As the scene opens on today’s last column covering the Montoya/Howe Sheepmen’s Cattlemen’s War, Juan de Dios Montoya is standing in front of a judge in Durango in the District Court.
Just as it does today, the District Court had jurisdiction over major crimes in a number of counties, including Durango in La Plata County and Pagosa Springs in Archuleta County.
Montoya has been on trial for the murder of William Howe, in Archuleta County. Howe is a popular young man and a cattle rancher. Beyond that, he is also an elected Archuleta County Commissioner.
And all of the ingredients are present for the prosecuting attorney to touch the jury’s hearts with sympathy for the surviving family of the deceased Howe.
Even if we disallow the prejudice of that day in our history when cattlemen looked down on sheepmen and Anglos looked down on those of Hispanic descent, the prosecuting attorney had plenty to work with.
The shooting took place on the Howe homestead on the West Fork of the San Juan River. To participate in the shootout between, on the one side, Howe, his brother Abe who owed the adjacent homestead, and Joe Mann who owned a homestead on the West Fork of the San Juan, and on the other side Juan, his brothers and some hired sheepherders, Howe had to leave a funeral wake being held in his living room for his first baby son. The boy had only recently passed away after surviving the death of his mother during childbirth. It would have been easy for the jury to feel sympathy for the bereaved Howe and his sudden loss of wife and son.
Several Pagosa people had been at the Howe Ranch offering their sympathy to the grieving father. They testified at the trial as to what they had seen take place.
To top it off, Montoya’s group was driving a herd of more than 10,000 sheep across Howe’s property. Howe’s homestead was part of today’s At Last Ranch. The shootout took place along the river just past the bridge and below the home now at the At Last Ranch.
Helping the Montoya cause was attorney Adair Wilson, probably the best trial lawyer in southwest Colorado. Montoya’s father could afford the best.
And so, Montoya and his family with surviving members of Howe’s family, and others in the crowded courtroom, waited as the judge received the written verdict handed him by the foreman of the jury. The judge read, “Your honor. We find the defendant, Juan de Dios Montoya, not guilty.”
You can imagine the handshaking, back slapping and shouts of laughter exhibited by the Montoya clan when they heard the verdict.
And then, indicative of the prejudice present at that time, the newspaper writer concluded his narrative of the trial by proclaiming, “The trial over and having grasped the victory, these sunny sons of southern climes retired to Del Monico’s to celebrate.”