Murder: “Acting for the
Lodore Canyon in Brown’s
the locale of two murders attributed to Tom Horn (author’s photo)
ominous killing in the northwestern Colorado Brown’s
Hole region struck the area in mid-1900. Even more sinister
was the plot that lay behind it.
Two small cattlemen, Matt Rash and Isam Dart, had been in Brown’s
Hole in northwestern Colorado for a number of years. In July
and October 1900 both were killed. Their previous actions, along
with those of other small ranchers, had led to conflict and a
conspiracy on the part of three prominent ranchers to eliminate
them. Tom Horn was their agent.
The prologue of their murders was the developing cattle business
as the new century began.
By the mid-1890s the cattle business in Wyoming and Colorado
was changing in major ways, in large part because consumer tastes
had started to gravitate toward more tender and flavorful beef
from breeds other than longhorns. And while longhorns are hardy
and calve easily, they do not add weight as rapidly as other
Another major reason for the changes in the range business was
an influx of homesteaders. The homesteaders, “nesters” or “grangers” as
they were referred to disdainfully by the big operators, had
moved over a period of time into some of the best bottomlands.
By doing so they decreased the availability of water for the
herds of the dominant, larger ranchers, or “cattle barons,” as
they became known.
One major operator was Laramie’s Ora Haley, who had enormous
holdings both in northwest Colorado and southeast Wyoming and
who acted to adjust to the changing conditions.
Ora Haley (American Heritage
Center, University of Wyoming)
|Haley, who was born in Maine in 1845,
had come to Wyoming at a young age, and become a force in the
Wyoming cattle business and in territorial politics. Through
his foreman, Hiram “Hi” Bernard, he brought in white-faced
Herefords to improve the grades of beef that markets now demanded.
Bernard, a Texan who had driven cows to northern reaches as a
young man, observed that as cattle operations evolved, overheads
increased. It became necessary to purchase or lease land from
the railroads, to fence bull pastures in order to produce summer
calves of uniform weight, and raise hay to feed stock. Bernard
purchased several large hay ranches for Haley in Colorado’s
Routt County area, which comprised Brown’s Hole. It was
enormously profitable in spite of the depredations of locals.
Bernard described the range and Haley’s success. He commented,
ranches extended over a wide scope of the county, with
both winter and summer ranges on all sides. It was open
public domain, all choice range, and with few fences
to hinder the movement of cattle for a distance of about
100 miles in all directions. That constituted a pretty
layout, and easy to handle.
It proved to be good. Haley made over a million dollars profit on his Routt County
investment in less than ten years. And in that time he never saw the range end
of the business but three times. He did not know a thing about it for he was
not a range man.
Haley was a smart and lucky financier. He came to Wyoming a bullwhacker, and
started in the cow business at Laramie with three old dairy cows. He was smart
enough to see opportunities and capitalize on them, lucky to find a sucker to
handle a range cattle business better than he could, and he was wise enough to
keep from meddling with the range end, where the payoff came from. That is a
rare combination of human character.
Ora Haley’s Two Bar
Ranch in Brown’s Hole, where Tom Horn stayed (author’s
|Conditions, however, were such that
a range war was brewing in northwestern Colorado, just as one
had raged in Wyoming.
But there was a difference in the situations between Wyoming
and Colorado. In Wyoming, it was the cattlemen who had attempted
to keep homesteaders and small ranchers from infringing on lands
they felt were exclusively theirs. The Brown’s Hole locals,
many of them homesteaders and small ranchers, instead resisted
encroachment on their ranges by the cattle barons.
For a time, the Wyoming cattlemen were successful in holding
off what they felt was wrongful encroachment of “their” lands.
However, the winds of change were against them, and their strong-arm
tactics had begun to go too far.
They had had gone as far as to resort to outright murder, lynching “Cattle
Kate” Ellen Watson and Jim Averill in south-central Sweetwater
County in 1889, and Tom Waggoner in northeast Weston County in
1891. The Johnson County Invasion followed in 1892 with the accompanying
murders of Nick Rae and Nate Champion. Over time, however, the
homesteaders and small ranchers were bound to prevail, simply
because of their sheer numbers.
In northwest Colorado the small ranchers misjudged the changes
that would occur in their own region, just as had the barons
in Wyoming. In northwest Colorado, the big ranchers, whose holdings
included both Wyoming and Colorado lands, were determined to
move into the ranges not being put to use. Vacant, valuable land
sat unused when they needed it.
The first mistake the Brown’s Hole locals made was failing
to acquire ranches that were readily available along their eastern
perimeter. Had they done so, they could have resisted further
inroads by the large operators. The ranches were owned by Ben
Majors and one Sainsbury, and were acquired in 1894 by Ora Haley.
The second mistake was allowing the area to become known as a “safe
haven” for outlaws. Bernard remarked that “the reported
presence of such characters helped to scare outside stockmen
away from the gravy bowl. It was a ‘no trespassing’ sign,
and it worked for a long time.” However, their sympathy
for and assistance to outlaws inevitably created animosity toward
Bernard added that the nesters’ third mistake was “they
were range hogs, for they were controlling a greater amount of
range than they used or could use. ‘It must be kept that
way’ – one of Brown’s Park’s ‘musts.’ Well,
time changes things, and it ‘must’ be a hell of a
shock to some of them to see things now,” he said. Long-term,
the range would not remain open and the big outfits would move
Bernard’s further observations brought proof of Tom Horn’s
complicity in the murders that were to come.
Late in 1899 or early in 1900, Ora Haley ordered Bernard to meet
him at Haley’s Denver office. At the time Haley was fifty-five
and married with grown four children living in Laramie. Three
other cattlemen were present: Charles E. “Charley” Ayer,
Wilfred W. “Wiff” Wilson, and John C. Coble.
Ayer, forty-three, was born in New York, married with five children
and lived in the Four Mile area of Routt County, Colorado.
Wilson was born in Utah in 1857 and was living with his wife,
three children and mother-in-law near Baggs in southern Carbon
County, Wyoming. Both Ayer and Wilson had significant livestock
holdings in southern Wyoming and Brown’s Hole.
John C. Coble was born in 1857 in Pennsylvania and was a partner
of Frank Bosler in the prominent Iron Mountain Ranch Company
of Bosler, Wyoming, north of Laramie. Tom Horn was on Coble’s
payroll at the time.
By January 1900 Tom Horn had wrapped up his investigation of the Wilcox, Wyoming
train robbery of the previous June.
John C. Coble (WY State Archives)
At the Denver meeting in Haley’s office Ayer and Wilson bewailed the lawlessness
that infested Brown’s Hole, condemning “the place as an outlaw hangout
and a threat to the Haley interests,” Bernard said. Both recounted their
cattle losses and named Matt Rash and Jim McKnight as rustlers.
Matt Rash (courtesy Museum of Northwest
Colorado, Craig, CO)
Coble had like grievances in his part of the country, and he offered a solution
to the problem that would wipe out the range menace permanently. He would contact
a man whom he knew with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a man that could be relied
on to do the job, with no questions asked.
Tom Horn was the man chosen by Coble.
Coble continued that Horn was to be paid five hundred dollars for every known