The U.S. first acquired the area now called Four Corners from Mexico after the Mexican American War in 1848. The U.S. government surveyed the area in 1868.
Law was spread thin in southwest Colorado and its surrounding states. If an outlaw committed a crime in the Old West, the deputy U.S. marshal, local sheriff or town marshal would usually form a posse to try to capture them, but harsh and unfamiliar terrain challenged them.
of the Southwest”
Since the 1880s, the Four Corners was known as the “Dark Corner,” according to Dr. Bernard J. Byrne in A Frontier Army Surgeon, published in 1935. He lived in Cortez before 1890 and was its first postmaster. Carpenter “Doctor” George Brown built Byrne’s home south of Cortez. Brown said, “He was not a real doctor, but he sometimes bound up wounds, etc.” He said he had been among the Indians since about 1855. He 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 town site 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 town’s first business – a tent restaurant (12 by 1 feet) and served 90 meals per day to people coming into the area. Major Cooper built the town’s first house 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, published in 2013, mentions that Sundance came into the outlaw country in 1889 around Cortez, which he had become familiar with while passing through on cattle drives from Texas to Montana. Cortez was the outlaw capital of the Old West. It is where many of the outlaws developed friendships.
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.
The book Trail Canyon (by Bud Poe and Ann Butler, 2012) has information that Trail Canyon, off McElmo Canyon and west of Cortez may have been part of the “Hoot Owl Trail” (Fred Blackburn) that was used by outlaws in the late 1800s starting in northern Utah and running through Colorado into New Mexico. In Outlaw Cave, a 6-foot-tall man stand up straight.
According to the book Notorious San Juans (by Carol Turner, 2011), in the late 1870s, Ike and Port Stockton lived in La Plata County. 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 about the same time. A 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’s were also in Rico in 1880. The newspaper defended the men’s actions but later recanted its support.
Another incident occurred in 1889 at Cortez when gang members, 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 dogs on the streets, shot the lights and had the town terror-stricken. The outlaws thought “Dick” Plunkett, who was marshal, was too good-natured to enforce the law, 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).
By June Head, historian, Montezuma County Historical Society, 565-3880, and board member Joyce Lawrence, 882-2636. For additions or corrections, contact the writers.