Moffat County’s most notorious: Outlaw Harry Tracy blazed trail of murder, mayhem in Old West
In all the criminal lore of the country there is no record equal to that of Harry Tracy for cold-blooded nerve, desperation and thirst for crime. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher.
— Seattle Daily Times, July 3, 1902
The story sounds like something straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel or a John Wayne movie.
It has everything one would expect from a good western — steely eyed lawmen, desperate outlaws, posse chases, gunfights, daring jailbreaks and, ultimately, a nationwide manhunt for one Harry Tracy, petty criminal turned multi-state murderer.
The difference is, this story is not a novel or a movie — this one is true, and much of it happened right here in modern-day Moffat County.
According to Dan Davidson and Paul Knowles, director and assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, respectively, the story began in late 1897, at the Utah State Penitentiary, where Tracy, then only in his early 20s, and his soon-to-be accomplice, David Lant, were incarcerated, both for relatively minor offenses.
It would not take long, however, for their offenses to grow far less minor.
While on a work detail outside the prison walls in October of that year, Tracy, Lant and several other inmates staged a daring escape.
Somehow, Tracy produced a Colt .45 revolver and disarmed the guard. It is not known how Tracy acquired this firearm, but Davidson speculated he must have had another accomplice on the outside, one who had secreted the weapon in a prearranged location for Tracy to find.
Following their escape — the first of several — Lant and Tracy — who had met in prison — decided to remain together, eventually making their way east to Brown’s Park, in present-day northwestern Moffat County, and joining forces with another outlaw, P.L. Johnston, who was on the run for cattle rustling, as well as the killing of Willie Strang, a hired hand of prominent rancher Valentine Hoy.
In the meantime, Routt County Sheriff Charlie Neiman and his deputy, E.A. Farnham, had also made their way to Brown’s Park — which was then a part of Routt County — carrying warrants for the arrest of Johnston and John Bennett, also known as “Judge” Bennett, both of whom had been charged with killing one of Hoy’s steers.
When they arrived at Ladore on Feb. 25, 1898, Neiman and Farnham learned of Strang’s murder, which had occurred across the Wyoming border; two days later, as they approached Vermillion Creek, they encountered three men — later identified as Tracy, Lant and Johnston — with packhorses. Upon spotting the officers, the trio beat a hasty retreat to the hills, making for Ladore Canyon.
An 1898 article in the Craig Courier details the events.
“After learning of (Strang’s) murder the officers rightly surmised that the men they had seen were the criminals they were after,” the article states. “A posse was mustered that night, and the following morning, Monday, February 28th, the pursuit of the fugitives commenced in earnest.”
First murder; first capture; second escape
The posse formed to capture the three men initially caught up with them on Tuesday, March 1, in Ladore Canyon, and the results were deadly. Having discovered the outlaws’ abandoned camp, members of the posse assumed they were long gone and set out on foot.
That assumption proved a fatal error.
According to the Courier article: “V.S (Valentine) Hoy was in advance of the other men. … but he was under the impression that Johnston and his companions had gained the other side of the mountain and thought there was no immediate danger. In this, he was mistaken, for without a word of warning, he was shot down and killed, his murderers being not more than six feet away when the fatal shot was fired.”
With darkness falling and one man dead the posse abandoned its hunt for the night, but three days later, on Friday, March 4, the lawmen finally pinned down their quarry in a gulch near Lookout Mountain, some 60 miles from where Hoy had been killed.
After a brief gun battle, Tracy, Lant and Johnston were captured.
Because Johnston was wanted for the murder of Strang — Hoy’s young ranch hand — in Wyoming, he was turned over to Sweetwater County, Wyoming, Deputy Sheriff S.P. Swanson, while Lant and Tracy, both wanted for escaping prison in Utah and for Hoy’s murder, were transported to the Hahn’s Peak Jail by Neiman, stopping briefly in Craig en route.
After resting in Craig, Neiman successfully got his prisoners to Hahn’s Peak and behind bars, but the outlaws were not to remain incarcerated for long.
According to another report in the Courier, on March 22, 1898, while Neiman was locking the prisoners up for the night, Lant managed to slip into a vacant cell, and as Neiman was working to lock Tracy in, Lant overpowered the sheriff, beat him unconscious, freed Tracy and locked Neiman into Tracy’s cell.
Neiman reportedly regained consciousness in time to overhear the outlaws plotting their route of escape, which entailed fleeing south to Steamboat Springs, then taking the stagecoach to Wolcott, where they hoped to board the train.
After Lant and Tracy had fled, stealing two horses in the process, Neiman called for help and was released. He caught up to the pair the following day at the Laramore Ranch, just south of Steamboat, as they awaited the stage. As the outlaws had not yet acquired weapons, Neiman was able to recapture them without incident.
Trip to Aspen; third escape
Following their recapture, Lant and Tracy were returned to Hahn’s Peak, but given their penchant for and skill at escaping, it was decided they could be more securely held in Aspen, which, at that time, boasted the most secure jail in Colorado.
The Aspen jail managed to keep the pair for several months as they awaited trial, but again — using tactics similar to those that had freed them from Hahn’s Peak — Lant and Tracy overpowered a jailer as he brought them food.
They are thought to have fled up and over to Breckenridge, eventually making their way to Kokomo — now a ghost town in Summit County.
At this point, Lant disappears from the story altogether, and it is not positively known what became of him. Some think Tracy killed him, while others say he turned from his criminal ways and went on to serve in the Spanish-American War.
Neither of these assertions can be confirmed, but there is little or no mention of David Lant in the historical record after this point.
Tracy, on the other hand, was far from done.
Final crime spree; final escape
After he and Lant parted ways, Tracy made his way westward, eventually ending up in Washington and Oregon. There, he reconnected with an old partner, Dave Merrill, and the two went on a considerable crime spree in those states.
In late 1901, the pair were captured, convicted and incarcerated at Oregon State Penitentiary, but again, prison bars proved only a temporary setback for Harry Tracy. Undoubtedly enlisting outside aid, Tracy managed to have two rifles and a considerable supply of ammunition smuggled into the prison, and he and Merrill used these weapons to stage a bloody escape on June 2, 1902, killing three corrections officers and three civilians in the process.
This deadly escape catapulted Tracy to nationwide notoriety, and during the months that followed, Knowles said, he was considered American’s most wanted fugitive.
After his final escape, Tracy was free for only about two months, but during that time, he killed several more people, including a detective, a deputy sheriff, two members of a posse and — some say — his partner, Merrill.
His rampage came to an end on Aug. 5, 1902, near Creston, Washington, when, finally cornered and seriously wounded, Tracy turned his gun on himself.
Joseph D. Lee, superintendent of Oregon State Penitentiary, described Tracy’s demise in his biennial report, dated Oct. 1, 1902.
“On August 9th, E.C. Lanter, Maurice Smith and S.J. Straub brought the remains of Harry Tracy, who had on the fifth of August, in Lincoln County, Washington, received a death wound, but anticipating its fatal result had circumvented the same, and hastened death by sending a bullet crashing through his brain. His identification was unquestionable.”
Both Davidson and Knowles placed Harry Tracy among the most notorious outlaws of the Old West, and neither could say why his name is not better known.
He was featured in a minor 1982 film titled “Harry Tracy, Desperado,” with actor Bruce Dern in the title role, but his name is not mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, something that perplexes Davidson and Knowles, given the man’s fearsome reputation.
That reputation is perhaps best captured in Lee’s biennial report.
“Since my contact with criminals and my study of related subjects … I have not met a man with so many strong points to qualify him for a successful criminal,” the prison superintendent wrote. “His quickness of apprehensi0on and decision was Napoleonic. He had a nerve of steel. With him, the taking of human life was a question of expediency only. His reckless, daredevil exploits and hair breadth escapes were to him diversion.
“In conversation with him he was very direct, and although devoid of much education he had a good use of language. He was especially fortunate having intelligent and shrewd outside help. We kept him much longer than had any other prison. His devious career and ignominious death furnishes a strong warning to all men who have any tendency toward outlawry. Without a dollar to his estate, with a reputation for crime only, while still a young man, his sun set in darkness and his remains lie unhonored in a prison cemetery.”
To learn more about Harry Tracy and see the gun taken from him following his arrest in Brown’s Park, visit the Museum of Northwest Colorado.