Utah History Encyclopedia


By John D. Barton

Robbers' Roost area of Wayne County

Outlaw myths are found throughout much of recorded history. Men such as Robin Hood, who defied the organized government, have always captured the imagination of the less bold and daring, and in so doing have gained fame--a fame that generally increases with the passing of time. Their acts grow ever more daring with each retelling of their stories; likewise, their ever-augmented generosity and goodness endear them to subsequent generations. In Utah's history there are folk heroes growing to almost epic proportion. Butch Cassidy, or, as he was christened, Robert LeRoy Parker, is the best known of Utah's outlaws, rivaling the fame of even Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Cassidy and his gang, the Wild Bunch, were among the most successful of all western outlaws. Cassidy and many other lesser-known outlaws and outlaw gangs of the late 1800s were products of their time; and there often were valid historical reasons for their move outside the law and for their success in evading the law.

As the western frontier pushed away from established law, the West in many areas became a place of self-law and/or lawlessness. Persons often had to decide for themselves what rules they would abide by and let their consciences guide. The West was too large, the space too vast, towns and military forts too far apart, and communication too slow for law enforcement to be effective on the scale that it is today. As a result, citizens often took the law into their own hands, and, in extreme conditions, even practiced vigilantism.

As the West including Utah "grew up," it was developed by ranchers, miners, timbermen, the army, and small farmers and homesteaders. This last group was particularly important in Utah because of Brigham Young's desire to see his followers pursue agrarian lifestyles. The disparity of wealth between the homesteader and larger interests usually was great. Those who lived "hand to mouth," uncertain of their next meal, often helped themselves to a small portion of the profits of the more fortunate. Others, though honest themselves, turned a blind eye to those who evened things up a little. Many, if not most, big ranches improved their start by branding strays or mavericks, and then, once large and prosperous, they condemned small-time operators who did likewise. This led to range wars, murders, and hostility; large ranchers might even sanction extralegal means to eliminate smaller competitors.

In the era from 1870 to 1900, big business dominated politics under the spoils system. The railroad enriched a select few and through unfair shipping rates assisted the development of timber, mining, cattle, and large-scale farming interests, while hurting small ranchers and farmers. Bankers often were also unfair in their lending practices, offering varied rates to favor large businesses with easy credit loans while small businessmen, ranchers, miners, and farmers either could not get credit or obtained it under terms that often resulted in the eventual loss of their properties through foreclosure.

The combination of corrupt politics, unfair banking and lending policies, laissez-faire economics, and unregulated business practices all served to sharpen the distinction between the rich and those less fortunate. Social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest in the jungle of life, justified the wealthy and condemned the poor. As social classes based upon wealth were established, small farmers and ranchers came to distrust and often resent big business and politicians. The question has been asked how and why outlaws were allowed to operate within an area where a great majority of the local citizens were law-abiding; though the locals were often poor themselves, it seems that rarely did rewards for the capture of bandits entice them to turn in the miscreants. Many law-abiding citizens took secret satisfaction in the fact that the outlaws were bloodying the nose of the rich. The robbery of a train payroll, bank, or even a large mine had little, if any, effect on the small farmer and rancher.

Most western outlaws identified with the common people. Backgrounds of some members of the Wild Bunch show easy identification with the small ranchers and farmers who were so common throughout the West. Butch Cassidy was raised on a small ranch in southern Utah by Mormon parents. Elzy Lay, originally from Ohio, had migrated west to Colorado with his family. There, after a failed romance, he drifted into outlawry and infamy with the Wild Bunch. Lay was a tall, slender, handsome man known for reading and being a top bronc rider and ranch hand, with a way with women and horses. Harry Longabaugh, the "Sundance Kid," was thought to be from Pennsylvania, where he claimed to be from a "good family." A lesser-known member of the gang was Henry Wilber Meeks, another former Mormon. Meeks was from Wallsburg, Utah, where his father was a freighter. Harvey Logan, or "Kid Curry," had come from a small ranching family in Montana. Many other outlaws throughout the era had nothing extraordinary in their backgrounds. Most were from common backgrounds, and many became outlaws largely due to the conditions of the times. Some outlaws were careful from whom they stole, and at times shared with those in severe need with whom they came in contact, thus fostering the Robin Hood myth. Though it must be remembered that it is only natural to rob from the rich--after all, they are the ones with more worth stealing.

A large measure of the success of the Wild Bunch and other Utah outlaws was founded on the support of local people. Exchanging fresh horses for trail-weary ones, misleading lawmen with carefully constructed stories, and cooking meals with no questions asked were commonplace services said to have been performed for outlaws.

The Outlaw Trail, which ran from Mexico to Canada and was comprised of key friendly ranches coupled with hard-to-find hideouts such as Robber's Roost and Brown's Park, ran through Utah's length. Here the majority of the population was Mormon, and here the outlaws' reception is especially peculiar. Mormons, for the most part, abhorred violence and crime, yet many outlaws were on friendly terms with local citizens. An explanation for this is possible through understanding Utah's economic situation of the late 1800s. Mormons had long been outcasts themselves--socially, politically, and economically--and in the late nineteenth century suffered severe persecutions at the hand of the government over their practice of polygamy. There is little wonder that the Mormons felt resentment and distrust toward outside interests, whether government or big business.

An examination of the lives of most western outlaws most likely would reveal a lifestyle of night riding, missed meals, hot pursuits, poorly tended wounds, broken friendships, and economic deprivation. They were usually broke or in hiding, unable to spend stolen money. There was little glamour in the real lives of outlaws. They experienced difficult family relations, long trails, and fear of treachery with the knowledge that, regardless of the cause, they were outlaws and anyone could turn them in for the reward money. Yet it was reported that Utah's cowboy outlaws were often gentlemen in their manner. Often outgoing and friendly, they posed little threat to the average citizen. And in their selection of targets for robbery they at times maintained an identification with the common people while becoming hated enemies of big business. Those outlaws were products of the times and gained, if not the respect, at least the tolerance of their fellows, and the near cult worship of today's western history enthusiasts.

See: John D. Barton, "Outlaws, Lawmen, Law-abiding Citizens and Mormons," The Outlaw Trail Journal 1 (Summer 1991); Pearl Baker, The Wild Bunch At Robber's Roost (1971); Matt Warner, as told to Murray King, The Last of the Bandit Riders (1938).