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Christopher Evans - His Life

Christopher Evans

Chris' death certificate states that he was born in Canada, February 19, 1847 and died in Portland, Oregon, February 9, 1917 at St. Vincent's Hospital, which in 2002, in modern version, still exists on Barnes Rd. in NW Portland near the Beaverton border. Chris was born to parents who belonged to the Anglican Church, though he and Molly raised their family in the Southern Methodist faith (an important distinction after the Civil War, especially to Tennessee born Grandmother Byrd). He was buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery also on Barnes Rd in the hills a mile or two east of St. Vincent's Hospital. According to his death certificate, Chris died of "carcinoma of the prostate gland" which had been diagnosed 2 years before. The death certificate indicates his parents were both born in Canada, given as Thomas and Mary Switzer Evans. Daughter Eva Evans in her manuscript "An Outlaw and his Family" indicated that Chris who had a tall, dark twin brother, Thomas, was short, and fair with a red beard, and was a towhead into early adulthood, had a short, dark-haired father from Ireland and a tall, blond mother from Germany roots.(She too came from Ireland, a member of a colony of Irish Palatinates who fled the French wars, devasting the German Palatinate, to England in the early 1700's and some thence to Ireland). Switzer is an Irish Palatinate name that once had been Schweitzer. Mary Ann's Switzer's parents immigrated to Canada in 1825. They had a large family of 4 boys and 4 girls. Chris was said to have left home at 16 "to seek his fortune".

Chris had lived in Portland for 6 years at the time of his death, having been paroled from California's Folsom Prison in 1911 with the explicit terms that he move to Portland and not re-enter California without permission of the authorities. The informants on his death certificate were the Sisters of Charity, rather than a family member, although wife Molly and the younger children had joined him in Portland. Oldest daughter Eva had married her third husband, Perry McCollough, a successful real estate developer in Laguna Beach, CA in 1909. Chris had been a towhead as a boy and grew into a fair haired, strong and wiry man of about 5'8". Chris had a fraternal twin named Thomas, who was taller and darker-haired, who was said to have gotten into trouble with the Dalton Gang and killed with them during their last Kansas bank robbery in Coffeyville. This was not true; the fact is that Tom and his wife lived briefly in California with Chris and Molly, both wives losing their newborns shortly after birth. Tom's wife was so disheartened and homesick after this that they soon returned to Canada where they remained.

Earlier History:
Adapted from Wallace Smith's Prodigal Sons: Times were hard for the large Canadian immigrant family who had 4 boys and 4 girls; Chris ran away from home at the age of sixteen and crossed the border of Canada into America in the early summer of 1863. as the American Civil War was approaching its climax. Chris joined the Union Army at Buffalo, NY perhaps under an assumed name, which he never revealed to anyone, even his family, and never allowed them to apply for a veteran pension. His daughter Eva believed he took a "French discharge." He was with a detachment of troops sent to western Minnesota where the Sioux Indians were on the warpath, finally reaching the Dakota prairies where Chris won fame as a scout. One evening while he was sleeping on his blankets in a thicket, a Sioux Indian who had been trailing him attacked him with a tomahawk in the early dawn. Chris killed his attacker and, so his story went, he carefully removed the scalp from his opponent and mailed the Indian's scalp to his girlfriend in Canada, so she would appreciate his prowess. The stench from the uncured souvenir led postal inspectors to open the package somewhere en route and Evans received a severe reprimand from Washington, D.C.. Evans never became an American citizen and said years later that he felt that the Indians were being wronged and soon lost all interest in fighting them. He said that his commanding officer was General George A. Custer, whom he admired and he agreed with Custer's contention that it was the graft prevalent during President Ulysses Grant's administration which was leading to Indian troubles. The Evans family always suspected Chris deserted the Army in disgust, 3 years before Custer's Last Stand with Crazy Horse and his Sioux warriors, if he was ever under Custer at all. At any rate, in 1873, after 10 years of service, most of it, it was said,as a trooper in Custer's Seventh Cavalry, Chris in the company of an Army buddy named Jack Egan went for a walk along the Union Pacific rails and ended up in California. Chris then turned north to the only town of any importance then, Visalia. He found work first with a Visalia lawyer named Daggett who encouraged Chris in his self-improvement efforts, buying books and studying at night becoming an astonishingly self-taught, well-read and knowledgeable man. The following spring in 1874 he obtained work as a teamster for Hudson (Hud) Barton's lumber mill at Cedar Springs in the mountains northeast of Visalia.(Hudson was the oldest brother of Frances Barton who was the first wfe of Molly Byrd Evans' brother, our great grandfather William Henry Byrd) It was in this way that the 27 year old Chris met the young fifteen year old Molly Byrd who, with her mother, Isabella, ran roadhouse, an eating establishment on their Rattlesnake Ranch along the road for loggers and teamsters. It must have been love at first sight, because they were married that fall on November 4, 1874 at Molly's home. Not yet 16, she wore a long black silk dress because she thought black was the most elegant, and her father let her do it. Many neighbors attended with food and dancing until dawn.... Square dancing to real mountain music.

Chris, after becoming an established family man, was later suspected of becoming a train robber, with his partner being his anticipated son-in-law, John Sontag. He and his family never had any amount of money that the robberies should have brought. Why he would have begun to rob trains after the age of 40, if indeed he did, appears tied to the politics of the railroad and the settlers. The railroad had begun to steal land from landowners who had paid for their land and had deeded claims. The Southern Pacific RR had been allowed to evict entire households without warning taking over their ranches and homes, claiming RR land reclamation rights without remuneration to the families. John Sontag had been a RR employee seriously injured when a part of the train car pierced his lung while he was uncoupling train cars and the engineer came backward, instead of forward. After the RR provided minimal treatment and recuperation and despite its initial promises to provide him a "desk job" John was told the only job available was his old one for which he was no longer had the strength, thus he was fired with no compensation; becoming an understandably disgruntled ex-employee. Chris too had reason to be angry with the RR, called in those days The Octopus (see novel of that name written by Frank Norris). Its barons, who were in political control of the area, fixed prices on transport of farm produce and equipment, resulting one year in Chris taking a large loss on his bean crop, because of the exorbitant fees of the RR. John met Chris sometime after this; Chris always had a soft heart for the underdog and offered John a place to stay in return for odd jobs at his Redwood Ranch. John, described as an exceptionally good looking, tall man, soon became engaged to Eva, Chris' oldest daughter, with both parents blessing, provided he wait until the young Eva turned 17. Visalians in general were disgruntled when the Southern Pacific decided to bypass Visalia as a train stop, which would have greatly enhanced Visalia as a trade center. In any case two or three of a number of robberies were attributed to Sontag and Evans from 1889 to 1893, though neither were ever convicted of any of these crimes. George Sontag, who had a record having spent time in prison for embezzling in Minnesota, liked to drink and when he drank he babbled and bragged. The detectives were suspicious of George and John because the description of the train robbers as one short fat man, and one tall slender man, fit George who was short and stout, and John who was tall and well built. John's brother apparently implicated John in the latest robbery. Will Smith, a RR detective and George Witty, a local deputy sheriff came to the Evans house looking for John, who unbeknownst to the Evans family had come in and hidden in their house when no one else was inside. Eva answered the door and when Witty hurled a lewd remark toward Eva, she ran outside in tears to get her father. Chris entered the house grabbing Eva's revolver lying on the bureau and securing it in his back pocket. When Chris told him John was not there, Smith began to roar profanity at Evans, and Witty pulled out his gun and probably in nervousness pulled the trigger sending a bullet whizzing past Eva's head, narrowly missing her, and out the back door. It was then, to everyone's surprise, that John suddenly pulled aside the portieres separating the front and back rooms stepping out with guns drawn. At this point the two officers turned and ran. Smith ran into the fence, but instead of breaking through it got his head caught, rear end up and legs flailing. Sontag apparently could not resist the target and fired a load of bird shot into the inviting posterior. With that added impetus Smith broke through the fence and ran down the road "like a bat out of Memphis" heading for town shouting, according to Eva's ballad, "O take me to a doctor, for I know I'm going to die." At the same time Witty had "high-tailed it" down the path to the road, but Chris fired and caught him in the shoulder, In the meantime John untied the sheriffs team and Chris and John left in the wagon. At this time both Chris and John became outlaws. Why did they flee, if they were innocent? This question could never be satisfactorily explained to their neighbors. Molly and the rest of the family came in from the orchard at the sound of gunshots and more officers arrived, telling Molly and Eva bluntly that John and George Sontag were train robbers, that George was in jail and had confessed. George had not confessed, but Eva and Molly could not know this. "Grandmother Byrd's Tennessee mountain anger came to a boil at this point and she took her daughter away." Witty and Smith were both treated and survived. Later that evening Chris returned home, explaining they needed to rescue George at the train station before he was shipped to Fresno jail in the morning. Chris and John felt George had been framed and nothing could save him from the clutches of the lawyers employed by the Southern Pacific, It was a "hair-brained plan" Chris' family thought and didn't work because George was never brought to the RR station. That night a RR detective, Oscar Beaver, lay in wait in a ditch by the house. Eva saw him and pointed him out to John when Beaver began to fire into the team of horses and Chris and John returned fire as they, Mollie and Eva took cover behind the dying horses. The result of this second gun battle on August 5 1892 was the death of Oscar Beaver. Chris was still recovering from a serious foot injury from a piece of farm equipment and John had broken his ankle two weeks before dealing with an unruly horse; now both lame men took off on foot into the hills without horses, food or extra clothing. "Wanted Dead or Alive" and a $10,000 reward offered by the Southern Pacific brought out a large posse and "professional man-hunters". The young Evans children suffered the taunts and fights with their peers at school. Chris and John eluded the authorities even returning to Chris' family or friends for supplies until the long Sierra winter set in. John's leg and ability to travel became worse and his stamina after his lung injury was compromised (he basically operated with one lung, his heart shifted to right side of his chest.) Evans and Sontag even granted newspaper interviews while in hiding. George Hearst, followed by his son William Randolph Hearst, as owner of the San Francisco Examiner was antagonistic to "The Big Four" (Leland Stanford among them) who owned the Southern Pacific. Like Chris, they felt a genuine kinship with the weak and heavy laden, with the author Ambrose Bierce often performing as the Randolph press pen. It was Chronicle reporter, Henry Bigelow, who was given the task to interview Sontag and Evans in their mountain hideout and he was successful, never betraying them. Chris had set up in a cave for the winter, he had discovered with Mollie years before. Many of the townspeople were quite sympathetic due to their own hatred of the Southern Pacific. Mr. Kinkler, father in law of GGf William Henry Byrd's son, Uncle Leslie Henry Byrd, married to Ethel Kinkler Byrd, hid the men on occasion, as did Molly's and GGf Wm Henry's brother, G. Grand Uncle Oliver Perry Byrd, although Perry eventually turned betrayer. Eventually Chris and John were cornered by a posse in what became known as the Shoot Out at the Stone Corral. Chris and John were both hit, John mortally, although he lived long enough to see Eva in Visalia and at the Fresno jail. as well as John's mother, who took the train in from Mankato, Minnesota, before he died of peritonitis, July 3 1893. One of Chris' eyes was shot out and his left arm mangled, which resulted in the amputation that arm, but he managed to drag himself to the the home of the Widow Perkins (GG Uncle Oliver Perry Byrd's mother-n-law) who tended his wounds with the help of her son Lige (Elijah), and grandson Elmer,as best as possible. Some say the injured and sick Chris struck a deal with the Widow that if she turned him in she would split the reward money with his wife Molly and she agreed. Lige Perkins denied this, stating Chris continued to resist turning himself in and so Lige saddled up and went to the sheriff. Al Perkins, Lige's younger brother was offered $100 by Undersheriff Hall if he would go upstairs and disarm Chris. He brought back word that Chris would surrender to Hall, which was complicated by the arrival of two free-lancing bands of man-hunters who wanted the growing rewards. Guns were drawn over Chris' prostrate body until Chris begged:'Gentlemen, fight it out later over the blood money. I'm suffering terribly. Get me to a doctor." Al never got his $100 and the battle over the blood money raged on for some time. Chris was arrested and sent to Fresno jail to await trial. Over the long hot summer the Evans family was in dire straits; Chris had no money to hire an attorney. A man named R.C. White, a San Francisco playwright and producer made Molly and Eva an offer. He had just completed writing a stage play entitled Evans and Sontag which he planned to present at the National Theatre in San Francisco. he invited them to play themselves in the production which he thought would increase the draw of on already popular story. In return they would receive 25% of the proceeds. Though Mollie was reticent, Eva was eager to perform, and Chris, from his prison cell gave his written consent. Eva and Molly played themselves and professional actors played the other roles, including Chris, John, Lige, Will Smith and even Grandmother Byrd. There was standing room only on opening night and later the show went successfully on the road throughout California up to Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile, on December 28,1893, with the help of another sympathetic friend, Morrell, Chris escaped with great notoriety. Chris went home again and so was quickly recaptured and sent this time to Folsom. The play, more popular than ever was updated to include the latest escape chapter, and the younger towheaded Evans children were put on stage with non-speaking parts Chris' trial lasted 15 days and he was convicted, not of train robbery, but of killing an officer of the Southern Pacific. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at Folsom where he remained until 1911, when his daughter Winifred, who had been tirelessly working for his release, finally succeeded (just as the absolute political control the Southern Pacific had held was loosened by legislation) and Chris was paroled as a "model prisoner". Winifred moved him up to Portland, OR, as required of Chris by his parole, Molly and the boys awaited him. In October 1913 he wrote a happy letter to daughter Eva ln Laguna Beach. "We are at 948 Corbett St. in a comfortable house with electric light, gas, including a range and a large 2 room basement 12 feet to the ceiling, a large front room, diningroom, kitchen with fine fixtures and pantry, 2 large bedrooms and bathroom with toilet and wash stand and a fine back porch with a splendid view from it of Mt. Hood and E. Portland and underneath Ross Island and the Oaks." Though he surely loved his freedom, he never regained good health and died just before his 70th birthday on February 9, 1917. He was buried at Mt Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in the west hills of Portland in a touching service covered by the newspapers. His 4 sons served as pallbearers. His is a simple flat tombstone bearing his name, birth and death dates. It is on Barnes Rd., within 3 miles of his great grandniece's home (2004) in the Portland northwest hills by Skyline Blvd. Molly is not buried with him. She remained in Portland for a time with the boys, but eventually she moved to Laguna Beach. CA to live with Eva until her death. Next to Chris' stone is a unique headstone in the shape of a tree stump, belonging to "the Woodman of the World" who also died in 1917. This landmark made Chris' hillside grave site easy to find. Chris always denied ever robbing a train, and, after all, where was the money? The Evans family never had any. He continued to his death to state, "I am guilty of no crimes. I killed men who were trying to kill me." Had he been willing to compromise his ideals and admit and express regret for his crimes, he would perhaps have been freed years earlier. But this was the truth as he saw it. It was his principle to never lie.

There have been a number of books and articles written about Evans and Sontag as being among the outlaws of the old west: 1. Evans and Sontag, The Famous Bandits of California, 1893, by Hu Maxwell, reprinted 1981 by Pioneer Publishers, Fresno; 2. The Prodigal Sons, by Wallace Smith, Ph D,a history professor at Fresno State, 1951 (Eva Evans sued him for plagiarizing her unpublished manuscript, which Smith had seen) reprinted 1973 by California History Books, Fresno; 3. Desperadoes of California by Secrest and Secrest, published in 2000, purports to tell the stories of famous outlaws in their own words. Other articles can be found on the internet by searching under Chris Evans and John Sontag. In November of 2002 the Tulare Co. Historical Society is planning a reenactment of the original screenplay of Evans. Eva Evans also left an autobiographical manuscript with many details of the family's life and troubled times, a tribute to her father whom she admired and honored and never believed him guilty of train robbery...for which he had never been tried.

Owner/SourceBob Switzer
Linked toChristopher Evans

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