THANKS to Tom McCourt & the Tibbetts Family.
For years, I have been watching Moab move farther and farther away from its roots, to the point where it seems few people even know the history of the place anymore. Some of them don’t know OR care, but I think there are still many who have a respect for the past (I hope so, at least). Last winter I read Tom McCourt’s book on Bill Tibbetts and think it’s his finest work. I knew a bit about Bill,but the story was told so beautifully and I felt it was a very moving tribute, not just to Bill, but to those far off times.I see Moab as some alien world now, and I feel the most significant contribution I can make with the Zephyr these days, is to try and preserve the past in some fashion, or at least make it available for those readers who are interested. With Tom’s permission, the Canyonlands Natural History Association who published it, and with the good wishes and approval of Bill Tibbetts’ son Ray and the Tibbetts Family, we are pleased and honored to offer, over the next few months, excerpts from Tom’s excellent portrayal of ‘the Last Robbers Roost Outlaw.” JS
The 1930s brought the great Depression, the Dust Bowl in the Midwest, the end of Prohibition, and the statute of limitations for Bill Tibbetts and Tom Perkins. For seven years the boys had lived as fugitives, exiled to the nether regions of the great American Southwest. But now they could go home again without worrying too much about the long arm of the law. There was also a new sheriff in town, a man who didn’t remember the transgressions of the brash young cowboys back in 1924.
Bill Tibbetts, Jewel, and their four young sons, came home to Moab with all of their belongings piled high on a flatbed truck. This time, Tom Perkins had opted to stay in New Mexico. Tom had converted his ranching property to a dude ranch and he was doing well in spite of the Depression. He never did return to the land of Moab to live.
By the 1930s, the social center of Moab had moved from the pool hall to the Moab Garage. Everyone who was anyone spent an hour or two at the garage during the day. It was the place to go to find out about the news, what was happening around the world, and who was doing what to whom in town. A big coffee pot was at the center of the action.
It was a beautiful summer morning when Moab’s prodigal son walked into the Moab Garage. His old nemesis, John Jackson, the moneylender and former big-time stockman, was entertaining the coffee crowd with a long and humorous story. Jackson stopped short when he saw Bill walk through the door. His face flushed red and his eyes flashed with lightning as he said, right out loud, “That Goddamn horse thief is back in town!”
Bill knocked the man into a large glass display case, shattering glass and scattering fan belts and oilcans all over the floor. Coffee spilled and dust flew. Chairs tipped over and morning newspapers littered the floor. Jackson was in his mid-fifties, but he was no slouch when it came to fighting. He gave back about as good as he got. The men went through a plate glass window and landed in the street in a shower of glass, curses, and flailing fists. Bill finally ending up with two men holding each arm to restrain him. Jackson was bruised and bloodied, but his ego was hurt more than his jaw. He was a big man and he had always been the top dog in town.
After Jackson went home to change his soiled shirt and get some ice for his swollen lip, Bill went back in the garage and offered to pay for the damages. One of the owners told him there would be no charge. “Anyone who can do that to John Jackson doesn’t have to pay for the mess,” the man said with a big smile. “This one’s on us.”
Just a day or two later, Bill Tibbetts knocked on John Jackson’s front door. Jackson came to the door with his hackles and his dukes up, ready for combat.
“I hear you got money to lend,” Bill said with an impish grin.
Jackson just stood there with his fists up, glaring at Bill.
“I need a loan to get back in the stock business. You got money to lend?”
“Why the hell would I lend you money?” Jackson hissed.
“Cause I hate banks and bankers and I hear you’re an honest man,” Bill said with a wry smile. “Besides, you got a hell of a good left hook.” Bill reached up and touched the big purple bruise on his cheek and smiled. Jackson noticed for the first time that Bill’s eye was black.
Jackson smiled just a little. “You don’t do so bad yourself,” he said. And then he licked his split and swollen lip with the tip of his tongue.
“I think between the two of us, we could take the whole town,” Bill grinned. “What do you think?”
“I think so, too,” Jackson agreed, putting his fists down and relaxing his shoulders just a little.
“So why don’t we put all of this behind us?” Bill offered. “I’m movin’ back to town and I don’t want to fight with you every time we meet on the street. I’m willin’ to hang up my spurs on this whole deal if you’ll meet me halfway.”
“You got a lot of guts to be sayin’ that,” Jackson growled. “You scattered my cows for twenty miles down that river and you drowned a hell of a bunch of ‘em.”
“And you shot and killed mine,” Bill said with his chin up and storm clouds in his eyes.
For a time neither man spoke. They just stood and looked at each other, posturing like fighting roosters. They stood eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe, but their minds were back on the Big Flat and the river bottoms of seven and eight years ago. It took a few minutes for all of that water to run under the bridge.
Finally, Jackson dropped his eyes and said okay. “I’m willin’ to have a truce, Bill. No sense in draggin’ this out for another ten years. I’m getting too old to fistfight about it and the sheriff will lock me up if I shoot your sorry ass. We might as well be friends.”
Bill held out his open right hand. “Shake on it,” he offered.
Jackson took Bill’s hand in an iron grip. “Done,” he said.
“Okay, now that we’re friends, I need to talk to you about a loan,” Bill grinned. “I was serious about that.”
“By Gawd, you got more balls than any man I ever knew,” Jackson said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’m an honest man,” Bill said. “Just like you.”
Jackson rolled his eyes with long-suffering resignation. Then he took a deep breath and stepped back inside the house. Holding the door open, he said, with just a touch of sarcasm, “Come in the house, friend. Let’s talk about it.” Over the next few years, what began as a truce and mutual respect for each other’s strength and willingness to fight developed into a genuine friendship.
With the money he borrowed from Jackson, Bill got a start in the sheep business. With his mother, Amy, he bought a herd of sheep and moved them to Island in the Sky. He filed for a homestead on Grays Pasture and built a small, one-room log cabin there. Bill, Jewel, their four little boys, and Bill’s mother lived in the cabin for a time and tended the sheep. Ephraim joined them in the venture and filed for a homestead of his own near Whitbeck Rock on the Big Flat.
It didn’t take long for conflicts to develop between the sheepherders and the cowboy who grazed the Big Flat. Sheep and cows never fit well together on the same patch of ground. And then, too, Ephraim had sold his cows and grazing rights to Art Murry in 1929, and Murry was not happy about sharing grass with the Tibbetts, Moore, and Allred sheep outfit. He saw it as the violation of a contract, even though Ephraim was the only one who had signed an agreement with him.
As the conflict with the neighbor deepened, Bill decided that sheepherding was not a great way to make a living. Wool prices were down, sheep required much more attention than cattle, and things were primitive and crowded in the little log cabin. The women were a long ways from town and two cooks can spoil the stew. In just a short time, Bill sold out, forfeited his homestead claim, and moved back to New Mexico. In Santa Fe, he opened a real estate office and went back to work for the San Busco Lumber Company.
But he just couldn’t stay in New Mexico. Like his mother, his heart was on the Utah desert. In the late 1930s, Bill moved back to Moab and decided to go back into the cow business. He moved his family to Hanksville in 1938 and tried to start a ranch on the south end of the Henry Mountains near Star Springs. His ranching venture failed because Star Springs was very remote, the Taylor Grazing Act was changing the face of livestock production in the West, and Bill didn’t feel that his family was being well treated by the people of Hanksville while he was away. Jewel was a Baptist and not easily assimilated into the deeply-rooted Mormon culture of the little town. After three years of giving it a good try, Bill moved his family back to Moab in 1941.
In Moab, Bill tried farming for a while, and then he went back to selling real estate. He was a good realtor and made a decent living. He also worked as a city marshal and then served as a deputy sheriff for Grand County. He was a good lawman, fair, honest, and without pretension.
In early 1945, while serving as a lawman, Bill was tipped off that a group of local ruffians was planning a raid on a nearby prisoner of war camp at Dalton Wells, a few miles north of Moab.Word had recently been received that a couple of men from Moab had been killed in the war, and a few angry hotheads were out for revenge.
As the drunken mob approached the POW camp, Bill was there with Claron Bailey and Ralph Miller to intercept them. Though badly outnumbered and heavily outgunned, Bill was able to talk the men out of doing any harm. A man less respected, with less courage and less conviction, might not have been able to do it. After listening to Bill for only a short time, the mobsters went back to Moab to drown their sorrows in whiskey instead of blood.
Jewel got sick in the late 1940s and almost died. She had major surgery and the doctors thought they had lost her for a while. But she came back stronger than ever. Jewel was physically weak for a time, but something happened to her during her near-death experience that made her more spiritual. Those close to her considered her psychic. She amazed her family several times with predictions that came true.
The doctors told Jewel that she had to walk to regain her strength. So she began walking every day. She didn’t like walking through town with all of the dogs, traffic, and neighbors, so Bill began taking her out on the desert to do her walking. He began to walk with her, and together they hiked many hundreds of miles. As they walked, they picked up pretty rocks and fossils and soon it became an obsession with them. They became avid rockhounds. Jewel grew strong with her daily hikes in the desert and soon she was restored to full health.
In 1959, Bill and Jewel bought the Horsethief Ranch. It was a special place for Bill, since he and Kenny Allred had been the first cowboys to discover the lower spring there, back in 1924. It was special, too, because they purchased the place from Kenny Allred who had bought the property from Art Murry in 1951. Bill and Jewel lived at the ranch for six years, tending a few cows while gathering one of the most impressive rock collections in southeastern Utah.
It was a great time for them. They were semi-isolated in the beautiful country they loved and they truly enjoyed each other’s company. In 1965, shortly after the creation of nearby Canyonlands National Park, they sold the ranch to Mac and Alice McKinney and moved back to Moab.
Then suddenly, their lives ended. On August 9, 1969, Bill and Jewel Tibbetts were killed by a drunk driver on the highway south of Moab. They died together, side by side, the way they had lived for 43 years.
Ephraim Moore remained firmly rooted in that earlier time when the world was simple and the pace of living was slow. He did his farming and traveling with horses and wagons into the late 1940s. In his later years he kept a few sheep and cows and farmed the old Moore homestead in Moab. True to his church and religious principles to the end of his days, he died in Moab in 1950.
Tom Perkins never returned to Moab to live. He stayed in Santa Fe for many years and then sold his ranch and moved to Salt Lake City. Genealogy records are scant, but they suggest that he never married. Tom died in 1951 at the age of 62.
Kenny Allred married and raised a large family. Always a cowboy at heart, he carried the Moore, Tibbetts, and Allred ranching tradition into the late 1950s, and then he sold out and bought an apartment house. In the early 1960s, he went to work for Atlas Minerals Corporation at the uranium mill near Moab. He died in 1998 at the age of 83.
“Peg Leg” Will Moore died in 1945, one of the last of the old-time cowboys. Never owning a ranch of his own, he rode for other men and other brands until the end of the trail. Like his younger brother Ephraim, he remained a committed bachelor his whole life.
Amy Moore Tibbetts Allred died in 1948. Her body was buried in Moab but the longings of her heart lived on. In the end she looked forward to a grand reunion with her cowboy sweetheart. She hoped to meet him in the land beyond the sunset where the red rocks touch the sky. If God allows homesteads in heaven, they are building a fine ranch there, with a beautiful home, someplace where a cold spring of water bubbles up from the oak brush in the shadow of a long, pine ridge.
And so closed a final chapter in the saga of the Old West. They were members of that last generation to remember the pioneer times and a world without automobiles, telephones and airplanes. They were tough and self-reliant people, flawed in many ways, but true to the values and principles that founded our nation – men who honored chivalry and women who cherished virtue.
Some of us remember, and we miss them.
Bill Tibbetts left his mark on southeastern utah in many ways. In the 1940s, when the Unites States Geological Survey was fixing place names for official government maps of the Canyonlands area, they sought out a few of the old-timers around Moab as consultants. It was Bill Tibbetts who gave them the old cowboy names for most of the river bottoms and prominent landmarks along the Green and Colorado rivers.
Many of the canyons and topographic features within Canyonlands National Park bear the names Bill Tibbetts gave to the government mapmakers. Place names like Turks Head, Grays Pasture, Queen Anne Bottom, Cleopatra’s Chair, and Candlestick Tower all came from his mind and memory. It is true that Bill was not the first to name most of those places, but it is because of him that many of the old names are on the maps today.
It is fitting that a couple of natural sandstone arches in Canyonlands National Park bear the Tibbetts name. Tibbetts Arch, or Bill Tibbetts Arch, is found in the Maze District not far from Elaterite Basin where Bill and Ephraim Moore ran cattle in the 1920s. Even today, the arch is in a very remote and seldom visited region, accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The country looks much the same as when Bill and Ephraim first went there in 1919. Bill would be happy about that.
Jewel Tibbetts Arch, named for Bill’s wife, is in the Island in the Sky District, accessible by a short hike.
Both Tibbetts arches are listed on Park Service maps.
For many years, Bill’s sons believed their father had never left his name anywhere but in the secret cave in Arches National Park. But in 1988, an employee of the National Park Service, Gary Cox, found Bill’s name carved on the roof of a shallow cave near the rim of Horseshoe (Barrier) Canyon on the Robbers Roost. The date of the inscription is September 15, 1924, six weeks after Bill and Tom Perkins broke out of jail in Moab.
The cave must have served as their first hideout after their harrowing escape to the Green River bottoms and Elaterite Basin. As far as anyone knows today, that single inscription is the only testament of Bill Tibbetts, in his own hand, to be found anywhere on the rocks of the canyon country and the Robbers Roost.