D. Robert Carter
History Blazer, December 1996
Josie Bassett stands out as one of the most colorful characters in Uintah County’s colorful past. She was a unique blend: a sweet, generous, lovable white-haired lady who occasionally rustled cattle, poached deer, and brewed bootleg whiskey to survive and help family and friends. For 50 years she lived alone in a cabin without plumbing, telephone, or electricity deep within what is now Dinosaur National Monument. Content among her flowers, gardens, orchards, cattle herds, and assorted domestic animals, she became a fascinating minor character in the pageant of the West.
The Bassetts, an unconventional family, came to Brown’s Park in the 1870s. From her mother’s example and from growing up on a cattle ranch, Josie learned the skills of riding, roping, shooting, cattle raising, and strong-willed independence. From her gentle father, she learned to be mannerly and generous. The companions of her youth were cowboys and the outlaws who frequented Brown’s Hole. Later, Josie was sent to St. Mary’s of the Wasatch in Salt Lake City to be educated.
A succession of five husbands made Josie notorious. She divorced four—a scandalous process in those days—and was widowed once. That husband died, most likely of acute alcoholism, although some claimed Josie had poisoned him. She was never free from rumors. When lands near Vernal were opened up for homesteading in 1913, Josie decided to make a new life for herself. She was nearly 40 when she left Brown’s Park and found the land she wanted on Cub Creek, 10 miles and two canyons north of Jensen. After a few years she ran her current husband off with a frying pan. However, she had at last found true love in her homestead and made a life-time commitment to it.
For some years Josie’s son, Crawford McKnight, and his family lived on her ranch and helped with the work. In 1924 she built a new cabin. While clearing brush for her new gardens, Josie became very frustrated by her long skirts which got in the way. So, she switched to wearing pants—almost unheard of in those days. For work she wore bib overalls; for trips to town she donned western-cut twill trousers. Skirts were reserved for funerals and weddings. One day while working her long, curly red hair, which she coiled on her head, became entangled in the thorns. She cut herself free with an axe and then finished the shearing job with scissors. From then on she wore her hair short. Josie had broken with convention once again and created her own distinctive style.
After the McKnights moved to Jensen, Josie continued ranching on her own. She was remarkably self-sufficient. With her garden, orchard, and the cattle, food was not much of a problem. She canned and made jerky, soap, and clothing. But bare subsistence was not her goal, especially since she was so quick to help those in need, particularly her son and his family. During the Great Depression Josie ran her own relief agency and distributed food to the needy. She even lived in a dugout one winter so a homeless family could use her cabin. After she sold most of her cattle to help her son, Josie would sometimes shoot deer out of season to provide meat for herself, her family, or needy neighbors. Necessity dictated this lawless action. Once a game warden stopped by shortly after she had killed a deer. When she invited him in for coffee and biscuits, as she did with most everyone, the warden said he was there to arrest her for poaching. Thinking he was serious, she confessed and took him to the freshly dressed carcass. Astounded, the warden said he had only been joking. Not knowing what to do with this sweet old lady, he let her off with a strong warning and then enjoyed her venison gravy over hot biscuits.
Some things required cash, and so she was always looking for ways to make money. During Prohibition, when she needed cash to help her grandchildren, Josie started brewing bootleg whiskey. She knew it was illegal but she saw nothing morally wrong in it, though she was not a drinker herself. Her brother-in-law got her a copper still which she hid under brush in a gulch. When a batch was properly distilled and aged, she took it in wooden kegs down the canyon to a distributor. She also made personal deliveries to a few preferred customers. Besides whiskey, she became famous in the area for her apricot brandy. She continued bootlegging even after the repeal of Prohibition, ending the practice when she was warned that revenue agents were on the way. She wanted to avoid prison and family disgrace, plus her son threatened to break up the still if she did not stop.
Josie’s desire for a “cash crop” got her into serious trouble another time. Neighboring ranchers did not seem to mind if a stray cow got onto Josie’s land and ended up as meat for her table. Generally, she kept track of their strays and informed them, which they appreciated. They also appreciated her hospitality—her good coffee, biscuits, and meals and the spare bed she provided on their trips through the area. During the Depression, even petty cattle rustling became less tolerable. In 1936 Jim Robinson, an old enemy, accused her of butchering beef and selling it in town. Six ranchers joined in the accusation. Josie was arrested after hides were found buried on her property, but neighbors provided her bail. She contended that Robinson framed her, but the county attorney felt all the evidence pointed to her guilt. Josie played her cards well. She came to court in a dress, smiling graciously and displaying her best manners–looking and acting like a sweet 62-year-old grandmother. The LDS stake president was her defense attorney. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, Josie was retried; again there was a hung jury. The county attorney gave up.
In 1945 Josie hoped to go into the cattle business for profit again but needed cash. After years of squatting on her land, she finally paid the small fee to make the homestead legally hers. Since she could not get a bank loan, she signed her land over to someone who could. Unfortunately, by some misunderstanding, she lost her land. She did, however, retain her cabin and a few acres on a separate adjoining property. There she lived for nearly 20 more years. Her “cash crop” at last came in the form of a pension. In 1963, at age 89, while alone in the cabin, she fell, breaking her hip and experienced terrible agony before she was found. This ended her days on the homestead. Disheartened, she died a few months later, remembered and loved by the people of Jensen and Vernal.
Sources: Grace McClure, The Bassett Women (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985); Doris Karren Burton, Dinosaurs and Moonshine: Tales of Josie Morris Bassett and Jensen’s Other Unique History and Folklore (Vernal, Utah: Vincent Brothers, 1990); Robert Redford, The Outlaw Trail (New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1976)