Monday, August 11, 2014

WMA - Colorado Chapter Showcase/Jam at Florrisant Grange

Come listen to the story of Ed Watkins and Ernest Christison in song and storytelling! John, Kate and I will be performing at the Florissant Grange this Saturday, August 16, in this fun showcase/Jam session. We have written five songs that tell the cattle rustling story. Honored to perform with the  great cowboy poets and performers of Colorado.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

National Day of the Cowboy

Ernest Christison (Drawing by Katy Kinder from a photograph)
Today, July 26, is National Day of the Cowboy. I thought it an appropriate time to share this drawing of Ernest Christison with his horse and his dog. He doesn't look like much of an outlaw, does he? Artist Katy Kinder drew this from a photograph in which the horse was blurry and faded. The photo was likely taken in the late 1870's or early 1880's.

Born in Missouri in 1852, Ernest traveled west with his family to the Colorado mining camp of Cash Creek when he was 9 years old. His older brother, Leslie, followed his father into mining, but Ernest preferred horses and cows to picks and rocks.

His first brand was recorded in 1876, the same year he signed on to round up 175 head of cattle for the ranchers Leonhardy and Turkey and trail them from Buena Vista to Denver to sell. The cowboys arrived on April 23 and they held the cattle at a ranch near Denver until the sale could be made. Everything seemed to be going well until a spring blizzard blew in at noon on April 25 and stampeded the cattle. Two days and four feet of snow later, the cowboys proceeded to locate and round up the scattered cattle. Ernest became snow blind which made it impossible for him to continue with the round-up, but Henry Weber managed to locate the rest of 155 head of cattle, sold them, and returned to the Buena Vista with Ernest.

Ernest had a couple of cattle partnerships including one with Thomas Cameron and his son, J.B., before his partnership with Ed Watkins.

If you want to read more about the outlaw part of this story, click on The Cattle Rustling Story.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Sackful of Westerns

Visiting my Grandpa Ken Christison and his wife, Elizabeth, with Katie in Oregon

In 1989, I flew with my one-year-old daughter, Katie, to California and Oregon to introduce her to my Dad's family. While Grandpa Christison and I talked, we learned that we both loved to read westerns. On the flight home, I carried a paper sack filled with paperback westerns that Grandpa gave me - Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, and Steve Frazee.

The Steve Frazee books were special. Grandpa and Steve were friends. Grandpa told me the story of how they met in 1934. Grandpa was walking from Westcliffe, where he worked at a dairy after high school, to Turret, the tiny mining camp east of Salida where his parents lived. He'd walked all day and half the night before falling asleep along the trail. He was awakened by Steve Frazee. Steve walked the rest of the way to Turret with him, where Steve lived with his dad.

It wasn't until I started writing my book that I became aware Steve Frazee had been the President of Western Writers of America in 1955-1956. He was the third president of the organization.

I find it interesting that today, I happen to know the current President of Western Writers of America, Sherry Monahan. Sherry recently began her term as President at the annual WWA Convention in Sacramento. Sherry and I met through Women Writing the West and worked together on marketing for the group when she was the VP of Marketing. I am very excited for Sherry as she steps into this new role. This is one of her latest books, one I happened to buy when I was in Tombstone this year, making it even more special to me. Here's the link to Sherry's website

Westerns, storytelling and a love for central Colorado, the ties that bind a grandfather and granddaughter. I still have Grandpa's paperbacks and every once in a while I pull one out to read.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Past and Present Alder, Colorado

The town of Alder, Colorado along Hwy. 285 viewed from the west
In 1926, my great-grandfather, Lewis Christison, moved his family to Alder, Colorado on the south side of Poncha Pass where he worked as a miner and prospector. My Grandpa, Ken Christison, Sr., was nine years old and attended school at Alder. Grandpa told a few stories to my Dad in the early 1970's about his memories of living at Alder while Dad recorded the stories on cassette tape.

Grandpa told stories about events like an explosion waking him in the middle of the night during the winter. When he got up, he found his dad had shot a rat in the cellar with the only gun he had – a
.30-.30 rifle.

In May, the family moved up the creek to “Old Man” Carothers cabin. On Grandpa’s tenth birthday, May 19, 1927, his dad gave him his first .22 rifle along with a box of 50 short shells, the only shells he could have until he shot his first rabbit. He traded three short shells for two long rifle shells for an emergency. One day, Grandpa was taking a lunch up the hill to his dad and saw two bears. Grandpa ran, then stopped and put in a long rifle shell. The bears didn’t chase him, though. His brother, Ted, measured the tracks of the bears and they were 27 feet apart running up hill.

Last week, John and I camped in a small meadow surrounded by aspen and spruce trees at Alder Creek. I called my Dad, who now lives in North Carolina, and asked if he had any idea where Grandpa had lived. Yes, Grandpa had shown him where several cabins had once stood and he had lived in one of them. I am guessing this was the Carothers cabin. Dad described crossing the creek at one place and driving a bit up the creek with boulders in it. The cabins had been on the right side of the road below the beaver dam.

We jumped on the 4-wheeler and hit the trail. We had ridden up the trail the day before, so we were a little familiar with what Dad described, but also realized things had changed since the last time Dad had been here forty years ago.

To get our bearings, we drove to the west side of the beaver pond. Instead of one small pond, there appeared to be a series of ponds or even one large pond. We could see glimpses of water through the trees for ½ a mile. But we couldn’t find a trail along the ponds.

Dad spoke of the road running alongside the creek. The main trail ran parallel to the creek, but was much higher up the side of the mountain. We found several trails down to campsites on the creek, but not a single road along the creek. At one of the campsites, the trail crossed the creek in the manner Dad described. We drove through the creek and up the bank. 

And the trail disappeared. Fallen trees and washed out banks made it seem impossible for a road to ever have run there. We set out on foot but found we couldn’t go any further. We wouldn’t be able to find the cabin. 

Disappointed, I looked down at the ground and noticed wild strawberry plants all around me. The plants were in bloom, no sweet red berries yet. Memories came to mind of visiting Grandpa’s mining claim on Spring Creek, the next creek over and of Grandpa helping me hunt for the tiny sweet berries. Sweet memories.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Freedom in January

Barry Ward recently released his new CD, Lonesome County Road. John and I are especially honored that Barry recorded the song we wrote, "Freedom in January." The song is a little bluegrass number telling the story of Ernest Christison's (my great-great-uncle) jail break in Buena Vista, Colorado in 1883.

Former Flying W Wrangler Joe Stephenson added the perfect fiddle part to the song for my fiddle-playing outlaw. And Ernie Martinez, nominated for the 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year by the Western Music Association, played the dobro, intoning a lonesome train whistle on the break.

"Freedom in January" tells the story of Ernest Christison who, along with ten other prisoners, knocked out a hole in the brick wall and "broke jail." The jail is now the school administration offices. At the back of the building, you can still see where the bricks were replaced.

The Buena Vista Democrat (

Ernest Christison and Albert Sweeny ran half a mile to the Arkansas River. This photo was taken 126 years later on the anniversary of the jail break. Fortunately for the men, there wasn't snow on the ground so they couldn't be tracked. They crossed the river and hid on the hill a while, and then started walking south to Salida. They crossed the river again near Nathrop. Thinking of the men walking through the freezing cold water prompted the line, "Freedom in January is worth the frost."

Ernest and Albert made it to Thomas Cameron's home just north of Salida, where they found food, a Winchester, and a place to sleep. But Cameron's was being watched and the men were rudely awakened by "a shotgun barreled side by side" shoved in their faces. After they were captured, the men returned to Buena Vista on the train with an armed guard.

Lonesome County Road is available for order at  Be sure to check out Barry's schedule and see him in concert when he is in your area. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rush To The Rockies! The 1859 Pikes Peak or Bust Gold Rush

Rush To The Rockies! is the latest in the Regional History Book Series by the Pikes Peak Library District.  In 2009, I presented my paper, "The Cash Creek Miners and the Lake County War," at the Regional History Symposium sponsored by PPLD and the paper is included in the book. Last week, I was honored to be a part of the booksigning at the book release event at the Penrose Library.

Elizabeth and Wilburn Christison
It is exciting to see my great-great-grandfather's story and that of the Cash Creek miners in print. These men were Colorado pioneers whose lives tell the story of Colorado's earliest days.

The connections I find in research fascinate me. I knew Wilburn was involved in the Lake County War, which ended with the murder of Judge Elias Dyer (the son of itinerant Methodist preacher, Father Dyer) in his own courtroom. However, I didn't know he had more than a passing acquaintance with Father Dyer until I found the incorporation papers for the Pioneer Lode Prospecting Company. That is when I learned Wilburn and Father Dyer had been partners in a mining company at Cash Creek. And, as I looked at the names, I realized several of the other partners were also involved in the Lake County War.

Booksigning at the Penrose Library October 24, 2013

Rush to the Rockies! is filled with stories of the gold rush and early Colorado history making it a great addition to any Colorado history buff's bookshelf.

Thank you to Tim Blevins, Special Collections Manager of PPLD and to his incredible staff for publishing a top-notch book.

 I'd also like to thank my friends, Terry and Terry Courtright, who created the map at the beginning of my chapter.


Rush To The Rockies: The 1859 Pikes Peak or Bust Gold Rush is for sale for $24.95 at the Penrose Library and through Clausen Books (it isn't on the website yet, but may be ordered by phone). It is also available as an e-book for $5.99 at Smashwords.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

South Park Perils

Today I'd like to welcome author Christie Wright to Colorado Reflections! Christie has a new book out, South Park Perils, published by Filter Press. I've known Christie for several years after meeting through Women Writing the West and we've enjoyed sharing our Park County interests. In fact, she mentions Ernest Christison on page 55, it seems he attempted to break out of the Fairplay jail several months before breaking out of the Buena Vista Jail. A murderer later found his small saw and finished sawing through the bars of the Fairplay jail.

Leave a comment on this blog post and Christie will give away one book to a lucky reader!

Tell us a little about the type of stories a reader will find in South Park Perils?
Readers will find all true murder stories set in the 1800's and early 1900's in Park County, CO. Although I found many other crimes that were committed during my research for the book, I was surprised at the number of murders and decided to make that the focus of “South Park Perils.” The west was definitely wild there!

Many of the stories involve shootings and many in saloons, which was typical of the time. There are three ranchers who committed almost identical crimes but at different times; they all shot their neighbors over livestock boundary disputes and all three times, their victims had picked up rocks to throw when they were shot and killed.

Park County actually had four sets of serial killers: the Espinosa brothers in the early 1860's; Benjamin Ratcliff in 1895 who shot and killed three school board members, and a con artist in the Guffey area in 1897. Sadly, another serial murder happened in 2003 near Guffey when three teenage boys shot and killed an acquaintance and his grandparents. This latter case is not mentioned in my book but the other three are.

How did you become interested in South Park?
In the 1980s, our family had a second home over on the Summit County side of Hoosier Pass and we would frequently explore the Park County side of Hoosier, including Buckskin and Mosquito Gulches. I became fascinated with the mines and the mining history there and my interest gradually expanded to the County’s history in general. Several years ago I began volunteering with the Park County Local History Archives, a non-profit organization, and was elected President in 2010. Park County’s history is very alive and real to me!

You worked for the State of Colorado as a probation officer. How did your experience help you in researching and writing this book?
My work experience helped me understand both the court proceedings that I learned about on each case as well as the court language itself. I found it fascinating that most of the legal language we use in the courtroom today was in use in the 1800s. To me, this showed the strength of our legal system in general and that there has been a thread of continuity throughout our justice system, albeit with its faults.

Regarding the ‘legalese,” terms such as preliminary examination, stay of execution (which can refer to a court action other than an actual execution!) return on a warrant and the process of posting bond are all familiar terms to those of us who work in the system. This was very helpful in deciphering the court practices in the 1800's.

Two interesting differences are that in the 19th century, circuit judges only held court twice a year in each judicial district and that the weeks for this were actually set by the Colorado legislature. If a suspect committed a crime right after court adjourned for that session, he could possibly have been confined for six months until the judge rode back into town. Nowadays, judges control their own courtrooms and dockets.

The other difference is the number of trials that were held in the 19th century. Almost every murder case went to trial (other than those who absconded) whereas today, plea bargains are frequently offered in order to avoid the time and expense of a trial.

Did you run into any surprises when you researched the stories?
Yes, there were a number of them. One was the ever-present threat of lynching, even shortly after the turn of the century. I have a number of cases where a defendant immediately rode into the nearest town to turn himself in to “the law” after killing his victim. At first I thought their moral conscience kicked in albeit late, and they wanted to “do the right thing” by ‘fessing up to their crime. I later realized they did this to avoid being lynched and often took the back roads so as to avoid detection.

Another surprise was that there were no women convicted of murder in Park County in the 1800's that I could find. Two were suspects and charged as Accessories to Murder in 1894 but both were acquitted at trial. A third woman, a rancher’s wife, faced the same charge in 1902 but she was also acquitted. The reasons for no female convictions is interesting but requires an in-depth sociological analysis that I have not delved into.

How does your book contribute to the history of the area?
I think “South Park Perils” contributes to the county’s history by adding a new dimension to its settlement – that of the criminal behavior that was integral to its founding. Although not pleasant, it was part and parcel of Colorado’s early years. Several other Park County authors have written locally about some of the more sensational murders, to my knowledge, this is the first time those and the many lesser known murders have been brought forth.

Christie Wright is a Colorado "semi-native," who moved to the state after graduating from college in Illinois. After many adventures exploring the high country, she became fascinated with Park County mining camps and later expanded her interest to the county's overall history. Christie worked as a state probation officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado for more than twenty-two years.She currently serves as president of the Park County Local History Archives and is a member of Women Writing the West and Wild West History Association. Click here to visit her South Park Perils website, where you may purchase her book.