of his employer, he could do what he wanted. Powers arranged for fast horses to be available at points along the route to assist him and his gang with getaways.[4 ] During this period, ranchers were making a fortune on the gold fields – not on ore, but on selling cattle to the hungry mining camps at an enormous profit. After driving their cattle north from the ranches of Santa Barbara County, they would return with their baggage full of gold dust or "octagonals" — gold ingots or "slugs" worth fifty dollars, and in the lawless climate these travelers were a tempting target.[4 ]
The sheriff in Santa Barbara at the time was Valentine Hearne, who shared Powers' hatred of the Hispanic residents from whom the town had so recently been taken. He gave little resistance to Powers, as Powers and his "Band of Five" began what historian Walker A. Tompkins described as a "reign of terror" that lasted until approximately 1855. During this period, in which Powers and his gang were active as highway robbers up and down El Camino Real, the route connecting the old Mission towns, the stretch from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo was notorious as the most dangerous place to travel in California. Mutilated bodies appeared regularly along the road; Powers had the uncanny knack for appearing in the gambling halls of Los Angeles or elsewhere almost instantly after a new murder along the route, fooling people into thinking he was uninvolved: but what they did not know was that he always had fresh and fast horses ready at strategic points along the trail. Yet suspicion persisted because some of the eyewitnesses told tales of magnificent horsemanship by one of the masked bandits – a skill Powers had earlier been too proud to hide.
Matters came to a head in 1853. Powers was confident enough to cease his banditry and come into the open, and he seized the Mission Santa Inés along with the adjacent Rancho San Marcos. This fertile and profitable operation was leased to prominent local rancher Nicolas A. Den, coincidentally a fellow Irishman who had come to California during Mexican times. Powers attempted to steal the cattle from the ranch but Den caught them during the attempted roundup, and with an armed force he humiliated Powers, making him run for his life, and recovering all the cattle in the process. Powers, not one to turn the other cheek, came back for Den – but not right away.[8 ]
Powers seized control of an uninhabited structure in the Arroyo Burro (now San Roque Canyon, in the vicinity of Stevens Park at the Foothill Road bridge), and claimed it as his own, along with his company of bandits, many of whom were supported by the recently-arrived American residents of Santa Barbara. His gang of squatters fortified the place, ignoring calls to leave. Den won a judgment against them in district court. Powers even appealed to the California Supreme Court, but lost. The new sheriff, W.W. Twist, was required by law to serve notice on them to leave, so he gathered a posse of 200 men at the Aguirre Adobe, at Carrillo and Anacapa Streets, to go to Arroyo Burro, about three miles away, and evict them.
Powers was not one to wait: seizing the initiative, he sent a small band of his outlaws to disrupt the organization and assassinate the sheriff. Reaching the Aguirre Adobe, one of them fired one shot and put a hole in the district attorney's hat, who had just stepped out of the building; another stabbed Sheriff Twist in the back, seriously injuring him; but a barrage of gunfire from the assembled force brought both outlaws down and the others ran, with the posse in pursuit.
The posse arrived out-of-breath at Arroyo Burro Canyon, to be met with a hail of bullets, and stopped short. After a brief negotiation, Powers informed the leader of the posse (Twist, injured, had stayed behind) that his gang would kill any man that passed a huge sycamore tree (the "Outlaw Tree", still standing at 134 North Ontare, not far from State Street).[8 ] Seeing that the bandits were dug in, well-armed, and determined, the posse backed away in defeat.
Powers continued his highway robbing in the vicinity, but not for long. He abandoned his camp in Arroyo Burro when he heard that a band of better-organized and uniformed vigilantes, similar to the one that had defanged the "Hounds" in the Barbary Coast, was riding down from San Luis Obispo to eliminate him (according to another source, he heard that a company of U.S. Marines was on its way).[8 ] By the time the vigilantes reached Santa Barbara, he was gone, leaving behind nothing but the persistent legend of buried treasure which accompanies most hurried bandit exits.
Twist later recovered from his knifing, but along with the mayor he resigned in 1855 due to the continued lawlessness in the area, lack of competent backup, and an anti-Anglo backlash. While a judge occasionally issued arrest warrants, there was no one to carry them out until later in the decade. At one point, California Governor John Bigler dispatched a U.S. Navy warship to Santa Barbara to restore order.
The departure of Powers was just one step on the tenuous return of law and order in Santa Barbara and the surrounding region, which had been lawless since the takeover from Mexico. After leaving Santa Barbara, Powers went first to Los Angeles, where he became overlord of a gambling operation, but finally there were enough warrants for his arrest that he left the country, going to Mexico.[8 ][15 ]
Details of the last years of his life are sparse. He left Los Angeles in 1859, probably to escape a lynch mob, going to the Mexican state of Sonora where he ran a ranching operation in the mountains northeast of Hermosillo. In November 1860, he fought with one of his own men over a woman. She and her lover murdered him and hurled his body into a mesquite-fenced enclosure filled with starving hogs.[15 ]