Fearless John Bugg faced the bandit

Pieces of the Past

May 5, 2011 

In the fall of 1873, one of California's most notorious bandits, Tiburcio Vasquez, went on a robbing rampage, which brought him to the foothills of what is now Madera County. The infamous outlaw and his gang, after paying a visit to Russell Fleming's stables in Fresno for fresh horses, rode off toward the San Joaquin River where they would stage another robbery and meet John Bugg, one of the toughest pioneers ever to set foot in this area.

Bugg had been born in Tennessee in 1839. In 1870 he and his 17 year old bride, Mary, moved to a homestead in the O'Neals area. There John built a spacious, two story home, and set out to engage in ranching and farming.

By 1873, the Buggs were firmly established in the foothills, and they started their family with Harvey, their first born. That was the same year, that John Bugg met Tiburcio Vasquez.

The date was Nov. 10, and Bugg had gone down to Jones' store, which was located on the north side of the San Joaquin River, just downstream from Millerton. There one could purchase dry goods, enjoy libations at the makeshift bar, and exchange small talk with the dozen or so pioneers who constantly held forth around the wood stove.

Bugg must have found the company at Jones' store pleasing, for he was still there when the sun began to set that day. Clerk Smith Norris was behind the bar, and little Lilbourne Winchell sat on the floor listening to the grownups swap tales.

It was probably about 5 p.m. when John Hoxie, deciding that it was time to go home, left the store. As he climbed onto his saddle, he spotted several riders a short distance away just sitting on their horses. Hoxie gave them a friendly wave and rode off, not paying them any mind.

Just as soon as Hoxie left, the riders divided into groups of three and with guns drawn blocked the entrances to the building. When the leader of the gang went inside, the local men recognized him immediately. They were staring down the barrel of Tiburcio Vasquez's revolver.

With the exception of Norris, the bandits then tied up everyone, including the Winchell kid, and made them sit on the floor. Everyone was terrified except John Bugg -- he was furious. Vasquez forced Norris to open the safe and give him the money. Then the outlaws helped themselves to some whiskey and tobacco. At that point Bugg showed his spunk.

Recognizing Vasquez, Bugg struggled against the rope that bound him and shot a string of profanity at him in Spanish. With a sneer, Vasquez reminded Bugg that he was on the floor and would remain there until he had gathered all he came for.

At that juncture, Bugg let loose with another round of invectives in English. Showing no fear or intimidation, he shouted, "If I had my six-shooter, I'd show you quick whether I'd be down or not." And so it went; Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang plundered Jones' store that evening while John Bugg spit vituperative epithets at them. The bandits rode away with the booty, while Bugg and his comrades freed themselves.

Bugg rode with Sheriff Scott Ashman's posse for a couple of days and then returned home. He had work to do. Meanwhile, Vasquez continued to harass the countryside until he was caught, tried and sentenced to die. On March 18, 1875, the bandit leader dropped through the gallows and into eternity.

As for John Bugg, he continued ranching on his homeplace near O'Neals. He and Mary had seven children, and lived long, fruitful lives. John died on Feb. 7, 1922, at the age of 83, and Mary passed away in 1946.

Today all of the Buggs lie in repose in their family plot on private property in O'Neals.

This writer will never forget visiting John Bugg at his grave, nor will he forget the first time he saw the Bugg house. The year was 1976, and he had just signed on as superintendent/principal of Spring Valley School in O'Neals. Dick Ryan, one of the school trustees, lived a short distance away, and he introduced me to the history of the O'Neals area.

We did much of our exploring on the weekends, and one Saturday our destination was the Bugg house, which stood on Ryan's property just a few minutes from his home.

After driving a short distance back into Ryan's ranch, we came upon a beautiful, old building, sitting much as it does now in the photograph accompanying this column.

Aside from the picket fence, nothing had changed. The house still had its porch and windowpanes. The roof was intact, and the building looked sturdy enough to live in, although at the time it was 100 years old.

I remember walking in awe from empty room to empty room, wishing they could talk to me. If that had been possible, I would have heard quite a story.

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