By John M. Motter
One of the saddest stories in local history is known as the Montoya-Howe Sheepmens’ Cattlemens’ War that took place in 1892.
The young William Howe family started the year 1892 with bright prospects. They’d started a promising cattle ranch and constructed a comfortable home with a view of the San Juan River. Brother Abe homesteaded the adjoining ranch to the north. Down through history, the Howe ranch located at the foot of Wolf Creek Pass has become known as the At Last Ranch.
Adding to the family’s joyful expectations, teenage bride Jennie Howe was carrying her first child.
Then, as the year progressed, tragedy struck. Jennie died giving birth to a baby boy. The baby died four months later.
As you might expect, the heartbroken father, his brother Abe, family friend Old Joe Mann, and others were holding a wake in the family living room, grieving the loss of William’s one and only son.
Old Joe Mann, staring out the front window, scratching his head and looking back over his shoulder, growls, “Hey guys, lessin’ I be mistook, that there’s a herd a mangy woolies down there cross that crick. You take a look-see while I put on my six-shooter and saddle up. I’m a gittin’ a powerful taste for mutton.”
Down across the San Juan River, Juan de Dios Montoya, his brother and a hired hand were busily pushing a flock of 20,000 or so sheep along the west bank of the river with the intention of turning up the East Fork of the San Juan and crossing over the Continental Divide at Elwood Pass to the family home in Monte Vista.
A sheepherder’s job is to be on the lookout for danger and that was what Juan was doing. A glance across the river revealed, coming at full speed, three horses and their riders. Danger! The riders were pulling rifles from scabbards and looking for a target.
Juan jumped from his horse and dived behind a large boulder, but not before taking a bullet from the nearest rider, William Howe, who was already splashing across the river. Juan squinted down the barrel of his old buffalo rifle, squeezed the trigger and fired. William’s horse stumbled, spilling his rider out of the saddle, blood spurting from his lifeless body into the muddied river. Brother Abe and Old Joe Mann yanked their horses around and raced to the aid of their fallen compadre, too little, too late.
Next week, we’ll continue the story as Pagosa Springs Sheriff Billy Kern tracks down the sheepherders.