Not too long ago I wrote a story handed down to me from my father. It concerned the killing of a Native American back in the 1800s by one of my ancestors. As one reader commented, is this out of a Zane Grey novel?
You can’t help but wonder. After all, it’s a great story.
But searching for the truth of the matter is the ultimate Cold Case investigation. The crime scene is long gone, and the witnesses and principals are all dead. If there’s police reports, I haven’t found them.
What’s left is old news reports that raise more questions than answers.
So, for the sake of expediency, I’m reproducing the story as told to me. That way when I start taking it apart, we can see some of the dangers involved in family stories and pitfalls you run into when trying to determine the truth behind the matter.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Augustine Muniz who worked a mining claim in the Cripple Creek, Colorado, area. I doubt he made much money off it, but gold has a magnetism all its own, and that’s why he worked it.
He was a tough old bird that didn’t take a whole lot from people. The old timers said he was kind who would draw a line in the sand and if you tried to cross it, he’d defend it with his dying breath. They also said that I remind them a lot of him in that I was always looking beyond the horizon, and would sign up for any damn fool adventure that came down the pike.
I always reminded them that like him, I at least have great stories to tell.
Well, this story concerns a local Native American who also resided in the area. I guess Augustine never knew his name because that hasn’t been passed down. He didn’t know if he’d done something to offend the man but the man hated him. Maybe he forgot to say hello or maybe my Great, Great Grandfather reminded him of an enemy.
All we know for sure is this man hated my grandfather with a passion that bordered on insanity.
Several times he’d tried to provoke a fight with my grandfather. But Grandfather was a smart man. Augustine knew if he got into it with him, he’d sour the relations he enjoyed with the rest of the Native Americans in the area. He got along fine with them, and since the peace between the “Whites” and the Native Americans was tenuous at the time, he didn’t want to upset the cart.
So he went into town, bought his supplies, and did everything to stay out the man’s way.
So one day he was at his camp when some other Native Americans dropped in.
“Watch yourself,” they warned him. “He’s in town getting drunk and he says he’s coming for you
Augustine thanked them and sent them on their way.
That evening, he put a log in his bed, and then camped out under a tree near the small cabin with a rifle.
As he told the story, there was a full moon that night. Anyone who’s been on a battlefield knows lighting is important. Seeing your enemy before he sees you puts you in the position to dictate the battle. Today we use NVGs, and flares to make that happen.
He had none of those but did have a full moon lighting everything up, Augustine could easily see for several hundred yards. And it put his enemy at a disadvantage because being in the shadow under the tree, Augustine was almost invisible.
Sure enough, along about midnight, he hears a rider coming. A few minutes later, about a hundred yards away, he sees the horse with a rider. The rider dismounts and starts walking towards the cabin. Even from that distance, it was obvious Augustine could see the man carried a rifle.
What astonished Augustine was the man was dressed in full Native American regalia, including warpaint. He could see that the man was drunk because his path meandered and weaved towards the cabin.
Augustine stayed perfectly still, waiting.
After a minute or two of standing and listening, the man approached the cabin door. With a violent kick, he exploded open the door. Then with a yell, he brought up his rifle and emptied it into the bed. What had been a quiet night echoed with the shots.
From under the tree, Augustine got his sight picture with his rifle, and fired a single shot. The bullet tore through the man’s skull, blasting brains and blood out the other side. His enemy was dead before he hit the dirt.
When quiet returned, the only sound was the dripping of blood.
Knowing that the man had relatives who might avenge him, Augustine got his saddle, saddled his horse, and ran. When he got to Grand Junction, Colorado, he turned himself into the Sheriff there. When he told the Sheriff what had happened, the Sheriff put him on a train for Alamosa, Colorado, and told him not to come back.
What I wanted to do was verify the story. I mean look at it. It does sound like something from a Zane Grey novel.
That or a wizened old grandpa, sitting in a rocking chair, rolling a cigarette, and telling one whopper of a story to wide eyed grandchildren.
And where do you start trying to prove or disprove something like this? The principals in the story have been dust for over a hundred years now so it’s little hard to ask them.
In the course of trying to verify or deny the story, I got onto one of the Genealogy groups on Facebook. While I’m pretty good at research, digging through the treasure trove of the past can get a little daunting. I posted a link and before long, I’d gotten some answers.
A lady name Tina Brantley found an old article in the Aspen Times dated July 21, 1887, and passed it on to me.
The article confirms the story. To a point. There are some really notable difference between how I heard it and how the newspapers reported it. I rather expected that.
But what I find interesting is the things that didn’t get passed down, or how some things got passed down or ignored. There’s a man mentioned in the article named McCook, and he’s identified as a member of the same tribe (assume we’re talking about the Utes here since the article identified them) as the man who who was shot and killed. He’s the one who came by the cabin with the warning for Augustine.
What the family story didn’t say was McCook stayed with my ancestor. McCook is a rather interesting name. A number of the tribes were starting to adopt Spanish or English names , and McCook certainly fits into that idea. A Google search says it’s Gaelic in origin, and it’s very possible this man’s father was a white man. That or this was a white man who had become part of the tribe. That might explain why he seemed to get along with my ancestor.
It also mentions my ancestor had friends with him. The article is unclear if they were actually there that night, nor does it ID who they were. What it does state is that a few days after the shooting, several Ute warriors came to the cabin. They were of course, looking for my Great, Great, Grandfather. After a confrontation, one of the men went with them on the promise they’d turn him over to the Agency for trial. This sounds like someone who had at least some involvement in the events.
He was never heard from again and the paper opines that he was killed.
The other, whoever that might be, is presumably the one who told the papers what happened to the other.
The way I got the story made it sound like my ancestor was by himself, something the article, based on information given by my ancestor to Sheriff Brandish disputes.
So, what did happen?
The article is the closest thing we have to an eyewitness account of what occurred. But it’s one sided and is based on what my ancestor told the Sheriff.
First, a big error in how the family story was told. The story came to me that the claim was near Cripple Creek which is long ways from Grand Junction. The article in the Meeker Herald calls out an area identified as the Lower White, which is someplace around Meeker, Colorado. I’m assuming they’re talking about the White River that runs from above present day Meeker into the Colorado near Glenwood Springs.
There’s still the question why my ancestor would have gone to Grand Junction to surrender himself rather then Glenwood Springs or Meeker.
But an article found in the July 23, 1887 edition of the Meeker Herald seems to shed some light on the subject. A delegation of Utes came by to confirm that Muniz had been arrested. Perhaps Muniz felt Meeker was too small to afford him much protection. The writer of the story mentioned that if they (meaning the Utes) got their hands on him, he probably wouldn’t last long.
Perhaps he felt he’d be better protected in Grand Junction.
The Herald confirmed to the delegation that he had been arrested and he was in jail in Grand Junction.
But the entire story is weird and reflects the views of the time. The writer seemed more interested in letting his prejudices show rather than telling a clear and objective story. I guess he needed to fill in a column, and a story consisting of a simple question and a simple answer wouldn’t have been enough. So he spent most of the story running the Utes down and saying what he thought of the women in the delegation.
And we complain about the press today!
A couple of things I caught from the story however. First, McCook, the Native American identified as having warned my Great Great Grandfather was identified as part of the delegation that came to the Herald. The Utes said they would send a delegation to Grand Junction, but went away satisfied.
I find nothing that says they ever did send a delegation.
Then I found the initial story reporting the shooting, and it was in the Meeker Herald, July 2nd edition. The article called Augustine, the Native American who was killed as a massive trouble maker, and was well known to the settlers in the area as someone to be on guard against. The story also mentioned that a delegation of Utes had come in to see Sheriff Kendall so he could assist in the apprehension of Muniz. What Sheriff Kendall did is unknown.
After finding the articles, the Meeker Herald and the one in the Aspen Times (which was a reprint of the Meeker story) pretty much dried up as a source of information. Muniz vanishes as far as they’re concerned.
So, I turned to Grand Junction to try find to out what happened next.
And that’s where what happened next goes cold. None of the Grand Junction papers seem to be on line like the old Meeker (and many other) papers are. Why, I don’t know. It’s possible they’ve been lost to history, but I don’t know yet. It’s my hope they’re in some archive someplace.
What happened next is open to speculation.
Did Muniz face any kind of legal proceedings?
Or is it as he claimed, that the Sheriff (J.O. Brandish) just put him on a train and told him not to come back?
And if so, why?
There might be some truth to his statement that he was put on a train and warned not to come back, but understand this is a supposition on my part. In the following months there were some rather major issues between the Utes and the white settlers in the area. It involved bringing in the Army to get things back in control, and before it was all over, 3 settlers and 8 Native Americans had been killed.
It’s very possible that he kind of fail through the cracks with all the problems the area was experiencing. That or his presence in Grand Junction made him a sort of Jonah. The locals feared that he might be an excuse for the Utes to come looking and causing problems, and so ran him off.
It’s also possible that since there were no real eyewitnesses to the event, the matter was dropped. Early reports show it was my great, great-grandfather and McCook were at the cabin when the fight occurred. There may or may not have been others there, and if so, the paper is mute on it. The paper says McCook didn’t see anything because he was to busy getting out of there.
As a result we have only the statement of Augustine Muniz that it was self defense.
He stated he exited through the back door like McCook had, but while McCook ran for the creek, Muniz went around the cabin to confront the other Augustine.
According to the paper, Muniz told the Sheriff that when he first fired at Augustine, nothing happened. I’m not sure what “Nothing” means, but my guess is he made a rather rookie mistake when it comes to gunfighting. Since he had a rifle, he’d probably failed to chamber a round into it. It’s also curious that Augustine didn’t return fire. Two possibilities come to mind. Either he didn’t hear Muniz, or was busy reloading.
But when he fired the second time, contrary to the family story, he didn’t make a head shot, but rather shot him in the chest.
He then saddled up and rode for Grand Junction.
There’s no evidence the crime scene was even looked at, so we can’t turn to it to confirm or deny the story.
What we end up with a third hand account of a story of self-defense. And if McCook was one of the Native Americans killed during the the skirmishes, his testimony would have been gone.
Without a crime scene, testimony, and better evidence, we end up with a big question mark as to what really happened and it might simply have been kicked out because of lack of evidence, despite a dead man and someone owning up to it.
One thing that troubles me is the attitude of the times. I know it’s not fair or right to judge the past by where we are today, but I can’t help but wonder if the matter was just blown off. The thinking might have been “It’s just one more Indian!” Clearly, there was a different standard the native Americans were held to and it’s disturbing from the POV of a 21st century man. I had to keep reminding myself that it was another world back then, and maybe, just maybe, we’ve grown up a little.
There’s also the small matter if things hadn’t gone the way they did, I wouldn’t be here today, and you wouldn’t be reading this.
Anyway, back to the hunt for the truth of the matter.
At this point, the newspaper trail goes cold. What was a front page story disappears completely. I find no mention of my Great Ancestor in the papers for almost another twenty years and it’s nothing more than a legal notice concerning a homestead near present day Capulin, Colorado, and it’s only a few sentences long.
I also can’t help but wonder if the troubles that occurred later between the settlers near Meeker and the Utes didn’t have at least some of it’s roots in this incident. The story about what triggered that series of tragedies doesn’t seem to connect this with my ancestor to that incident, but it makes me wonder.
The Mesa County Sheriff’s office doesn’t keep records back that far, but they did suggest a couple of sources for me to try. With luck, I’ll find the Sheriff’s Reports, the court documents (if any), and possibly the missing newspapers.
I see my wife and I spending some time in musty archives one fine day.
I’ve posted all the articles I found at the links below, and will post as more information comes in.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Like my blog and stories, check out my novels available on Amazon. I have two out right now, The Cross and the Badge, and Against Flesh and Blood. A third novel, The Judas Tree will be coming out soon. Click on the novel names, or the pictures of the covers above to be taken straight to them.
As always, thanks for dropping by and for your support. God Bless.