The bandit from Bells CornersPublished on November 11, 2018

  • Tulare County Museum, Visalia, CA

  • Sketch by Andrew King

On a parcel of land on a flat field, south on Greenbank Road in the NCC Greenbelt, into the NCC Greenbelt an annual crop grows up from the soil and marks its place in history as a spot where something else grew—Chris Evans, the biggest outlaw in Californian history. 

Chris came into the world on February 19, 1847 to parents Thomas and Mary Ann Evans, residents of Bells Corners. He was raised to work their family farmland on the same property now owned by the NCC.

Young Chris worked on the farm until the age of sixteen, when he decided that he wanted to “seek out his fortune.” He headed south to the United States and soon joined the Union Army fighting against the Confederate forces in the U.S. Civil War. A natural sharpshooter Chris stayed with the Army as a talented scout after the Civil War ended and served alongside American legend Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame. He later deserted the Army and headed to California and the emerging Wild West. Once in California, Chris met and married a girl by the name of Molly Byrd, and settled down on a farm of his own in Visalia, California.

Here in the quiet hills of San Joaquin Valley, Chris worked as a miner, teamster, lumberjack and railroad employee. He hired a young man named John Sontag to work on his farm; John also worked the railroads with the Southern Pacific Railroad. John was injured on the job, then fired by the company, forming a contempt for the railroad industry. Chris and John became close friends with a shared dislike of the Southern Pacific Railroad, a sentiment shared by many in the area since the railroad company expropriated many properties for less than market value.
They went into a livery business together in Modesto, California, but a 1891 fire left them both bankrupt and forced a return to Visalia. It was at this time that an unusual number of train robberies occurred, perpetrated by two masked men.

After a Southern Pacific Railroad train was held up near Fresno in August 1892 by two bandits who made off with $50,000, authorities followed the bandit’s tracks to Visalia. Suspicions led railroad detective Will Smith and Deputy Sheriff George Witty to Evans’ farm where Chris and John appeared with shotguns. During a firefight they blasted their way out, wounding both lawmen and killing another who arrived on the scene. This began the largest manhunt in California’s history.

 Now on the run, the two bandits had a posse of dozens of lawmen, 300 armed civilians and a score of bounty hunters looking to claim the $10,000 reward for their capture, dead or alive. The pair was well liked in the area, and the locals provided cover and hiding places which enabled them to avoid any confrontation for about a month.

One day in September, a posse tracked the fugitives to a cabin in the mountains where an eight-hour shootout resulted in the killing of a Marshal and another posse member. Chris and John escaped and camped in the mountains for the winter.

In the spring of 1893 a new Marshal was tipped off that the outlaws were planning a visit to Chris’ wife, Molly, in a cabin northeast of Visalia. Marshall Gard and his posse of three men headed to the Stone Corral, next to the Evans home, and waited until the pair showed up on June 11. During the gunfight at Stone Corral, John was hit in the stomach and in the right arm. The dying man begged his friend to leave him and eventually Chris made his escape from a haystack under darkness, but was hit in the face and arm from the blast of a bounty hunter’s shotgun. Despite this, he managed to get away.

Left for dead, John was found almost lifeless the next morning by the posse. A photograph of him appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, as he was hauled away to prison in Visalia.

Although badly wounded, Chris walked six miles up Wilcox Canyon to another cabin and was bandaged up by the owners who later informed the police of his whereabouts. The fugitive surrendered without further resistance and was jailed in a cell next to John, who soon died of his wounds. Chris Evans’ trial was held in Fresno, CA and on December 13, 1893, he was sentenced to life in Folsom Prison.

Despite an amputated arm and losing an eye due to his injuries, Chris escaped from the Fresno jail with a fellow prisoner on December 28, wounding another Marshal. He was captured again visiting his family in Visalia, and remained in prison until May 1911. He was released under the condition that he would never set foot in California again, and he moved his family to Portland, Oregon. Here, he lived without incident his remaining days.

The Ottawa native and the greatest outlaw in the history of California, maintained his self-defense claim stating, “I am guilty of no crimes. I killed men who were trying to kill me.”

Chris Evans died in 1917 and is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. His parents’ graves can still be seen today in the Union Cemetery in Bells Corners.

Andrew King

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