Butch Cassidy: Fiction and Facts
Colonel Charles Callahan
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Charles Callahan, his wife and four sons spent more than a year living in Argentina in the early 1960s. The boys were brought up learning about Argentinean culture and being taught how to ride, hunt, fish and camp. They also read Tschiffely’s Ride, the most famous equestrian travel book of all time, which relates how Tschiffely rode from Buenos Aires to Washington DC.
The Callahans returned to the USA for a few years, and then, in 1970, father and sons decided to make a Long Ride. Clan Callahan used Criollo horses to explore Tierra del Fuego and to research the South American activities of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Each had a riding horse and a pack horse. Their journey was unique in the annals of modern equestrian travel for two reasons: no man that we know of took four sons with him on a Long Ride, and Clan Callahan were the first people since the Pinkerton detectives to mount up in Argentina and search for the truth about Cassidy out on the wild pampas.
This story from the road reveals for the first time the results of the Callahan researches, undertaken decades before anyone else started searching for the truth about the infamous outlaws.
When I rode out of the old farm called The German Colony outside of Rio Pico in 1970, I was trying to assemble my thoughts about the last words the old man spoke to me. After twenty minutes of difficult translation (some Castellano, my English and his German) over his hard cider, we had exhausted our conversation about the "American Bandit", Wilson, who was buried under the cairn on the heights above his farm and we had said goodbye.
I was mounted to leave. His hand stayed my horse.
He said, "You're the second North American who came here to ask about Wilson. The other fellow was here about forty years ago. He was an American - an older man. He had white hair. He used a Mexican saddle and he spoke poor Castellano. But he was an American. I'm sure of that. When he came, he asked me where Wilson's grave was and I told him. He put that cross on the grave and he planted the rose bush up there. When he came down, he thanked me and rode away. I never saw him or heard of him again. I did ask about him in the village. No one had seen him or knew who he was. That seemed strange. They said he didn't use the road through the village to come here. The only other way he could have traveled to this place was through the mountains. He must have known his way".
I thought to myself, who could the Visitor have been, forty years ago? Who cared enough about Wilson to find this out-of-the-way place and to erect a cross and plant a rose on the grave of the obscure "American Bandit" who had been buried for twenty years before his Visitor came? Very few people in the world know that this grave exists in the Patagonia of Argentina. Fewer still would have an interest in a forgotten criminal who was killed by the police and who was buried here.
Later, I asked Raul, the Mayor of Rio Pico (and the school teacher and the town historian) to tell me what he knew about the American Bandit story and Wilson's American Visitor of long ago. Raul had no knowledge the Visitor, but told me in colorful detail the story of Wilson and Evans who had lived in the Rio Pico neighborhood and had been killed at a place near there by the police. He showed me some old newspaper accounts of the bloody shoot-out that ended their criminal careers and eliminated the last of "Butch Cassidy's Gang in Argentina".
"Butch Cassidy's Gang in Argentina"!
This photograph depicts Colonel Callahan (bottom left), Jim (then 19), Brian (17), Duane (14) and Charles Jr. (8) prior to their departure from the United States to search for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Argentina.
Click on picture to enlarge.
Those words should be the lead of a rousing tale of the chivalrous rogue enlivening the Pampas with revelry, robbery and romance! I thought I had discovered a true story that was unknown and had great possibilities. So I began to gather material for a good story.
If Wilson and Evans really had been members of a "Butch Cassidy Gang", I thought the Visitor to Wilson's grave might have been Butch Cassidy returned to Argentina to recover some of the stolen money he was supposed to have cached there.
Of course my speculation had to assume that Cassidy and Sundance were not killed in San Vicente, Bolivia in 1908, speculation that prompted me through the next twenty five years sporadically investigating stories of Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, and Etta Place.
I wanted to know the identity of The Visitor the old man had described to me. I wanted to establish by credible evidence that he was probably Cassidy.
To start this project, we rode down the historical trace of Cassidy through his situations in Argentina to discover any other reports that he might have returned.
We followed the trail from Buenos Aires to Rincon de Cholila, the beautiful ranch land that Cassidy and his friends abandoned after developing it for three years. We camped in a bowl shaped valley in the Andes that was supposed to have been one of Cassidy's camps. (Our local guide told us that it was known as the "Hole-In-The-Wall").
We traveled across the long cold reaches of Patagonia to Rio Gallegos (near the Straits of Magellan) where Cassidy and his friends robbed a bank just before they fled from Argentina. And we rode through Cassidy's "escape country" on off-road trails along the route he probably used to elude his pursuers to find refuge in Chile.
We interviewed and lived with neighbors of Dr. George Newberry, who had been opposed to the occupation of a "homestead" near his ranch by Cassidy (or any other occupant). At the time of our inquiry, Mrs. Newberry was almost ninety, very fragile, and declined interviews.
(She was recognized and respected as the first white woman settler in this region of Patagonia. She, also, was an American expatriate. She had come to this country as a young bride of Dr. Newberry and was still a young and vigorous woman when Cassidy and Etta Place were her neighbors. I thought she must have known Etta socially and would have been, for us, a wonderful source of information.)
The family of Newberry had dispersed over the years and most of their properties had passed to the ownership of the Jarred Jones family.
We met and interviewed people who claimed to be the children or grandchildren of the peons who lived at Rincon de Cholila and worked there for Cassidy. It seemed that all the peons had a story to tell us about the Americans who had lived with them as generous "Patrons", but none had seen or heard of them since they disappeared long ago. They did not believe that the "Patrons" had ever returned. None had seen or knew of The Visitor.
We visited the Cavalry Regiment in Esquel. We consulted the files of regional newspapers. And everywhere we traveled we asked questions and collected stories about Butch Cassidy, Sundance and Etta Place from the people who knew of them.
Click on pictures of wild horses in Argentina (left) and Charles Callahan Jr. (right) to enlarge.
We returned to California without knowing anything more about The Visitor or having found any credible evidence that Butch Cassidy lived after November 1908. I thought we might find such evidence in literature and libraries at home.
I started my literature search by sorting through the bibliography assembled for William Goldman's screenplay of "Butch Cassidy and the "Sundance Kid". From those sources, I selected two books that contained information relevant to my subject.
Horan's book, "Desperate Men" was mainly "information" gleaned from the private files of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. It seemed to me that Horan's information with regard to South America was anecdotal hearsay not supported by evidence. Pinkerton’s files contained three or more patently false reports of the deaths of Cassidy and friends at different times before and after November 1908 and in places where they had never been. At least one of these fictions was complete with photographs of the outlaws "positively" identified in death by sworn testimony of witnesses.
Charles Kelly's book, "The Outlaw Trail" was the only source I found which was information based on research done by the author reasonably to establish historical facts from original data and scholarly judgment. It verified information imported from other sources - except in the case of his sources in South America. It seems that Kelly, too, referring to his subjects in South America, used the reports from the Pinkertons' files and communication with Percy Siebert, an acquaintance in Bolivia, without verifying the reports.
Kelly did incorporate, with full attribution to the author, Arthur Chapman's sensational description of Cassidy's last stand, a story based on the records of Mr. Percy Seibert prepared in Bolivia in 1909 and developed and qualified in later interviews of Seibert by Chapman.
Most importantly for my project, Kelly did investigate a number of claims that Butch Cassidy had not been killed in South America but had returned to the U.S. and lived under assumed names in different places for many years afterward. After serious study and attempts to qualify his sources, Kelly found none of these claims believable. He concluded that Mr Percy Seibert's report in 1909 of the deaths of Cassidy and Sundance in Bolivia in November 1908 was substantially correct.
Much later, in 1991, a book by Larry Pointer, titled "In Search of Butch Cassidy", was brought to my attention because it claimed to be a presentation of Butch Cassidy's autobiography authored during the 1920s using the name of Phillips, a name allegedly assumed by Cassidy after he resumed living in the U.S. Charles Kelly had investigated "Phillips'" claims many years before Pointer acquired them and found them to be a hoax. I found in Pointer's work no factual evidence that was new and believable that could refute or compromise Kelly's findings, and nothing at all consistent with the old man's story of The Visitor.
Charles Kelly's, Horan's and particularly Larry Pointer's sources in South America were developed mostly from anecdotes, hearsay, gossip and unverified reports. My conclusion now is that all but two of those reports used by them (Pinkertons, Horan, Kelly and Pointer) about Cassidy et al originating from sources in South America are false, grossly distorted or unsupported by any credible evidence.
The reports that are plausible and probably true are:
First, Butch Cassidy and Sundance robbed the Bank of London and Tarapaca in Rio Gallegos in February 1905.
Second, Cassidy and Sundance were killed at San Vicente in Bolivia in November 1908.
Now, I've decided that my project is finished. I have never identified The Visitor: I know no more about him today than I did on the day the old man described him at the German Colony.
But I believe that what I have learned about Butch Cassidy, Sundance and Etta Place in South America is really a new story about them: In the following pages I submit a review version of their lives in the Patagonia. After more than twenty five years of on-and-off research on this subject, and after setting aside those claims that are evidently false or not evidently true and plausible there is very little evidentiary "truth" left to tell the tale of those three people.
All accounts of the lives of George (or Robert) Leroy Parker a.k.a. "Butch Cassidy", Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. "The Sundance Kid" and Etta Place should be grouped in two parts; the part we know something about, in the Green River region of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado in the 1890s, and all after that - of which we know very little.
That part we know about has earlier been exposed in all available detail up to the day they embarked from New York for Buenos Aires in 1901 or 1902 and so it will not concern us here. Butch and Sundance had screwed up their lives to the point where they had no hope of evading their fated end. Etta Place apparently came from nowhere to join them temporarily for four years on a hopeful but disappointing detour from their destined path.
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