Law was present but spread very thin in Southwest Colorado and its surrounding states. If an outlaw committed a crime in the American Old West, the Deputy U.S. Marshal, local Sheriff or Town Marshal would usually form a posse to try to capture them, but harsh desert landscape and unfamiliar terrain challenged their attempts at law and order.
‘Dark Corner’ of the SouthwestFrom as early as the 1880s, the Four Corners area of the United States had been known as the “Dark Corner,” according to Dr. Bernard J. Byrne in “A Frontier Army Surgeon,” 1935. He lived in Cortez prior to 1890 and served as its first postmaster. Carpenter Doctor Brown built Byrne’s home south of Cortez. Brown said “ he was not a real doctor but he sometimes bound up wounds, etc. Said his name was George Brown and he had been among the Indians since about 1855. Brown said some lawless Sheridan boys were born in the Dark Corner where he had also lived for several years, where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico come together. Brown continued, “A man makes his own laws there. There ain’t no pertection ‘cept what a man makes for himself. Down in the Dark Corner, if a man kills another man he just steps over to Utah. If he steals a horse in Arizona he slides across to New Mexico. Now them Sheridan boys done just as friends and neighbors had done. If there was anything in their way of them gittin’ where they wanted to go, they kicked it down. Likewise with man and horse.”
The new townsite of Cortez had just been platted when the first load of lumber was brought in by Nick Krone and Matt Hammond and unloaded on Christmas Day, 1886. In January 1887, F. M. Goodykoontz opened the first business in the new town--a tent restaurant (12 x 14 feet) and served 90 meals per day to the numerous people then coming into the area. Major Cooper built the first house in the new town also in 1887. In April 1889, the west side of La Plata County was broken off by the State Legislature to form the new County of Montezuma with Cortez as the county seat.
Jerry Nickle’s “Bringing Sundance Home,” 2013, mentions that in 1889, Sundance came into the outlaw country around Cortez which he had become familiar with while passing through on cattle drives from Texas to Montana. At the time, Cortez was the outlaw capital of the Old West. It is where many of the outlaws first met and developed friendships that lasted many years. The Cortez area was home to Robert Parker (Butch Cassidy), Matt Warner, Harry A. Longabaugh (Sundance Kid), brothers Tom and Bill McCarty. Tom had a ranch near Cortez. Brothers Bill and Bert Madden (Kid Brown) and Bert Charter also lived in the area and probably others.
The book “Trail Canyon” (Bud Poe and Ann Butler, 2012) has information that Trail Canyon, off of McElmo Canyon and west of Cortez may have been part of the “Hoot Owl Trail” (Fred Blackburn) that was used by many outlaws in the late 1800s starting in northern Utah and running through Colorado into New Mexico. A large cave called Outlaw Cave has been located, where a man over six feet tall could stand up straight.
According to the book “Notorious San Juans” (Carol Turner, 2011), in the late 1870s, Ike and Port Stockton lived in La Plata County as Ike had a ranch at Animas City. His brother, Port had a ranch near the New Mexico-Colorado line. Brothers Dyson and Harg Eskridge were in the area around the same time. A private war existed between the citizens of New Mexico and the Eskridge-Stockton gang then called the “Durango Desperadoes.” When Port was killed at his home Ike Stockton launched his private war against the Farmington men. Finally Ike left Durango and headed for Rico, where he was fortunate to gain the friendship of Dolores News editors Chas. Jones and Frank Hartman. Eskridge and Wilkinson, both compatriots of Stockton were also in Rico in 1880. The newspaper strongly defended the actions of these men but later recanted their support.
Another early day incident occurred in 1889 at Cortez when a gang, led by Burt Sherlock, rode their horses into the saloon, the Petheridge Hotel and Mrs. Lamb’s millinery store and some of the private houses. They killed all of the dogs on the streets, shot out the lights and had the whole town terror – stricken. The outlaws thought “Dick” Plunkett, who was Marshal then, was too good–natured to enforce law and order, and that Cortez was a “wide-open town.” The gang started to ride into the Al Thompson Mercantile Co. but was told by Thompson there were ladies there, and if they did, they would have to ride over his dead body, so they galloped away. (Lillian Hartman’s Colorado Magazine, 1909).
Stories written and researched by June Head, Historian, Montezuma County Historical Society, 565-3880, and board member, Joyce Lawrence 882-2636. Please contact the writers for additions or correction. Thank you to Jerry Nickle, Bud Poe and Carol Turner for permission to use portions of their books.