Riding into the outlaw hideout at Hole-In-The-Wall Wyoming, got me hooked on the life and times of the Wild Bunch and over the years, that search has led from the Bar U Ranch in Alberta to Copper Canyon in Mexico.
The most elusive gang member to track during that time was neither a bank nor a train robber, but an attractive young woman known only by her alias of Etta Place. An enigma, Etta was both educated and acquainted with several madams — though Hollywood cast her as a schoolteacher — and the Sundance Kid’s lover. Etta’s back trail was shadowy, yet she appeared in photos with the Kid in New York and with both Butch and Sundance at their ranch in Argentina. When Butch and Sundance died in Bolivia, she disappeared from view.
Her life seemed without pattern, giving me few leads to investigate. I called my friend AC Ekker, owner of Robber’s Roost Ranch located near Hanksville, Utah to gain some insight. The Roost was an isolated 100,000 acre tangle of vertical canyons and high desert rangeland that gave AC’s longhorn cattle some outlaw character of their own; they were independent by nature and elusive by choice. Ekker approached outlaw research the way he tracked his cattle; by riding into their hideouts. Etta had wintered there in 1896 – 97 with Butch Cassidy, Maude Davis, Elzy Lay and maybe others as well. AC soon had us horseback looking for their trail.
Outlaws didn’t travel the obvious routes so to track Etta Place I had to ride the back of beyond trails she rode. Our horses clambered up over a sandstone ridge headed towards Horse Shoe Canyon. This was once a rustlers’ route that crossed a slippery rock face. The horses carefully shuffled their feet to keep balanced on the steep footing, their steel shoes scratching into the sandstone. “Just because the evidence isn’t obvious, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. You have to recognize the meaning of what you are looking at, that is the key to the art of tracking,” AC explained. I realized you have to be self-sufficient in many ways to search this canyon country.
Sensing I didn’t believe this was a trail, he pointed out marks in the sandstone ahead of us made by the many horses rustled during the ranch’s outlaw years. They were the same marks our horses were making. Evidently a trail is where you find it or make it in outlaw country. Seeing the right evidence helped me understand what disappearing meant for 19th century outlaws. If skilled enough, you could disappear by choice, but being unprepared left survival to chance and the possibility of succumbing to a broken leg or meeting your end from drinking bad alkali water. By chance or by choice — either way disappearing leaves its own distinct clues.
Etta could clearly take care of herself and blend into the desert. She didn’t disappear by chance, or friends would have left evidence of a search. How she learned her survival skills would reveal her identity and so I would have to search for her name in the ranching history of the area. Tragically on November 12, 2000, Ekker died when his plane crashed as he was locating some of his elusive cattle. I would have to follow Etta’s trail on my own from that point.
Taking the advice AC gave me before the accident, I researched ranch women who associated with Wild Bunch outlaws. Many frustrating dead ends later, striking similarities between Etta Place and a rancher named Ann Bassett emerged.
Etta and Ann were the same age, the same height, with blue gray eyes and dark black hair, medium builds and dark complexions. They both associated with Wild Bunch gang members and who often visited Ann’s family ranch in the Brown’s Park, Utah area. Both women were known to be very capable with guns and horses.
Serious legal trouble for Ann Bassett began when powerful ranchers began to push small ranchers from Brown’s Park rangeland claiming they were rustlers. The big ranches needed more grass and the small ranchers branded the slicks to build up their herds. Ann Bassett admitted to altering a two bars brand into a pig-pen brand, evidence she knew rustler methods.
The homesteaders had also mistakenly made Brown’s Park a haven for outlaws by hiring them as cowboys. By 1900 the big outfits had acquired a regulator named James Hicks, an alias of the notorious Tom Horn. His job was to infiltrate Brown’s Park and clear out the rustlers. At the time he was working with another stock detective named Bob Meldrum who was just as merciless. Ann’s cowboy friends like Matt Rash and Isom Dart found themselves on a death list and soon after died from ambush. Others, including Ann, had threatening notes pinned to their doors ordering them to leave the country. Since she was elusive it was years later before Ann was actually tried for rustling. Acquitted, she periodically continued her personal war against the big ranches.
At that point in the project I was introduced to Doris Burton, a Utah historian who had seen photos of Ann and Etta and had noticed striking similarities between them. She had the photos of both women compared by Dr. Thomas Kyle, a NASA photo specialist. He found that they matched in all their facial features but particularly noticed that both women shared the same small scar at their forehead hairline. Ann Bassett and Etta Place were confirmed to be one and the same. Ann lived a storied life and in 1923 she married cowboy Frank Willis moving to Leeds, Utah.
Ann Bassett died in 1956. Etta Place was never heard from again.