Sheriff Billy Kern and the Sheepmen’s-Cattlemen’s War

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Billy Kern on a 35-year-old horse he used to pull a milk wagon in Pueblo and later finished near the front of a horse race staged by the Rocky Mountain News between Thermopolis, Wyoming and Denver. Be patient. That’s a future Kern story.

Six guns and buffalo rifles blazed on the West Fork of the San Juan River in August of 1892. In later years, old-timers here referred to the shootout as the Montoya-Howe Sheepmen’s-Cattlemen’s War. When the shooting was over one cattle man, William Howe, who was also an Archuleta County commissioner, was dead and one Hispanic, Juan de Dios Montoya, a sheep man from Monte Vista, was seriously wounded. Sheriff Billy Kern had the nasty job of ending the war and seeing that justice was done.

You remember Kern. He’s the bloke who’d lost his trigger finger to Ma Cade’s straight razor and had to fan the hammer of his Colt .45 to defend himself.

A few miles upstream and east of Pagosa Springs, the San Juan River divides. The West Fork crosses under a bridge and meanders northward through a pleasant mountain valley. A short distance before reaching the aforementioned bridge, the East Fork of the river separates and enters a narrow canyon in a nearly due east journey to Elwood Pass. The road follows the river and meanders over the Continental Divide and points eastward.

Today, just across the bridge on the West Fork and on the east side of the highway is a ranch called the At Last Ranch. From that ranch and down to the San Juan River is the location of the battleground for the conflagration we are describing.

With the location described, we now need to understand the land use in 1892. In 1892, there was no Wolf Creek Pass. East-bound traffic used the East Fork route across Elwood Pass. With the scene now set, let the story begin.

Howe homesteaded what is now known as the At Last Ranch. His brother Abe homesteaded the neighboring ranch up the road to the north. Until the past few months, life must have seemed sweet for Howe. He’d married in 1891 and a child was on its way. Then he had the honor of being elected Archuleta County commissioner.

But, as we all know, life has a way of changing. Maybe the problems experienced by his sister, a Mrs. Jones, were an omen of what was to come. According to an item in the Pagosa News, she and her family had been headed for the West Fork Ranch in the family buckboard when something spooked the horse and, in the ensuing melee, the wagon overturned. Nobody was killed, but the experience was unsettling to say the least.

Major tragedy struck in April of 1892 when his young wife died while giving birth to a son they had agreed to call Abraham. Young Abraham, just four months later, died in August.

On the day of the shootout, friends had come to sit with the grief-stricken William. Among those friends were Old Joe Mann, who ranched nearby on the East Fork, and brother Abe. Apparently the wake was being held in a room with a window overlooking the San Juan River downhill to the west. One of the solemn assemblage glanced out the window and spotted a huge herd of sheep baaing their way down the river toward the East Fork crossing of the mountains. Some say the 20,000 head of sheep were on their way home after a fattening summer munching San Juan Mountain grass. From here on the story varies according to which storyteller you believe.

If you’ve watched Western movies, you know there was no love lost between cattlemen and sheepmen in 1892. Anglos and Hispanics weren’t exactly bosom buddies, either. Tune in next week for the conclusion of this chapter of Kern’s life.