An escort and a trial

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Ma Cade’s hotel, where Sheriff Billy Kern kept Juan de Dios Montoya while waiting to transfer him to the La Plata County Jail in Durango.

We continue with the story of Sheriff Billy Kern and the Montoya/Howe Sheepmen’s Cattlemen’s War.

Cattleman William Howe is dead and sheepman Juan de Dios Montoya, wounded by a bullet from Howe’s gun, has been arrested by Kern and is under close guard in Ma Cade’s Hotel in Pagosa Springs. Outside the hotel, a crowd of angry cattlemen is threatening to lynch Montoya. On Robidoux Hill (now Reservoir Hill), a growing throng of Montoya’s family and friends, armed and ready, watch over the hotel ready to protect their wounded comrade.

As the story progresses, we learn that Montoya’s father is a wealthy and prominent citizen of Monte Vista. He has hired Adair Wilson, the most prominent lawyer in the southwestern part of the state, to defend his son. It didn’t take Wilson long to obtain a change of venue for Montoya. He obviously wouldn’t get a fair trial in Pagosa Springs. Since the charge against Montoya was murder, he was moved to Durango for trial in the Colorado District Court.

A careful Kern soon headed for Durango with an escort he thought sufficient to defend Montoya from the angry Pagosa cattlemen. And just to make double sure, Montoya’s family and friends, who had been camped out on Robidoux Hill where they could prevent the lynch mob from reaching Montoya, formed their own posse and rode along with the sheriff. Montoya was safely escorted to Durango and locked up by the La Plata County sheriff pending his trial.

The Durango papers were full of information about all of the happenings when the trial began. In short order, the jury agreed with defense attorney Wilson that Montoya had killed Howe in self-defense and the young man was turned loose to join his jubilant family.

I first heard the story of the Montoya/Howe Sheepmen’s Cattlemen’s War while attending a meeting of the local historical society circa 1976. They all seemed to agree that Abe Howe, the dead man’s brother, hunted down the Montoya brothers and left them to die neck-deep in ant hills. None of those historical society members are alive today and none of them were alive at the time of the shooting in 1892. Descendants of the Montoya family are alive and well today. I knew one of them in Chama and another is a well-known member of this community today. In truth, none of the brothers were killed.

William Howe was buried with his 4-month-old son in the old pioneer cemetery on 10th Street. The last time I looked, the grave marker was still standing. Somehow a mistake was made regarding the date of Howe and his son’s death. The date on the gravestone reads 1902. The story of the shootout is recorded in local and neighboring papers as 1892. Howe had a sister, a Mrs. Jones, living near Echo Creek— there was no Echo Lake at the time in Pagosa Springs. Maybe she and surviving family members had the marker installed 10 years later and that was when it was dated.

And what about Kern? We have one more story about Kern and his involvement in an event that took place almost 20 years later. If you were betting on a horse race in which the horses were Thoroughbreds or Morgans or Arabians, or run-of-the-day cow ponies, where would you put your money? Find out which was the best horse in our next story.