A PERSONAL INTERVIEW WITH JOSIE BASSETT
In 1960, just before leaving for a two year study of the motion picture business in California. I was living in Daggett County, Utah, writing articles on western history for national periodicals. One particular article dealt with the topic of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, and received numerous letters in response. Two of these letters concerned Josie Bassett.
The first was from noted author John Rolfe Burroughs, who was then in the process of researching his award-winning history of Brown’s Park.1 He had recently obtained an interview with Josie and recommended her as a remarkable source of information on Brown’s Park, Butch Cassidy, and much more.
The second letter was from a lady who lived at Jensen, Utah, who was a neighbor of Josie’s, and who stated that she had gone deer hunting with Josie every year for a decade or more. She informed me that Josie knew a great deal about Butch Cassidy, but that she was then in her 86th year and in declining health, and she suggested that if I wanted to talk with Josie, I should do so soon, before it was too late.
Inspired by these letters, I determined to make a trip to Jensen, Utah, where Josie lived, and to interview her.
This was not the first I had heard of Josie Bassett, however. My grandfather, William Schofield, Sr., had known her for many years, and had filled my inquisitive young mind with tales about her. Her exploits were near legendary in the region where I was born and raised.
One of my good friends and long-time acquaintances was George Stephens, of Green River, Wyoming. George was a former Deputy Sheriff of Daggett County, Utah, and Sweetwater County, Wyoming, and, in 1914, had been delegated to serve a warrant upon Josie relating to an inquest into the death of her husband, Emerson Wells. He kept a private museum in the basement of his spacious home, among the relics of which was a small bottle of poison, part of the evidence used in the case, against her.
The Bassett family was of the oldest in Brown’s Park. Uncle Sam Bassett, in company of Louie Simmons (son-in-law of Kit Carson), first set foot in Brown’s “Hole” – as Brown’s Park was then called – in the autumn of 11853. The Bassetts remained as residents of Brown’s Park for the next 120 years.
Samuel and Herbert Bassett came from Herkimer County in the Mohawk Valley of central New York State. Sam, the oldest, joined the gold rush to California in 1849, then traveled the western regions as a prospector, guide, and government scout. It was during one such excursion that he first visited Brown’s Hole in 1852.
Sam Bassett’s diary recorded that event as follows: Brown’s Hole, November, the month of Thanksgiving, 1852.
Louis (Simmons) and I “down in.” Packs off. Mules in lush cured meadow. Spanish Joe’s trail for travel could not be likened to an up-state high lane for coach-and-four. Mountains to the right of us, mountains to the left of us, not in formation but highly mineralized. To the South, a range in uncontested beauty of contour, its great stone mouth drinking a river (Lodore Canyon). Called on neighbors lest we jeopardize our social standing. Chief Catump, and his tribe of Utes. Male and female created He them. And “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed so fine.” Beads, bones, quills, and feathers of artistic design. Buckskins tanned in exquisite coloring of amazing hues, resembling velvets of finest texture. Bows and Arrows. “Let there be no strife between me and thee!”2
Another diary entry two years later, written in the same poetic language, indicates that Sam Bassett had settled permanently:
Brown’s Hole, June 22nd, 1854.
Warren P. Parsons and his wife Annie have arrived and our first white squaw, “Snapping Annie,” is expertly driving her slick oxen “Turk” and “Lion.” “Whoa! Haw, Turk! Gee, Lion!” commanded by a female bullwhacker…Man’s freedom in paradise is doomed.3
Uncle Sam Bassett’s original holding in Brown’s Hole was on the first bench above what became known as “Hoy meadows,” facing upon the entrance to Lodore Canyon. At a later date he built a cabin on the west bank of Beaver Creek where that stream emerges from Cold Spring Mountain.
Herbert Bassett was born in Bridgewater, Herkimer County, New York, on July 31, 1839.4 After leaving college, he went to Illinois, where he became a school teacher before enlisting in the Union Army in 1861. He mustered out at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1865, with the rank of major, and was thereafter made Collector of Revenue at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Crawford. She was born in Norfolk in 1855; her parents died when she was small, and she and her sister, Hannah, were raised by their maternal grandparents, the Chamberlains.
The couple moved to Little Revenue, where, in addition to his duties as Collector of Internal Revenue, Herb became Clerk of the District Court. During the several years they resided here, two children were born to them – Josephine and Samuel. Afflicted with asthma, Herb Bassett set out for California with his family in the hope that the climate would improve his health. They stopped at Rock Springs, Wyoming, to visit his brother Sam, and it was he who persuaded Herb that the climate of Brown’s Hole would be as beneficial to his health as California would.
Herb didn’t go there directly, but took a job for a time as book-keeper of the mercantile firm of A.C. Beckwith and Company at Evanston, Wyoming. in 1877, when Josephine (“Josie”) was four, the family moved to Brown’s Hole. Herb bought a team of horses and a wagon at Rock Springs to haul the family’s possessions – which included a small organ and a considerable library – and set out for Brown’s Hole via Irish Canyon.
When the panorama of Brown’s Hole at last unfolded before them, Elizabeth Bassett asked her husband to halt the team, and, standing up in the wagon, she said, almost breathlessly: “Herb, no place as lovely as this ever should have been called a ‘hole.’ It’s more like a park. That’s what it is – a tremendous park! And that’s what people are going to call it – at least when they’re around me!”
The Bassetts spent the first year of their residence in Brown’s Park with Uncle Sam Bassett in his one-room log cabin several miles north of Lodore Canyon. In this cabin, attended by Dr. John Parsons (father of Warren P. Parsons mentioned above), on May 25, 1878, Elizabeth Bassett gave birth to her third child, a daughter, whom they named Anna. Elizabeth had no milk, and baby Anna’s life was in doubt until one of the Brown’s Park bachelors – Buffalo Jack Rife – came up with the solution.
A band of Yampatika Ute Indians were camped several hundred yards from Uncle Sam’s cabin, and Rife, an ex-buffalo hunter who spoke the Ute language, had a powwow with Chief Marcisco and the medicine man, Muchekuegant Star. Within an hour of her birth, Anna – the first white child born in Northwestern Colorado – was handed over to the medicine man who carried her bareheaded, but otherwise warmly bundled up, through a pouring rain to a Ute squaw who had given birth a few days previously.
Every two hours thereafter, day and night, little Anne was carried by the medicine man to her foster mother, Seeabaka, until the time when the band of Utes moved on, at which time Asbury B. Conway showed up with a milk cow which he presented to the Bassetts.
Herb Bassett eventually built a single-story five-room house out of logs, erected in the form of a cross, at Joe’s Spring. Eventually there were other out-buildings, including a large bunk house. Despite the fact that they had the best-appointed home in the Park, for the first couple of years they were so poor they had to live off the generosity of their neighbors.
In 1879 Herb constructed a cabin in remote Zenobia Basin (so named by Elizabeth Bassett), near the crest of Douglas Mountain, at the suggestion of Buffalo Jack Rife, to summer his cattle. The Bassett brand was Z-K on the left side, a split left ear, and a cropped right ear. Unlike most of his neighbors, Herb Bassett was opposed to making money by rustling his neighbors cattle. Later, it was Herb Bassett who, in company with Tom Davenport, pioneered the growing of grain in Brown’s Park and brought in cradles and scythes with which to harvest it.
Hospitable by nature, the Bassetts welcomed all visitors, no questions asked, and the Bassett ranch became a favorite stop-over for travelers. They were a musical family, especially Herb, who played the violin and several other instruments. Also deeply religious, it became a habit of many to drop over to the Bassetts of a Sunday to gather around Herb at the organ and sing hymns.
The Bassett organ became the most traveled instrument of its kind in the Rocky Mountains, being carried by wagon, buckboard, and two-wheeled cart to every dance and social gathering in the Park. John Jarvie, Sr., the amiable Scotsman, was able to coax more than a hundred numbers out of the instrument, every one by ear. Whenever Butch Cassidy was in the Park, he accompanied with his harmonica, and so often harry Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid) played current tunes on his clarinet.
Another attraction at the Basset home was the rather extensive library. Ann Bassett wrote: “The home contained good books such as Shakespeare’s complete works, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Byron, Longfellow, and many other works of poems, literature, and travel. My parents had brought books from their eastern home. Others were given us by Judge Conway. Bassett’s ranch was a place for people to congregate, relax, and read…”5 One of those often found there, feet kicked up, enjoying a good book, was Butch Cassidy, whose particular favorites were Dickens and, surprisingly, world history.
The Lodore Post Office was located at the Bassett ranch for many years, which added to the number of visitors there. The original post office, “Brown’s Park, Utah,” was officially established on February 14, 1881 on the Jarvie ranch near Bridgeport, at the western end of the Park; on June 8, 1887, this office was abolished. On June 3, 1889, the post office of “Lodore, Colorado” was activated, with C.B. Sears as postmaster, but for some reason Sears failed to qualify, and, on January 8, 1890, A.H. (Herbert) Bassett received the appointment. As Justice of the Peace (an office he resigned in 1892) and postmaster, he played an important role in community affairs.
Hi Bernard, who became his son-in-law, was always uncomfortable in Herb’s presence, saying: “I never could get acquainted with Mr. Bassett for he is a religious man, and is way over my head. He peers over his specs at me and seems to be smiling behind his long white beard as if he was amused by the antics of some strange insect he had come upon by accident…”6
Eventually there were five Bassett children: Josephine, Samuel, Anna, Elbert, and George – the last three were born in Brown’s Park. All of the Bassett children were strongly attached to their father, while their mother, Elizabeth Bassett, was the most dominant figure. Elizabeth like to run things, and Herb was only too obliging to let her do it without interference. Elizabeth is described as having been small in stature, but beyond that physical limitation, there was nothing small about her.
Elizabeth Bassett did not know the meaning of fear. Gregarious and generous, she was also extremely out-spoken. She so loved to talk, in fact, that the Indians referred to her as “Magpie.” Greatly liked by her friends, she was anathema to her enemies, among the latter being the Hoys.
Elizabeth resented the Hoy brothers’ intrusion into the affairs of everyone in the Park, and conspired to create an informal organization to bring them to task, and ended up nearly doing them in. Henry Hoy was the prosecuting witness who brought a charge of arson against Angus McDougal, Jack Fitch, and a Bassett favorite, Isom Dart, a black man with a most amazing history. Simultaneously, Adea A. Hoy charged McDouagal and Dart with altering brands on three of his horses. Among witnesses for the defense were Elizabeth Bassett, Sam Bassett, Jr., and Thomas Davenport. Angus McDougal was convicted on both counts and was sentenced to serve five years in the Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City, his mittimus of commitment being dated October 8, 18990. Isom Dart broke jail at Hahn’s Peak and was never brought to trial.7
After her untimely death, J. S. Hoy is quoted as saying: “We came into Brown’s Park to run the nesters out. We started it, but Elizabeth Bassett finished it, and she finished it good!”8
Mrs. Bassett inspired a strong loyalty in the breasts of the homeless and outlawed young men who made Brown’s Park their refuge and the Bassett ranch their home. Any one of them,
it is said, “willingly would have died and gone to hell for her.”
Matt Rash (a nephew of Davy Crockett) was one of her devoted followers, as was Isom Dart, Angus McDougal, Jim McKnight, and many others who constituted what became known as the “Bassett Gang.” Elizabeth Bassett did not hesitate to use them when occasion merited it.
The Bassett Gang restricted their activities, for the most part, in the acquisition of horses and cattle by rustling. Of course, there were notable exceptions, such as the burning of the Hoy buildings, after which a huge celebration was held at the Bassett ranch.
With such characters as Charley Crouse, to whom Matt Warner refers as “that good-hearted old cattle rustler,”9 James Warren, who hired young runaways such as Matt Warner and Cleophas Dowd to assist him in his rustling activities, and the Bassett Gang, rustling was rampant in Brown’s Park. Men such as Matt Rash acquired sizeable herds in this fashion.
Elizabeth Bassett, consequently, spent much of her time in the saddle, and she could ride, rope and shoot as well as any of her young followers. Still, as befitted a well-bred Southern lady, she rode side-saddle. Ann Bassett wrote:
“Her outfit consisted of a beautifully fitted ‘habit’ of rich, dark blue material, long-skirted and draped with grace. For trimming, there were a number of gleaming brass buttons. She was a blonde…Mounted on her thoroughbred horse, ‘Calky,’ she was a picture to remember.”10
She was also an ardent feminist and was active in the women’s suffrage movement, and, following the death of Dr. Parsons in 1879 – the first “natural” death in Brown’s Park, according to J.S. Hoy – she served as Brown’s Park’s surgeon.” Says her daughter Ann: “One young man of our neighborhood was riding near a barbed wire fence and his horse ran into the wire, which cut the flesh of the cowpuncher’s leg to the bone. It was a deep, bad but. Mother was called as usual. She put five stitches into the flesh, with sewing or sack needles as used on horses and cattle, with common table salt as an antiseptic, and herbs gathered by the Indians to stop the flow of blood…”11
One of the Bassett’s hired men, Jack Rollas, was killed by a Texan named Hambleton. Hambleton always maintained that he had trailed Rollas for two years to exact vengeance for the murder of his brother in Abilene, Kansas. After the shooting, Elizabeth Bassett took them prisoner, lining them up at gunpoint against the bunk house wall. She them placed a gun in the hand of the mortally wounded Rollas and told him to kill Hambleton, or all three of the captive Texans if he wanted to, but Rollas was by them too weak to comply.
Messengers were sent to summon Justice of the Peace Charles Allen, and Herbert Bassett was left to guard the prisoners. Elizabeth had ridden away to summon some of her “boys.” Toward evening, fearing a lynching, Herb told the three Texans that they “better go to the barn and feed your horses,” adding that he trusted them to turn themselves in to the sheriff at Hahn’s Peak, then the Routt County seat. Nothing ever was heard of Hambleton and his companions again. Ann reported, however, that “the Bassett ranch had three good Winchesters…to be added to the gun rack.”12
Elizabeth Bassett died, presumably of appendicitis, on December 11, 1892, at the age of 37. She is buried in the private cemetery at the Bassett ranch. Herbert Bassett died July 21, 1926. He spent the last years of his life in an Old Soldiers’ Home in Illinois, and is buried in a military cemetery at Springfield, Illinois. He was 87.
The monument to Elizabeth Bassett’s career occurred when she and her gang purportedly rustled 500 head of Flying VD Cattle in a single raid. Cornered in Zenobia Basin on Douglas Mountain. Elizabeth Bassett and her underlings “rim-rocked” the entire herd – i.e., drove them over the cliff into Lodore Canyon, destroying any evidence that might have been used to convict them. Small wonder, then, that Elizabeth Bassett’s only two daughters should turn out to be images of their amazing mother.
Josephine, who was the oldest of the Bassett children, was domestically inclined, but in a country where there were but very few girls, and both Josephine and Anna being unusually attractive, they were extremely popular, to say the least. For a time, Josephine was “sparked” by Butch Cassidy, but Butch was not the marrying kind, and eventually Josie married Jim McKnight.
Josie’s first child was a boy whom she named Herbert after her father, but who went by the name of “Chick” throughout his life. Not long after she bore another son to Jim McKnight, and the two boys became the delight of Isom Dart, who ran his cattle at Summit Spring on Cold Spring Mountain with McKnight, where the latter had a claim.
Isom was around the McKnight home a great deal of the time, helping with chores much as he had done for Josie’s mother. He never tired of playing with the little McKnight boys, and he would sing Negro songs to them, and “put on a show” when they gleefully demanded it (he had once been a rodeo clown). In 1900, both Isom Dart and Matt Rash were killed from ambush by the notorious “rustler exterminator” Tom Horn.
Matt Rash (real name Madison Rash) went to work for the Middlesex Land and Cattle Company upon his arrival in Brown’s Park, and later he went to work for Tim Kinney’s Circle K outfit. When Kinney went out of the cattle business, Matt Rash showed up in Brown’s Park driving more than 70 head of cattle which numbered only four cows, the rest of them being young stock.
Taking up a piece of land two or three miles west of the Bassett ranch, Rash built a cabin on it, and began ingratiating himself with Elizabeth Bassett, which worked very effectively. In fact, Elizabeth gave him a fine sorrel mare which became his favorite saddle horse – which Tom Horn shot at the same time he killed Rash. Matt Rash was engaged to be married to Josie’s sister, Ann, at the time of his death.
If Josie was domestically inclined and more feminine, her sister Ann was exactly the opposite. As she herself wrote: “Through trial and effort I became a specialist at evading mother’s staff of authority. With the speed of a wapiti I would race to the bunkhouse, that place of many attractions, where saddle=galled cowpunchers congregated to sing range ballads and squeak out doleful tunes on the fiddle. Somewhere in a secluded corner an absorbing round of poker was sure to be in session…”13
Education was a priority in the Bassett household. The earliest record of the Bassett sisters’ educational development appears in an item in the Craig, Colorado Pantograph of November, 1892:
The Misses Bassett and Mr. Matt Rash arrived in the city Monday from Brown’s Park. The young ladies are here for the purpose of attending school, and are stopping at the home of Mr. Joe Carroll.
A few weeks later the newspaper printed Elizabeth Bassett’s obituary notice; the only person who had ever been able to exercise any control over Ann Bassett was gone. “About a year after Mother passed away…I began to be a problem to my father…Although wise in many ways, (he) was too tender and kind-hearted to control a girl of my temperament…”14
Taking the advice of Tim Kinney, who was an Irish-Catholic, Herb shipped his youngest daughter off to St. Mary’s of the Wasatch academy on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where she spent the next several years. Following this, she was shipped off again, this time to a fashionable finishing school in the East – Miss Potter’s school for girls in Boston, Massachusetts, according to Ann – where she often abandoned the decorum of side-saddle at the formal riding academy in the absence of the French instructor, and put on rodeo for the other girls by riding bareback and astride her horse.
During the two years that she spent in the finishing school, Ann was on probation the greater part of the time. When she finally departed, the headmistress breathed a sigh of relief and vowed “Never again.”
Ann Bassett was not simply attractive, but was extremely beautiful, and therefore tremendously popular. Her first serious romantic interest was tall, dashing William Ellsworth “Elzy” Lay, but ultimately he joined Butch Cassidy, became a bank and train robber, went to prison in New Mexico, and drifted out of her life. Her next love came in 1897, when at nineteen she “fell” for thirty-two year old Matt Rash.
After Matt Rash was killed by Tom Horn on July 10, 1900, Ann, on August 1, 1900, through her attorney, Wells B. McClelland of Steamboat Springs, filed a Petition for Letters Testamentary in the Routt County Probate Court. At the time of Rash’s death, he had some 600 head of cattle, mortgaged to the First National Bank of Rock Springs in the amount of $6,000. Ann claimed that Matt Rash had made a will on May 20, 1900, leaving all his personal property to “his betrothed wife,” and the Blanche Tilton, Ebb (Elbert) Bassett, E.B. (Longhorn) Thompson, Larry Curtin, and Josephine McKnight knew of the execution of the will, which was since “lost.” When Matt’s father, Samuel A. Rash, and one of his brothers, James L. Rash, contested the claim, Ann finally settled out of court for $250, and the petition was withdrawn September 24, 1900. However, it is worthy of note that when Sheriff Charles W. Neiman was appointed administrator of the Rash estate, he was only able to find 485 of Matt’s 600 head of cattle.
After Matt Rash’s death, Ann Bassett began a vendetta against Ora Haley, owner of the Two Bar outfit, whom she blamed for hiring Tom Horn as a bounty hunter. Says she: “Throwing caution to the winds, I pushed cattle off the range. I had to work alone. My neighbors did not support me in this, my challenge to Haley, and defiance of law and order. No other stockmen were responsible for what I did. I turned the heat against myself by an open declaration of war…”15
From about 1901 to 193, Ann spent her time driving off hundreds of Two Bar cattle, most of which she drove into the swirling waters of the Green River, to be carried through the gates of Lodore Canyon and drowned. Her efforts earned her the title “Queen of the Rustlers,” shortened usually to “Queen Ann.” Hi Bernard, Two Bar foreman, stated: “A mere handful of people in Brown’s Park set up a little kingdom – or queendom – of their own from the Utah and Wyoming lines, to the Little Snake River…I went into Brown’s Park…and got cold-shouldered…I did not meet Ann Bassett, but I received a letter from her soon afterwards, advising that neither I nor the Haley outfit were desirable;…The following spring I was making a tour of range investigation on the remote Douglas Mountain mesa, and I met Ann Bassett riding alone – a smallish imp of a girl sitting astraddle of a superb horse as though she had grown there. She was dressed in at least one gun…My hands wanted to reach for something high overhead. I restrained them with difficulty, and introduced myself..I got a salty reply that conveyed the idea that gray wolves were natives, and belonged in the country, whereas I was nothing but a Two Bar worm…”
Eventually, realizing that she could not defeat Haley by present tactics, Queen Ann did something out of spite and probably as another tactic: On April 13, 1904, at Craig, Colorado, she married Hi Bernard! Ann was 26, and Bernard 46. It was the first marriage for both of them. Hi Bernard was probably correct when he stated that Ann thought more of her pet chipmunks than she did of him.
Hi Bernard’s defection from the Ora Haley outfit didn’t have the effect she had hoped it would; Haley simply replaced him with a tough Texas cowboy named Heck Lytton. Unrelenting, Ann continued her depredations against the hated Two Bar for nearly a decade.10
Then, on March 15, 1911, a weather-beaten prospector showed up at the Smelter Ranch, calling himself Nelson; Ann loaned him a saddle, and let him sleep in the bunkhouse. He dined with the family and played cribbage with Tom Yarberry. “Nelson” turned out to be a livestock detective.
When he arrived at the ranch the meat house had been empty. Two days later there were three quarters of beef, and fresh wagon tracks leading up to the door. On the back porch of the ranch house he found a pair of women’s overshoes that were splattered with blood. On March 18 he rode to Two Bar headquarters and reported his discoveries to the new foreman, Bill Patton.
On August 12, 1911, an article in the Craig Empire stated that Patton had found the remains of the butchered beef, with right ear cut off and the brand cut out of the hide. Patton had Ann Bassett and Tom Yarberry arrested.
The preliminary hearing was held before Justice Z.Z. Carpenter on March 31, 1911. W.B. Wiley, attorney for the Cattleman’s Association, was the prosecuting attorney, and attorney for the defense was Judge A.M. Gooding of Steamboat Springs. The case attracted so much attention, Craig citizens rented the opera house so that all might hear the evidence. The Craig Empire reported on April 1:
Interest naturally centered in Mrs. Bernard, who is really a remarkable personage. Raised in the wilds of Northwestern Colorado, trained from childhood to ride and shoot, she has a splendid education which has been improved by extensive travel. She is said to be as much at home at a swell social function as while taking her regular “watch” with the other cowpunchers on the roundup. As she appeared in court Thursday, stylishly attired, she looked the part of “Queen Ann” with her wealth of brown hair and stately carriage.
The trial of The People vs. Ann Bassett Bernard and Thomas Yarberry commenced in August, 1911. There were numerous witnesses, including Ebb Bassett, Hi Bernard, Chick Bowen, Emery Clark and, of course, Ann herself. The jury reported on August 12, 1911 that agreement on a verdict was impossible, and it came to trial again in August, 1913. Ann stood alone, for Yarberry and skipped his thousand dollar bond. Very little new evidence was introduced at the new trial. The defense was handicapped because Chick Bowen, one of the most important witnesses, had been shot to death at Baggs, Wyoming, and two other witnesses, Matt Morelock and Bill Malone, “left for parts unknown.”
Nevertheless, cattle baron Ora Haley was hated, and Queen Ann had a large following, and it soon became apparent that the cards were in her favor. Ann was acquitted. Afterward she wrote: “I did everything they ever accused me of, and whole lot more.”16
Following the victory, the Craig Courier put out a special edition for the only time in its history, there was a parade headed by the town band, a banquet was held at the Baker House hotel, after which everyone went to the silent movies, where occasionally a slide would flash on the screen which read: HURRAH FOR VICTORY! Finally, there was an all-night dance, where Queen Ann reigned as guest of honor.
In 1920, Queen Ann married, as her second husband, Frank Willis. Willis was born in Reeceville, Tennessee in 1883, and in 1904 had worked for the Two Bar outfit. Patton had, in fact, offered him $500 to go to work for Ann Bassett and gathered evidence against her, but he refused, quitting and taking other work in Wyoming and Nebraska. When they married, Ann was 42 years old and Willis was 37.
Shortly after marrying they moved to California, where for ten years Willis worked in the oil fields, sometimes with Ann’s former sweetheart, Elzy Lay. In 1931 they moved to Arizona and ran 1,200 head of cattle near Hackberry. Ann even enrolled temporarily as a forestry student at the University of Arizona, until she learned that the U.S. Forest Service would not accept women as forest rangers.
In 1937 Ann and Frank sold their Arizona holdings and spent the next years prospecting and roaming the West. James Dowd, son of Cleophas Dowd, who had once worked for Elizabeth Bassett in Brown’s Park, once told me that he ran into Queen Ann in a most unusual way near Boron, California, in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. A circus bear had escaped following a train derailment near Barstow, and the animal was pursued into the desert. A reward was posted for the animal “dead or alive,” for it was considered dangerous. No one seemed to be able to track the animal down until Ann Bassett Willis appeared on the scene. Within several days’ time she tracked the animal into the hills and shot it, making the local news. She was past sixty by this time.17
The uranium boom of the 1950’s found Ann and Frank living at Leeds, Utah, where Frank prospected around Silver Reef, and Ann set about writing her memoirs, dubbed “Tracks and Scars.” She died at Leeds in May, 1956, at the age of 78.
A complete history of the amazing Bassett’s would fill volumes. Some mention might be made of Josie and Ann’s brother, Ebb, often called “Kid Bassett,” or “The Bassett Kid.” He was the wild brother, even as Ann had been the wild sister. For a time he rode as a rustler, working closely with Isom Dart before the turn of the century, and aiding his sister in her vendetta against the Two Bar later.
Of Josie Bassett much could be said: her love affair with Butch Cassidy, her many notorious marriages, and her own sensational trial in Uintah County, Utah for cattle rustling. But rather than attempt a biography, it is perhaps better to allow Josie to tell her own story, from my interview with her in the early summer of 1960.
In 1919, Josie took up a homestead on Cub Creek, not far from the Green River, a few miles northwest of the little town of Jensen. This would be her home, except for a few “detours,” for the rest of her life. Turning off on a little dirt road running north from Highway 40, I drove along a winding lane which led eventually to a gate barring the road at the bottom of a small hill. The gate was locked, so I left my car, climbed over the fence, and walked trepidatiously up the incline towards the cabin nestled at the crest of the knoll, beneath an out-cropping of rimrock which formed a ridge running east to west from the Green River.
I felt a little uncertain; I was not yet twenty years old, and the stories I had heard of Josie worked wonders on my imagination, coupled with the quiet mystique of the isolated place. Our mutual friend had assured me that Josie had agreed to the interview, and had even recognized me by my family connections, and so would be expecting me – the problem was, it was I who didn’t know what to expect.
As I approached the cabin, I noted a screened porch and what appeared to be a lean-to additions to the place. Pigs and chickens ambled about the yard and to one side were corrals and out-buildings. Huge cottonwood trees ringed the perimeter, offering ample shade in summer and some protection from driving winter snows and accompanying winds.
Before I reached the cabin, I saw Josie – before she saw me. She was beneath one of the cottonwood trees, tugging on a rope, pulling a freshly slaughtered yearling into the air with the aid of a block-and-tackle. I was amazed at her strength and agility. At 86, she was very slight, and could not have weighed much more than 100 pounds, in my estimation. Yet, she handled the lifting of the carcass with only a little trouble.
When I called out, “Mrs. Morris?,” she looked up, startled. She moved swiftly to the screened porch and grabbed up a Winchester rifle and pointed it directly at me.
“Who are you? What do you want? she demanded. I told her my name, and asked whether our mutual friend had not mentioned my coming.
“Was that today?” she asked. “Mercy, I must have forgotten all about it.”
She explained that she was in the middle of butchering a beef, that one of her sons or grandsons was coming up from St. Johns, Arizona, and was supposed to do it, but had not arrived on schedule, “but it wouldn’t wait, don’t you know,” she said. She asked if I would help her finish lifting it up under the branch, which I did, after which she wrapped a sheet around it and left it hanging in the shade while we talked.
I was cordially invited into her home – she replaced the Winchester against the door frame as we entered, much to my relief – and we sat at a homemade wooden table in her little kitchen, and talked. She was dressed in baggy blue jeans and a western shirt, and excused herself long enough to change into “proper” clothing, emerging after some little time from an adjacent room dressed nattily in brown slacks and a colorful print shirt rolled up at the sleeves. I noted that her arms were sun-speckled and leathery from years of exposure to the wind and weather. Her hair was a lovely silver-grey, cropped short, and held in place at the temples by large hair-pins. She possessed a most disarming smile and a wonderful charm which belied her otherwise tough reputation. Most of all, however, she was a delightful hostess and an articulate conversationalist, all of which seemed strangely our of place in such humble surroundings.
During our conversation, which lasted the better part of the afternoon, I discovered that Josie had two sides to her character – the one being that of an articulate and cultured lady, and the other a hardened and tough pioneer woman, extremely independent and capable. My interview with Josie covered numerous topics, and after a while she became more relaxed and spoke very frankly about many things. She seemed surprised that, at my tender age, I knew so many of her old acquaintances, and this seemed to break down any barriers or reservations she may have had. What follows, therefore, is a general account of my interview with Josie Bassett.
Josie remembered nothing of Little Rock, Arkansas, where she was born, being too young when the family left there, but she visited there in later years. Her first childhood memory was, perhaps suitably, of Brown’s Park. She remembered playing the sand of Vermilion Creek with Indian children near her own age.
“I was perhaps five or six at the time,” said Josie, “and I remember it so well. We didn’t speak the same language, but we got along famously. We made little houses out of wet sand and clay, and diverted little rivulets from Vermilion Creek to make play rivers. It sounds like a silly thing, but it made such a strong impression, I can recall it as though it was yesterday. On the other hand, I’m not sure I could remember what I did yesterday….”
Concerning the incident of the shooting of Jack Rollas by Hambleton, Josie had this say: “Our Father was a very soft-hearted man and wouldn’t condone a lynching, and he was also concerned about his reputation. He was postmaster, justice of the peace, and held a number of other offices. So he felt he could hardly afford to be involved in what was about to happen, and he turned the Texas cowboys loose on their word that they would turn themselves in at Hahn’s Peak.
“However, the three men rode north instead towards Rock Springs. My mother had gathered some of her boys and when they arrived back at the bunkhouse to find the men gone, they set out immediately on their trail. Somewhere near the north end of Irish Canyon they caught up to them. There was no gunfight, because the Texas boys had been disarmed at the ranch, and they were also outnumbered two or three to one…They were hanged and buried there in Irish Canyon. It was always said they left the country, but we all knew better. Jim (McKnight) told me all about it, and he should have known – he was there when it happened…”
Josie told me about her first meeting with Butch Cassidy. Charley Crouse had leveled off a race course near Beaver Creek, on the north bank of the Green River. In those days, race tracks were not round, but simply straight courses with a place to turn at each end. Horses and riders, in order to win, had to race the length of the course, make a turn, and race back to the finish line. There were frequent spills, interference, and fights, and people came from miles around to share in the excitement. Betting and drinking were accompanying pastimes, and afterwards there was usually a dance which lasted until the early hours of the morning.
Josie recalled that she was fifteen or sixteen when she first met Butch Cassidy (he was known as George Cassidy at that time). Butch rode Charley Crouse’s champion bay mare to victory at the Beaver Creek races, and Josie was impressed.
“I thought he was the most dashing and handsome man I had ever seen. I was such a young thing, and giddy as most teenagers are, and I looked upon Butch as my knight in shining armor. But he was more interested in his horse that he was in me, and I remember being very put out by that. I went home after being snubbed by him and stamped my foot on the floor in frustration. My mother said, ‘For goodness sakes, Josie, whatever are you doing?’ I just blushed and said, ‘Ants.'”
In later years, Butch spent a great deal of time around the Bassett Ranch, and at herb’s library, which, together with the post office, was kept in building apart from the ranch house. During these years, Butch and Josie were lovers. She was reluctant to admit this fact at first, but neither did she deny it.
“After one of Butch’s rich uncles died (i.e., following a bank or train robbery), he was being pursued, and we put him up, hiding him in the hay loft. He used to say, ‘Josie, I’m lonely up here. Come out and keep me company…’ He asked me to go get him one of my father’s books to read, because he was bored. I told him he couldn’t read it, because it was dark, and it was too dangerous to light a lantern. He said, ‘What am I going to do to keep from being bored?’ Well, all I can say is, I didn’t let him get bored…”
Was Butch a good shot?
“I saw Butch Cassidy back in the 1920’s, after he came back from South America, and Ann (Queen Ann) knew him in later years, before he died. I operated the Vernon Hotel in Baggs until my boys were old enough to go to high school, and then we moved to Rock Springs, where there was a school for them to attend.
“Butch and Elzy Lay were both in Rock Springs, down at the Teton Bar. Bert Kraft, an old friend of mine, told them that I was in town, and Butch said, ‘I’d really like to see Josie again.’ Bert called me on the phone and told me to come down, but he wouldn’t say who wanted to see me over the phone, so I wouldn’t come. I was busy with something or other, so Bert Kraft made a date for them to come see me that evening. When I opened the door, I recognized Butch right off. He had changed some, and both of them carried too much weight. First thing Butch says to me was, ‘Josie, you always did make me chase after you.’ He gave me a big hug, and so did Elzy, and we spent the better part of the night catching up on old times…”
Josie told me about the substance of those conversations, which I propose to include in a forthcoming narrative on Butch Cassidy. Suffice it to say that Butch related the story of his South American adventures, and the years subsequent to those events, to Josie upon that occasion.
Among the things Butch disclosed was that he had been married and had several children, had been prospecting in Alaska, and was proposing to do some prospecting along the Colorado River near las Vegas, Nevada in the near future.
“Butch died in Johnnie, Nevada,18 about fifteen years ago,” Josie told me. “He was an old man when he died. He had been living in Oregon, and back East for a long time, where he worked for a railroad. In his last years he lived at Leeds, Utah with his cousins, the McMullens, and my sister knew him there…He died before Ann went there to live…She died at Leeds in 1956, about four years ago…”
There were two topics which I was reluctant to ask Josie about, being fearful of her reaction, but near the end of the interview, I summoned up enough courage to inquire about the death of one of her husbands, and her trial for cattle rustling. Surprisingly, she was not adverse to talking very frankly about either subject. Before allowing Josie to recite her version, it is timely to relate the circumstances of the death of Emerson Wells.
From Christmas of 1913 until after New Year’s Day of 1914, there was a wild celebration at Linwood, Utah. On New Year’s Eve, Josie and her husband, Emerson Wells, had joined friends in a party at Minnie Crouse Rasmussen’s boarding house. Sometime during the evening, Wells excused himself to go upstairs to bed. On the following morning he was discovered in his bed, quite dead.
An inquest was held, and a warrant served upon Josie to attend. The warrant was served upon her by a reluctant deputy sheriff named George Stephens. Josie arrived, gun on hip, and packing her Winchester. She was absolved of any guilt in the death – the official verdict was “death by self-inflicted poison” – suicide.19
Josie’s story: “We arrived at Linwood after driving from Brown’s Park in a buckboard in one of the coldest blizzards of the year. We didn’t plan on staying as long as we did, but the snow was so deep and the wind blowing so cold, Minnie (Minnie was the daughter of Charley Crouse) talked us into staying over until after New Year’s.
“Wells (Josie consistently referred to him as “Wells” instead of by his given name) wasn’t feeling well when we arrived, and he spent the first few days in bed. But he felt well enough to join us at the New Year’s Eve party…”
The New Year’s Eve party was attended by invited guests from nearby Lucerne Valley in Utah, and Henry’s Fork in Wyoming. My grandfather, Willard Schofield, Sr., “catered” drinks for the occasion, both at the boarding house and at the nearby “Roundhouse” saloon and dancehall, where an all-night dance was held to ring in the New Year. My father, Edward Boren, played his fiddle for the occasion.
Just before midnight, Emerson Wells said he was not feeling well, and Josie escorted him upstairs to bed, then returned to the celebration.
“He had had too much to drink, and I thought that was all that was wrong with him. Later in the evening I took him a cup of coffee, and he drank some of it. I left the cup on the night table next to the bed.” It was late the following morning when Josie returned to her husband’s room; Emerson Wells was dead.
The coroner was sent for, according to law, but the nearest office for this duty was at Green River, Wyoming. Dr. Tinker was sent for in the meantime, and he made out a death certificate, showing the death to have been by “natural causes.” Josie was allowed to take the body back to Brown’s Park for burial.
“We put the body in a homemade pine box put together by M.N. Larsen, and loaded it in the back of the wagon, and drove back to Brown’s Park in freezing weather. Joe Good20 drove the wagon…”
Meanwhile, the coroner arrived on the scene, accompanied by Deputy Sheriff George Stephens, and performed a cursory examination. A small brown bottle containing a liquid was found near the dead man’s bed, and chemical tests showed it to be strychnine poison – traces of residue in the bottom of the coffee cup proved to be the same poison.
An inquest was called and Deputy Stephens was compelled to ride to Brown’s Park to serve a warrant upon Josie demanding her appearance. She was reluctant to accept it. “I knew this George Stephens; he was the stepson of George Solomon, former justice of the peace in that area some years before. I told Stephens that he was out of his jurisdiction. I lived in Colorado (the Bassett Ranch was in Routt County, Colorado, in the eastern end of the Park), and the warrant was issued in Wyoming. The so-called crime had occurred in Utah. I told Stephens where he could put his warrant.”
Deputy Stephens commenced to tack the paper to the Bassett gatepost (upon which gate John Bennett had been hanged by a mob in 1898), and informed Josie – at a distance – that she had been duly served, and must appear at the inquest or be arrested. Josie appeared, armed to the teeth.
Certain witnesses testified that Josie and her husband had been arguing heavily on the night in question. Josie readily admitted it, saying that “Wells” had become drunk and she had argued with him about going to bed. She had seen the brown bottle, she said, but had assumed it was medicine he was taking for his recent illness. Whether it was because of her brace of arms, or for some other reason, Josie was acquitted. I was brazen enough to ask Josie whether she had placed the poison in Wells’s coffee. She responded with a wry grin:
“I drove my first husband, Jim McKnight, out of the house at the point of a gun and told him never to come back. Let’s just say that some men are harder to get rid of than others.”
Lastly, I spoke to Josie about a famous trial for cattle rustling, after she homesteaded at Jensen. Neighboring ranchers, discovering some of their cattle missing, searched the willows along the river bottoms where they discovered a buried cache of hides on Josie’s property. Charges were brought against her, and she came to trial.
“I put on a frilly print dress, and sensible shoes, and had my hair done in a domestic rool on the top of my head. I looked like a petite little middle-aged housewife as I stood before the judge. Putting on my best serious face, I said to him, ‘Your Honor, do you seriously believe that a little old lady weighing only 100 pounds could kill and butcher out even one beef cow by herself, let alone a dozen or more? If you can believe that, then I guess you will have to find me guilty.'”
Josie was exonerated. I have often wondered, in retrospect, whether I might have inadvertently helped Josie Bassett rustle a stolen beef that interesting day more than thirty years ago.
1. Where the Old West Stayed Young, John Rolfe Burroughs, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1962.
2. Samuel Bassett’s diary, quoted by Ann Bassett Willis in her unpublished memoirs.
4. “Queen Ann of Brown’s park,” The Colorado Magazine, April, 1952.
5. Ann Bassett Willis’s unpublished memoirs.
6. Hiram H. Bernard, as told to Frank Willis – quoted by Burroughs, op.cit., p. 46.
7. District Court records, Ninth Judicial District, Colorado, 1890.
8. Avvon Chew Hughel, as quoted by Burroughs, op.cit., p. 55.
9. Last of the Bandit Riders, Matt Warner and Murray E. King, The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho, 1940.
10. Ann Bassett Willis’s unpublished memoirs.
12. “Queen Ann of Brown’s park,” op.cit.
14. Ann Bassett Willis’s unpublished memoirs.
17. Interview with James Dowd, Barstow, California, 1970.
18. See Burroughs, op.cit., p. 135.
19. Unpublished news item from files of Green River (Wyo.) Star; interview with George Stephens, Green River, Wyo., November 12, 1959, et. seq.
20. Joe Good’s real name was Jose Bueno; according to Josie, he was the actual murdered of 15 year-old Willie Nickell, for which crime Tom Horn was hanged in 1903.