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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Chasing Horse Thieves

Horse thieves harassed Californians for well over 100 years. Horse stealing began in the late 18th century, when Spanish missionaries and explorers first brought the animal north from Mexico, and lasted until the early 1900s, when the automobile finally replaced the horse as the primary means of transport.

Plenty of infamous horse rustlers operated during the chaotic Gold Rush years, but the most spectacular horse theft— the stuff of legend—was the daring theft of nearly 5,000 horses on a spring morning in 1840, when Mexico owned California. Ute Indian chief Wakara and several of his braves crept into the corral at Mission San Gabriel before dawn, opened the gate, and quietly released all the prized Spanish horses. At the same time other groups of Indians, informed by the scouting maneuvers of fur trappers Pegleg Smith and Jim Beckwourth, targeted another mission and several settlements farther north. The stolen stock was herded to a well-guarded mountain retreat east of the San Bernardino Valley, and from there the plan was to drive them east over the Old Spanish Trail to eager markets where they could be sold or traded for a high profit.

An armed troop of Californians chased after them, but they were no match for the genius of Chief Wakara, who had meticulously planned and executed the raid. The lead group of pursuers, ambushed in a canyon by the bandits, regrouped with reinforcements and did recover some of the animals. However, the clever outlaws separated the massive herd into smaller units, forcing the pursuers to divide their own meager forces. The Californians finally caught up with a small band of thieves near the present California-Nevada border, routed them and recaptured the animals, but the main body of stolen horses was too far ahead— and they were too ill-equipped to follow. The chase was over. Some 3,000 horses from this bold, wide-ranging raid made it to the Western Rockies regions and ultimately to Santa Fe; the rest were either taken back home with the Californians, or presumably died on the long, hot trail.

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