The Long and the Short of Gold Butte

by Rex Jensen

[This story appeared in the Sunday edition of the Nevadan Magazine

in the Las Vegas Review Journal January 3, 1982]

Bill Garrett near cabin at Gold Butte

Bill Garrett was "a big Texas cowboy," a nephew to Pat Garrett, who shot Billy the Kid. He was 6 feet 1 inch tall, balding, a skilled cowboy, roper and six-shooter. He had no family, never married and came to Gold Butte in 1916 when he was in his late 30s.

Garrett had been sent by a Texas rancher to catch horse thieves who had stolen horses off his ranch. He pursued them into Old Mexico where he found them holed up in an abandoned house. He had to shoot two of the men, and a boy, but he got the horses.

He feared repercussions from the killings and didn't return to Texas but went north to Colorado and Utah about 1910.

The Mormons were well established in southern Utah by this time but many "gentiles" had also arrived. The two groups were sometimes polarized but were usually united in defending their farms and ranches. An obnoxious outlaw known only as Francis constantly bothered Mormon and gentile alike by stealing horses, cattle and anything else he could get his thieving hands on. He made the mistake of stealing a horse from Bill Garrett.

Garrett tracked the thief down, retrieved the horse and departed. But Francis followed Garrett and while he was riding through a wash, fired a shot in front of Garrett's horse. He stopped and dismounted. Another shot hit in front of him, missing him by inches. Garrett spotted Francis behind a cactus, pulled out his six-shooter, aimed dead center of the cactus and fired. Francis fell over dead.

Garrett returned to Vernal, Utah and turned himself in. He told his story of self-defense and although his actions were praised by Mormons and gentiles alike, he was found guilty.

Garrett reasoned that since he was a gentile he ought to pick a gentile jury. He did; they found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to 45 years in prison.

Garrett was a friend of the sheriff and both disagreed with the verdict, so the sheriff let Garrett do chores around the jail, work in the garden and help with the sheriff's horses. Finally, the sheriff convinced Garrett that a Mormon jury would find him innocent.

So Garrett was given a new trial, this time with a Mormon jury; they ruled he acted in self-defense and Garrett was set free.

Following his acquittal in Vernal he made his way to Gold Butte, an attractive mining and grazing district east of St. Thomas (now under the Overton Arm of Lake mead) that brought in sagey characters from all over the west. Here, Garrett was soon to team up with his unlikely partner, Art Coleman.

Coleman was a contrasting figure beside Bill Garrett. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, he stood only 5-feet-1, a foot shorter than Garrett. Nearly everyone referred to them as "the long and the short of it." Coleman had come from Chicago to the mining districts of Elko and Tuscarora, made a little money and went south to Gold Butte. He arrived before Garrett and prospected first in Cedar Basin, Five miles south east of Gold Butte.

Coleman was frail, not in the best of health, thin and quiet. But he was also educated and loved to read, could converse on any subject, and was considered the intellectual of the two.

Art Coleman with friends at his Gold Butte cabin

But If Coleman and Garrett had contrasting ways and appearances, they also had similarities, which undoubtedly brought them together at "The Butte." Both liked their beer and it was well known that they operated a still and made their own whiskey for many years. Neither ever married or had any relatives, as far as anyone knew.

Coleman was a miner and knew the business well. His partnership with Garrett proved advantageous for both. Garrett was a cattleman, had worked in the wild west shows of his day, could trick rope and shoot a six-gun as well as any man alive. While Garrett ran cattle at The Butte, Coleman mined for gold and other precious metals. When mining was poor the cattle kept them alive; If they took losses on their cattle, they prospected for gold. When neither was sufficient, they did assaying work for the many prospectors combing the region.

Bill Garrett and Art Coleman were known by just about everyone in the Moapa and Virgin Valleys, and by those on the Arizona Strip. "The odd pair," as they were often called, had impeccable reputations as hones men, wonderful hosts and trustworthy neighbors.

They lived in a board house at The Butte built by Johnny Nelson in 1910. The Gold Butte Trail passed in front of their house and a traveler could not pass without being invited in for sourdough biscuits, coffee and beans. Travelers would leave valuables with them to be picked up on their return. The goods were always there waiting.

For a brief period Gold Butte was a thriving town with "many homes, a post office and a school." The town also employed Nellie Gentry as a mining recorder for Lincoln County. Following the brief mining boom from 1905 to 1917 most of the homes were moved to St. Thomas, and The Butte became little more than a crossroads for prospectors and cattlemen who crisscrossed the area.

Ed Syphus was the first to run cattle at The Butte and he began a tradition that persists to this day. Thousands of head of cattle continue to be grazed there today, from Virgin Peak to the Colorado River, from the Virgin River to the end of the Grand Gulch Trail, 30 miles to the east of Gold Butte.

Others owned range rights at The Butte as well. Sam Gentry was one of the first. He sold his range to George Harman. Harman sold it to Laura Gentry. The range then went through the hands of Dan Marone, Vera Krupp, Howard Hughes and today is owned by the Mormon Welfare Production Project at Warm Springs.

Bill Garrett was known far and wide. He had contacts in the rodeo world and circus world, and cattlemen all over the southwest knew his ability. He was responsible for bringing in Luther Swanner, would champion bronco rider, to break horses and to put on the rodeo at the Lost City Pageant near St. Thomas.

But Swanner was first hired by George Harmtman to break his horses at Gold Butte. Hartman had bought a string of horses that he nor anyone else in the area could break. Bill Garrett said Swanner "could break any horse you could put a saddle on." Within 30 days, all Harman's horses were broken.

Long after Bill Garrett was past his prime, he and an old friend, Ed Yates, were drinking together and Yates challenged his shooting ability. "Bill, you couldn't hit the broad side of a barn," said Yates.

Garrett was insulted but said nothing. Instead, he walked into his house, took his six-shooter out of the holster on the bedpost, walked outside, threw a small pebble into the air and blasted it to pieces. Garrett put the gun back in the house, returned and sat down by Yates. "Now, you s.o.b., you better be careful who you're talking to."

Garrett seldom talked about himself unless he was drinking. Although he had a near-famous past as a trick roper, a wild-west-show performer and a marksman, he also had spent time in jail, and had killed at least four men in his lifetime, so his reluctance to talk about his past was understandable.

Friends always kidded the two about their moonshine-If they made it, where they made it, If they sold it, and how good it was. The secrets they kept; the moonshine they shared with friends.

Garrett was forever seen in his long handled underwear and Levis. His tall balding figure was recognizable by anyone in the area. Garrett and Coleman frequently came to st. Thomas for supplies.

On one occasion in the early '40s, they were driving to town in a car they had purchased second hand. Coleman was driving; both had been drinking their home brew and Coleman was having difficulty keeping the road straight. Eventually Coleman ran off the road and put the car onto a large cactus. They couldn't get the car off the cactus and both were too far gone to remember they had an ax in the trunk. So Garrett volunteered to walk the five miles back to the house at Gold Butte, to get a horse to pull the car off the cactus.

By the time Garrett returned, it was dark and Coleman had crawled into the back seat of the car and gone to sleep. Garrett let the horse go and rolled out his bedroll, deciding to wait for daylight to work on the car.

When morning came the horse had wandered back to Gold Butte. Surprised, Coleman and Garrett had a good laugh then both walked back to The Butte for the horse.

Coleman died first, in 1958 at the age of 82. Garrett died in 1961 at the age of 81

More than 100 people made the trek to The Butte to pay their respects at Garrett's funeral. The funeral was also unusual in that it was conducted not in a church but at the house where both men had lived and died, and not by ministers, but by men whose prime credentials were those of friendship. Voris Perkins of Moapa conducted and gave a short talk. J. L. Bowler of Mesquite also spoke. But the surprise was that "Red" Adams, an unusual cowboy recluse from Logandale, who had never been to church as far back as anyone remembered, preached an eloquent sermon!

Both Garrett and Coleman were buried behind the house at Gold Butte - as the local folks say of the senic area, "the nearest to heaven you'll ever get."