Lee Kelly tells of early days in area

Friday, March 4, 2011 9:23 PM
Courtesy Photo/Montezuma County Historical society, sterl thomas family
Sterl Thomas’ wagon shown with a load of freight from Guillet Brothers General Merchandise. Lee Kelly is the freighter and the teams were broken to the jerk line. The freight wagon was probably going to River View (Aneth, Utah, prior to 1889). The Guillet Brothers store was located on Main Street. The McEwen Hall was erected on their site (now the Threads ‘n Stones building).
Courtesy Photo/Cortez Newspapers, Centennial Edition, 1986
Sheriff and top Hands, Montezuma County 1892. Top row left to right, Charlie Day, editor of Journal; Lee Kelly, freighter; and Harry Ausbum. Bottom row left to right, Sheriff Sterl Thomas, Em Guillet and Herm Guillet.

“You want to hear about the rough and tough days of this area, do you? Well, I’m the fellow who can tell you about that.

“I was born in 1866, in Missouri, where my dad raised and trained trotting horses and mules; and I’m stubborn as one of those mules when I make up my mind to do something. That’s what brought me to Colorado in ’89, I guess.

“Herm and Pete Guillet were operating the trading post at Aneth, Utah, and we had grown up right across the fence from each other. Herm wrote back to me that it took a good man to tough it out in Colorado and if I thought I could stand it, he’d like for me to come out and drive 2 freight wagon for them from Aneth to Durango. I figgered I was man enough to stand it and just stubborn enough to stick it out. If Herm and Pete could stick; well, then, so could I.

George Omo, her mother, and I came out on the train together and it kept a feller of 23 pretty busy on the trip, lookin’ after two women. But we made ‘er all right.

At Durango, we took the Concord Stage to Cortez and found the town consisted of one restaurant, two livery stables, a blacksmith shop and a saloon. Cortez was just getting ditch water in and the ditching men had their tents set up on Main street, spending their evenings shooting prairie dogs from the fronts of their tents.

From Cortez, we went by buckboard to Aneth, which was known as River View then. And for the first time, I really got a good look at the Indians who stayed around the trading post. I reckoned that it would take a tough feller to last long around any part of this country, but I was here to stay, and stay I did.

I started hauling freight the next morning. It was a 230 mile haul from Aneth to Durango and usually took five days, what with the breakdowns and trailing up we had to do, besides pulling the mud. Our freight from Aneth was pelts, wool, Indian blankets and buckskin that Indians brought to the store to swap for groceries and supplies. On the return trip we brought back sugar, flour, rifles, ammunition, and general store merchandise.

I drove three teams to the wagon, Tom and Clayt were the lead horses, Jack and Blue, the swing team, and Bob, my wheel horse. I used the same horses most of the time because they were broken to the jerk line I used and never gave me much trouble.

One trip me and Herm were pulling out of Durango about dark and just as we started across the railroad tracks, four fellows rode by on horseback, yelling and shootin’. They rode down the track where one of the switch engines was settin’ and shot the headlight out of the engine. It scared our horses and we whipped up as fast as we could to get out of town. We’d reached the first canyon when the four fellows caught up with us.

I’d left my pistol in Durango to be fixed and had my carbine in the jockey box where I couldn’t get to it easy. Two of the fellows rode up on Herm’s side and two on mine and started cussin’ us and ordered us out of the wagon. Before we could climb down, one of them hit me over the head with his rifle and raised quite a bump.

After we’d climbed down, they stole some stuff from the wagon and rode off shootin’ and yellin’ and we didn’t see them again.

Our first night out was usually at Fort Lewis Mesa; the second night we spent in Thompson Park at Jack Nutter’s place at the foot of the hill or the Potato Davis Place; the door was always open at either place and they were fine people, all of them. The third night we usually made it close to Cortez; the last night generally found us in the neighborhood of Marianna Springs below Towaoc or somewhere in that vicinity.

It was a favorite trick of the Indians to sneak in after we had camped, cut the hobbles and run our horses and mules off. Then the next morning, they would come into camp, friendly like, and ask where our horses were and how we were going to haul our freight without them.

Then they would offer to round up the horses for two bits a head and we would have to pay it – or they would run our horses farther off than before. It was quite a game with them and we couldn’t get too mad about it.

If it wasn’t the jokes the Indians played on us, it was the mud and breakdowns that slowed us down. The mud would pile up on the back wheel until you had to take a shovel to get it off. Then you would drive a few miles and have the same thing to do all over again. That was usually the time your wheel picked to come off, too, and you’d have to jack the wagon up until you could get the wheel back on.

Getting down in the mud with no bottom to it and trying to jack up a wagon is no fun, but that was part of freighting, I guess, and you just did it as part of the job.

We used to run across the cavalrymen from Fort Lewis on the trail and they were pretty important. You always moved over and gave them the road because they would just keep coming and when they gave an order to move over, they had Winchesters to back up their words.

The favorite carbine down here in those days, though, was the Simmons .44; I’ve seen more game slaughtered with one of those than any other rifle, but nowadays the hunters think they have to have a high-powered rifle to bring the game down. But those Simmons were plenty good and were light to carry with a lot of shocking power when they hit.

There was a lot of game in this country in those days, but never any buffalo. There was plenty of the prettiest blue stem grass you’d want and it stretched as far as the eye could see. In those days, people killed for the meat, not for just the fun of killing and I never knew of anyone wasting any meat. If he had more than he could eat, he would give it to someone who didn’t have any.

There was lots of Indian uprisings, but they were mostly among themselves; sometimes, however, they got some of the white men mixed up in it and then there would be a big chase to find the troublemakers, posses would be out riding and there would be shooting and killings and some of them would end up in jail.

Sometimes the Indians would be paid for turning in their own troublemakers and they liked that, because that was ‘rockin’ chair money’ to them because they usually knew who had caused this trouble and right where he could be found.

One time while Sterl Thomas was sheriff there was some trouble and Sterl and his posse went down on the reservation after this fellow. The posse rode up to his camp and saw red shirts atop the rocks with Winchesters pointing down at them all over the place.

The Indians started shooting over the posse’s heads. The sorrel pony that Sterl was riding, whirled, stumbled and fell. Sterl swore for years after that, that he dragged that pony, with his foot still in the stirrup, a half - mile to the nearest arroyo!

Rough and tough days, you said? Maybe so, but I call it all part of my 87 years of living.”

Article in “Great Sage Plain to Timberline – Our Pioneer History”, Volume One published by Montezuma County Historical Society. Permission to reprint by Joyce Hammond Baker, granddaughter of Lee “Papa” Kelly.

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