1878- Murder in Escalante Canyon

escalante

ISOLATION, TORMENT, AND REMORSE

On November 30, 1878, John Boynton shot and killed Washington Phipps in Southern Utah’s Escalante River Canyon near Calf Creek. Late that day, he rode fifteen miles to the settlement of Potato Valley—now the town of Escalante–to turn himself in. Following Boynton’s directions, the Deputy Sheriff found Phipps and buried him where he died, covering the grave with rocks and the dead man’s boots to mark the spot.

Boynton and Phipps were former business partners, raising horses in the remote river canyon. If you look at a map of the Calf Creek area of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, you’ll see that the story of the two men still haunts this section of the Monument—several places bear their names, including Boynton Overlook on Highway 12, Phipps Wash, Phipps Arch, and Old Boynton Road.

Calf Creek Falls

Calf Creek Falls

As for Phipps’ grave by the river, in her book The Escalante Story, Nethella Woolsey wrote that “for many years, the stones and boots were visible from the road as it skirts the ledge at the boundary of what is still known as Phipps’ Pasture.” Today, the grave markers are long gone, and I’ve been told that it’s not possible to pinpoint the site of the burial. But if you look down from Boynton Overlook, you’ll be gazing over the location where the murder and burial took place nearly 140 years ago.

PRELUDE TO A MURDER

Nethella Woolsey, who passed away in the 1980’s at the age of 95, was a local author who had remarkable knowledge of the pioneer history of Escalante and its surroundings. She wrote that John Boynton and Washington Phipps were reported to be familiar visitors in the settlement and appeared to be good friends. Phipps was apparently a sociable man who had a way with words, but according to Nethella, at least a few people noticed Boynton’s unhappiness with jokes made by the other man at his expense.

“The partnership broke apart,” Nethella said, because “Boynton resented Phipps’ telling men in Panguitch about the perfect range they had found for raising horses.” The two quarreled, and ended up dividing their camp and living about a mile apart on the river.

Stories that get passed from generation to generation seem to end up with different variations depending on who’s doing the telling—so I decided to ask Camille Roundy Hall, owner of a motel and gift shop in the community of Boulder, if she knew anything about other versions of the Boynton-Phipps story. My husband, John, and I are seasonal volunteers at Calf Creek Recreation Area between Escalante and Boulder, and I knew that Camille had an avid interest in local history.

Like many people in the small towns along this section of Highway 12–Henrieville, Cannonville, Escalante, and Boulder—Camille is descended from early Mormon settlers. “Most people around here seem to be related to most everyone else,” she told me. “Nethella Woolsey was one of my relatives.”

Camille Roundy Hall’s great grandfather was the colorful Napoleon Bonaparte Roundy. ‘Pole,’ as he was called, was a successful businessman with lots of kids and two wives—among the historical photographs in Camille’s gift shop are a framed photo of Pole with wife number one, and a second framed photo of Pole with wife number two.

“If you want to hear a different scenario for what happened between Boynton and Phipps, the person you should talk with is my Aunt Ann,” Camille said. “Ask her about a TV movie that was made about the murder. By the way, my aunt is one of Nethella’s nieces.”

Old Boynton Road

Old Boynton Road

AN “INDIAN PRINCESS” JOINS THE STORY

Ann King is a descendent of John King, one of Boulder’s founders, and I soon discovered that she has a terrific memory for events from the community’s past. When I called to ask about a movie concerning the 1878 murder of Washington Phipps, Ann didn’t miss a beat.

“Yes, it’s true, she said. “Around 1950 or so, a film crew from California arrived to produce a pilot for a TV movie about the Phipps murder. The way they wanted to tell it, the killing happened because the two men were fighting over an Indian princess.”

“In the movie, I was one of the square dancers at the settlement’s Fourth of July celebration, and I remember that the film crew hung an Indian blanket from a pole because they didn’t have a flag. My sister was cast as the Indian princess and our father, Clyde King, played the camp cook. In real life, he was missing all but two fingers off one hand, and they filmed him stirring biscuit dough with those two fingers. It was pretty funny.”

Audiences never got the chance to see these intriguing scenes because the pilot was apparently never finished or marketed. I asked Ann King what her aunt Nethella thought of the project. Since Nethella’s book includes several accounts that touch on the real history of Native Americans in this area, and the many tragedies they’ve endured, I wasn’t surprised when Ann commented that her aunt disliked the story about Boynton, Phipps, and the Indian princess. “What she said was that all of that just wasn’t real,” Ann told me.

TEN DOLLARS AND A HORSE

Little is known for sure about the conflict leading up to the death of Washington Phipps, but there’s no question that late on November 30, 1878, John Boynton rode into the tiny settlement of Potato Valley to confess that he had shot his former partner.

Boynton told the Deputy Sheriff that Phipps had come into his camp that morning threatening him with a club, and then pursued him up the valley a short distance saying he would kill him. Boynton insisted that he gave Phipps several warnings and was finally forced to shoot him. The truth of these statements, and whether Boynton felt true remorse, are still debated today.

Newspapers from as far away as Pioche, Nevada covered the story of the murder–at that time, Pioche was a mining boomtown that was itself notorious for a spectacularly high rate of shootings. According to the town newspaper, the Record, John Boynton was promptly brought to trial for the death of Washington Phipps, and the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. The Justice of the Peace sentenced Boynton to hang, and sent him to the town of Beaver with a constable to have the sentence executed. In the words of the Record, “On the way to Beaver, Boynton persuaded the constable that he was not doing right, so the constable took him to Parowan, where he is now in jail awaiting trial.”

The book, A History of Garfield County, Utah, tells a different story, and probably a much more accurate one. “After holding a hearing in Escalante, the Deputy Sheriff turned Boynton over to the authorities in Parowan, then the county seat for the area,” the authors wrote. “After a preliminary hearing in December and a trial the following March, the court discharged the defendant and allowed him to go free. Boynton then returned to Escalante, where he concluded his business and then left the area for good.”

And here’s a version that seems to really appeal to people, although I’ve never seen any verification of the information whatsoever. In a 2008 Los Angeles Times article describing the dramatic view from Boynton Overlook, the writer explains that “the highway crosses the wild Escalante River near the overlook named for John Boynton, who turned himself in after killing Washington Phipps in a dispute in 1878. Short of manpower, the Escalante authorities gave him $10 and told him to ride to the county seat in Parowan, about 100 miles west. The man was never seen again.”

Phipps Arch

Phipps Arch

ONLY ONE WAY TO SURVIVE

“For years, Escalante and Boulder remained two of the most isolated communities in the United States,” wrote Escalante historian Jerry Roundy, adding that “it was between Escalante and Boulder that the U.S. Mail was last conveyed on mule and horseback.” Jerry’s roots in the area go back to the earliest residents, and as you may have noticed, he and Boulder resident Camille Roundy Anderson share the famous name of Roundy.

Jerry Roundy’s book, “Advised Them to Call the Place Escalante,” drives home how self-reliant the settlers had to be during the time of John Boynton and Washington Phipps. Trusting that people would pitch in to help one another was critical, and everyone from kids on up had a role in securing the welfare of the group. Delivering the mail, working on water projects, tending the sick, delivering babies, sharing food and shelter, erecting community structures: these responsibilities were all shared at various times during a community’s early years.

Nethella Woolsey wrote that the violence between Boynton and Phipps, and Phipps’ lonely grave in the river canyon, were distressing to the people of Escalante. It certainly wasn’t because death was rare in the community. The fracturing of mutual support between two men in a difficult environment, the men’s inability to escape from one another, despite nearly limitless space around them, and, an apparently unstoppable descent into torment, and finally murder are all cited. For people in this rough, isolated spot during the time of Boynton and Phipps, it’s hard to imagine more distressing circumstances.

VIEW FROM BOYNTON OVERLOOK

EXPLORING THE BOYNTON-PHIPPS STORY

Each of the following locations plays a part in the Boynton-Phipps story. To explore these spots, obtain a detailed map at a National Monument Visitor Center, Anasazi State Park, or at various local businesses. Remember to always get an up-to-date weather report, and secure a free permit if you’ll be overnighting outside of a designated campground. Permits may be obtained at Visitor Centers, Lower Calf Creek Falls Recreation Area, and trailheads.

Phipps Arch and Phipps Wash: To access these two very scenic locations, begin by hiking downstream from the Highway 12 bridge over the Escalante River, which is close to milepost 74. Phipps Arch requires wayfinding skills and a steep ascent.

Boynton Overlook: This spectacular viewpoint is located at a pullout on Highway 12 near milepost 73, here are unmatched panoramic views of the area.

Escalante River Trail: One of the Monument’s finest hikes, extending 11 miles from near the town of Escalante to the Highway 12 bridge at approximately milepost 74. Usually completed as an overnight backpack, or day hike the trail by walking in and out starting at either end. The Highway 12 bridge end is more scenic. Be prepared for several shallow river crossings, slow progress due to walking in sand, and thick riverside vegetation toward the Escalante end.

Old Boynton Road: remnants of this pioneer-era wagon road may be found east of Highway 12 between milepost 76 and 77, and just south of Highway 12’s Boynton Overlook.

The View from near Old Boynton Road

The View from near Old Boynton Road

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For Native American exhibits and history, visit Anasazi State Park and Monument Visitor Centers. For Mormon settlement exhibits and history, stop in at Monument Visitor Centers, especially the center in Cannonville. For several excellent websites relating to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, go to blm.gov. Topics include the Monument’s wildlife, hiking, planning a visit, and other resources. For information regarding the books mentioned in this story, check with Monument Visitor Centers or Anasazi State Park.

Many thanks to Sheree and Jerry Roundy, Camille Roundy Hall, Ann King Reynolds, and Marion Littlefield for their assistance with this story. 

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