Cass Hite embraced a rugged life prospecting river in Glen Canyon
Cass Hite was a well-known prospector in Utah and Colorado by Sept. 9, 1891, when he encountered fellow miner Adolph Kohler in Green River, Utah.
Kohler had created a company with a name almost identical to Hite’s company, and he tried to raise money for a mining venture in southeastern Utah by letting people think Hite was involved. When Hite exposed his scam, Kohler threatened to kill him.
Hite said he went to see Kohler in Green River to settle their dispute peaceably. But when their meeting ended, Kohler lay dead and another man was wounded, the victims of Hite’s pistol.
Hite always claimed he shot in self-defense, after Kohler fired a rifle at him from 15 feet and missed. Still, he was convicted of second-degree murder in October 1892. He spent seven months in the Utah penitentiary before the governor pardoned him.
Among those urging Hite’s pardon were people in Grand Junction and eight of the jurors who convicted him.
Hite, a resident of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River for nearly 30 years, could inspire anger and even fear among those he met. But mostly he was respected and viewed kindly, even by those who sent him to prison. He was a man of many contradictions.
He may have done business with outlaws such as Tom McCarty, but he was partners with respected businessmen like those who developed gilsonite deposits in Utah.
Hite was friends with Jack Sumner, who had accompanied John Wesley Powell on the first expedition down the Colorado River in 1869, yet Hite lived long enough to meet some of the first recreational boaters to travel the river.
He often expressed his disdain for the Mormon church and for Indians in general, but he had close friends among both groups.
Hite was an educated man who gave frequent interviews and wrote erudite letters to newspapers in Colorado and Utah. But he was also a self-promoter and a bit of a huckster, constantly predicting the next great mining bonanza.
Author James H. Knipmeyer provides an engaging portrait of Hite in his book, “Cass Hite, the Life of an Old Prospector,” published by the University of Utah Press this year.
Knipmeyer is a Missouri native who has spent nearly 40 years visiting the Colorado Plateau and recording historic rock inscriptions in the region, including many by Cass Hite.
As a teenager in 1963, Knipmeyer and his family crossed the Colorado River on the ferry at Hite Crossing, Utah, just months before the site was flooded by Lake Powell.
Contrary to popular history, Knipmeyer makes a strong case that Hite Crossing was not named for Cass Hite, but his brother, Benjamin. However, it was Cass Hite who led Benjamin and other family members to the region.
Lewis Cass Hite was born in 1845 on the Hite farm in Illinois. He may have caught the prospecting bug early, when his father, Lewis Hite, headed to California during the 1849 gold rush.
Cass worked on the farm and as a printer’s apprentice before leaving home at age 21 for mining camps in the Northern Rockies. After a few years, he returned to his family.
He was briefly engaged to a local woman, but she left him and Hite never married. Shortly afterward, he departed permanently, to New Mexico, Mexico, Arizona, Texas and, eventually, Colorado. He was in Rico and Telluride before heading to lower elevations.
Although there was much wealth to be obtained in the high mountains, Hite decided desert mining was more to his liking.
While prospecting near the Utah-Arizona border in 1882, Hite wrote a letter to the Durango Herald, expressing joy at leaving the hardships of the mountains. “I can hardly speak of the healthfulness and delightfulness of the climate here without seeming to exaggerate,” he added.
Three years earlier, Hite had been among those who helped recover the bodies of James Merrick and Henry Mitchell, two men killed while searching for a silver mine on Navajo land.
Hite spent several years unsuccessfully looking for the Merrick-Mitchell mine. During that time, he met and was befriended by legendary Navajo leader Hashkéniinii (often spelled Hoskininni).
Hite lived several months with Hashkéniinii’s band, repeatedly asking about the Merrick-Mitchell Mine and other silver deposits. He thus earned the nickname, “Pish-la-ki,” an Anglicized version of the Navajo word for silver.
But Hashkéniinii declined to show Hite the mine. Instead, he and his son led Hite to places where gold and silver could be found along the Colorado River.
Cass Hite spent the next three decades prospecting at various places along the lower river. He developed what he called Dandy Crossing, which later became known as Hite Crossing.
He left for two seasons to search without success for a fabled lost gold mine in the Uintah Mountains. Prior to that, he was gone during his imprisonment over the Kohler shooting. But he always returned to the river in southeastern Utah.
He touted the area’s mining prospects, saying in one letter to a Denver newspaper, “I think, candidly that the Colorado River placer fields are the most valuable in the United States.”
He worked with Easterners to start a mechanical dredging operation in the river below Hite Crossing, but it proved a failure and was abandoned.
He lived alone, eventually near the mouth of Ticaboo Creek, but was never a hermit. He was friendly and outgoing to those who visited.
Other miners and speculators came and went. But Cass Hite remained in Glen Canyon until his death in 1914.
Although it’s hard to prove what occurred 125 years ago, Knipmeyer said he leans toward Hite’s self-defense version of the events at Green River. “I think, all in all, he was a good person.”
Information from this article came primarily from an interview with James Knipmeyer and his book, “Cass Hite, The Life of an Old Prospector,” which is available at Out West Books and Grand Valley Books in Grand Junction. Other information came from the Museums of Western Colorado.