Utah Had Hollywood Style Western Gunfights

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, March 1996

Utah Territory had its share of bona fide, shoot-em-up gunfights. In 1890, for instance, Price was as surprised as lawman Jack Watson when Watson was gunned down in broad daylight on its main street. He had had a colorful career. As a Confederate soldier he sustained a wound to the instep that gave him a lifelong limp. Despite this, he became a cowboy and then a Texas Ranger. In 1884, after a drinking bout, Watson shot up Montrose, Colorado, and a $600 reward was posted for him. Not long afterward he was free and working in Crystal, a Colorado mining camp. There he knifed a man, apparently for cause, for he was arrested but acquitted. Crystal’s sheriff had worked with Watson as a cowhand and hired him as his deputy. Watson served faithfully.

By 1890 Watson was in Price, Utah, acting as an undercover agent among horse
and cattle rustlers. He must have been successful, for eventually, his cover blown, he had enough enemies that a gunman named Ward was hired to kill him. One day Watson turned up as usual in a Price saloon. Ward waited for him behind a high wagon on the opposite side of the street. When Watson came stumbling out, Ward aimed and fired. The lawman fell, badly wounded. As he tried to crawl back into the saloon to get his guns, Ward fired again. It was the end for Jack Watson.

An even more tragic gun battle took place near Thompson, Utah, in 1898. Joe Walker had been born in Texas about 1850. While Joe was still a baby his father died, and his mother turned over the family herd to the management of Joe’s uncle. In 1870 the uncle was killed in an Indian raid. His widow and her sons relocated to Utah where they became prominent ranchers and bankers. Then Joe turned up, claiming his father’s share of the herd. The Whitmores turned him away. For several years Joe worked in the area, harassing the Whitmores in his free time for what he felt was rightfully his. His anger spread. In 1895 he got drunk and shot up the town of Price. A running 15-mile gun battle ensued as a posse of five bounty hunters chased him. He took refuge in Robber’s Roost, the notorious outlaw hideout.

For two years Joe ran with the Robber’s Roost gang, stealing livestock and having close encounters with the law. One of the closest occurred in 1897 after he had stolen more Whitmore horses and hid them in a secluded corral. He and his accomplice, Gunplay Maxwell, argued. Maxwell then rode to the Whitemore ranch and told of Joe’s whereabouts. Sheriff C. W. Allred and Deputy Azariah Tuttle went in pursuit. They caught Joe on the riverbank, cut off from the cabin and corral but not from his gun. Joe scrambled across the river and halfway up the canyon wall before knocking Tuttle off his horse with a shot to the leg. Tuttle and Allred scurried behind some boulders. For several hours gunfire was traded, but it was an impasse.

Eventually, Allred rode for help, herding the stolen horses before him. Tuttle is said to have pinned Walker down with accurate gunfire for two hours, until the sun grew hot and his wound got the best of him. At last Tuttle pled for quarter. He threw down his guns and Joe brought him a bucket of water before scaling the canyon wall. He hiked two miles and then completed his escape on a stray horse.

That spring Joe Walker rode with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, cutting telegraph wires for the $8,000 Castle Gate payroll robbery. He continued his entrepreneurial raids on the Whitemore ranch. In May 1898, after one such raid, Joe happened upon a passing cowboy and they camped together for the night near Thompson. In the darkness a nine-man posse surrounded the camp. Posse members assumed Walker’s companion was another Wild Bunch member. When, as light broke, Walker and the cowboy stirred, shots rang out. The innocent cowhand died along with Walker, his bedroll riddled with bullets.

Source: Bill O’Neal, Encyclopedia of Western Gun-Fighters (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).