The Notorious Jack Powers: A California Vigilante

Santa Barbara Gazette, February 12th, 1857

Let’s return to Santa Barbara in 1857 when it was not the city we know today. Fresh off the heels of the Gold Rush, Santa Barbara was experiencing the changes of city development but simultaneously held onto many aspects of small-town life. 

In reading the newspaper archives of Santa Barbara, life in the town sounds straight out of a Western. In the advertisement section, community members report wandering horses and ranch animals, hoping to reconnect them with their original owners. Stores advertise goods like barley and new lace appliques. Mail is eagerly awaited from ships who stop on their way to Los Angeles. The picture of life that begins to form is rustic and simple. But Santa Barbara loved its drama too, and that’s what made an 1800s town thrilling.

Santa Barbara Gazette, February 12th, 1857

Flipping through the Santa Barbara Gazette dated February 12th, 1857, one story is of evident importance and excitement: “The Arrest and Escape of John Powers.” At first glance, John’s story seems simple. The sheriff arrested him in Santa Barbara on a Los Angeles warrant. Powers, though, was not going down without a fight. After calling a lawyer, Eugene Lies, Powers made the case that he was being held illegally. Lies, taking Powers’s case, requested that custody of the prisoner be transferred to him. The judge permitted this somewhat questionable plan and let Lies take Powers. Powers ran for it that evening and escaped both Lies and the court. At the time of the article’s publishing, the common belief was that Powers was hidden somewhere in town as a fugitive of the law. Later in the issue, the advertisement section begins with a notice: 

“Whereas, JOHN POWERS, a prisoner in charge of the Sheriff of Santa Barbara, effected his escape while in consultation with me as his counsel. I hereby promise to pay TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS for his apprehension and delivery into the hands of said Sheriff – Eugene Lies”

Santa Barbara Gazette, February 12th, 1857

The court had accused Lies of being an accomplice to the escape, and Lies, in turn, accused Powers of duping him. This advertisement makes clear Lies’s desperate need to clear his name, not only for his freedom but the future of his practice. Although $250 might appear as a small sum at the time, it would have been equivalent to $8,644 today! The newspaper warns all readers that helping to hide or aid Powers would incur penalties and punishment. One can envision the power play Powers had just done. Not only did he gain the trust of Lies but also the court, which allowed him the flexibility for escape, but now all eyes in town were on the lookout for him. 

That could have been the end of Powers’s story, but in reading the article, you get the sense that this article was not where his story ended and not where it had begun. In this article concerning his arrest and escape, John Powers seems to be already a known character to the people of Santa Barbara. The lack of explanation on what he did or who he was leads me to believe he was known. John Powers was not any old criminal on the run. 

John Powers, alias Jack Powers, was an Irish American outlaw with deep ties to Santa Barbara. A quick Google of his name, time period, and location reveals that John Powers was truly a character of 1850s Santa Barbara. Powers was born in Ireland and grew up in New York City. He was a volunteer in the Mexican American War’s Santa Barbara Garrison. Following the start of the Gold Rush, Powers made a name for himself gambling and horse racing in Northern California. He returned to Santa Barbara in 1851, continuing his wild lifestyle, but after being repeatedly stabbed at a party for insulting a young woman, he committed to settling down. Powers established a rancho raising pigs in Arroyo Burro, land previously owned by the Santa Barbara Mission, claiming his service in the war entitled him to the property. But, like the 1850s readers of The Gazette, we know Powers was not done with his shenanigans. He was involved in a dramatic and lengthy legal battle with two other Santa Barbarians who claimed ownership of the same land. All the while, Powers was leading bands of men to battle nearby Indigenous Californians. Eventually, he was kicked out, but a saga like this would likely explain why The Gazette knew of Powers’ presence in the community. He provided hiding in Santa Barbara to fugitive politician Ned McGowan from a San Francisco vigilante group. This favor of a hiding place in Santa Barbara seems to be one someone returned for Powers in February of 1857. 

Santa Barbara Gazette, April 23rd, 1857

In this short blog post, we can not delve into all of Powers’s adventures, but it is clear not only was he an outlaw but an underdog too. In the arrest covered by The Gazette Powers was accused of running a Burglary Ring in L.A. In this small fragment of his life alone (,) The Santa Barbara Gazette updates its readers four times on the story. One of the smallest dramas in Powers’s outlaw life warranted four newspaper segments. 

After his escape, Powers was arrested on April 9th, 1857 in San Francisco and sent to Los Angeles for trial. Luckily for him, he was declared innocent by a Los Angeles judge and set free. The Gazette, in their updates, describe him as: “The somewhat celebrated John Powers” and “The Notorious John Powers.” Santa Barbara in the 1850s had their local heroes, along with their local villains, but sometimes the line between the two became blurred. Jack Powers went on to have many more run-ins with the law and California vigilante groups, but all of those are stories for another day of Headline History. 

Ava Thompson. Ava is a third-year History of Public Policy and Law major with an English minor. She is an editor at the journal, on the Environmental Affairs board, and a member of UCSB’s Pre-Law Fraternity. Ava is passionate about bridging creative writing and historical analysis in her work at UCSB. In her free time, she does amateur painting, leisurely swimming, and loves to watch reality tv with friends.