Cowboy cuffs from African-American rancher recall historical chapter of western life | CraigDailyPress.com

Cowboy cuffs from African-American rancher recall historical chapter of western life

Museum of Northwest Colorado acquisition taps powerful story of Isom Dart, African-American rancher

The Museum of Northwest Colorado has acquired the wrist cuffs determined to have been worn by Isom Dart at the moment when he was fatally shot on October 3, 1900.

— After years of research, the Museum of Northwest Colorado has obtained a couple of items that tap into the history of ranching in Browns Park. They're wrist cuffs worn by Isom Dart at the moment when he was fatally shot Oct. 3, 1900.

The cuffs create a kind of gateway into the conflict-laden history of ranching near the turn of the 20th century in Northwest Colorado. They also shine a light on the life of Dart, an African-American cowboy who'd escaped from slavery in Texas only to find himself killed due to suspicion of rustling cattle.

Paul Knowles, the museum's assistant director, said the cuffs were commonly worn by cowboys at the time of Dart's death.

"If you were a cowboy, you kind of just had to have them," he said. "Almost every cowboy wore them."

Knowles said the cuffs might protect a cowboy from brush scrape, rope burns or other everyday hazards of the trade.

Museum Director Dan Davidson said he learned about the cuffs about 20 years ago when a granddaughter to Josie Bassett came to the museum. Bassett was one of the children in the family Dart worked for before beginning his own cattle operation in the late 1800s.

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Davidson later received photographs from Josie Bassett's granddaughter, who had the cuffs in her house but told Davidson she wasn't interested in parting with them. When she died in December, the cuffs went to relatives who offered them to the museum.

Davidson said he wanted to protect the former owners' privacy by not revealing their names or whether they sold or donated the cuffs.

Davidson and Knowles rese-

arched the cuffs and the life of Dart assiduously since they discovered the cuffs would be available. They've scoured books about the period, along with newspaper archives, first-hand accounts and other sources to conclude Dart was killed by Tom Horn, a man contracted by large cattle companies to kill people who were deemed rustlers.

Knowles said the accusation of rustling was widespread, and hard to verify.

"There was this battle between the small and the large (cattle companies)," Knowles said. "And also when you had large herds, it's easy for your cattle to get mixed up with other herds and never be seen again."

As Davidson and Knowles conducted research, they also turned up significant information about the life of Dart — enough to debunk, they said, a longstanding and sensationalized story that he joined a gang and lived with the alias Ned Huddleston. They found inconsistencies in sources of such claims and discovered no mention of that alias among people who knew him.

Among the primary sources was a letter written by Crawford MacKnight to a Denver Post writer in 1968 noting details about Dart's life. MacKnight knew Dart: he was the oldest son of Josie Bassett, and so as a child he saw a lot of Dart. In the letter, MacKnight wrote, "I remember Isom as a very kind man. He used to baby-sit me and my brother when Mother was away or busy. He played the fiddle and also harmonica."

MacKnight also noted he had "the old leather cuffs (Dart) was wearing when he was killed." That's one of the details, as Knowles explained, that helped him and Davidson verify the authenticity of the cuffs.

Knowles said the cuffs turn up a segment of the area's history that's often overlooked by pointing the way to Dart's life.

"He was a black cowboy in Northwest Colorado in the 1880s," Knowles said. "I think a lot of people forget that that was a demographic that was actually prevalent in the cowboy West. Not only was he a black cowboy in the very rugged wild west of Northwest Colorado, but he was very accepted. He was loved and considered one of the best ones."

Davidson said exploration of Dart's life also can restore the dignity of accuracy to his life story.

"I think he deserves to be seen for who he was," Davidson said.

Knowles said the items also can fix a spotlight on the museum itself, as he's discovered after describing the acquisition on Facebook.

"Someone who liked our post this morning and is now following our page is the Smithsonian (National) Museum of American History," he said. "These types of items can really help a museum out."

Knowles said the accusation of rustling was widespread, and often hard to verify.

"There was this battle between the small and the large (cattle companies)," Knowles said. "And also when you had large herds, it's easy for your cattle to get mixed up with other herds and never be seen again."

As Davidson and Knowles conducted research, they also turned up significant information about the life of Isom Dart — enough to debunk, they said, a longstanding and sensationalized story that he joined a gang and lived under the alias of Ned Huddleston. They found inconsistencies in sources that made such claims, and they discovered no mention of such an alias among people who knew him well.

Among the primary sources they uncovered was a letter written by Crawford MacKnight to a Denver Post writer in 1968 noting some details about Isom Dart's life. MacKnight knew Dart: he was the oldest son of Josie Bassett, and so as a child he saw a lot of Dart. In the letter, MacKnight wrote, "I remember Isom as a very kind man. He used to 'baby-sit' me and my brother when Mother was away or busy. He played the fiddle and also harmonica."

MacKnight also referred to Dart as a "top hand" who was fluent in Spanish and who was a "fine cook."

MacKnight noted, too, that he had "the old leather cuffs (Dart) was wearing when he was killed." That's one of the details, as Knowles explained, that helped him and Davidson verify the authenticity of the cuffs.

Knowles said the cuffs turn up a segment of the area's history that's often overlooked by pointing the way to Dart's life.

"He was a black cowboy in Northwest Colorado in the 1880s," Knowles said. "I think a lot of people forget that that was a demographic that was actually prevalent in the cowboy West. Not only was he a black cowboy in the very rugged wild west of Northwest Colorado, but he was very accepted. He was loved and considered one of the best ones."

Davidson said that exploration of Dart's life also can restore the dignity of accuracy to his life story.

"I think he deserves to be seen for who he was," Davidson said.

Knowles said the items also can fix a spotlight on the museum itself, as he's discovered after describing the acquisition on Facebook.

"Someone who liked our post this morning and is now following our page is the Smithsonian (National) Museum of American History," he said. "These types of items can really help a museum out."

Contact Michael Neary at 970-875-1794 or mneary@CraigDailyPress.com or follow him on Twitter @CDP_Education.