While much has been published about the history of the Black Mesa, much of it remains a mystery. After all, it's a big place, and one of the deepest and most beautiful canyons in the country cuts through it.
Three local history buffs recently began digging for more on the mesa, in particular from the time of opening Westward expansion following the removal of the Ute people in the early 1880s up to about 1920.
The result is some interesting information not yet found in local history books. And between the three, they read a lot of history books.
Dave Bradford, Chuck Farmer and Danny Cotten are digging for clues for an upcoming book focusing on the Black Mesa. Their resume is impressive. In part, Farmer is president of the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Society and Bradford, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service after 35 years as a rangeland specialist, authored "When the Grass Stood Stirrup-high: Historical Fact or Urban Myth."
Cotten, whose great-grandfather was among the first settlers to arrive in the area in 1881, is well-known for his talks on the history of the area and for his numerous enlarged historical photos of the region. His subjects have included early sawmills and road construction on Black Mesa, the Gould Reservoir, and construction of roads across the mesa, which will all be covered in the book.
And while much of the footwork is done, one subject, one that has greatly interested Cotten for years, has been particularly tricky — John Morrissey and the Diamond Jo Cattle Company on Crystal Creek.
Since November the researchers, and Bradford in particular, have spent countless hours on ancestry.com and Google in the hope of finding something. Cotten's research has uncovered several leads, including an incomplete copy of an article on the Diamond Jo, and a Diamond Jo brand, the iron unstable from years of use.
"Morrissey is a common name, but there's not a lot of information around about him," said Bradford. Despite the fact he built a cabin in the Crystal Creek area in the 1880s, had the land surveyed and ran several hundred head of cattle, local records revealed virtually nothing.
Morrissey's past is filled with "a lot of little subtleties," said Bradford. While documentation of his arrival in the country remains elusive, it's known that he hailed from Connacht, Ireland. Working on Mississippi riverboats he met Joseph Reynolds, a shrewd businessman who sold goods along the Mississippi and once owned a fleet of riverboats. Reynolds took a liking to Morrissey, and when the Irishman, who had a talent for identifying ore just from the smell, headed west to seek his fortune during the Colorado silver boom, Reynolds offered to bankroll any good prospects.
Morrissey worked in mining at Georgetown and eventually became head of the Crown Point and Pinnacle mines in Leadville, owned by Reynolds. Morrissey made his millions and gained a penchant for expensive race horses. He was illiterate, and despite an inability to tell time, carried an expensive pocket watch.
Morrissey eventually had a falling out with Reynolds and went bust. "In 1898 he died a pauper and is buried in an unmarked grave in Leadville," said Bradford.
There were even songs written about him, said Cotten, reciting from memory a stanza: When I die/ I'll will my bedroll/ and the fleas/ to Diamond Jo.
Locally, he established the Diamond Jo, built a cabin, and began running cattle on the mesa in the early 1880s. It was assumed he owned property, but research on how the land was acquired revealed nothing. Despite anecdotal and other evidence that he was well-liked, Morrissey also was disliked for overgrazing cattle.
Until recently, these were the leads. "So we were really digging through all that and we were really focused on the Crystal Creek ranch, and it's hard digging," said Bradford. "It's like a glitter of gold down in the muck and you're trying to find it."
"It" came in the form of a lucky Google hit on an 1885 court case involving the Diamond Jo Cattle Company. Bradford went to the Division of State Archives and Public Records in Denver recently and found transcripts of the case.
The case didn't involve Morrissey, but transcripts reveal more on the Crystal Creek parcel than any other source, said Bradford. In 1889, Morrissey sold the Diamond Jo outfit to a man named Lyman Cole. About four years later, Cole contracted with a group of investors to sell 1,000 head of cattle in exchange for the deeds to parcels of prime Denver real estate. Cole defaulted, and investors sued, setting up a legal battle that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Transcripts also show that Cole purchased, sight unseen, 3,000 head of first-class cattle, six bulls, Galloways and Herefords, sight unseen, from Morrissey.
Bradford's sleuthing also uncovered a copy of Cotten's incomplete article, published in a 1969 issue of Wild West Magazine and written by Agnes Wright Spring, a one-time state historian. That gave the article credibility and led to an original copy of the magazine, which Bradford revealed, along with court transcripts, to his partners last week.
Following new leads, Bradford uncovered a list of some 40 land patents in the Crystal Creek area, including the Diamond Jo parcel, which was patented by Alvin Z. Huddow. "We cannot find him anywhere," said Bradford.
Other names include Weed Hendee, who applied for a patent in 1893. Court transcripts reveal he was Cole's foreman. He is buried in Longmont, but the trail stops there.
Each of the patents lists the specific act it was filed under: the 1862 Homestead Act, 1877 Desert Land Act, and who applied for them. In researching his "Stirrup-high" book, Bradford came across the words "Purchased under the Cash Act" over and over again, and they showed up again in researching the Crystal Creek land.
All this raises questions about just how land was acquired after the removal of the Ute people in 1881. There seems to be a lot of confusion on the subject, said Bradford. "We're going to go into that, because it's important."
Early settlers, including McCloud, Knott, DeGraffenreid, Pitts, Hartman and Briggs, will also be included in the book. The authors are hoping that something will trigger a response that will provide new leads or verify or contradict conventional wisdom.
Much of what they are finding, particularly on Morrissey, does contradict conventional wisdom, said Bradford, who contradicted the conventional wisdom in "Stirrup-high" that the desert lands of the area were covered in tall grass when early settlers arrived.
"That pops up every few months," said Farmer, who spends much of his time meeting and greeting visitors to the Hotchkiss-Crawford Museum in Hotchkiss. "Somebody will repeat that."
Even some of the stories circulating about Morrissey might be called out. "The conventional wisdom is that he was in here, he overgrazed everything and ruined the land and did all this other stuff," said Bradford of Morrissey. "We didn't know."
Cotten recently led efforts to clean up the original Diamond Jo cabin. He is working with the Rockwell family, which owns the property and has put up $5,000 for a restoration project. Cotten hopes the seed money will attract more funding and interest in the project.
Their shared goal is to get to the truth and put it in print. Other area historians and authors, including George Sibley, Mamie Ferrier and Susan Ayers, have been recruited as fact-checkers and to keep the process moving forward. They hope to complete the book this year.
"We're going to keep pulling things together," said Bradford. "When (the book) is done, it's going to be a good, solid piece of work."
They also plan to keep it interesting. "Like Agnes Spring's article," said Bradford. "She wrote a pretty interesting article. We can do the same thing."blog comments powered by Disqus