From the Museum Archives: An unbelievable tale of a cursed family
Joe Ward first appeared in today’s Moffat County in 1884. In a region known for tough men, Joe Ward was instantly considered a tough man. He filed for a homestead about 20 miles southwest of Craig next to the newly constructed Government Bridge which is still located on Moffat County Road 17.
Joe, however, was moving in with a past. In 1879, he killed a man in Colorado for which he served two years in the state penitentiary. After his release, due to his heavy drinking and frequent family disputes — his wife even shot at him in 1882 — it didn’t take long before the people of Leadville demanded he and his family leave town.
Joe heeded the warning and found the homestead at Government Bridge. Here he would move his wife, Hattie, and their two children: a boy, Clover and daughter, Etta. During the move, Joe somehow managed to murder his traveling companion, Charlie Fox, near the current town of Yampa, out of what appears to be jealousy.
With their house right next to one of the only bridges over the Yampa River at the time, the Wards opened a successful roadhouse that provided food and lodging for travelers. They also became well known for their hard liquor.
But it didn’t take long for the Wards to again become a nuisance. Joe tried to kill a young cowboy who was smitten with Etta. Then, after a rancher complained that Clover had shot at him, Joe devised a plan to ride to the rancher’s house, call out his name and have Clover shoot him from the back of their wagon. Clover, at just 14 years of age, missed.
It was also noticed that local horses were disappearing every time Joe left the ranch for a few days. Already fed up with their new residents after just a year, several ranchers took matters into their own hands. In August 1885, while returning from Rawlins, Wyoming, after selling stolen horses, Joe Ward was ambushed by a vigilante posse of local ranchers at Iron Springs. With apprehension not even a consideration, they simply opened fire — every single one of them. Joe Ward was dead.
After his father’s death, Clover Ward straightened up and took the major duties around the ranch and roadhouse. Etta, however, soon ended up in the mining town of Rico where she worked as a prostitute. Here she took her own life in 1892.
For the next eight years, Hattie and Clover successfully ran both the ranch and the roadhouse until tragedy struck again. One evening in May 1900, Clover was riding his new bicycle home over the Government Bridge after tending to the crops. Since he was running late, Hattie had stepped outside to look for him. As she watched him crossing the bridge, Clover lost control of his bike and swerved into the raging runoff waters of the Yampa. Hattie ran screaming toward the bridge, but Clover was gone. His body was found over a week later nearly 50 miles downstream in Lily Park.
Hattie, being the sole survivor of the entire family, fell into depression and alcohol. On Christmas night, Just seven months after Clover’s death, she fell asleep in bed with a whisky jug in her hand. While asleep she knocked over the kerosene lantern at her bedside; the next morning a passerby found the still-smoldering remains of the house. The last of the Wards lay dead.
Today, you can still view the father/son headstone of the Wards located near the bridge over the Yampa River on Moffat County Road 17.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.