San Juan Sagas

Found Photo Project #2

By Eilene Lyon

Photo Find

I enjoy finding 19th century photographs in the local antique store that have some identifying marks. This photograph of 6-year-old Henry Lloyd Wilson caught my eye, despite the defacing scratches. It has so much information: his age, the date the photo was taken and where, and to whom it was sent.

Back of Henry Lloyd Wilson’s photograph, 1892. (Collection of the author)

Henry Lloyd Wilson was born in Crawford, attended law school in Lincoln, and apparently lived his entire 46-year life in Nebraska.1 Well, that was exciting.

When I researched his family, however, their ties to southwest Colorado history, the first white settlements in the Four Corners, and a murder mystery in Monument Valley, all came to light. On top of that, this photo even connects to my very own cousins. A very worthwhile two buck investment!

Henry was the second of four children born to Clara E. (Mitchell) and John M. Wilson. In addition, he had two older half-brothers, born about two months apart. That’s right. Both his parents had babies with first spouses who died shortly after.

John M. Wilson

John M. Wilson’s obituary tells a fascinating life story, while revealing nothing of his ancestry. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and emigrated to Canada at age 10. He left home at 14 to work on Lake Michigan. Later he became a buffalo hunter on the plains of western Kansas and Colorado, “during which time he became intimately acquainted with some of the famous scouts and frontiersmen.”2

He then went into the apparel business around Colorado, including stores in Durango and Alamosa. He married his first wife, Frances Coulson, and had a son named Frank.3 Deciding not to rear the child after his wife’s passing, it appears that Frances’s mother took on the duty. Thus the inscription on the back of the photo: “For Mrs C.A. Coulson and Frank Wilson.”

Oddly, the obituary says the boy was a year old when Frances died, but records indicate Frank was born June 16, 1880 and on June 11, 1880, John Wilson was enumerated in Denver (occupation: glove maker), alone and widowed.4 This suggests that the couple may have separated prior to Frank’s birth.

Clara and Cornelius Williams

Clara E. Mitchell’s life is also one for the storybooks. We’ll get to her birth family in a bit. Let’s start with her first marriage. It was probably the first white marriage in southeast Utah. An itinerant minister, Mr. Beebe, from Mancos (or maybe Animas City), Colorado, traveled down McElmo Canyon to Montezuma Creek to perform the ceremony on June 17, 1879. Scouts from the Mormon Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, later founders of Bluff, Utah, enjoyed the festivities.5

Clara’s husband, Cornelius “Neil” Williams, soon swept her away into the heart of the San Juan Mountains: Silverton, Colorado. He was elected to serve as sheriff.6 Their baby boy, Howard Williams, came along in mid-April 1880.7 Howard was named for Neil’s father, who died about the time Neil was born.

On June 1, the family was living in Silverton and Neil’s occupation was listed as “Under Sheriff,” suggesting he may have been demoted for some reason.8 Two weeks later, the family had relocated and was enumerated a second time. This time they were joined by Neil’s 19-year-old half-brother, Walter Menefee. They all worked together to run a hotel in the remote mining town of Ophir.9

Ophir Colorado, 1883. History Colorado. Accession #2000.129.276. Used with permission.

The last news account I have for Cornelius Williams puts him in Ophir in the summer of 1881.10 According to a notation in San Juan County Historical Society files (Silverton), Cornelius died in Animas City (now part of Durango) in 1881.11 There’s no record of him in the Animas City Cemetery. I suspect he was interred in Ophir with a wooden marker.

How, where, and when Clara met John Wilson is a bit of a mystery, but it may have been right here in Durango. They relocated to Crawford, Nebraska, soon after marriage and opened a clothing store. They had four children, and reared Howard as well. The family settled for good.

Clara took over management of the family store at some point, as this ad from 1916 shows (John died in 1920). (Crawford Tribune, November 3, 1916 p. 12 – via
The Mitchell Family

Clara Mitchell was the 12th of 17 children of Henry Lewis Mitchell and Caroline Osborne. Henry L. Mitchell was born near Dayton, Ohio, and later moved to Indiana where he married Caroline and they had their first 11 children. Clara was the first to be born in Missouri.12 Henry and his son Porter served the Union during the Civil War. In Missouri that was rough duty, as the majority of Mitchell’s neighbors supported the Confederacy.13

In the 1870s, the family moved again, this time to southwestern Colorado. They settled in the Mancos Valley and some of the Mitchell children and their spouses remained there. For a time they lived near Sleeping Ute Mountain close to present-day Cortez. The springs that supplied their water are still known as Mitchell Springs.14

About January 1879, Henry, Caroline, and some of their children then moved to the confluence of McElmo Creek with the Lower San Juan River in Utah. No records survive to indicate that Henry had legal title to any of his landholdings. The family ranched and ran a trading post. Henry helped his sons establish their own cattle operations.15

It was a time and place ripe for conflict. Navajos had recently returned to their homeland from exile in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Utes and Paiutes also roamed the area. And Brigham Young had sent a band of settlers to establish a new community on the San Juan. Generally, the relationships between the natives, Mormons, and gentiles were peaceful. But not always.

View of Sleeping Ute Mountain from the west, looking up Little Ruin Canyon. Mitchell Springs would be east of the highest part of the mountain. The confluence of McElmo Canyon and the San Juan River is south of this vantage point. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Navajo reservation was much smaller then than it is today. The desert south of the San Juan did not have near enough forage to support the Navajo’s sheep herds. Navajos frequently traveled off-reservation to do business at the trading posts north of the river. Seeing the good forage on the public domain land there, they naturally moved their sheep herds.16

The whites considered the public domain to be exclusively theirs, so Mitchell and his neighbors were continually asking the Indian agent and soldiers at Fort Lewis to move the Indians back onto the reservation. Some Indians, claimed to be renegades by others, were in the habit of stealing livestock from the settlers, and sometimes goods from the trading posts. They also made threats that they would kill all the whites on the reservation border.17

Some of the government men on the receiving end of Mitchell’s letters, which could contain deliberate exaggerations for effect, felt he tended to cause a lot of the friction between the different factions on the Lower San Juan.18 It’s impossible to know the truth, but there was undoubtedly some fault on all sides.

Layout of Monument Valley with named features. (Wikimedia Commons)
Mitchell and Merrick Buttes, Monument Valley

Certainly Henry Mitchell had good cause for complaint in early 1880. An old prospector named variously as James Merrick, Merritt or Myrick, known to the Mitchell family, had been searching for a silver mine in Monument Valley. He reportedly brought some ore to Mancos that assayed at over $600 per ton in the summer of 1879.19

Merrick convinced 25-year-old Hernan Mitchell to join him on his next trip, around Christmas 1879. They were expected to be gone two weeks. (Some accounts give Hernan’s first name as “Ernest,” but the Mitchells had no son by that name.)

In early February, Henry sent out the first search party which was unsuccessful. A second party found the gun-shot bodies of the two men and buried them. Mitchell was recognized only by his clothing because of scavengers.20

Mitchell apparently put up a good fight, firing a number of rounds in self-defense. The members of his family were quite well-versed in the use of firearms. But he was killed by a single round to the torso. Merrick fled for his life and was hit by seven rounds of gunfire. He was found a few miles from Mitchell where he had hidden in some rocks. Death came from an eighth, and final, shot to the head.21

Mitchell Butte in Monument Valley. (Wikimedia Commons)

Blame was flung in many directions. The Navajos did it. The Paiutes did it. A rogue group of Navajo-Ute-Paiute did it. A trader named Keam did it. (Keam gave one of the dead prospector’s guns to a Navajo.)22 Clearly there was more than one assailant.

In their book Traders to the Navajos, Frances Gillmor and Louisa Wade Wetherill share the story supposedly told by Navajo chief Hoskinini. It comes close to fitting the report by the men who found the bodies, though has no doubt been embellished for effect:23

They [Mitchell and Merrick] had stopped at Hoskinini’s hogan and demanded mutton. When it had been killed for them, they were directed to water. After watering their horses, and filling their canteens, they rode on to the foot of the Monument that was later named for Mitchell. In the morning they were ready for an early start.

A band of Paiutes had planned a surprise attack at daybreak, but when they came to the men’s camping place, they found them already mounted.

The Paiutes told them that they had been using Paiute water to which they had no right.

‘We were sent to that water,’ replied the white men calmly.

The efforts of the Paiutes to make them angry and pick a quarrel were fruitless.

‘Give me a chew of tobacco,’ demanded one Paiute finally.

Mitchell reached into his pocket for a plug of tobacco. At the same time the Paiute reached for the gun on his hip. Mitchell lay dead on the ground, with a bullet from his own gun through his head.

Merrick whirled at the shot, and, seeing his partner past help, put spurs to his own horse and fled, shooting as he rode.

For three miles he rode, to the foot of the great rock which later was to be named for him, Merrick Butte.

There, knowing that he had been wounded, and fearing that he might have cartridges left, his pursuers turned back. Alone among the rocks he died.

Investigations suggested that a small group of Indians of Ute-Paiute ancestry killed the men.24 Two large buttes in the north part of Monument Valley were named for the dead prospectors. Their graves have been lost to time.

East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte (right) at dusk. (Wikimedia Commons)

While researching the Mitchell family, I came across a worthwhile Ancestry tree. When I looked at the tree owner’s pedigree, I recognized the name Livengood. Yes, we are fifth cousins on that family line, with a DNA match to support it. Her mother wrote several books about the Mitchells, including one devoted to Hernan Mitchell’s and James Merrick’s deaths (which I am unable to access at this time). These two women are descendants of Henry L. Mitchell’s sister, Eliza.

I ran Henry Lloyd Wilson’s image through MyHeritage software to repair it, but alas, it cannot give poor Henry a new nose. Henry was undoubtedly named for his grandfather, Henry Lewis Mitchell.

  1. “H. Lloyd Wilson Laid to Rest” Crawford Tribune (Neb.), June 30, 1933, p. 1 – via 
  2. “Pioneer Citizen Laid to Rest: Funeral and Obituary of John M. Wilson” Crawford Tribune (Neb.), February 27, 1920 p. 1 – via 
  3. Ibid.; U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 for Frank Montgomery Wilson, gives his parents’ names as John M. Wilson and Frances Coulson – via 
  4. John M. Wilson. Year: 1880; Census Place: Denver, Arapahoe, Colorado; Roll: 88; Page: 326C; Enumeration District: 015 – via 
  5. Miller, David E. 1966. Hole-In-The-Rock: An Epic in the Colonization of the Great American West. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, p. 26. AND Ellis, Fern D. 1976. Come Back to My Valley, An Early History of the Mancos Valley, 2nd Edition 1999. Southwest Printing Co., Cortez, CO, p. 105, cited in Kaufman (see below) n11, p. 192. 
  6. “San Juan County Convention, Silverton, September 2nd” Solid Muldoon (Weekly, Ouray, CO), September 5, 1979, p. 3 – via Colorado Historic Newspapers. States that Cornelius Williams was the Democratic ticket nominee for Sheriff. AND Kaufman, Betty Robertson. 2006. Henry L. Mitchell of Missouri, Mancos, McElmo, Mitchell Springs, and the Lower San Juan River. Kaufman Publishing, Denver, CO, p. 181: “A Neil Williams was found in records as sheriff of San Juan County as of 16 March 1880.” 
  7. C. Williams. Year: 1880; Census Place: Silverton, San Juan, Colorado; Roll: 92; Page: 370A; Enumeration District: 103 – via 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Corneleus Williams. Year: 1880; Census Place: Lower San Miguel, Ouray, Colorado; Roll: 92; Page: 163A; Enumeration District: 091 – via 
  10. “County Democratic Central Committee” Solid Muldoon (Weekly) July 30, 1881 p. 3 – Colorado Historic Newspapers. 
  11. Email from Casey at San Juan County Historical Society to author dated June 11, 2021. 
  12. Henry L. Mitchell. Year: 1860; Census Place: Township 42 Range 22, Benton, Missouri; Page: 342 – via 
  13. Kaufman. pp. 4-12. 
  14. Kaufman. p. 33. 
  15. Kaufman. pp. 37-39. 
  16. Kaufman. pp. 48-49. 
  17. Letter by Joseph F. Daugherty, Jr. to the Secretary of the Interior, dated January 16, 1883, quoted in Kaufman, p. 54. 
  18. McPherson, Robert S. 1988. The Northern Navajo Frontier 1860-1900: Expansion through Adversity. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. Chapter 4, pp. 39-50. 
  19. “A relic of Indian tragedy…” Mancos Times (Colo.), March 4, 1898, p. 4 – via Colorado Historic Newspapers. 
  20. Letters written by Henry L. Mitchell to Colonel Page dated February 5, 15, and 27, 1880, quoted in Kaufman, pp. 42-43. AND “Murder by the Indians at the Field of New Discovery” Dolores News (Colo.) March 13, 1880, p. 1 – via Colorado Historic Newspapers. 
  21. Ibid.: “Murder by…” 
  22. Kaufman. p. 44. 
  23. Gillmor, Frances and Louisa Wade Wetherill. 1934. Traders to the Navajos: The Story of The Wetherills of Kayenta. The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1952 edition, pp. 95-96. 
  24. McPherson. p. 43. 

56 thoughts on “San Juan Sagas

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  1. It’s so funny to see the date ending in 92. Fir a minute I forgot it was 1892…you know my whole thought of digital worlds…will anyone care about our pictures on little files a hundred years from now?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! I’ve been working on this for ages. The people just drew me in, because this is all local history. This is a story about my home. Maybe I would not have got so caught up in it if it took place somewhere I have no connection to. But then, I have connections to an awful lot of places!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do love the research! I’m not the only one who does this. I follow several blogs of people who collect old photos and the stories behind them. Sometimes they even write books about them. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic! I love how this one photo of a little boy led you to discover so much about his extended family and the connection to history and place names. These families could easily be characters in a Zane Grey novel.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think any fiction writer would love some of these people. The Monument Valley story has been fictionalized in a variety of venues. Sometimes I wish I had the talent for writing novels. But I really enjoy the research and the history.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Luanne. It was an unexpected gift. I was totally drawn in. I still want to answer some questions about these people and events. But I had to stop and tell the story at some point.


  3. This had a particular fascination for me as I always find myself looking at the photos in antique shops and wondering about the lives lived! Such a crazy story you found with this one – and a family connection to boot!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It just sort of snowballed after I learned about Clara Mitchell and Cornelius Williams. Took me forever to figure out who Mrs. C.A. Coulson and Frank Wilson might be. I actually still haven’t found any records for the Coulson family and know nothing about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The way you began this journey is a book unto itself! And let me tell you, people complain about EVERYTHING today . . and then you read about these lives and think, what do we have to complain about? I mean, really.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They chose a really tough way to live, but I suppose it gave them a great sense of freedom. Especially if you never buy the land you live and graze on.😉 Remind you of anyone? In truth, the things they did to survive were pretty impressive.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am fascinated to read these life stories. On the one hand that seem like what I’d expect for the times, but on the other hand they seem too fabulous to be true. I admire your determination to sift through your relatives and old photos for find out what you can. For you one photo is a gateway drug to ancestral research!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Our first I.T. guy made Ref Desk our home page. It seemed to me that I could get immersed in all the facts and info on that site, but I really never read the news there – I was overwhelmed with everything else.

        Liked by 1 person

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