Robbers Roost offered seclusion, security to Cassidy, other outlaws
On Sept. 9, 1896, The Salt Lake Herald reported that the men responsible for the Aug. 13 holdup of a bank in Montpelier, Idaho — Butch Cassidy, Elza Lay and Bob Meeks — were camped near Ogden, Utah.
Lawmen predicted the outlaws would be “run down and captured today,” the paper said.
It didn’t happen. In fact, it’s likely that Cassidy and Lay were already far to the south, at Robbers Roost.
A few days later, the two men were seen in Loa, Utah, the same paper said. Loa is 200 miles south of Ogden, but only about 45 miles west of Robbers Roost. After eating dinner in Loa, Lay and Cassidy galloped down the Dirty Devil River, toward the Roost.
The Idaho bank job was staged to raise funds for the legal defense of Cassidy’s pal, Matt Warner, who was accused of killing two men in a mining-claim dispute. Warner himself first ventured onto Robbers Roost in the early 1880s, and he quickly grasped its importance:
“Robbers Roost is the name of a god-forsaken section of country beginning about twenty miles east and southeast of Hanksville in the southeastern part of Utah,” he wrote years later. For 25 years it was “the greatest outlaw hide-out in the United States.”
At the end of the 19th century, newspapers across the country agreed with Warner’s assessment. The Roost was headquarters for a vast gang of outlaws led by Butch Cassidy, several reported.
The San Francisco Call described the Roost on April 6, 1898, as “a rendezvous and a fortress absolutely impregnable,” and Cassidy was its reigning general.
Many writers repeated the fiction that trails to the Roost were booby-trapped with dynamite and guarded full-time by armed sentries.
But few who wrote about the Roost actually visited it. One who did was English adventurer Roger Pocock, who ventured into Robbers Roost unarmed and alone in 1900.
He received a cordial reception from the outlaws he met, perhaps including Cassidy.
Pocock claimed there was a widespread network of “400 professional thieves” in the West, whose central stronghold was “the famous Robbers’ Roost in Utah.”
In the 21st century, Robbers Roost remains isolated. It is cordoned by the Dirty Devil River on the west, the Green River and Canyonlands National Park to the east, and the Colorado River to the south. On the north are cliffs that drop to the high desert below.
From Hanksville to Roost Springs — one of the few major water holes on the Roost, and a spot frequented by many outlaws — it’s a straight-line distance of about 15 miles. But to drive to it requires traveling 60 miles by mostly rough dirt roads.
A few hundred yards east of Roost Springs stands a rock chimney, the only remnants of a cabin that was once frequented by Cassidy and others.
Robbers Roost encompasses more than 500,000 acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management ground.
In the center is Roost Flats, where stolen horses and cattle could graze while awaiting sale.
From Roost Flats, one can look east to see the La Sal Mountains or north to the Bookcliffs near Green River, Utah.
To the west, the Henry Mountains are visible. Looking southeast, one views the La Plata Mountains in Colorado. It would be difficult for any posse to arrive here undetected by vigilant bandits.
There are sparse juniper trees on the plateau, large patches of sagebrush and a few cottonwood trees near springs.
Additionally, much of it is marked by weirdly shaped rock spires and towers.
Pearl Baker, who lived on a ranch in the Roost beginning in 1909, said the first outlaw to use the Roost was Cap Brown.
In the 1870s, he stole horses from western Utah and hid them on Robbers Roost.
Then he drove the horses across the Colorado River, probably at Hite Crossing, and sold them in the mining camps of southwestern Colorado.
It was Cap Brown who showed Butch Cassidy the Roost in the 1880s, Baker said. Brown also pioneered the use of the steep, rocky Angel Trail, the outlaws’ western entrance to the Roost.
After one horse raid, a posse trailed Brown and his two partners to the edge of Angel Trail, but backed off when gunfire erupted.
One of the partners was hit in the leg, but the man managed to lead his horse up the steep trail, only to die the next morning.
Dead Man’s Point, near the top of Angel Trail, is named for him.
Despite its isolation and difficult access, some lawmen managed to find their way into the Roost.
In March 1899, Sheriff Jack Tyler of Moab led a posse onto the Roost in search of three horse thieves.
They found the men in a cave at the head of Roost Canyon, southwest of Roost Springs, and a gun battle ensued.
The outlaws escaped up the canyon. The posse retreated to Moab and decided it wasn’t worth the risk to return.
The San Francisco Call said two lawmen reached the Roost in 1897 after chasing Cassidy and his accomplices after the Castle Gate Mine robbery near Price, Utah.
The officers were captured by the outlaws, the paper said, disarmed and sent out of the Roost tied to their horses, a humiliating reversal of fortune.
Such incursions were rare, however. Mostly, outlaws felt secure at the Roost, even comfortable.
Cassidy and Lay spent the winter of 1896-97 there, reportedly accompanied by Lay’s wife, Maude, and Etta Place, who later became consort of the Sundance Kid.
Even so, not all outlaws enjoyed the Roost. Warner described it as “terrible lonesome, and the silence was so deep and immense you imagined you could hear it.”
Information came from “Last of the Bandit Riders,” by Matt Warner; “Canada to Mexico: A Ride Across the Great American Desert,” by Roger Pocock; “The Wild Bunch at Robbers Roost,” by Pearl Baker; The Salt Lake Herald, San Francisco Call and New York Sun historic newspapers.