|The year was 1871. The Civil War had ended only six years before. The country was still suffering the effects of this divisive time in it's history. The Eastern Sierra was a wild and lawless place. It was populated by miners, outlaws, rustlers, gangs comprised of former Confederate and Union soldiers and wild bands of Indians. Of course, a few honest ranchers and citizens were in the area as well! It was a quiet Sunday on September 17, until 29 desperate prisoners over-powered the guards of the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City, NV ., stole weapons and horses, and made their escape. These convicts were some of West's worst characters; murderers, rapists, train and stage robbers, and horse thieves. Once the prisoners broke out, they split up. One group of 13 headed south. Along the way they robbed several locals and stole more weapons, horses and provisions. Six of this band separated and continued south to escape the posse they were sure was following them. Their leader was a convicted 22 year old murderer named Charlie Jones. He had lived and worked in Mono and Inyo Counties for some time and was familiar with the territory. Because Jones knew the area, the others followed him. His plan was to cross over the Sierra Nevada to the western slope where they would be safe from pursuit. Hell bent for leather, they headed towards the Mammoth area, always fearful that a posse was on their tail.Unknown to them, the original posse chasing them got tired and gave up within 2 days. They were only being trailed by a resident they had robbed along the way who was set on getting his stolen horses and guns back.
Of course the convicts didn't know they were almost in the clear! Sometime during the day of September 19th, a rider was catching up to the convicts. They feared it was the posse and planned an ambush.
Instead of the law, they ambushed an innocent 18 year Pony Express rider named Billy Poor. It was his first time delivering the mail. Once they had him, they couldn't let him go because he would tell others about them. They couldn't hold him hostage because he would slow them down. Jones and Leandor Morton both cold bloodily shot and killed young Billy Poor just east of Bridgeport.
Capturing and killing Billy Poor was a huge mistake because now the Convicts had murdered a local Mono County citizen. They had violated the community and the citizens were bent on revenge! Not realizing what they had brought down on themselves, they continued their flight south towards Benton Crossing, a settlement just east of here at the foot of the White Mountains, with plans to turn westward toward what was know as Monte Diablo Creek and Lake; then across the Sierra Nevada to safety. By Friday morning, September 22 a new posse of 10 men, lead by Sheriff George Hightowner and Benton Merchant Robert Morrison followed their guide, an Indian deputy named Mono Jim, who was hot on the convict's trail. By Friday evening the posse caught up with the convicts camped by, what was then called, Monte Diablo Creek. They decided to spend the night at a nearby ranch and to confront the convicts in the morning. The convicts had little to eat for some days, and awoke very early that fateful Saturday morning. Jones decided to leave for Bishop to see if he could arrange help from friends. Two others went toward Monte Diablo Lake, what is now Convict Lake, telling the others they were going to look for food. Their true motive was to escape the other four convicts.
With Jones gone and the two others climbing out of the area, the posse rode up Monte Diablo Creek towards the eastern end of the deep cut where Convict Lake now lies. Two convicts were asleep on the south side of the creek. Another was coming back down a hill after his morning constituional. Although warned by the sheriff to be quiet, someone yelled "there they are" and a fight was on. In the first exchange of gunfire, a young convict named Bedford Roberts was shot in both his shoulder and foot. He crawled off into the undergrowth.
The other two convicts, Morton and Moses Black fired back at the posse with Henry repeating rifles, driving the posse back into the woods. Morrison, had dismounted and crept towards the two convicts. All of a sudden, he had a clear shot at Black. He pulled the trigger. The pistol cap exploded, but the gun didn't fire. Black turned and shot Morrison in the side. Then he walked up to Morrison and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Morton and Black then took some pistols and horses left behind by the fleeing posse and headed up the canyon.
Soon they came upon the Indian Deputy Guide Mono Jim. He mistook them for posse members and called out to them. It was a fatal mistake! They chased him down and Morton shot him through the eye, killing him straight away. Morton and Black left the badly wounded Roberts and fled up and over mountain south towards Bishop. Jones and the other two Convicts escaped the shootout. Jones, the leader who, by killing Billy Poor, brought the local posse's hornet's nest onto them, disappeared. What finally happened to him is interesting.
In cooperation with Inyo National Forest The two trying to get away from the other convicts were eventually captured on the east side of the White Mountains, the range you can see from Convict across the Caldaria to the East, and returned to prison in Carson City. A new posse was formed in Bishop to track down and take revenge on Morton, Black and Roberts for killing Morrison and Mono Jim.
It was September 27th when they finally captured Morton and Black just north of Bishop. Roberts was nowhere to be found. Black was wounded during the capture, but survived. Morton and Black claimed Roberts had killed Morrison, which caused the posse to resume their search for the young man. Two days later they caught up with Roberts. When he confronted Morton, it was obvious to the posse that Morton and Black had killed Morrison and Mono Jim and that Jones, with Morton, had killed Billy Poor.
On October 1st the prisoners were loaded on a wagon and started for the trip back to the jail in Carson City. All of a sudden the wagon was surrounded by a large group of vigilantes. Without any resistance, the guards turned over the prisoners to the vigilantes. They took the convicts to a nearby cabin and held a trial. After only a short deliberation, the votes were taken. The "jury" agreed that Morton and Black should be hung at once and that Roberts, the boy stage robber, would be sent back to jail.
By November 15th, 18 of the original 29 convicts had been captured, Morton and Black were hung, and Jones and nine others were still at large. The escape had caused a great deal of controversy and dispute throughout southern Nevada, both Inyo and Mono Counties in eastern California.
Even today we can see the results from this historical event. Monte Diablo Creek and Lake were re-named Convict Creek and Lake. The 12,000 foot plus mountain overlooking Convict Lake was re-named Mount Morrison in honor of the slain Benton Merchant and Wells Fargo Agent. The smaller mountain in front of Morrison was named Mono Jim after the slain Deputy guide. There are also several other less well know, and somewhat disputed, outcomes from this momentous adventure. And as students of history know, sometimes actual events are confused with wishful thinking; hence the birth of Urban Legends.
We kayaked and hiked the western terminus of Convict Lake-a fabulously scenic area. Convict Lake has been featured in American Express e covered 2.5 miles in our kayaks and 2.5 miles hiking. We covered 700 vertical feet in a near perfect day. Tonight we will have our Departure Dinner in celebration of our summer of 2010 together. It will be at the Restaurant at Convict Lake. It is a farewell dinner and many of our best stories will be recalled. Memories like this last a lifetime--make sure to enjoy and celebrate your best memories too for that is what makes life worthwhile.