by Mary Lowers
This story is a little-known but dramatic tale of regional history which kicked off in 1874 when Ute Chief and diplomat Ouray, and other Ute leaders, signed the Brunot Agreement, ceding the heart of the San Juan Mountains mineral/mining area to the US government. The government then opened vast areas west of the Arkansas Valley to mining and settlement.
To this day the Brunot Agreement is honored in the state, and the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Tribes retain hunting rights in the treaty area where they can regulate their own hunting season and make their own rules for hunters. After meeting with tribal representatives in January of 2013, Colorado Governor John Hickenloop said the State would work with native leaders to preserve the tribal hunting, fishing and gathering rights stipulated in the Brunot Agreement. Hickenlooper said, “The state and the tribe have worked together to preserve the tribal hunting and fishing rights.”
Back in 1874 this treaty opening territory caused a flood of folks to travel over the Front Range to get rich quick or just settle down to create a new life. Many of the early settlers, who were already in the area that now composes Lake and Chaffee counties, were suspicious of these newcomers. Vigilante groups such as the Committee of Safety which operated out of the communities of Cleona, Granite, Poncha Springs and Nachtrieb’s Store in Nathrop were claiming to uphold all that was good and holy and handing down kangaroo court edicts. The rule of law was usurped.
The so-called Lake County or Chaffee County Water Wars festered in this climate of suspicion and accusations. To clarify the situation, the wars occurred in the area of then-Lake County, which became part of Chaffee County when that county was created. In February of 1879 the Colorado Legislature divided Lake County in two. The northern part had their county seat in Leadville and the southern part had their county seat in Granite. Chaffee County was named in honor of Jerome B. Chaffee, one of the state’s first senators.
Somewhere between ten and a hundred people died during these Water Wars in the years between 1874-1881. Historian Ruby G. Williamson said of this era, “the Arkansas Valley was crimson with blood.” People were lynched, shot and some died from shock and grief. Law and order were not to be found and many were driven from their homes by death threats. Regional historian Charles F. Price says, “The trouble was that in some instances those charged with the duty of keeping the peace instead chose sides and actually participated in the factional violence.”
The incident that sparked this bloodshed was a dispute between two neighbors: Elijah Gibbs, the old-timer, and newcomer George Harrington. They were fighting over who had rights to an irrigation ditch which ran along their adjoining property line. The property in question is located at the base of Lands Hill on the west side of Highway 285 between Salida and Buena Vista, along Gas Creek. The fight between the two ranchers left Harrington dead and Gibbs an accused murderer.
Early in the morning of June 17, 1874 according to Price, Gibbs and his wife were trying to put out a fire set by arsonists to “lure them outside of their home on Gas Creek, exposing them like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery” to the onslaught of vigilante justice from the Committee of Safety. This incident was witnessed by Gibbs’ younger sister, who was visiting, and his infant daughter. It resulted in shots fired, and Harrington was found shot dead near the barn where Gibbs was attempting to put out the fire. Harrington was shot two times. His wife, Helen Mary, pulled Harrington’s lifeless body from the burning barn. Gibbs stood trial in Denver for the murder of Harrington and was acquitted. He boldly returned to his homestead on Gas Creek, continuing his life as usual.
Although the vigilantes were looking to lynch Gibbs even before his trial, some people thought Harrington attacked his neighbor first. Legend has it Harrington hit Gibbs with a shovel and Gibbs then shot Harrington in self-defense. Many old timers believed that Gibbs and his buddies were part of a criminal group called the Regulators who were accused of theft, arson and cattle rustling. June Shaputis in Where Bodies are in Chaffee County says, “If cattle were being lost, straying stock was the chief problem, not rustling.” In fact in 1872 Lake County Commissioners began a yearly roundup to force owners to claim their loose cattle or the animals would be sold at public auction.
When Harrington’s widow sought the help of the law for what she saw as her husband’s ambush death, the Lake County Sheriff went to serve a warrant on suspect Gibbs. The warrant was for assault charges as Gibbs had been found not guilty of murder in Denver and could not be tried twice for the same crime. The thing was the Sheriff rode with a posse of ranchers and other Lake County residents who were not sworn deputies and many of whom were drunk. They were looking to lynch Gibbs.
On the moonlit night of January 22, 1875 the mob tried to set fire to Gibbs’ cabin, but wet logs foiled this plan. They then decided to rush the cabin where Gibbs was holed up with his pregnant wife, three children and a neighbor woman with her child. Gibbs wounded two of the attackers firing his six shooter through cracks in the cabin’s chinking and doorframe. One of the men Gibbs hit discharged his shotgun when shot and accidently hit his uncle standing nearby. The wounded men died from their wounds.
In 1875 in an attempt to restore law and order to the region, Judge Elias Dryer, a Lake County Probate Judge, ordered sixteen members of the Committee of Safety to appear in court to answer for their crimes. Thirty armed men arrived at the court in Granite on July 2, 1875. The armed contingent intimidated witnesses who then would not testify due to fear for life and limb. The Committee of Safety then held a “trial” themselves with a noose hanging over the witness chair. Judge Dryer was convicted by the Committee of Safety in a mock trial and shot twice in his own courtroom.
Dryer’s tombstone in Castle Rock Cedars Cemetery bears the following inscription “A victim of the murderous mob ruling in Lake County. I trust in God and His mercy and His mercy at 8:00 o’clock. I sit in the court, the mob have me under guard. I die for law, order and principal.”
The situation did calm down, but the Committee of Safety continued to be a force in the upper Arkansas Valley through the 1870s. What is thought to be the last incident in the so-called water wars occurred on October 3, 1881. Vigilante Charles Nachtrieb was shot to death in his Nathrop store by Burt Remington, a nephew of George Harrington. Remington escaped clean away and never faced trial for the murder.