A Brief History of Evans & Sontag

Evans & Sontag Shootout With Deputy Sheriff Witty and Train Detective Smith

This is a tale which has all the elements of the Saturday afternoon, "knock-down, shoot 'em up" (as my granddad called them) cowboy movies which I used to watch as a kid. Though I do not know of any specific movie (aside from the 1950's era, TV horse opera, Stories of the Century episode, "Sontag and Evans," an oddly-distorted, denatured retelling: "Featuring Matt Clark, RAILROAD DETECTIVE," as the duo's nemesis, who brings them to justice), the adventures of Evans and Sontag has to have been applied to film dozens of times. Or perhaps their story contains so many stereotypical yet fantastic elements that a big-budget Hollywood movie, titled Evans & Sontag, would be considered much too far-fetched and cliche-ridden to be believable. Unlike the ever-popular movies which surface every few years, about the heavily mythologized Wyatt Earp and his "famous" 1881 shoot-out at the O. K. Corral, the story of Evans & Sontag, languishes largely in out-of-print books and in anthologies about outlaws of the old West. However, it is a tale rife with the ambivalence towards violence in every-day-life that lies at the core of every American folk hero/outlaw narrative of the pioneer experience.
Herein lies the tale of an evil villain in the form of a mean-spirited, greedy railroad company, and its brutal henchmen as corpulent bank toadies, corruptible government agents, evil railroad detectives with curling moustaches, dull-witted officials, and bumbling sheriff's deputies. It is the era of the "Big Four" (Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford) and the rise of a monopolistic industrial revolution and capitalist ideal that shaped the quality, values and standard of life for everyone in the United States, particularly the West, in the later part of the 19th century. The railroad, and these four men in particular, ruthlessly exercised an oligarchic level of political and economic power on a pervasive national and local level, the likes of which had not been seen in this country before, though the same approach has been echoed ever since. We have seen its resonances, in the subsequent ebb and flow of continued technological advancements in the West -- with the distribution of water, electricity, oil, telecommunication, automobiles, news, entertainment, computers, software, and so on.

From a postcard postmarked 1906

It may seem odd now, that much of the Evans and Sontag story should begin in such a place as Visalia, California. In our contemporary time, it has been known most recently as the "onion-raising capital of the world," and like many other small towns in the area, such as Lemoore, Hanford, Kingston, Grangeville, Goshen, etc., rarely heard of, and largely unknown even to people in nearby counties in California. That such a place, now a quant little tourist rest stop with a few old buildings surrounded by a typical modern day sprawl of car lots, hamburger stands, and discount shopping outlets, would have any connection to the appellations of "The Wild West," seems to be more than just a mere stretch of the imagination, but rather a some alternate imaginary world.

Photo taken November 2002

However, in the 1880's, the desert in what became known as the San Joaquin Valley, had almost over-night become a lush and profitable wheat farming and cattle raising area due to the construction of irrigation networks: a "left-over" technology learned quickly by Gold Rush immigrants -- who had quit their farms in the East, only to discover that hard rock mining was not really the career change they were looking for. The neophyte miners with dirt in their veins, soon returned to what they knew best, extracting wealth from the soil instead. A new frontier abounded in land free from other white settlers. Such land they could clear off that which had existed before as Spanish and Native American cultivation (viewed by the new immigrants as nonexistent and untouched): to terraform the California landscape into the image of their farms which they had left in the East. To make a comfortable living for themselves, often "squatting," without purchasing the land, since no one else was around to complain much about it. The addition of the technological advancement of railroads, further allowed these pionners to reach markets, as well as to attain a level of economic success, and quality of life which would not have been within their grasp before its existence.
As an aid to the private businesses who were building the rail system to connect East with West, the United States Government, who could not afford such an engineering feat on its own, more or less gave the budding monopoly, large swaths of odd-numbered sections of land along their proposed roads to which they would gain clear title once the railroad companies made good on their promise and the tracks were completed. During the process of construction, the railroad would advertise the availability of such lands for settlers to develop, which they would describe in widely-distributed circulars announcing their intention to sell their unused land to any settler willing to develop it on their own, at only $2.50 to $5.00 an acre once the railroad had gained title. Towns all through the area sprang up rapidly in following the California Gold Rush spirit of a get-rich-quick style of economy. Though unknown to the participants providing the man-power, much of the wealth of their developments would be eventually funneled off to the owners of the railroads.
Employment opportunities were available to any young man who had the strengths and skills of those from a decade before, working on the post Civil War, pre-railroad cattle drives in such states as Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, in other words, those who had earned a living that had later gained the romantic title of "cowboy." The need of men with such strengths and skills ceased as quickly as the mechanical means were invented to replace them. The horse-drawn, combine harvester was built and perfected in Tulare county in the 1880's. Technological advancement with devices based on steam and combustion further replaced more workers. Though the extinction of this kind of labor was a known certainty to all, it took a few decades for the idea to really catch on with those trying eke out a way to support themselves.
Much of the trouble between the local residents and the railroad in the San Joaquin Valley, dates back to the railroad's first appearance. Paradoxically, the flash-in-the-pan economic success of the area was brought about by the same industry which at first made the single family farmer's well-being possible in such an isolated area and then increasingly untenable as development progressed. The family farm was placed on the same endangered species list as the cowboy, to eventually be replaced by the mechanizations of the large corporate agribusiness industry.
The railroad's practice of grabbing up large parcels of land, with the blessings of the government and local authorities, led to increased tensions and unrest in the area. It was the settlers who had dug the first irrigation ditches, cultivated the land, and succeeding in making a living in such an unlikely environment by the mere strength of their individual determination. However, Southern Pacific had other plans once it gained the land titles, and instead of selling their excess land at the rates which they had promised in their circulars used to attract the settlers, they sold the land at the developed appraisement of ten to twenty times the unsettled price and to whomever would pay the highest dollars. The settlers, who generally could not live beyond the profits of one crop to the next, were unable to buy the land that they had already wagered their life fortunes upon.
The railroads, in keeping with their 19th century capitalistic economic philosophies, would also constantly manipulated their fees for the "long-haul" and "short-haul" transport of goods and marketable crops, to the highest level of ever-increasing percentage points of profit. Of what the market could bare, was their popular catch phrase. It was an economic philosophy that kept a strangle hold on the farmers, and prevented any accumulation of wealth which might allow them a way out of their spiral down into an increasingly grim situation. Land speculators, largely in the guise of "dummy" buyers who were not-so-secretly employed by railroads themselves would buy up the farms complete with mature crops, while the settlers were stripped of their land and literally thrown out in the dirt roads along with their furniture (if they had any). Thusly, the railroad companies greatly increased their coffers as well as gaining corporate control over large farming operations. In this particularly volatile mix of last gasp, rugged pioneer iconoclasm and the emergent late 19th culture of capitalistic corporate greed, a confrontation eventually exploded which became known as the Mussel Slough Tragedy.
Photo taken in June 2001 by Ross Williams   Photo taken in June 2001 by Ross Williams
On May 11, 1880, six settlers and two railroad men died in a stand off and point blank shoot out near an old oak tree between Kingston and Grangeville on the boundary of what was then Fresno and Tulare counties. In the aftermath, several of the locals who had lost their property to the railroad were summarily rounded up, and charged with conspiring to over-throw the government of the United States and resisting a federal marshal in the performance of his duty. The railroad wanted to make an example as a warning to others not to question their authority and way of doing business. Five of the presently homeless settlers and bread-winners of their families were tried and found guilty of the second charge of resistance and sentenced to 8 months in jail in San Jose. The local townspeople of San Jose displayed a dislike for the railroad which had also begun to gain popularity through out the whole state, and treated the convicted law breakers as heroes. Their families were put up in the posh Hotel St. James and the prisoners were allowed to come and go as they pleased from their cells.

Saint James Hotel, San Jose

Twenty years later, this shoot-out became the basis of Frank Norris' popular novel, The Octopus -- a fictional and somewhat melodramatic, late 19th century work of social realism, peppered with Norris' Victorian notions of gender politics and spiritualism, where intellectuals and artists were effete and 'womanly', and the heroic ideal, is the Anglo-Saxon male who can work with his hands (and draw from the hip). The novel is perhaps the best known telling of the incident. Though the subsequent trial of the settlers was not dealt with in this fiction, Norris does however, compress events such, that some of the exploits of Evans and Sontag are made contemporaneous to the shoot-out of the tragedy, in the composite character of Dyke, a man driven to the depths of lawlessness by the fictional Pacific and Southwestern Railroad, and in particular, their obese henchman and banker, S. Berhrman: a sweating, evil villain who miraculously escapes several attempts of the farmers to dispatch him. In the end however, he dies a gruesomely described death by suffocation from his own greed. He becomes trapped in the hold of a cargo ship in Port Costa, as it is being filled with tons of wheat that he had repossessed from the farmers, to subsequently sell to some high-society, charity whose intent was to feed the starving masses of India.
The "real" story about Evans and Sontag, generally opens with a young John Sontag as a handsome and hard-working railroad worker in the prime of youth. One day at work, he is crushed between two railway cars and breaks a leg. The accident leaves him a ruined person, unable to perform his work duties, and the railroad summarily fires him with little regard that he was injured on the job. At the prime of his life therefore, Sontag no longer could work at the kinds of jobs available to what we would now call an "unskilled" worker. As a result, he scrapes by the best that he can as a homeless person in the late 1880's, picking up odd jobs where ever he could. He also becomes rather vociferous about the raw deal which he has gotten. In that place and time, it was very unhealthy to complain aloud about the railroad's lack of employee benefits.
Enter the older and more experienced, Christopher Evans: He also is no friend of the railroad, often getting into loud discussions recounting the bitter aftermath of the Mussel Slough shoot out. He was being driven into bankruptcy with the bank breathing down upon the mortgage on his farm, because of the railroad's hauling rates, along with a string of personal misfortunes, accidents, and just plain bad luck. However, Evans, who had known Sontag for some time, takes the younger man under his wing, and even though he and his large family were barely scraping along by themselves, gives him a job as his ranch hand. They also go into business together and run a livery stable in Visalia for awhile until it fails.
There are stories about Evans which depict him as being as rugged as an individual from the old West could be. He was also said to have been very kind and particularly liked small children, animals, and honest, hard-working men down on their luck. A family man who had left Canada and claimed to have been a veteran on the Union side during the Civil War. He was strong as an ox, hard working, did not drink (or at least when he did, he stayed away from home), smoke, or gamble, nor would he allow swearing in his house or in front of the women. He was self-taught, and an avid reader who would carry several books in his saddle bags to read in spare moments and he would often quote from memory his favorite writers. Recitations were said to be a common family activity at night in the Evans' home. He had a keen interest in history and science and could talk at great length about most any of the great issues of his times. He was an accomplished woodsman, hunter, and horseman. He valued the importance of preserving nature and the wilderness, long before it was trendy or even appreciated by most people.
However, in spite of all these seemingly "positive" features which his supporters said that he manifested, Evans could also be completely ruthless, as well as totally uncompromising when it came to his personal sense of honor and individuality. Claiming the right to self defense, he was a quite efficient and effective killer, often shooting his victims many times over. He was about as dangerous as any man of that era could be. The myth that cowboys could shoot each other by pulling their revolvers out of their holsters and aiming from the hip, was no Hollywood fantasy with Evans' skills: he was a deadly shot with either revolver or rifle, and he would stand his ground no matter how many bullets whizzed passed him. The stories about his resolve and nerve are near unbelievable. He was the archetypal hero/outlaw who by an act of sheer will avoided any consolidation with those forces of nature or laws of man which would bend or grind him down --at least that is how some of the writers about his life have made him out to be.
Other archetypal elements in the Evans and Sontag's story are Evan's long suffering wife, Molly, his large family of blond children, his corn-cob pipe-smoking mother-in-law from Tennessee, Grandma Byrd, who could cuss like a Blue Jay, and Evan's oldest daughter, little Eva -- who wore her "18-caret" golden hair in long ringlets, and was as pretty as could be it was said. She also possessed her father's natural intellectual skills, wits and curiosities, and could ride a horse as well as a man, and was an expert shot with a rifle. She became Sontag's sweetheart and accomplice, often aiding the duo's escape from the law. One suspects much of this story as being apocryphal and varnished by time with the precept towards a good yarn, particularly since in later life, Eva provided many of the details of the Evans and Sontag story (much like Wyatt Earp's second wife provided much of the stories about him).
Though the outlaws freely admitted to killing Oscar Beaver in Evans' stable and Vic Wilson and Andrew McGinnis during a spectacular shoot-out at James Young's cabin, the duo claimed their complete innocence of the five train robberies and associated killings within 60 miles of Mussel Slough. These had occurred during a three year period before John Sontag's brother, George, had fingered them as the culprits in 1892 as part of a "deal" to avoid prosecution on related charges. That they were able to allude authorities for several months, who had upwards to 3,000 men searching for them along with a $10,000 (in 1890's money!) price on their heads either "dead or alive," is a mouth-dropping, awe-inspiring, and nail-biting story, when it is retold in the right hands.
It was the Young's cabin shoot out near Sampson's Flat in Fresno county which gave the duo a world-wide cause célèbre: Evans & Sontag came out shooting from the hip when a nine-man possie believed that they had them surrounded and trapped. They killed two deputies outright, and routed the rest. William Randolph Hearst screamed, A WANTON BUTCHERY, on the front page of The Examiner, and exhorted those hunting the duo "...should enter upon the chase with the intention of killing the bloodthirsty desperadoes and thus end their career of butchery." However, a month later, Hearst provided a podium for the duo's side of the story, by sending Examiner correspondent, Henry Bigelow, to their "secret" hideout to interview them. Hearst had a significant axe to grind with the railroad, and continued to give the duo much favorable, front page press (while other newspapers with large advertising revenues from Southern Pacific, would label the pair cold-hearted murderers and call for their immediate lynching). The extensive converage by the Examiner was not only a continual insult to the railroads but also sold a profitable volume of Hearst's newspapers as well.
The whole Evans and Sontag spectacle was the media event of its time. It attracted the attentions of many prominent newspaper reporters and authors. That their story should receive such attention, is an early study on how the mass media in its infancy could shape and amplify an event into a grand spectacle that assumed significance quite beyond the hum-drum, day-to-day reality which most newspaper readers lived. Hearst's star columnist ("The Prattle") and long-time Big Four tormentor, Ambrose Bierce, "the evilist man of San Francisco" and now the mostly forgetable Old Gringo himself, also met and interviewed Chris Evans. "Bitter Bierce" had a high regard for the outlaw's charactor and intelligence it was said (they also shared stories of their Civil War experiences). However, twenty years before, in his coverage of the trial of the Mussel Slough conspirators, in the San Francisco Post, the iconoclastic Bierce, often the champion of the downtrodden individual, showed no sympathy towards what he saw as anarchic rabble and accused J. J. Doyle, the head of the local grange and one of the defendants in the conspiracy trial, as being a Mephistophiles:manipulating the others for personal ends.
Even at the end of the line, on June 11th 1893, the recounting of the final shoot-out with Evans and Sontag at Stone Corral, in the rugged hills surrounding Tulare County, is quite amazing and beats anything I have seen during my childhood addiction to cowboy movies. Ambushed by a large group of U. S. Marshals with crack shots and professional man-hunters, the duo is pinned down in a hail of bullets behind a pile of straw and manure in an open field. The shooting goes on for most of the day. First Evans is wounded seriously and then Sontag. Sontag tells Evans to make a run for it and says he is "done for". Though Evans isn't in such great shape himself, for he had been shot in the back. Another bullet has smashed his left arm so that he could not handle a rifle effectively, and pellets from a shot gun blast had imbedded in his skull, puncturing the membrane around the brain, and gouging out his right eye (which is said to have dangled by the optic nerve against his cheek). However, despite his dire condition, he does make an effective escape through dense chapperal. The posse surrounds the mortally wounded Sontag laying upon the mound of manure and straw. Like big game hunters, they stop and have their picture taken by their trophy. Evans meanwhile, is able to allude capture for another 48 hours until a friend finally turns him in out of fear that Evans would bleed to death in his spare room. The incapacitated Evans is taken to jail in Visalia rather than a hospital. They soon cut his mangled left arm off without an effort to save it. Sontag, near death, is in the same jail but refuses to have a similar amputation. He revives enough to give an Examiner reporter a long interview. Sontag with his jaws clinched so tight that he can not drink, finally dies from tetanus on his cot in the Visalia jail on July 3rd.

 Visalia Court House

In order to support Evans' family pay for his impending court case, Molly and Eva take part in a seemingly bizarre, financial scheme by participating in quickly written melodrama staged in San Francisco. A 19th century version of a made-for-TV, crime-of-the-week quickie pot boiler, titled Evans & Sontag: The Visalia Bandits, in which mother and daughter play themselves! This was not as curious for the times as one might expect, forty-one years before, the self-made, ersatz Spanish Dancer and former lover of the King of Bavaria, Lola Montez, played herself in Lola Montez in Bavaria to a large San Francisco crowd when the city was but three years old. She then toured with the show (also performing her famous "Spider Dance" -- a faux Spanish dance in which she would stomp prop spiders as they would fall out of the folds of her dress) through out the Gold Rush camps. Making enough money to retire for a year. She lived in a cottage in Grass Valley, with her pet Grizzly bear chained up in her front yard, while giving dance instructions to the locals, including, a six year old Lotta Crabtree, a Gold Rush Shirley Temple, and later bigger star than even Lola ever was.
Likewise, The Visalia Bandits was a huge financial success. Molly had quickly dropped out of the play from emotional exhaustion, but Eva Evans, whose much touted beauty appears to have fit some lost late 19th century archetype, was a natural and got rave reviews where ever the play was staged in California -- and it played everywhere. She made a sufficient amount of money to hire a famous and accomplished lawyer to defend her father for what was called then "the trial of the century." With a great deal of public sympathy on his side, the trial at first appeared to be going well for Evans. However, John Sontag's brother, George, was then brought in by the prosecution. Much to the visibly repressed anger of Evans in court, George Sontag gives damaging and detailed testimony which places Evans at the scene of the train robberies which he had been accused of masterminding. Evans barely escapes death by hanging and is sentenced to life imprisonment, by the active efforts of his high-priced lawyer and Eva Evans' acting skills while on the witness stand.
Remarkably before sentence could be enacted, and five months after his capture and trial, the now one-eyed, one-armed, and somewhat brain-damaged Evans, breaks out of the Visalia jail with the aid of a young, and not-too-bright admirer, Ed Morrell. Evans alludes capture for another two months in freezing winter weather in the mountains nearby. The newspapers headlines during that time claim sighting of him all over the country. He is finally captured again in a trap around his mother-in-law, Grandma Bird's house while attempting to visit his infant son who he had been told was dying.
He is taken to Folsom Prison, where they shaved his head and beard and then place him in a cell on February 22, 1894. The warden warns him to "behave himself and he will have no trouble." Evans' wife remarks as her husband goes into prison, that "she would like to put a bullet through George Sontag."
Seventeen year later, in 1911, Evans is finally released by the newly elected governor for California, Hiram Johnson. Johnson had just run successfully on the "kick the Southern Pacific Railway out of politics," ticket. Despite its political motives, the Governor's release is not a full pardon for Evans. A broken man in poor health, Christopher Evans moves to Oregon. He dies there February 9, 1917, at his daughter's house.
In 1893, San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael H. de Young, after hosting the California pavilion at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, decides that what San Francisco really needs to get itself out of the deep economic depression that it had been in, was to host the first World's Fair West of the Mississippi. It would also be good public relations for Michael H. de Young, who was often looked down upon as a mere newspaper man (though he had already more or less succeeded in erasing the histories of his two other brother's involvement in this particularly notorious and gossipy, "yellow rag") by the high society which he wished to be a part off. To help finance de Young's dream of a California Midwinter International Exposition, the National Theater Company of San Francisco donated its proceeds from their new smash hit, "Evans and Sontag" to make the festival a reality. The fair opens January 1, 1894. William Randolph Hearst, who hated de Young as much as he hated the railroad, places his coverage of the fair's opening on page 10 of The Examiner, while on page one, in bold headlines is "OUTWITTED BY CHRIS EVANS / The Bandit and Morrell Elude Their Pursuers."
The Exposition proclaimed that San Francisco was no longer a Barbary Coast hangout of thugs, prostitutes, opium smokers, schemers and grifters, but rather it had finally come of age as a refined international city in 1894. The fair displayed many innovations and attractions, and was a big success in gaining world publicity for the city. All that remains of it now is the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. And one other thing -- the landscaper who took care of this garden when the Exposition closed, had a falling out with the city soon after, and started his own alternative Japanese pavilion across the street from the original. In order to attract more customers, he handed out sweet rice flour cookies, which contained slips of paper with words of prophesy printed on them. The fortune cookie of course, was soon appropriated and became an American institution albeit a bit mistranslated as the coda in the rituals of another American-Asian culture, as the ever-popular conclusion of a Chinese dinner. It was interesting times indeed.

Original De Young Museum from 1893 SF Midwinter Expo

FINAL EPILOG: Dr. John Baker has told me a little-known story that Christopher Evans suffered from epilepsy as a result of the buckshot remaining in his brain from the Stone Corral shoot out. Along came a Dr. June Harris, who was a budding young surgeon that had studied in Vienna at the turn of the century as well as graduating from the old Cooper medical college which proceeded the medical school at Stanford. In Vienna, Dr. Harris had heard about people having their epilepsy cured by taking a foreign body out of the brain. He remembered hearing about this infamous inmate of Folsom Prison who would make a perfect test subject for such a new, and radical for the times, procedure to cure this form of epilepsy. So he goes through all the channels and removes Evans from Folsom Prison, and brings him down to the county hospital in Sacramento. He operates on him, cures him of this epilepsy, and then takes him back up to dump him off into his prison cell. Well, everybody in the country knew the story about Evans and Sontag at that time, and the procedure was big news. Almost immediately, all the epileptic patients in the world wanted to come to Dr. Harris, even though his new procedure would not be of any help for most of the sufferers. Another problem was that at that time, as now, it was very bad manners to do any advertising about one's curative skills. Dr. Harris therefore got into big trouble with the California Medical Society. However, professional actions against him were eventually stricken down, and he ended up becoming president of the same society in later life. A descendant of his also married one of Dr. Baker's children.

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This page created on 05/02/01 17:03. Updated 12/18/02 19:54.