This article contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (July 2018)
Jack Powers whose real name was John A. Power, (1827 – November 1860), was an Irish born immigrant who came to New York as a child, who became a soldier in the Mexican American War, in the garrison of Santa Barbara, California. During the California Gold Rush a well known professional gambler and a famed horseman, known as Jack Powers, in San Francisco and later in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. He had two brushes with the law in San Francisco in 1849 in Santa Barbara in 1853. He had difficulties with the vigilantes of San Francisco in 1856 and at Los Angeles in 1857. Long known for his skills as a horseman, on May 2, 1858, his skills were demonstrated in a 150-mile time over distance race for $5,000. At that time he was described in the Daily Alta California: “He is a spare built man, with full sunburnt face, heavy hair and whiskers, and a keen eye.”
Soon after this race he was accused by San Luis Obispo vigilantes of complicity in the 1857 murder of two men, and of being the head of the bandit gang, that plagued the southern central coastal region of California, along the El Camino Real with robberies and murders in San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County between 1853 and 1858. This gang was later named the Jack Powers Gang in 1883, by Jesse D. Mason in his History of Santa Barbara County California.:99
Born in Ireland in 1827, as John Power, he came to the United States with his parents in 1836, and settled with them in New York City.
When the Mexican-American War commenced in 1846, John at 19 years of age when he and his older brother Edward joined Company G of the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers with many of his friends from New York, and went west to be a soldier. His brother was made a corporal. His brother in law, Charles Heffernan, enlisted in Company F, accompanied by his wife, John's sister. 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.:Clark,39,42 
His Early years in California
In San Francisco John Power and his brother transferred to Company F under Captain Francis J. Lippitt, one of three companies of the 1st New York Volunteers which were then sent to Santa Barbara, California. The two other companies were soon sent to occupy towns in the southern part of Baja California Territory, where they saw some action before the end of the war. Power and his company remained there as a garrison, in relative idleness until the disbanding of the Regiment in September 1848, some months after the beginning of the California Gold Rush. Jack Powers remained in the town as a gambler until late in the year when he left for the mines with his brother in law in a party of other men of his regiment.:266 One of those men, James Lynch, later wrote an account of that journey to the goldfields and of their return to San Francisco for the winter of 1848 in his 1882 book, With Stevenson to California, 1846–1848.:Lynch, 5–65
When John Power went to San Francisco for the winter, he became a gambler there and also became associated with the San Francisco Society of Regulators. Powers was accused of being one of The Hounds by the popular vigilante movement organized to rid the city of them after a particularly violent episode against a Chilean settlement in the city during the summer of 1849. On Monday, July 23, 1849, the vigilantes arrested and made prisoners of 20 of the "Hounds", including John Powers, who were then arraigned on charges of conspiracy, riot, robbery, and assault with intent to kill, and all plead "Not guilty." While several others were convicted of various charges, John Powers, was found not guilty on all the charges.
Despite being acquitted of all the charges in a trial, Powers subsequently left San Francisco for the gold fields. There he was said to have had some success. That fall he then went to Stockton, the gateway to the southern mines, where, in a spectacular run of luck, he broke the bank of several large gambling establishments acquiring a fortune variously said to be $50,000 or $175,000,:267 sufficient to make him a wealthy man. He intended a return by steamboat to San Francisco, then take steamships to New York, to take care of his widowed mother who had remained there when he and his brother had left for California. However, persuaded to attempt to make his fortune larger by gambling, he lost most of it, and never left for New York.:266–267 Instead he became a noted gambler and horseman at San Francisco and at the resort of Mission Dolores between late 1849 and 1851. By this time he had become known as Jack Powers, and was well known to influential people in the city and in state politics.
William Redmond Ryan, describes meeting him returning from the Mission Dolores in 1849:
... Jack Power, one of the sporting characters of the country. Jack had been a volunteer; and, on the disbanding of the regiment, becoming infected with the excitement and adventurous character of the wild life which he had led since his arrival in the country, had devoted himself entirely to gambling and horsemanship, in both of which accomplishments he greatly excelled.
No matter how low the state of his finances, he was never without a good horse, caparisoned in the true Californian fashion; and that on which he was now mounted was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. It had, however, this striking peculiarity, that it would never gallop straight forward towards any given point, but would advance in a sort of sidelong canter, very pleasing to behold, but requiring great skill on the part of the rider to maintain his seat. In this eccentric movement of the animal Power took great delight, for it afforded him opportunities of displaying his superior horsemanship. In addition to his other accomplishments, he was also an excellent performer on the banjo; and one evening, with three or four others, gave a ... concert in the dining-saloon of the Parker House, which was suitably arranged for the occasion; and, although the tickets for admission were three dollars each, the attraction of our Nimrod's celebrity ensured a numerous attendance.:289–290
In 1873, Powers was described by Barry and Patten, owners of one of the leading saloons in early San Francisco, as among the men they saw when they first knew the Mission Dolores, in 1850:
...Jack Powers, always well mounted, and dashing along to show the merits of his nag. Jack Powers! with black beard and flowing hair — his glittering, restless, omnivagant eye — the worst we ever looked upon in any living creature — a fascinating terror — sure index of the devil, time eventually proved him to be.:29–30
Return to Santa Barbara
Powers returned to Santa Barbara in 1851. From Santa Barbara, he often traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles and other places to gamble and race horses. In 1852 he established a rancho along the Arroyo Burro on lands formerly belonging to the Mission Santa Barbara that he claimed were public lands he was entitled to settle by the conditions for his service in Stevenson's Regiment. This same land had been leased by Richard S. Den and Daniel A. Hill from the Mission some years earlier. Den also claimed to have an 1846 grant to these lands from the last Mexican governor. Powers challenged that claim in the state courts.
In 1853, a state court case ended with a ruling in Den and Hill's favor. Powers refused to leave his rancho after losing his court case in the state district and supreme courts, and with a group of friends vowed to resist being evicted. He was eventually persuaded to leave his ranch, but only after a bloody clash in the town between some of Power's friends and the sheriff and a posse of 200 who were about to attempt to eject him from his ranch by force. One of Powers friends was killed and two others were wounded, and the Sheriff was badly wounded but managed to kill his assailant, a Californio summoned to serve in the posse.:267-268
Following his loss of the rancho, Powers continued living in Santa Barbara County, leasing a part of the Rancho Laguna in the Guadalupe Valley, in the north of the county, and living by gambling and racing horses as before.:268 In 1856, he protected and hid the politician Ned McGowan from a posse of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance who came hunting for him in Santa Barbara. This earned Jack Powers the enmity of that movement after McGowen released his book detailing his adventures and Power's role in aiding his escape. It would earn Powers the title of "the notorious" before his name in the San Francisco Bulletin and other newspapers articles from then on.
Accusations in Los Angeles
It would soon lead to him being accused by the Los Angeles vigilantes, (who were also after the Flores Daniel Gang), of being head of a burglary ring that had been plaguing Los Angeles, (a place he often visited to gamble and race horses), in early 1857. Arrested on a warrant from Los Angeles by the Sheriff of Santa Barbara, he made bail but soon fled from Santa Barbara, before a Los Angeles vigilante posse came for him on that charge. That he fled, is understandable when the news came that the posse had summarily lynched two other men, accused of being members of the Flores-Daniel Gang while traveling through the area of the Mission San Buenaventura on their way to arrest Powers. Arrested in San Francisco, Powers fought extradition to Los Angeles while the vigilantes held power there. Eventually he lost the fight in the supreme court and was extradited there, but the court in Los Angeles dismissed his case for lack of any evidence.
The Great Match Against Time
A little over a year later Jack Powers rode in a famous time over distance horse race, called by its promoter The Great Match Against Time, held on May 2, 1858, at the Pioneer Race Course south of San Francisco. Here he set a record time of 6 hours and 43 minutes over a distance of 150 miles, with 24 California mustang horses, mostly belonging to him. The Daily Alta California wrote:
The farthest any one horse was ridden at a time was 4 miles, and the least distance 1 mile. He ran at top speed the whole distance. On taking a new horse, he would spring from the saddle, run a few steps, to stretch his legs, and immediately vault into the saddle of the animal which awaited him. Attendants sometimes made the rounds with him, tendering him drink, and receiving his orders.
At the end of the race Powers "publicly offered to bet $5,000 that he would ride 50 miles in 2 hours; and that no other man in California could perform the feat he had just accomplished;.... The average time of the race is within a fraction of 23 miles an hour. Powers does not hesitate to assert that he can make much better time than the above."
In late May 1858 shortly after that long distance race, he was again accused of crimes, this time for his alleged role in the activities of Pio Linares and his gang by a committee of San Luis Obispo vigilantes. The gang was exposed by witnesses some of the gang had allowed to live, following the robbery and murder of two Frenchmen and the kidnapping the wife of one of the victims, at Rancho San Juan Capistrano del Camote, and the killing of a witness named Gilkey nearby, in San Luis Obispo County. These accusations against Powers were based on the confession of one of the accused bandits, Jose Antonio Garcia who had been discovered at a nearby rancho by a vigilante posse hunting for the gang. Powers was accused in Garcia's confession of participating with the gang in the killing of two Basque cattlemen in late 1857 on the Nacimiento River near San Miguel.:294–297
The vigilantes also made out Powers as being in secret, the outlaw gang leader, of this group of highway-robbers and murderers of the vicims and witnesses, including Linares, Garcia and others, operating in southern and central California for several years earlier. During the Gold Rush era, from 1849 to 1858, robberies and murders had been committed by bandits on the stretch of El Camino Real through San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County, making it the most dangerous route in the state.:294–295,296,297,302
On the basis of these accusations, on May 31, 1858, Governor John B. Weller issued rewards for the arrests of the gang members still at large:
WHEREAS, IT IS REPRESENTED To me by the citizens of San Luis Obispo that several atrocious murders and robberies have recently been perpetrated at San Miguel, San Juan de Capistrano, and Camate; and that upon the oath, of respectable men, these crimes have been charged upon the following persons, who are still at large, viz:
JACK POWERS, an Irishman, and generally known as a gambler.
PIO LINARES, is a native of this country, has a slightly dark complexion, is slender, has large sleepy eyes, and without beard.
EL HUERO (light or empty headed) RAFEAL is tall, slender, and quite handsome, with a light mustache.
MIGUEL BLANCO, is also of this country; of low stature, about 20 years of age, is handsome very fair, with a bold face and without beard.
DISEDERIO GRIZALYA, is small and slender, has somewhat dark complexion, large eyes, half open like the eyes of a cat, has no beard and is jovial and pleasant in his manners.
JESUS VALENZUELA, is slender; brother to Joaquin Valenzuela; one of the five Joaquins, and is also called Jesus Chiquito.
NIEVES ROBLES alias FLORIAN SERVIN has a round face, somewhat dark complexion is small, and about 23 years of age.
LUCIANO, El Mestino, or Herdsman, is a hunter of the Tulares.
Now, therefore, by virtue of the power vested in me, by Constitution and laws of this State I hereby offer the following REWARDS for their arrest and conviction:
For JACK POWERS, Five Hundred Dollars
For PIO LINARES. Five Hundred Dollars
For RAFEAL MONEY, alias RAFEAL HENADA. alias EL HUERO RAFEAL, Five Hundred Dollars.
For MIGUEL BLANCO, Two Hundred Dollars.
For DESEDERIO GRIZALVA, Two Hundred Dollars.
For NIEYES ROBLES, Two Hundred Dollars.
For JESUS VALENZUELA, alias JESUS CHIQUITO, Two Hundred Dollars.
For LUCIANO, El Mestino, Two Hundred Dollars.
Done at Sacramento, California, this 31st day of May, A. D., One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty-Eight.
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand, and affixed the Great Seal of the State. JOHN B. WELLER.
Attest: Ferris Forman, Secretary of State.
(reformated from continuous text for easier reading)
After the state governor issued this $500 reward for him on May 31, Powers, fearing arrest and delivery to vigilante justice in San Luis Obispo, was aided by friends in San Francisco, who hid him from the police, until he could flee the state on June 3, 1858. The August 27, 1858, Daily Alta California would later report:
The Elizabeth Owens sailed from San Francisco on the 3d of June, for the mouth of the Colorado, but was obliged to put into Guaymas for water. ... The notorious Jack Powers went down on the schooner from San Francisco to Guaymas, and was still there when the vessel left, notwithstanding the reports that he has lately been seen in Lower California.
Garcia, the one witness that placed Powers at the scene of one of the gangs crimes., was hung by the vigilantes at San Luis Obispo, Tuesday June 8, 1858, instead of being held as a witness for a trial of Powers, five days after Powers had left San Francisco for Mexico.:297
Exile in Sonora and Death in New Mexico Territory
From the Los Angeles Star, in October 9, 1858 came word from Jack Powers:
- The notorious Jack Powers is in Hermosillo. He has plenty of money, and is enjoying himself as it nothing had happened. He says that in two years he intends to return to San Francisco. In June 1859, from Sonora, in the Guaymas correspondence of the San Francisco Herald came the following:
Jack Powers, about whom so much has been said, has located himself at Hermosillo, where ho has opened a fine hotel. Jack is in high feather with the Peiquiera Government and the Mexicans generally, and in consequence is able to render great assistance to Americans traveling through the country, who are free to stop at Hermosillo. And to his credit be it said, that he has in all cases where it has come under his notice aided them. I know two parties myself, who left free, that took letters to Jack. Jack says he is no friend to filibusters, as the Mexicans have treated him kindly, but will aid his countrymen whenever and wherever he can, who are peaceably traveling through the country or pursuing a legitimate calling in it. He says in a short time he will again visit California and face his enemies.
From the September 30, 1860 Daily Alta California:
Jack Powers left, a short time ago, for Arizona. He has, I believe, purchased a ranch a few miles from Tucson, on which he intends to keep some horses he bought to sell the government. He also has a contract for making brick for a new fort about to be put up by the United States. Powers has many friends in Sonora and friends who would perhaps do as much for him as any he ever had in California. And of his whole conduct since he has been here has been most quiet and inoffensive, but little attention is paid to what is said of him in California.
However the truth was that after two years, gambling and running a ranch in the Mexican state of Sonora, in 1860, he drove a herd northward into New Mexico Territory to sell it in Mowry City, a new mining boom town on the Mimbres River. However he found this boom was only a rumor upon reaching the Territory. Then on November 2, 1860:
[Special Dispatch to the Alta California.]
[Per Pacific and Atlantic Line.]
Los Angeles, Nov. 2.
Murder of Jack Powers.
We learn from Mr. R. O. Cossett, who passed here on the Overland mail stage to-day, that the notorious Jack Powers was murdered on his ranch a little south of Tubac, Arizona, by his Mexican peons. He had some seven or eight hundred head of stock on his ranch when he was murdered.
Additional Particulars of the Murder of Jack Powers
Some three months ago Jack Powers came up from Sonora with 500 head of cattle, also a lot of sheep and horses. He first stopped on what is known as the Potrero ranch, 4 miles north of the Line. Wishing to find better grass, he moved to the Babacomari ranch (deserted some 40 years ago on account of the Apaches, and belonging to the Spanish family Elias.) Jack came up with 30 Yaqui Indians , who deserted him for fear of the Apaches. While at the Babacomari ranch Capt. Ewell sent him some dragoons until he could get peons to herd his cattle. The Apaches appearing on the ranch, he left for the Potrero ranch, occupied by Montgomery & Smith, and built a house half-a-mile from them, where he settled, with four peons, to herd his cattle. (I forgot to mention that he was on his way to the Rio Mimbres, but on his arrival here, he learned that the mines were a failure, and so he stopped at this point.) On Thursday last, Grundy Ake called to see Jack, and asked him if he was not afraid to stop with along with the Mexicans. He answered that his life was safer with Mexicans than Americans.
On Friday night, Montgomery and Smith called at his (Jack's) place, to ask if their (Montgomery & Smith's) hogs had been around. Jack said yes, and wished them to remain over night, as they would be sure to find them in the morning, when they came out of the tules. But Montgomery and Smith said they would come about daylight. On returning in the morning, they found several hogs at the house, and Jack Powers lying on the floor with his throat cut, and skull cracked by a blow on the head. The hogs had badly mangled his body. He was buried on the Sunday, by the farmers living around Calabasas (the U.S. Custom House). Later on the day of the burial, an American, who came up from a small town called Imcorza, met the four peons with a half-breed American (supposed to be Cherokee) on their road down to Sonora. The half-breed was riding Jack's horse. None of the party was leading any animals. It appears that Jack had row with his peons and they killed him, taking all his animals, and everything that was valuable, together with five horses. Mr. Boza of Calabasas, has for the present taken charge of Jack's stock.
See Gold Dust and Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes (1999) by John Boessenecker.
- CITY ITEMS, THE GREAT RACE OVER THE UNION COURSE – ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILES IN SIX HOURS AND FORTY-THREE MINUTES., Daily Alta California, Volume 10, Number 121, 3 May 1858, P.2, COL.2
- Mason, Jesse D; History of Santa Barbara County, California, with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers, Thompson & West, Oakland, Cal., 1883, Chap. XVI,XIX
- James Lynch, Francis Clark, The New York Volunteers in California, The Rio Grande Press,Inc., Glorietta, NM, 1970.
- Santa Barbara History Makers, Tompkins, 1983, p. 103–104
- Baker, p. 42
- William A. Streeter and William Henry Ellison, Recollections of Historical Events in California, 1843–1878 (Concluded), California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 1939), pp. 254-278, University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society
- Weekly Alta California, Number 33, 16 August 1849, (Reported for the Alta California.) The Chilenos and other Foreigners in the city of San Francisco attacked by an Armed Party of Americans — Great Excitement — Meeting of the Citizens — Formation of a citizen armed Police — Arrest of the Rioters — Their Trial and Sentence.
- William Redmond Ryan, Personal adventures in Upper and Lower California, in 1848-9; with the author's experience at the mines. Illustrated by twenty-three drawings taken on the spot. W. Shoberl, London, 1850; .p.288-290
- William Redmond Ryan, Personal adventures in Upper and Lower California, in 1848-9; with the author's experience at the mines. Illustrated by twenty-three drawings taken on the spot. W. Shoberl, London, 1850
- Barry, Theodore Augustus,; Patten, Benjamin Adam, Men and memories of San Francisco in the "spring of '50", A.L. Bancroft & Co., San Francisco, Calif., 1873
- Los Angeles Star, Number 52, 7 May 1853, p.2,col.2 Bloody Affray in Santa Barbara — Deplorable State of Affairs.
- Daily Alta California, Volume 4, Number 126, 7 May 1853, p.2, col.1, FROM SAN DIEGO AND LOS ANGELES.
- Daily Alta California, Volume 4, Number 158, 8 June 1853, p2 col2 The Riot In Santa Barbara
- Edward McGowan,Narrative of Edward McGowan, including a full account of the author's adventures and perils while persecuted by the San Francisco vigilance committee of 1856, together with a report of his trial, which resulted in his acquittal, self-published, 1857, reprinted 1917. McGowan's account of his persecution by the Committee of Vigilance.
- Los Angeles Star, Number 43, 7 March 1857, p.3,col.1, Arrest and Escape of Jack Powers — Santa Barbara Gazette.
- Daily Alta California, Volume , Number 45, 15 February 1857 p.2, col.4, INTERESTING LETTER FROM LOS ANGELES. NEWS OF THE PAST FORTNIGHT--FULL ACCOUNT OF THE ARREST AND EXECUTION OF THE ROBBERS
- Daily Alta California, Volume 9, Number 95, 6 April 1857, p. ,col. , Summary of the Fortnight News
- Los Angeles Star, Number 48, 11 April 1857, p. col. Arrest of Jack Powers
- Los Angeles Star, Number 50, 25 April 1857, p.2,col.2, Jack Powers
- Daily Alta California, Volume 10, Number 120, 2 May 1858, Page 1,Column 5 Advertisements, PIONEER COURSE; FOR $5,OOO!; ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILES IN EIGHT CONSECUTIVE H0URS!
- Angel, Myron; History of San Luis Obispo County, California; with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers, Thompson & West, Oakland, 1883
- Los Angeles Star, Number 5, 12 June 1858, $2,500 Reward, p.2,col.5
- Daily Alta California, Volume 10, Number 235, 27 August 1858, p.1, col.6 Later from Guaymas
- Los Angeles Star, Number 22, 9 October 1858, p.2, col.3, Later from Sonora.
- Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 17, Number 2561, 11 June 1859, p.3, col.3, Sonora.
- Daily Alta California, Volume 12, Number 3883, 30 September 1860, p.1,col.6 OUR GUAYMAS CORRESPONDESCE.
- Daily Alta California, Volume 12, Number 3917, 3 November 1860, p.1 col.2 BY TELEGRAPH.
- Ross, Dudly T., Devil On Horseback, Valley Publishers, Fresno, 1975. p.168
- Angel, Myron; History of San Luis Obispo County, California; with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers, Thompson & West, Oakland, 1883
- Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1927. ISBN 1-56025-275-8
- Baker, Gayle. Santa Barbara. Harbor Town Histories, Santa Barbara. 2003. ISBN 0-9710984-1-7
- Mason, Jesse D; History of Santa Barbara county, California, with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers, Thompson & West, Oakland, Cal., 1883
- Walter Murray's letter to sister Anne of 28 May, 16 June 1858 from famtrees.info accessed March 20, 2018.
- Ross, Dudly T., Devil On Horseback, Valley Publishers, Fresno, 1975.
- Storke, Yda Addis, A Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura, California Lewis Publishing Co., Chicago, 1891.
- Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara, Past and Present. Tecolote Books, Santa Barbara, CA, 1975.
- Tompkins, Walker A. It Happened in Old Santa Barbara. Sandollar Press, Santa Barbara, CA, 1976.
- Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara History Makers. McNally & Loftin, Santa Barbara. 1983. ISBN 0-87461-059-1