History in Focus: Redemption
The early history of Brown’s Park is filled with an array of unique and captivating characters. Lesser known, but no less intriguing is Judge Asbury B. Conway. His early life was a series of conventional achievements followed by a startling descent into a life of cattle rustling and heavy drinking, and then ending in an equally amazing rebirth of success in civilized society.
Asbury B. Conway was born in 1837 on his parents farm in Leroy, Illinois. The family moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa where young Asbury received a top notch private school education. A stellar student, Conway graduated from Iowa Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s and law degree in 1860.
In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Iowa 18th Volunteer Regiment as a buck private. From a 1910 regimental history, details emerge of a key moment in Asbury’s life. The 18th was stationed in Missouri on the western fringe of the war and tasked with keeping the border slave state of Missouri from falling into the hands of the Confederacy.
On January 8, 1863, while defending Springfield, the 1,100 men of the 18th were attacked by a southern force three times its size. In this skirmish, Conway was severely wounded, but he recovered and served admirably for the rest of the war. By war’s end he had been promoted to the rank of Captain.
Like so many veterans of the Civil War and maybe due to his war experiences and bachelor status, Conway responded to the alluring call of the West. In 1868 he showed up in South Pass City, WY in the midst of a fleeting gold rush. From there Conway fell in with an infamous Brown’s Park cattle rustling gang led by the violent “Mexican Joe” Hererra, renowned for his intimidating knife fighting skills.
At this point, Conway submerged himself into a life of cattle rustling and debauchery. Maintaining a general state of inebriation, he learned Spanish and became Hererra’s confidant and legal counsel in the business of cattle rustling and run-ins with the law. He also took time to learn to play the violin by ear.
The lone white man in Herrera’s gang, Conway became popular with the nearby Utes for playing their songs and chants on his violin. His nearly nightly performances around the fire of the Herrera camp became the centerpiece of entertainment for the rustlers and Utes. One can only imagine the atmosphere of tall tales, iniquity, machismo, and manly challenges that took place during those long bleary-eyed evenings!
In 1874, perhaps coming to terms with his past and the realization he needed to move on, Conway cleared his brain of his five year stupor and extricated himself from Brown’s Park. He moved to Green River, kick started his law practice, and reentered mainstream society.
Conway quickly made up for lost years in Brown’s Park. He became District Attorney of Sweetwater County, served in the Wyoming state constitutional convention, and was named to the Wyoming Supreme Court. In 1893, his alma mater conferred an honorary Doctor of Law on Conway! By 1897, he was elevated to Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court. To top it off, Conway became a confessing member of the Episcopal Church! Asbury B. Conway had come full circle.
Hard living and Civil War injuries caught up with Conway, and he died in 1897 at the age of 60. Yet, his outlaw life and improbable resuscitation makes him one of Brown Park’s compelling characters. His life also demonstrates the old West was a place that allowed for forgiveness, redemption, and second chances.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source material: Where The Old West Stayed Young, by John Rolfe Burroughs.
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