Battle of Stone Corral

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Battle of Stone Corral
Battle of Stone Corral 1893.jpg
The wounded John Sontag lying next to the possemen.
Date June 11–12, 1893
Location Near Visalia, California, United States
Also known as Gunfight at Stone Corral
Participants Chris Evans; John Sontag
Deaths 1

The Battle of Stone Corral, also known as the Gunfight at Stone Corral, occurred in June 1893 and was the final shootout during the pursuit of the Sontag-Evans Gang. After months of searching and several previous encounters, a small posse under the command of Marshal George E. Gard ambushed John Sontag and Chris Evans at a corral near Visalia, California. Both of the outlaws were badly wounded during the engagement. Sontag died three weeks later in police custody on July 3, 1893, but Evans managed to escape and was captured a few days later though he lost an eye and his left arm.[1][2][3]

Background[edit]

The Sontag-Evans Gang was a band of train robbers that centered around three men; John Sontag, his brother George Contant, and Chris Evans. Following a series of successful train robberies between 1889 and 1891, the Sontag-Evans Gang was in Visalia, California on August 5, 1892, when they were discovered by the police. After fighting their way out of what was later called the House Party Shootout, Evans and John Sontag fled into the Sierra Nevada, leaving George Sontag in police custody. George was later given a life sentence to be served at Folsom Prison.[4][5][6]

From there began the largest manhunt in the history of California. Dozens of lawmen, as well over 300 armed civilians and bounty hunters, scoured the San Joaquin Valley and the surrounding mountains in search of the outlaws, resulting in multiple shootouts and friendly fire incidents. According to Deputy Marshal Vernon C. Wilson: "The woods were so full of man-hunters that at least 11 deputies were seriously wounded by other officers. Anyone who went deer hunting during this time was in danger of being shot by over-zealous posses. (sic)"[4][5][7]

The longest engagement during the pursuit occurred on September 13, 1892. The Battle of Sampson's Flat, as it is known, lasted eight hours and ended with the deaths of Marshal Wilson and posseman Andrew McGinnis. Evans was shot in the head and lost an eye, but both he and Sontag managed to get away.[2][4][8][9]

John Sontag was popular among the people of San Joaquin Valley. Because he robbed from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which robbed the people, Sontag and Evans had plently of support during the ten-month pursuit. Over the winter of 1892 and 1893, the two outlaws continued to evade a "veritable army of badge-toters," but, in the summer of 1893, a new, more determined, marshal was sent to command the police efforts. Unlike his predecessor, Vernon Wilson, Marhsal George E. Gard wisely kept his posse small and secret, which helped him move about and collect information without being detected by the outlaws or any of their supporters. Finally, Gard received a tip from someone who said that Sontag and Evans were planning to visit the home of Evans' wife, which was located about ten miles northeast of Visalia, on the John Patterson Ranch. Accordingly, Gard and his posse traveled to the Stone Corral, next to the Evans home, so they could begin searching the area.[5][6][7]

Battle[edit]

At Stone Corral, the posse took up residence at the old Bacon cabin and kept a low profile while there so that the place would appear vacant if the outlaws came riding by. Gard's posse composed of himself and three others: Hiram Lee Rapelje, a deputized bounty hunter, Fred Jackson, a policeman from Nevada, and Thomas Burns.[1][5][7]

Just as Gard hoped, Sontag and Evans approached the cabin from the top of a nearby hill on the evening of June 11, 1893. According to James Reasoner, author of Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West, Evans suggested firing a few shots into the cabin below to see if anybody was there, but, because the place appeared to be empty and because the cabin was known as a "lover's rendezvous," Sontag talked him out of it. Instead, the two men decided to dismount from their horses and walk down to the cabin. Along the way, Evans sat down next to an old haystack to rest for a moment. Meanwhile, at the cabin, most of the posse was inside, except for Jackson, who was keeping watch on the porch outside. Jackson was not doing a good job though because it was Rapelje that first spotted the outlaws. According to Reasoner, Gard ordered his men to hold their fire and stay concealed until the outlaws were closer. However, Evans spotted Rapelje and quickly fired a shot at him with his Winchester. Fred Jackson then fired and, although he managed to wound Evans, the shotgun blast told the outlaws that they were approaching an ambush and gave them a chance to take cover behind the pile of hay.[1][5][7]

The haystack prevented the posse from seeing their foe, but it did not provide the outlaws with very good protection against the incoming volleys. Evans and Sontag laid down on either side of the haystack to return the fire and the skirmish continued until the next morning. Sometime during the fighting, Jackson attempted to flank the outlaws by moving from the cabin around to their side. He was spotted by Evans though and taken out of the fight by a revolver bullet to one of his knees. Shortly thereafter, Sontag was hit in the stomach, which prevented him from returning fire.[1][2][7]

Just before dawn, Sontag's wounds became too unbearable so he begged Evans to kill him. But when he refused, Sontag told Evans to leave and he then attempted to kill himself by firing a bullet into his own head. The shot failed though and only added to the outlaw's misery. Evans obeyed Sontag's last command and made his escape. He was spotted by Rapelje trying to crawl away from the haystack so the latter opened fire and started running towards him. Evans, however, got to his feet and disappeared into the darkness without shooting back. He escaped with buckshot wounds to the head and a bullet wound to the right arm.[1][2][7]

At some point Gard made the decision to call for reinforcements from Visalia and wait for their arrival before advancing on the haystack. The reinforcements, which included a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, arrived sometime after dawn the next morning. According to a local named Luke Hall, the initial skirmish lasted about two hours and after that the firing became sporadic. Hall stood at the doorway of his house during the fighting and on the next morning he went out to investigate. When he arrived at the cabin, the reinforcements from Visalia mistook Hall for one of the outlaws. The possemen then loaded their weapons and charged for the haystack and it was at this time they found Sontag unconscious. A moment later, the posse realized that Hall was just a curious neighbor. The reporter insisted that a photograph be taken of the wounded Sontag so the possemen dragged his body out and leaned him up against the haystack. After the photograph was taken, Sontag was loaded onto a wagon and moved to the Visalia jail. He was wounded at least twice; once in the shoulder and once in the stomach.[2][5][7]

Aftermath[edit]

Sontag was put in the jail at Visalia and Evans, although badly wounded, walked six miles up Wilcox Canyon to the Perkins cabin and begged the homesteaders there to bandage his wounds. A few days later, the homesteaders sent out a rider to inform the police so a large force of lawmen surrounded the cabin. For a time it seemed as though more violence would ensue, but Evans surrendered without further resistance. He was taken to the jail in Visalia and put in the cell next to the dying Sontag. Evans' right arm was later amputated and Sontag died of his wounds on July 3, 1893.[2][5][7]

On June 28, when he learned of his brother's capture, George Sontag and four other inmates attempted to escape from Folsom Prison. Three convicts were killed in the process and two of the prisoners were wounded, including Sontag.[10] George remained in prison until March 21, 1908, when he was pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt. He later wrote the book A Pardoned Lifer, which was made into a movie in 1914.[4][8][9]

Chris Evans' trial was held in Fresno and on December 13, 1893, he was sentenced to life in Folsom. However, on December 28, just when it seemed as though his criminal career was over, Evans escaped from the Fresno County jail with a fellow prisoner named Edward Morrell, leaving Marshal John D. Morgan wounded. They were captured though a month and a half later in Visalia. Evans was then sent to Folsom and remained there until May 1911. Having been banished from California, Evans became a homesteader in Oregon and died on February 9, 1917.[4][11]

Newspaper accounts[edit]

The following was reported by the San Francisco Examiner on the day after the shootout:

The following account also appeared in the June 12, 1893, edition of the San Francisco Examiner.

On June 13, 1893, the Indianapolis Sentinel reported the following:

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f "Gunfight at Stone Corral". Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Newspaper Coverage of the Evans & Sontag Story: The Examiner, San Francisco, Tuesday Morning, June 13, 1893, Vol. LVI, No. 164, p1:". June 24, 2004. Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  3. ^ Smith, Wallace; William B. Secrest (2004). Garden of the sun: a history of the San Joaquin Valley, 1772-1939. Linden Publishing. ISBN 978-0-941936-77-4. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "House Party Shoot-Out: Evans & Sontag vs. Smith & Witty". Mike Boardman. March 9, 2009. Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Rough and Ready Rapelje -- Madera County bounty hunter". Sal Maccarone. 2011. Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "Forgotten Newsmakers: Christopher Evans (1847-1917) & John Sontag (1862-1893) Train Robbers". Debbie Foulkes. 2010. Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Reasoner, James (2003). Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West. Penguin Publishing. ISBN 978-0-425-19193-4. 
  8. ^ a b "Frontier Legends: The Complete List of Old West Outlaws: Sontag Brothers". Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Elman, Robert (1975). Badmen of the West. Ridge Press. ISBN 0-600-313530. 
  10. ^ The Herald June 28, 1893 .p.1
  11. ^ "Frontier Legends: The Complete List of Old West Outlaws: Christopher Evans, aka: Bill Powers (1847-1917)". Retrieved June 18, 2012.