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Pioneering in Southwestern Colorado, part 3

Editor’s note: This column, the last of three parts, was written by Fred Taylor based on an interview with Anna Florence Robison in 1934.By Fred Taylor

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 rode into the saddle horses 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. I didn’t know how many brains a horse had until I saw them scattered.

When the fight came up, a one-armed man, Billy Wilson from Texas Panhandle, took charge. We weren’t prepared to fight Indians. We had twenty-one men and seven Winchesters, though most of the men had six-shooters. There were three wagons and a hundred head of saddle horses to the three outfits. We had our hands full. We went back to Durango and got new outfits.

Fort Lewis was a military post, and Captain Perine went out with eighty soldiers and forty cowboys. He followed the Indians over to White River Canyon close to the Colorado River. We caught up with them about twenty miles below the Natural Bridges, but we knew nothing of such bridges then. Two of our men were killed. Joe Wormington, a government scout and a cowboy named Jimmie Higgins, but nicknamed Rowdy. He was from Oregon.

We could do nothing with the Indians. Captain Perine saw that, and he was discouraged. We thought we were surrounded, and we wanted out. We got out, and the Indians didn’t try to stop us. We went around by the Blue Mountains and then came home. (Fred Taylor’s version of this fight has been omitted. His story may be found in Volume I of “Great Sage Plain to Timberline”).

In early Mancos history, Bob McGrew mentioned when Wormington and Rowdy Higgins were killed, “ It was there that Fred Taylor got the name of ‘Bililli” (pronounced ple-lilly, meaning in Ute, ‘Crazy.’) He ran down into a draw, where he was exposed to the Indians’ fire and began shooting. They shot at him and couldn’t hit him.”

The first post office on the Dolores was on the Crumley place with Mrs. Crumley as postmistress and located two miles above present Dolores. The post office was then moved to George Morton’s at Big Bend. Charles Johnson Sr. had the first store on the Dolores at his ranch where McPhee is now. George Bauer started a store at Big Bend and later sold to J.J. Harris and Co. I was, in a way, the cause of Harris’ buying it. Harris was looking for a good location. He had moved from Mancos to Mitchell Springs. I suggested to Harris when he had the store at Mitchell Springs that he go see Bauer’s store at Big Bend. Tom and Joe Coppinger had a saloon at Mitchell Springs where Harris had the store, but there weren’t many customers. One day I could not get something that I wanted at Big Bend, and I asked Bauer why he didn’t keep a better stock at Big Bend. Bauer said he wanted to sell out his store at Big Bend. John Harris borrowed a work mule from Joe Coppinger and went up to Big Bend and brought Bauer out. Harris Bros. built up a big business there.

The first school taught on the Dolores was in charge of Lulu Swink who boarded at Morton’s. They all chipped in and built a log school house there. In later years, the school house was burned for the wood.

The first man buried in the old cemetery at Dolores was Ben Quick, a cattleman. His horse threw him, and his hand was mashed, and he died of blood poisoning.

The first election was held at Grandpa Johnson’s place on the river in the fall of 1883. Grandpa Johnson had a store and sold whiskey by the quart. A quart of it would make a peaceable citizen want to kill anyone in sight. That election time, the drinking bunch was around Johnson’s for about a week. Charles Johnson was afraid they would get to shooting in the direction of some of his valuable race horses and kill them, but they didn’t. I knew there would be a great deal of drinking, so I voted early and started for Mancos on horseback. Jeg Hughes was one of the five or six men in a wagon who were wildly drunk. They were coming down the steep hill into the valley, and you had to have good brakes to be safe. These men were drunk enough that they threw their lines away and started down that steep hill shooting and yelling without the brakes on. The horses naturally ran away, and the wagon went into a worm-log fence and upset. Jeg Hughes of Rico was thrown out of a wagon, and his leg was broken. The bare bones were sticking out six inches, and it was the worst kind of a break. Four or five days later, Dr. Landon of Rico set his leg. It was swelled up to several times natural size then. Jeg Hughes had no chloroform. He just sat on the bed and watched the doctor set the leg. He showed marvelous grit. The doctor wanted to take the leg off. “I can take your leg off, but I can’t save your life,” Dr. Landon told him. Hughes died a little later and was the second man buried there in the old Dolores Cemetery.

As I came back from Mancos, I decided to go out to Cross Canyon after that election drinking fest, and there were cowboys lying drunk along the road all the way out.

In the store at Big Bend, Mr. Ordway sold liquor. One night when he wanted to close up, some men in there were very drunk. They knew he would put them out if ever he got his hands on them, so they sat in the room with a gun trained on him. Whenever he came near, they said they would kill him. They had their hats on one side of their heads, and their hair over their faces. I dropped in from a dance. They knew me, so I began talking with them and suggested that they had better go home and go to bed. It struck them as a good idea, and they went when I did, and Mr. Ordway closed up his store.

They divided the counties in 1889. Colonel Jim Hanna was the first representative in the legislature. Pearly Wasson was appointed sheriff, but Adam Lewey was the first elected sheriff. John White was the first elected treasurer, and Frank Humble the first elective county clerk. Jim Giles was one of the first elected county commissioners.

Al Thompson backed by Schiffer of Durango started the first store in Cortez. His stand was where Andy Hopper’s is now. Guillets’ bought him out later on. Ed Lamb had the first drugstore, and he later put in merchandise. The first doctor was young Dr. Williams.

The Cortez site also was out on a hill above the ditch, and no one wanted it. Some Eastern people formed a town company and took the land up. The town company wanted to get water to Cortez, so they took eighty thousand dollars of money which should have gone into the ditches and built a flume over three miles long to bring water to Cortez. The flume started at what was known later on as Smithville where the Cortez lateral crosses the state highway. The money which was to build the Highline Ditch went to build that flume, and the town company took this money without any authority from the people who put up the money for ditches. They ran short of money finishing up the Highline Ditch because the Eastern people found out what had been done and shut off the money. George Stafford with a good grading outfit came here from Wyoming to build the Highline. They never paid him a dollar on it, and it broke him. He took up a place a mile west and lived there for years hoping to get his money but he didn’t and lived there until he gave it up and left poor. James Gawith came to the country with him.

The town company laid out the town site and promoted Cortez. The man at the bottom of it was named Turner.

Jim Hanna was the man who rustled the money to build the tunnel. He was a Colorado man from Denver, and a good rough-and-tumble Western man. He was connected with the Number One Ditch. The Number Two was promoted by LeGrange and his engineer named DeVail. They were the ones that had the townsite north and east of Cortez which was abandoned when the companies went together. There was never anything built on that site.

I was the first man to put sheep into this country. I broke the country for sheep, and now it is practically all sheep. When I first got rid of my cattle and got my sheep, they told me I would get rich with sheep if they didn’t kill me first. Well I didn’t get rich, and here I am yet. I ran sheep a long time but never started off with a bunch of them unless I knew ahead of time where I was going.

In the cattle business, I bought cattle for seventeen dollars a head from a man named Burns in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. I ran cattle down near the Four Corners with Navajos on one side and Utes on the other. I lived alone. It was no place for a white man. The range played out. I sold my cattle eight years later with calves and bulls for ten dollars a head. All of the old-time cowmen who kept at it long enough went broke and were closed out.

I have had a good time so far, and I have no kick coming at life.

Permission to reprint this Colorado Magazine article was given by family of Leah Taylor Blackmer. June Head, historian of Montezuma County Historical Society, may be reached for questions or comments at 970-565-3880.