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America’s First Serial Killers: The Espinosa Brothers
By Miguél A. Torrez
The years following the 1846 Mexican-American War brought New Mexicans adversity through the loss of land and political exploitation by Anglo Americans. Many struggled to adapt to American ways. For others, it proved extremely challenging.
The descendants of Nicolas de Espinosa were a Nuevomexicano family of coyote or mestizo lineage entering New Mexico in 1695. Felipe Nerio Espinosa was born five generations later and in 1863, two years into the American Civil War, Felipe and his younger brother Jose Vivian were engaged in acts of violence and thievery, in New Mexico. Ultimately they killed thirty-two Anglo Americans and were fugitives from the law until their death.
In his journal, Felipe Nerio describes the animosity he and his brother felt towards the Anglo communities of New Mexico and Southern Colorado:
They ruined our family-they took everything in our house; first our beds and blankets, then our provisions. Seeing this we said, ‘We would rather be dead than see such infamies committed on our families! These were the reasons we had to go out and kill Americans –revenge for the infamies committed on our families. But we have repented our killing. Pardon us for what we have done and give us our liberty, so that no officer will have anything to do with us for, also in killing one gains his liberty. I am aware that you know of some that I have killed, but of others you don’t know. It is a sufficient number however. Ask in New Mexico if any other two men have ever been known to have killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed thirty-two.”
Felipe Nerio was born about 1832, the son of Pedro Ygnacio Espinosa and Maria Gertrudis Chavez at San Juan Nepomuceno de El Rito, New Mexico. Felipe Nerio was the eldest of five siblings. Succeeding him were Maria Tomasa, born circa 1844; Jose Vivian, born circa 1846; Juan Antonio, born circa 1847; and Maria Juana, born circa 1848.
After the Mexican-American War, dissatisfaction with the state of affairs arose within the Hispanic communities of Northern New Mexico. Prior to the War, these communities had faced neglect by the Mexican government because of their remote geographical location and internal political turmoil in the south. New Mexicans developed independence and a sense of belonging to their land by this time. According to Phillip B. Gonzales, land “is often the emblem of well-being and care for family, neighbors and community. Land can inspire the spiritual and serve as the cornerstone of existential values.”
Under Spanish and Mexican rule, New Mexicans were given land grants to expand the empire and create buffer zones from hostile Indian tribes. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, stipulated that New Mexicans would keep their property rights. Instead, some entrepreneurial Americans implemented a process of chicanery and manipulation of the system that caused the Hispano people to lose two-thirds of their common lands to the new conquerors. Felipe Nerio and his family were among those who lost land.
In 1858, without sufficient land to provide for his family, Felipe Nerio, his wife Secundina Hurtado and their extended families moved to the area of Conejos, Colorado to settle in the town of San Rafael. It was during this time that Felipe Nerio and his brother Jose Vivian may have been driven by desperation and poverty to steal horses and rob freight wagons. These acts became their way of life over the next several years.
In early 1863, Felipe Nerio and Jose Vivian robbed a freight wagon belonging to a priest from Galisteo, New Mexico. The wagon was driven by a teamster from the Conejos area. This robbery changed their lives forever. Although the Espinosas were masked, the teamster recognized them and informed the authorities.
Under the direction of American officials stationed at Fort Garland, Colorado, a military detachment was sent to apprehend the Espinosa brothers at their home in San Rafael. The detachment found the Espinosas in their San Rafael home and attempted to arrest them. The arrest was unsuccessful and a shootout ensued leaving an Army corporal dead: To the initial charge of robbery was added the charge of murder.
The Espinosas escaped the detachment sent to apprehend them and fled into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. After their escape, the American officials stripped the Espinosa home of all belongings including the recovered money from the previous robbery. Sometime later the brothers returned home to find their family in distress and without means of basic survival. The infuriated brothers declared war and death to the all Anglos and set out on a campaign to avenge their family and people by killing as many “Americanos” as they could.
Records indicate that the Espinosas began their killing spree on March of 1863. For several months, they were hunted and tracked and evaded capture. The Espinosas were somewhat successful in their campaign and by that May had killed seven Anglos.
In the early morning of May 9, 1863, the Espinosa brothers were spotted and tracked to their camp. Without warning, a shot was fired and Jose Vivian was mortally wounded. Felipe Nerio was able to escape and eventually made his way back to his home at San Rafael.
Felipe Nerio remained in San Rafael for some time, always hiding and very cautious of his surroundings. He convinced his nephew Jose Vicente, son of his un-wed sister Maria Tomasa, to join him in his quest in exterminating the Americanos. A group of men led by Tom Tobin, a well-known tracker and Indian fighter, successfully tracked Felipe and Jose Vicente to their camp on October 15. A gun battle ensued, Felipe Nerio and Jose Vicente were shot, killed, beheaded; ending their campaign of vengeance. Their heads were carried to the authorities in Fort Garland.
It is evident in today’s struggles for the return of Spanish and Mexican land grants to its rightful heirs that this land was and is still considered the patrimony of New Mexicans. Felipe Nerio and his family did what they felt was necessary and thought that their behavior was justified in their struggle for land and equality. The Espinosa brothers have been referred to as “America’s first serial killers” but like Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Reyes López Tijerina, or Popé of San Juan Pueblo their frustration and pain led them to perpetrate acts of violence in an attempt to rectify perceived wrongs.
Ebright, Malcolm. A History of Chicanery. Guadalupita, New Mexico: Third Press, 1993.
Gonzales, Phillip B. “Struggle for Survival.” Agricultural History, no. 77 (2003): 293-323
Perkins, James E. Tom Tobin Frontiersman. Pueblo West, Colorado: Herodotus, 1999.
Priest, Henry. “The Story of Dead Man’s Canon and of the Espinosas.” The Colorado Magazine 1930.
Sandoval, David A. “The American Invasion of New Mexico and Mexican Merchants.” Journal of Popular Culture, no. 35 (2001): 61-73.
Scott, Bob. Tom Tobin and the Bloody Espinosas. Baltimore, Maryland: Publish America, 2004.