Museum Marvels02/23/2021 12:55PM ● By Paul Knowles
Harry Tracy wears leg cuffs in Craig after his 1898 arrest in Brown’s Park.
Photography courtesy of Museum of Northwest Colorado
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Paul Knowles, assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig, tells the stories behind several of the most fascinating items in the museum’s collections.
HARRY TRACY’S REVOLVER
Why Harry Tracy isn’t recognized as the most notorious outlaw of the West is beyond me. His tale borders on pure fiction – not even very realistic fiction. Yet it’s all true.
Tracy escaped two county jails (one involved beating the sheriff), two state penitentiaries (one involved a deadly shootout) and shot his way out of several no-win situations – all while killing 12 men along the way. And he wasn’t exactly sneaky about it; he relished the fear he created by proudly proclaiming, “I’m Tracy” to the people he met while on the run.
A QUICK RECAP OF TRACY’S EXPLOITS:
1897 – Tracy escapes Utah State Penitentiary by somehow securing a .45 Colt revolver.
1898 – Tracy commits his first known murder – a posseman in Brown’s Park (today’s Moffat County). He is finally captured and escapes after two weeks at the Routt County Jail in Hahns Peak by beating the sheriff and locking him in a cell. Recaptured the next day near Steamboat Springs, Tracy is sent to the Pitkin County Jail in Aspen. He escapes again a few months later and makes his way to Oregon/Washington.
1901 – Tracy is arrested after a string of burglaries and sent to Oregon State Penitentiary.
1902 – As though straight from a Hollywood movie, Tracy and an accomplice grab a ladder and a guard for use as a human shield and walk into the prison courtyard, guns blazing. With bullets raining down from the guard towers, they manage to scale the wall and escape while killing six men in the process. Now a nationwide sensation, Tracy kills his accomplice (whom he blamed for his initial capture) and flees with several posses in pursuit. Tracy unexpectedly stays in the Oregon/Washington area and happily tells everyone exactly who he is. Because of this, posses find and corner him into several no-win situations, only to watch Tracy brazenly shoot and kill his way out. After months of successfully evading capture, Tracy is seriously wounded and surrounded in a Washington field; he takes his own life.
ANN BASSETT’S PHOTO OF MAT RASH
“Queen” Ann Bassett was arrested and tried in 1911 after being accused of rustling by the large cattle baron Ora Haley. Though acquitted, she eventually confessed to her misdeeds.
Ann specifically had it out for Ora Haley and his Two-Bar cattle operation for three reasons:
1. She felt he used his vast herds and fortune to push around and intimidate the smaller cattle outfits.
2. Ora almost certainly hired legendary gun-for-hire Tom Horn to murder her fiancé, Mat Rash, and her friend Isam Dart in 1900.
3. Ora Haley was a man.
Later in life, Ann wrote an extremely revealing glimpse into her character and motivation. She also offered-up a nearly full confession: “Let men brag about their brute strength, yet when they get mired up to the ankles, they invariably SOS the women, exactly as I do, knowing when one’s knees get to wobbling, they can back up against the supporting cast of women’s strength. For despite several errors, women are still a length ahead in this human race, two years old or over.
“My best friends and guides have always been women, the wives, sisters and mothers of the men who were clamoring to see my shatter-proof hide neatly drying on a corral fence. These noble women – and I salute them – were standing by, giving a hand of helpful encouragement, irradiating wisdom and patience during the staging of those elaborate tournaments where men enjoyed the pastime sport of having me arrested and dragged through the courts for various alleged crimes against the lordly Two-Bar – many of which I was as guilty as hell! They charged to my rescue and went over the top with financial and moral support.”
It doesn’t get much more direct than that.
CUFFS WORN BY ISAM DART WHEN MURDERED BY TOM HORN
Isam Dart is a fascinating character in U.S. history. Unfortunately, he is best known for untrue tales and for being murdered by the West’s most famous hit man – Tom Horn.
There are countless stories about Isam Dart growing up as a slave in Arkansas. After being freed, the story goes, he ran with the vicious Tip Gault Gang under the alias Ned Huddleston. However, nearly all of this is pure fiction – including the very existence of a “Tip Gault Gang.”
In reality, Isam first shows up in the 1870 census at the age of 12 living in Seguin, Texas – his birth state. As a cattle driver, he eventually made his way to Brown's Park around 1883 about the same time as fellow Texan, Mat Rash. Isam was well-liked in Brown's Park and known as a "top hand among cowboys" and an expert bronco buster. He was an accomplished and well-respected African American thriving among a nearly 100% white population in an era that was frequently hostile to African Americans. I'd love to have met him.
Dart and Rash soon had their own cattle operations in Brown's Park but were dogged – as many in the area were – by accusations of occasional rustling. In 1900, a man by the name of "Tom Hicks" began working as a hand for Rash. After a few months, Hicks simply vanished. Then, on July 8, 1900, Rash was shot dead in his cabin. On October 3, 1900, Dart met the same fate while walking to his corral.
It was later declared that the mysterious "Tom Hicks" was none other than infamous gun-for-hire, Tom Horn. All evidence suggests that he was hired by large cattle barons to enter Brown's Park to gather evidence of rustling ... and then put an end to it.
MEEKER MASSACRE WITNESS ACCOUNT AND PHOTOS
“I arrived…only to find the agency building and property smoldering heaps of ruins…employees putrid bodies lying about the grounds where they had fallen… their wives, sons and daughters missing.” These were the words written in 1879 by a reporter arriving on the still-fresh scene of what became known as the “Meeker Massacre.”
Nathaniel Meeker was appointed Indian Agent to the White River Ute Indian Agency near present-day Meeker, Colo. in 1878 with the intent of quickly converting the Utes into farmers. After nearly a year of tense relations with the local tribe (mostly attributed to Meeker himself), the final straw occurred when Meeker ordered a horse racetrack, a favorite pastime of the resident Utes, to be plowed-up. This event prompted a minor uprising in which Meeker claimed to have been assaulted by one of the chiefs prompting him to send a letter requesting military support. Major Thomas T. Thornburgh at Fort Steele in Rawlins, Wyo. organized nearly 200 troops to quell the mounting tensions.
When Thornburgh was nearing the agency he was met by a Ute demanding that he continue with just five soldiers to convene a peace conference along with Meeker. Thornburgh, suspecting an ambush, ignored the request.
On September 29, 1879, Thornburgh and his troops officially crossed into Ute territory near Milk Creek – an act the Utes considered an overt treaty violation. Ute warriors, led by Chief Colorow, soon attacked. Several miles away that same day, the agency was also attacked. There, Meeker and ten of his men were killed. The Utes also kidnapped Meeker’s wife, Arvilla, and daughter, Josephine, along with another woman and her two young children.
Meanwhile, the Milk Creek battle lasted several days. Thornburgh’s troops were soon reinforced by a small group of Black cavalrymen, also known as Buffalo Soldiers, and eventually a few hundred more troops arrived to force a Ute surrender on October 5, 1879. Major Thornburgh and 13 other men were killed in the battle, along with roughly 20 Ute warriors.
Twenty-three days after the initial siege, all the hostages, including Mrs. Meeker and her daughter, were released unharmed. However, the battle was used as a rally-cry for those individuals determined to remove the Utes from Colorado altogether. They soon succeeded.
Charles Lindbergh’s Letter from the Sky
On a sleepy Saturday morning in 1927, a plane suddenly dropped from the sky over Craig and buzzed the downtown shops. Planes were still a rare sight no matter where you lived – especially planes flying mere feet above your rural town.
The plane made a hard U-turn and realigned itself for another swoop over the quickly gathering crowd. Printed beneath the wings was “N-X-211.” An uncontrollable excitement began to materialize among the spectators. Could it really be?
On the next pass, nearly clipping the rooftops, the plane suddenly made a hard bank directly above the crowd. And there it was. “Spirit of St. Louis” was neatly inscribed in front of the cockpit. The most famous person in the entire world was situated above the town of Craig.
Just four months earlier, nobody had ever heard of 25-year-old Charles A. Lindbergh. But on May 21, 1927, the entire world awoke to headlines proclaiming, “LINDBERGH DOES IT!” and “WORLD HERO” after he became the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. It was a monumental “landed on the moon” type of moment. Lindbergh’s feat had swung open the door to the viability and acceptance of air travel. Transportation would never be the same.
And now here he was: a man of near-mythical proportions was waving down to the people gathered on Craig’s Yampa Avenue. Lindbergh had just published a book detailing his record flight and was on an 82-city promotional tour in all 48 states. He had left Cheyenne, Wyo. that morning and was on his way to Salt Lake City.
On Lindbergh’s sixth and final pass over the crowd, he held out his hand and dropped something that slowly floated towards the earth and landed in front of Craig National Bank, where Victory Vision is located today. It was a message from Lindbergh and was hand addressed to “City of Craig Colo.” The signed letter explained that, while he regretted he couldn’t land at every city, he was thankful for the support.