Battle of Stone Corral
The wounded John Sontag lying next to the possemen.
|Date||June 11–12, 1893|
|Also known as||Gunfight at Stone Corral|
|Participants||Chris Evans; John Sontag|
The Battle of Stone Corral, also known as the Gunfight at Stone Corral, occurred in June 1893 and was the final shootout during the pursuit of the Sontag-Evans Gang. After months of searching and several previous encounters, a small posse under the command of Marshal George E. Gard ambushed John Sontag and Chris Evans at a corral near Visalia, California. Both of the outlaws were badly wounded during the engagement. Sontag died three weeks later in police custody on July 3, 1893, but Evans managed to escape and was captured a few days later though he lost an eye and his left arm.
The Sontag-Evans Gang was a band of train robbers that centered on three men; John Sontag, his brother George Contant, and Chris Evans. Following a series of successful train robberies between 1889 and 1891, the Sontag-Evans Gang was in Visalia, California on August 5, 1892, when they were discovered by the police. After fighting their way out of what was later called the House Party Shootout, Evans and John Sontag fled into the Sierra Nevada, leaving George Sontag in police custody. George was later given a life sentence to be served at Folsom Prison. A Deputy Sheriff was killed August 6, 1892 by Evans and Sontag
From there began the largest manhunt in the history of California. Dozens of lawmen, as well over 300 armed civilians and bounty hunters, scoured the San Joaquin Valley and the surrounding mountains in search of the outlaws, resulting in multiple shootouts and friendly fire incidents. According to Deputy Marshal Vernon C. Wilson: "The woods were so full of man-hunters that at least 11 deputies were seriously wounded by other officers. Anyone who went deer hunting during this time was in danger of being shot by over-zealous posses. (sic)"
The longest engagement during the pursuit occurred on September 13, 1892. The Battle of Sampson's Flat, as it is known, lasted eight hours and ended with the deaths of Marshal Wilson and posseman Andrew McGinnis. But both Evans and Sontag managed to get away.
John Sontag was popular among the people of San Joaquin Valley. Because he robbed from the highly unpopular Southern Pacific Railroad, Sontag and Evans had plently of support during the ten-month pursuit. Over the winter of 1892 and 1893, the two outlaws continued to evade a "veritable army of badge-toters," but, in the summer of 1893, a new, more determined, marshal was sent to command the police efforts. Unlike his predecessor, Vernon Wilson, Marshal George E. Gard wisely kept his posse small and secret, which helped him move about and collect information without being detected by the outlaws or any of their supporters. Finally, Gard received a tip from someone who said that Sontag and Evans were planning to visit the home of Evans' wife, which was located about ten miles northeast of Visalia, on the John Patterson Ranch. Accordingly, Gard and his posse traveled to the Stone Corral, next to the Evans home, so they could begin searching the area.
At Stone Corral, the posse took up residence at the old Bacon cabin and kept a low profile while there so that the place would appear vacant if the outlaws came riding by. Gard's posse composed of himself and three others: Hiram Lee Rapelje, a deputized bounty hunter; Fred Jackson, a policeman from Nevada, and Thomas Burns.
Just as Gard hoped, Sontag and Evans approached the cabin from the top of a nearby hill on the evening of June 11, 1893. According to James Reasoner, author of Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West, Evans suggested firing a few shots into the cabin below to see if anybody was there, but, because the place appeared to be empty and because the cabin was known as a "lover's rendezvous," Sontag talked him out of it. Instead, the two men decided to dismount from their horses and walk down to the cabin. Along the way, Evans sat down next to an old haystack to rest for a moment. Meanwhile, at the cabin, most of the posse was inside, except for Jackson, who was keeping watch on the porch outside. Jackson was not doing a good job though because it was Rapelje that first spotted the outlaws. According to Reasoner, Gard ordered his men to hold their fire and stay concealed until the outlaws were closer. However, Evans spotted Rapelje and quickly fired a shot at him with his Winchester. Fred Jackson then fired and, although he managed to wound Evans, the shotgun blast told the outlaws that they were approaching an ambush and gave them a chance to take cover behind the pile of hay.
The haystack prevented the posse from seeing their foe, but it did not provide the outlaws with very good protection against the incoming volleys. Evans and Sontag laid down on either side of the haystack to return the fire and the skirmish continued until the next morning. Sometime during the fighting, Jackson attempted to flank the outlaws by moving from the cabin around to their side. He was spotted by Evans though and taken out of the fight by a revolver bullet to one of his knees. Shortly thereafter, Sontag was hit in the stomach, which prevented him from returning fire.
Just before dawn, Sontag's wounds became too unbearable so he begged Evans to kill him. But when he refused, Sontag told Evans to leave and he then attempted to kill himself by firing a bullet into his own head. The shot failed though and only added to the outlaw's misery. Evans obeyed Sontag's last command and made his escape. He was spotted by Rapelje trying to crawl away from the haystack so the latter opened fire and started running towards him. Evans, however, got to his feet and disappeared into the darkness without shooting back. He escaped with buckshot wounds to the head and a bullet wound to the right arm.
At some point Gard made the decision to call for reinforcements from Visalia and wait for their arrival before advancing on the haystack. The reinforcements, which included a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, arrived sometime after dawn the next morning. According to a local named Luke Hall, the initial skirmish lasted about two hours and after that the firing became sporadic. Hall stood at the doorway of his house during the fighting and on the next morning he went out to investigate. When he arrived at the cabin, the reinforcements from Visalia mistook Hall for one of the outlaws. The possemen then loaded their weapons and charged for the haystack and it was at this time they found Sontag unconscious. A moment later, the posse realized that Hall was just a curious neighbor. The reporter insisted that a photograph be taken of the wounded Sontag so the possemen dragged his body out and leaned him up against the haystack. After the photograph was taken, Sontag was loaded onto a wagon and moved to the Fresno jail. He was wounded at least twice; once in the shoulder and once in the stomach.
Sontag was put in the jail at Fresno and Evans, although badly wounded, walked six miles up Wilcox Canyon to the Perkins cabin and begged the homesteaders there to bandage his wounds. A few days later, the homesteaders sent out a rider to inform the police so a large force of lawmen surrounded the cabin. For a time it seemed as though more violence would ensue, but Evans surrendered without further resistance. He was taken to the jail in Fresno and put in the cell next to the dying Sontag. Evans' right arm was later amputated and Sontag died of his wounds on July 3, 1893.
On June 28, when he learned of his brother's capture, George Sontag and four other inmates attempted to escape from Folsom Prison. Three convicts were killed in the process and two of the prisoners were wounded, including Sontag. George remained in prison until March 21, 1908, when he was pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt. He later wrote the book A Pardoned Lifer, which was made into a movie in 1914.
Chris Evans' trial was held in Fresno and on December 13, 1893, he was sentenced to life in Folsom. However, on December 28, just when it seemed as though his criminal career was over, Evans escaped from the Fresno County jail with a fellow prisoner named Edward Morrell, leaving Marshal John D. Morgan wounded. They were captured though a month and a half later in Visalia. Evans was then sent to Folsom and remained there until May 1911. Having been banished from California, Evans became a homesteader in Oregon and died on February 9, 1917.
The following was reported by the San Francisco Examiner on the day after the shootout:
There was nothing heroic in John Sontag's appearance as he lay on a cot near a window in an upper room where they had brought him. The look in his eyes was that of the animal driven to death, worn out, fainting, tortured beyond endurance, unable to suffer any more. A rat looks that way sometimes when it has been cornered and beaten. A dog has a pleading look, but there was no plea in Sontag's face. He had nothing to ask for, not even life, and he knew it. If it had occurred to him he might have pleaded for a charge of morphine to lull his senses till the end should come, but, it did not cross his mind. He had tried to end his own life and failed, and after that it seemed to him that fate was not worth fighting. ... He could not speak coherently for many minutes together, and when he told about the suffering he had felt and the pain and horror of a night alone, wounded and praying for death, it was very hard to listen to him. The man was a murderer, an outlaw, a hunted thing, a foe to society, but you could not forget that he was human as he told of his sufferings, and the feeling that it was only proper mercy to put him out of his misery at once would intrude itself. It seemed worse than useless and more than cruel to keep a human being alive when a dumb beast would, under the circumstances, received a shorter shrifts. "I was lying all night in some loose litter and dry manure near the ranch," said Sontag, after he had talked of many other things, "and the pain of my wound was awful. I knew that I was done to death, and I knew that they would come back in the morning and kill me or take me to prison. A[fter a] little time I was suffering and praying for water; and then the cold came, and it was bitter cold. That made the pain worse, and then there was the pain in the mind. It was awful to think, and there was no way to stop thinking. The night would be short, and when the sun broke they would be shooting at me again, and I could make no defense." This was told with long pauses--so long that one could write the words out in full and wait between them. There did not seem to be any wish to excuse what he was about to tell, but John Sontag wished to explain before he died -- and death seemed very near to him then -- that he had not given up the fight for his life so long as there was one chance left. He had a make an effort to keep his mind from wandering, and it was very hard for him to force the words from his tongue. His eyes would turn upwards and the brow come down when memory failed, and there was every appearance of struggle as he went along. ... "The cold grew more bitter," he said, "and I knew that what I wanted to do must be done soon or my hand would be too weak to serve me. My right arm was absolutely powerless. I could not move it, for the shoulder was shattered and that was what hurt most. But it was not the hurt that made any difference; there was no more chance. I got out my revolver and put it to my temple to end it all, and fired. The ball [bullet] only stunned me, you see. Presently I cam[e] to and it was worse than before. The agony was dreadful to bear and I wanted water. I wanted water so badly that I cried out for it -- cried out, though I knew that there was no one who could answer except the hunters who had shot me down. Thirst and fever are hard to suffer." This was said in an explanatory and apologetic way. "But no one came with water," he continued. "No one heard me, and I lay there in the cold and burned up inside till they took me away." It was pathetic to see even an outlaw suffer and tell of still more suffering, as John Sontag did. His face was covered with bandages and only those upturned eyes visible. His useless right arm lay be his side and across his chest his left arm was brought so that his hand could press on the lower part of his right side. I asked him if he suffered very much, and he said: "The pain is fearful. It hurts to talk, but there are some things I want to say. I want to say so much, but I cannot get it in my mind, I suffer so much." I asked him to tell me about the trouble of last August at Colli[n]s. This seemed to arouse him, and a glimpse of his old determination came into his eyes. He fought with the pain, and said disjointedly: ... "At Colli[n]s, the train robbery! It is a lie; I never had anything to do with a train robbery." Was it possible that he told the truth? He was dying, and knew it, and had nothing to fear. But sometimes men in desperate straits hold out the last and die with sealed lips or repeating the falsehood of their lives. ... I asked Sontag if Evans was hurt at all when he went away [from the gunfight]. "He was not hurt when he left me," he said. "I knew I was done for and begged him to save his own life. He saw he could do no good for me and he went out through the lonely pass. He had a rifle, and left his shotgun behind the straw stack. You say that he dropped his rifle when they shot at him and they found it with blood. Then you may be sure that he was shot and crippled, or he would not have left his rifle. ... "I begged Evans to shoot me through the head before he left, but he would not do it. I begged so hard, too, but he would not shoot me." I asked Sontag about the fight. He did not seem to care to talk about it. "You can hear all about that from the detectives. They will tell you," he answered. "We came down into the open, not expecting to find any one there. When we saw them there was no chance for us. We dared not run, for that would give them a fair shot at out backs, so we did the only thing for us to do -- lay down flat and shoot." I asked him how often he had shot himself, for the doctor saw there was evidence of three shots. He did not seem to know, and replied that maybe he had tried to kill himself several times. "I wanted to end the journey," he said. The pain became unendurable and he went into a comatose condition. The ball [bullet] had evidently reached far into the lung cavity, for his breathing was in gasps. The doctor came in again and I think gave him morphine. Sontag lay still and the look of anguish left his eyes. Then they closed up and it seemed to me that he had said his last word. (sic)
The following account also appeared in the June 12, 1893, edition of the San Francisco Examiner.
The story of the fight is a short one. Evans and Sontag simply ran into a body of their pursuers who were ready for them and who did not run at the first fire. The outlaws themselves were in the open, when four men shooting at them from cover. To run meant almost certain death. Evans and Sontag sought the only thing approaching cover, and, lying flat on the ground behind a stack of straw, they fought the fight out. What happened is only what would have happened months ago had men gone against them who realized that hunting outlaws is a serious business. In last night's fight nobody's gun slipped out of his hand, no officer ran. The manhunters were prepared for a fight with desperate men and they mad[e] just that sort of a fight. ... This is [Hiram] Rapelje's story of the battle: "Burns and Marshal Gard were resting and Jackson was on guard. About sundown I got up and went to the back door and looked up over the field. I had not any particular purposes in looking out there, but we were keeping a sharp lookout, because we know that if Evans and Sontag went to Visalia they would have to pass that way. And while I was looking out the back door two men came over the ridge in the rear of the house, and 800 yards away. I called Jackson's attention to them. We looked through field-glasses. "'They are our men,' he says. "As quickly and quietly as possible we woke Gard and Burns and told them what was up. I had a shotgun loaded with wire-wound buckshot cartridges and a Winchester. Jackson was similarly armed, except that his rifle was a 45. Burns had a 45 Winchester and Gard had his shotgun. Of course, we all had six-shooters. ... "We stepped out of the front door, and while Jackson and I went to one corner, Gard and Burns went to the other. We cocked our shotgun and waited for the men to come up close. I was peeking around the corner, and Evans, who was then a hundred yards off, caught sight of me. He [lifted] up with his Winchester and fired. We dropped our shotguns -- the range was too long for them -- and got our rifles. "Can't we get a whack at them!" said Jackson. "Hold on; let me get right up with you," I said. "All right," he responded, "I will take Chris, and you take John." But before I had time to get a line on Sontag's breast, Fred fired. Evans fell endway, with both hands up. Sontag dived for the straw pile, and I let go as him. Then both of them, from behind the strawstack, turned loose their big Winchesters. Bullets whizzed through the house. Fred and I fired again. "'I'll slip around to the other side," says Jackson. 'We'll cross-fire them and give it to them.' "He went around and presently comes limping back. "'I'm done up; my leg's shot to pieces,' he said. "I asked him if I couldn't do something for him, but he says: 'No; I'm all right; don't let them get away; keep pouring it into them.'" "I dropped back to my corner and fired ten more shots. "'I worked around back of 'em on the hill, but they had quit shooting and buried themselves in the straw clean out of sight. There was not anything for me to do but blaze away at the straw pile, and I did that. They did not answer my shots, so I thought they were dead. I ran back to the house and got my own gun. I worked [my way] to the other side of them and shot some more at the holes in the straw. By this time it was so dark I couldn't see the sights on my rifle. "Presently I saw Evans crawling through the long grass about sixty feet from the straw pile. I shot at him. He kept on crawling, and in the uncertain light I fired a dozen shots. Suddenly he jumped up and started to run. I followed him a couple of hundred yards, shooting wherever I got a show. He ran down the eastern slope of the ridge, and I lost sight of him in a pile of rocks. "It was too dark to shoot any more and I didn't feel like feeling for Chris Evans, so I went back to look after Fred. I found him in the wheatfield 150 yards form the house. I sent Burns to the nearest neighbor to borrow a wagon, and I brought Jackson to Visalia, leaving Gard and Burns there. Burns slept all night at the house where he got the wagon. Gard stopped near the straw pile where Sontag lay wounded till we got back at sunrise." "We had been out after them a week. Jackson and I left Fresno a week ago last Sunday afternoon and made to a station near Monson, where we met Burns, and went right on to Stone Corral. We watched from the big rock off the road that night. We know Evans would have to pass that way if he paid another visit to Visalia. We all watched that night. In the morning we crawled up on the mountain and watched for them. This we kept up. Thursday night Gard arrived, and we watched and waited until they came. (sic)
On June 13, 1893, the Indianapolis Sentinel reported the following:
After a search extending over two months and after six encounters the notorious train robbers, John Sontag and Chris Evans, last night met four deputy U.S. marshals and as a result of the encounter which followed Sontag was wounded, possibly fatally, and is now in custody, having been brought here this forenoon. His companion, Evans, escaped after firing forty shots at his pursuers. Where he made his stand last night he left his hat and two empty guns, and the ground was found covered with blood this morning, indicating that he, too, is wounded. Being without guns or ammunition it is thought he will be captured. ... The four officers who made the attack upon the bandits were U.S. Marshall Gard and his depty, Edward Rapelja [Hiram Rapelje], a deputy sheriff from Fresno county, Fred Jackson, and officer from Nevada, and Thomas Burns, who was with Black at Camp Badger when the latter was shot by the robbers last month. The officers have been in the mountains [Sierra Nevada] for a week looking for the robbers, and Sunday afternoon encamped at a vacant house twelve miles northeast from this city. About twenty minutes before sunset Rapelja went to the rear door of the house and saw two men come down the hill and toward the place. On closer observation it was discovered that the men were Evans and Sontag. The former was in the lead and carried a rifle and shotgun, and Sontag was armed with simply a rifle. Rapelja turned around to his comrades in the house and said: "Hello, here comes two men down the hill." He did not know positively who they were, but judged from their appearance and arms that they carried that they were the outlaws. Jackson went to the door where Rapelja was standing and said: "They are the men we have been looking for." ... The two men woke up Burns and Gard, who were asleep. They jumped up quickly and grabbed their guns and prepared to make a fight. The officers went out of the front door of the house and as they went around back of the corner Evans saw Rapelja and, throwing this Winchester to his shoulder, took deliberate aim and fired. Just then Jackson stepped around behind Rapelja and fired at the bandits. Sontag threw up both hands and fell backward. Then the firing became general and Evans returned the shots with a vengeance. Evans got behind an old rubbish pile, out of sight, but kept up a terrible raking fulisade. Jackson went around the far end of the house to see if he could get a better place form which to shoot. As he went around he was shot in the leg between the knee and the ankle. He told Rapelja he was shot, but told him to keep up the fight and not to give it up. About forty shots were exchanged between the officers and the bandits, but the sun went down and darkness ended the battle. Evans was seen to crawl on his stomach from behind the rubbish pile and Rapelja again opened fire on him. ... Evans then arose to his feet and ran toward the hills followed by Rapelja, who continued firing. Evans did not return the fire and in a few minutes was out of sight. Rapelja returned to the house and procuring a wagon brought Jackson to town after midnight. Marshall Gard and Burns remained at the scene until morning. Sontag lay behind a small stack of hay all night, where he was found by Gard and Burns. Sontag says he spit blood all night. There is a glancing wound along his forehead and on each side of his nose. It is claimed that he inflicted these wounds himself, though this is denied. Evans' tracks show that he started toward Visalia and his home will be watched day and night. Sontag talks freely. He says the jig is up and he does not care for his future. It is possible that Sontag may recover from his wounds though the attending physicians will express no decided opinion. Officers are now searching the hills in the hope of finding Evans and completing at once the long chase. ... The train robbery, which was the beginning of this criminal chapter, occurred at a station near Colli[n]s, near Fresno, Cal., Aug. 3, 1892. An express car was blown up with dynamite, and Express Manager, George D. Roberts, seriously injured. Officers soon arrested George Sontag at the house of Chris Evans in this city. He was afterwards tried and sent to the penitentiary for life. When an attempt was made to arrest Evans, he and John Sontag opened fire on the officers, wounding George Witty. In a second encounter, Oscar Weaver, an officer, was killed in front of Evans' house. On Sept. 14 Andrew McGinnis and Victor [Vernon] Wilson were killed in the mountains by the bandits and two other officers were wounded. On May 26 S.J. Black, another officer, was wounded by the bandits in the mountains. No previous criminal incident in the history of California has occasioned greater public interest. Until the train robbery occurred Evans had borne a good reputation and great surprise was shown when the crime was traced to his door. He is an educated man, a native of Canada, and it is said that his early schooling was to fit him for the priesthood. He has a wife and children living in this city. The two Sontag brothers lived in Minnesota, coming to this state a few years ago. Sontag said he and Evans had not a cent of money for a month, but did not intend to hold up a train. They would have left the mountains only they had no money or clothing. "When I was shot last night," he said, "I asked Chris to shoot me, but he would not. (sic)"
- "Gunfight at Stone Corral". Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- "Newspaper Coverage of the Evans & Sontag Story: The Examiner, San Francisco, Tuesday Morning, June 13, 1893, Vol. LVI, No. 164, p1:". June 24, 2004. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- Smith, Wallace; William B. Secrest (2004). Garden of the sun: a history of the San Joaquin Valley, 1772-1939. Linden Publishing. ISBN 978-0-941936-77-4.
- "House Party Shoot-Out: Evans & Sontag vs. Smith & Witty". Mike Boardman. March 9, 2009. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- "Rough and Ready Rapelje -- Madera County bounty hunter". Sal Maccarone. 2011. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- "Forgotten Newsmakers: Christopher Evans (1847-1917) & John Sontag (1862-1893) Train Robbers". Debbie Foulkes. 2010. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- ODMP memorials for Sherriff Beaver
- Reasoner, James (2003). Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West. Penguin Publishing. ISBN 978-0-425-19193-4.
- ODMP memorials for Deputy Marshals Wilson and McGinnis
- "Frontier Legends: The Complete List of Old West Outlaws: Sontag Brothers". Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- Elman, Robert (1975). Badmen of the West. Ridge Press. ISBN 0-600-313530.
- The Herald June 28, 1893 .p.1
- "Frontier Legends: The Complete List of Old West Outlaws: Christopher Evans, aka: Bill Powers (1847-1917)". Retrieved June 18, 2012.