Shootout, outlaws on lam – read all about it!

As daylight broke at the Waterfall Ranch one April morning in 1876, an armed posse quietly snuck up on the small pine log cabin constructed near the falls. Inside, just rising from bed, were Hugh and Candacy Lambert and two of their sons, Richard and Louis. One of the Lambert men was wanted by the law.[1]

The source of the conflict was typically Western: water rights. But why it came to be a terrible, life-ending and life-changing event can probably be attributed to a Western trait typically celebrated but in certain cases reviled: stubbornness.

This cabin is believed to date from 1875, and was located just north of Waterfall Ranch on the former Knight homestead. It was moved around 2000 and refurbished, and now sits next to the Waterfall Ranch home. It must bear some resemblance to the cabin the Lamberts inhabited in 1876.

If the Lamberts didn’t seek trouble, well, it certainly searched high and low for them. Over the next couple of decades they’d be part of several deadly shootouts. And to the end, Hugh Lambert said all he wanted was to be left alone to tend his stock.

In spring 1876, Hugh and Candacy Lambert, both Kentucky natives, were in their late 40s. The three sons living at Waterfall Ranch with them (Riley was tied up that morning, we could say, and not inside the cabin) were in their late teens or early 20s.[2] According to Valley resident Martha Roberts, also a Kentucky native, the Lamberts were uneducated but nevertheless kind-hearted and generous. (Keep in mind Martha’s possible bias; the Lamberts helped her out before and after her husband’s death in March 1878 when he and a traveling partner were caught in a snowstorm in the Big Blue between Ouray and Lake City.)

Well, the Lamberts didn’t get on with their neighbor to the south, Mr. J.P. Lamb, an Englishman who raised sheep. Lamb was single, about 31,[3] and – according to Martha – was “universally disliked.” Lamb said he was going to divert water from the falls. Hugh Lambert, however, believed he owned that water and warned Lamb not to mess with it.[4] (Fifteen years later Hugh Lambert told an intriguing but perhaps fictionalized version of events that we’ll discuss later.)

Lamb ignored Hugh Lambert’s warning and started digging out a diversion ditch. Hugh’s son Louis spotted him and ordered the “intruder” off the property. For good measure, Louis threatened to kill Lamb. The Brit, however, didn’t take the threat lying down. He “swore out a warrant” for Louis Lambert’s arrest.[5] (Martha says it was Hugh who made the threat, but newspaper accounts say Louis.)

Martha’s husband tried to coax Hugh Lambert into going to court to settle the issue, but he refused, even though magistrate Al Trippe had let it be known he’d dismiss the case. Furthermore, Hugh Lambert said if anyone came to arrest him, “I’ll shoot him between the eyes.”[6]

Louis Lambert resisted one attempt at arrest, so the deputy sheriff, Edward Harris, rounded up the posse, said to consist of fifty-eight men.[7] The men surrounded the Lambert house just as daylight arrived on April 23, 1876, Deputy Harris in charge. The goal was to make the arrest with no violence. Harris stationed himself behind a rock very close to the Lamberts’ front door.[8] Posse members were instructed to be quiet and hold their fire until instructed. How fifty-eight men kept still and out of sight among the pinons and oak brush on the sloping land around the house is a wonder. Perhaps the falls’ rushing spring runoff helped provide cover.

Unfortunately the situation quickly fell apart. Just about sunrise, a Lambert boy opened the door and walked unsuspectingly toward the woodpile. A young, excitable German, not quite understanding the posse’s instructions, started firing. He missed several shots as the Lambert son scrambled back inside, but the chance of a peaceful ending was gone.[9]

Now the Lamberts were under siege. They made a stand in their log cabin, which was covered with a thick dirt roof, and had no windows other than narrow slits. The posse began shooting with revolvers and rifles, and the stalemate continued until afternoon, reported a man who wrote a second-hand account that appeared in the Weekly Chieftain.[10]

Candacy, reportedly of “tall, bold frame and starry eye,” stepped outside and defied the sheriff and his men, “calling them offensive names.” She dared them to show themselves and fight like men, and “with a shrill laugh, half horse, half alligator, told the deputy sheriff that if he wanted her husband all he had to do was to step into the house and take him.” [11]

Is this great stuff? How Wild West can you get?

At some point in the afternoon Deputy Harris, a single, 38-year-old from Rhode Island, crawled up on top of the rocks near the waterfall to get a perspective on the nearby house. Hugh Lambert saw him and fired.

“At the crack of the rifle Harris sprang his full length in the air and then fell backward a dead man, the ball having struck him exactly in the center of the forehead.”[12]

Lambert was a man of his word. At least this time.

The posse renewed firing on the house, and in the middle of this barrage, two men (Sackett and Stibbins) dragged Harris’ body away. Return gunfire from the cabin gave them three “close calls” in the process. The posse “withdrew for consultation,” and Hugh, with sons Louis and Richard, took the opportunity to make a getaway. The posse’s shots missed the fleeing men.

“It was a low-lived, cowardly, brutal murder,” the Chieftain writer scowled.

A week or so later Hugh Lambert turned up in Parrott City, the seat of the newly formed La Plata County, located at the southern foot of the La Plata Mountains. He was more or less welcomed in Parrott City, “where he swaggers around in public with a knife and revolver thrust in his belt as cool and unconcerned as though the crime of murder did not rest upon his soul.

“The presence of Lambert is a burning shame and disgrace to the citizens of Parrott City, and they owe it to themselves and their town to see that he is arrested and brought to justice as soon as possible.”[13]

Wrote the Colorado Banner on June 15: “Deputy Sheriff Harris … was highly respected in the community, and the tragic manner and unprovoked cause of his untimely death have occasioned a universal feeling of indignation.”[14]

The dust settled – apparently it took a few weeks – and the law caught up to Hugh Lambert. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of manslaughter in September 1876 in U.S. District Court in Lake City. Perhaps Colorado losing its territorial status and becoming the 38th U.S. state on August 1, 1876, helped bring civilization down on him. Anyway, Lambert was given a life term at the state penitentiary in Cañon City.

But there’s one more twist: Lambert did have friends, and many of them petitioned the governor on his behalf. Fair or not, Lambert was given a complete pardon by Gov. John Routt, the state’s first governor, on July 19, 1878. (Routt, incidentally, was also a native Kentuckian. Hmm.)

Hugh Lambert’s account

Hugh Lambert’s version of events is so different that it deserves to be separated from the version above. It was written fifteen years after the fact, but that doesn’t explain all the discrepancies. Someone (you hate to say it) is lying.

In 1891 Lambert penned a letter to the editor of the Montrose Enterprise. He and his kin had traveled around, and Montrose was one of their longer stops. Why he chose that time is uncertain, but it sounds as if he was in trouble once again and was trying to clear up his role in the 1876 incident.

“When I arrived (in the Animas Valley in 1874) I found that the country was infested by a band of robbers and murderers, and I had not been there but a short time when I was asked to join them. I declined to do this, and treated them as well as I was able.”[15]

Lambert went into great detail. He learned, he wrote, that “they” – “they” could refer to the band of robbers but is more likely the local lawmen – “had concluded to kill myself and family and lay it to the Ute Indians.”

The day before the posse came, Lambert said, his son Riley had gone up the Valley to get the plow sharpened. Riley was stopped on his way home by eight armed men at the residence of the justice of the peace. The men told Riley about the warrant on his father for ripping out Lamb’s diversion ditch. (“There was no ditch there at that time except my own, and it did not run through anybody’s land but my own,” Lambert wrote.) Early the next morning the men tied Riley’s hands, left him at the residence and took position around the Lamberts’. According to Hugh Lambert, the posse numbered forty-eight, with twenty-seven Valley residents, nine Mexicans looking for work and several cowboys from outside the Valley.

“The following morning my son Richard and myself stepped out into the yard after wood to build a fire. The house was surrounded on three sides and they fired at us from behind the rocks and trees before we knew it. They raised the Indian yell, and we ran into the house.”

Richard was wounded in the head, and Candacy stepped from the house and asked to stop the shooting, that her son was dead. (He wasn’t.)

Continued Hugh: “They replied that if we didn’t stack arms they would kill us all, and then fired four shots at her before she could get into the house, two bullets striking the corner of the house and very near hitting her. The sheriff stuck his head up over a rock and aimed his gun at her, and a bullet struck him in the forehead, knocking his brains out.”

As it grew dark, Hugh Lambert, concerned that the posse would set the house on fire, made a run for it with his two sons. They ran a quarter-mile to the river bank (presumably the Animas), drawing fire all the way. “Louis had four bullet holes in his clothes, and Richard had seven.” After resting along the bank, they headed for Parrott City.

Riley was let loose, and returned to his mother at Waterfall Ranch. The next morning Riley caught up to the fugitives, with this message from the posse for his father: If you leave the country, they’ll give you a thousand dollars for the ranch and your stock. Hugh wrote that he informed an envoy of the posse: “I was going to hold that ranch, and if they wanted any more fighting to come over there and they could have all they wanted.”

It’s unclear when he was taken into custody, and how, but Lambert’s case finally went before a grand jury in August 1876. He says the jury was “bought out” by his enemies and he was granted a change of venue to Lake City. “There they bought out one of my attorneys.” While the grand jury convened, “The outfit had stationed a man in the water closet with money, and he succeeded in buying the jury and they brought in a verdict of manslaughter against me.”

On the day he was sentenced for life by U.S. Territorial Judge Moses Hallett,[16] a petition for Hugh Lambert’s pardon contained four hundred names of men in San Juan and La Plata counties, Lambert wrote. Combined with other petitions, from counties in Iowa where he’d previously lived, 2,600 vouched for him.[17]

So he spent about two years in prison and was freed in 1878 after Gov. Routt’s official pardon. Lambert returned to the Waterfall Ranch, but he wouldn’t stay there long.[18]



[1] Colorado Weekly Chieftain (Pueblo), May 18, 1876. Chieftain story was taken from an account in the La Plata Miner, a Silverton-based newspaper from 1875 to 1886, when it merged with the Silverton Standard.

[2] U.S. Census, Animas Valley, 1880.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pioneers of the San Juan Country, Vol. 1, pp. 48-54, account by Martha A. Roberts, written in 1936.

[5] Colorado Weekly Chieftain, May 18, 1876.

[6] Pioneers of the San Juan Country, Roberts.

[7] Colorado Weekly Chieftain, May 18, 1876. Could fifty-eight men quietly sneak up on the ranch? This number may be an exaggeration, or perhaps some men were stationed elsewhere than right at the ranch house.

[8] Howard Zink was told this by his father, John J. Zink, and wrote a note in the back pages of a family copy of “Many More Mountains: Rails Into Silverton, Vol. 3,” Allen Nossaman, 1998.

[9] Account compiled from combination of Colorado Weekly Chieftain stories and Roberts account. It might have been a young, excitable Irishman.

[10] Colorado Weekly Chieftain, July 13, 1876. The man camped at Waterfall Ranch ten weeks after the shooting.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Colorado Banner (Boulder), June 15, 1876.

[15] The Durango Wage Earner, May 22, 1902, p. 1. At the time of his death in 1902, the Wage Earner reprinted Hugh Lambert’s letter to the editor of the Montrose Enterprise of January 1, 1891.

[16] Biographical Directory of Federal Judges. ( Moses Hallett wouldn’t officially become a U.S. District Judge until he was nominated by President Grant and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 12, 1877. He retired in 1906.

[17] Ibid.

[18] U.S. Census, Animas Valley, 1880.