Past Episodes

E6: ASSASSINATION! The Murder of Judge Elias F. Dyer (Lake County War)

 

By any measure, life on the frontier was full of danger in the 1800s. Violence usually won over reason, and those willing to kill often imposed their desires on the masses.

 

In 1875, in what was then Lake County Colorado, now known as Chaffee County, a war between newcomers and long-time locals exposed the lengths to which ranchers would go to protect their land and ensure the future would be written by them.

 

Historians refer to this story as one of the most vicious crimes in the annals of history. We’re talking about the murder of a sitting judge, Elias F. Dyer. The identity of the killer or killers was a public secret that has never been shared.

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ASSASSINATION! The Murder of Judge Elias F. Dyer (Lake County War)Steve Chapman
00:00 / 01:04
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EPISODE 6

ASSASSINATION! The Betrayals, Conflicts, and Struggles of Establishing Denver, Colorado

By any measure, life on the frontier was full of danger in the 1800s. Violence usually won over reason, and those willing to kill often imposed their desires on the masses.

 

In 1875, in what was then Lake County Colorado, now known as Chaffee County, a war between newcomers and long-time locals exposed the lengths to which ranchers would go to protect their land and ensure the future would be written by them.

 

Historians refer to this story as one of the most vicious crimes in the annals of history. We’re talking about the murder of a sitting judge, Elias F. Dyer. The identity of the killer or killers was a public secret that has never been shared.

 

Sit back, turn up the volume, and let’s explore the assassination of a Colorado justice-of-the-peace.

 

Welcome to History Does Rhyme. I’m your host, Steve Chapman. You can find every episode right here and for free on HeartOfTheRockiesRadio.com and HistoryDoesRhyme.com. Contact me on Facebook at History Does Rhyme. Each week, we’re going to chat about the past, diving deep into stories you only thought you knew, and exploring a few tales you’ve never heard.

Our story begins in 1866 when a man named Elijah Gibbs begins farming near the town of Centerville, located in the central mountains of Colorado. Gibbs drew water from a ditch along Brown’s Creek, and over the years, Gibbs and his family developed a positive reputation in the community.

 

But, as is typical of the era, rumors begin circulating that Gibbs, his brothers, and other newcomers have started a criminal operation to steal cattle, jump mining claims, and take over property by any means necessary. Their enemies labeled this group The Regulators.

 

Little proof exists as to the actual existence of this group, but sides were regularly chosen in the pioneer days, usually between those new to an area and those who arrived first.

 

Before Colorado becomes a State, the law is usually created at the end of a gun. Courts are slipshod at best, and alliances often outweigh written rules.

 

On June 16, 1874, Elijah Gibbs and his hired hand, Stewart McClish, get into an argument with a neighboring rancher named George Harrington. The disagreement is over fencing and water rights. Words turn into punches, and Gibbs pulls a gun to stop the fight from escalating. No one receives serious injury.

 

The following night, Harrington looks out his window and sees one of his outbuildings on fire. Along with his wife, Harrington rushes to the building with water. Harrington’s younger sister watches from the house as she holds the couple’s infant daughter. While attempting to douse the flames, gunshots ring out from the dark, and, just like that, George Harrington is dead. The killer is not seen by anyone.

 

Because of their earlier fight, Elijah Gibbs and Stewart McClish are immediately labeled suspects and arrested on the charge of murder.

 

Citizens in the wild west days don’t have much faith in legal proceedings, and many of the ranchers want to lynch the pair right away. But cooler heads win out, and Gibbs and McClish are taken to the jail in the nearby town of Granite, which is the county seat.

 

But jails rarely stop an angry mob, and it soon becomes obvious to the Sheriff that he will be unable to guarantee the safety of his prisoners, so he transports them to Denver. The hope is that an impartial jury will hear the matter and render a fair verdict.

 

The Denver jury takes five days to hear the case before ruling that Gibbs and McClish are innocent, as there were no eyewitnesses or any evidence placing either man at the scene of the murder.

 

Stewart McClish has had enough and leaves the Colorado territory. Elijah Gibbs, however, has a homestead and returns to his ranch to resume his life.  It’s now October 1874.

 

Things in the community appear calm after the trial, but it’s only a surface illusion. Underneath the public smiles, tensions are brewing, and friends of George Harrington are angry and want revenge.

 

Several months later, on January 22, 1875, George Harrington’s friends obtain a warrant to arrest Elijah Gibbs for assault. As he’s been declared innocent of murder, an assault charge is the best they can get, and that’s enough to provide the excuse to go after the man.

 

Sherriff Weldon leads a group of men to Gibbs ranch one evening to serve the warrant. Most of the men have been drinking heavily, and their intentions are for murder, not justice. Leading the charge is Charles Nachtrieb, a prominent rancher, and businessman.

 

Riding up on the ranch, the mobs call out for Gibbs to exit his home and be hanged like a man. Inside the cabin are Elijah Gibbs, his pregnant wife, their three children under the age of five, and a neighbor lady and her child.

 

Gibbs knows that if he leaves the safety of his home, he’s a dead man, so he remains inside. The mob decides to burn out Gibbs and pile brush and wood around the house, but recent wet weather has soaked the logs, and they won’t ignite.

 

So, the mob rushes the door to break in and capture Gibbs. This is now a life-and-death matter, and Gibbs fires his pistol through the chinks in the wooden walls and his door, killing two of the would-be lynchers, relatives with the last name of Boon.

 

Remember that name, Boon.

 

During the melee, the mob accidentally kills one of their own with a shotgun blast. Seeing that their surprise attack has turned into an unexpected slaughter, the mob backs off and leaves the Gibbs ranch. 

 

The next day, Gibbs turns himself into the Justice-of-the-Peace in the nearby community of Browns Creek.

 

The justice rules that Gibbs fired in self-defense.

 

But the law isn’t going to satisfy those who want Gibbs dead, and Gibbs knows this. Hoping for safety, he rides hard toward Denver, but he is chased by the vigilantes who nearly capture him in the town of South Park, about halfway to Denver. Sheriff Weldon also pursues Gibbs, determined to arrest the man on the false charge and return him to Lake County, presumably for trial, but most likely to be lynched. Gibbs eludes the Sheriff and the mob.

 

Gibbs and his in-laws never return to Lake County.

You’d think that with Gibbs and his family gone, the matter would be solved, but the battle has only begun.

Enemies of Gibbs organize and call their group the Committee of Safety. Their goal is to clear the county of anyone who supports Elijah Gibbs or calls him a friend. The long-brewing animosity between the newcomers and the early settlers is finally spilling over into armed conflict.

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Whether the Gibbs matter was the catalyst or the excuse, long-time local ranchers decide that everyone associated with Elijah Gibbs needs to leave the county.

The Committee of Safety is composed of the most prominent men in the area, led by a well-known merchant and rancher name Charles Nachtrieb. William Bale, who would later start the town of Cleora, and Joseph Hutchinson, one of the first to settle in the valley, are also part of the Committee of Safety leadership.

The bottom line to all this is that the old-timers worry newcomers are going to compete for water, land rights, and resources. Keep in mind that Colorado isn’t a State just yet.  Land rights are sketchy, at best. This battle between new and old would later be called the Lake County War, one of many such bloody contests taking place throughout the frontier.

What no one can foresee is that this struggle will last for seven years.

The Committee of Safety works as a combination vigilante group and extralegal judicial body.

For the next few years, they’ll rule the county through violence and intimidation, holding make-shift trials, torturing numerous men, and committing countless murders.

In short, mobs now control Lake County, and anyone unknown or in conflict with their goals is labeled an enemy.

Friends and relatives of Elijah Gibbs are at the top of the enemies list, and the Committee of Safety quickly begins work to run them all out of the region.

By February 1875, the Committee of Safety is in charge of Lake County. Armed men are stationed at all roads leading into the area, and everyone is questioned and often detained.

A round-up of all suspected Gibbs supporters has also started.  Armed riders scatter throughout the area to grab men on their list of suspects. It’s like a cattle drive, with some men being marched up to five miles if they don’t have a horse. Over 30 men are brought by force to the Chalk Creek schoolhouse for rough questioning and an ad hoc trial.

The targets of the fake trials are clear—everyone who might believe Elijah Gibbs to be innocent of the murder of George Harrington.

Men are locked inside the schoolhouse until it is their turn for questioning. Then they’re taken to a nearby house. And that’s where things truly get ugly.

Judge Elias Dyer is returning to the county seat of Granite by horse from the San Luis Valley. He’s a probate judge who also serves as justice-of-the-peace, and he is a long-time friend of Elijah Gibbs. As he nears Lake County, four armed men ride up and order him to fall in. Dyer asks for their warrant, and the vigilante group pushes Dyer around before ordering him, by gun, to ride. It’s February 3, 1875.

Dyer is tossed into the holding room in the schoolhouse. Many other men are being held, including Ernest Christison, who we talked about in Episode 1, and John and Milton Gibbs, half-brothers of Elijah Gibbs. The two young men are 13 and 15 years old. Jessie Marion is also being held. You’ll hear more about him in a moment.

Inside the cabin courthouse, the Committee of Safety holds trials. The jurors include John Coon, a relative of the two men killed in the assault on Elijah Gibbs cabin. Everyone is heavily armed.  Everyone except those being tried that is.

There is only one question in the so-called court. “Do you believe Elijah Gibbs to be innocent of the murder of George Harrington?”

Those who say Gibbs was innocent are given 30 days to forever leave the area. These men have homesteads, ranches, and families, but that doesn’t matter to the Committee. It’s made clear to these men that if they don’t leave, they’re going to be murdered.

Some men refuse to cooperate with the illegal trial and are hung by the neck from a rafter, being raised off the floor. This process is repeated multiple times until the men cooperate or agree to leave the region.

Judge Elias Dyer says he believes Elijah Gibbs was innocent. The Committee of Safety orders him to leave the county, but Gibbs doesn’t have access to his horse and is forced to spend the night in the schoolhouse jail. The next morning, Gibbs horse is returned. He’s given a written order to leave the county within 30 days, and he rides off to the home of a nearby friend, who lives on Trout Creek.

After gathering his wits and obtaining supplies, Judge Dyer races toward Denver. Near the town of Fairplay, he’s stopped by other members of the Committee of Safety, but the written order to leave the county gets him through the roadblock. Dyer estimates that at least 75 men are involved in the mob.

No one is allowed to enter the county, and all court records regarding the murder charges against Elijah Gibbs are destroyed by the Committee.

Judge Dyer rides hard, directly to Denver. His hope is to convince territorial officials to act against the Lake County Committee of Safety. But this is 1875, and territorial government is loosely organized, at best.

An interim governor is in charge, awaiting the arrival of John Routt, the newly appointed governor of the territory. Remember that Colorado isn’t a state yet. The interim official issues a written proclamation calling on the bodies of armed and lawless men to stop disturbing the peace. He also sends the head of the Colorado militia to investigate, a well-known detective named David Cook.  Cook spends only a few days in Lake County and reports that there is no disturbance or lawless elements among the citizens. In fact, he says that peace and order are fully restored.

Well, the vigilantes aren’t stupid. They simply wait for Cook to leave and start their campaign of intimidation and violence against anyone sympathetic to Elijah Gibbs or Judge Dyer. Countless men are tortured and murdered during this reign of terror, but written records of the time are virtually non-existent.

A war for public sentiment also begins with leading citizens and newspapers in Denver falling behind the so-called Regulators, Elijah Gibbs supporters, and both Colorado Springs and Pueblo lining up behind the members of the Committee of Safety.

One Pueblo newspaper says Judge Dyer is an associate of midnight assassins and thieves and was run out of the county as he should be. Denver newspapers write that Cook’s investigation was incomplete at best and says the matter should be re-opened. A Colorado Springs newspaper writes that “Dyer may not have been a bad man but the company he kept was not that usually selected by upright citizens and Christian gentlemen.”

In April of 1875, less than six weeks after the governor-appointed investigator David Cook wrote that Lake County was calm and orderly, the mock courts begin again. This time, the Committee of Safety retry a man named Hardin. Hardin was among the group being held at the same time as Judge Dyer in February.

Hardin was repeatedly hanged by the Committee and reports are they killed him during this second trial, but this is incorrect. Dr. Cowin, also tried by the Committee, sees Hardin several days later as the two crossed paths while riding along a road near the home of William Bale. The doctor says Hardin looked pale and weakened. The doctor sees two vigilantes trailing Hardin and is terrified. Despite his shame, he quickly rides off, so he won’t get caught up in any violence.

Several days later, the dead body of Hardin is discovered in brush about two miles from the home of William Bale. Bale’s home has become the new location of the mock trials. Hardin’s body has three bullet holes and is discarded like a dog, simply tossed in a heap among the weeds. Hardin is unmarried and owns a farm two miles away, and had been a vocal supporter of both Elijah Gibbs and Judge Elias Dyer.

In Denver, Judge Dyer is able to secure a declaration of martial law for Lake County, but it’s a hollow victory as the Colorado territory is unable to afford troops or law enforcement. Filling in the gap, friends of Elijah Gibbs, The Regulators, pay several outlaws, men claiming to be detectives, to patrol the roads between Trout Creek and Brown’s Creek. This seven-miles stretch is ridden twice daily by the hired guns.

By July of 1875, things appear calm. No one is bothered along the roads watched by The Regulators and most of those who were driven out of the county return, including Judge Elias Dyer. Elijah Gibbs never returns, and neither does his brother-in-law or family.

While the roads are peaceful and the mock trials have stopped, peace doesn’t truly exist.

The Regulators want revenge. And the Committee of Safety isn’t satisfied with Gibbs supporters still living in the area.

When Judge Dyer returns to the town of Granite to resume his role as justice of the peace, he and his friends believe most locals are now on their side. They feel that the tide of sentiment has turned against the Committee of Safety. And they want payback.

Using his status as a legitimate representative of the courts, Judge Dyer issues writs against the other justices of the peace in Lake County. He also issues 16 warrants, sworn out by Jessie Maron, one of the men held in the schoolhouse jail months earlier.

The warrants are issued for the most prominent names in the county, charging the men with a long list of crimes, including false imprisonment. Believing that all the power is now on the side of his friends, Marion has agreed to testify against them all.

Not trusting Sheriff Weldon, who is firmly aligned with the Committee of Safety, Judge Dyer gives the warrants to the deputy sheriff, Dr. Dobbins. Dobbins rides out to serve the first warrant but returns without his prisoner, saying he had no horse to bring the man in. The truth is, Dobbins is afraid to face the members of the Committee and is not going to serve any warrant.

Judge Dyer then gives the jobs to a trusted friend, named Sites, who forms a posse. The group rides the next morning to arrest two ringleaders, but the men refuse to come to the courthouse unless all friends of Gibbs are absent and unless they could keep their guns. Sites agrees.

On the way back to the Granite Colorado courthouse with his prisoners, Sites runs into Sheriff Weldon, who demands the warrants be turned over to him. He claims he can arrest more men in a day than Sites could in a week.

Sites is in a bind and, unsure what to do, hands over all the warrants to the Sheriff.

Within a few days, Weldon brings in all 16 of those named in warrants, along with a dozen more men, all armed to the teeth. Some of the men come in from over 50 miles away.

Sensing the shift in power, Dyer tells the Sheriff he didn’t need to bring them all in, that only a few would have done, and besides, the whole purpose of the warrants was to put this so-called war into the past. All the men need to do is apologize for forcing everyone out of the county earlier in the year, and all will be forgiven. The men refuse and, backed by a dozen friends, demand an immediate trial that very night.

Rumors are that a dozen of the Regulators are riding on Granite, intent on hanging everyone named in the warrants. The Committee of Safety want an official trial, open to the public, and that want it right away, while the momentum is on their side. After all, they have 30 armed men at the courthouse.

Dyer attempts to delay, hoping the Regulators will soon appear. He conducts the routine business of the court and adjourns to the next morning because his star witness, Jessie Maron, had yet to arrives. Marion is thought to be arriving with The Regulators.

The members of the Committee of Safety have an attorney with them who demands an immediate trial. Dyer refuses, stating that until the prosecuting witness is present, a trial cannot begin.  The Committee attorney offers a compromise, saying he’d be okay with the charges being dismissed, at the cost of the prosecution, of course, if there is a written guarantee none of the men will be re-arrested. 

Dyer refuses.

The attorney calls it Brown’s Creek law as it is clear the men that he represents are not going to get off easily if the Judge has his way.

Judge Dyer and The Regulators believe they have the people and the law on their side. But the Regulators haven’t arrived, and Dyer is alone.

Before dark, the mob takes Dyer into the courtroom for a private conversation out of earshot of the public. A dozen citizens are standing around the building but are not allowed inside the courtroom.

Minutes later, Judge Dyer comes out of the court looking pale and gravely serious.

Judge Dyer goes into a nearby store and writes a letter to his father, a traveling pastor.  “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.”

The Committee of Safety have 30 guns backing their play, and they keep watch over Judge Dyer the entire night. Wherever the Judge goes that evening, armed members of the Committee are nearby watching to ensure the Judge doesn’t leave town. They have other plans.

Learning that nearly three dozen members of the Committee are at the courthouse, Jessie Marion never arrives in town. No one else dares to testify against the mob.

The next morning, Judge Dyer states he will not hold a trial unless all members of the group are disarmed. They refuse. Combined with a lack of the prosecuting witness, Dyer dismisses court at 8:30 a.m., and everyone leaves. Judge Dyer retreats to his office.

Outside the building, five members of the Committee use an external stairway and rush upstairs to the Judge’s office. People standing nearby hear a man cry out, ‘Spare my life,’ and then three gunshots ring out. 

Several women scream, and Sheriff Weldon rushes upstairs to Judge Dyer’s office. Elias Dyer is dead at the age of 38.

As citizens rush into the courthouse, a few members of the mob walk out, looking over their shoulder. John Coon, a member of the mob, says, “What a terrible murder.” 

Judge Elias Dyer lives for 15 minutes but can’t speak. He has been shot in his left arm and on the left side of his head. His brains slowly ooze out as his life ends.

About 15 miles away, The Regulators near town. Hearing of the murder, they make a U-turn and ride fast to Park County and hid at Robber’s Roost.

A coroner’s inquest is immediately held without a conclusion other than the fact death came from a rifle or pistol in the hands of some persons unknown to the jury.

James Woodward says he recognizes the shooters but is too afraid to say who they are. A woman says she saw four or five men exiting the courthouse but can’t identify them. Other witnesses also claim to not recognize any of the well-known ranchers.

After testifying, Woodward flees Granite for the nearby town of Fairplay. Woodward tells a close friend he expects to be killed if he ever returns to Lake County.

Despite the wishes of his family, who are still tending to his ranch in Granite, James Woodward does return several months later. On September 25, 1875, less than a week after returning home, James Woodward is murdered by unknown persons.

A public relations battle erupts throughout the State. All any article can agree on is that Judge Elias Dyer was murdered. John Coon even writes a lengthy letter to the editor, agreeing a murder has occurred but dancing around the details while denying any involvement.

The next few weeks, folks in Denver and Colorado Springs write articles and make plenty of empty gestures.

 

Ultimately, money and politics prevail. Pushing hard for statehood and an influx of new settlers, the Rocky Mountain News writes that “There are very few people who will care to come to a country where probate judges are murdered by committees of safety headed by the sheriff of the county.”

Local politicians also worry about members of the US Congress casting a skeptical eye on Colorado’s bid for statehood if it seems that the territory has not yet achieved basic civilization.

New governor John Routt tries for a display of authority even though he had no organized militia and no money to raise one. On July 6, he offers a $200 reward ($5,000 today) for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderers. Nothing comes of the offer. Routt also makes a request to US army commander William T. Sherman for a cavalry company to enforce the law in Lake County, but Sherman refuses to send troops.

Realizing their long-term interests are at risk, the Committee of Safety disappears from the public eye. Mock trials end, but random murders continue for the next six years.

I leave you with a few final notes on the assassination of Judge Elias Dyer.

A huge silver find in Leadville, and the arrival of railroads eventually does what guns and seven years of neighbor-on-neighbor violence can’t achieve—it brings peace.

William Bale, whose home was used for many of the mock trials, creates the town of Cleora and opens a stagecoach station in 1876. He remains in the area until his wife dies about a decade later, and he retires in California.

Joseph Hutchinson, who ranches near present-day Poncha Springs, writes to Reverend John L. Dyer, the Judge’s father, on September 5, 1875. “This thing has gone far enough. Let us old fellows try and stop it and have no more of it.” Hutchinson’s ancestors become one of the most prominent ranching families in the region.

In his autobiography, pastor Dyer writes 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.”

Father Dyer learns just how far the Committee’s influence reaches when he tries to push through bills with his friends in government to punish the Committee of Safety members. Each bill fails. The members of the Committee of Safety form Chafee County out of the larger Lake County and rule the area for decades both financially and politically.

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


Charles Nachtrieb builds a small empire of a flour mill, lumber yard, general store, and toll road. There’s even a town now with a twist of his name, Nathrop. Charles Nachtrieb is murdered on October 3, 1881, in one of the last killings in the seven-year Lake County War. He is shot in his store by Bert Remington. Rumor is that Remington is the nephew of George Harrington. Remington escapes the county and is never seen again.

 

The murders of Judge Dyer are never formally named, and no one is ever charged with the crime.

As for Elijah Gibbs, the man at the start of this conflict, he never returns to his home in Colorado. Gibbs flees for Texas, moves to Los Angeles, California,

. in 1880, marries three times, and dies in 1922 in Oregon.


That wraps up this episode of History Does Rhyme. Thank you for listening. Next week, I’ll be back with another story from our fascinating past.

 

If you liked this podcast, please share it with others. To stay in touch, connect with History Does Rhyme on Facebook. If you enjoyed this episode, you’d probably like the ‘Salida Sam’ historical book series. Each book covers two years in Salida history, and there are now four volumes on local bookshelves. You can purchase the books online by visiting HistoryDoesRhyme.com and clicking Shop on the menu.

 

Until next week, remember the words attributed to famed writer Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

 

History Does Rhyme is a copyright production of Salida Walking Tours, LLC. No part of this podcast can be copied, shared, or transmitted without the expressed written consent of the owner. History Does Rhyme is written and produced by me, Steve Chapman, Caleb Burgraff is co-producer and technical advisor, Alex Johnstone performed the original music, and the entire episode was recorded and mixed at the studios of Heart of the Rockies Radio in Salida, Colorado.

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Welcome!

History Does Rhyme is a weekly podcast exploring the fascinating past of Colorado. 

Together, we'll do a deep dive into the stories you only thought you knew, uncovering the amazing true tales of the men, women, and battles that shaped the Centennial State.

I'm your host, Steve Chapman, historian/founder for Salida Walking Tours and Buena Vista Walking Tours. I also write the best-selling 'Salida Sam' historical book series and write/produce the award-winning A Salida Moment in History radio program and A Buena Vista History Flashback.

So, yeah, I'm a history nerd--with a passion for engaging storytelling.  Join me every week and learn why famed writer Mark Twain is attributed with this quote: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." 

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