Editor’s note: This column, the second of three parts, was written by Fred Taylor based on an interview with Anna Florence Robison in 1934. Part 3 of Pioneering in Southwestern Colorado will be published Dec. 6 in The Journal. Permission to re-print this article is given by the descendants of the Simon girls – the Blackmer, Dickerson and Hammond families.By Fred Taylor
In those days, Dr. Winters of Durango was much like Dr. Johnson of Cortez in the present day (1934). He came on horseback or in a buggy if it was a hurry-up case; they’d have a relay of horses or rigs along the road for him. A visit would be fifty to a hundred dollars. Later on, Dr. Landon from Rico used to come down the Dolores River when needed. People didn’t need a doctor quite so readily in those days as they do now.
Once I got kicked on the nose by a bronco, and I just slammed it into place and held snow to it. The snow melted like water, and I couldn’t see when I rode home. I recovered from it with no results.
The first man buried on the Dolores River was Dick May. I have a pocketbook which he had on him when he was killed in 1881. His brother, George May, gave the pocketbook to Chris Wilkerson, and after his death, his son Carl gave it to me. He showed me the pocketbook at this point. It is a folding affair for holding bills and almost new, so that it is hard to realize that it was purchased fifty-three years or more years ago. In it is neatly letter in ink “R. W. May, deceased. Killed by Indians 1st day of May 1881.” In it also in the signature of Wm. M. May, Dolores, La Plata County, Colorado. He was according to Mr. Taylor a civil engineer and a fine old man. According to the List of Men in La Plata County in 1877 and 1878, Dick May was 41 or 42 years of age when he was killed, and Wm. M. May, 45 or 46.
Dick May went out West to where a man named Thurman was camped half a mile this side of the Utah line with horses belonging to Alderson. A young tenderfoot named Frank Smith was with May, who made the trip for the purpose of buying horses. Probably Dick May had from six hundred to a thousand dollars in bills in that pocketbook, and the Indians got all of it and probably what money Thurman doubtless had on him as well. The Indians went to Moab, Utah, and had an abundance of twenty-dollar bills, anyhow.
Thurman was established at what is known as Burnt Cabin. As near as could be found out, the Indians were angry with Thurman because he had whipped one or two of them for taking saddle horses. They killed him out where he had gone after the horses. May and Smith had not done anything to the Indians. They just happened to be there and were killed. There were a great many brass shells lying near May’s body when it was found, showing that he had known his danger and had time to put up a good fight. After killing May, the Indians set fire to the cabin. There was a lot of oats in sacks stored in the cabin, and when the sacks burned from around the oats, they spread down on May’s body and covered most of it, keeping it from burning. The pocketbook was on him when he was found.
Pat and Mike O’Donnell had a camp at Willow Springs not far away. They sent a man over to Thurman’s’ cabin to borrow some baking powder and found the cabin burned and the dead man lying among the ruins. They came to Big Bend and reported it. As soon as they could, they got up a posse from Mancos, Rico and Big Bend to go after those Indians. Bill Dawson, sheriff of Dolores County, got up a posse from Rico. There were several each from Mancos and the Dolores Valley. They took the Indians’ trail. It was Mariana’s band of Utes that did the killing – a “tough hombre” (Mr. Taylor’s interpretation). The band of men followed the Indians to the south side of the Blue Mountains to the head of Indian Creek, but they were too far behind to catch up. They followed the Indians to the foot of the La Sal Mountains in Utah and there lost the trail for a while. The party split. They went on farther and struck the Indians’ trail again. They followed them to the north side of the La Sal Mountains and caught up to them in a big sandy sagebrush wash there.
Then the fight opened up. Thirteen of Dawson’s men got down into a sandy arroyo. Bill Dawson sent an old-time Indian fighter, Uncle Tim Jenkins, to tell them to get out of the arroyo or the Indians would kill them right there.
Uncle Tim Jenkins had been a pony express rider and an Indian fighter on the plains in the early days. He was a little chap and weighed only about a hundred and ten pounds. I knew him well as he wintered with me one winter. His experience and mine of men in an Indian fight corresponds exactly.
Uncle Tim said he did not like the job, but went down into the arroyo on a pony while the Indians shot at him from the rimrock. The thirteen men were scattered for a hundred rods or so up and down that arroyo, and he talked to them and explained to them that they would be killed if they remained where they were. But not one of them would try to come out, for they were paralyzed with fear. All thirteen of them were killed right there in that arroyo. Among them were the two Wilson boys from Moab, Utah, and Tom Click of the Dolores. Dave Willis from Mancos was shot before that from his horse.
In that fight, Jordan Bean of the Dolores Valley was shot in the head but not killed. He crawled off in the oak brush that night, and he could hear the Indians hunting him from the place where he had hid. Denby, a neighbor of Bean’s on the Dolores, went over to the La Sal Mountains and hauled Jordan Bean home over no roads at all. This Denby was later killed by Jordan Bean’s younger brother.
Later on, Mrs. Willis, her brother, Roy Weston, Hi Barber and Cal House went out and brought in the bodies of Dave Willis and Hiram Melvin for burial. Mrs. Willis, Roy and Hugo Weston were the children of the Weston family of Mancos.
In 1884 in the Blue Mountains, we were against the Indians in earnest. And the killers and the bad gunman were the biggest cowards there when it came to a showdown. I had sat around cow camps for years and heard these men vocally kill Indians but I noticed they never really did it. The trouble in 1884 started over a saddle horse that an Indian had and would not give up. A white man shot the Indian. He claims that the Indian got well afterward, but he did not. The horse belonged to a Mr. Hudson. After that Indian was killed, our outfit was out with three wagons south of the Blue Mountains where we had cattle which had not been worked for two years. Charles Johnson Sr. had turned a bunch loose there in 1879, and his had been worked very little. There were two or three more bunches of cattle in there also. We went in there in 1884 to brand calves, and the fighting started and branding calves was off for a while.
The first fight was on July 3, 1884. The Indians burned two wagons that were loaded with grub hauled from Durango and got most of the saddle horses. The Indians thought they had the cowboys hemmed in. I lost my horses, saddle and everything I had and was completely afoot. The Indians rode into the saddlehorses and split the bunch. We corralled what was left. I was riding Sam Johnson’s horse and rode up to the corral and found my white horse named White Cloud. I started to take White Cloud out of the corral when a shot struck him in the head and scattered horse brains everywhere.
Part 3 of Pioneering in Southwestern Colorado will be published Dec. 6 in The Journal. In our books, “Great Sage Plain to Timberline,” there are versions of this fight; therefore, Fred Taylor’s version will be omitted. June Head, historian of Montezuma County Historical Society, may be contacted at 970-565-3880.