A band of outlaws led by Captain William Coe made No Man's Land its headquarters in the late 1860's. They built a rock fortress-like building later known as "Robbers Roost" that was impenetrable. The gang would make forays to Fort Union, New Mexico Territory, and Fort Lyons, Colorado Territory, to steal Army horses and mules. The Army brand, "US" on the right shoulder, were blotched or branded over, and most of the stock was taken to eastern Kansas and Missouri and sold to settlers. The outlaws are also thought to have preyed on freight caravans traveling the Santa Fe Trail 14 miles south of the hideout, and scattered ranches in the vicinity. The outlaws' home was 16 by 30 feet, with walls three feet thick. The roof was several feet of dirt supported by branches and wild grass on cottonwood ridge poles. A fireplace at each end of the building provided heat and cooking facilities.
There were no windows in the building, but portholes, four inches square on the outside, widening to 18 to 20 inches inside, which enabled the gunmen to direct their fire over a wide range. These also provided ventilation, as did a door at each end of the small fortress. The building was strategically placed northeast of the later town of Kenton, on a ridge that jutted southwest from Robbers' Roost Mesa. It extended into the middle of the valley, enabling look-outs to view approaches from up and down the Cimarron Valley and north up Carrizo Valley.
Five miles northwest of the hide-out, in a well hidden and well-watered canyon, the gang maintained a fully equipped blacksmith shop with tools stolen from Santa Fe caravans. The anvil was mounted on a block of walnut of a size and character making it seem probable that it came from the Missouri River country. In this shop, which was the outlaws' horse pasture, their mounts were shod and any other necessary iron work done. The canyon in later years was called Blacksmith Canyon and the name is still used.
Leader of the outlaw gang, Coe, was a tall, well built man about 35 years old at the beginning of his operations in the area. His bank of followers was estimated to be from 30 to 50 in size, but seldom were all of them at the stronghold at any one time. raiding parties were kept in various locations most of the time, and after stealing livestock it was necessary to drive them to market in the opposite direction from where they were stolen. But when the men reported in at the roost, life was not dull. Coe had set up a bar, brought in a piano, and there were always girls on the premises. Coe is thought to have come to the area about 1864 and it may have been his presence as much as Indians in the vicinity that prompted the Army to establish Camp Nichols in 1865.
But the region of the Black Mesa had been a sanctuary for outlaws and renegades prior to Coe's coming. The strip known as "No Man's Land" was a lawless territory about 35 miles from north to south and 168 miles east to west. When Texas became a slave state in 1836 they relinquished all land north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude ( the southern border of the strip). When the Territory of Kansas was created in 1854 and Territory of Colorado in 1961 their southern boundaries were set at the 37th parallel (north border of the present Panhandle of Oklahoma. The Cherokee Outlet was at the eastern end , and New Mexico Territory on the west. So this was No Man's Land , without law and without settlers for many years.
Coe was a stonemason and carpenter and worked at these trades for a time at Fort Union, which was established in 1851. He was a southerner, but that is all the factual information known about him. There are several tales concerning his background. One story pictures him as a soldier who served the South loyally until the end of war. When he returned to his home he found it grown up in weeds and all his livestock gone. Bitter at the turn of events the captain opted for an "easy" life and headed into No Man's Land, where he organized his band of raiders. Another story says Coe come to the area with the Charlie Goodnight cattle drive, then drifted East into No Man's Land. Still another account pictures Coe as the black sheep of a fine southern family. He was a captain, but deserted the Army and came West for refuge.
In February of 1867, several members of the Robber's Roost gang are said to have raided the sheep camp west of their headquarters of brothers Juan and Ramon Bernal and Juan and Vicente Baca from Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory. They attacked the herders, killing two of them, and drove 3,400 head of sheep toward Pueblo, Colorado Territory, then a small trading post. Following this outrage, the Bernals and Bacas and others in the area who had suffered from operations of the outlaws, sent a delegation to Fort Lyons, on the Arkansas. River near Las Animas, where troops under the command of Colonel William H. Penrose were asked to help in breaking up the gang.
Now so far this sounds feasible, and the following story has been told so many times that it is accepted as fact by many people. A few old-timers, however, say they never heard this version until a writer during the 1930's wrote of it. And it is widely reported that the writer has a "right vivid imagination.".
A spy was sent from Fort Lyons to "join" the gang for a few months, and following the report to his superiors, in the fall of 1867, a contingent of 25 regulars from the post marched south almost a hundred miles to the stronghold, with a six inch field piece in tow. They positioned the cannon nearly three quarters of a mile to the northwest of the roost, on the lower slopes of Black Mesa, a short distance back of the east bank of North Carrizo Creek. At sunrise the next morning the bombardment began, and the walls of the stone structure across the stream began to crumble. Some of the bandits put up a fight; a few were killed; others fled to the surrounding hills, Coe among them.
The soldiers marched back to Fort Lyons, accompanied by several prisoners, many of whom were badly wounded. Their trail, marked by the soldiers was give the name Penrose Trail and was later followed by cattlemen driving herds north for shipment to market.
There is nothing in the Army records to indicated an assault by Penrose's men on the roost, but there is a record that a group of soldiers led by Penrose left Fort Lyons in late 1867 in an attempt to capture some renegade Indians. They followed them through Raton Pass, all the way to Palo Duro Canyon, and it 1868 before they returned to Fort Lyons. In an account written by Penrose, he described this area but said nothing about the Coe gang.
There is a possibility that after Coe was finally captured for the third time and they were able to keep him in jail, the gang members, without their intrepid leader, simply went their own ways. At least they were never heard from again. The final downfall of Coe came through the efforts of a woman, Mrs. Madison Emory, and her young son, Bud Sumpter. He told his captors afterward: "I never figured to be outgeneraled by a woman, a pony and a boy."
The prisoner was taken to jail at Pueblo and kept under guard of troops pending indictment and trial in the Third Judicial District of Colorado Territory. But vigilantes soon decided that either the risk of holding him was too great, or that justice for a criminal like Coe was too slow. The night of July 20, 1868, men came to the trooper on guard, saying it was necessary to change Coe's quarters. The vigilantes put him in a wagon, tied a rope around his neck and drove to a cottonwood on the bank of Fountain Creek. According to The Colorado Chieftain of July 23, he was found there the next morning, still handcuffed and in leg irons, knees touching the ground. The body was cut down and buried beneath the tree on which he had met his fate.
Many years later, while excavating an area in Pueblo for a new road (in the vicinity of Fourth Street), workmen found the skeletal remains of what was thought to be the "King of Robbers' Roost".. So there had been no escape for him the third time he was caught.
Additional Reading from the CHC Gift Shop.
"The Tracks We Followed" by Norma Gene Young.