Monday, January 24, 2011

Random Thoughts on the Sundance Kid

Harry A. Longabaugh is a tough name to pronounce and not very memorable. But when he stole a horse, saddle and a gun in northeast Wyoming and got himself tossed in jail in Sundance, Wyoming, he became a legend, the Sundance Kid. The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did not hurt his popularity either. It might be that Butch and Sundance would be little more that footnotes in Wild West history if not for the movie. We would still love them in Wyoming and Utah but the rest of the country may have enough of their own bad guys to celebrate.

So who was the Sundance Kid anyway? His friend Butch Cassidy is much better known as leader of the Wild Bunch and as an all around character of the old west. So why was Harry (the Sundance Kid) Longabaugh famous, was it only because he hung out with Butch?

Born in Pennsylvania in 1867 he came west (probably first to Colorado) as a teen and later ended up in north eastern Wyoming. By age twenty his outlaw career had started and ended. A year and a half later he was released from the Sundance jail and returned to life working on a ranch. Either bored with the life of a cowboy, or needing adventure he was implicated in a train robbery three years after his release (1892) and then another five years later. Maybe he was just supplementing his meager ranch wages but more than likely he was an outlaw and had gotten away with more than local people knew about at the time. These robberies may have been as part of Cassidy’s wild bunch.

I suspect, like many of the outlaws of the old west, he lived two different lives. Part of the time he was a hard working ranch hand, raising, feeding and taking care of stock, riding fence and spending time with locals in town when he had a chance. But he had a wild streak, one that left him less than satisfied with this life. It could have been money, might have been a need for adventure, or he may have been in it for the thrill of the chase. Whatever it was, his unsettled feelings may have led him to an on and off life of crime, sometimes with months or years between hold-ups.

After the Winnemucca National Bank, Nevada hold up, Butch and Sundance took off for South America with the Pinkerton Detectives right behind. The story ends there, or does it? Were they killed in the famous shootout with the San Vicente police in Bolivia in 1908? Most avid readers of western history hope not. Stories say he and Butch came back to America, living in Utah, Wyoming or elsewhere for many years. We may never know for sure, but we really hope they were a lot like Redford and Newman in the movie.

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