Gunfight – New Mexico, 1886

A gunfight between outlaw cattlemen and ranchers along the La Plata river near Fruitland in northwest New Mexico, about 8 pm, Monday, November 8, 1886.

“… Hilton’s bullet went into my wrist, cutting the cords of my fingers… Delush’s bullet struck me about three inches farther up the arm, splintering the bone and coming out the elbow… my shot hit Sherman Hilton in the right hip joint tearing it all to pieces. He fell about 10 feet from me but kept shooting at me until he had emptied both of his pistols. One other shot hit me in the groin… The four outlaws that were left, each took a Winchester and stood behind the wagon and emptied the magazines of their rifles at me. Bullets pierced my overcoat instead of my body; there were 29 bullet holes in my overcoat and one bullet cut a swath through my whiskers just under my chin.”

The gunfight is described in unpublished personal journals of two participants of the event, David Alma Stevens (my great uncle), who was 27 at the time, and his sister Abbie Stevens Young (my grandmother), who was 16 at the time and helped nurse her brother back to health. Also some information on the gunfight from the Deseret News is included. This information is from copies of family journals compiled by Gladys Young Knight (my aunt) and her daughter Elaine (my cousin). I am very grateful to Elaine for making these materials available to me (about 2001). Some background information on the range war is from the self-published book, “Our Valley”, by Rosetta Biggs, Mesa, Az, 1978.

The cattlemen were three Hiltons (Sherman, Dennis, and Len), two Delush’s (John and Nels), and Sam Bowen. They were armed with at least seven pistols and four Winchester rifles (102 bullets minimum).

The Ranchers were David Alma Stevens, Joshua W. Stevens, and Joe Smith. Alma was armed with a muzzle-loading shotgun with nine navy slugs in each barrel. Joshua and Smith each had a pistol (14 bullets total).

The bullet count is of interest because most gunfights that didn’t end in one party being killed or fleeing, ended when all the bullets were expended, as was the case here. Sherman Hilton and John Delush were killed, John Delush by friendly fire, a bullet from Dennis Hilton’s pistol. David Alma Stevens recovered from wounds believed at the time to be mortal.

Although the gunfight took place at close range, it was at night by campfire light and the black-powder ammunition probably obscured vision after the first few shots. This might explain why most bullets missed the target, and in one case hit the wrong target.

David Alma Stevens

Events from the life of

DAVID ALMA STEVENS

Born 10 February 1859 at Holden, Millard Co., Utah

Died 14 June 1947

(Taken from his personal writing which was undertaken at his children’ request after he had reached a “ripe old age”, when rheumatism made this effort difficult, the date of which was March, 1942.)

Holden, Millard County, Utah

March 11, 1942

A sketch of the life of David Alma Stevens who was born of goodly parents in the old fort at Holden, Utah, 10 February, 1859. My Grandfather, William Stevens, and family were called by President Brigham Young to move from Pleasant Grove to Provo in the early 50’s. Two years later they were called to come to Holden or “Cedar Springs” it was called then and start a settlement. As the Indians were very treacherous, they built a fort. The walls were made of adobes and the people lived in this fort for a number of years before building and moving on to their city lots.

The Stevens family underwent many trials and hardships incident to crossing the Plains and helping to settle different places in Utah.

In 1877-78 I attended the Brigham Young Academy. In the fall of 1879 I and my brother Joshua and David Savage were called to go to San Juan, Utah, to help settle that country. We left Holden for that mission 29th of October, 1879. I helped to make the road down the “Hole-in-the-Rock” to the Colorado River and up the opposite side of the river until the wagons were on top of the Summit. Then as we had two good yoke of oxen to pull our wagon, I took five head of horses and my pack outfit in company with two Robb brothers from Cedar City and started out to find the San Juan River. On arriving there I was very much disappointed in the country and moved on up the river 100 miles into New Mexico where I bought a squatter’s right of 160 acres of land. I worked the water assessment in the ditch and cleared some land for planting and returned to meet the wagons which I found on April 12th at the Mouth of Rencone Canyon where it empties into the San Juan River, about 12 miles west of the location later chosen for Bluff City. I helped work the road on up the San Juan River to Bluff where the main body settled, arriving there about noon April 19th, 1880.

My brother and his wife then proceeded on up the river into New Mexico. Joshua was very much pleased with my purchase and the location of the valley. We had with us some seeds–wheat, corn, and potatoes, also garden seeds, which we planted and all yielded a good crop.

The fall of 1880, six families from Moancoppy, Arizona, were called to come there and establish a colony. Four of the families responded. One, L. C. Burnham, was to be the Presiding Elder. The town was called Fruitland and I was appointed Postmaster.

The fall of 1880 my father sold out in Holden and moved to Fruitland. The next fall a rich Texas stock man by the name of Lacey brought in several thousand head of long-horned Texas cattle and with the cattle brought a reign of terror. Lacey’s outlaw cowboys would cut wire fences and turn hundreds of steers into the fields of grain to fatten them for the market. The result was in two years there were 102 ranch men killed and an untold number of Texas outlaws. Lacey himself was finally killed, and then some of his outlaw relations that he had brought into the country tried to carry on the same outlaw game. One by the name of Sherman Hilton had killed several ranchers and disposed of their ranches to his Texas friends and not an officer in the country had nerve enough to try to arrest him.

The winter of 1885 he jumped the ranch of Charles E. Bigler and John Allen which joined my 160 acres on the La Plata River, 16 miles north-east from Fruitland, and told them if he ever caught them back there he would kill them. They took him at his word and stayed away.

As I was the President and General Manager of the Canal Company, Mr. Hilton came to me and ordered Allan’s and Bigler’s water capital be transferred to him. I told Mr. Hilton our bylaws required a writing from the owner requesting the transfer before it could be made. At that, Mr. Hilton drew his pistol and said that he had six orders in his pistol and if did not make the transfer at once he would give them all to me. I told him our Company did not recognize that kind of order and advised him to pay those parties the value of their water stock and come in on the square. Mr. Hilton said he would have the water at the same price he paid for the land and if I did not transfer the water before time to plant garden he would kill me and my whole family and take my farm also. He said my farm was too good for a G. D. Mormon to own, and that Uncle Sam had passed a law prohibiting Mormons to hold land and that he would save Uncle Sam the trouble of coming here to look after us Mormons, that in time he and his party would kill or run every Mormon out of the county and take their farms and homes. For over two months every time Mr. Hilton met me which was quite often, he would draw his pistol and cuss me up one side and down the other and threaten to kill me if I did not transfer that water to him at once.

One day as I was on my way from Fruitland to my La Plata farm, Mr. Hilton met me at the foot of a steep hill and drew his pistol and threatened to kill me right there unless I would promise to transfer the water to him at once. I told Mr. Hilton I knew he was a brave man, but he was not brave enough to shoot a man without a jack knife to defend himself with and that I was tired of his abuse and if he would give me one of his pistols, as he had two, we would put our backs together and step off five steps each, and turn and shoot it out; but he said no, that he would not give me that good of a chance to kill him.

A few mornings later as I was piling sage brush to burn, I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and there was Mr. Hilton about ten feet from me with a pistol at each side and a large knife in front of him. I leaped toward him with my pitch fork about two feet from his breast and said, “Hold up your hands and don’t bat an eye, or I’ll run this fork clear through you.” He said, “You are the only man that ever got the drop on me, I’ll do anything you say if you won’t run that fork through me.”

He said that he came to make me transfer the water to him or he would kill me, but as I had got the drop on him, he would give me my final and last warning. He said he and his party were going to have all of the farms owned by the Mormons on the La Plata river, and that they would be there on the 10th day of October to take possession, and that every one that had not or could not vacate by that time would be killed. He said I was the only one they feared, if they could get rid of me the rest of the Mormons would run like sheep before coyotes. I told him to find better employment before he undertook such a dirty scheme, that he would find I was not Allen or Bigler, that I would pay them back in their own coin.

Instead of coming October 10 as he said, a party of six, armed with pistols and rifles came the 8th of November. My brother, Joshua, and I were about 10 miles from home running a threshing machine at the time. C. E. Bigler was on my father’s and Joshua’s ranch of 160 acres and my wife and two little girls were on my 160-acre farm. The outlaw party consisted of 3 Hiltons, 2 Delush’s, and 1 Bowman. They had C. E. Bigler and my wife scared almost breathless with their violent threats. A. Charles Clawson came to the thresher about the middle of the afternoon and told us about the gang’s arrival and demands and that Bigler was so frightened he had moved his household effects off the farm, and that my wife was in great fear that they try to carry out their threats and move her and our household effects off the farm. We finished the job we were doing, then moved to the last place of threshing and left the machine with a Navajo Indian by the name of Lem Bills. Myself, Joshua, and Joseph Smith, the owner of the thresher, each of us owning farms adjoining the one which the outlaw gang threatened to take, continued our journey on to our farms about three miles distant, arriving there about 7.00 p. m.

On the way from the thresher to our farms and my wife and children, we stopped the team and got off the wagon and knelt down in a circle and took our turns earnestly praying and pleading with the Lord for his protecting care and our deliverance from the hands of those murderous outlaws. My brother carried a good pistol, I had at my house a Sharps rifle, a double-barrel shotgun, and a good pistol.

The outlaws were camped on my brother’s farm, in front of his house. I told Joshua and Smith we were not taking arms to hurt people, but for our own protection; that it would never do to meet the enemy without being well armed, and that would be one half the battle. I offered Smith his choice of the rifle or shot gun, and as Bigler and Clabe Brimhall were at my house at the time, either of them could take the other gun, and I would take the pistol. But Bigler and Brimhall refused to take any part in the matter and said the gang had threatened to kill me on sight, and begged me not to go or have anything to do with it, that it was better to lose my farm than my life, which I would surely lose if I went up there. I told them no, I would go and do my duty, trusting in the Lord for his protection and deliverance. I gave Mr. Smith my pistol and as my shot gun was a muzzle loader, I put 6 navy bullets in each barrel and we proceeded to my brother’s farm and house 1/4 of a mile away. On arriving, we found only 3 of the desperados there; 1 Hilton, the oldest; 1 Delush, and Bowman. Mr. Hilton was very insulting and abusive, profaning against the Mormons, at which my brother and Hilton clinched and tussled. My brother threw him down and choked him some, at which point Hilton promised to withdraw his claim and move right off if my brother would let him up. But instead of moving off as he agreed to do, the three of them went out about 100 yards from the fire and met the other three who were returning from supper at Sherman Hilton’s home, about 3/4 of a mile away … Just as the 6 came and took their positions among us I said, “Good evening, gents.” Sherman Hilton answered, “Como le va.”

In the same instance he and John Delush fired at me. Hilton’s bullet went into my wrist, cutting the cords of my fingers, striking my body, and falling to the ground. Delush’s bullet struck me about three inches farther up the arm, splintering the bone and coming out the elbow and dropping to the ground. The two bullets were picked up the next morning, about a foot apart. The other four shot at Joshua and Jo Smith. Smith stampeded, ran three miles back to the thresher, then Lem Bills rushed to the ranch to see what the conditions were. A bullet burned Joshua’s eye brows and he returned the shot and they ran, shooting as they ran. When Joshua’s pistol was empty, he hid behind the house and stayed there until the shooting was all over and everybody gone except John Delush who was shot in the head and his folks did not remove his body until next afternoon. When I was shot, I jerked my left arm that was shot. The hand dropped down and my gun dropped, but I caught it with my right hand before it reached the ground, and a voice call me by name and said, “Keep cool and shoot low. All will be well.” As soon as the smoke cleared a little, I did as the voice told me and my shot hit Sherman Hilton in the right hip joint tearing it all to pieces. He fell about 10 feet from me but kept shooting at me until he had emptied both of his pistols. One other shot hit me in the groin, lodging behind the right hip joint which was removed by an Army doctor who called at the house the next morning.

The four outlaws that were left, each took a Winchester and stood behind the wagon and emptied the magazines of their rifles at me. Bullets pierced my overcoat instead of my body; there were 29 bullet holes in my overcoat and one bullet cut a swath through my whiskers just under my chin. (End of copy from Memoirs.)

Following the end of the memoirs is the note:

The outlaws had four of the Mormon boys arrested for murder by officers from another county. David Alma was not arrested. The sheriff, learning from the army doctor that the wounded man’s case was hopeless, called at the Stevens home to find the patient in a dying condition. The sheriff congratulated the parents on the valor of their son and left without serving the warrant for arrest.

Abigail (Abbie) Stevens Young

The following is taken from the unpublished autobiography of Abbie Stevens Young and provides a different viewpoint of the gunfight and events after the gunfight.

… At noon Bigler arrived with a load of furniture, To his surprise, he found that Walker had gone and on Dennis Hilton had taken possession having laid some poles belonging to the ranch in a square in front of the house with a notice thereon, also one on the door of the dwelling, and another on the granary, stating the he (Dennis Hilton) had located the ranch this day, (November 8, 1886) etc. Dennis, having left the place in charge of his brother Sherman Hilton, came to this place (Farmington), to procure some help, guns and ammunition to assist him in carrying out the break he had made. The party thought that as W. J. Stevens was 85 miles away, running a thresher, and his brother Alma was some 50 miles away, they would have only Bigler to contend against; but to their surprise, the Stevens brothers were within five miles of the farm, and hearing what had taken place hurried on. They arrived at Alma’s place, which joins Bigler’s on the south, about 7:00 PM, took supper, and then went to Bigler’s some 80 rods distant.

When Alma accompanied Joshua, and the shooting began, he was a marked man and received three wounds at the outset, besides having his clothes riddled with bullets. When they left the thresher and returned to Alma’s place, they ate supper, then knelt in humble prayer and sought the Lord to give them his protection to overrule in their behalf, then they left the house to meet these men unarmed. When they had gone a few yards. Alma said, “Joshua, we are taking our lives in our hands and we may not bring them back. We are going helpless into the hands of an armed mob. Now I am going back and get my shotgun, which is loaded and standing behind the bedroom door.” This he did and stood by the camp fire with the muzzle of the gun resting on the toe of his boot, and his arms crossed resting on the end of the stock.

After he had received the three wounds, he said a voice spoke to him saying, “Alma keep cool and shoot low.” He tried to lift the gun, but the broken arm was helpless below the elbow. As it was already resting on the toe of his boot, he raised it with his foot, and with the other hand succeeded in getting it up so it could rest on the wounded arm above the elbow. He aimed as directed and Sherman Hilton received a load of buckshot in the thigh and hip. His leg was amputated at the hip joint, but he died within a week. C. E. Bigler, being unarmed, ran, but his overcoat was shot through a number of times by the bullets aimed at him. Joshua was wearing a beard and a bullet plowed through cutting a furrow that just missed his chin and burning his face with powder. Another went through the brim of his hat and embedded the powder in his face and eyes. I have worked hours helping him to remove the disfiguring powder that lodged in his face. My judgment should be written, but it more properly belongs to a family sketch, rather than a personal one, as this is intended to be.

Alma and his family, consisting of himself, whom the Doctor said when he removed the bullet from his thigh, could not possibly recover, his wife, and two little girls were removed to our home. Joshua’s wife gave birth to a son less than a month after this occurrence. Della, a son on the 28th of December, Alma’s wife a son in February and Emma, a daughter three weeks later, on the 3rd of March.

It so happened that a company of soldiers were encamped at the mouth of the La Platte river where it emptied into the San Juan river. It was the army surgeon who was persuaded to care for the wounded. Bits of clothing had been carried into the wounds by the bullets and they remained for hours before help could be secured. The wounds were of such a nature that they could not drain themselves. The Army doctor was not permitted to engage in private practice, but was allowed to give first aid if patients were brought to him. However, he instructed mother in how to dress and care for Alma’s wounds. They had to be probed daily and syringed out with antiseptic solution and then dressed. Mother could not possibly do all this alone, and I was the one and the only one who could assist her. The Doctor had graciously given her a supply of bandaging and gauze for what he thought and said was a mortally wounded man. We were not where we could obtain more, so what we had was more precious than gold. Every morning I washed the dressings, then pressed and rolled them for use again. I was his night nurse every night until midnight. I would get the family washing ready at night, put the boiler of water on the stove, lay the fire ready for match, and at 4:00 a. m. Della, with whom I was sleeping, would wake me to get the washing done, all but rinsing and hanging before time for me to go to school. [At 16, she was the teacher, not a student — JF].

In addition to all this, there were three babies born in that three room house during that trying time, and one at Joshua’s whom mother had to wait upon and care for. That was when and where I was initiated into the practice of obstetrics and I followed it for forty years more or less. It as a great relief when the school teaching ended and the sick recovered and returned to their homes. I had a serious breakdown and lost weight so rapidly one of my boy friends said, “Abbie, if you don’t stop losing flesh like this in a few more days you will have to stand twice in one place to make a shadow.”

…When Sherman Hilton and John Deluche lost their lives in that affair, the gang leaders were gone and the rest of them settled down to peaceable lives, however, Nels Deluche afterwards served a long term in the Santa Fe prison for cattle stealing. C. E. Bigler took possession of the ranch and moved his family there. When the warrants for arrest were served, the sheriff stopped at the soldiers camp on the La Platte and talked with the doctor about Alma and his chance of recovery. He, too, was told how hopeless he considered the case, so he only stopped at our house to see the patient, express his sympathy, and congratulate him upon his courage and bravery and tell him what a marvelous service he had rendered the country. He did not read the warrant for his arrest, or even say anything about it. When Alma recovered enough to travel and his wife and baby were well enough, they were counseled to get out of the way before he should be brought to trial. Bluff being located 100 miles down the San Juan river but in Utah, it was decided to go there.

At Aztec, the four men arrested as accessories were discharged. Of those who took part in the fight, each was required to produce as part of the evidence, the arms they used, also the bullet taken from John Deluche’s head was produced. It was found that Dennis Hilton had the only pistol that carried the same caliber cartridge as the one that killed Deluche. After evidence was all taken, the judge dismissed court to reconvene next morning for the verdict. Late that evening he went to the hotel where Joshua was staying and told him he was a free man and after congratulating him upon the service rendered the country and his bravery, advised him to go home that night so he would be safe. The judge felt that when the verdict was given the outlaws would be after Joshua and though he need not fear the law, his life would be in jeopardy while his enemies remained there, so Joshua too removed to Bluff.

Deseret News

The gunfight was published in the Deseret News on December 22, 1886 under the heading “A Shooting Affray, Bloody Business over Disputed Land in New Mexico” in a letter to the editor signed Spectator that can be found in the microfilm division, Vol. 35, page 771, at the Church Historian’s office, 47 East South Temple, Salt Lake City Utah.

Spectator was later identified by Abbie Stevens Young as Harvey J. Young, of Brigham City, Utah, no relation.

…Abbie, who was a little past 16 years of age when the events related took place, asserts that Harvey J. Young was at the time serving as a missionary for the L. D. S. Church among the Indians of New Mexico, and that he took refuge in the Stevens home at times when he required a respite from the severe privations incident to the life among the vermin-invested Navahos. He was present when David Alma Stevens was brought to his mother’s home, after having received first aid treatment by the Army surgeon stationed at the mouth of the La Plata river, about ten miles from the scene of the trouble. Mr. Young was a great help to the Stevens family during the anxious weeks that followed. He took over the farm chores, feeding the cattle and poultry, milking cows, chopping wood, then assisted as night attendant while the wounded man was nursed through infection and fever to a miraculous recovery, from blood poison in the deep wound in the groin. He was pronounced mortally wounded by the army surgeon. He hovered on the brink of death for over three months.

Our Valley

The book “Our Valley” compiled by Rosetta Biggs and self published in 1978 in Mesa, Arizona (Library of Congress Control Number 78111775) discusses life in the San Juan Valley around Fruitland, New Mexico. Although it discusses the Stevens family including David Alma and Joshua, no mention is made of the gunfight. However, there is a discussion of how three of the 102 ranchers died before the gunfight in the “Pointer Records From Grandma’s Bible” section, pp. 32-33 provided by Hazel Sheek Carmen, Kirtland, New Mexico, 1972.

Grandpa had cattle and was doing good when these men came from Texas and tried to run everyone off their places. … In the ensuing range war, Grandpa was killed. He started for Durango and his horse came back home with blood all over the saddle and the bridle reins broken. … Grandma had Indian trackers back-track the horse and they found where it happened, but from there all signs had been wiped out and he was never found. Grandma was expecting my mother at the time, and it was right in there when Uncle Sherman was killed, too. It was out near the Barker Arroyo, up on the La Plata. He and another man were out riding for Grandma’s cattle, when the Texans got both of them. It was called “the Texas land grab.”

This book also has information on many of my relatives including my grandfather, Joseph Lehi Foutz. Six of his thirteen sons became Indian traders, including my father Lehi Junius Foutz, who became partners with C. H. Algert.

Algert established the C. H. Algert Company, a wholesale trading store, housed in a two story building constructed of adobe, brick and cement. Algert soon took Junius Foutz into the store with him, and the two began the work of spawning Indian Trading Posts throughout the Navajo reservation. The Navajos brought in wool, pelts, hides, cattle, lambs, rugs, and jewelry, and in return received food, clothing, household goods, saddles, and other necessities. These were shipped as far away as Chicago. The nearest shipping points were Durango, Mancos or Galluup until the D&RG was built into Farmington.