It isn’t like news travels fast.
Back in the 1920s, two young Moab men found themselves crossways with the law, engaged in a range war with big cattle grazing the Canyonlands. What makes it news today is that author Tom McCourt has taken 50 years worth of local memorabilia and documented that ex-marshal Bill Tibbetts of Moab was once a Robbers Roost outlaw—an accused cattle rustler and convicted horse thief with cousin Tom Perkins, whose story, now told, presently is in the hands of several screen-writers eager to make it a film.
Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws, published by the Canyonlands Natural History Association and released June 1, is already in its second printing and has caused quite a stir in the local community. In addition to the original 2,000 press run, CNHA has ordered a second printing of 1,600 copies. Back of Beyond bookstore owner Andy Nettell teamed up with CNHA to also produce 15 leather-bound and 35 hardcover deluxe editions. These special edition copies are autographed by McCourt and Ray Tibbetts, Bill Tibbetts’ youngest son, who got the project rolling.
“Sales are doing great!” exclaimed CNHA executive director Cindy Hardgrave. “Locally, because he is well-known locally—I think that was a big chunk of it. But what we have found is that the visitor who comes through Moab —and it’s sold predominantly in this region—is pretty intrigued by the story. Some of the hoteliers here in Moab have decided to sell it, and the cover’s really strong, and shelf appeal is everything, and I think there is an interest in this kind of Old West.”
author Tom McCourt
“A lot of our visitors—this is their first time through—and they saw all the John Wayne movies, and they want to make that connection, so I think that has a lot to do with it,” she added.
The media promptly picked up on the new angle on Robbers Roost, a land made famous as the southern Utah hideaway for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and of Matt Warner and other notorious outlaws. McCourt, an author based in Price, and his Tibbetts book were featured on Utah Public Radio in early June, as a full-page feature in Ogden’s Standard-Examiner on Father’s Day, The Sun Advocate in Carbon County and various papers. Most recently McCourt was contacted by The Deseret News, but also by “different groups exploring the possibility of making a movie out of it,” McCourt said in an interview.
Author of four other books, including “The Moab Story: Cowpokes to Bike Spokes” (Johnson Books, 2007), McCourt said the Robbers Roost book reads like a fictional movie script, but is a well-documented true account from the Tibbetts family’s perspective. He told UPR’s Lee Austin that the story “is beyond fiction and imagination.”
“I could not have made this up,” he said. When approached by Ray Tibbetts and Hardgrave about compiling a book, McCourt was surprised to discover few people had heard of Moab’s outlaws of the Robbers Roost. The most famous outlaws associated with that area preceded Tibbetts and Perkins by about 30 years.
“People have not heard of this guy,” McCourt said. “I think people will know him now. I think he’ll be famous down there.”
“It is a story of the Tibbetts family, and Bill, but it’s a story of this area and this community,” Hardgrave said. “It has a universal appeal, and people have just really enjoyed it.”
“People in this community are thanking us for writing it, for telling their story,” she continued. “Again, not Tibbetts family members, but telling Moab’s story. Visitors, who have no idea about the family, are thanking us because life was simple then, life was hard then, and it makes them feel …a sense of reverence for our ancestors that forged their way through the West, and they want to make that connection.”
“For CNHA, the most fun part for us was the connection we’ve made with the community,” Hardgrave said. “A lot of people have no idea who we are or what we do, and we got to touch a part of the old Moab community that had been here for generations that we would have never known about. That’s been the thrill for us, to learn about the history.”
Bill Tibbetts - 1920s
of Tibbetts Family
Since the book’s release, more facts have surfaced about the episode that included a jailbreak and manhunt that culminated in the deaths of numerous stock but not men. Among new findings is an eyewitness account of a Tibbetts inscription carved into stone in another cave in Stillwater Canyon of the Green River, according to McCourt. That’s exciting news, because to date there’d only been one inscription found in a cave the pair hid out in near the White Rim. The newly-reported inscription helps track the exact trail of the outlaws during their successful getaway in 1924, which grew so perilous they resorted to jumping off ledges on their horses and eating grasshoppers to stay alive.
“Ray told me that he’s never been all the way through on that trail, and he’s not even sure where the old trail goes anymore, because nobody’s used it for -- well, since his dad and Eph Moore were down in there, I guess. That trail probably hasn’t been used since the early 1930s,” McCourt said.
The story “starts with a bang,” as Hardgrave puts it, and ends with a crash. Bill is brought into the world in an impromptu mid-wife performance by his teenaged Uncle Eph. Then in 1962, Bill and his wife, Jewel, died together in a car crash south of Moab.
Ephraim Moore, 18, assumed the role of mid-wife without much choice, delivering little Bill on a cold day in March 1898 in a cabin at Old La Sal, where Moore found his sister, Amy Moore Tibbetts, alone and in labor.
At the age of four Bill witnessed a drunk kill his father. A bloodied up woman was brought to their cabin and Bill’s father stayed up to guard the woman from her angry husband. The woman was scared the husband was going kill her, which he did.
Bill and JewelTibbetts - 1930s
Photo Courtesy of Tibbetts Family
Bill grew up strong-willed and defiant, disliking his stepfather but always seeing to his mother’s welfare. With Perkins, he stole some horses when he was a juvenile, earned time in reform school, got out and joined the Army, then returned to partner with Uncle Eph in the cattle business.
Those were the days before cattle grazing was regulated on public domain. Tibbetts and Moore claimed some range along the Green River below the White Rim of Canyonlands (long before the area became a park), but eventually moved to the upper mesa of Island-in-the-Sky, competing for rangeland there with big-name cattle companies. According to Tibbetts’ account, he and Perkins were set up on false charges of cattle rustling and killing a calf. They were arrested and jailed in Moab, broke out with the aid of family and a pry bar, and made a run for it by boat and horses to the old range, Robbers Roost, and out-of-state. They avoided Moab long enough for the charges to die under the statute of limitations, and Bill returned, only to end up partners with one of his original accusers, and finally, fully redeemed and a family man, to take on the role of town marshal.
McCourt said he’s received a lot of calls and attention because of the book, all positive.
“I’ll tell you what it’s done. It’s opened the eyes of a lot of people to the canyonlands country,” he said. “I’ve had people contact me and tell me, ‘I’ve been down there and I’ve seen that country. I’ve been on the Island-in-the-Sky and I’ve been over in the Maze and that, but I’ve got to go back now and see it again because now I know a story that happened there, and I want to go back and see it again, now that I understand something that happened there, and I can put a person there, and a place and a time and an event, and it makes it more real for me now.’
Cave where Bill lived
Photo Courtesy of Tibbetts Family
“That’s kind of what I was trying to do when I was writing it was to give (a feel for) these places: Elaterite Basin, even the Robbers Roost…the Big Flat, and the White Rim,” McCourt said. “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Gee, I’ve looked out at the White Rim and it didn’t mean a thing to me, but now: How the hell would you run cows down there? I’ve got to look at that again!’”
It was a big area for outlaws to hide in, about 600 square miles, and now it’s a big story.