GIANTS OF SAN JUAN by Buckley Jensen
This true story leaps off the page like a John Ford Western. In 1923, the last shooting battle between Indians and white settlers in the United States was fought in San Juan County. Combatants were killed, including the infamous Indian Chief Posy.
I have heard several versions of the tale, but accounts were third or fourth hand. Recently, I came across Leland W. Redd’s first-hand account.
Redd was a young man when it happened, he was an eyewitness to the entire episode and it had a lasting affect on his life.
Here is his story (abridged) as he recounted it on July 12, l972:
“In March of 1923, two young Ute boys burned a timber bridge on the road between Bluff and Blanding. They also stole things from a sheep camp in the area. Officers of the law arrested the boys and took them down in the basement of the old schoolhouse in Blanding to guard them until their trial.
“On the day of the trial, Old Posey and two other Utes came with two extra horses, overpowered the sheriff and took the two prisoners and hightailed it out to where they were camped with other Indians about four miles west of Blanding.
“As they were leaving the sheriff tried to follow them, but they shot his horse through the neck. The sheriff, myself, Johnny Rogers and another man then went to help some men who had been shot at below town. We were riding along, planning to encircle the Utes where they were camped. We found fresh tracks. The sheriff said, “ Leland, you and Johnny follow these tracks and see where they go.” We took off at a high lope.
As we started through the canyon, three shots rang out. Johnny’s horse was hit in the spine and the bullet paralyzed its hind legs. His horse was pawing and trying to get up. Rogers ran toward where I was. Whang! Whang! shots rang out as the Indians tried to hit him. I returned fire and they didn’t hit him, but they pumped quite a few shells at us.
“I jumped off the big brown horse I was riding, got behind a rock. When Johnny got to me, I thought, “Well, now they will kill my horse” so I threw a rock at him and made him take off down through the cedars.
“About that time three men came along in an old Ford on the dirt road where the highway is now. The Indians were between that car and us. They shot at the car and one of the bullets went right through the back seat crossways. There is a monument down there on the highway now marking the place where that happened.
“This went on for about an hour and it got dark. We knew it would not do any good to try to track the Indians in the dark so we all went back to Blanding, arriving at about midnight. I figure I rode horseback over 45 miles that day. During the night the Indians went back to their camp and took all their goats, horses and stuff and headed out across the rough country southwest of Blanding.
“The next day the people of Blanding organized. The third day about 50 or 60 armed men went after them. The Indians had gone down into Comb Wash on a trail that a white man would hardly dare ride a horse over in the light. But we had no choice but to follow their tracks.
“We finally caught up with the Indians at a place we call the Island. It rose about 150 feet from the surrounding country and the Indians figured we wouldn’t come up after them if they held the high ground. We decided to go up after them. We left the horses in a little canyon and posted an elderly man there to guard them. The rest of us circled the Island. We came up from all sides. When we got to their camp they had been cooking dinner, but didn’t eat it because they saw us coming and ran. They pushed their horses down over one ledge that must have been eight or ten feet high.
“It got dark and we all went back to a place where there was a cow camp. Some of us got a little something to eat that night and some didn’t.
“When the Indians left, the bucks took the guns and the good horses. The squaws took the ponies. We could easily tell the good horse’s tracks from the smaller horses. I remember the sheriff said, “Now men, when you see the horse tracks separate and the good horses with the big feet go one way, don’t follow them. You follow the squaw tracks on the little horses because the bucks will come back to them every night.”
“On the fifth day, the sheriff deputized me and Leonard Jones and told us to hide on the end of the place we thought the Indians would have to come through. But they never came. We laid there in that bitter cold March wind for most of a day waiting to ambush them when they came back. That night was even worse on that cold windy bluff. We had plenty of wood to build a fire, but of course if we did the Indians would see it. Well, it got so cold we built the fire anyway.
The next day we got lucky and found and captured most of those we had been chasing in the bottom of the canyon without further bloodshed. Joe Bishop’s boy had been killed, and Posey was wounded and was holed up in a cave a thousand feet above us.
The United States Marshal in our posse said he would find Posey and so we headed toward home with our prisoners. Posey was dead when the Marshal found him. He buried him. We who had risked our lives to bring him to justice wanted to make sure he was really gone, so we rode out a short time later, dug up his body, made a positive identification and then reburied him. Posey was probably the number one “stirrer upper” the pioneers had to face in the settlement of San Juan.
“As far as I know there was never another conflict with that many armed combatants anywhere in the United States after 1923. I was young and it affected me deeply. It remains as one of my most vivid and memorable life memories to this day.”
Leland W. Redd was born in a one-room log cabin in Bluff in 1894. The cabin had been built by Thales Haskel and then purchased by Leland’s father Wayne H. Redd.
Leland was the grandson of Jens Nielson, the first bishop of Bluff.
In 1909, just four years after Albert R. Lyman had built the first home on White Mesa, the family moved to what later became Blanding. There were only a few families living there.
He went into the Armed Forces during World War I, and spent time in France. He returned to Blanding after the war. He was ambitious and industrious and was successful in the cattle and sheep business. He also owned several stores (usually having a partner who owned a part of the business) and he owned a Chevrolet Dealership in Delores Colorado.
He became the President of the LDS San Juan Stake in l944 and served in that capacity for over 20 years. He recalled a fond memory he had as a boy touring the stake, “My father (Wayne) was called to be a counselor in the Stake Presidency in l906. He went on a tour of the Stake with President Lyman in the days when it took two weeks or more to make the journey. They went in a horse-drawn buggy, in which there was no room for me, so I rode my horse.
“Our schedule was to hold conference in as many areas of the stake as possible. The first day we went from Bluff to Blanding; then to Monticello, Mancos Colorado, Hammond, Farmington and Fruitland, New Mexico. The trip took two weeks. Now I could make that trip easily in half a day. But we did a lot of camping and road repairs, and it was a wonderful experience to observe the dedication and the wisdom of those good men.”
Leland marveled at the changes that have come to Blanding and the world in his lifetime. He recalled that once his father told him that there would probably never be more than 25 families on White Mesa (Blanding) because there simply was not enough water to support them. “But look at it now. Blanding has grown and prospered because of the faith and the hard work of the people who pioneered this country.”
“We have it pretty easy today,” Leland said as the interview was concluding. “Let me give you an example: When I was young, I went with my dad, Jessie Thornell and Alvin Lyman to an area near Hall’s Crossing, which was about 100 miles west of Blanding over very rugged country. We were there in the early spring to round up cattle and put them on the best feed. Alvin Lyman was a young man. They ran some wild horses into an old corral. Alvin went into the corral on a horse to try and rope one. He got one and the rope got half hitched around his three main fingers on his left hand. It ripped the ends of Alvins three fingers right off his hand. My father calmly pulled out his knife and cut the dangling cords and tendons and threw the ends of the fingers away.
“They would have had to ride horseback 100 miles to Bluff and another 75 miles to Cortez to the closest doctor. Dad took a little salt sack and put some flour in it to stop the bleeding. He then took what was left of Alvins three fingers in the sack and tied the sack around his hand so it wouldn’t come off. Nobody made a big deal about it. In those days, you had to deal with what happened the best you could.
“When Alvin finally did get to a doctor several days later the doctor looked at his hand and said, “There is no need for me to do anything to your fingers. I couldn’t improve them any.
“I have thought about that many times in my life. When people are right up against it, they can do remarkable things.” Leland mused. “If that happened today most of us wouldn’t have any idea what to do. I admire more as I grow older how hard the pioneers had it in many ways, but how strong they were, and how they handled the adversities in their lives.”
Many reading this article will smile when I tell you my most vivid memory of Leland Redd. As the only stake president I ever knew until after my mission, I can distinctly remember almost every time President Redd rose to speak in quarterly conference, his first words would be: “My Brothers and Sisters, the San Juan Stake is growing!” And indeed it was. What was one stake in l965 is now four stakes.
He was a man who could have chosen to go anywhere and do anything he wanted. Instead he stayed in Blanding, true to his heritage, true to his beliefs and true to the people who lived in the communities of Southeastern Utah. His influence will long be felt by current and future generations.