A Word from the Founder
Butch Cassidy and The Long Riders
A Forgotten Historical Connection
CuChullaine O’Reilly, FRGS
Thanks to Hollywood the names “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” are as familiar as “Batman and Robin.”
But what about “Butch Cassidy and Roger Pocock”?
What if I told you that instead of celebrating robbery and murder, we could instead be talking about exploration and courage? What if you discovered that Cassidy and Pocock were involved in the creation, and riding, of the most incredible equestrian trail, and journey, in North American history?
Would that intrigue you? Would you wonder why pop culture celebrates Cassidy but ignores Pocock?
Hidden inside the little words “Roger Pocock,” is a man whose life was so big that it ran the length of the notorious Outlaw Trail, splashed over into the creation of a citizen’s militia that is still flourishing and left behind one of the most important equestrian legacies of the early 20th century. But, you may be asking yourself, if that’s so then why have I never heard of him?
Blame it on Hollywood, if you like, or take into consideration Pocock’s own modesty. For though he survived more true-life adventures than any celluloid hero, this English Long Rider’s life has lain in the shadows, until the release of a new biography has finally liberated his remarkable life story.
In his book, Outrider of Empire – The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock, author Geoffrey Pocock has accomplished several things, some of them unintentional but all of them exciting. Though not actually related, the author’s curiosity led him to study the life of his famous namesake. What he found after years of diligent research was that Pocock left England in the late 1880s and joined the newly formed Royal Canadian Northwest Mounted Police, commonly known as the Mounties. There he fought beside and learned frontier lore from the freedom-loving Mounties, those masters of horses and wilderness skills, whose manly virtues influenced Pocock for the rest of his life.
|This exciting new biography, which is based on more than twenty years of research, reveals how Roger Pocock made the only documented ride along the entire length of the infamous Outlaw Trail, journeying 3,600 miles on horseback from Fort Macleod, Canada to Mexico City, Mexico.|
Geoff’s primary role as a biographer has thus resulted in the creation of an impressive and accurate account of Roger Pocock’s life. The diligent scholar has documented how Pocock used his military experiences to form the Legion of Frontiersmen, a civilian militia composed of cowboys, hunters, scouts, explorers and English aristocrats dedicated to protecting the vast British Empire. This dashing collection of colourful characters included Harry de Windt, the Long Rider who journeyed from Paris to New York via Siberia. The biographer also explains how Pocock, while serving during the First World War, spent his spare time recording his immense equestrian knowledge into his celebrated academic book, Horses. Pocock’s life story concludes with his participation in one of the first attempts to fly around the planet.
Consequently, this ground-breaking investigation into Roger Pocock’s life reveals not just a man of action but an unparalleled equestrian scholar and a trusted comrade in arms whose unpretentious style of life and leadership left a legacy of respect.
Yet there is one other thing this overdue biography also does. It bestows upon Roger Pocock the equestrian legitimacy long denied him.
Enter Butch Cassidy.
One of most notorious outlaws of the Old West, Cassidy was the gregarious leader of a loose confederation of criminals known as the Wild Bunch. During the late 19th century the group, including Cassidy’s handsome confederate, the Sundance Kid, plundered banks, robbed trains and killed citizens across a vast expanse of the still raw American frontier. And even though Hollywood popularized their exploits in the 1969 film staring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, depicting them more as mischievous school boys than larcenous misfits, nevertheless both men willingly rode and robbed alongside notorious murderers such as Kid Curry and Harry Tracy.
|Though Hollywood turned Butch Cassidy into a cinematic hero, it was the English Long Rider, Roger Pocock, who actually rode the entire length of the Outlaw Trail from Canada to Mexico.|
Thus there was a very real danger involved in approaching this band of brigands. Moreover, they were known to inhabit a series of remote hideouts designed to discourage all but the bravest horsemen from venturing too near.
Yet that’s exactly what Roger Pocock did in 1899, mounted his horse and sought them out. And did I mention he was unarmed?
Like many Long Riders before, and after, him, Pocock was inspired to take to the saddle by the accomplishments of another equestrian traveller. In this case it was the astonishing ride done in 1889 by the Cossack, Lieutenant Dmitri Peshkov, who had ridden his Yakut pony, Seriy, 5,500 miles across Siberia to the Czar’s palace at St. Petersburg. That journey across snow-covered Russia had lasted 193 days and turned the tough Cossack into a national hero.
From his adopted home in Canada, Pocock realized that Peshkov’s journey “was a record on a road with the aid of signposts and as a feat of horsemanship unrivalled.”
But another standard might be met. The Mountie turned Long Rider might attempt to make the most dangerous equestrian journey ever ridden over what he casually called “difficult ground.” In fact Pocock was determined to find and ride the shadowy Outlaw Trail which supposedly ran across three countries.
There were a number of important trails that helped define the creation of the United States. The Trail of Tears was the route the Cherokee Indians were forced to walk when they were compelled to move from Georgia to Oklahoma in the 1830s. The Oregon Trail was the wagon road used by pioneers travelling from Missouri to Oregon in the 1840s. The Chisholm Trail was used during the 1870s to drive cattle overland from the Texas plains to the railhead in Kansas.
And then there was the Outlaw Trail.
|This shadowy equestrian trail ran from Canada to Mexico and was operated according to principles used by two previous underground railroads which also assisted people on the run.|
While pedestrians, wagons and cattle moved across America via these acceptable and well-established routes, a shadowy equestrian path reached from a series of outlaw inhabited Canadian caves, south through the most inhospitable regions of the American west, and terminated more than 3,000 miles away in the rough and tumble republic of Mexico. There are several things which set this murky thoroughfare apart from its socially acceptable cousins.
One, it was never properly mapped, nor did any one individual ever apparently know all of its myriad parts. It was a rumour. It was a threat. But it was also regularly travelled, and not by well-intentioned members of either American or Canadian society. Which brings us to point two. The Outlaw Trail was employed, enjoyed and inhabited by desperadoes whose primary purpose was to delay detection and avoid arrest. Unlike the pioneers whose Oregon Trail ran from east to west and can still be seen today, the Outlaw Trail was the domain of bad men who took their geographic secrets to the grave. Finally, unlike the other historic arteries coursing through the country, the Outlaw Trail was the only one specifically meant for equestrian travellers. It was so rugged, extreme, dangerous, life-threatening and remote that pedestrians, oxen, wagons, cattle, women, children, any and all of the elements that defined normal 19th century American travel, were discouraged from ever using it.
It was, in a word, a track that desperate men on bold horses undertook when presented with situations requiring extreme measures.
Finding the Wild Bunch
With the Rocky Mountains on his right, Pocock set out on June 28, 1899. He was mounted on a sturdy Canadian range horse and led two tough pack ponies. Pocock wasn’t attempting to break any speed records. In fact, realizing the harsh nature of the country ahead, he just wanted to survive. But his aim was to be the first to ever ride from Canada into the heart of Mexico along the hazardous trail frequented by Butch Cassidy and his cohorts. Half journalist, half equestrian explorer, the ever observant Pocock kept careful notes as he rode, recording in his diary how he was befriended by Blackfoot Indians, welcomed by ranchers and dined with solitary settlers. He was friendly to all, and unarmed, except for his trusty Kodak camera.
|Though he rode more than 3,000 miles across some of the most hostile terrain in North America, Long Rider Roger Pocock brought his horses into Mexico City in excellent condition.|
As he ventured further southward, the real challenge of the lone horseman’s journey became more apparent when he began trying to discover how he could locate and penetrate into Cassidy outlaw stronghold. As Pocock discovered, saying you’re going to ride up to Robber’s Roost is one thing, accomplishing it quite another.
“I cross-examined men whom I knew to be robbers, and they lied cheerfully to throw me off the scent,” Pocock recalled in a series of reports he later filed with a London paper. Next he recalled seeking answers from “honest men who spoke in low undertones, for they did so at the risk of their lives.”
Things got worse when he reached the remote village of Montecello, Utah and asked for a guide. Believing him to be a wanted man on the run, the villagers shunned him as an outlaw.
“No man dared to help me, nor dare I hazard men’s lives by telling how I finally got the facts which are now published for the first time,” he later wrote. Then, armed only with his trusty Kodak camera, the intrepid Englishmen rode into the lawless wilderness in search of Butch Cassidy. Pocock was, however, well aware of the danger he was riding into.
“I have been fourteen years on the frontier and know the west from the Bering Strait to Mexico. Working and living with desperadoes, I have in times past been once nearly marooned on a desert island, once nearly lynched as a spy and once nearly shot in a gun-fight. I ought to know outlaws by this time.”
Pocock doesn’t say what he expected to find when he rode into Butch Cassidy’s Robber’s Roost. But the traveller did record how the temptation to aggrandize the outlaws was already well established by the American media. According to a New York newspaper of the time, Cassidy’s Robber’s Roost was a stronghold consisting of a fortified cave equipped with machine guns, guarded by sentries and only approached by one trail. This stronghold fantasy also supposedly had a grand piano, electric lights and telephones.
What Pocock found was a far cry from the exaggerated claims made by New York hacks. The Long Rider discovered instead a simple log house, some corrals, a spring of water and a pasture for the outlaw’s horses. The surrounding cliffs served as a fence to keep stolen cattle in and the law out.
Though New York papers claimed the Robbers Roost was a cave defended by machine guns, Roger Pocock found a simple cabin occupied by hardy outlaws.
“Imagination is the soul of journalism,” Pocock noted. Consequently, when he reported the exaggerations to Cassidy and his gang, he observed their bemused reaction. “I have talked to the outlaws and seen their hard mouths twist into an ugly grin over these inventions.”
Even if Pocock didn’t find a grand piano in a cave, what he confirmed was the existence of an equestrian travel system which has never been properly understood or documented.
One of the most important principles of living in pre-20th century America was that if you ran into trouble, you could always pull up, change your name, and head west towards safety and anonymity. The frontier thus served as a hazy safety valve for settled people who embraced civilized procedures. But as the 19th century drew to a close, the once lawless expanse which had provided shelter to America’s bad men had shrunk to a shadow of its former blood-soaked dimensions. The lawless Oklahoma Territory had been conquered by Judge Parker, the “Hanging Judge.” Texas cow towns that once boasted of their saloons were now overrun with churches. Montana was full of miners. The Dakotas were swarming with farmers. Where could a man go after a killing or a robbery? The only part of the untamed west left to flee to was a narrow corridor of desert and mountains running from Canada to Mexico.
Plus, society had changed as well. Early lawbreakers could count on finding refuge with friendly locals. But as the law grew stronger, finding help became more difficult. It was one thing to give a man a meal and put him up for a night in your remote cabin, something different to hide him for weeks.
The answer, Butch Cassidy could have realized, lay hidden in his political and religious past.
As a school child growing up in rural Utah, Cassidy would have been exposed to stories about the original underground railroad. Beginning in 1810 black slaves in the American south took advantage of an informal network of secret routes and safe houses that aided the fugitives to escape as far north as Canada. Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. As an additional safety measure, many people associated with the underground railroad only knew their part of the operation and not the entire route. In addition, the trail north was often purposely indirect in order to throw off pursuers.
What wasn’t common knowledge outside of Utah was that this concept had been revived nearly a hundred years later when members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which Cassidy was raised, constructed a new underground railroad running south into Mexico. This occurred when Mormons began to come under pressure from the U.S. government to cease the practice of plural marriage. In response to anti-polygamy legislation, beginning in 1885 polygamous Mormon families began moving south along a new underground railroad, this one leading to the Sierra Madre mountains in northern Mexico. As fear of legal punishment increased, these polygamous lawbreakers moved in secret along this clandestine “Mormon Corridor” to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora.
Thus, when Roger Pocock encountered Butch Cassidy he came in contact with a man who had apparently incorporated the concepts of these two previous underground railroads so as to create a unique equestrian escape system. The result was a shadowy route that functioned on the same principles as those which had allowed both runaway slaves fleeing north, and Mormons escaping south, to evade their pursuers.
|According to the popular film, in which Paul Newman (left) and Robert Redford portrayed Butch and Sundance, the outlaws were fun-loving scamps whose sense of adventure extended to taking other people’s money. Yet in reality, the cool-headed Butch Cassidy was an expert horseman and noted tactician. It was these qualities which The Guild believes allowed him to create the most unique trail in American history, an equestrian “underground railroad” used by outlaws.|
Cassidy’s Wild Bunch had a network of safe houses, remote ranches, secret water holes, obscure trails and a trusted network of informants who assisted the robber riders on their way. According to Pocock, the disciplined gang published secret messages in code in local papers so as to be able to meet for a robbery at a certain time and place. Prearranged relays of fast horses, either bought or stolen, aided the outlaws in their escape after a robbery.
The result saw the Wild Bunch involved in a string of lucrative robberies ranging from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. Along the way they also killed law enforcement officers in Tennessee, Utah and New Mexico.
What Pocock was riding, therefore, wasn’t so much a trail, in the accepted American sense, as an underground railroad for mounted outlaws.
Across the Desert to Mexico
After bidding Butch goodbye, the English Long Rider ventured south into the even more dangerous deserts of southern Utah and Arizona.
“The sun blistered my hands and furnace blasts of wind lifted the sand in my face….I had an impression of riding through time, through ages, a wild jumble of scrambled centuries……To live in the desert one must pass the little examinations, or be plowed under, and that is why the men are all so quiet, so deadly smooth,” he wrote.
After spending a hundred and forty seven days in the saddle, and having ridden the equivalent of London to Timbuktu, Pocock reached Mexico City. He had travelled 3,600 miles non-stop on horseback along the Outlaw Trail, making sure to visit every major outlaw hideout enroute, including Hole in the Wall, Brown’s Park and Robber’s Roost. Three good horses had taken him nearly the entire distance.
Tragically, like so many other amazing equestrian achievements from that time period, the immensity of Pocock’s equestrian achievement was soon shoved aside by the advent of the new motor age. By the time Hollywood became interested in Butch and Sundance, the remarkable ride of the English Long Rider had faded from memory.
That is why Geoff Pocock’s new biography is so important, for not only does it put the intrepid Long Rider’s life into badly needed perspective, it also illuminates the astonishing equestrian accomplishment of the former Mountie. And despite having survived his meeting with Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, the Historical Long Rider faces an insidious new threat.
Thanks to the interest generated by the 1969 movie, a lucrative cottage industry has sprung up which is devoted to maintaining personality cults centered around Butch and Sundance. They have appeared in books, served as the inspiration for dude ranch rides, featured in numerous forgettable films and have been drafted into selling everything from tee-shirts to coffee mugs. Like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, Butch and Sundance are making more money serving as profitable icons than they ever did robbing trains.
The Outlaw Trail, when it is mentioned at all by western writers, is brought onto the stage as a secondary player, worthy of notice but not of serious investigation. One authority reported to The Guild, “There is no actual Outlaw Trail. There was a network of trails running from Mexico to Canada. Depending on where the outlaws were going, and who was after them, determined what trail they used. There may in fact be many trails but no one today even knows.”
Of Pocock, none of the popular writers have studied him at length before Geoff Pocock’s commendable work. Instead for far too long the Outlaw Trail community has focused on the quirks of the outlaws, and not on the historical origins and significance of the Outlaw Trail itself. This is amazing considering the fact that there is no documented case of any of the famed outlaws riding the entire trail in one journey. That means that Roger Pocock is the only documented Long Rider to have ever ridden the length of the Outlaw Trail in one continual journey.
|Though he is the only person to have survived the dangers encountered while riding the length of the Outlaw Trail, history has neglected to remember Long Rider Roger Pocock.|
Yet Pocock’s astonishing ride has been lost, while Cassidy and Sundance’s unexpected influence continues to exert an enormous influence on popular culture. This is due to the mythology based on an erroneous movie, not Roger Pocock’s accurate accounts of riding on the Outlaw Trail.
In an ironic equestrian twist, it was thanks to Cassidy’s cinematic reputation, and because Pocock had been forgotten, that a notorious equestrian journey was undertaken in 1999 by an inexperienced English tour operator who believed he would be the first person to ride the length of the Outlaw Trail.
“My quest,” he informed the London press, ”would be the first to authentically ride the Outlaw Trail.”
Because he had focused on memorizing what crimes Butch had committed, instead of studying the principles of equestrian travel, the tour operator turned cowboy quickly rode straight into trouble.
Unlike the expert Pocock, this fellow’s saddle horses were ridden despite visible saddle sores. His packhorses were overloaded and pushed beyond their limits on a daily basis. One horse was impaled. Another fell to its death from a cliff. In fact, the expedition started on April 17th and by May 14th, a mere twenty-eight days later, all of the expedition horses except one had to be replaced due to injuries or severe weight loss. He muddled his way through from Texas to the Canadian border, but not before trailering his horse on several occasions in Arizona and Utah, neglecting to ride across the Red Desert and leaving a trail of equestrian damage in his wake. Despite these errors in equestrian judgment, he told the press that he had duplicated “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s imposing journey.”
After being informed by The Guild of Pocock’s prior claim, the tour operator reluctantly changed his tune, claiming that he was now “the first to have ridden the entire Outlaw Trail from south to north.”
In an effort to further whitewash equestrian travel history, the tour operator next defended his harsh treatment of the horses used on the journey by telling the Denver Post, “People who keep horses for pets would be horrified by this but others who have lived on the land for six generations would say today’s horses are lightweights.”
|By concentrating on the Wild Bunch, an English tour operator who recently rode along part of the Outlaw Trail allowed his fixation with historical romance to override the welfare of his horses.|
The man who provided these horses later reported that the horses’ withers were so damaged that it took ten months for the animals to heal.
This expedition was discussed at length during the first international meeting of The Long Riders’ Guild. It was agreed that this ill-fated journey was a warning of what happens when horses are degraded to the role of disposable appliances by pedestrians in cowboy clothes who value their egos more than the mute sufferings of their mounts. That first meeting saw the tour operator being banned from belonging to The Guild and The Guild’s Members agreeing on the need to promote Roger Pocock’s authentic equestrian accomplishments instead.
As this tragic example proves, there is an on-going need to recognize Pocock’s equestrian accomplishments and wisdom. That desire has been strengthened by the disturbing news that the tour operator is attempting to raise money so he can search for Butch and Sundance in Argentina. As The Guild reveals in another record breaking story, that is a ride that was successfully completed by the Long Riders of Clan Callahan back in the 1970s.
What all of these events, both past and present, demonstrate is that there is an immediate need for serious academic study related to Roger Pocock, Butch Cassidy and the Outlaw Trail they both rode on. As the tour operator proves, errors in equestrian judgment still exist about the trail.
While Butch and Sundance will remain of interest, it is time they share the spotlight with Roger Pocock. The first step will be to urge western writers to review Geoff Pocock’s vital new biography, as well as Roger Pocock’s books on the Outlaw Trail and horses. The next thing we must all ask ourselves is, where is the photo of Butch Cassidy and Long Rider Roger Pocock? The Guild has reason to believe that Pocock’s photos from Robber’s Roost survived. If so, then the discovery of a previously unknown photo taken of Cassidy by Pocock, might bring the unarmed English Long Rider the historical acclaim he so rightly deserves.
To read Roger Pocock's original ten-part newspaper series, "Riding the Outlaw Trail," published in 1900 and reproduced here for the first time in more a century, click here.
For more information about Roger Pocock's informative and exciting autobiography, please view his outstanding book, Following the Frontier.
To learn about the Long Rider Roger Pocock's extraordinary equestrian wisdom, please view his book, Horses.
Geoffrey Pocock’s biography, Outrider of Empire, is available via the University of Alberta Press, your local bookshop or via Barnes & Noble on-line.
To discover how an American colonel and his four Long Rider sons mounted up and went in search of Butch and Sundance in Argentine, click here.
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