The Sundance Alternative

How the recession of 1887 led a Phoenixville lad to infamy.

Harry Longabaugh—aka the Sundance Kid—and his father.In January 2009, one of every 488 houses was in foreclosure. Personal bankruptcies were up by one-third in 2008. Seven percent of U.S. workers was unemployed, with predictions of 10 percent.

So what will all those homeless, broke and jobless Americans do? A few will do what Harry Alonzo Longabaugh did.

In 1887, five years after moving from Phoenixville to Colorado to work as a horse wrangler, Longabaugh found himself out of work and broke. No 20-year-old who’s tasted freedom wants to move back in with his family, so Longabaugh did what he had to do—and then he did it again and again until, finally and inevitably, he was killed doing it.

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He stole a horse, a saddle and a revolver from the VVV Ranch, a “corporate” operation near Sundance, Wyo., that was owned by English investors. Longabaugh and his partners attacked banks, railroads and mining interests. They never robbed working people. Arrested a couple of months later, he spent nearly two years in the Sundance jail, where he tried repeatedly to escape. This rambunctiousness drew attention to “the kid.”

The Sundance Kid.

Despite the escape attempts—including one in which Longabaugh and a fellow prisoner attacked the jailer who brought their dinner—the county prosecutor requested a pardon for Sundance, which was granted. Wyoming Gov. Thomas Moonlight wrote in 1889: “He is still under 21 years of age, and his behavior has been good since confinement, showing an earnest desire to reform.”

A home in Chester Springs where Longabaugh stayed for a spell as a common farmhand.Born into a family of German origin, Sundance was the youngest of Josiah and Annie (Place) Longabaugh’s five children. The first of the line had been Josiah’s grandfather, Conrad Langebach, who’d arrived in Philadelphia from Rotterdam in 1772 as an indentured servant and fought in the Revolutionary War. Conrad eventually acquired a farm at New Hanover, but some of his descendants did less well. Sundance’s branch of the family could be considered part of the working poor.

“Josiah and Annie moved frequently, never owned property and always stayed near Phoenixville, where their families lived,” wrote Donna B. Ernst, a Sundance relative and author of Sundance: My Uncle. “Josiah was a common laborer, often hiring out for farm work.”

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Young Sundance attended the First Baptist Church of Phoenixville, where his grandfather, Harry Place, was a deacon. The extended Longabaugh family got together regularly for picnics and birthdays. But Sundance’s relatives remembered him as an “unsettled spirit,” with wanderlust and little interest in family.

Perhaps pinched circumstances weakened his family bonds. According to Ernst, he was mothered primarily by an older sister, Samanna, and, by the age of 13, had already moved out on his own. The 1880 census listed Sundance as a “hired servant,” boarding with Wilmer Ralston, a West Vincent farmer.

By the summer of 1882, Sundance had begun to look elsewhere. In June, Samanna recorded his search in her husband’s business ledgers, where she sometimes made marginal notations of other events. “Harry A. Longabaugh left home,” she wrote, “to seek employment in Philadelphia and from their (sic) to New York City, from their (sic) to Boston, and from their (sic) home on the 26 of July or near that date.”

Apparently, he found nothing.

Meanwhile, out in Illinois, a cousin, George Longenbaugh, had decided to homestead in Colorado with his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son. They would go in a covered wagon, and would need help. Fifteen-year-old Sundance—just returned from his unsuccessful job-hunting trip—was probably delighted by the Longenbaughs’ offer to join their adventure. He jumped on it.

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In August, Samanna made a record of Sundance’s departure: “Harry A. Longabaugh left home for the West.”

Colorado in 1882 was still not much past its frontier days. Before the Mexican War, the entire state had been the territory of the Ute tribe, visited only by a few white trappers. With the end of the war, the U.S. government had agreed to honor Ute rights. But citizens weren’t so scrupulous. Settlers filtered in, and the discovery of gold in the 1850s attracted tens of thousands of prospectors. An 1868 treaty pushed the Utes onto a reservation comprising roughly the western third of the state. But after the 1879 Meeker Massacre—in which the Utes killed an Indian agent trying to turn them into Christian farmers—the tribe was evicted to a much smaller reservation in Utah.

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When Sundance and his relatives arrived, the region was all potential. George Longenbaugh first settled the family at Durango, Colo., for two years and raised horses. Then, in 1884, they moved west about 50 miles to what is now Cortez. The town wasn’t much more than a small gathering of tents. But there was water and “the grass in nearby McElmo Canyon [was] said to be as high as the stirrup of a saddle,” wrote Ernst. To cattlemen, this spelled promise.

Longenbaugh became one of the region’s solid citizens. After the springs proved inadequate for commercial agriculture, he became an active member of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation District. Beginning in 1885, the organization began digging a tunnel through the mountains to the Dolores River. Water first reached Cortez in 1890.

The area wasn’t crowded by any means, but there were some neighbors. The Maddens lived in nearby Mancos; in later years, Sundance and Bill Madden would rob a train together. The McCarty brothers and the Warner family were there, too; in 1889, Tom McCarty and Matt Warner would participate in the robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. By 1885, a young Mormon named Robert Leroy Parker was also a local regular.

Like Sundance, Parker started as a ranch hand. At age 14, he’d been charged with theft after taking a pair of jeans from a closed clothing store. The jury had acquitted him, probably because he’d left an IOU promising to pay later. Parker also worked as a jockey, a miner and a butcher. The latter job saddled him with the nickname “Butch.” Combined with the surname Cassidy—borrowed from Mike Cassidy, a young rustler he’d known and admired—Robert Leroy Parker became Butch Cassidy.

Butch and Sundance probably met about 1885 or so. Butch the jockey was a partner in a local racehorse, while Sundance worked for a respected local horse breeder. This mutual interest in horses inevitably drew them together.

In 1886, Sundance joined a large cattle drive heading for Montana from Texas. Laid off at the end of the drive, he wandered toward the Black Hills, seeking work but finding nothing better than jobs that provided room and board. A hard winter had killed thousands of head of cattle in the region; ranch hands were as superfluous as autoworkers are today. Desperate, Sundance acted on that opportunity at the VVV. Released in 1889, he headed back to Cortez, where he threw in with Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch.”

According to Ernst, Sundance joined with Butch, Warner and McCarty in the June 24, 1889, robbery of the Telluride bank. Initial accounts mentioned only three robbers, but other witnesses reported four men riding hard. And, late in his life, Longenbaugh’s son, Walter, confided to family that Sundance had been there.

Newspapers reported the take at about $21,000. If accurate, and if it was divided equally, Sundance wound up with roughly $5,000.

From then on, it was one thing after another. The Wild Bunch—a term chosen by the newspapers—didn’t steal on a schedule. Sometimes, years went by during which members came and went, often working regular jobs. Sundance was not present, for instance, when Butch and others took a $7,000 payroll from a coal company courier in 1897. But he was there in 1899, when the gang stopped a Union Pacific train near Wilcox, Wyo., and blew the express car to pieces to get a haul reported between $30,000 and $60,000. He was also at Winnemucca, Nev., in 1900, when the gang took more than $32,000 from the local bank.

Informed of Sundance’s behavior, his Phoenixville relatives cut off contact. One sister, Emily, a seamstress for Wanamaker’s, changed the spelling of her last name to avoid association with her brother. Samanna Longabaugh Hallman, wife of a Phoenixville ornamental wrought-iron businessman, wrote to Sundance only when he was living a law-abiding life. She didn’t write often.

The flight from Winnemucca was long and hard. The gang was chased by several posses and nearly caught while changing horses. If the Wild Bunch had robbed little people, they might have been fine. But they’d offended those who could afford to hire the Pinkerton detective agency to track them. And the Pinkertons were closing in. The gang split up, then rejoined in Fort Worth. There, for the first time, the agenda included starting over in South America.

Only Butch and Sundance went, along with an unknown woman who used the name Etta Place—an obvious alias based on the maiden name of Sundance’s mother. In 1901, they sailed from New York to Argentina, where they tried to go straight. They bought a ranch. But the Pinkertons tracked them down. With arrest imminent, Butch and Sundance had a choice between jail or a return to crime. They chose crime. In 1908, after grabbing a $7,000 silver mine payroll in Bolivia, they were shot to death—and may have committed suicide—in the Andean town of San Vicente.

Near the end, on his way to New York, Sundance had stopped in Phoenixville for his first visit in nearly 20 years. He introduced Etta as his wife, met nieces and nephews born in his absence and visited his parents’ graves. He told Samanna that he was going straight, which surely pleased her. And then he was gone again.

Whose story will they be telling a century from now?

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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