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A dangerous, shoot-on-sight situation

Our column ended last week when Juan de Dios Montoya, a Hispanic sheepherder living in Monte Vista, shot and killed William Howe, an Archuleta County Commissioner and cattle rancher.

The shooting took place in October of 1892 on Howe’s homestead, now known as the At Last Ranch, located on the east side of U.S. 160 on the West Fork of the San Juan River. Montoya was driving a herd of about 10,000 sheep across Howe’s homestead. The ensuing shootout was identified by oldtimers as the Montoya/Howe Sheepmen’s/Cattlemen’s War. We continue.

Witnesses to the shooting who had been visiting at Howe’s Ranch hurried into Pagosa Springs where they told their story to Archuleta County Sheriff Billy Kern. By the time Kern put together a posse and set out to apprehend the killer, it was dark.

As we read Editor Daniel Egger’s account of the shooting in the Pagosa Springs News, we learn that Kern found the wounded Montoya in a tent at the “Mormon road builder’s camp” near the first bridge crossing the East Fork of the San Juan River. Montoya’s brother had ridden ahead across Elwood Pass bound for the Montoya home in Monte Vista. His mission was to alert Montoya’s father.

In the tent, other members of the Montoya party nursed their wounded leader. The following information was not contained in the news article, but was told me by a Pagosa oldtimer shortly after I moved to this area in the 1970s.

According to the oldtimer, Howe’s brother, Abe, rode in Kern’s posse. Abe entered the tent first and stood with a shotgun against his shoulder, the barrel aimed at the sleeping form of the helpless Montoya. As Kern entered the tent and saw Abe’s intent, he knocked the barrel of the shotgun upward with a sweep of his arm. The exploding buckshot opened a gap in the top of the tent, but did no harm to Montoya.

Kern and his posse escorted the wounded Montoya to Pagosa Springs where they put him in a bed at Ma Cade’s San Juan Hotel. The Pagosa jail was not equipped to handle a seriously wounded man.

Further, Kern expected a lynch mob would try to hang Montoya. William Howe was a popular young man. Even more, during the 1890s in Pagosa Country, racial tensions between Hispanics and Anglos hovered near the boiling point most of the time. And adding insult to injury, there was no camaraderie between sheep and cattle raisers. This was a dangerous, shoot-on-sight situation.

Egger’s article didn’t say so, but you can bet that Kern and some of his posse sat up all night, pistols ready, watching over the still form of Juan Montoya.

Egger did report that on the next day and night an uncounted number of mounted men rode in from the east. They undoubtedly sported six-shooters on their hips, rifles crooked in their arms, and the fire of anger was burning in their hearts. These were friends of Juan de Dios Montoya, alerted by his hard-riding brother. They camped on Reservoir Hill, eyes riveted on Ma Cade’s hotel where their injured compadre rested. Their goal was to discourage any lynch mob, a goal they easily accomplished.

When Montoya had recovered enough strength to ride, Kern obtained a change of venue allowing him to transfer Montoya to Durango for trial.

More next week.

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