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Season of Terror

The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March–October 1863

By Charels F. Price

Publication Year: 2013

Season of Terror is the first book-length treatment of the little-known true story of the Espinosas—serial murderers with a mission to kill every Anglo in Civil War–era Colorado Territory—and the men that brought them down.

For eight months during the spring and fall of 1863, brothers Felipe Nerio and José Vivián Espinosa and their young nephew, José Vincente, New Mexico–born Hispanos, killed and mutilated an estimated thirty-two victims before their rampage came to a bloody end. Their motives were obscure, although they were members of the Penitentes, a lay Catholic brotherhood devoted to self-torture in emulation of the sufferings of Christ, and some suppose they believed themselves inspired by the Virgin Mary to commit their slaughters.

Until now, the story of their rampage has been recounted as lurid melodrama or ignored by academic historians. Featuring a fascinating array of frontier characters, Season of Terror exposes this neglected truth about Colorado’s past and examines the ethnic, religious, political, military, and moral complexity of the controversy that began as a regional incident but eventually demanded the attention of President Lincoln.

Published by: University Press of Colorado


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

Season of Terror springs from the intersection of two obsessions. The first emerged early in 1863 when two Espinosa brothers, Felipe Nerio and José Vivián of San Rafael, a village near Conejos in Colorado’s San Luís Valley, launched a vendetta that in eight months led to the murder of perhaps as many as thirty-two Anglo-Americans ...

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pp. xv-xx

I am deeply indebted to many people who helped me prepare this book. Foremost among them is my wife, Ruth, who not only tolerated my years-long obsession with the Espinosas but even came to share it, ending by materially assisting in the research; it was she who discovered the whereabouts of the Ethan W. Eaton papers, ...

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pp. 1-10

The “year mentioned” was 1863. The place was the newly organized Territory of Colorado. The inexplicable carnage lasted eight months. No one knows how many were murdered; the generally accepted count is ten or eleven but the killers themselves boasted of having slain thirty-two, and such a number is far from implausible. ...

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1. “Alarming Intelligence and Intense Excitement”: First Murders in the Pike’s Peak Country

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pp. 11-32

That year, spring came early to the Front Range of the Rockies and to the great cleft in the mountains to the south where the Arkansas River broke out onto the plains. While frosts were still common at night, by the middle of March the weather had warmed and the grass had started and some of it was standing an inch or two high. ...

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2. “Most Horrible and Fiendish Murders”: The Bleeding of South Park Begins

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pp. 33-48

Remembering his entrance into South Park at the height of its first frenzied gold rush in 1859, a prospector from Kentucky named Daniel Ellis Conner later gave a somewhat prosaic description, calling it “a fine, grassy, grazing country in the summer and perhaps forty miles across it. ...

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3. “There Has Been Considerable Excitement”: The First Colorado Cavalry Steps In

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pp. 49-60

As reports of the five unexplained murders in the Pike’s Peak country and South Park spread throughout Colorado, speculation on the identity of the killers tended to center on two theories: either they were guerrillas or they were jayhawkers. The early suspicion by the men at Saw Mill Gulch that Indians might have been responsible ...

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4. “The People Are Scared Nearly to Death Here”: The Murderers Strike at the Vitals of South Park

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pp. 61-74

The gold camp of Montgomery, home to “Dornick,” the garrulous correspondent of the Weekly Commonwealth, lay in a high valley dominated by the rugged mass of a peak in the Snowy Range that residents had named Mount Lincoln. The settlement lay at the foot of Hoosier Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide toward Breckenridge, ...

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5. “Fallen into the Hands of Hard Men in an Evil Hour”: The Lynching of Baxter

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pp. 75-90

John McCannon of Frying Pan Gulch1 regarded himself as a leader of men. It was an opinion that may well have been justified. When he first appears in the historical record of Colorado Territory he already seems to have carried the title Captain, a rank he may have earned while supporting the antislavery side ...

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6. “Glorious News! The Mysterious Murders Unraveled at Last”: One of the Slayers Slain

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pp. 91-108

After amusing themselves by lynching Baxter and repeatedly stretching the necks of Snyder and possibly another innocent victim, “Commandant” Wilson’s squad of the California Gulch posse “then scouted through the country as far northeast as Deer Creek, within forty-five miles of Denver.”1 ...

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7. “Desperate and Lawless Bravos”: The Brothers Espinosa

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pp. 109-136

On a bitterly cold Thursday, January 15, 1863, a detachment of ten soldiers of Company D, First New Mexico Cavalry, under the command of Second Lieutenant Nicholas Hodt, clattered into the Hispano plaza of San Rafael on the Río Conejos near the border separating Colorado Territory from the Territory of New Mexico. ...

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8. “Revenge for the Infamies Committed Against Our Families”: Serial Murder as Vendetta

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pp. 137-156

In his abortive attack on the Espinosa home, Lieutenant Hodt had set fire to their dwelling. Tom Tobin remembered it as a house of logs,1 perhaps a rude affair called a fuerte by the inhabitants of the San Luís Valley,2 but more probably the typical Hispano jacal made of adobe mud packed around a frame of varillas, ...

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9. “Malicious Interference was the Cause”: The Scapegoating of Captain E. Wayne Eaton

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pp. 157-192

The next victim of the Espinosas wasn’t a miner or a sawmill owner or a mail-station operator. Nor was he a mule rancher on his way home from testifying in court. He was a soldier. Though he wasn’t a fatality, he did receive a severe wound—not a physical one but an injury to his good name, ...

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10. “Times Have Become Quiet Again”: Panic Recedes in South Park but Murder Moves Elsewhere

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pp. 193-206

Euphoria spread throughout central Colorado in the wake of the killing of Vivián Espinosa. John McCannon’s possemen basked in a general glow of gratitude. Wrote an editorialist of the Rocky Mountain News Weekly: ...

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11. “Ready for Any Duty, Untiring, and Full of Energy”: Samuel F. Tappan Takes Up the Hunt for the Espinosas

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pp. 207-220

The summer of 1863,” wrote Frank Hall, early Colorado legislator and later historian, “was marked by a protracted drouth which dried up the streams, and prevented growth of crops in the limited area then cultivated.” Then, “[e]arlier than usual, about the middle of October, ...

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12. “If This Woman Is Found Dead, Tell the People the Espinosas of the Conejos Killed Her”: The Attack on Philbrook and Dolores Sánches

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pp. 221-238

In 1863 the settlement of Trinidad in vast Huerfano County on the plains east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was only about three years old.1 It consisted of a huddle of adobes and picket houses2 mainly on the south bank of a stream French trappers called the Purgatoire (Purgatory) ...

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13. “I Drew His Head Back over a Fallen Tree and Cut It Off ”: Tom Tobin Ends the Terror

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pp. 239-264

Tom Tobin was a man in the mythic mold of his friend Kit Carson, a frontier type even then beginning to pass from the scene. Mountain man, trapper, whiskey trader, and Indian scout, Tobin, like Carson, was a living legend if on a smaller scale than the universally famed and beloved Carson. ...

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14. “The Brightest Success Rewarded Them for Their Toils”: Tobin Brings in the Heads

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pp. 265-276

There are almost as many accounts of the delivery of the Espinosas’ heads to Colonel Tappan as there were people who participated in the event or claimed to have witnessed it. A point of general agreement, with one exception, was that Tom Tobin and Lieutenant Baldwin’s reduced detachment1 returned to Fort Garland ...

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15. “Who Is There to Gather the History of This Wretch?”: The Espinosas Remembered

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pp. 277-284

The “Terrible Espinosas” were not soon forgotten. Like a recurring nightmare, the memory of their bloody onslaught came back again and again to the people of Colorado Territory who had suffered the contagion of dread the brothers and their nephew had unleashed. ...

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16. “Times with Me Have Sadly Changed”: Destinies

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pp. 285-292

On the day after Christmas in the first year of the twentieth century, an elderly Tom Tobin persuaded a friend1 to write a letter for him to the Honorable George L. Shoup, senator from Idaho, in Washington, DC. ...

Appendix A: Location of the Death Site of Vivián Espinosa: Alternative Theories

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pp. 293-302

Appendix B: John McCannon’s Attempt to Claim the Espinosa Reward

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pp. 303-308


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pp. 309-322


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pp. 323-331

E-ISBN-13: 9781607322375
E-ISBN-10: 1607322374
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607322368
Print-ISBN-10: 1607322366

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Espinosa, Felipe Nerio, -1863.
  • Espinosa, José Vivián, -1863.
  • Vincente, José, -1863.
  • Serial murders -- Colorado -- History -- 19th century.
  • Murder -- Colorado -- History -- 19th century.
  • Serial murderers -- Colorado -- History -- 19th century.
  • Murderers -- Colorado -- History -- 19th century.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Colorado.
  • Colorado -- History, Local -- 19th century.
  • Colorado -- Race relations.
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