SWEETWATER COUNTY — January 20 marks a small, though singular anniversary in Wyoming history, according to the Sweetwater County Museum. On that day in 1896, Governor William Richards pardoned a convicted rustler serving time at the penitentiary in Laramie who went on to become one of the most notorious outlaws of the Old West: Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy. It was a decision he would soon come to regret.
Before entering politics, Richards was a distinguished surveyor and later a rancher. On two separate missions in 1873 and 1874, he and his brother Alonzo Richards surveyed both the southern and western boundaries of Wyoming. Three landmarks on or very near the Wyoming-Colorado border, Richards Mountain, Richards Gap, and Richards Spring, bear their name.
The eldest of 13 children, Parker/Cassidy was born in Utah Territory in 1866. He left home as a teen and worked as an itinerant ranch hand. It was during this time that he met and was mentored by an older cowboy named Mike Cassidy, who also dabbled in rustling. Later he assumed Cassidy’s last name as part of the alias he himself adopted. Legend has it that he became known as “Butch” a short time later, when he worked at a butcher shop in Rock Springs, but a confirmed origin for the nickname remains a matter of dispute.
Cassidy graduated from livestock theft to bank robbery when he and several others, including his friend Matt Warner, robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, Colorado, in June of 1889 of over $20,000. Not long afterward, he and a new partner, Al Hainer, came to Wyoming and began ranching near Dubois in Fremont County.
By 1891, organized horse theft had become an epidemic. In July of 1892 Cassidy and Hainer were charged with horse stealing (grand larceny) in Fremont County. Cassidy hired his friend, attorney Douglas Preston of Rock Springs, to represent him. Preston would, in later years, go on to serve for eight years as Wyoming’s attorney general. Following a series of complications and delays, in 1894 Cassidy was found guilty at trial. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by Judge Jesse Knight.
Cassidy – usually identified in official documents as “George Cassidy” or “Cassiday” – had apparently impressed Knight during the trial, as he became active in a campaign to obtain a pardon for him. He wrote to Governor Richards that “Cassiday is a man that would be hard to describe – a brave, daring fellow and a man well calculated to be a leader, and should his inclinations run that way, I do not doubt that he would be capable of organizing and leading a lot of desperate men to desperate deeds.” Richards traveled to the penitentiary and met with Cassidy.
By all accounts, Cassidy was a smooth talker. As described in Bill Betenson’s Butch Cassidy – The Wyoming Years, “Evidence exists that Butch did make some type of deal or agreement with the governor to leave Wyoming alone and not commit any crimes in the state after his pardon.” Later, Richards wrote that Cassidy “told me that he had [had] enough of Penitentiary life and intended to conduct himself in such a way as to not again lay himself liable to arrest.”
He was released, but seven months later, on August 13, he, Elzy Lay, and Bub Meeks robbed the Montpelier Bank In Montpelier, Idaho, and got away with some $7,000.
Over the course of the next five years, Cassidy was involved in or connected to a number of bank and train robberies in several states, including the Wilcox, Wyoming train holdup (1899), and another train robbery near Tipton, Wyoming (1900), which netted an estimated total of about $80,000. Well over $2 million in 2023 dollars. So much for going straight.
How Cassidy and fellow outlaw Harry Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) came to their end is still a subject of controversy and debate. In 1901, the two went to South America, accompanied by Etta Place, Longabaugh’s girlfriend. Things did not go well. Cassidy and Longabaugh are believed to have been involved in several robberies, and wound up being killed in a gunfight with authorities near San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1908. Others are convinced he escaped and returned to the United States, where he lived quietly until the mid-1930s.
To see Cassidy’s pardon and the letter Judge Knight sent to Governor Richards, visit the Wyoming State Archives website.