Of cattle, killings and court verdicts
The murder trial in the autumn of 1902 galvanized Grand Junction. The Daily Sentinel would later call it “one of the greatest criminal court cases in the history of western Colorado.”
Charles Sieber, a leading citizen and co-owner of one of the largest cattle operations in western Colorado, had been gunned down on his ranch a few months earlier.
Joe Harris, a flamboyant cowboy who owned a smaller ranch near Westwater, Utah, was on trial for Sieber’s murder.
Harris was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but his conviction was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. He was acquitted at a second trial, claiming self-defense, the Sentinel reported.
Harris would be shot down by another Westwater rancher seven years after his trial. And that killer, a man named Joe Pace, would be found not guilty based on self-defense.
Grand Junction may have viewed itself as a civilized community in 1902, but remnants of the Wild West remained.
Butch Cassidy and his friends had just decamped for South America earlier that year, but their Robbers Roost hideout in Utah was still frequented by local cattle rustlers and members of the Wild Bunch.
There was open hostility between cattlemen and sheepmen that occasionally erupted in violence. And local newspapers reported frequent shootings and holdups.
Sieber was a native of Germany who moved to Mesa County in 1885 and formed what became Sieber Cattle Co. He and his wife maintained a home in Grand Junction, but he spent much of his time at the ranch on Piñon Mesa.
Harris had worked briefly for Sieber, but by 1902 he had his own ranch at Westwater.
His dispute with Sieber stemmed from complaints that Sieber’s cowboys pushed large herds of cattle through his ranch each spring and fall, often tearing up Harris’ fences and eating his grass.
Both men accused the other of rustling some of their cattle.
Harris and Sieber encountered each other on the morning of Aug. 22, 1902, at what the Sentinel described as “the summer camp of the Sieber Cattle company on Piñon Mesa, about 35 miles southwest of this city.”
Harris testified he confronted Sieber about the cattle issues. Harris had a pistol with him, and that concerned Sieber enough that he rode over to one of his cowboys and borrowed a 30/30 rifle from the cowboy’s saddle scabbard.
Here the accounts differ. Sieber’s employees all said he approached Harris with the rifle held sideways across the saddle. But Harris maintained that Sieber rode with the rifle pointed directly at him.
Fearing for his life, Harris said he drew his pistol and shot three times. Sieber fell from his horse, Harris stopped to pick up Sieber’s rifle, then rode away.
Two of Sieber’s men galloped to Grand Junction and reported the killing to Sheriff’s Deputy George Smith that same afternoon.
Later that day, Smith climbed on the train bound for Westwater, where he found Harris waiting to turn himself in.
Harris’ murder trial began on Oct. 14, 1902, and concluded Oct. 18 with the verdict of voluntary manslaughter. Harris’ attorneys immediately announced they would appeal. In February 1904, the court ordered the new trial that resulted in Harris’ acquittal.
Harris returned to his Westwater ranch, where, according to the Sentinel, his life included frequent conflict with his neighbors.
He had repeated confrontations with Pace, who had also worked for Sieber but in 1909 was foreman of another small ranch at Westwater. Harris had threatened Pace’s life on several occasions and filed a lawsuit against him.
Things came to a head on Oct. 3, 1909, when Pace encountered Harris herding some of Pace’s cattle off his property.
After a few words were exchanged Pace said he believed Harris was reaching for a pistol.
With that, Pace jumped from his horse, pulled a rifle and shot Harris three times.
It turned out that Harris was unarmed, but their history turned the jurors in Pace’s favor. They found Pace “not guilty” of murder on Nov. 14, 1909.
The Daily Sentinel noted the irony in the two killings:
“Charles Sieber was shot three times by Joseph Harris on that August morning in 1902; Joseph Harris was shot three times by Joseph Pace. The killing of Sieber occurred out on the cattle range; so did the killing of Joe Harris ... Sieber was killed by a cattleman with whom he had had trouble; the same can be said of the death of Harris ... Harris claimed that he killed Sieber in self defense; Pace claims that he took the life of Harris in self defense.”
Thanks to Michael Menard of the Museum of Western Colorado and to Marie Tipping.