Friday, September 28, 2007

Josie Bassett

Josie Bassett McKnight Ranney Williams Wells Morris

You may remember the cabin at Dinosaur National Monument that was lived in by Josie Bassett. The Park story was that this woman in her 50’s came to this lovely corner and homesteaded by herself. Her old long cabin, chicken house, and flowing spring are still there along with grapes and fruit trees gone wild. A nice story of pioneer womanhood, strong, dauntless and skilled.

I wondered why she was here, alone. Where did she come from and why did she chose to come here and work this hard ?

I still don’t exactly know why she came here, but the rest of the story is a good one, and an amazing example of the perils of oral history.

Amos Herbert Bassett, Josie’s father, was born in NY state, served in the Civil War and settled afterwards in Arkansas. (Herbert’s family traces back to William Bassett of Plymouth and wife Elizabeth, and their son :Nathaniel Bassett (b. 1628 Almost came on the Mayflower !) In Arkansas he met and married Mary Eliza Chamberlin Miller. Her parents had died when she was very young and she was raised by Judge Miller, a breeder of fine thoroughbred horses. She and her siblings took his last name. Herb was a quiet, well-educated man, who loved his books. Elizabeth, as she preferred to be called, was well educated, but anything but quiet. She was willful and charming, and had a famous temper, which pretty much ensured that she got what she wanted. They settled in Hot Springs AK where Herb became clerk of courts. Josephine was born there in 1874.

In 1877 Herb lost his job, and his asthma was worsening, so lured west by his brother Sam’s descriptions of Colorado, the family packed up everything, including Elizabeth’s organ and headed west. Browns’ Hole, on the UT CO border was their destination, Elizabeth soon renamed it Brown’s Park.

Ann was born in 1878, the first child born in Brown’s Park, and the family built a cabin, planted a vegetable garden and soon bought cattle to run on their homestead. Elizabeth rode, shot, fenced, and did most of the running of the ranch.

Brown’s Park, now a National Wildlife Refuge, is a lush valley of the Green River just north of the Gates of Ladore, the junction of the Vermillion and Green rivers. It was the site of Fort Davy Crockett (aka Fort Misery), on an old trail used by trappers, and later by wandering cowboys, peddlers, prospectors, and rustlers, robbers, and traveling con men. Surrounded by mountains, with plenty of water and good grass, it became a stopover, especially after Elizabeth made her ranch a place where anyone could get a meal, a bed in the bunkhouse, and perhaps some work. This was pretty standard hospitality in the west, although Elizabeth’s personality probably made it a better than average stop. Robert Parker aka Butch Cassidy, and other less publicized “outlaws”, stopped there. There were a number of shootings on the ranch, retributions for problems that occurred elsewhere. Most of these drifters were probably more rough than dangerous.

All over the high plains of the west, the huge cattle ranches owned by investors grew greedy and did everything legal and illegal to acquire the good bottomland of the homesteaders. Brown’s Park was no exception, and Elizabeth soon found herself in a war. Two of her hands were murdered, probably by hired hit men, her fences were cut and her calves stolen. The Cattleman’s Associations had financial and political power, and soon spread the word that Elizabeth was the head of the Brown’s Park gang of rustlers and robbers and murderers. It’s likely that Elizabeth did engage in appropriating loose cattle or branding unbranded calves, as this was not uncommon. One story has her running 25 or 30 head of the big rancher’s cattle off a cliff. Those who knew her said she would never have wasted good cattle.

Her daughters were no less wild. Josie, as the oldest was relegated to the kitchen, but could still ride and shoot with the best of them. Anne inherited her mother’s wild temper, but not her good sense. She was equally able to ride and shoot, and avoided the household duties as much as possible.

There were two sons, George and Eb who probably suffered in the shadow of their imperious mother and sisters, and their father’s gentle, bookish personality wasn’t much of a role model for their world on the frontier. Herb was, however, the first to use barbed wire and irrigate his hay fields in the area, and started a school.

In December of 1892, Elizabeth died suddenly at 37, possibly of appendicitis, or of a miscarriage. It seems to me that this must have been a pretty traumatic event for the family. Losing the woman of the house was tragically all too common in the wild west, but losing a woman like the powerful Elizabeth would have been a big blow to the family and the ranch.

At about the same time Josie became pregnant at the age of 19 by Jim McKnight who worked on the ranch, married him and had two sons, but they fought each other loud and hard over everything. Soon, Josie, had two small children and the decrepit Uncle Sam to care for. Jim wanted to sell out, and move to town and buy a saloon. Josie wanted to ranch. When Uncle Sam died and left everything to her, Jim retaliated by taking all the cattle and the children. A nasty divorce proceeding ended with Jim being shot by a deputy, although not fatally. Soon the story was told that Josie herself had shot him, to which she countered “If I had shot him, I wouldn’t have missed”.

Josie got the boys back, gave up the ranch and moved to Craig CO where she ran a boarding house. She soon married Charles Ranney, a druggist, but divorced him as he was too strict with the boys. At this point her son Herbert, known as Chick, became too unmanageable and when he ran back to Browns Park, he stayed on there with his equally unmanageable Aunt Ann. Josie married Charles Williams, a druggist and prize fighter, divorced him in 6 months, and then married Emerson Wells and went back to the ranch.

Emerson was a drunkard and on New Years Eve, after a three day drunk, he died in a hotel right after Josie had given him a cup of coffee. She was suspected of having poisoned him. She then took up with Ben Morris, a brutal man and a thief.

At this point, she decided to homestead for herself, and found the place on Cub Creek. Ben Morris didn’t last long, he used a spade bit on a horse, leaving its mouth bloody, and Josie ran him off with a frying pan.

Her son Crawford moved to the Cub Creek ranch to help her out, but his new wife found homesteading and Josie not to her liking, so Josie finally was alone. She ran cattle, raised a garden and fruit trees, poached deer, made moonshine during Prohibition, and was known to butcher cattle that did not have her brand. She had a final fling with a neighbor, Ed Lewis, but never married him. She delivered food to families in need, and several times let them come and live with her for a while. She took her grandchildren for the summers and worked them hard and played with them hard, they all adored her.

In 1924, while trying to work in a long skirt which tangled in the brush, she took to wearing pants, and soon cut off her long hair too.

In 1934, Josie was accused of selling stolen beef, but acquitted. It is likely that the “evidence” of buried hides was planted. She came to court all dressed up, looking every inch the 60 year old little grandmother.

In 1948 Life magazine did a story on her and called her the Queen of the Rustlers. Actually the title more likely belongs to Elizabeth, and later Ann who actually was tried for Rustling and acquitted twice. Ann,, who was there for the Life interview, was furious that her “title” was bestowed on Josie.

In 1963, in December, she fell on the ice bringing water to her horse, and never recovered enough to go back to her place.

Vernal and Jenson UT were Mormon towns, and the goings on at Brown’s Park were notorious. Being divorced once was a serious matter, and being divorced 5 times meant Josie was the subject of much shocked gossip. Running the Cub Creek place by herself, wearing pants, making booze, there was no end of scandalous talk about her.

My sources for all this are three books:
Dinosaurs and Moonshine, a local history booklet by Doris Karren Burton. This is a chatty telling of Josie’s story along with other local characters.

Wild Bunch Women, by Michael Rutter, which deals with the girlfriends of the outlaw gang, has a section on Elizabeth, on Ann and on Josie who is reputed(at least in this book) to have been Butch Cassidy’s girlfriend for a time.

Best by far is:
The Bassett Women, by Grace Mcclure. Here is the whole story, pretty well documented. Read this one, if you’ve a mind to learn more.

Her sister, Queen Ann, wrote a memoir that must be the source of some of the more outrageous stories. Along with others who accepted local tall tales as the truth, some of the alleged exploits of these three women must be far enough from the truth to be fiction.

So there she is, fiercely independent, physically and mentally strong, lusty, beautiful and fearless. She lived a long way from the suffragettes, and probably never heard of Women’s Liberation. By my standards, she was someone to be admired. By the family values standards of today, she was trouble, and it is no wonder that the National Park Service bowdlerized her story. Who knows how many girls would just take right after her, chasing outlaws, stealing cattle and marrying 5 times ! Thoreau would have approved of Josie I think, at least in theory.

And what really happened? Even in the interviews that were done with Josie herself I could detect between the lines a twinkle in the eye and the possibility of changes made to make the story more fun. I believe that at least some of these interviews were done by a NPS ranger, and I imagine Josie was tempted to try and shock him. Some of the more sensational accounts of the time were almost certainly painted with a broader, more colorful brush than the truth would allow. I would not be surprised to learn that the good women of Jensen added some color of their own to the tales. In Grace McClure’s book, she has found the court transcripts, marriage and divorce records, and land transactions to support her words. She repeats some of the more entertaining tales with caveats. Under her words, though, I detect a whiff of disapproval. Or maybe unconscious envy of a woman who stepped on or over the rules.