The Wild Bunch

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

"The Wild Bunch" was a label claimed by more than one outlaw gang in the Old West. The most lasting one was possibly pasted by the Pinkerton Detective Agency on a group of outlaws operating out of the area along the Colorado-Utah Border in the late 1800s when the "wild west" was beginning to pass into history. Or it could have been hung on them by the saloons and merchants in the area, to whom the whooping cowboys ("here comes that wild bunch") were a welcome source of hard cash, the origin of which was nobody's concern.

To be sure, the "old west" wasn’t done just yet, but modern communication systems, the telegraph and telephone, were making it more and more difficult to make a dishonest living across the American West. The thin slice along that border was one of the last places where the treacherous overhead wires had not intruded and it was here that the "outlaw trail" held its last hurrah.

Three refuges comprised that old "outlaw trail." Northernmost was "Hole in the Wall," a hidden mountain meadow in western Wyoming, accessible only through an easily defended canyon and providing ample grass and water for the herds of stolen cattle. Further south, Brown's Hole, now called Brown's Park, was a valley along the northern reaches of the Green River, populated by small ranchers who made part of their living by rustling from the larger surrounding cattle barons and who made lawmen very unwelcome in their midst. Robbers' Roost was the southern end of the "trail" and the most rugged of the three, located in the almost inaccessible reaches of today's Canyonlands National Park.

From these safe havens, the Wild Bunch sallied forth to feast on the riches of others, living the outlaw life with all its excitement and discomforts – and dire consequences.

It all began in Brown's Hole on August 18, 1896 when Butch Cassidy called a meeting of the many outlaw cowboys gathered at the various ranches into what was probably the largest gathering of its kind in American history. Legend is that over two hundred bank robbers, train robbers, horse and cattle rustlers, con men and outlaws of every stripe were there. At a point now known as Cassidy Point, Cassidy proposed that they organize themselves into a proper modern outlaw "corporation." He proposed to name the group the "Train Robbers Syndicate"; the name never stuck, especially after "Wild Bunch" took hold.

Respected as he was, Butch's leadership was immediately challenged by Kid Curry. Good-natured Butch proposed that everyone was free to follow whichever of the two they wished and in one year they would meet again and decide who would lead.

Now Kid Curry wasn't the brightest of men, certainly he was no outlaw strategist. He promptly managed to get most of his followers captured or killed in a botched bank robbery in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Butch, with his close friend Elza Lay and his followers, pulled off several well-planned bank and train robberies. It was no contest and Butch was thereafter the acknowledged leader of the Wild Bunch. When Elza Lay was later captured and imprisoned, Sundance, who had initially followed Curry, filled in Lay's place as Butch's co-leader. They were to prove themselves masters of the outlaw trade for five action-filled years.

Their first masterstroke was the famous Castle Gate Robbery and it cemented Butch's reputation as the greatest criminal mind of his time. Located deep in narrow Pine Canyon in Carbon County, Utah, the Castle Gate Coal Mine employed hundreds of coal miners. The large payroll promptly caught Butch's attention and he developed an ingenious plan to seize it. The job would not be easy. Nervous mine owners took extensive measures to protect the payroll by changing schedules, hiring armed guards, and anything else they could think of.

Two racehorse trainers had begun to hang around the mine headquarters, using the nearby canyon slopes to condition their two horses, a common practice at the time. The two trainers, affable and generous, began to frequent the miner's saloon, buying drinks, swapping tales and becoming part of the landscape. On the day the payroll train arrived, they just happened to be lounging inconspicuously nearby, their horses standing ready, unsaddled to avoid suspicion.

As the clerk, E. L. Carpenter, carried the bags of gold and silver coin from the train to the outside stairway to his office, he felt the muzzle of a Colt .45 in his ribs and a calm voice saying, "I'll take them moneybags, sir. Stay calm, since I'd hate to shoot a hole in you."

With hundreds of miners standing around, the clerk was dumbfounded at the outlaw's boldness, but the sight of the big six-gun prompted him to do as ordered. Butch took the bags, tossed one to the already-mounted Elzy Lay and sprang on his suddenly startled gray mare. Off they rode, down the narrow canyon, as the clerk ran up the stairs, screaming a warning. Stopping momentarily to throw their hidden saddles on their mounts, Butch and Elzy sped down the canyon, while the frustrated Carpenter tried to send a telegram over telegraph wires severed by a third accomplice, one Joe Walker.

The plucky little clerk hurried to the train, which was still standing with a head of steam, and they sped off down the track in pursuit, unknowingly passing the pair as they were saddling up. At Price, the local sheriff took an hour to assemble a posse and headed off in the wrong direction, while the three outlaws rendezvoused and passed the $7,000 payroll loot to Joe, who headed directly to the Roost, while Butch and Elzy took to the back country where they had stashed supplies and fresh horses.

Though trailed by a couple of determined posses, all three men returned to the Roost, holed up for a couple of months, then rode north to Brown's Hole to gather up whoever was there and on to the towns of Dixon and Baggs for a wild party of whiskey, women, gambling, shopping, and shooting up the town. So ended the story of the Castle Gate Robbery.

Cassidy's outlaw career had begun several years before the Wild Bunch and Castle Gate. Shortly after noon on June 24, 1889, Butch, his brother-in-law Tom McCarty, and Matt Warner rode into Telluride, Colorado. Dressed to the nines in almost-Hollywood cowboy outfits, they appeared to be three cowboys out for a good time. No one paid notice when they pulled up to the San Miguel Valley Bank. Two went inside while one waited with the horses. Once inside, Warner offered up a check to be cashed and placed the barrel of his Colt under the teller's nose as he bent over to examine the document. Grasping the man by his collar, Warner held the man there while Cassidy scooped up some $20,000 in cash. Then, incredibly, they marched the teller out the front door with his hands raised, mounted up and rode out of town, tossing a few .45 slugs behind to discourage heroes.

Unfortunately, as they rode out of town they encountered a rancher for whom Tom McCarty had previously worked and he was recognized. That incident forever cast the three men into the mold of identified outlaws. The Wild Bunch was the ultimate outcome of that fateful moment.

A fourth accomplice, no one knows for sure who, had placed fresh horses and supplies along their intended escape route. Sadly, they had to alter their plans due to being identified and the bodies of the tied horses were found days later. It was said that Butch mourned their fate for years.

So the Wild Bunch operated for the five years that marked a final re-enactment of the "wild west." They were the most successful outlaw gang in old west history, led by one of the most intelligent leaders of them all in Butch Cassidy. Their creed was to never kill unless absolutely necessary to survive. Lawmen were not to be harmed. They cultivated the good will of the people, robbed only the "greedy" institutions of railroads and banks and spread their booty with good cheer, gay abandon, and friendly gunfire.

By 1901, it was over. The telegraph and telephone had caught up with the wilderness and the pressure was becoming too intense. Most of the old gang had been killed, imprisoned, or gone straight. Butch and Sundance took their lovely Etta Place to South America and the Wild Bunch was no more than a colorful memory marking a grand finish to the Wild West.

Murdock, Harvey Lay; The Educated Outlaw; Authorhouse; Bloomington, IN; 2009

Rutter, Michael; Outlaw Tales of Utah; TWODOT; Morris Book Publishing; Helena, MT; 2011

Salt Lake City Herald; "Desperados at Castle Gate;" April 22, 1897; Chronicle of the Old West, Vol. 13, No. 3, April 2013