FEATURE — One would think that a historical figure who still casts a wide shadow more than 100 years after his death would be someone whose actions in life exuded the true definition of heroism – a military commander, a civil rights activist or president.
However, a notorious outlaw certainly doesn’t fit the definition of a true hero, but one particular son of Mormon pioneers who settled in Southern Utah is a bandit anomaly – both in his “real” and “reel” personas.
In his “real” life, Butch Cassidy was not a cold-blooded, ruthless killer in the mold of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. While he always wielded a gun, he didn’t use one much. As far as historians have pieced together, he never shot and killed anyone, and if he would have had to shoot, it would have been in self-defense.
He was calm, collected and calculating, which is what endeared him to others and attracted outlaws to be part of his gang, “The Wild Bunch.” His robberies were not spur-of-the-moment, haphazard affairs but carefully planned weeks and even months in advance. He staked out his targets to discover their nuances, especially the best time to strike. He set fresh relay horses along his escape routes so posses would hardly have a chance in their pursuit.
Cassidy was respectful to women and gave back to the less fortunate. Even lawmen described him as gentlemanly, and he kept his promises to them. For instance, when he was released from the Wyoming State Penitentiary for horse thievery – the only time he ever spent time in “the pen ” – he promised his captors he would never steal another horse in the state and was true to his word.
In his “reel” life, as played by Paul Newman in the 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” he was just as charming, and he had a way with people that was lacking in the Sundance Kid – played by Robert Redford. Screenwriter William Goldman’s witty dialogue tremendously aided his “reel” persona, making it stand out from the screenplays of many other by-the-book Westerns.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was the antithesis of the normal formulaic Western in another way: The protagonists are actually the “bad” guys and the ones being chased instead of doing the chasing.
The movie helped increase interest in the beloved bandit and perpetuate the legends surrounding his real life and questions surrounding his death. The movie’s ending, the duo’s 1908 shootout with Bolivian troops (after living in South America for nearly seven years when things got too hot in the United States), is ambiguous and leaves it up to the audience to decide whether the two outlaws really met their demise in that confrontation.
Many are sure the 1908 shootout in Bolivia was the end for Cassidy, but his family and old timers who knew him – as well as a whole host of Butch Cassidy aficionados – say otherwise. Lula Parker Betenson, Cassidy’s sister, wrote a book entitled “Butch Cassidy, My Brother” in 1975 in which she recounts when she saw him at a family gathering in 1925. Betenson says the exact date when he died and where he is buried is a closely-guarded family secret.
Five years ago, Betenson’s great-grandson, Bill Betenson, published “Butch Cassidy, My Uncle: A Family Portrait” after over 20 years of research. The main purpose of his book is to dispel rumors and provide background on his family.
Larry Pointer’s “In Search of Butch Cassidy,” originally published in 1977, presented the story of a Spokane man named William T. Phillips presumed to be Butch Cassidy. Phillips authored a manuscript entitled “The Bandit Invincible,” which Pointer said bore a strong resemblance to the exploits of Butch Cassidy and recounted information only Cassidy would know. After Phillips’ death in 1937, his widow denied that her husband was the actual Butch Cassidy, but simply said Phillips knew Cassidy well.
Phillips’ widow was right on both accounts. As described in a 2011 Deseret News article, Pointer came across a longer version of the manuscript Phillips wrote, and through research prompted by the second manuscript, Pointer found that Phillips was an outlaw contemporary of Cassidy’s whose real name was William T. Wilcox. Wilcox and Cassidy served time together in the Wyoming State Penitentiary, and both went to Lander, Wyoming, after being released from prison only about a month apart.
For Pointer, who was the biggest believer in his circumstantial-evidenced story of Phillips as the real Cassidy, the new revelation was hard to take, but he admitted he could deny it no longer. However, the Bolivian shootout story was also dealt a blow when the two bodies that were supposedly those of Butch and Sundance were exhumed and DNA tested in the early 1990s. The DNA did not match.
But such stories are what makes the legend of Butch Cassidy so much fun and why so many cannot resist it. Historians even dispute which robberies Cassidy and his gang participated in. Pointer theorized in the epilogue of his book that there could have been multiple Butch Cassidys and that some members of Butch’s family turned out to be smaller-scale outlaws, including his brother, Dan, whom Bill Betenson talks about in depth in his book.
But the myths about Butch Cassidy aren’t anything new. They started during his lifetime.
For instance, in November 1901, The Salt Lake Tribune reported the following:
Butch Cassidy has more lives than a dozen cats, and his ubiquitousness is more than a match for his multitudinous lives. He has been killed time and again within the past five years, and he has also taken part in every notorious robbery during that time. Butch Cassidy is not a mere man; he is a criminal syndicate.
Butch Cassidy’s footprint
The Butch Cassidy 5K/10K race in early November, sponsored by Springdale and Rockville, celebrates the haunts of the “reel” Butch Cassidy, with Grafton ghost town being its main focus and the race’s finish line.
During movie filming in the fall of 1968, Twentieth Century-Fox built a frame home in Grafton on a corner across the street from the old schoolhouse/church as the home of Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s love interest. Grafton was the backdrop of one of the most iconic scenes of the movie, when Katherine Ross, as Etta Place, rides on the handlebars of a bike while Newman, as Cassidy, pedals through the town to the sound of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
Cave Valley in Zion National Park’s Kolob Terrace section also served as the Wild Bunch’s hideout and parts of Zion and Snow Canyon State Park hosted chase scenes.
However, the “real” Butch Cassidy spent much more time farther north, most prominently in Beaver, where he was born Robert LeRoy Parker on April 13, 1866, and in Circleville, where he lived as a teenager from approximately 1880-1884. It was from Circleville that he left to begin his life of crime after falling in with the wrong crowd, especially a horse rustler by the name of Mike Cassidy, whose last name he took to protect his real family name.
Boyhood home restoration
Circleville, in southernmost Piute County, is the Butch Cassidy capital of Utah. This designation was recently enhanced with the restoration of Cassidy’s boyhood home, which actually sits approximately a mile south of Circleville just over the Garfield County line.
For decades, the home sat literally rotting from the bottom up. It is located on private land owned by Afton Morgan in the middle of an actively farmed hay field. The Morgan family wanted the cabin and site preserved, as did the two counties, but none of them had the resources to do it.
Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman stepped in and became the project’s champion and catalyst, wanting to preserve the historic relic and also augment tourism in his county. Garfield County became a vital part of the team as well.
The restoration process started approximately three years ago when a National Park Service archeology architect provided a glimpse of what it would need, which was mainly a foundation. The architecht determined that if they really wanted to preserve the cabin, they would have to take it apart and put it back together on a new foundation.
“That was a little more than we could bite off,” Bushman said.
The next step was going to Savage Albrecht Engineering to get an estimate of the cost, which turned out to be $350,000.
After obtaining that figure, fundraising began.
They also turned to Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, which is over the state parks and also manages the state’s off-highway vehicle program. The cabin site sits very near the well-known Paiute ATV Trail, so with the help of Sen. Ralph Okerlund, the Utah Legislature appropriated $138,000 from the off-highway vehicle restricted fund to help with the stabilization and restoration of the cabin. As part of the restoration, the trail was extended to reach the cabin, Bushman said.
Another $50,000 for the restoration came from the Utah Heritage Highway 89 Alliance and $11,000 from the Paiute Trail Committee, Bushman said. Much of the rest of the project was done through donated materials and volunteer labor, including the two counties coming together to do the dirty work for the approach to the cabin and the parking lot, Bushman said. Volunteer laborers completed all of the fencing.
The cabin now serves as a trailside attraction and a stopover for travelers on U.S. Highway 89.
“Now think about that for a minute,” Hayes said. “Two counties, the state, and a private family coming together for a really cool project. That kind of cooperation is the ‘Utah way’ of making things happen.”
Even though the cabin has no ties to a state park, the Division of Parks and Recreation has had a hand in it because it has been tasked with assisting historical preservation within the state, especially when such a project will help the area’s economy, Hayes said.
Piute County, statistically, has the weakest economy in the state. Bushman described how it has suffered from what can be considered the “Route 66 effect.” When a bigger, better thoroughfare comes through, the towns along the formerly busy highway suffer, which is just what happened when I-70 connected to I-15. Even today, Bushman said that if someone coming from Colorado, for example, were to get directions from Google maps to Bryce Canyon, it would route them away from Piute County.
Bushman said he sees the boyhood home as an asset to attract more people to the county. To this effect, there will soon be signs up near Exit 23 of I-70 – the intersection with Highway 89 – directing potential travelers to the restored cabin, as well as signage at the intersection of Highway 89 and SR-20 and along Highway 89 erected a half a mile from the cabin going both directions noting that the historic site is coming up.
At the dedication of the restored home on Sept. 19, Hayes said “everyone had a story” – mainly of when ancestors helped out Butch Cassidy or interacted with him.
The dedication was a big deal, Bushman said. He didn’t know just how big it would be and wished he would have brought in more bleachers for the ceremony. Besides locals, there were even people in attendance from Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming – all because they are keenly interested in Butch Cassidy.
The Piute County Rodeo royalty and entire student body of Circleville Elementary took part in the ceremony, as well as Clive Romney from Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts, who provided entertainment, including Butch Cassidy songs and poems.
Bushman said that even as he and fellow project participants sat on the picnic table on the site, the highway noise disappeared, adding that he has heard owner Afton Morgan call it “the most peaceful place on the planet.”
To many, the restored Cassidy boyhood home might just seem like another run-of-the-mill historic cabin. But it’s not. There is definitely a different aura there.
“As you stand there,” Hayes said, “you can feel the history. It’s an important site.”
A mile north of the cabin is Butch Cassidy’s Hideout Cafe and Motel, the de facto Butch Cassidy Visitor Center. Practically daily, diners come into the eatery seeking information about Cassidy, and owners Mike and Kelli Cummings and their staff are happy to answer visitors’ questions, usually directing them to the cabin south of town.
“They stop because of the name and because they’re curious,” said Kelli Cummings, who also serves on the county tourism board.
She said she regularly sees people from other countries stopping in and that because of Cassidy’s English ancestry, he’s also celebrated in the United Kingdom.
Cummings said that about 50 percent of the economy in southern Piute County comes from Butch Cassidy tourism, adding that she needs to start counting the number of tourists who are “In Search of Butch Cassidy,” just like the title of Pointer’s book.
Visiting Butch Cassidy’s footprint in south-central Utah
Located approximately 2 hours north of St. George via I-15, SR-20 and Highway 89, Circleville is ground zero for Butch Cassidy lore.
There are many other places one can visit in the region to get a piece of Butch Cassidy history – real or imagined – and view landmarks named after Cassidy. Below is a list (by no means exhaustive) of a few places to visit besides his boyhood home.
Cassidy Arch, Capitol Reef National Park – While there is no evidence Cassidy even ventured near the arch, it is named after the outlaw, perhaps because of its proximity to Robbers’ Roost, a popular hideout of the Wild Bunch, listed below.
Old Pine Inn, Marysvale, Utah – This is another spot in Piute County where Butch Cassidy purportedly spent some time. The Old Pine Inn claims to be the longest-running hotel within the state (established in 1882) during his outlaw career.
Red Canyon – Allegedly, Cassidy got into a brawl over a girl at a dance in Panguitch and made his escape via Red Canyon, full of crimson-hued hoodoos similar to those in Bryce Canyon National Park. Some parts of that escape route are said to be included in the Cassidy Trail, whose trailhead is near SR-12’s mile marker 4.
Robbers Roost, east of Hanksville, Utah – Given its remoteness and unforgiving terrain, this area was a popular hideout for Cassidy and his Wild Bunch because lawmen dared not penetrate it.
Western Mining and Railroad Museum, Helper, Utah – This museum boasts a few steps from the Pleasant Valley Coal Company office which Cassidy and his gang robbed of approximately $7,000 in gold on April 22, 1897. The robbery is the only one attributed to Cassidy within the state of Utah, and in typical Cassidy style, he cut telegraph lines before the robbery so authorities could not be alerted easily and retreated to Robber’s Roost.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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