Unlocking History

Ranger, soldier Bill Byrnes was 1850s San Quentin captain

Three men in old western clothing.
The California Rangers, circa 1853. From left are Bill Henderson, Capt. Harry Love and an unidentified Ranger, but most likely a rare image of marksman William "Bill" Byrnes, who shunned the limelight. Byrnes was one of the leaders of the Rangers along with Love and Henderson. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri.

A veteran of multiple wars, Captain William “Bill” Wallace Byrnes was one of the early correctional staff at what would become San Quentin State Prison. Byrnes, who served with the California and Texas Rangers, was a veteran of the Mexican American War as well as many conflicts with Native Americans. The California Rangers were the early version of the National Guard, called to duty when needed.

Bill Byrnes recruited for San Quentin job

Illustration of man on horseback with shotgun.
An 1848 wood carving of a Texas Ranger. William Byrnes rode with the Rangers during the war with Mexico, 1846-48. Library of Congress.

When Gen. James Estell held the contract to run the state prison in the 1850s, he was eager to hire Byrnes, based largely on his war record. Byrnes served two years in his role in prison management before being called away to war once again.

Born in 1824 in Maine, he made his way to California like many others at the time – during the Gold Rush of 1849. A hard-living man who spent time as a trapper, mountain guide and soldier, Byrnes was haunted by visions of the horrors he’d witnessed. His larger-than-life tales finally came to an end in the state insane asylum, dead at the age of 50.

Byrnes was a product of his time, taking part in a controversial period of North America history. Before the war with Mexico, around early 1846, the Mexican government sought to clear out a section of territory by paying a bounty on Indian scalps. It was a process the California state and federal governments later used as well. Byrnes and a group of men decided to cash in on the offer.

After their first excursion, Byrnes was sickened by what they had done and plagued by nightmares after that first night. He told others they were visions. The next morning, he left the group. That incident most likely set the stage for how he handled the Native population afterward, often trying to negotiate tribal relocation, as ordered by the state and federal governments.

Priesthood student Bill Byrnes fights war, captured in combat

Drawing of woman with curly hair wearing hat.
Nellie Abbott, daughter of Capt. Byrnes, from an 1892 newspaper illustration.

To help separate the man from the myth, a newspaper reporter tracked down the old lawman’s daughter. Capt. Byrnes had been dead for almost two decades by the time Nellie J. Abbott finally opened up about her father. She said Byrnes didn’t publicly discuss his exploits, shunning attention.

“A handsome blonde of queenly stature leaned over a counter in a little variety-store in Berkeley. ‘Yes,’ she said pleasantly to a Call reporter. ‘I am the daughter of Captain William Wallace Byrnes. How did you find me?’ She was told that a friend of hers had disclosed the secret. ‘I do not care to talk of my father’s life,’ she said, ‘but the story has been told in so many different ways, and never right, that perhaps I would be doing my duty, as you say, in giving you the true version as I have heard it from my father’s own lips,” reported the San Francisco Call, April 3, 1892.

According to his daughter, Byrnes studied for the priesthood in St. Louis but the call of the wild west was too much for the young man. He ran away from the seminary college and made his way to Texas. There, he joined the Texas Rangers and fought in the 1846-48 Mexican American War.

“He went with the Rangers in the war with Mexico, and was soon afterward taken prisoner, with a large number of other Americans, and was marched to Sonora, (Mexico),” she said. “There he was kept under guard, but was allowed certain liberties, and was permitted to remain for some time at the mission.”

According to her, this is where he befriended someone close to his own age – 16-year-old Joaquin Murietta. The young man was a student at the mission in Sonora.

“My father became very well acquainted with Joaquin and they were what may be called chums for some time. A priest at the mission had taught my father to speak Spanish, and the two young men carried on conversations very well together,” she said.

Eventually, Byrnes and a handful of other war prisoners escaped. They were pursued by Mexican soldiers but eluded capture. The group managed to reach San Bernardino and relative safety. After the war, Murietta again crossed paths with Byrnes.

Bill Byrnes rides again as Rangers are reborn

Sketch of San Quentin Prison Captain William "Bill" Byrnes.
San Quentin Captain of the Mounted Unit, William Byrnes, 1850s.

Byrnes worked mines around Placerville and participated in the 1850-51 El Dorado County wars with the Native Americans, according to William B. Secrest’s book, “Behind San Quentin’s Walls.”

Already known as a sharpshooter, trapper, mountain man and war veteran, Byrnes had a well-earned reputation. General Estell desperately wanted someone like Byrnes to help lead the rowdy prison staff. But first, he needed to convince Byrnes to take the job.

In 1852, Estell hired Byrnes to help guide a wagon train relief expedition in the Utah Territory. Always the politician, he used the opportunity to lobby the former soldier to join his management team at the fledgling state prison at San Quentin. Before he had the chance to accept the offer, the new state of California had other ideas. The legislature authorized formation of a specialized group of lawmen, the California Rangers, for a single mission – to stop a roving band of outlaws led by bandit Joaquin Murrieta.

Nellie Abbott recounted how Byrnes was torn about hunting down Murrieta but would do what he saw as his duty to the state of California. She said he was originally asked to lead the Rangers but didn’t want the job, especially since he personally knew Murrieta. Instead, Harry Love led the Rangers to track down the bandit gang in May 1853.

“My father, who was recognized as the most expert rifleman in the State, was offered the position of chief of the band, but he declined. He said that Joaquin Murrieta knew him and had been his friend (so) would doubtless recognize him. (Byrnes) would go with the party and render any service in his power, but he thought that if he were chief of it he would be too prominent. So Captain Harry Love was made chief,” she said.

According to multiple news sources, the Rangers encountered the band on the Tulare plains in July 1853. A fight ensued, which lasted half an hour. Henderson and Byrnes pursued Murrieta with one of Byrnes’ shots striking the bandit, who fell from his saddle. Others claim it was a bullet fired by Henderson. Three-fingered Jack and several others were also killed, and 19 of the band were taken prisoner. To prove they had their man, Byrnes preserved the head of Joaquin, which was later exhibited in San Francisco until the 1906 earthquake, when it was destroyed. Love and his men were all allowed extra pay by the Legislature for their services. Byrnes was granted a special reward, which be declined.

Bill Byrnes regrets Murrieta’s death

According to Abbott, there was more to the story. She said Love and a few other Rangers approached the group of bandits, asked who they were, and believed them when they said they were gamblers. The bandits invited the Rangers to a friendly game of cards. Byrnes, who was traveling behind the others, crested the hill and immediately spotted Murrieta.

“The men who went ahead saw that the (group) were jolly fellows. When Love asked them what they were doing there, they replied that they had come from Los Angeles. They said they were gamblers and had been run out of town. They looked very much like gamblers, being clean, smart looking fellows, and so the statement passed unchallenged. But as soon as my father appeared on the scene there was a great change in the placidity of the (bandits). Joaquin recognized (Byrnes) at once,” Abbott said. “When father came up, he saw Love and his men playing cards with the (group). Joaquin cast a glance toward the newcomer, and at once shouted to the others of his party: ‘That’s Byrnes. Look out for yourselves!'”

Byrnes shouted a warning to Love and the other men.

“The outlaws ran from camp as fast as they could, scattering in all directions. Captain Love pursued a desperado named ‘Three-fingered Jack,’ and my father and Henderson started after Joaquin. The leader of the outlaw band threw himself on his horse and fled away, but my father fired two shots at him, one piercing his breast near the heart. He fell off his horse, but quickly rose again,” she said.

After a brief verbal exchange, Murrieta fell to the ground and died.

“My father was not particularly proud of having killed him. He said very little about it to strangers. But I have often heard him say that immediately after the killing, he felt sorry to think that it had been his hand that had laid the outlaw low.”

Byrnes didn’t want credit for killing Murrieta, allowing others to claim the notoriety. His daughter, by granting the interview, said she wanted to set the record straight.

The California Rangers were early state military

The California Rangers aren’t as well-known as their Texan counterparts but they helped shape what would become the National Guard.

According to a 1928 interview with the last surviving member of that band of rangers, “The California Rangers bore a striking resemblance to the Canadian Mounted Police; they traveled under ‘sealed orders,’ and their principal object was to achieve results. Their traveling equipment was extremely light, each carrying his share of provisions and his cooking set behind his saddle in a piece of canvas, with a blanket which constituted his sole bedding.”

The book, “The Last of the California Rangers,” by Jill Cossley-Batt, goes on: “These old pioneers did not bother much with cooking utensils; a tin-cup, tin-plate, Bowie-knife, sugar-spoons and individual coffee-can represented a complete outfit. Whenever they obtained meat it was cooked over the fire on forked sticks, and bread was baked in the same way, while potatoes were roasted in the hot ashes. All frontiersmen understand this phase of the situation and can appreciate the importance of packing as little weight as possible in a man-hunt of this character. The firearms consisted of old-fashioned muzzle-loading guns of every variety, and each man carried a Colt’s Navy six-shooter. The Rangers were operating in a comparatively arid region, and as activities began in midsummer, the above equipment was considered adequate for all practical purposes.”

According to the author, Byrnes was chosen for the Rangers because he was a “first-class marksman.” He is described as “a tall man with blue eyes, who had many shot-marks on his body.”

The Rangers disbanded shortly after the completion of their mission in August 1853. Different versions of the Rangers would be revived throughout the following three decades, usually with a set mission in hand. When completed, the Rangers were disbanded until their services were once again required.

Bill Byrnes goes to work at San Quentin prison

Byrnes decided it was time to settle down and try a more quiet life but it didn’t take long for other interests to grab his attention.

“After (the Murietta incident), Captain Byrnes was married and settled into domestic life on his ranch in Carson Valley (in 1853), having secured a large section of mining and farming lands in that locality,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, June 1, 1872.

After a brief spell, Byrnes decided to accept Estell’s job offer. According to his daughter, Byrnes served two years as the captain of the prison’s mounted unit. There is very little information available on the time Byrnes spent at San Quentin but there are nuggets of information to be mined from various reports.

It’s easy to understand why a mounted unit was necessary. Most of the inmates were kept aboard ship when he started his prison career in 1853. The offenders quarried stone, made brick and were kept busy constructing the first cell building. Without walls, prisoners were kept in multiple places, including the Waban and on board another ship at Marin Island.

Byrnes started his prison job the same time as another influential official was hired.

“During the summer of 1853, Estell engaged Dr. Alfred W. Taliaferro of San Rafael as prison physician, who paid daily visits to San Quentin and received from the lessee a salary of $200 a month,” according to “San Quentin: Evolution of a State Prison,” a series of reprinted 1918 newspaper articles. “(The doctor often discussed) the horrors of the prison ship. It was due to his urgency that a small hospital was constructed to care for the sick. And, the crowded condition was in some measure relieved by allowing as many trustees as possible to sleep on land.”

The prison expanded over the next two years, but Byrnes became discontent in his job. He wasn’t accustomed to staying in one place for very long.

Reports of free-flowing liquor on prison grounds, and drunken staff, caused great concern. While it was hoped Byrnes would help the staff act in a more professional manner, that wasn’t the case. According to those who worked at the prison during those years, infrequent paychecks and a high-turnover rate left many seeking other jobs.

“Some of the guards were very good guards, and others not; Mr. Gray, Lieutenant of the guard, was drunk about two-thirds of his time; so drunk frequently he could not walk. He is now Lieut. of the guard at Marin Island,” according to Thomas Young, an engineer at the prison, in his sworn testimony in 1855. “(Byrnes) frequently got on a spree; there was a bar kept at the cook house or dining house by Mr. Woods (a guard who was also Estell’s father in law). Woods was a member of the guard inside.”

Job stability, infrequent pay cited as grievances

Many guards resigned saying they didn’t know when, or if, they would receive paychecks. In 1855, a group of officers banded together to write a letter to Governor Bigler addressing the issues. It could be considered one of the earliest versions of a labor union for state correctional officers.

“We have been employed as guards at the State Prison for the last eight months, and some even for a longer period, at $50 per month. None of us have received even half of our wages during our employment, and quite a number (receiving no pay). For months we were induced to continue in our present position, by the frequent and reiterated promises on the part of the Lessee, that our past arrears should be paid.

“Under this delusion we have lingered, or rather have been forced to remain, until January last. Believing that by the transfer of the Penitentiary to the State, the Lessee would be able to compensate us for past (wages), we have continued in employment up to the present moment. None of these promises have been realized,” the guards wrote in a letter dated May 14, 1855. “Some of us now find ourselves at the expiration of from three-fourths to a year’s laborious service, without a dollar in compensation, or the remotest hope of procuring it.”

Bill Byrnes quits San Quentin; Rangers ride again

Black and white photo of man in suit and tie.
Alfred Taliaferro rode with Capt. Bill Byrnes during their time with the Rangers.

According to multiple sources, Byrnes resigned from his position in 1855. For three years, he tried various other endeavors, including acting as a bodyguard in southern California.

In 1858, Byrnes was called back to war. Another group of California Rangers was formed, this time known as the Kibbe Rangers. They mustered into service Aug. 16, 1859, according to the California Military History Museum. Capt. Byrnes was placed in charge of the new Rangers.

The group’s official designation was “First Brigade, Sixth Division, California Militia, Commanded by Wm. Byrnes,” according to 1860 state payroll records. The unit had 93 members.

One of those 93 was another prison official – Alfred Taliaferro served as the Rangers’ surgeon.

Conflict with Native Americans

Conflicts between settlers in northern California and Native American tribes escalated. The settlers sought help from the federal government but were denied. They then requested help from the state.

“Under this condition of affairs the citizens requested the Governor to call out a sufficient number of State troops from the northern counties to drive the (Native Americans) from their haunts of plundering in the mountains, and place them on a reservation,” according to the museum’s records. “Governor Weller in response to the appeal for help requested Adjutant General William C. Kibbe … to organize volunteer military companies.”

As instructed, Byrnes and his Rangers rounded up Native Americans, roughly 500 in all. They had been ordered to place them on the Mendocino Reservation near Fort Bragg in northern California but heavy snow caused them to deliver them to the Tejon Reservation.

“Capt. Wm. Byrnes in command of the Kibbe Rangers … is now waiting for the remainder of his men to arrive, in order that he may disband them. The feeling of interest manifested in that officer by all of his command forces us to the conclusion that he is the most popular Captain that has ever commanded an expedition on the Pacific coast,” reported the Red Bluff Beacon, Dec. 14, 1859.

When Byrnes was able to account for his 93 men, and with the mission complete, they were mustered out of service in January 1860. He wasn’t out for long and was again called to war, this time in Carson Valley. Gen. Kibbe sent reinforcements to what today is northern Nevada near Pyramid Lake.

“The services of the Captain were again in requisition for warlike exploits, and he was called to take command in a force organized to subdue the (Native Americans) in Carson Valley. A scrimmage or two brought Winnemucca and his warriors (to agree to a) treaty and retire to their reservation (in 1860),” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, June 1, 1872.

Known as the Paiute Indian War or the Pyramid Lake Indian War, there were multiple skirmishes in 1860. The first was led by Major William Ormsby, but resulted in the slaughter of the American volunteer forces. Some fictionalized accounts place Byrnes with Ormsby, but he was most likely called up after that initial battle.

Mining pays off but has hefty price

“My father made his way through California and visited many places. At Monterey he married a young woman named Marian Ross. He was for a time captain of the mounted guards at San Quentin. He went to Reese River, Russian River and other places where there were mining excitements,” Abbott told the newspaper.

Byrnes, according to his daughter, did well with his other land and mining interests but died penniless.

“My father generally had plenty of money. He made a lucky strike in mining stocks once, and for a time was worth $500,000, but it all vanished, as he was prodigal of his means, and no one in need of money was refused when they asked him for it,” she told the reporter. “He was a man of wonderful vitality (and) was in seven different shooting affairs … wounded 32 times, in all. Nine bullets (were) extracted from his body in a San Francisco hospital, bearing the torture of the operations like the brave man that he was.”

While mining, shortly after his time in the Pyramid Lake wars, a bullet tore through his chest, fired by a local rancher.

“While prospecting in Gold Canyon (around 1860), he was struck by a musket-shot in the region of the heart, the ball passing completely through his body. The treacherous shot is supposed to have been aimed by a (neighbor) who immediately absconded, leaving his ranch and entire possessions. After lingering between life and death for about a year from the effects of this wound, Captain Byrnes recovered sufficiently to proceed to the Atlantic States for medical attendance, but received no permanent benefit,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, June 1, 1872.

Whether self-medicating to relieve the pain, or haunted by the horrors of war, Byrnes was found insane and placed in an institution in Stockton in 1872.

“He now survives, only the wreck of a once powerful frame animated by a brave and generous soul. During his eventful career Captain Byrnes received (32) distinct wounds. Three of these are in close vicinity of the heart, and one in the head produced a fracture of the skull. Such are briefly the leading events in the life of a California pioneer,” reported the Union.

Byrnes died in 1874 at 50 years old.

“But his wounds were very painful at times, and they at last drove him insane. He died in the Stockton asylum 18 years ago,” his daughter told the reporter in 1892.

What happened to Harry Love?

Legendary lawman Harry Love served in the Texas Rangers, fought in the war with Mexico in 1846 and was also an Army express rider. Love served as a deputy sheriff in Santa Barbara and in 1853, he was named the leader of the newly formed California Rangers.

A man with messy hair and wrinkled clothing.
Capt. Harry Love was a deputy sheriff, war veteran and leader of the California Rangers. He essentially retired and married in 1854. In 1868, he was killed in a gunfight with his estranged wife’s bodyguard. Photo circa 1865. Courtesy Santa Cruz Public Library.

After the group disbanded, he purchased property in Santa Cruz County. His neighbor, Mary McSwain Bennett, was a widow. When her son was killed in a gunfight, Love and Bennett formed a bond. They married in 1854 but their relationship was rocky. Eventually, she moved away to her ranch in Santa Clara, leaving Love behind.

They reconciled and separated frequently until 1866, when she sued for divorce. She lost her case and was forced to remain married. Meanwhile, Love’s home and property were destroyed by fire and flood, leaving him homeless and desperate.

He moved into a small house Bennett had built for him at her ranch in Santa Clara, probably constructed during one of their reconciliation periods. Bennett was not alone – she had a bodyguard in her employ. She instructed her employee to keep Love out of her house, off her porch and away from her. Her actions could be construed as an early form of restraining order.

Love was angered by the situation. On June 29, 1868, he sat on her front porch while the bodyguard and Bennett were away from home. When they returned, Love pulled a pistol and took aim at the bodyguard, whom he saw as the obstacle between he and his wife’s next possible reconciliation.

He shot the bodyguard in the arm, but the employee returned fire, also striking Love in the arm. Love squeezed off another shot, as did the employee. Love’s already injured arm was struck again, shattering the bone. He dropped his gun and staggered into the house. The bodyguard followed, picking up Love’s discarded weapon along the way, and used it to strike Love in the back of the head. The two struggled, but the bodyguard eventually overpowered the mortally wounded Love.

Doctors tried to save Love, amputating his arm, but he succumbed to his injuries and died that evening. The 58-year-old former lawman was buried in an unmarked grave in what is now Mission City Memorial Park. A monument was erected at his grave 100 years after his death.

What happened to Nellie Abbott?

“Nellie J. Abbott, pioneer resident of Berkeley, died at her home in that city on July 31, 1918. She was 61 years of age. Mrs. Abbott was formerly in the book and stationery business for a good many years but more recently conducted an Indian curio store. Mrs. Abbott was born in Mission San Carlos at El Carmello, Monterey County. She was the daughter of the late Capt. William Byrnes, an officer of the California Rangers and the man who killed the (Murrieta) bandit of California during the early days. Mrs. Abbott is survived by a son, Clyde E. Abbott,” reported The American Stationer in 1918.

Clyde E. Abbott, born in 1875, was active in political circles and helped his mother run her stationery store, J. Abbott & Son. Between 1900 and 1912, he was known as the Democratic party boss in the area.

Early San Quentin staff

Bill Byrnes is listed with other San Quentin prison employees (serving in 1855) in an 1856 report to the Legislature. The Guard classification was changed to Correctional Officer in 1944.

Guards: Arthur Andrews, Thomas Armstrong, Thomas Ashton, Andrew Brady, Edward Brennan, H. Bristol, Peter Burns, William Byrnes (also listed as Wm. Burns in other months), Henry Y. Cabell, Hiram Catron, Orro Clift, John English, Jennings Estell, Asa Estes, Benjamin Fenwick, E.P. Fisher, C. Frazier (C. Frazy is also listed), J.W. Gilchrist, Richard Goodell, Joseph Gray, G.W. Harris, Jackson Hess, J.M. Hoak, A.A. Hobbs, Milton Irish, John Jones, M.M. Kenny, James Lansing, John Larkin, G.R.A. Leonard, John J. Love, A. McAllister, John McCutchan, J. McKenzie, James McLane, John McNabb, Cornelius O’Keefe, Robert Perry, Edward Perry, J.L. Polk, B.F. Pullen, William Reeder, Joseph R. Richards, Charles W. Robinson, W.D. Robertson, Sartial Root, R.E. Russell, F.W. Russell,  Joseph Ryder, John Shell, Thomas Simpson, Robert Smith, James T. Stewart, Stephen Storey, Thomas Slater, John Smith, William Snyder, John Spell, James T. Stuart, D. Vernyer, Edwin Waller, Thomas Watson, G.W. Wells, W.W. Winter, G.W. Woods, H.E. Young.

Other positions: Deputy Warden A.H. Pillow; Overseers Robert Peery, Alexander Reed, John Gray, Leroy Knight, Joseph O’Connor, N. Smith, William Milling; Physician Alfred W. Taliaferro, Directors John Love, John F. Madden, W.H. Palmer, Richard N. Snowden; Pike County sloop Capt. Henry Morgan; Mariposa sloop Capt. William Turner; George Lee, services aboard Mariposa; baker Richard Goodell; cook A.F. Gage; Superintendent of Brick Work W. Winters.

Did you know?

  • The California Rangers were formed again during World War II to help with civil defense. They continue today as a youth organization. Learn more.
  • Other early employees included Asa Estes and Dr. Alfred Taliaferro.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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