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Father Dyer lost a son in the Lake County War

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Father Dyer – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Elias F. Dyer, 39 years old in 1875, was a son of the Rev. John L. Dyer. Elias was also the probate judge for Lake County, and he was murdered in his own courtroom at the county seat in Granite. Elias Dyer’s murder was part of a general conflict known as the Lake County War, and though many suspects have been named over the years, the case remains unsolved.

An entire book could be devoted to the Lake County War (Colorado Central will try for a longer article one of these days), which is rife with intrigue, speculation and untrustworthy records. But in essence, the story goes like this:

In 1866, one Elijah Gibbs started farming south of Nathrop and drawing water from a ditch along Brown’s Creek. Over the years, Gibbs and his family became well-liked in the community, although there was talk that he and his brother, along with others in the area, had formed a clandestine group called the Regulators, who planned to rustle cattle, jump claims, take over ranches, and otherwise gain property and power by illegal means.

On June 16, 1874, Gibbs got into a fight with a neighbor, rancher George Harrington.

The next night, somebody set fire to one of Harrington’s outbuildings. Harrington went out to extinguish the fire, and was shot and killed.

Suspicion naturally focused on Gibbs, and a lynch mob formed. His friends, all armed (and perhaps members of the Regulators), came to his side, and everyone agreed to let justice take its course.

In light of local passions, Gibbs’s trial for the murder of Harrington was moved to Denver, and after five days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent.

Gibbs returned to his ranch to go on with his life. But the Harrington faction wasn’t pleased with the innocent verdict, and gathered round his house on the night of Jan. 22, 1875, demanding he come out.

He stayed in, so the men outside piled brush and wood around the house. As they lit the fire, Gibbs fired into the crowd, hitting two men, Sam and Dave Boone. One of their guns discharged and killed Finley Kane, their uncle.

That broke up the mob, and Gibbs later turned himself in. Justice A.B. Cowan at Brown’s Creek determined that Gibbs had fired in self-defense. The mob wasn’t happy, and Gibbs took off for Denver where he might be safer.

Back in the Nathrop area, Gibbs’s enemies organized a Committee of Safety to cleanse Lake County of Gibbs supporters, and Sheriff John Weldon was dispatched to Denver with a warrant for Gibbs’s arrest.

Weldon didn’t catch up to Gibbs, however, but he did get arrested for public drunkenness.

Back up in the mountains, the Committee of Safety rounded up Gibbs’s supporters and hauled them to headquarters — Charles Nachtrieb’s flour mill at Nathrop — for rough questioning as a noose loomed behind the table. One critic of the Committee, Charles Harding, was found dead by the road.

Judge Elias Dyer enters the scene here, although he may have known Gibbs as early as 1860. When questioned by the Committee, Dyer said he believed Gibbs innocent of murder.

Whether Dyer was actually partial or impartial toward Gibbs has become a matter of contention to later historians, but there is no doubt that the Committee considered Gibbs a dangerous threat, and that they regarded Dyer as a Gibbs supporter.

The Committee, charging that Dyer was shielding a rustler, gave him three days to resign and leave Lake County — but he couldn’t, since they had taken his horse. Finally they gave him his horse and told him to get out of town for “believing Gibbs to be innocent of the murder of Harrington; giving false testimony during the trial in Denver … being pompous … and last, being a Republican and securing his election in a Democratic county.”

Dyer escaped that time, and acting Governor John Jenkins sent in an investigator in February, 1875, who inexplicably reported that all was serene and law-abiding in Lake County.

Judge Dyer returned to the county seat in Granite, along with Jesse Marion, who’d had a run-in with the Committee. Dyer issued warrants for their arrests with the understanding Marion would testify at the hearings.

Shortly after Dyer arrived, 30 armed vigilantes rode into town and surrounded the courthouse. Dyer convened court, but Marion, aware of the Committee outside, did not appear. Dyer adjourned court until eight the next morning.

He dared not leave the courthouse with that mob outside, and the next morning, he wrote to his father:

Granite, July 3, 1875. Dear Father, I don’t know that the sun will ever rise and set for me again, but I trust in God and his mercy. At eight o’clock, I sit in court. The mob have me under guard. There is no cowardice in me, Father. I am worthy of you in this respect. I am, in this one respect, like Him who died for all: I die, if die I must, for law, order, and principle; and too, I stand alone.

When court was called to order, Dyer dismissed the case against mob members for lack of evidence. The court- room cleared, then several men ran up the back staircase. Those outside heard a cry of “Spare my life” before the shots echoed down the street.

Judge Dyer was dead when the citizens outside reached him.

County Coroner Hugh Mahon convened an immediate inquest, which concluded that “Elias Dyer Came to his death From a rifle or pistol Shot in the hand or hands of Some person or persons unknown to this jury.”

Fearing that federal troops might be sent in (the governor wanted them, but quietly, since bad publicity would hurt Colorado’s chances at statehood), the Committee of Safety made itself obscure, with many of its members remaining in the area.

William Bale, for instance, went on to open the Cleora stage station in 1876, and Charles Nachtrieb continued building his small empire — flour mill, lumber yard, general store — at Nathrop (the town’s name is a corruption of Nachtrieb).

Joseph Hutchinson, who ranched near present Poncha Springs, was among those who wrote John L. Dyer on Sept. 5, 1875, that “This thing has gone far enough. Let us old fellows try and stop it and have no more of it.” He stayed around to beget a line of Hutchinsons that remains prominent hereabouts to this day.

The passions of the Lake County War slowly abated and then faded with the Leadville silver excitement and the arrival of railroads. Although rewards were posted for finding the killer or killers of Elias Dyer, no one was ever charged or arrested.

In his autobiography, Snow Shoe Itinerant, Father Dyer said this about his son’s death:

…God only knows how hard a trial this terrible tragedy was to me. After the lapse of all these years, the memory of it rushes over me like a flood. Yet I would infinitely rather endure my suffering than what his cruel murderers must have experienced. One was so crazed that he drowned himself. Another had what was called the “horrors,” and finally miserably died. God’s curse was upon them all. Be it so.

Judge Dyer was buried in Granite until 1878, when his family had the body moved to Castle Rock, where the epitaph reads, in part, “A victim of the murderous mob ruling in Lake County.”

— Ed Quillen