When the Utes left their reservation in southwestern Colorado to attack three cattle outfits in July 1884, some 45 area cowboys joined up with the 6th Cavalry to punish the culprits.
Playing “Cowboys and Indians” has long been a favorite childhood activity, and the name of that game has always implied that those two groups fought each other regularly in the Old West. In reality, the clashes were rare, as cowboys usually tried to avoid hostile Indians and mostly relied on the soldier boys to do most of the fighting, while the Plains Indians usually only wanted a few beeves to supplement their diets. Not that there wasn’t plenty of tension between ranchers and the natives on the frontier, and on occasion the uneasiness led to bloodshed— even after most of the Indians were supposedly at peace on the reservations.
Some of the last battles between ranchers and Indians occurred in a remote area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah Territory. As early as 1879, cattlemen began running their herds in the lush grasslands of the San Juan, Blue and La Sal mountains, where they came into contact with Southern Utes and their allies, renegade Paiute (or Piute) Indians. In the spring of 1881, several cowboys were killed in the area, and then a posse in pursuit of the renegade Indians was slaughtered near Monument Creek in Colorado, a half mile east of the Utah border. Nine possemen were killed and three wounded in the Monument killings, which caused the residents of Mancos, Colo., to build a stockade around their old log schoolhouse in case the Utes decided to attack. Anxious ranchers rounded up their cattle and herded them to safer, if not greener, pastures.
By 1884 most of the Southern Utes were confined to a reservation headquartered at Ignacio, Colo., about 12 miles southeast of Durango. While the million-plus-acre Southern Ute Reservation was 110 miles long, it was only 15 miles wide, and contact between Indians and cowboys was inevitable. Warren Patten, the reservation agent, assured nearby white farmers and ranchers that his Indians were content and peaceful. Whenever there was a report of an Indian raid at some isolated ranch that spring, Patten always claimed that other Indians were responsible.
Harold Carlisle did not believe him. The Englishman and his brother, Edmund Septimus Carlisle, ran the gigantic Kansas and New Mexico Land and Cattle Company, whose headquarters were just west of the Utah-Colorado line at Piute Springs. Harold was tired of Utes and Paiutes running off his stock, stealing horses and terrorizing ranch families. He repeatedly traveled to the Southern Ute Reservation to complain to Patten about wandering, hostile Utes. True to form, Patten suggested that the marauders were renegade Northern Utes, over whom he had no jurisdiction, adding that his Southern Utes only left the reservations when they had valid passes, signed by him, to go hunting. Harold and his brother questioned the security value of issuing such passes when stock thefts kept multiplying and many ranchers and homesteaders were living in fear. The frustrated Carlisles went to Major Robert H. Hall, commander of Fort Lewis in southwestern Colorado, pleading with him to use his 6th Cavalry troopers to round up roving Utes and Paiute Indians. “Sorry,” Hall told them, “I can do nothing unless requested by Indian Agent Patten or ordered by my army superiors.”
In early July 1884, 21 men from three cattle outfits (including Harold Carlisle’s ranch) headed to the Blue Mountain range to round up their cattle and brand the calves. Along the way, one cowboy killed a Ute man who refused to give up a stolen saddle horse. Soon after, a band of Southern Utes appeared in camp and displayed passes signed by Patten that allowed them to hunt along the Delores River. The tired cowboys offered them food, hot coffee and tobacco. Suddenly a bullet smashed into the forehead of a horse named White Cloud, its brains splattering one of Charles “Race Horse” Johnson’s ranch hands. Soon, all the Indians were either shooting or driving the horses from the corral.
When Hank Sharp twirled his lariat and tried to rope one of the spooked horses, a muscular warrior, with knife drawn, began slashing at him. Sharp drew his Colt .45 and put a fatal bullet into the Indian. In general, though, the cowboys’ six-shooters were not effective against the Utes, who had long-range rifles and kept their distance. Rancher William J. Wilson, who had lost an arm fighting Comanches in Texas, took charge of the disorganized cattlemen but soon realized the Indians had won the day. The Utes set fire to two of the chuck wagons and built a brush barricade, trying to keep the cowboys hemmed in. Billy Wilson and the other cowboys mounted up, sometimes two to a horse, broke through the barricade and retreated to the valley below.
Harold Carlisle got word of the fight to Major Hall, who now saw reason to dispatch Captain Henry P. Perrine and 19 6th Cavalry troopers to the scene. The next day, July 7, he dispatched Lieutenant B.K. West with 35 more cavalrymen of Troop B, 6th Cavalry, although they wouldn’t catch up to the captain until July 13.
When Perrine reached the fight scene on July 10, he found 45 armed cowboys and ranchers—including Edmund Carlisle— eager to join up with him. The victorious Indians had killed a dozen horses and two mules and had burned wagons, line shacks and supplies. The soldiers found tracks that indicated that the Ute warriors had been joined by some Paiute bands and that these Indians had rustled some 110 horses from the isolated Garlich Ranch.
The size of the soldier-cowboy force eventually reached 131 armed men, but the Utes and Paiutes—who knew every canyon, trail, bush and tree in the area— seemed to treat the pursuit like a game of hide and seek. The Indians ran, but never too fast, through the desert country of southern Utah Territory. Along the way, the natives rustled horses from various ranches, although they didn’t really need more horses. In fact, they would sometimes kill a horse, peel the hide from ears to tail and leave the carcass in the middle of the trail to provoke the white men.
On July 14, army scout and packer Joe Wormington and cowboy James Rowdy Higgins asked Captain Perrine for permission to scout ahead with 10 other cowboys. Perrine advised against it because, while he knew Wormington to be an excellent scout, he had his doubts about Higgins, whose parents had been killed by Indians in Nevada, and the others. Still, the captain allowed them to leave the main group.
Wormington’s small force followed the Indian trail to the top of the divide leading down to the Colorado River. The Indians had been traveling only about 10 miles a day, even camping in one place for two full days and making a race track to test the mettle of the ranch horses they’d stolen. Wormington estimated that 350 to 400 Indians were ahead of him, and he sent a man back to Perrine to let the captain know. Wormington also discovered that the Indians’ trail was met by two sets of Indian pony tracks coming from the direction of the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado. It occurred to him that two Indian messengers might have been sent by Warren Patten, perhaps to instruct the wayward Utes to return to the reservation.
But the Indians were not turning back just yet. They had moved from the divide into a deep valley about 10 miles wide and 30 miles long and surrounded by cliffs about 2,000 feet high. Wormington, Higgins and the others in the advance guard followed, getting close enough to see Indian men and women driving the stolen stock and a herd of goats. The Indians climbed onto Mossback Mesa in White River Canyon and stopped. From their impregnable rocky shelf, they taunted the pursuing white men below. Wormington could only wait for Perrine’s main force to arrive.
When the captain got there, he was discouraged by what he saw. He planned to return to Fort Lewis without forcing a fight in that treacherous terrain. Rowdy Higgins downplayed the danger and volunteered to take a closer look if Wormington would go with him. The scout agreed, and at the crack of dawn on July 15, the two mounted men started up the hill toward the rim rocks, behind which many Indians were hiding. After riding for some distance, they dismounted and proceeded cautiously on foot. When the two white men got within range, the Utes and Paiutes opened fire, first fatally wounding Wormington and then hitting Higgins as he ran back down the hill. While the two dying men lay there in agony, Indians taunted them with such comments as “Oh my God, men, give me some water!” and “My God, I’m suffering so.” Perrine’s command could only watch as the Indians stripped the clothes off the bodies of Wormington and Higgins and seized the saddles and bridles from their horses.
The Indians stayed behind the rocks and fired down at the soldiers. They had at least one large-caliber buffalo gun. Perrine’s troopers kept up a desultory fire to keep the warriors from descending upon them. Perrine gave some consideration to trying to recover the bodies of the two dead men at night, but he concluded that too many other lives would be endangered and took his soldier-cowboy force home by way of the Blue Mountains. None of the other cowboys with him were quite as foolhardy as the late Rowdy Higgins.
The Utes and Paiutes waved goodbye but did not pursue. ( Years later, a prospector stumbled upon the skeletons of Wormington and Higgins and buried them in the canyon.) The engagement at White River Canyon never turned into a real battle. When Captain Perrine reported his failure to Hall, the major commended him for doing his best under trying circumstances. At the very least, the captain had kept his force from being slaughtered. On the other hand, Hall was furious at Warren Patten for having allowed the Utes to have the run of the land, essentially handing them an open invitation to terrorize and steal. By telegram to his superiors and to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., Major Hall blamed Patten for the Indian-cowboy trouble that led to the soldiers’ involvement and the fiasco at White River Canyon. No official action was ever taken against Patten.
Harold Carlisle was happy that his brother Edmund had returned unharmed from the expedition, but he also was incensed by Patten’s behavior. “This band of Utes that is causing so much trouble, this band to whom Agent Patten has seen fit to issue passes in defiance of authority, is the band that committed [the many] depredations,” he said in a telegram to the Department of the Interior in Washington. Secretary H.M. Teller immediately responded: “Patten reports that the difficulty was not with his Indians, but with Indians from other reservations. He has no authority to give passes to Indians to be off the reservation, and I will immediately call his attention to your request. It has never been our policy to allow Indians off the reservation.”
The wayward Indians did return to the Southern Ute Reservation, but the roaming and the Patten passes did not immediately become passé. As for those cowboys who had seen one of their own killed at White Canyon, they were not so eager to fight the natives again. Playing “Cowboys and Indians” in the Wild West could be downright dangerous.
Utah author Robert L. Foster has published more than 50 articles about the West and the 2005 novel Fort Zion. Suggested for further reading: The Utes: A Forgotten People, by Wilson Rockwell; and Indians and Outlaws: Settling of the San Juan Frontier, by Albert R. Lyman.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.