Early Desperados; Early Justice
In the pioneer days of Animas City and Durango, outlaws, stage coach robbers, cattle rustlers and horse thieves were a very active element of this country. Many of these criminals had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War and lived as outcasts.
Whether you stood where the Durango Fairgrounds are now and saw Robert Dwyer in 1880 plowing his 160 acre homestead with a Winchester strapped to his side, or whether you entered a business establishment in Durango, the proprietor would be wearing a six shooter and a Winchester rifle would be leaning against his desk. Durango’s Horse Gulch (east end of Third Street) was a common place for these desperados to rob an innocent traveler or stage coach. This reckless dare devil element heeded no law and order. The earliest citizens dared not refuse them anything. A favorite antic was to ride their mount through the swinging doors of a saloon and yell out an order for whiskey.
La Plata County’s Allison Gang and the Stockton Gang share the most lasting infamy. Ike Stockton, a celebrated killer from Texas, was the leader of the Stockton Gang with Harg Eskridge next in command. Port Stockton, Dyson Eskridge and Bert Wilkinson were other members. An ongoing feud prevailed between the Simmons Gang of Farmington who accused the Stockton Gang of stealing their cattle, butchering them and selling the meat. The Stockton Gang often sought refuge in Durango where the Farmington vigilante committee led by the Simmons gang could not seize them across the state line and where the Stockton Gang posed as cattlemen. Durango’s prolonged allegiance behind this group of men was due in part to Port Stockton having been the Marshall of Animas City in early 1880. He left the position after a black barber, while giving the Marshall a shave, accidently cut him. Stockton shot him. Durango had its first lynching on April 16, 1880. The following day, while the body was still dangling from a pine tree downtown by the railroad tracks, a band of 25 – 50 armed horsemen calling themselves the Farmington Vigilante Committee crossed the high mesa (now Fort Lewis College) and a lively exchange of rifle shots dug into the dirt streets and wooden sidewalks of Durango for an hour or two while the Stockton-Eskridge Gang returned fire from saloon row along Railroad Street. The Citizens sought refuge in the Luttrell House on Third Avenue – the only brick house in town.
Four months later, George West, who was to become Governor of Colorado, was carrying out his contract to furnish beef to the soldiers newly stationed at Fort Lewis in Hesperus. He had hired a black fellow by the name of Kid Thomas (the Black Kid) to herd the cattle during the day. At night he would pen them in the slaughterhouse so the butcher could select the cattle he wanted to feed the soldiers the following day. In August, 1881 Kid Thomas asked George West for a ten-day leave. His brother had been arrested for stage robbing and he wanted to visit his brother at the jail of Conejos County before he was tried. The brother had gotten word to the Kid that he had plenty of loot hidden. This, with the three hundred dollars Kid Thomas was paid for back wages, was the inducement offered Harg Eskridge and Bert Wilkinson to accompany him. The Kid divided the three hundred dollars before starting. They went first to Silverton to avoid the travel between Durango and the San Luis Valley. That night, August 24, 1881 Wilkinson and Eskridge were drinking in a dance hall and in a state of wild abandon commenced shooting out the lights. Clate Augsbury, Marshall of Silverton, came in to put a stop to it, and was shot dead by a stray bullet. Kid Thomas, who took no part in the shooting made no attempt to get away. He was immediately jailed. Bert and Dyson escaped into the mountains. The following night a large party of men entered the Silverton jail and hung the Black Kid from a cross-beam of the Court House shed. Intended trials were often aborted in this way. The funeral services over the deceased marshal of the city took place Friday, August 26 and the attendance was the largest ever witnessed in Silverton at that time. A posse of 24 men was soon formed and a reward of $4,000 was put up by the citizens. Ike Stockton, for whom Wilkinson and Eskridge had put themselves in danger many times – fell himself to the temptation of this blood money. Stockton went boldly to the proprietor’s wife of a remote stage stop at Castle Rock near Rico, telling her that he had come to help the boys out of the country – guessing correctly that she knew where they were. She was only too eager to accept, with no suspicion of his real intent. Ike told Dyson to go to George Morrison’s ranch on the Los Pinos, get extra fine mounts and meet in a few days at a slated rendevous and from there they would go to old Mexico. With Dyson gone, Stockton pulled his gun on Wilkinson and took him prisoner. Stockton delivered Wilkinson to Silverton. Wilkinson was hung and Stockton collected the reward money. Ike Stockton’s treachery was so craven he became a despised criminal. Jim Sullivan, Deputy Sheriff of La Plata County and previously sympathetic with the Stockton-Eskridge crowd, knew of some crimes Stockton had committed in Cook County, Texas and sent for a warrant. When the warrant arrived, Sullivan presented it and pulled his gun on Stockton in Durango. Stockton’s shot blasted a hole in the wooden sidewalk. Sullivan’s bullet – a soft-nosed forty five shattered Stockton’s upper leg hitting his femoral artery. He was taken over to the office of the new smelter away from the aid of any doctor where he bled to death. Desperados and gangs like the Allison Gang and the Stockton Gang, who terrorized the early settlers were gradually disbanded and brought to justice. It is no wonder that during the early pioneer days here, there wasn’t a man in Durango that didn’t carry a double action six-shooting revolver.
5875 Highway 550
Durango, Colorado 81303
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