Tom Tobin: ‘He Could Track a Grasshopper Through Sagebrush’


In October of 1863, southwestern Colorado Territory was months into a murder spree that would put any modern serial killer to shame. But Lieutenant Colonel Samuel F. Tappan thought he might well be looking at a chance to end it for good.

Leander Philbrook had stumbled into Fort Garland with word that he had escaped the murderers after they had shot the mules he was driving. He had been traveling by wagon between Trinidad and Costilla with Maria Dolores Sanches when attacked. The man and woman had fled on foot but soon Maria had hidden in some rocks so as not to slow down Philbrook while he searched for help.

A detachment sent by Tappan to rescue the woman met Maria on the way. She was able to confirm that she and Philbrook had been attacked by Felipe Espinosa and his nephew Jose Vincente. She had come out of hiding when a Hispanic man came by driving a cart and was asking him for help when the killers caught her. They told the man to go on his way (after robbing him) and to tell “them” that it was the Espinosas who had killed her when her body was found. They then brutally raped the woman and then tied her to a tree to continue a search for Philbrook, telling her they would come back to rape her some more and kill her after they found the man.

But Maria was made of strong stuff and didn’t play the victim for very long. She freed herself by chewing on her rawhide bonds and headed for Fort Garland.

The pair of murderers might well be escaping but there was a hot trail to follow and Tappan hired the man he felt could run them to ground. The man wanted to follow the killers alone but finally consented to a 15-man detachment of soldiers. In that October, Tom Tobin was 40 years old. His hair still had the jet black color he had inherited from his Delaware mother. His blue eyes came from an Irish immigrant father who had been strong enough to marry a windowed Indian woman with 7 children. He stood only 5’7” and weighed no more than 140 any time in his life. He came armed with a big-bladed knife, an 1851 Navy Colt holstered in hide taken from the rump of a buffalo (hair and tail still in-tact) and a 16 pound .53 caliber Hawken rifle almost as tall as he was with which he claimed to have already killed ten men – “red, white and Hispano.”

Tobin had come to the mountains from Missouri at 14 years of age following his older half-brother who had already spent nine years in the mountains himself. He had worked for, rode with and fought beside the Bent brothers, Ceran St. Vrain, John C. Fremont, and “Uncle Dick” Wooten. His daughter was married to the oldest son of his good friend Kit Carson. Before the decade of the 1860s would finish, he would scout with Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok and mentor them.

The private war of the Espinosa clan had begun more or less the December before and there have been a variety of explanations for the brutality of it. They were believed to have come from the Rio Arriba area of New Mexico and perhaps Veracruz before that but there are no definitive records. But by mid-1862 they were in the San Luis region of Colorado Territory making their way mostly as sneak-thieves along the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

Of course, both New Mexico and Colorado Territories were part of the southwestern lands ceded to the United States by the treaty ending the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. According to the treaty, the property rights of all Mexican nationals in the new American territory were to be retained, including land grants given by the Mexican government. The Mexican nationals were also granted citizenship in the United States. The conditions were fairly generous for the times but as we know such things often go badly and unjustly when carried out by human hands.

Even Anglo Lucian Maxwell had a hard time in the courts holding on to much of the huge land grant he had inherited from his New Mexican native father-in-law. He settled some lawsuits for only a part of the land questioned and just gave up on others. The old mountain man still prospered but didn’t hang on to much of his vast holdings. That land grant is the major reason that most of northeastern New Mexico is private land with only a small percentage of government ground as compared to the rest of the state.

Some of the undocumented traditions explaining the rampage range from the Espinosa home being destroyed in the American attack on Veracruz to the family losing New Mexican land to newly arrived Americans. In any case, by December of 1862 brothers Felipe and Vivian Espinosa decided to be bolder in their theft and tried a masked robbery when they held up a Hispanic man driving a wagon of goods that belonged to a local priest. Showing the brutality that would be their calling card over the next months, they tied the driver face-down under the wagon tongue barely above the rocky ground. They then whipped up the horses and made off with the goods.

Although a bloody pulp, the driver was found still alive. And despite the masks, he was able to identify the Espinosa brothers as the thieves. A Deputy US Marshall with a detachment of soldiers from Fort Garland went to arrest the two. They only used Mexican enlisted men in the hope of avoiding unnecessary conflict. But the brothers and two other men were waiting for them and the party was met with gunfire. Before the men escaped, a soldier was killed and two more wounded. The soldiers responded by burning the Espinosa buildings and pretty much wrecking the place. The property was seized by the army.

Within days, individual bodies began to be found shot and then savagely mutilated. Often huge crosses were cut across the bodies and the head smashed. Some were opened up from the head to the length of the body. The identity of the killers was still uncertain until April when a man came upon the Espinosas in the act of hacking up another victim. They shot him, hitting the witness in the chest. But luckily for him, he had just picked up his mail and the rifle ball dug deep into the papers stuffed into the pockets inside his coat. He was knocked down but was able to make his escape.

In May, a posse found the Espinosa camp close to Canon City and Vivian was killed in the fight that followed. But Felipe and his nephew Jose Vincente escaped.

The killings continued during the summer and most estimates are that they numbered around 11 for those months. In August, Felipe rode in to see the Indian Agent at Conejos. He had several letters he wanted delivered. One was for the territorial governor of Colorado, John Evans. There is some question if the governor ever actually received it. But in it, Felipe claimed 21 killings and demanded an “honorable amnesty,” as well as 5,000 acres of land or he would “commence a war of extermination” against Mexican and American citizens, including Evans himself.

On the morning of October 12, Tom Tobin left to pick up the trail of the Espinosa killers. Lieutenant Horace Baldwin was along with 15 enlisted men. Tobin had brought young Juan Montoya to “lead my horse while I tracked the assassins.”

At the Philbrook wagon, they struck the trail and tracked them toward the timber. On the second day, they caught sign of what Tobin read as Ute Indians but the soldiers weren’t convinced and some broke off to follow that trail. The rest of the divided party stayed with Tobin. On the fourth day following a creek down Veta Mountain, Tobin found the tracks of two oxen and declared they were being driven by the Espinosas. When asked how he knew who was driving the animals, Tobin just stared at Baldwin and then continued to track. When the scout found where one ox had been allowed to drift away he figured that a camp would be near and the killers would have slaughtered the other ox.

Tobin told the soldiers to stay with the horses and he and the Montoya boy would head through the thick woods. Two soldiers ended up following along as they made way through the brush. When he saw some magpies circling above, Tobin knew they were close to the camp and hung ox.

Tobin first saw the top of a man’s head through the brush. The carcass of the ox was hanging close by and there was a small fire. When Felipe Espinosa stood up to go carve a steak from the ox, the nephew could be seen on the other side of the fire. Then with the instinct of a hunted animal, Felipe grabbed up a pistol and turned toward Tobin in the brush. According to the scout, “Before he turned around fairly, I fired and hit him in the side and he bellowed like a bull.” He then yelled to his nephew, “Escape, I am killed.”

Vincente ran for another stand of trees and the soldiers fired at him. They all missed.

But the mountain man survival skill of reloading with speed stopped the second killer. Tobin had already taken a percussion cap and rifle ball from the bag around his neck, tipped a load of powder down the barrel and dropped a .53 caliber ball from his mouth on top of the load while capping the gun at the same time. He drew up, fired, and “broke his back above his hips.”

Tobin then turned back to the dying Felipe and demanded, “Do you know me?” as if to make sure the killer knew the man who had brought him down. Espinosa struggled to bring up his pistol while Tobin watched. The approaching soldiers riddled him.

Tobin took the dead Felipe by the hair, pulled his head across a log and cut it off. He then sent Montoya to do the same thing to Vincente and bring him the head. The two heads were put into a gunnysack and the rest of their bodies were left where they lay. Among the effects taken from the camp were a diary, some letters, and other papers proving that the heads in the sack did indeed belong to the Espinosas. According to the diary, there had been 22 murders before the first Espinosa brother was killed in May. That brought the total well north of 30 dead in less than a year.

Tobin’s grandson, Kit Carson III, told a story that had the scout being asking if he had any luck and he replied “So-so” as he dropped the heavy sack on Lt. Col. Tappan’s office floor. This story had Tappan turning a little green. The grandfather’s version was more matter-of-fact.

Tom Tobin had his struggles as the years past. He was mauled by a mother bear in 1876 and physically went downhill from there, perhaps mentally as well. He was not always the easiest person to get along with. In 1888, he attacked his son-in-law with both a knife and pistol when he thought Billy Carson had mistreated his daughter. Carson ended up shooting the old man in the groin to add to his misery as the years passed. He was known to be flat-out rude in most conversations but he also helped to support Felipe Espinosa’s widow as long as he was able. And when the Espinosa daughter married, he was an honored guest of the family.

A complex man, Tom Tobin lived until the dawn of the 20th century. He had survived decades on the frontier and dozens of battles but the central event in his life was the few moments it took for his skill to end one of the most bloody murder sprees in our history.

Published in History
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  1. Michael Minnott Member
    Michael Minnott

    Thank you Ole Summers.  Excellent historical vignette.

    • #1
  2. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    That should be a movie

    • #2
  3. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo

    That was awesome.  Thank you.

    • #3
  4. Joe Boyle Member
    Joe Boyle


    • #4