The legendary group of vigilantes who rode out of El Monte, California during the 1850s are now commonly referred to as the Monte Boys, but this proper noun may not have appeared in print prior to 1930. That year saw the publication of Horace Bell’s second memoir, which was titled On the Old West Coast and edited by Lanier Bartlett, a Hollywood screenwriter who specialized in westerns. In the introduction, Bartlett described Bell as both an “iconoclast” and a “skilled caricaturist," an image-breaker as well as an image-maker who used the “weapons of irony, satire, or broad humor” to critique his contemporaries. Following Bell's lead, Bartlett used humor to cut the Monte men down to size. Explaining El Monte in an endnote, Bartlett wrote, “it was settled largely by rough-and-readies from Texas and the ‘El Monte Boys’ were long celebrated for their proclivity to seek out trouble and add to it.” Stripped of the “El” and the irony, however, the now widely used term “Monte Boys” suggests a level of organization and a youthful male innocence that does not fit the historical record.
Press coverage in the 1850s doesn't refer to them as “Monte Boys” or as members of any capitalized organization. They were the “men from the Monte,” the “citizens from the Monte,” or simply “the Monte men.” A militia called “the Monte Rangers” does pop up in state records in 1854, but, as was often the case in early California, the impetus for the Anglo men (and one Hispanic man) to form the militia was likely to obtain weapons from the state—40 rifled muskets, 40 Colt revolvers, and 40 cavalry sabers in the case of the Rangers. During a period of unrest in 1856 that followed the death of a Spanish-surnamed civilian at the hands of an Anglo lawman, the “men from the Monte” rode into Los Angeles to take part in a massive demonstration of white-male firepower. The Los Angeles Star reported that they came armed with 36 muskets, ostensibly the remnants of the 40 issued by the state, but the paper made no mention of the Monte Rangers as a unit.
Following the death of a Los Angeles Sheriff at the hands of Spanish-surnamed bandits in 1857, the Monte men mobilized again and, upon finding trouble, they added to it. They executed a suspect in San Gabriel before having a chance to question or even properly identify him, and then promptly returned to El Monte with his severed head. After 20 more suspects were rounded up in the Los Angeles jail, the Monte men rode into town expecting a hanging and were greatly disappointed when a judge convinced the crowd to allow for a little delay so that some of suspects could prove their innocence. Spanish-surnamed men eventually tracked down and captured the main bandit group, but they made the mistake of handing some of their prisoners over to the men from the Monte. These prisoners escaped into the night after untying each other's hands under a shared blanket.
The Monte men were essentially a well-armed mob on horseback that was vicious but not particularly effective at fighting crime. In the 1901 manuscript that would later be published as On the Old West Coast, Horace Bell described the Monte men’s reckless and violent social world. In El Monte, Bell wrote, “Lynchings were sort of interludes to pistol practice, shotgun exercises, and except for these, poker playing was a perpetual motion.” In his earlier memoir, published in 1881, Bell referred to the men as “Monte gringos”—gringo, he explained, meant “ignoramus.” Harris Newmark, a Prussian-born Jewish businessman and a long-time resident of LA, stripped the Monte men of their manhood in his 1916 memoir by calling them the “El Monte boys.” Newmark sarcastically praised these “recognized disciplinarians” while noting their “peculiar public spirit.” Bartlett added to this sarcasm by capitalizing the name of the “long celebrated” vigilantes in 1930, but, today, “Monte Boys” is used in popular histories as a neutral or even positive label. By considering these evolving notions of Monte masculinity, we can see something of historical memory's malleability as well as its power to rehabilitate even the most notorious and ineffective vigilantes.
To learn more about the men from the Monte, read the article that I co-wrote with Karen Wilson: "Here Come the Monte Boys"