Unlocking History

Western pioneer was 1850s San Quentin Captain

Drawing of covered wagons moving across a large valley.
The Santa Fe Trail was the preferred route for many coming from Missouri to New Mexico Territory and California. Asa Estes guided travelers in the 1840s. Illustration from "Scenes and Incidents in the Western Prairies," 1857.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

When Gen. James Estell ran San Quentin prison under a contract, he sought tough-as-nails gritty staff with proven records of achievement. Some of his recruits included ex-Texas Ranger William “Bill” Byrnes, Marin County’s first physician Dr. Alfred Taliaferro and mountaineer Asa Estes, a man who served as a guide and hunter for the military in the New Mexico Territory. Estes was hired as a guard and quickly promoted to a San Quentin captain.

As part of an ongoing effort to tell the forgotten stories of early prison staff, Inside CDCR takes a closer look at Asa Estes.

Welcome to the new west

Man leans on rifle, standing on edge of vast canyon. Early guides like Sab Quentin Captain Asa Estes, helped settle the new west.
Guides were necessary for those unfamiliar with crossing into the west. Photo of the Grand Canyon from New York Public Library, taken between 1850 and 1930.

Asa Estes, sometimes referred to as Estis in the public records, served as a New Mexico “guide, interpreter and hunter” for First Lt. J.H. Whittlesey of the First Regiment of Dragoons, being paid $144 for 34 days of service in 1849, according to a report of the U.S. Treasury Department, Second Auditor’s Office, Jan. 10, 1855.

Even earlier, he was a guide and hunter for private individuals. According to the book, “A Frontier Life: The Trails and Trials of Juana Suaso Simpson (New Mexico),” the west was growing as trappers, hunters and traders began to settle the area in the 1840s.

“The family settled in Fort El Pueblo. The new trading center was in American territory near the Arkansas River. George Simpson, Alexander Barclay, James P. Beckwourth, and Joseph Doyle had just built the fort … which bustled with activity. Trappers, traders, settlers, and Indians exchanged hides, jewelry, metal tools, and food in the frontier village. Adventure at the fort was endless. Young Juana met some of the western frontier’s most colorful characters. Mountain men Jim Bridger, ‘Uncle Dick’ Wootton, Kit Carson, and James Beckwourth, the famous African-American-Crow warrior, were all there. Juana wed George Simpson one month before her fifteenth birthday. They were married at Bent’s Fort by a notary public. The couple soon moved to Hardscrabble, a new farming community co-founded by George,” according to the book.

In need of a guide

“In 1844, (Juana and George) traveled to Taos to be married by a priest and to baptize their daughter, Isabel. Late in September, they left for Taos on horseback. Juana carried her baby in a sling made from a shawl. Juana’s sister, Cruzita, and her husband, Joseph Doyle, also made the trip. They too wanted a Catholic marriage ceremony. Asa Estes was the group’s hunter, and three other men packed and drove the mules,” the book states.

A sudden snowstorm surprised Estes and the group. He shoveled snow and shot deer for the party.

“The very first day the group was caught in an early snowstorm. For seven days they plodded through wind and snow. At night, they tended campfires to keep the baby warm. Estes shot three deer that had wandered out of the blizzard into their camp. The cold and tired travelers feasted on fresh meat in the midst of the storm,” according to the book.

“After the blizzard passed, they headed to the Sangre de Cristo Pass. The men had to dig a path through a big snowdrift. … Later in the journey, they hid from Ute Indians who were moving cattle and sheep. … The group hid in some willows until dusk and then rode in darkness and silence. On October 6, 1844, they safely arrived in Taos,” the book states.

Western pioneer

In 1847, Estes was a member of the Taos Grand Jury for the New Mexico Territory, according to the New Mexico Historical Review of 1956.

Estes served on a jury in the April 10 case of Territory of New Mexico vs Manuel Miera, Manuel Sandoval, Rafael Tafoya and Juan Pacheco. The jury found the defendants guilty of murder and sentenced them to hang on April 30. In an April 12 trial for murder, the jury found Asencio, the defendant, not guilty and he was discharged. In another trial the same day, Estes and his fellow jurors found Francisco Revali not guilty on charges of high treason.

Estes also owned Asa’s Tavern in New Mexico, a popular watering hole for the newly occupied territory.

A few years later, Estes helped the U.S. Army with their excursions into New Mexico. He again served as a hunter and guide.

“In March 1849, Lieutenant J.H. Whittlesey was sent out with 57 soldiers to ‘chastise’ the Utes, using Charles Autobees, Asa Estes, Bill Williams and others as guides and spies,” according to “Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn” by Janet Lecompte, published in 1978.

It would be one of the last missions for Williams.

Deadly winter trek

John C. Fremont, hoping to find a path for the transcontinental railroad, took an ill-fated trip across the southern mountain range in late 1848. Bill Williams, a friend of Estes, was the original guide. He advised against the chosen route, saying they should head for one less impacted by the snow. Fremont dismissed his concerns, appointed another trapper as guide, and posted Williams at the rear of the party.

Through mountains of snow, the 35 men became trapped and Fremont realized they needed to retreat, regroup and resupply. They turned around to head for Taos. On the return trip, 10 men died of starvation and exposure. They reached Taos in February 1849.

Searching for survivors

Williams, already hired by Lt. Whittlesey to act as interpreter and guide for the U.S. Army’s First Dragoons, took some time to search for any survivors.

Williams began retracing the route up the pass. His small rescue party stopped for the night, lit a fire and enjoyed some food and drink. The party consisted of a doctor and other searchers, mostly locals from New Mexico.

Out of the darkness a band of Ute warriors approached. Williams had always been friendly with tribe so was unconcerned. Many accounts say he was also adopted as a member of the tribe.

Williams remained seated and greeted the warriors. According to survivors, the Native Americans shot Williams in the head and the doctor in the chest, killing both. As the other men began to run, the Utes called out to them that they were safe and would not be harmed.

The young warriors were unfamiliar with Williams or his relationship with their tribe. Investigators determined the warriors were retaliating for an earlier military attack on their village. According to many sources, the tribe gave Williams a chieftain’s burial. Following the altercation, an agent for the U.S. government signed a treaty with the tribe to cease hostilities.

With his friend dead, Estes headed west for the Golden State where he would find employment as a San Quentin guard and captain.

From guard to San Quentin Captain

Gen. James Estell, desperate to bring order and professionalism to the state prison he’d been contracted to run, hired Asa Estes as a guard in July 1853. A year later, Estes promoted to Captain of the Guard at San Quentin.

“The guards, (all) picked men, (are) commanded by (San Quentin) Captain Asa Estes, an old mountaineer, a cool, firm and determined man, whom the prisoners fear,” reported the Daily Alta California, Dec. 1, 1854.

On July 24, 1854, nearly two dozen inmates attempted to escape San Quentin. Captain Estes took action, killing one of the ringleaders.

“While being escorted to the stone quarry, inmate Henry ‘Slung-shot’ Smith knocked down a guard and seized his pistol and rifle. Nine of the convicts now rushed toward the prison sloop Pike County, while Smith waved his weapon at the other guards. When he wounded one of the guards in the hip, Smith was promptly shot through the heart by Captain of the Guard Asa Estes. The other convicts abandoned the sloop … and desperately ran toward a nearby whale boat,” according to the book “Behind San Quentin’s Walls.”

Rather than flee or attempt to escape, many of the other inmates rushed to the scene armed with shovels and axes to help put down the uprising.

An 1855 state prison report heavily criticized Estes and other prison officials. Estell’s plan to hire professionals hadn’t gone as he’d hoped. There was also the matter of pay. A group of prison staff signed a letter, addressed to the governor, requesting the state step-up to fulfill the prison lessee’s payroll obligations. At the time, salaries to prison staff often went unpaid. By 1856, Estes left California.

Captain heads back to New Mexico Territory

In 1856, J.H. Quinn herded sheep to California for sale at the market. His path crossed that of a wounded Estes.

“He sold (the sheep) at Sacramento city, at the reduced price of $3.75 per head. Mr. Quinn left California on his return the 26th of March, taking the route by the Gila and Tucson. At the latter place, he overtook (former San Quentin Captain) Asa Estes, who had left California some time in advance. Mr. Estes and his party were attacked by Indians (while) crossing (the) Rio San Pedro and driven back to Tuscon,” reported the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, July 2, 1856.

About 100 yards ahead of the party, Estes took two bullets by Native Americans. One of the shots passed through his arm, leaving him unable to manage his mule.

He dismounted, grabbed his rifle, and left his mule to the Native Americans.

“He … retained possession of his rifle, with which he (used) to keep the Indians back, until he retreated to the creek. Arriving at the creek, he found that his party had all fled and left him,” the paper reported.

Down but not out

Bleeding, in pain and without supplies, he followed after the party. On foot, he traversed 60 miles of rugged country.

“Notwithstanding his loss of blood, (he was able) to reach Tuscon … where he found the rest of the party,” the paper reported.

Still weak from his wounds, he opted to leave with Quinn.

For a man who guided others to the west through treacherous terrain, the trail of Asa Estes goes cold in 1856.

If he made it to Taos, or passed away on Quinn’s trip, is unclear.

Learn more about the Santa Fe Trail (link opens new tab) guided by San Quentin Captain Asa Estes and many others.

A wagon and a few men on horseback travel on a narrow rough path. San Quentin Captain Estes started his career this way.
A guide leads a group over a treacherous mountain pass, undated.