The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print). His own blog can be viewed at www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com and his website is www.frontiersmenhistorian.info
A VISIT TO ROBBERS’ ROOST
and the infamous outlaws
(but Butch Cassidy was out on business at the time)
When one is suspected of being an unconvicted murderer, especially when one’s alleged victim was a British baronet who vanished without trace on a failed expedition to the Klondyke, a man feels the urgent need to leave England as soon as possible. What better expedition could he then undertake than to follow what became known as the Outlaw Trail from Canada to Mexico; to create a world record or die in the attempt. Roger Pocock did manage to achieve a British long-distance horse riding record. In doing so this unarmed Englishman in the year 1899 also met many of the (in)famous robbers and outlaws and interviewed them for a now long-gone British newspaper, Lloyds Weekly Newspaper. In addition he discovered the track to Robbers’ Roost. At the time that track was considered to be impossible to find.
For the strange story of the disappearance of Sir Arthur Curtis on the Pocock expedition to the Klondyke and the solution to a 90 year mystery, see Outrider of Empire by Geoffrey A Pocock (University of Alberta Press, 2008). The story of the baronet who walked out into the Canadian wilderness never to be seen again, gripped the newspapers in Britain, Canada, U.S.A. and elsewhere on and off for many years. To escape the rumours surrounding him, Pocock embarked on another adventure, to ride from Canada to Mexico, specifically choosing a route across the great American deserts. Pocock wrote “I wanted to get back my self-respect”. The American West by this time was no longer the wild lands of earlier years, but it was certainly not an easy or completely safe ride for a lone traveller. “There are a lot of bones lying about on that desert”, he wrote. When they reached London, his brilliantly descriptive accounts in Lloyds Weekly Newspaper of a land and people unknown to most readers encouraged them to look every week at page 14 for Pocock’s latest enthralling story. He began with an account of a Native American Blackfoot tribe camp on American Independence Day, 4th July:
…The lone drum lived in the Medicine Lodge, a huge round house of boughs, where young warriors were proved by torture, where prayer was made to the Great Spirit, and the pipe went round among the chiefs and sorcerers..The squaws were doing the Grass Dance, all dressed in bright robes and adorned with little mirrors, dyed grass quills, and beads sewn to the cloth,little feathers, brass cartridge shells, and penny paper fans…
Readers were always eager for stories of what were then known as “Red Indians”.
When he reached the impressive scenery of Yellowstone Park, it was to find that, even in the closing years of that century, tourism had started to make its mark. He described the drivers of the waggonettes showing the tourists the sights as:
…tame farmers, loaded up to the muzzle with Wild West tales for their “dudes”. The dudes believe everything, suffer everything, and pay a great deal more than they expected…
A visit to the notorious Jackson Hole found him greeted with suspicion, although he must have proved that he was no threat to them as he was able to comment:
…Of these robbers I managed to identify four, but may not betray them because I was their guest; they were very nice men too.
Arriving at Green River City, for the grand sum of fifteen cents he had his portrait drawn by an itinerant tramp artist (shown here, courtesy of the Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta). The possession of a camera was almost unknown by the residents of those areas. A tramp artist could eke out a living moving from settlement to settlement sketching family members. As can be see from this portrait, some were very good artists. Passing through Red Creek Canyon, he arrived at Brown’s Hole,Colorado, also known as Brown’s Park, another outlaw stronghold “tenanted in part by respectable, well-to-do robbers”. Yet again, Pocock’s ability to treat the outlaws with courtesy and respect their unwritten rules brought fruit:
…I had the additional pleasure in Brown’s Park of dining with a notable robber – I may not name him, the guest of a public enemy eats under a flag of truce.
After a ride of one hundred and eighty three almost deserted miles, where he met hardly more than fifty souls, he enjoyed a couple of days rest for himself and his horses at the city of Grand Junction Colorado. There he was able to indulge briefly in a few luxuries such as fruit and chocolate, A difficult descent into the Unaweep Canyon and the even more difficult Dolores Canyon followed by some easier riding found him in the State of Utah. At Monticello he boldly asked for directions to Robbers’ Roost. Thinking he was some desperado, the Mormons shunned him. Pocock did find the way for himself. Although he never explained how he did it, he gave the clearest possible directions in his article in Lloyds Weekly Newspaper. This would not be giving away a secret as it was unlikely that any reader of the newspaper would be able to, or would care to, follow his trail. These are possibly the clearest directions ever written.
The headquarters of the bandits may easily be located on a map. See where the Green and Grand Rivers meet to form the Colorado. Just below that the west bank of the Colorado is a precipice called the Orange cliffs. To the north is the San Rafael canyon, to the south the Dirty Devil canyon, torrents of rushing mud lost in profound gorges. The tract of land on top of the Orange cliffs entirely surrounded by canyons, can only be reached by one of two difficult trails. Here stands a log house, the Robbers’ Roost, with its corrals and spring of water, with pasturage for horses to ride, cattle to eat and for sale: the cliffs are a fence, the whole district a secure retreat from justice.
In 1904 Roger Pocock published his most successful fiction book Curly, which was based around the outlaws of Robbers’ Roost. Some of them were lightly disguised with altered names. The book was illustrated by Stanley Wood, one of the best-known illustrators of the time. One of the illustrations shows two characters in the Robbers’ Roost log house. Stanley Wood complained that Pocock insisted on every detail of every illustrations he used should be exact, so we can assume that this is a good representation of the log house. The late Lord Mountbatten always said that Curly was his favourite boyhood book. A main character in the book is called McCalmont, a limited change from Tom McCarty, who Pocock claimed was in command, “general manager”, he called him and said that Butch Cassidy was second-in-command. A number of writers give the command to Butch Cassidy, although one said that Elzy Lay was the brains of the Wild Bunch, and Cassidy followed his lead. Possibly, when Pocock interviewed McCarty, he could claim to be the leader as Cassidy was not in residence at the time. Pearl Baker, in her 1971 book Wild Bunch at Robbers Roost, gave the origination of the term to saloon keepers at frontier towns who referred to the outlaws as “that wild bunch from Robbers Roost”. In his newspaper article Pocock told how the gang members communicated. In Curly he gave greater details and also told how they covered their trails. Due to the famous Wilcox, Wyoming train robbery of 2nd June 1899, many of the robbers were scattered and in hiding, so Pocock did not get to meet them. Some of the men he did meet could be considered to be no more than hangers-on as their names have not been commonly heard. One of the well-known outlaws was David Lant, who had been captured in March 1898, but escaped from jail and then disappeared, although there were several differing accounts of where he had gone. Pocock found him living quietly at Robbers Roost. Train robberies attracted much attention and have been given much notice in outlaw lore and films.
Several trains are robbed every year, now and then a coach or bank, or specie in transit on the road. Yet these are special occasions, whereas the stealing of cattle is a recognised routine which pays much better…
Nearly every outlaw is a retired cowboy: and the relations between the robbers and the cowpunchers are based on the exact rules of etiquette. The cowboy is an armed retainer who is paid to work and fight for his employer; but he will always warn an outlaw against the police, and it is considered bad manners at a cow camp to ask any questions of a guest.
The fact that Roger Pocock had a reputation as an eccentric Englishman probably saved his life at times when he could be too curious for his own good.
Roger Pocock’s account of his ride and the stories of the men he interviewed have been met in some quarters with disbelief and claims that he manufactured his stories. I can assure the reader that Pocock kept a careful record, including his photographs, of his ride and the original album is kept with great pride at the Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta. Everything he wrote of that ride was true and written at the time. This is only a brief summary of a few of the adventures he had on what he called his Great Ride from Canada to Mexico. To read the whole story and, indeed many of his other adventures in a long and adventurous life see Outrider of Empire: the life and adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press, 2008) by Geoffrey A Pocock.
Acknowledgement: Grateful thanks are due to the Bruce Peel Special Collections & Archives, University of Alberta, for permission to use the photos and illustrations from the relevant album in the Roger Pocock collection.