Shootout at Brown’s Creek

Article by Virginia McConnell Simmons

Regional History – September 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

This account is based on Simmons’s narrative history, Drifting West: The Calamities of James White and Charles Baker, recently published by the University Press of Colorado (2007).

A LITTLE-KNOWN EPISODE during the early settlement of present-day Chaffee County occurred when two drifters engaged in a shootout. Had I not been digging into the careers of Charles Baker and James White, I would have missed this bit of action, which happened when Baker, White, George Strole and Joe Goodfellow were passing through Central Colorado on a prospecting trip in June of 1867. It was just a few years after the original excitement of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush had peaked and waned.

At the time, the neighborhood of Centerville was loosely called Brown’s Creek (until a post office opened in 1868 with the name Centreville, later spelled Centerville). Presently, its hilltop location, which is roughly four miles south of Nathrop on U.S. Highway 285, includes a cemetery, convenience store, rock shop, office for Mesa Antero, and ranches. On the east side of the highway is a white house and a cluster of other buildings, comprising the old Earhart ranch, which was the site of the shootout.

In the mid 1860s, some disappointed Fifty-Niners and others decided that there was more money in selling flour, potatoes, hay, and beef to the mining camps than in panning for gold, so they took up land around Brown’s Creek. Among these ranchers and farmers was Jacob Earhart, who settled there with his family in 1866 and eventually became a leading citizen of the area as a schoolmaster, postmaster, commissioner, and legislator.

Prospectors like Earhart, Horace Tabor, and dozens of nameless others hoped for a bonanza when they worked the gravels of Cache Creek near Granite, tediously gyrating their gold pans to separate glitter from the black river sediment. But instead of riches, most soon found their way to California Gulch, where thousands, like Charles Baker, were swarming for more black sediment. It’s hard to say if Baker and Earhart ever stumbled across each other in that mass of humanity before the vast majority, doomed to disappointment, became “go-backers,” heading home with little or no reward, or moving on to the next strike.

In the fall of 1860, Charles Baker was one of the latter. Whether he had a home or a family to return to is unknown, but he had a reputation for seeking new opportunities. Baker got a grubstake from moderately successful prospectors and, with a small contingent, set off to explore the Gunnison River area; then they moved on to the Animas headwaters in the San Juan Mountains around today’s Silverton. Baker was far from the first to discover minerals in the San Juans. But his activities in that region did result in his occasional inclusion in place names, popular histories, and tourist brochures — even though he failed to strike it rich.

MORE SUCCESSFUL at promotion than prospecting, Baker captured the attention of newspapers in Denver, Golden, and Santa Fé by sending them enthusiastic reports about the riches of the San Juans. The largest response was a party consisting of scores of men and some women and children, who unwisely set out for the San Juans during the winter of 1860-1861. This enterprise has been called the Baker Expedition, although Baker was not its actual leader.

Alas, too much snow and too little gold disheartened the prospectors, and the mines were quickly pronounced a humbug. Some prospectors even threatened to lynch Baker, but in the nick of time, the Civil War broke out and the San Juan-ers dispersed. Some joined the Union Army, some the Confederate, and some just drifted away to other destinations.

Although most early accounts say that Baker was a Southerner and joined the Confederate Army, I have been unable to ascertain where he went, as is usually the case with footloose souls like Baker.

When Baker next emerged, it was during the spring of 1867, and he was trapping in the muddy streambeds of southern Kansas. Around Fort Dodge, Baker met James White, George Strole, and Joe Goodfellow.

Originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin, White was working for Barlow, Sanderson and Company in 1867 in an uncertain capacity — as a stage driver, he once said, or more likely in some less-distinguished capacity. White’s faulty memory and accounts tended to blur his stories. Where Strole and Goodfellow came from is unknown, as were their occupations at Fort Dodge.

The granddaughter of White, Eilean Adams wrote a book entitled Hell or High Water: James White’s Disputed Passage through Grand Canyon, 1867 (2001), which tells us something about White’s origins and activities before Fort Dodge. (About many later activities, however, the information is controversial and is often biased in favor of her grandfather.)

FROM 1861 UNTIL 1865, White had been seeing the West — a lot of it. He left Kenosha in 1861 and headed for Colorado Territory. Within weeks he turned up in Virginia City, Nevada, but was soon in Sacramento, where he enlisted in the California Volunteers. During the next three years, duty took White to posts at Alcatraz Island, San Diego, Yuma, Tucson, and finally El Paso.

Historical annals remember Company H for disreputable conduct among the troops rather than for military engagements. And after an alleged escapade across the international border, White wound up at Fort Craig in New Mexico, sentenced to hard labor. Years later, White still vehemently denied his participation in that incident. Conveniently for him, the end of the Civil War in April 1865 resulted in his release from prison and an honorable discharge.

With a gap in his whereabouts, White reappears at Fort Dodge in 1867. Considering the dismal environs of Fort Dodge and the warlike behavior of Plains Indian tribes in 1867, Baker probably had little difficulty persuading White, Strole, and Goodfellow to depart with him on a prospecting trip to Colorado Territory.

Upon embarking in April, Baker, White, and Strole first detoured east to Mulberry Creek to raid an Indian encampment for ponies, an action justified by an earlier theft of Baker’s horses, or so he said. During the 1860s, whites and Indians alike frequently engaged in reciprocal raids, and according to them it was just fair exchange, an eye for an eye, without regard to the hatred and violence such activities perpetuated.

What did bother our trio of horse thieves, however, is that Joe Goodfellow, who had been waiting up the trail, wanted a share of the thirteen stolen Indian ponies that the others had rounded up. They denied his claim to a share, a hint that the quartet was already singing a bit out of tune. Later, Goodfellow had to buy two of the ponies along with a colt, another sore point.

In May, having traveled up the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fé Trail and Fountain Creek, the four reached Colorado City, on the west side of today’s Colorado Springs. There, they availed themselves of a chance to sell surplus livestock, stock up for the trail, and possibly look up some of Colorado City’s settlers whom Baker had first known in the San Juans in 1860-1861. A similar social opportunity presented itself in South Park, where two acquaintances — Charles and Mary Nye Hall, whose romance had blossomed during the Baker Expedition — were now operating the Salt Works Ranch.

TRAVELING BY WAY OF Ute Pass, South Park, and Trout Creek, the foursome arrived at the Arkansas River and Brown’s Creek in early June, just in time for a snowstorm that forced them to seek shelter. They found it in a log shed (which was the schoolhouse where Jacob Earhart had taught school near his rustic one-room abode during the previous winter). Baker, White, Strole, and Goodfellow remained at the schoolhouse for a few days until the weather cleared. But the delay may have confined them for too long, because the men appear to have gotten on each other’s nerves, possibly after consuming too much liquor, one might surmise.

In preparation for departure, White baked a supply of bread on their last night at the schoolhouse. This chore was no small task with a fireplace and presumably a gold pan. The next morning a quarrel erupted.

When White explained the cause years later, he said that Baker had put him in charge of the pack animals at Colorado City. According to White, supplies weighing 200 pounds had been loaded on their only mule and the same amount on the other animals. To bake the bread at the schoolhouse, White had removed 25 pounds of flour from Goodfellow’s horse, but when he was loading the bread onto the same horse, Goodfellow protested that it should go on the mule. White insisted on the horse. To settle this earth-shaking matter, they drew their revolvers and fired five shots, two of which hit Goodfellow, one in the leg and one in the arm.

[The log shed in the foreground is the author’s candidate for the site of the shootout.]

According to White, they put the wounded Goodfellow on his horse and took him to the house, where they told Mrs. Earhart that Goodfellow had $200 or $300 and two horses, so he should pay her to care for him. Then, with a final exchange of verbal insults between Goodfellow and White, the drifters mounted up and rode away.

A half-century after this event, Thomas J. Earhart, Jacob’s son, wrote this version:

“After the weather had settled, the party was packing up to move, and I, as a boy, was very anxious to go from the cabin we occupied over to witness the breaking up of camp, but my mother objected to me going over, and I stood at some distance from our cabin watching operations and heard a number of revolver shots and saw that there was considerable excitement and activity among the men at the schoolhouse and the pack animals. Very soon afterwards someone from the camp — I believe Capt. Baker — came to our cabin and stated that one of the men had been wounded in the foot, and wanted to leave the wounded man somewhere where he could have care and attention, and we having but one room, he was directed to a neighbor’s farther up the stream by the name of Sprague [Galatia Sprague], where he went and made arrangements to leave the injured man, whose name was Joe Goodfellow. The remainder of the party then proceeded on their way.”

For several years I attempted to discover where Goodfellow might have gone after this incident. Only two inconclusive hints have emerged — one being the name of Phillip Goodfellow, who is listed as a butcher at Fairplay in the U.S. Census of 1870, and the other being P. J. Goodfellow, who served on a jury in Lake County. In the next few years, in stories that White told about the journey, he omitted Goodfellow and the shooting, but White did finally admit that Goodfellow not only was there but also that “I shot him.”

As for the three others, their misadventures were just beginning, and these are the principal focus of my book Drifting West. The book delves into numerous related tales and the on-going debate about the activities of James White, who, in 1867, may or may not have traversed the Grand Canyon accidentally on a log raft. That would be no small feat if it actually occurred, and it would have preceded John Wesley Powell’s first expedition of 1869 by two years. Thus, White’s raft trip has attracted attention and controversy for 140 years.

As part of this debate, the above accounts about the shootout at Brown’s Creek (Centerville) were published in a U.S. Senate document under the title The Grand Canyon in 1917. This peculiar, distinguished publication came about when assorted prominent citizens of Colorado inveigled U.S. Senator John Shafroth to present a resolution in support of White as the first through the Grand Canyon. To explain why they preferred White to John Wesley Powell for this honor would require more space than the present, short article permits. Meanwhile, an abbreviated summary of the drifters’ exploits after the shooting at Centerville must suffice to round out this story.

After the shootout, the drifters — now a trio — traveled to the San Juan Mountains and prospected for a short time before continuing on to the Four Corners area. Thence, they went down the San Juan River, apparently with intentions of reaching the Colorado River to prospect. Worth noting, in August of 1867, they passed through Mancos Canyon en route, and White later described Mancos Canyon and its ruins, which are associated with Mesa Verde. Other disappointed Forty-Niners and Fifty-Niners also used this trail through Mancos Canyon, and thus it was relatively well-known years before the photographer William Henry Jackson or the Wetherill family “discovered” Mesa Verde.

The route of our three drifters in 1867 is muddled after topography forced them to leave the San Juan River near today’s Bluff, Utah. The majority of researchers agree that the party headed north to Glen Canyon, but the specific route and the point where they might have reached the Colorado are argued by proponents and opponents.

As White told the story, Charles Baker was killed by Indians in August 1867 while they were in a side canyon near the Colorado River. After hastily assembling a log raft, White and Strole escaped downstream, but Strole drowned in a rapid, as White recounted. Since White was the only witness by then, contradictory and confusing details in his accounts have contributed to the debate about the raft rip and its prelude.

THE HIGHLIGHT OF THIS SAGA is the emergence in September 1867 of White on a log raft at Callville, Nevada, in what is now Lake Mead. His story was that he had survived a horrendous journey through the Grand Canyon on the raft, and certainly his emaciated physical condition testified to a terrible trip somewhere, somehow. Rescuers, onlookers, interviewers, journalists, and letter writers pounced upon the harrowing tale of “the first man through the Grand Canyon,” and he enjoyed more than the usual 15 minutes of fame as a result. Champions of Powell still outnumber those of White as first through the Grand Canyon, but White’s supporters wage a good fight.

Neither a man of science like Powell nor an admired member of polished society, White resumed his humdrum life, working at various jobs and, for the most part, staying out of trouble after 1867. White settled in Trinidad, Colorado in the late 1870s, conducted a small drayage business, and raised a large family. In 1927, at age 90, he died and was buried in Trinidad.

Virginia McConnell Simmons lives in Del Norte and is the author of several regional histories. She will be at the Book Haven in Salida from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, to autograph copies of Drifting West.