Josie & Ben Morris
Dinosaur National Monument to Desolation Canyon
By Herm Hoops
There is more than water that connects the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument to Desolation Canyon. This is a story about companionship gone badly, in a time when the West was relatively untamed, open and free. After the American Civil War many people moved to remote places, some were those who could not adapt to the rules & structure of civilization. After the Civil War many veterans on both sides were often people who couldn’t deal with life after war. Some were seeking a place to put down roots and start a family, others wanted to escape the law for various reasons and in 1892-93 the first of several financial panics sent shockwaves through the American economy. Men with limited, or no work often turned to stealing in the Wild West.
If you travel the Yampa or Green Rivers, or visit Dinosaur National Monument you should reserve a few hours to drive the Cub Creek Auto Tour to the Josie Morris cabin. The ranch house started as a low square log cabin, with a kitchen added later. The house was surrounded by structures, such as a chicken house, outhouse, root cellar, sheds and a small barn. The tack shed, animal shed and two-hole outhouse burned in 1988; the spring house is long since gone and the roof of the root cellar across the creek collapsed years ago. The Morris ranch complex was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 19, 1986.
It is hard to imagine this place, where Josie spent fifty years and her endless hours of chopping wood, cooking meals, milking cows, tending and slaughtering pigs, chickens, deer and beef, and tending the vegetable garden. She made her own soap, sewed her own clothing, and became known for her prowess at hunting deer. In one instance, a game warden stopped by her cabin announcing that he was there to arrest her for poaching. She confessed that she had just killed a deer and took him to the carcass. The game warden was joking with her and took no action. Josie occasionally added to her herd by rounding up and rebranding cattle. She planted trees to provide shade and fruit necessary for survival in a harsh environment. Through the bitter cold winter nights, she had to endure feeding horses and livestock.
Imagine living without plumbing and electricity that were becoming common in America. While Josie lived at Cub Creek mankind conquered flight and landed on the Moon. During her life automobiles, telephones, radio and television became available. For Josie Bassett Morris, the Wild West was a stark reality. Josie lived most of her 90 years in this austere yet beautiful landscape, when people depended on the bounty of the land for survival and neighbors for help and companionship.
As a child in Brown’s Park, Josie contributed to the household and ranch chores. When these duties were complete, young Josie was free to play in the surrounding wilderness with her four siblings. The children grew up with an intimacy and dependence on the natural environment, forming values based on hard work and resourcefulness. Josie’s family hosted many guests in their home, which fostered a strong sense of hospitality in Josie.
Josie Bassett was born the first of two girls to Herb Bassett and Mary Eliza Chamberlain Bassett in Arkansas on January 17, 1874. When she was still a young girl, her parents moved to a ranch in Browns Park spanning the borders of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. She and her sister Queen Anne were taught to rope, ride, and shoot at a young age.
Both girls were sent to prominent boarding schools in their youth, but both chose to return to the ranching life by their teen years. Herb Bassett was well known to many of the famous outlaws of the day as he did business with them often, supplying them with beef and fresh horses. With notable outlaws coming to the ranch, both Ann and Josie were exposed to outlaws. The Bassett girls were known for their affairs and associations with well-known outlaws, particularly Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.
By the age of 39, she had married five times and divorced four husbands when divorce was almost unheard of, allegedly running one off with a frying pan. When she married her first husband, ranch foreman Jim McKnight, she was already pregnant. They had two children. Just as a local jury let Queen Anne off for cattle theft, Josie had to appear in Craig, Colorado for murdering the one husband she did not divorce. She had married Emerson “Nig” Wells and most of the time they got along, but he became a serious alcoholic and was abusive. Josie squabbled, too, but when Wells started to binge-drink, he threatened her and her children. So, from a Salt Lake City pharmaceutical company, she ordered The Keen Cure (strychnine poison). A few spoonfuls in a cowboy’s coffee and his excessive drinking was supposed to be solved. Knowing he was headed for a New Year’s binge at the Linwood, Utah hotel, she laced her husband’s coffee with the “Cure.” Did she poison or deliberately kill him? She may have given him a patent medicine potion that brought on a heart attack, but in the closed room of the coroner’s inquest, Nig Wells’ spousal abuse was also discussed. Justice took different forms on the Colorado frontier. The case was dismissed.
Josie’d had it with men. In 1913, she left Colorado and with little money to buy property. She filed a homestead claim along Cub Creek east of Vernal, Utah and built her log cabin with help from friends Fred McKnight and the Chew family. The interior walls were covered with wallpaper and cardboard to keep out drafts. After a while, she took up with another cowboy, Ben Morris. She married him to quiet gossip in the local Mormon community. But one day after she’d been out grubbing sagebrush, he complained about lumps in the gravy at dinner that night. She threw the gravy at him and told him to wear it, and she gave him 15 minutes to gather his possessions and leave the house, Morris exited in five.
Once again, Josie was alone – tending her garden, irrigating her crops, putting up hay and living in a stunning canyon off of the Green River. She lived a pioneer life as the world changed around her. When Utah and Colorado voted in Prohibition from the 1920s to the 1930s, she brewed apricot brandy and chokecherry wine, hiking down to the river to leave it for passers-by to purchase. That location is now known as Moonshine Rapid as river runners enter Split Mountain Canyon. Josie never was arrested, years after Prohibition, she continued to make her own brandy and whiskey until she was finally warned that revenue agents were looking for her still.
In 1936, rancher and former adversary Jim Robinson accused her of stealing and butchering his cattle and selling the meat. Six other ranchers joined in on the accusations. Hides from the branded carcasses were found on her property, and Bassett was arrested. She claimed the evidence was planted and several neighbors supplied her with bail money until her trial. She was tried twice, each ending in a hung jury. After the second trial, the local prosecutor dropped the charges.
At the age of 71, in an ambitious move to revive a profitable cattle business, she deeded her land away and lost all but the five acres where her cabin still stands. In December of 1963 the legendary Josie suffered a broken hip and she died of complications in May of 1964. Josie is buried in the Bassett family cemetery in Browns Park.
Ben Morris came from Oklahoma into the Browns Park country some time before the turn of the century. Morris was good with horses and good with an ax. He was handsome as a young man and had the unusual physical feature of having one brown and one blue eye because he lost one roping a horse and had a blue glass eye to replace it. Morris spoke with a high, squeaky voice and had a crooked finger, permanently deformed from a rattlesnake bite. Although colorful and easy to get along with, he liked the bottle. That, plus a general disregard for the law when it did not suit him, often landed him in jail.
Morris drifted south out of Brown’s Park around 1911 and was working for Emerson “Nig” Wells, who was married to Josie Bassett. Morris conveniently took over Wells’ job at the ranch and promptly took his place in bed with Josie as well. They began to live together, but Josie’s children from her first marriage detested the arrangement. Ben and Josie were from very different backgrounds: Josie was educated and cultured, Ben was a rough drifter and ranch hand and had terrible table manners. Josie’s grandson, Frank McKnight remembered that when Morris ate, “He sounded like and reminded me of a pig eating slop out a trough.” Mostly, though, the family was scandalized that their mother was living with a man out of wedlock. Family pressure eventually pushed Josie and Ben to the altar, and on November 24, 1913, Josie Bassett married her fifth husband. The Vernal Express subheading on the article about the wedding not-so-subtly raised an eyebrow: “Widow of Man Who Died Suddenly in Linwood Last Winter Is Wife Again.” Morris was thirty-four, and Bassett was thirty-nine.
The first winter Morris went to work for the St. Louis Gilsonite Mine in Bonanza. The next spring, he and Josie started building a cabin up Cub Creek across and upriver from Jensen and were quickly hauled into court for allegedly stealing a neighbor’s water. They were acquitted, but that was just the beginning of Morris’ legal troubles. Josie’s two sons from her first marriage, Crawford and Chick McKnight, beat up Morris one day to force him to return a neighbor’s sheep he had stolen.
Within a few years Josie had enough of Morris, his frequent drunkenness, and the rough way he handled animals. One day she found him mistreating a horse and later that evening complained about the lumps in the gravy. Josie told him he had fifteen minutes to clear out. He later returned, and she hollered, “What are you still doing here?” He replied that “he had only used five, so he still had ten minutes coming.”
Ben eventually headed down to Desolation Canyon and built a rock shelter in Firewater Canyon.* Morris and Bassett were officially divorced on June 23, 1916. Despite all that, they remained good friends and later Josie helped him out of a jam.
A year after their divorce in 1917 the Utah legislature passed a Prohibition Law, two years in advance of the Eighteenth Amendment. The Deseret News hailed it as “the Greatest Blessing since Christ.” For Ben Morris it was a blessing in the form of a business opportunity. He moved to the Firewater Canyon area, named for a Ute, Cunepah, whose name translates to Firewater and who lived at the head of the canyon for fifty years before Morris showed up. There he started making whiskey in a copper still. His cave and some of its furnishings remain.*
Morris’s whiskey, though, had an unusual red color rather than the normal amber tint. This was due to a unique aging process. Rather than let his moonshine age for a time sitting still in wooden barrels, Morris “aged” his whiskey by placing it in wooden barrels and immediately packing it thirty miles or more on rough pack trails on his mules. Ben’s moonshine was easily sold in Cisco, Thompson, Price, Woodside, Vernal and Roosevelt, Utah. One year Ben bought 400 pounds of dried peaches thirteen river miles down-river at Rock Creek Ranch to make moonshine with. All of the liquor had to be hauled out by horse or mule pack over very rough and uninhabited terrain. Ben claimed this aged the whiskey the same as ten years of sitting still in a barrel! Morris tried raising the corn for his still down by the river but had to carry water to it. This was too much work, so he ended up packing in his corn.
Morris did not run afoul of the law for moonshining during Prohibition. He sold his moonshine to the Ute Indians, passers-by in the canyon and to far-away townsfolk. Liquor did eventually land Morris in jail. On February 10, 1930 Ben got liquored up on Frank Hyde’s whiskey with some other cattlemen. There was always tension between the cattlemen and sheep herders. The cattlemen goaded Ben into confronting some of the Basque sheepmen who had moved into the Hill Creek area.
Morris fired at one of them, sheep man George Avjares, and Avjares fired back. Morris took two bullets, one to the left shoulder and lung and another to the right arm. Avjares took a hit on his left hip. Morris’ best moonshine customer, Norman “Jik” Taylor, drove both men to the hospital. A week later they released him, and then the police arraigned him for “assault with a deadly weapon.” Josie Bassett, promptly bailed him out. That April the court sentenced Morris to the state prison, but was he back in the Hill Creek region by 1934. During his time in prison a man named Carmen jumped his claim, and Ben would have no doubt “settled matters” had a fellow named Dutch Buetell not purchased “Ben’s Hole” from him and provided him some extra cash.
Morris continued to clash with the law through the 1930s. He was charged with horse stealing and various other infractions. Eventually he married a young girl from Maybell, Colorado, Becky Boan, who was part Ute. They moved to Dinosaur, Colorado and lived in a cave and tent. He died in the early 1970s and was in his 90s. Boan did not have enough money to bury him, so the citizens of Dinosaur (formerly Artesia) Colorado took up a collection and buried him there.
Today we remember the romantic and adventurous American West as an almost mythological world, one separated from ours by time, technology, and development. But, for those who lived in that Wild West there was a stark reality. The land of Browns Park, Cub Creek and Firewater Canyon is a cultural backwater because the trails, railroads and good roads bypassed the area. While the culture of America was changing, this area remained in “The Old Days.” People like Ben and Josie Morris lived in a rugged place and lived frugal and rugged lives.
Doctors were a long way off, as were hospitals and supplies. People had to depend upon their skills and abilities to improvise and plan ahead. Yet all was not serious and boring work. There were get-togethers for weddings, funerals and other events. Community dances lasted through the night. Beyond the chores, broken harness, smelly buildings, sweat and blood, these times often harken us back to a simpler time. A time when a bouquet of wildflowers cheered up a drab room, the shade of a tree provided cool shade for an afternoon nap, and a babbling brook provided a cool drink. Ultimately, they came here for the same reason as you are coming here: to experience a quietness and simplicity of life. To gaze at the darkest of night skies, and to learn to be the masters of their fate. When you visit these places, move away from the crowd for a moment and absorb, and be absorbed by the things that Ben and Josie experienced.
Herm Hoops’ life has always been associated with water: from bucolic farm ponds and awe-inspiring rivers to the endless ocean, and he’s always had an interest in history.
Herm, the son of farmers, grew up on a large dairy cattle and Morgan horse farm. After attending the University of Vermont he taught Vocational Agriculture and Forestry in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
He began running Western rivers in 1966. In 1972 Herm left Vermont and headed West for the better part of a year to run any rivers he ran across. In 1975 he began a career with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Herm retired from the Dinosaur National Monument in 1996, but he has continued following his love of rivers as a guide, naturalist, historian, and he is proactive in protecting the river canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Over the years he has been acknowledged for his contributions to a large number of river guides and books. Herm has written articles for historical journals and magazines. He is a lifetime member of the Colorado Plateau River Guides, the Grand Canyon River Guides and recently was made an honorary life member of the Utah Guides and Outfitters Association. Herm has served on the boards of several organizations, including Plateau Restoration and Conservation Adventures (Moab) and Colorado Plateau River Guides.
The rivers have been good to him, and perhaps, he has been good to them.
Herm and his wife Valerie live in Jensen, Utah.