Born on February 2, 1846, in what later became Santa Clara County, California, Juan Bautista Soto came from equal parts pioneer stock and bandit stock. He grew up cowboying, and by 1860 he was working on Daniel Murphy’s cattle ranch south of San Jose. By his late teens, he was over six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. With crossed eyes, a badly pockmarked face, and a heavy beard, he presented a menacing figure. He was ill-tempered and quick as a cat. He was easily angered and driven by a hatred of Anglos. Because of his ferocity, he was known as the “Human Wildcat.” He was an excellent horseman and a deadly shot with his brace of cap-and-ball Colt sixguns.
By age 19, while still working the Murphy ranch, Soto took up highway robbery. After being arrested and jailed, Soto was released but soon joined with other bandits and began raiding ranches and trading posts. Two years later Soto teamed up with notorious outlaw Francisco “Pancho” Galindo, and his stealing of a horse eventually led to a running shootout with Deputy Sheriff Robert H. McIlroy, during which Soto’s head was grazed by a shot. The wounded desperado escaped but was later captured, tried, and sent to prison. After serving out that one-year sentence, Soto was released, whereupon he was soon arrested again, tried for shooting at the lawmen during the fracas with McIlroy, convicted, sentenced to two years, and jailed. In August 1870, he was released.
Because lawlessness was in his DNA, Soto was soon rustling cattle, robbing stores, stealing horses, and engaging in other nefarious activities, including murder. Lawmen throughout the territory were on the hunt for him, including one Sheriff Harry Morse. Known for his unrelenting manhunts, Morse met up with Soto in May 1871. What ensued was perhaps the most storied gunfight in California history.
Morse unexpectedly encountered Soto in a ranch house near St. Mary’s Peak in the Saucelito Valley. Morse had been hunting Soto relentlessly for weeks. Two days earlier he’d received a telegram from Alameda County Sheriff Nick Harris tipping him off that Soto was hiding in the Saucelito Valley. Morse rushed to the area, raised a posse, and started into the mountains to search for Soto.
Morse and posseman Theodore Winchel separated from the other posse members to investigate a ranch house they had come upon while the rest of the posse rode on. Almost sure that Soto was not there, Morse entered the house, hoping to get a drink of water, and quickly noticed three men sitting at a table. Recognizing Soto immediately, Morse drew his revolver and ordered Soto to put up his hands. Soto’s compadres grabbed the lawman, and Soto jumped to his feet and tore open his coat to pull his sixguns. Before Soto could draw, Morse jerked his gun hand free and fired. The shot blew Soto’s hat right off his head. Breaking free from his captors, Morse ran outside, and Soto gave chase.
As Morse ran for his horse, trying to reach his rifle (most likely a Winchester Model 1866), he saw Soto raise one of his Colts and fire. Morse dove to the ground, safely dodging the bullet. The sheriff fired back with his sixgun, then sprang to his feet and ran toward his horse. Again, Soto raised his revolver and fired, and again Morse dropped to the ground as the bullet whizzed by. Soto fired at least two more times (some accounts say three), and each time Morse dropped and then jumped to his feet, returned fire, and kept running to his horse. Morse’s last shot struck the cylinder of Soto’s raised revolver, jamming it.
Soto then ran back into the house as Morse pulled his rifle from its scabbard. Moments later Soto burst from the house and ran toward a picketed horse 30 to 40 yards away.
Just as Soto reached the horse, it spooked, broke loose, and galloped away. In desperation, Soto turned and ran toward another horse, corralled some 200 yards away.
Morse took careful aim with his rifle and fired. The .44-caliber bullet tore through the outlaw’s right shoulder. Realizing he could not escape, with a revolver in each hand, an enraged Soto wheeled and charged Morse, shouting, “Some animals just need to be put down!”
At a range of more than 100 yards, Morse fired. The slug struck Soto just above the eyes, tearing off the top of his head. Juan Soto dropped dead on the spot, thus ending his short but fierce life of crime.