The era of Hollywood Western film reached its peak in the 1960s and 70s with film and television productions depicting the gripping adventures of the Wild West. Mostly fictional tales, these Westerns created some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history, from the classic “The Magnificent Seven” to Clint Eastwood’s collection of Westerns. Yet the greatest Western story yet to be told is not from the Wild West, but from the fields of west Ottawa…
GUNFIGHT AT THE STONE CORRAL: California’s greatest outlaw from Bells Corners
If you drive south on Greenbank Road past Hunt Club into the NCC Greenbelt, there is a parcel of land that stretches west towards Cedarview Road. It’s a flat field owned by the NCC with an annual crop growing up from its soil but nothing else marks its place in history, a place where something else grew, the Biggest Outlaw In California History, a man by the name of Chris Evans.
Thomas and Mary Ann Evans, residents of Bells Corners brought their son Chris into the world on February 19th 1847. One of their many children, Tom and Mary Ann raised Chris to work the farmland they owned between Cedarview and Greenbank roads, just southeast of Bells Corners, the same property now owned by the NCC.
Here young Chris worked on his parents farm until the age of sixteen, at which point he decided that he wanted to “seek out his fortune”. Chris 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 and good with gun, Chris stayed with the Army as a talented scout after the Civil War ended and served alongside American legend Lt.Col George Custer, of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame, but Evans later deserted the Army and headed to California and the emerging Wild West. Once in California Chris Evans met a girl by the name of Molly Byrd, of whom he married and settled down with on a farm of his own in Visalia, California.
Here in the quiet hills of San Joaquin Valley, Evans worked as a miner, teamster, lumberjack and railroad employee. He hired a young man by the John Sontag to work on his own farm, who also worked the railroads with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Sontag was injured on the job, then fired by the company, sharing in Evans contempt for the railroad companies. Evans and Sontag became close friends, even going into a livery business together in Modesto, California. They both shared a dislike of the Southern Pacific Railroad, a sentiment shared by many in the area since the railroad company expropriated many properties under market value. A fire burned down their Modesto business in 1891, leaving them both bankrupt and forcing them to return to Visalia. It was at this time an unusual number of train robberies occurred perpetrated by two masked men.
On August 3 1892, a Southern Pacific Railroad train was held up near Fresno by two bandits who made off with $50,000. Authorities followed the bandits tracks which lead to none other than Visalia. Authorities had grown suspicious of Evans and Sontag and paid a visit to the Evans farm. Two men, Railroad Detective Will Smith and and Deputy Sheriff George Witty approached the Evans residence when Evans and Sontag appeared with shotguns. The two parties engaged in a firefight, with Evans and Sontag blasting 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, buddies Evans and Sontag 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 were well liked in the area by the locals who provided them with the necessary cover and hiding places while the epic manhunt ensued, and they were able to avoid any confrontation for about a month. Then one day in September, a posse tracked Evans and Sontag to a cabin in the mountains. Here the posse approached the fugitive’s cabin but were quickly ambushed by Evans and Sontag who blew out the windows and shot up the approaching posse, killing a Marshal and another member of the posse. An eight hour shootout resulted in Evans and Sontag escaping further into the mountains where they spent the winter camping.
In the spring of 1893 another special posse of lawmen lead by a new marshal, Marshal George E. Gard kept his posse small and secret, stealthily tracking the fugitives and slowly gathering information without being detected by the two outlaws. Marshal Gard soon got a tip that said that Sontag and Evans were planning a visit to Evans’ wife, Molly, who was located at the Evan’s cabin about ten miles northeast of Visalia. Gard and his posse headed to the Stone Corral, next to the Evans home, so they could begin searching the area for the two bandits.
Once at the Stone Corral, the Marshal and his posse of three men, Hiram Lee Rapelje, a deputized bounty hunter, Fred Jackson, a policeman from Nevada and Thomas Burns, holed up in a cabin to wait and watch if Evans and Sontag would pass by. The tip would prove to be correct, since soon afterwards on June 11th, 1893, Evans and Sontag appeared on the hill overlooking the Stone Corral. Evans wanted to fire a few shots into the cabin below to see if anybody was there, but, because the place appeared to be empty and because the cabin was known as a “lover’s rendezvous,” Sontag talked him out of it.
The two men got off their horses and headed down to the cabin where Jackson, the policeman, was keeping watch. Beside a haystack Evans looked down and saw someone in the cabin window and quickly opened fire with his Winchester rifle.
Jackson hearing the shots, picked up his shotgun from the porch and blasted the pair near the haystack where Evans was hit by the blast.
The two retreated behind the haystack knowing they were now being ambushed, and lay as flat as possible to avoid the incoming fire from the cabin below. The San Francisco Examiner later interviewed Marshal Gard who gave his account of the gunfight at Stone Corral, who said “I will take Chris, and you take John.” But before I had time to get a line on Sontag’s breast, Fred fired. Evans fell endway, with both hands up. Sontag dived for the straw pile, and I let go as him. Then both of them, from behind the strawstack, turned loose their big Winchesters. Bullets whizzed through the house.”
Enraged at the ambush, Evans and Sontag lead a barrage of angry shots into the cabin, and Jackson, hoping to flank the two from the side ran out the cabin and approached the haystack from the side…Evans caught sight of the approaching policeman and blasted him with his revolver taking out Jackson’s kneecaps and legs. Sontag at some point was hit in the stomach and in the right arm, taking him out of the battle. With night falling, the shootout left the adversaries without visibility.
Now dying, Sontag pleaded with his friend to escape in the dark, but Evans refused to leave his friend’s side. In great pain Sontag also begged Evans to shoot him, ending his misery of pain, but again Evans refused. Sontag begged his friend to leave and so obeying his dying wish, Evans grabbed his rifle and began to crawl into the darkness. Spotted by Rapelje trying to crawl away from the haystack, the bounty hunter opened fire and started running towards him. Evans, however jumped to his feet and ran into the darkness without shooting back. He was hit in the face and arm from the blast of the shotgun, yet Evans managed to escape.
Now left for dead, Sontag raised his own revolver to his head in an effort to end his misery but the gun missed, injuring the dying outlaw even more. Calling out for water, the posse in the cabin ignored Sontag’s pleas and stayed in the cabin until dawn when reinforcements arrived and the posse rushed the haystack to find Sontag lying there barely alive. A reporter arrived and the posse heaved up Sontag’s almost lifeless body for a photograph in that would soon appear in the San Francisco Examiner. Sontag was hauled away on a wagon to a jail cell in Visalia.
Meanwhile, Evans, although badly wounded, walked six miles up Wilcox Canyon to another cabin and begged the owners for help. They bandaged him up but a few days later, they informed the police they had a fugitive in their cabin. A large force of lawmen surrounded the cabin expecting Evans to take them on in another massive shootout, but Evans surrendered without further resistance. He was taken to the jail in Visalia and put in the cell next to the dying Sontag. His friend would later die of his wounds in that jail cell on July 3. Evans own wounds resulted in his left arm having to be amputated and the loss of his right eye. Chris Evans’ trial was held Fresno, CA and on December 13, 1893, he was sentenced to life in Folsom Prison.
Despite the lack of an arm and an eye on December 28th Evans escaped from the Fresno jail with a fellow prisoner leaving a Marshal John D. Morgan wounded. Once again, the Ottawa native returned to Visalia to see his wife and children where he was captured again without incident. Evans was then sent to Folsom and remained there until May 1911 when he was released under the conditions that he would never set foot in California again. With his wife and family he moved to Portland, Oregon, where he read, tended to his garden and cats, living out his remaining days quietly and without incident.
Evans claimed he never did rob a train and he only ever fired his gun in self defense. The boy from Bells Corners died in 1917 and is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland, Oregon.
His parents, Tom and Mary Ann, died in 1898 and 1893 respectively and their graves can still be seen today in the Union Cemetery in Bells Corners. Chris’ Evans wife, Molly, would spend her last days in Laguna Beach, California where she died in 1944.
The Wild West is full of characters, most notably those that lived an adventure of crime, but for Ottawa’s Chris Evans, the greatest outlaw in the history of California, he always maintained his innocence til death, stating “I am guilty of no crimes. I killed men who were trying to kill me.”
I eagerly await the Hollywood Western film that should be made based on this fantastic tale of the Outlaw From Bells Corners.
Andrew King, May 2016