Searching for Sundance
Place of death a mystery, but he lived and hid out in S.W. Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. The first discussed Butch Cassidy and train robberies and appeared Sept. 15. Both stories will be posted in the Special Reports section at cortezjournal.com.
MONTEZUMA COUNTY — I’ve followed the Outlaw Trail looking for Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Butch caroused with a lot of outlaws, but his best friend the Sundance Kid grew up here in Southwest Colorado. I’ve been searching for Sundance in Cortez and Montezuma County, and I’ve heard some interesting stories and crawled into an outlaw cave or two.
The thing about an outlaw is you don’t claim him as family when he’s doing his deeds, but let a century pass and then he’s fine to call yours. He’s earned his place back on the family tree, but famous Western outlaws have a hard time staying dead and buried.
Harry Alonzo Longabaugh grew up in a blue-collar family in Pennsylvania. At age 14, in 1882, he left home to help distant cousin George Longabaugh, who had moved to Durango. George was lured farther west to homestead near Cortez. Harry stayed with the family for four years but by early 1886 he chose to ride on. Within a year he would be arrested on three counts of grand larceny for horse theft and stealing personal goods “against the peace and dignity of the Territory of Wyoming.” Confined to the county jail in Sundance, Wyo., he earned the nickname The Sundance Kid.
What prompted his life of crime? What had young Harry learned in Cortez and Montezuma County that suggested horse stealing as an honorable profession? And even after he was convicted and jailed, Sundance was unwilling to accept the judge’s decree of an 18-month sentence. Longabaugh and a fellow prisoner attempted an escape on May 1, 1888, but were returned to their cells. When Sundance served his time and got out of jail, he was not yet 21.
Coming to Cortez at 15, Harry learned to rope and ride and shoot a Colt .45. He knew good horse flesh. He probably knew how to brand cattle not his own, and he learned how to live out of saddle bags and move through the country fast, without being seen. The West was wide open. To a young man with grit and gumption there seemed easier ways to make a living than to settle on a homestead, scrape sagebrush, plow and plant and wait for rain.
Local haunts became outlaw caves and north-south routes became known as the Hoot Owl Trail within a larger Outlaw Trail system between Utah and Wyoming. Desperados or questionable men who kept their hats pulled down low over their eyes were known as Hoot-Owlers. Cattle and horse theft was rampant, and for big outfits like the Carlisle Cattle Co. out of Monticello, Utah, that ran thousands of head, who would miss a few unbranded cattle? Most of the petty outlaws stole this and that and remained anonymous. Only Sundance would have his own file created by the Pinkerton Detective Agency and his sister’s mail surreptitiously opened.
An outlaw cave can be found on land Bud Poe owns in Trail Canyon west of Cortez. Poe thinks it may have been a waypoint on the Hoot Owl Trail system with access between the Great Sage Plain and McElmo Canyon.
“It was very exciting to see it for the first time,” Poe says. “Unless you’re within 10 feet of the cave, you don’t know it’s there.”
Though the roof has fallen in and no artifacts or dates were found, there’s no question that someone dug out the cave and built a substantial 2-foot-tall berm of rock and dirt at the cave’s lip for concealment. Poe said, “You can kind of stand up in the cave. You could get four guys to sleep in it, and down below is evidence of a brush fence to enclose cattle or horses.”
As we stood atop the hideout on a sandstone ledge facing Sleeping Ute Mountain, Poe said, “Sundance may have heard about this cave.” We’ll never know, but in Montezuma County, rumors abound.
Longtime rancher Al Heaton has found outlaw hideouts on his range including Squaw Point on Bureau of Land Management land west of Pleasant View. Heaton found rocks built up under an overhang big enough for two people to sleep in with a firepit out front and “a horse corral 500 yards away well secluded from each other.” Heaton adds, “The distance gives it away as an outlaw hideout. Sheepherders would have had their corrals right there.”
He found another site five miles from Slickrock with “a pretty fancy fireplace” and a hidden meadow that “you just have to ride into to see it. You can’t see it from across the canyon, and it has feed enough for a month. I found it tracking a cow.”
At Indian Camp Ranch, Archie Hanson has a root cellar that may have been an outlaw hangout, but there’s no evidence of habitation even though local legends tell of outlaws using nearby Alkali Creek. Former Cortez barber Carl Armstrong spoke with Walter Longabaugh, who died at 98. The aging Longabaugh told him, “When I was 12 or 14 I carried fresh eggs, milk and butter to the dugout. My mother would fix it all up.” But we’re not sure which dugout received the provisions.
What we do know was a famous horse race with Butch and Sundance in McElmo Canyon near Hartman Draw on “a big flat” left a Ute Indian dead and caused the cowboys to flee to Robbers Roost in Utah. Armstrong says, “They had a horse race and bet a horse against a horse. They lived in a dugout and had a run-in with Indians” not over who won the race but what the spoils would be. Guns were drawn over the disagreement and the cowboys slapped leather.
“Once they won a local Mancos horse race, but they didn’t take any money out of the country. They gave it all back in the bars and such,” Armstrong said.
In Western history the outgoing, jovial Butch, and the quiet, sharpshooting Sundance made quite a name for themselves. Sundance took up with the beautiful Etta Place and bought her a diamond watch at Tiffany’s in New York. They went on to rob banks and trains but never small homesteaders or ranchers. It’s still a mystery where Butch and Sundance lived and hid out in Montezuma County, but in the end they died in a shootout with the Bolivian army in 1908. Or did they? Into the 1930s there were supposed sightings of Butch across the West.
Donna B. Ernst wrote “The Sundance Kid” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009) and it is a standard reference, but there’s a new book by Marilyn Grace titled “Finding the Sundance Kid: Solving the Wild Bunch Mystery.” She dug up a grave in Duchesne, Utah, and claims DNA testing on the remains proves it was Sundance, buried in 1936 under the alias William Henry Long.
Duchesne Mayor Rojean Rowley agrees: “They’ve dug up this grave three times and it’s my understanding that it’s the Sundance Kid. It’s an outlaw with a hole in his leg, though there’s controversy among the family about it.”
That’s the thing about famous outlaws. They ride the Outlaw Trail and not only do their legends live on, they won’t stay dead and buried.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com.