Pieces of History: The last of the Robber's Roost Gang
The Emery County Historical Society heard from Tom McCourt of Wellington about the last of the Robber Roost Outlaws. Ray Wareham brought to the meeting and displayed a large picture enclosed in glass of the Robbers Roost Gang with photos of Butch Cassidy and his gang. That was not however the subject of the meeting this night.
McCourt has written five books and one of those is about Moab's Bill Tibbetts the last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws. McCourt also writes a column in the Sun Advocate under the heading of "The Wasatch Behind."
Ben Grimes after leading the Pledge of Allegiance introduced McCourt by telling a little of his background and history. McCourt is a legend in Wellington. His father and grandfather worked in the coal mines. His father was also a Carbon County deputy sheriff for several years. Grimes said. "Tom and I worked together for about 23 years at the Placer Mining Company. Tom worked in the lab. When Tom was a teenager he was hired at the Nutter Ranch in Nine Mile Canyon to work for a couple of years. That is where he learned to love the Indians, the Fremont culture and all the Indian things in Nine Mile. Then he was drafted into the Army. He scored so high on the tests the Military gave him that they asked him if he wanted to attend Officer Candidate School and become an officer. Second Lt. McCourt was sent to Vietnam as a forward observer with a life expectancy of about eight days. When he arrived home from Vietnam he went to the University of Utah. Because of his interest in Indian culture, Tom received a degree in anthropology. Then Tom decided he would rather eat than be an anthropologist, so he went to work in the coal mines. Tom has accomplished many things. He has written five books and is working on another book. Two of the books are about his life at the Nutter Ranch and about his experiences in Vietnam. Tom was also a Bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a time. In Tom's articles in the Sun Advocate he has a favorite uncle called Uncle Spud. Tom seeks his advice on many things and Uncle Spud is a very wise man."
McCourt thanked Ben for the kind words and said, "We have been friends for a long time. I love your country over here. I have spent a lot of time in Emery County. I grew up in Wellington. I live South of Price now. Jeanie and I have a couple of acres, with a horse and a dog. We love the San Rafael Swell. I love the people in Emery County. I love to come here and see that you have a prayer before a meeting like this. To see that you honor the flag and you are the salt of the earth. I enjoy being with you and wish the whole world could be more like the people here.
"I always wanted to be a cowboy and I had the privilege of working for Virginia Nutter when the Nutter Ranch was the largest known, privately owned, cattle ranch in Utah. They sent me out there when I was just a 16 year old kid. I do not think Virginia realized who she had hired until I showed up. I weighed about 100 pounds a little shorter than I am now. She wouldn't let me go up on the mountains with the cowboys, but she made me stay at the ranch and haul hay, where she could keep an eye on me. It was a great experience. The cowboys were always teasing me that Virginia was going to adopt me. She didn't have any children of her own. The cowboys would say, she is going to adopt you and you will inherit this whole ranch and me and Joe can retire right here and you can take care of us.
"Years later when I finally had the opportunity to write, I wrote the story of my experiences at the Nutter Ranch. That was the first book I wrote, it is about the summers I spent at the Nutter Ranch in Nine Mile. I was working with some of the meanest, crustiest old cowboys that ever happened. I tell everyone that I grew up in 90 days. It was a great experience, though, I learned a lot of things.
"It was because of the Nutter Ranch book I was able to write the book I'm going to talk about tonight. The last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws. This is such a wonderful country, and has such a wonderful history. Carbon, Grand, San Juan and Emery counties are every bit as historical as the scenery is spectacular. The old Spanish Trail, that early pioneers in this country traveled, the traders, the cowboys, the sheep herders and all this history is fascinating. In Emery County you have some real good stories like the Swasey's and other early settlers. There are a lot of books that need to be written about these people.
"I have written about Moab, and part of my background goes back to the 1950s, when we were prospecting for uranium. I got to see Glenn Canyon before the lake was there. My grandparents lived at the little town in Black Canyon. It was on the east side of the river near the river ferry. At one time there were 200 people living there. My grandmother ran the boardinghouse and my grandfather and three of my uncles worked at the uranium mill. I was just a little boy 6 or 7 years old when I was allowed to go down and stay with my grandmother in Black Canyon. To me as a kid it was a beautiful, wonderful place. I wrote a book about Black Canyon this was my second book. Later a book company contacted me and wanted a history written about Moab for the tourists so I wrote it.
"While I was in Moab during a book event and selling books I was also a speaker on the agenda. When I finished my speech an older gentleman came up to me who knew my uncle Jack Winn, in his hands was a big stack of papers, photographs, diaries and stuff. He said, 'I've collected photos also written works, and we have been 15 years trying to find someone to write my father's story.' He said you know enough about horses, cowboys and this desert that you can write this story.
"I told him I would look into it. His name was Ray Tibbetts. Later I discovered he was a past county commissioner from Grand County and he had been an old-time lawman, he had been a cowboy, owned a store and he was quite a prominent citizen. Until this time I had never heard of his dad, Bill Tibbetts. I took his collection of materials home and after a couple of weeks I finally started looking through the stuff. I couldn't believe this wasn't already made into a movie. It was just a very fascinating story. We published this book last March and it is going like a grass fire in Southern Colorado. This is by far the best book I've ever published," said McCourt.
The main character in the above mentioned book, that McCourt wanted the Historical Society to hear about in this meeting was Bill Tibbetts, Ray's father and Bill's adventures as the Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws.
"Of course I, Tom McCourt, had to go down into the desert to see most of these places with Ray Tibbetts as my guide. We made two or three trips down into the desert and the Robbers Roost country. We had a lot of fun. Being an author I had to go into the country to get a feel for it. Ray is pushing 80 but he is in great shape and a fun guy. He knows all of the stories. He had been in a lot of these places as a kid. I gained a lot of valuable information about his father from Ray.
"This book, 'The Last of The Robbers Roost Outlaws', is about a real man that lived and died in the Moab country. My book covers a time that is not well documented in literature. We have many Western stories about the 1870s, the 1880s, and 1890s, right up to Butch Cassidy in the early 1900s. This book covers the 1920s. That is a gap of time not well written about. We need to record these histories and the stories from that period of time for future reference.
"Here we have a story about the second and third generation of pioneers in this country. I learned an awful lot while putting this book together. From the old newspaper clippings, many diaries and stories that came our way, from that era, we get a more complete picture of that history.
"When the pioneers first came into this part of Utah, the land was free. Pioneers could go out and settle any good spot they could find, the first generation took up all the good spots. Then we had people still coming into the area and by the time the second and third generations of the pioneers arrived, all the good places were taken. People were still trying to make a living off of the land because that is all they knew. We had no manufacturing, we had a few mines and not much else. Everyone was into farming, ranching and mining. There were also stores to support those industries. The second and third generation of pioneers had a hard time adapting and had a hard time finding a place to make a living. In addition the population continued increasing dramatically.
"Something else was happening that should be researched, the climate was changing. Only a few people like me, who have heard stories from old-timers talking about how tall the grass used to grow. up to the saddle stirrups. It used to rain more here. The winters are not like they used to be either, we used to get snow. Some of the little washes were creeks with water running most of the time. Beginning in about 1915-1918 the area started to dry up. So we are in a real dry down cycle now. In 1912 to about 1918, dry farming was going on in the Cisco Desert above Moab. There once were towns on the desert such as Danish Flat, Cisco and Mars. There was also a town called Valley City, and even the town of Woodside.
"My uncle Mike Peterson lived in Woodside, as a little boy and we have photographs of beautiful wheatfields at Woodside, that area is like the back side of the moon now. Mike always said it used to rain more frequently out there, we had water. But that has all changed. The climate change being talked about, is not something new. It is a cyclical thing and we are still in that down cycle.
"For the pioneers who first came here in the 1870s and 1880s, came in the good times. There was rain, there was grass. It was a very different desert than we have now. All of those little towns on the Cisco Desert have dried up and gone away. There isn't a trace of Valley City. All that remains is an old cellar out on the desert. Enid Johnson who used to run the auction yard in Price, grew up in Danish Flat above Cisco below I-70. She told the story of dry farming vegetables there near Cisco. You can't even water a rabbit, there now, that is how it has changed over the years.
"In our story we have the second generation of pioneers trying to find a spot. The population is increasing, all the good places are taken and they are experiencing this drought or climate change. All of the cattle and sheep that were brought into this country are there and the water is drying up. This created some real conflicts over resources. In those days a lot of the creeks dried up, and the grass didn't come back. A good example is Crescent Creek some of you know where North Wash is near Lake Powell. In the early days, people called that Crescent Creek. It does not run water year-round anymore. So it is not a creek, it is a wash.
James William (Bill) Tibbetts was born in March 23, 1898 in a log cabin in LaSalle, Utah. The story of his birth is interesting. His mother was alone in a cold cabin 40 miles from the nearest doctor, when her 18 year old brother, Ephraim Moore, comes by to see her. He ended up having to deliver the baby while her husband was away herding cows. It shows you how these pioneer women suffered without access to doctors or hospitals.
"Bill served in World War I and came home in 1919. Not knowing how to do anything else he decided to go into the cattle business. His father had been in the cattle business. However Bill found all the range was taken. This was before the Taylor Grazing Act and the range was free and anyone could run cattle or sheep on the range.
"We had a lot of conflicts here in these Utah valleys. If you were tough enough, mean enough and forceful enough you could still make a living running cows. But you had to run off your competition. Anyone who was nice and polite usually did not make it in that business. It was a real war out there for water and grass. This was getting worse every year.
"Bill Tibbetts teamed up with his uncle Ephriam Moore from Moab. They bought 100 cows and then found the most desolate place they could find out on the desert. Land that no one had claimed or was using. They went out to the Ladder Right Basin which is on a big ledge East of Hanksville. They were trying to operate out of Moab and ride all the way down there to take care of the cattle. That's usually a 50 mile trip back and forth carrying groceries. As the ground dried up they had a couple of choices, they could either go out of business or put up a fight.
"They took their cows and pushed them in on some of the best grazing ground in the West and took on anyone that wanted to wrestle about it. The real story in the book is about this small range war on the Big Flat and up on Island in The Sky where Dead Horse Point is.
"Bill Tibbetts later told his family of the events that happened during this range war and his trouble with the Moab sheriff. The sheriff was telling the newspaper his side of the story, and in the book we included a parallel of what the sheriff said and what Bill Tibbetts said. The entertaining part is that they are not the same story.
"Bill wasn't an angel, but he wasn't the complete outlaw that they made him out to be either. To make this story short, Bill got crosswise of the law and ended up fleeing on horseback down to Robbers Roost in 1924 with his cousin Tom Perkins. They got away from the sheriff and his posse, crossed the Green River and ended up out on the Roost. They were in Butch Cassidy's old stomping grounds. They stayed out there for a year and the sheriff was not able to catch them. Finally, Ephraim Moore told them the sheriff was going to hire an airplane to look for them. This caused them to decide it was time to vacate the area. At night they caught a freight train out of Thompson for Kansas where they worked on a farm. Later, they went to Oklahoma. There Bill became a famous rodeo rider known as Cowboy Jim Lee. It was in Oklahoma that Bill met and married his wife, Jewel. Bill waited out the statute of limitations before coming back to Moab and becoming known as a respectable citizen. This book the 'Last Of The Robbers Roost Outlaws' captures the essence of a time not well documented in our history," concluded McCourt. The Emery County Historical Society thanked Tom for sharing this bit of Utah history with them.