These days, Butch Cassidy might have trouble recognizing his hometown of Circleville. While the Butch Cassidy Hotel and Restaurant still serves up rooms and a meal, and the Butch Cassidy Museum and Antique Store offers up a rather predictable palette, the town these days is perhaps better known as the main staging point for the Paiute Trail, the serpentine all-terrain vehicle trail that winds up and down the mountains surrounding this small town. Indeed, there are more all-terrain vehicles on Main Street during the summer than there are horses. Butch would be perplexed.
Sorting Facts from Fiction
Maybe. In 1969, when 20th Century Fox released its box office smash 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' reporters came to Cassidy's childhood home, looking for his family. They found Mrs. Lula Parker Betenson, 86, Butch's youngest sister. Among other things, she told reporters that Cassidy had not died in South America in 1909, as was widely believed, but had come back to visit some 16 years later, in 1925. Lula said that Butch instead died in Spokane, Wash., in 1937, and spent his last years as a trapper and prospector. Could it be true?
Recently, diligent scholars like Larry Pointer, who wrote In Search of Butch Cassidy, have dug up evidence showing that in all likelihood Butch Cassidy did fake his death in San Vicente, Bolivia. They suggest that after making it big in Bolivian train, payroll and bank robberies, Cassidy sailed to Europe, got a facelift, moved back to America, married, then became an entrepreneur in Washington. Some of the evidence is convincing, especially a detailed manuscript about Cassidy which actually appears to have been authored by Cassidy.
The Early Years
Born Robert LeRoy Parker in Beaver, Utah on April 13, 1866, Cassidy was the first of 13 children. His Mormon parents had come to Utah from England in 1856. His parents moved over the mountains to Circleville in 1879 and young Roy, as he was known about the house, worked in ranches across western Utah, including at Hay Springs, near Milford. On one of these early jobs Roy had his first run-in with the law - he let himself into a closed shop, took a pair of jeans, and left a note promising to return later to pay his debt. But things did not go well in Circleville for the Parker family - Roy's dad, Maximilian, lost land to another homesteader in a property rights dispute - and Roy ended up looking to a shady local rancher, Mike Cassidy, in admiration. By 1884, Roy was rustling cattle from Parowan (just over the Markagunt Plateau) and his life on the lam had begun. He soon took on the name Butch Cassidy, perhaps in honor of his childhood hero.
Roy Parker has been called a sort of Robin Hood of the Western frontier, a man who bristled at the notion that large cattle outfits were squeezing the smaller rancher out of business. In the years following 1884, Roy drifted west to Telluride, Colo., stopping along the way in the back of beyond territory known as the Robber's Roost, which is in the rough foothills of the Henry Mountains. He also worked in Green River.
Life as an Outlaw & Telluride
The first major crime attributed to Cassidy is the robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, on June 24, 1889. He and three cowboys got away with $20,000 by thoroughly casing the joint first. The bandits then made their way over a choice hideout, Brown's Park, along the Green River at the Utah-Wyoming border. They made forays to Green River and Vernal before moving north to Lander, Wyo.
Cassidy was one of the first to break ground on the Outlaw Trail, a meandering ghostlike path that began in Mexico, ran through Utah, and ended in Montana. The unofficial trail linked together a series of hideouts and ranches, like the Carlisle Ranch near Monticello, where ranch owners seemed willing to give jobs to outlaw cowboys. The Carlisle, actually, was close to Robber's Roost, and it was here where Butch camped out for a night or two before and after the Telluride holdup.
After Telluride, Butch's notoriety as an outlaw grew - an outlaw fighting for 'settlers rights, as citizens of the united States of America against the old time cattle baron (sic)' as written in a mysterious manuscript now believed to be Roy Parker's memoir. After the cruel winter of 1886-87, these resentments were ripe. Small cattle operations were crippled by the loss of stock, and larger operations paid a premium for rustled cattle. During this time, Cassidy and his gang established what would become their greatest hideout, the Hole-In-The-Wall, in central Wyoming. After spending a few years in a gloomy prison in Wyoming, Cassidy returned to rustling, this time along the Utah-Arizona border. During this period he began to assemble a sort of elite corps of outlaw cowboys, the Wild Bunch, which included Dick Maxwell, Elzy Lay, and Harry Longabaugh, who was perhaps better known as the Sundance Kid. Later the group was joined by Henry Wilbur 'Bub' Meeks, another Utah Mormon escapee, and George Currie.
Montpelier Bank Robbery
The first robbery credited the Wild Bunch was the August 13, 1896 holdup of a bank in Montpelier, Idaho. This robbery showed the trappings of what would become the Wild Bunch signature holdup: a well-planned attack. The bandits made off with over $7,000, and Cassidy, in part of an elaborate escape attempt, fled to Iowa, then Michigan, where he came face to face with an old foe - a deputy sheriff from western Wyoming who was on the lookout for him. Narrowly escaping (Cassidy even claimed to have shared a hotel room with a sheriff who was hunting for him but apparently never got a good look at him) Cassidy headed south then west again, where he met the gang and planned perhaps their greatest robbery, the $8,800 heist of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company payroll.
In and Out of Utah
Here, in narrow Price Canyon a few miles from Helper, Cassidy and his gang stole the payroll simply by shoving a revolver into the gut of the paymaster, who forked over the loot. Then, using an ingenious scheme, Cassidy and his gang rode hard for several days, employing a series of cached top-quality horses that could ride for hours at high speeds without tiring. The gang split up, and Butch fled to northern Wyoming, where he persuaded a rancher to hire him temporarily.
Castle Gate was the Wild Bunch's one and only major holdup in Utah. After that, the outlaws held up banks and trains in South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, and managed to bring home increasingly large sums of money - like an estimated $70,000 for the holdup of a Rio Grande train near Folsom, New Mexico. But by then, the good old days seemed to be over. By this time, the Wild Bunch had an extensive ally of law officers hunting them wherever they went, and Butch had an impressive folio compiled by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whose operatives seemed to follow his every move, waiting for a slip-up. The Gang often came back to Utah, either for protection or transportation, and once to ask Gov. Heber Wells in 1900 for amnesty in exchange for the promise to shape up. Abandoning that idea, the group later traveled across the Great Salt Lake Desert en route to Nevada, where they robbed the bank in Winnemucca.
Death in South America?
The heat was on in a serious way, and by 1902 the group had disbanded, and Butch had gone to England, then Argentina, where Butch, Harry Longabaugh and his girlfriend Etta bought a small ranch. All was well until a stock buyer and former Wyoming deputy came through the country, ending the gang's seclusion. From here, Cassidy went back to robbing trains and payrolls up until his supposed death in 1908.
The Legend Lives
After a trip back to Europe, Cassidy returned to the United States, this time with the name William Phillips. Phillips went to Michigan, where he met and fell in love with Gertrude Livesay. The two were married in May, 1908. The happy couple moved to Arizona, where Phillips apparently made a little cash on the side by fighting with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, then north to Spokane, where he founded the Phillips Manufacturing Company and later worked for Riblet, who made chairlifts and tramways. But things went downhill, and Phillips was close to bankrupt. He embarked on a few desperate trips back to Utah and Wyoming in hopes of finding some buried caches, but he apparently was unsuccessful. He was diagnosed with cancer, and died on July 20, 1937.
The Essence of Butch Cassidy
In a way, Cassidy captured the essence of a land that, in many respects, is still wild. Back in Circleville, his old home is frail and weathered. Back in 1976, in a story for National Geographic, Robert Redford followed the Outlaw Trail. In his story, Redford wrote: 'As technology thrusts us relentlessly into the future, I find myself, perversely, more interested in the past. We seem to have lost something - something vital, something of individuality and passion. That may be why we tend to view the western outlaw, rightly or not, as a romantic figure.'
Maybe. Cassidy had his own reasons, though. He wrote: 'The best way to hurt them is through their pocket book. They will Holler louder than if you cut off both legs. I steal their money just to hear them holler. Then I pass it out among those who really need it.'