Pagosa’s Past: Grazing leads to pioneer Pagosa Country shootouts

Photo courtesy John Motter
Pioneers Fil Byrne and Henry Gordon reminisce about days gone by when they first moved to Pagosa Springs.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

Any fan of western movies knows cattlemen always hated the sheepmen. Any fan of John Wayne knows John Wayne, the hero of the movie, was always a cattleman. What any fan of western movies might not know is why the grazing livestock entrepreneurs couldn’t get along. The answer is in the word grazing. Cattlemen claimed that sheep ate the grass right down to the ground, killing it.

Pioneer Pagosa Country was a great place for raising sheep or cattle. And Pagosa Country had its share of shootouts between cattlemen and sheepmen.

Another Hispanic sheepman was killed circa 1901 on the ranch owned today by the Parelli horse people west of Pagosa Springs. Old-timers will remember Bud Seavy also ran cattle on that ranch. A family named Smith lived on, maybe homesteaded, that ranch. They built a two-story cabin which is preserved today in Harman Park. Early one morning, Smith rode out on his range only to discover a sheepherder driving a herd of sheep on the upper end of his property. He shot the sheepherder.

During his trial in Durango, Smith claimed he politely asked the herder to remove his sheep and only shot in self-defense when he felt threatened when the herder refused to move his sheep. Smith’s family mortgaged the ranch to hire the lawyer who defended Juan de Dios Montoya in last week’s story. Smith got off with an aggravated assault conviction. His family moved to Gobernador, N.M., where they lived until Smith completed his sentence. The family subsequently moved to San Diego.

I have talked with a number of Pagosa families, mostly of Hispanic descent, who described confrontations with Anglo cattlemen. One of the most notorious gunslingers in that regard was a man named Denver Latham. 

Latham’s family set up business on Pagosa Street in Pagosa Springs by renovating one of the old Fort Lewis buildings. When the Fort Lewis troops moved west to the new fort at Hesperus, they abandoned the log cabins they had built in Pagosa Springs. Newly arrived Pagosa merchants, including Ma Latham, were quick to take advantage of the buildings.

Denver packed a “big iron on his hip” and reportedly joined cattle ranchers in Arizona and Wyoming in their range wars. In talks with deceased Pagosa pioneer Faye Brown, I learned that Denver tried to date her sister by giving her a fake diamond and exhibited other negatory behaviors.