Deep within Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, right at the end of a dusty old road cut off with towering colorful canyons sits a very special cabin that once belonged to a very special lady – Josie Bassett Morris. I mean, if only the walls could talk!
Who was Josie Bassett Morris?
Well, let’s just say that Josie was a colorful female character of the fascinating Wild West.
Josie Bassett Morris came from a family of educated, relatively wealthy homesteaders. Little Josie (Josephine) was only about 3 years old when the Bassett family had made the leap to follow a family member in moving to Brown’s Park, Colorado (formerly Brown’s Hole) from Arkansas.
Brown’s Park was this isolated lush mountain valley in a rugged region extending along the north end of the Utah-Colorado border, perfect for a horse and cattle ranch.
This took place sometime in the 1870s (most sources agree on 1877). The Bassett family had two kids at that point – Josie and her brother Samuel, and a third on the way.
One thing led to another and, eventually, there were 5 kids in the Bassett family, three of which were born in the picturesque Brown’s Park – Anna (Ann), Elbert, and George. Unfortunately, very little is known about the boys in the Bassett family. Most sources only mention the girls – Josie, and her younger sister Ann.
Growing up on a ranch being one of 5 siblings only meant one thing: Josie’s early years were everything but dull.
Especially since Josie’s mother was a spitfire Mary Eliza Chamberlain Bassett (aka Elizabeth Bassett) – a dominant figure in the family who wasn’t afraid to play hard, and work hard.
Elizabeth Bassett was small in stature, always dressed in elegant tailored dresses, beautiful and charming, yet tough as a boot and larger than the life itself. She ran the family ranch to her liking (and did so very well), did all sorts of hard labor, and made sure all kids, including the girls, were taught how to rope cattle, ride horses, and shoot at a very young age.
When a full-grown cow occasionally wandered onto her property, she would often kill it without hesitation to feed her family. If a stray young calf happened by, Elizabeth didn’t care where it came from. It was branded and added to her herd.
The kids’ father, Amos Herbert Bassett (Herb Bassett), on the other hand, was more of a mild-mannered musically inclined intellectual who was now living on the rugged Brown’s Park frontier where manual labor was prized over academic aptitude.
Herb helped organize a small local school, read Shakespeare to his children, built a cabin for his family and piped in water from a nearby spring, pitched in wherever needed, but contently let his wife Elizabeth take the rein. He eventually became the first local postmaster which suited him much better than ranching.
Even though Josie and Ann were sent to prominent boarding schools in their youth and well educated, they could ride and rope like only men (and their mother) could. Both eventually returned to the ranching life when they were in their teens.
Small wonder that the Bassett girls grew up to be sharp-witted, strong, independent, and wild and spirited like the country around them. Everything I had read about them says that they were also unusually attractive.
But here’s the really interesting part…
The Bassett sisters were friends with them bad boys outlaws since childhood and became romantically involved with some members of the Wild Bunch Gang later on.
I guess that’s what happens when your parents build a home on the outlaw trail…
Hospitable by nature, the Bassett ranch welcomed all visitors – no questions asked. Nobody ever left hungry. Elizabeth Bassett was an articulate conversationalist and an excellent hostess who never tired of anyone entering their home.
Thanks to Elizabeth’s gregarious nature, the Bassett ranch quickly became a social center of Brown’s Park and a popular stopover for travelers of all kinds, including peddlers, cowboys, prospectors, and even outlaws who frequented the remote mountain valley on the run from the law. Among them Butch Cassidy, “Black Jack” Ketchum, Kid Curry, Elzy Lay, and Ben Kilpatrick.
Herb Bassett did business with many of the outlaws, supplying them with beef and horses. Herb’s extensive library was also quite popular among the visitors. A rugged cowboy with his feet propped up, reading a piece from Herb’s personal collection was a common sight on the Bassett ranch. To show appreciation, cowboys that drifted in and out often helped with chores around the prospering ranch.
The Bassett family, much like the rest of Brown’s Park, developed their own unique codes of ethics based on trust and the Robin Hood principle, if you will, that fit within their lifestyle and beliefs. While you could say that Brown’s Park operated outside of standard definitions of the law, the community strictly adhered to its own moral codes.
The Bassetts were on such good terms with the outlaws that they became protective of the family in times of need.
Turns out, wealthy cattle barons were interested in the land the Bassett ranch was on and didn’t hesitate to hire cowboys to sweep up their cattle and harass the family which carried on for years. The girls in the Bassett family certainly meant business. But, thankfully, they had the outlaws and other help to back them in defense of their holdings.
In December of 1892, Elizabeth Bassett died suddenly at the age of 37, presumably of appendicitis. Untimely death wasn’t all that uncommon in the Old West, but Elizabeth’s passing must have been a traumatic event for the entire family and their circle and a significant blow to the ranch operation.
The following year after her mother’s death, Josie Bassett (then 19 years old) married Jim KcKnight with whom she ended up having two boys – Crawford McKnight and Herbert McKnight, also known as “Chick.”
And then she married again.
And again, and then supposedly two more times, but let’s not jump ahead.
She was also suspected of killing (poisoning) one of her husbands, Emmerson Wells, but I guess we’ll never know. While I don’t condone foul play, according to sources close to Josie and Josie’s own words, this one husband turned out to be an abusive aggressive binge drinker.
Somebody may have laced his coffee with a squirt of strychnine, or perhaps he decided to end his own life? His death remains shrouded in mystery, and maybe it’s for the best.
It appears that Josie went on to live in several places sometime after first getting married but may have returned to live back on the family ranch at least once.
It wasn’t until Josie was nearly 40 when she had found the charming land in a lush valley in Cub Creek which is now part of Dinosaur National Monument. In 1914, having little to no money, she filed a homestead claim here, 40 miles away from her family ranch.
Sorting out through all kinds of contradictory information, I believe it was around the time Josie started homesteading in Cub Creek that she had met her last husband – Ben Morris – whose name she took and kept. After chasing him away with a frying pan and divorcing him just like the 3 others before him.
Here Josie built a cabin with a little help from her son Crawford who had also lived here briefly with his wife. In 1924 she built a new cabin on the property, presumably all on her own.
It’s the cabin you see on the last stop on Dinosaur National Monument’s scenic drive before the road ends.
Josie Morris Cabin
This is where Josie lived in solitude for 50 years without modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, electricity, or phone line (though they were available), fully supporting herself with her homestead and the bounty of the local land until passing away in May of 1964 at the age of 90 after suffering lingering complications from a broken hip.
The cabin is Josie’s legacy and a reminder of her kind adventurous mischievous spirit which I’ll get to in a moment.
Josie Morris Cabin is a modest structure with dirt floors and loads of charm. You can go inside and imagine what living here was like for Josie, with all its ups and downs.
Some of the interior walls are covered with wallpaper. No idea if it’s original.
I’d like to think that with a little (or a lot of?) imagination, the wallpaper remnants look faintly similar to the picture below. Admittedly, I’m probably seeing things I want to see so bad…
Josie’s cabin was once surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens, fruit orchard, and assorted domestic animals.
Other dependent structures stood on the property, most of which are gone now.
Nearby, you can visit the canyons that once served as natural corrals for Josie’s cattle.
The Box Canyon Trail is a short (0.5-mile) walk with partial shade that starts just above the parking area.
The Hog Canyon Trail is a 1.5-mile hike that starts just past the former chicken coop.
Or just walk around the adjacent pond where frogs are plentiful…
Here in Cub Creek is where Josie Bassett Morris lived the pioneer life – mostly on her own – yet without being a typical pioneer.
Josie Bassett, being so outspoken and progressive, kept breaking female stereotypes.
To begin with, Josie had married 5 times and divorced 4 husbands in times when divorce was virtually unheard of. Getting divorced was certainly a taboo back then and a big deal, but getting divorced 4 times must have brought relentless gossip and unwanted attention to Josie’s life.
She did other things that were uncommon and frowned upon when it came to women in that era, like wearing pants and keeping hair short, though not until she lived here in Cub Creek. Josie wasn’t trying to get attention, however, it was all about being practical.
I guess there comes a point in your life when you say ENOUGH!!! after you have to cut your coiffed hair and long skirts out of a thorny bush with an axe. Which she apparently had to do at least once when she lived in Cub Creek, but I’m guessing probably several times. This was around 1924/1925.
She brewed and sold bootleg whiskey during the Prohibition years and supplied food to those in need during the Great Depression. For which she occasionally got in trouble.
Josie may have poached deer and rustled cattle to make ends meet sometimes while she was homesteading in Cub Creek, but she always strived to provide for others. According to endless testimonies, she was always busy helping. Whether that meant supplying food or other necessities, or putting a roof over someone’s head.
I’m not the least bit surprised that when Josie was arrested at the age of 62 for stealing and butchering cattle, she was acquitted and all evidence ignored.
Josie Bassett Morris was this sweet petite old lady that dressed elegantly for the trial instead of wearing her usual denim overalls, with her hair neatly put up for the occasion – who could accuse a fragile grandma of cattle rustling and backyard butchering? She was one smart capable cookie.
Rumor has it…
Josie Bassett Morris was probably the last remaining associate of the Wild Bunch gang and the last known source of information about the famous outlaws.
By several witness accounts as well as her own words, Butch Cassidy himself supposedly visited Josie in 1920s or 30s, decades after he was rumored to have died in Bolivia. I’m not sure if he would have come to the cabin in Cub Creek, but this was certainly the time period during which Josie had been living here.
By societal standards, Josie Bassett Morris spelled trouble.
She ran a homestead entirely by herself, wore pants and short hair, butchered stolen cows and poached deer, swore off men, divorced a few husbands and may or may not have poisoned one, and made illegal booze.
But she was also kind, generous, and loved by others.
Dang, Josie, you were a badass little lady with a muscle, wit, and iron will. I would have loved to knock on your cabin door for some coffee and a hearty chat! I bet you baked a mean pie, too.
Josie Bassett Morris, in my book, you deserve nothing but respect!
May your spirit shine as bright as the Utah sun.
— In memory of Josie Bassett Morris / 1874–1964
PHOTO CREDIT: The following images this article contains are used with permission of Uintah Library / Uintah County Library Regional History Center: https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6qk0x76; https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6tt85zw, https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6sv14sm.