Editor’s Note: This is the second of three parts of Erastus Thompson’s recollections of life in Montezuma County in the late 1800s. The entire article is in the Montezuma County Historical Society book “Great Sage Plain to Timberline “Our Pioneer History,” Volume 4.By Erastus “Ras” Thompson
I have reason to believe that a colony of people from Nevada came here in 1872 and built cabins every half or three quarters of a mile for about eight miles along the Dolores here. Probably the Indians ran them off. They intended to homestead, but there were trappers here too before they were.
In 1881, I was not in any of the Indian fights. But Goodman, the Quick boys, some other cowboys, and I were gathering cattle out west when it was all brewing. Goodman and I were on the head of Yellow Jacket Canon, and Goodman called me out of the canon because he saw some Indians who were angry about something though he could not quite make out what. Goodman said we’d drift the cattle off so as to be prepared in case anything happened. I did not have anything to shoot with even if I had needed to do so.
Goodman talked to Dick May and Smith on their way out to Cross Canyon. They knew there was some Indian trouble but paid no special attention to it. May told Goodman he was going to buy horses. Alderson owned the horses and Thurman took care of them. Years later, Editor Kinney who had the paper at Dove Creek owned the place where Thurman stayed known afterwards as Burnt Cabin. I knew nothing of Smith who was with Dick May, he being a stranger here. May had a contract to furnish meat at Rico. He and Rhyman worked together on that. May planned to buy unbroken horses on this trip. At that time, unbroken horses sold for $50 and broken ones for $100 so May had money on him.
It was about 11 o’clock one morning when Goodman talked to Dick May and Smith. At about the same hour the next day, there were men coming to get help to see about what had happened.
The next morning Mike and Pat O’Donnell’s outfit found the Thurman cabin burned and two dead horses in front of it. There was 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of oats in the cabin for winter horse feed, and that was all that saved Dick May from being completely burned up. They saw nothing of either Smith or Thurman.
We were at the McPhee camp and the men came along and told us that there were a number of men going to fight the Indians. They sent me to the King cow camp at what is now the Matt Hammond place to get some arms. The man I worked for had a team of big, almost unbroken, mules he got from the railroad outfit and I was unanimously selected to drive them out to the scene of the trouble and to bring in May. Henry Goodman headed the Dolores outfit and Charlie Frink the one from Mancos.
I started out with those wild mules across Sage Hen and headed to the Dove Creek country. I was alone in the wagon and sometimes I wouldn’t see any of the boys for an hour. There was no road and I had all I could do all the time I was going just handling those big, wild mules.
We went out there and found the two dead horses in front of the ruins of the cabin. One had Ray Summers’ father’s brand on it. He belonged out on Indian Creek and it was thought the Indians had stolen him and had ridden him there. Most probably, May shot him.
May was evidently alone in the cabin when the Indians came up and he had put up quite a fight before he was killed. Probably, he killed both Oscar Summers’ horse and the other horse in the course of the shooting. Doubtless, the Indians set the cabin on fire just before they left. Dick May’s body was badly burned. There was not much of it left but bones. No one – not even Billy May – knew how much money Dick May had with him when he went out there. But they found some silver money on him. The rest was probably taken away or burned. I hauled Dick May’s body back to the Dolores behind those wild Missouri mules, and he was buried across the road from where the old cemetery is on the old Johnson place.
The men almost gave up finding Thurman’s body. Quick was riding a big workhorse, the only quiet horse in the outfit. The fourth day after we got out there, Quick’s horse scented something and that led to finding Thurman in the brush three-quarters of a mile from the cabin. He had a plaited hackamore worth $20 to $30 on his arm when found, and they thought he must have been out to catch a horse when killed. They buried him right there where he was.
They never could find Smith’s body. He seemed to have disappeared entirely. Some Indians said he ran and went down a deep canyon. They thought he must have been hurt and died there.
The cabin Charles Johnson Sr. moved into when he first came to the country belonged to Dick May. It was near the site of McPhee and there was an Indian racetrack there.
June Head is historian of the Montezuma County Historical Society. She may be contacted at 565-3880 for questions or corrections.