Tom Ross: South Routt homesteaders recalimed boots from outlaws in Yampa’s early days
August 11, 2012
Steamboat Springs — If you didn't show up for the Brown Bag Lecture Series at the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday, you missed out on hearing Yampa historian Rita Herold tell the story of the shootout between the Bird boys and a couple of outlaws who had the nerve to steal their boots.
It was a (grim) treat for me and brought back memories of the late Lewis Phillips, who first told me the story about 30 years ago.
Phillips was born in Yampa in 1902. His father, John Phillips, homesteaded at Finger Rock in 1882, and Lewis Phillips was one of a small handful of people I met here as a young reporter who could tell firsthand of riding the Stagecoach to Steamboat.
"Moffat Avenue used to be all there was to Yampa," Phillips told the Steamboat Pilot in December 1979. "The old stagecoach would come by our place every day, rattling away to stay overnight at the Antler's Hotel. There was no Oak Creek or Phippsburg then."
When I had a chance to sit down with Phillips, he told me the story of how his father, John, and uncle Bill Bird discovered the beauty of Egeria Park near Yampa while riding out from Breckenridge to recover some stolen horses, which they succeeded in doing. They returned the next spring to lay claim to a homestead. Little did they know that they would have more trouble with thieves.
Herold told her audience at the Tread of Pioneers this week that there are several versions of the account of how the Bird brothers tracked down some outlaws who had stolen not only their boots but also their supplies. In those days, a good deal of history was recorded orally, she said.
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Herold told the story with chilling matter-of-factness. But here's a version that Phillips shared with the newspaper 25 years ago.
His elders had left their families behind and come to the Yampa area to build a cabin, and they intended to spend the winter there.
"The family was cutting wild hay to fed the horse for winter. My father had a pair of new boots that he didn't want to damage, so he wrapped his feet in burlap sacks," my former colleague Robin Corton wrote in a story dated September 1987, when Phillips was 85.
After a hard day of work, the men returned to the cabin to find that all of their coal, food and even their boots had been stolen.
Herold related on Friday that it was Will, Louis and Tom Bird who rounded up some other homesteaders in the area and set out on horseback to recover their stolen goods. They caught up with the bad guys near the "Oak Hills," just as the thieves were rising from their bedrolls.
Outnumbered, the two men opened fire, killing Tom Bird. The homesteaders killed the outlaws and John Phillips recovered his boots.
"My father pulled his boots off the thief's body and put them on his (own) feet, where they belonged," Lewis Phillips told Corton.
That's what you got for stealing another man's boots in the wild and woolly days of South Routt County.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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