The Basset Family of Brown's Hole

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

If Elizabeth Chamberlain Bassett were living today, she would probably inspire the same admiration and loyalty that she did from the cowboys, outlaws, and travelers who came to her ranch in the 1880s and 1890s in Brown's Hole, far up the Green River in northeastern Utah. It is our loss that we missed knowing her.

Small in stature, larger than life in everything else, Elizabeth was pretty as a picture, educated, elegant, gregarious, charming, strong-willed, tough as a boot and happily married to one Herb Bassett, a mild-mannered, intellectual man who was very content to let his very capable wife live her life and run their ranch her way, which she did capably and with gusto.

A Union Civil War veteran, Herb had been employed in a government position in Little Rock, Arkansas when he began to suffer from acute asthma. In 1877, at his doctor's suggestion, he decided to take his little family – Elizabeth, son Samuel, and daughter Josie to California for his health. So, he packed their few belongings, including his rather extensive library, into a wagon and set off for California. In those days cross-country treks by wagon, horseback, and even on foot had been common for some 30 years, so it is not too surprising that Herb took his little family on a small detour through Rock Springs, Wyoming to visit his brother on the way from Little Rock to Los Angeles.

During their visit, the brother suggested that they take a look at a place called Brown's Hole, a valley that had been a gathering place for Indians for centuries and for mountain men for some 50 years. An uncle had already settled there and the climate should be as healthful as that in far away California. So off to Brown's Hole they went.

The story goes that as they topped the last rise before entering the valley, Elizabeth stood up and ordered Herb to stop the wagon. She stood there a few moments surveying the broad, green valley and declared on the spot that the "hole" was an inappropriate name and it should thereafter be called "Brown's Park." And so it is to this day.

The valley was already sparsely settled with small ranches and a trading post owned by a genial Scotsman named John Jarvie. The trading post is still there and open to visitors. He also had a ferry across the Green River, which enhanced the valley as a route for travelers and traders. Herb built a substantial home, which quickly became the valley's social and cultural center with Elizabeth happily playing hostess to all who entered her welcoming door. She so loved to talk that the local Paiutes called her "magpie."

Following the death of the local doctor, Elizabeth became a nurse and even surgeon for all manner of illnesses and injuries, deepening the affection held for her by the valley's citizens. She was an ardent feminist and lobbied frequently for women's equality in the region.

Herb's library was popular and well used, especially by the occasional cowboy on the run who came to the valley to avoid pursuit by lawmen who were definitely not welcome in the valley and rarely ventured there.

In 1878, a second daughter, Ann, was born, the first white child born in the valley. Ann was to become Brown's Park's most remarkable and notorious citizen.

The many fictional stories of large cattle empires seeking to eliminate the small ranchers had their basis in fact. That is exactly what happened throughout the West, including Brown's Park. Suddenly, Elizabeth Bassett found herself in a leadership role with the small ranchers who were threatened by the surrounding cattle companies, mostly owned by rich foreign investors. The "Two-Bar" outfit was the one that particularly raised Elizabeth's ire. She declared war on the offending cattle barons and waged it with grim determination.

It's difficult to imagine this small woman, described as so elegant, dressed in tailored dresses, hosting fine dinner parties, discussing literature and prose, even riding side-saddle, declaring and waging war on an outfit many times larger than her own. But she did, effectively and ruthlessly. It was open range then and Two-Bar cattle became fair game for Elizabeth and her cowboys. What they couldn't drive home to be rebranded, they would simply drive over a cliff into the Green River to drown.

Small wonder that Josie and Ann grew up to be two of the most notorious women in Old West history. Like their mother, both could ride and shoot as well as any man. They were independent, headstrong, defiant, and eager to take up their mother's cause. Josie was the more domestic of the two and didn’t mind keeping house in addition to rustling cattle, but Ann was just the opposite. Women's work she would not do, but she rode, rustled, and worked her herds with pleasure.

Both were also beautiful and they knew it and didn't hesitate to use their charms whenever it suited them. And it suited them when some cowboys occasionally came to visit and stay a while until things quieted down outside the valley. Many of these cowboys were handsome, intelligent young men in their prime and a few loved to spend time in the Bassett home, feet propped up, reading from Herb's collection. They would drop by the ranch, offer to help with the chores, mend fences, brand (or re-brand) cattle, pull stumps, break horses, or whatever ranch chores needed a strong and skilled hand. They were skilled cowboys and welcome visitors. A charismatic young Mormon lad named Bob Parker and his friend, Elzy Lay, were particularly welcome, the latter a particular favorite with Ann. They soon became lovers.

Tragically, Elizabeth died of appendicitis at the young age of 37, leaving her two girls to continue the crusade against the Two-Bar outfit. Ann took to it with gusto and soon became known as "Queen Ann" and "Queen of the Rustlers." She operated boldly and with impunity, stealing Two-Bar cattle, changing brands, and shipping them with her own.

Called into court and tried for cattle rustling, Ann, appearing all modest, sweet and innocent, charmed the jury into believing it was impossible for such a lovely, charming and modest young lady to do the things in the indictment. She was found "not guilty."

Shortly afterward, Ann admitted, even boasted, "I did everything they accused me of and a whole lot more." To further her depredations against Two-Bars, Ann seduced and married the Two-Bar foreman, one Hi Bernard, who was some 20 years her senior. The marriage lasted six years and failed to have any real effect on Two-Bars, so Ann divorced him and left.

A second marriage to a Frank Willis, also a former Two-Bar cowboy, brought Ann to California for ten years where Willis worked the oil fields. In 1931, they moved to Arizona and ran a small ranch for six years until the wanderlust took them prospecting around the southwest, ultimately settling in Leeds, Utah. Ann died in 1956 at the age of 78.

One of the west’s most interesting mysteries is the contention that the well-known Etta Place, lover of both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was actually Ann Bassett. Historians still debate the issue and scientific comparisons of the two women's photographs indicate a very high probability that the two women were actually one and the same.

Though not quite as wild as Ann, Josie had her own adventurous life, marrying five times and "divorcing" them all, at least one expiring under suspicious circumstances for which Josie was tried for murder. Like Ann, Josie was fully capable of swaying a jury into believing that such a sweet, demure and lovely young lady could not possibly be guilty as charged. Josie did admit much later that "some husbands are harder to get rid of than others."

Butch Cassidy was one of Josie’s early love affairs. She relates that on one occasion, when on the run and not wishing anyone else to know he was in the area, Cassidy hid in the hay barn. When Josie visited him, he requested she bring him a book from Herb's library so he wouldn’t be bored. According to Josie, she didn’t bring him a book, but she didn’t let him get bored, either. By this time, Parker was now using the name Butch Cassidy and was one of the west's most successful and active outlaws.

Josie set up a little homestead near Jensen, Utah in 1919 and lived there almost continually the rest of her life. She claims to have seen Butch Cassidy in the 1920s and knew that he had died in Leeds, Utah shortly before her sister, Ann, moved there. Josie died of natural causes in 1964.

So the Bassett women must be regarded as unique and colorful women of the old west, equally at home in a Victorian parlor at a formal tea or in the saddle in the middle of the night herding a thousand head of cattle. Their full story would be much longer than this. They set the standard for frontier ranch women that few could match, though there were a few who did. It is best that the story of their colorful lives not be forgotten.

Burroughs, John Rolfe; Where the Old West Stayed Young; William Morrow and Company, New York, 1962.

Dunham, Dick and Vivian; Flaming Gorge Country: The Story of Daggett County; Utah (1977)

Kouris, Diana Allen; The Romantic and Notorious History of Brown's Park; (1988).

Tennent, William L.; John Jarvie of Brown's Park; (1981)