A pioneer mother accused of murdering one of her husbands isn’t a likely candidate for Women’s History Month, but then Josie Bassett wasn’t a typical pioneer, either.
She lived a lonely life between Colorado and Utah, built her own log cabin in what is now Dinosaur National Monument, and though she swore off men, moonshine, poaching deer and cattle rustling, she never quite gave them up.
Josie grew up on the Bassett Ranch in Northwest Colorado. Durango is close to the Four Corners, where four states meet. She grew up in the Three Corners where Utah, Wyoming and Colorado converge in a sheltered valley named Brown’s Park, one of the last places settled in the American West and a favorite hideout on the Outlaw Trail.
Frequently outshone by her tall, attractive, older sister, Ann Bassett, nicknamed Queen Anne, who could also ride and rope, Josie learned to hold her own. As suitors came calling for Queen Anne, at first Josie was the little sister who had to be tolerated, but as she matured, cowboys noticed her smile, her vivaciousness and a certain twinkle in her eye. Soon, hat in hand, they came calling on her, too.
The Old West was a wild place, but some places were wilder than others. Brown’s Park became an outlaw hangout because it was easy to commit a crime in one state then take a back trail into another valley carrying bank notes or gold coins in a worn saddle bag, or pushing stolen cattle or horses down a steep trail.
To the southwest, outlaws relaxed in Robbers Roost on the western edge of Canyonlands, then they came north to Brown’s Park, settled in for winter and, come spring, rode on to Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, another station on the Outlaw Trail.
Josie grew up with strangers leaving their horses ground-tied at the Bassett hitching post and coming into the kitchen with spurs jingling and single-action Colt .45’s slung low on their hips. No one asked questions. Everyone could pour coffee from the Granite ware pot on the stove’s back burner and peer into the pie safe to see what victuals might be ready to eat.
Sometimes, cowboys just grabbed a few cold biscuits and went on their way. One memorable Thanksgiving, Butch Cassidy and friends came for a full family dinner. Josie never forgot that. She was 15 and had ironed her pleated skirt just for the occasion.
Later, she referred to Butch as her “Brown’s Park beau.” They attended dances and started to date, but the young frisky female and the older outlaw had some adjustments to make.
“I was just a girl when I first saw him, hardly into my teens. Oh my, did I have a crush on him,” she said, but “he was more interested in his horse than he was in me. I went home that day so mad I could hardly see straight. I was stamping my feet on the floor in a tantrum.”
Once when he was being pursued, Butch hid out in the Bassett barn. He liked to read books but was forbidden to bring a kerosene lantern into the structure because of fire danger. He complained to Josie that without books, he’d be bored in the hay loft by himself. “Well, all I can say is, I didn’t let him get bored,” she reminisced.
Between cowboys, cattle rustlers and bank robbers, Josie had interesting teachers. She grew up half wild like the country around her. Her sister, Queen Anne, got arrested for cattle theft, but a Craig jury let her off. Sure, she was stealing cattle, but they were bony, rangy, Texas cattle just passing through yet mowing down grass local ranchers needed. What did it matter if a few head went missing? Josie learned from her sister, too.
On the frontier, women had to depend upon themselves. Josie did. She had an iron will, female charms and a stubborn streak of independence. Just like a maverick calf, she refused to stay fenced in. She had a string of lovers. By the age of 39, she had married five times and divorced four husbands when divorce was almost unheard of. When she married her first husband, ranch foreman Jim McKnight, she was already pregnant. They had two children.
Just as a local jury let Queen Anne off for cattle theft, Josie Bassett had to appear in Craig, too. For murdering the one husband she did not divorce. She married Emerson “Nig” Wells and most of the time they got along, but then he became a serious alcoholic and abusive. Josie squabbled, too, but when Wells started to binge-drink, he threatened her and her children. So, from a Salt Lake City pharmaceutical company, she ordered The Keen Cure. A few spoonfuls in a cowboy’s coffee and his excessive drinking was supposed to be solved. Knowing he was headed for a New Year’s binge, she laced her husband’s coffee.
Did she poison him? Did she deliberately kill him? Yes, she may have given him a patent medicine potion that brought on a heart attack, but in the closed room of the coroner’s inquest, Nig Wells’ spousal abuse was also discussed. Frontier justice took different forms on the Colorado frontier. Case dismissed.
Josie’d had it with men. In 1913, she left Colorado and filed a homestead claim along Cub Creek east of Vernal, Utah. She built her own log cabin, covering interior walls with wallpaper and cardboard to keep out drafts. After a while, she took up again with another cowboy, Ben Morris. She married him to quiet gossip in the local Mormon community. But one day when she’d been out grubbing sagebrush, he complained about lumps in the gravy at dinner that night. She threw the gravy at him and told him to wear it. He did.
When she gave him 15 minutes to gather his possessions and leave the house, Morris exited in five.
Once again, Josie was alone – tending her garden, irrigating her crops, living in a stunning, deep set canyon off of the Green River. She lived a pioneer life as the world changed around her. When Utah and Colorado voted in Prohibition from the 1920s to the 1930s, she brewed apricot brandy and chokecherry wine, hiking down to the river to leave it for passers-by to purchase. That location is now known as Moonshine Rapid, a Class 3 stretch that river-runners enjoy before they enter Split Canyon.
Perhaps to honor Butch’s memory, she kept stealing cattle. At age 62, she was arrested. At trial, she used the grandmother’s defense, put her hair up in a bun, wore a dress though she preferred denim overalls, and she told the jury: “I’m a grandma. Do I look like I could rustle cows?”
The jury acquitted her and ignored the branded hides stiffening along her back fence and the way she hid stolen livestock in a box canyon named Hog Canyon now famous for a threatened species of orchid, Spiranthes diluvialis.
Living alone in her cabin, she suffered a broken hip in December 1963. Locals finally convinced her to leave her beloved homestead and go to the Vernal hospital. She never returned, dying in May 1964 at 89 years old.
I’ve flipped duckies in Moonshine Rapid. I’ve enjoyed picnics with friends in the deep shade of cottonwood trees Josie Bassett planted near her cabin. I’ve hiked into Hog Canyon looking for orchids as rare and as beautiful as Josie herself.
Women’s History Month is often celebrated for famous American females who made an impact. On the frontier, Josie did.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.