In 1889, Cortez was a ‘wide open’ town

Tuesday, May 30, 2017 7:57 PM
Tom McCarty

By June Head

Montezuma County Historical Society

Frank Clyde Thompson came to Montezuma Valley with his parents in 1887, at which time his father, A.L. Thompson, drove into town with three wagon loads of dry goods and groceries. Thompson opened the first mercantile establishment in Cortez, in his wagons on the corner of Main and Market streets, his first sale having been $250 worth of supplies to a Mormon contractor, who erected the Company Building.

The only frame building in town at that time was the house of Major Cooper, who had just opened a real estate office. The A.L. Thompson Mercantile Co., had to do business from wagons until a building could be erected. Thompson began his business career in his father’s establishment, and on being asked for an early day incident that had left its imprint on his mind, he replied: “I remember the time that Tom McCarty took the town in 1889. He and his gang rode their horses right into the saloon, the Hotel, Mrs. Lamb’s Millinery Store and some of the private houses. They killed all the dogs on the streets, shot out the lights, and had the whole town terror-stricken.”

Dick Plunkett, who was marshal, was too good-natured to enforce law and order, and Cortez was a “wide open” town The leader of the gang undertook to ride into our store, but there were ladies shopping in there at the time, and father told them they must get out, but Sherlock, the leader, said he was going to ride in anyway. Father told him there were ladies shopping in there, and if he did, he would have to ride over his dead body. Sherlock galloped away, but turned his wrath in another direction and created much havoc before leaving town.

(From Lillian Hartman’s Apple Show Edition for Montezuma County, 1909.)

A footnote: Gladys Guillett Hart said the Guillet brothers purchased the Thompson Restaurant and Mercantile in 1896, moving the merchandise to their warehouse on Main Street. She said Angus Stocks was the Mormon contractor and he and Peter Baxstrom constructed the stone block company building to the point of being operable. It was not fully furnished until 1890.)

The good-natured marshalDick Plunkett came to the United States from County Down, Ireland. He arrived in New York and immediately moved west, locating first in Colorado. He was one of 11 brothers – all big, athletic men – and had sold cattle in every county in England, so he was not a green unsophisticated lad when he came to this country. Without waiting even a day to see something of the East, he came out to join his brother-in-law in the sheep-raising business, near Pagosa Springs in Southwestern Colorado. Seven weeks of loneliness and monotony of a sheep ranch were all he could endure. It was his remarkable prowess in athletic sports and demonstrated courage that first commanded popular attention and interest. The town of Montezuma, just then infested with the toughest “bad men” in the land, offered him the job of marshal.(Montezuma is now a ghost town between Dillon and Loveland). He entered upon his duties with enthusiasm and that disgusted the bad men. They tried to kill him as it seemed to them it would not be difficult. Plunkett only carried a cane. The idea of arresting one of them with his bare hands seemed absurd. But, to their astonishment and shame he did it. They shot him many times, but a few bullets more or less in his powerful frame did not appear to have an effect. Broad, deep-chested, strong-limbed, weighing 250-260 pounds, and always in condition, he could jump over a horse or turn somersaults and handsprings forward or backward, and he soon taught them to know him as their master. It was reported “This officer never smokes or chews tobacco, never swears, and never was known to be angry. Even when fighting for his life, he laughs and seems to enjoy the excitement.”

A criminal whom he thought to arrest might get one shot into him, but before he could fire a second, would find himself on his back, with Plunkett’s grip on his throat, the handcuffs on his wrist, and if he did not happen to have a broken limb or rib as a result of the sudden mixup, should consider himself in luck. No provocation or numbers opposed to him would make Plunkett shoot to kill. If they opened fire on him at too great distance for him to quickly close with them, he might use a revolver – and he could shoot very straight – to hit their legs and bring them down, but that was as much as he would do.

Quite early in Plunkett’s Western career, the Indians won his sympathy. He was very protective of the Indians. His first meeting with them was while he was marshal at Montezuma, when he convoyed a party across the Dolores and Mancos mountain ranges, going to obtain blasting powder for use in making an irrigation ditch.

Plunkett was known as a frontiersman, a United States Marshal from Oklahoma, an all-around conqueror of “bad men,” and he became known as “Col. Dick Plunkett.” “Texas Sam” was one of the worst characters vanquished by the marshal. Texas Sam, from the Rio Grande, was 6 feet 4 inches tall and very muscular, but when he encountered Plunkett ended up in handcuffs. Plunkett was elected marshal of Creede in a contest with Bat Masterson in Creede’s hot and boisterous days. He reportedly arrested Ed O’Kelley, the slayer of Robert Ford, who killed Jesse James. Many outlaws were aware of Col. Dick Plunkett.

Plunkett was known as a close friend of President McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In October 1919, he died in New York after an operation performed for cancer of the stomach. He was 58 years old.

(Research information on Col. Dick Plunkett from Montezuma Journal, June 6, 1901; Reno, Nevada Evening Gazette and New York Times, April 7, 1901.

June Head is Historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society and can be contacted at 970-565-3880 for comments or corrections.