Thanks to Hollywood’s love of the romanticized Wild West, everyone knows about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. However, the 1969 blockbuster movie based on their lives hardly does the outlaws justice. The duo’s rise to infamy was left out of 20th Century Fox’s interpretation. So in this edition of Famous American Bank Heists, we’re going to set the record straight. This week, we’ll be discussing the bank heist that made Butch Cassidy a household name – the San Miguel Valley Bank Robbery of 1889.
In June of 1889, Robert LeRoy Parker was just another wandering soul searching for purpose on the American frontier. The 23-year-old had been run out of his native state of Utah after he was caught rustling cattle and, after drifting west for some time, found himself camping out with several other two-bit criminals near the wealthy town of Telluride, Colorado.
The details of Parker’s stay in Colorado up to this point are unclear. All we know is that one night, late in the month, a small-time cowboy named Matt Warner suggested that the group of men solve their money woes by robbing the San Miguel Valley Bank right there in town. It was lightly guarded and loaded with money from local prospectors, making it an ideal target.
Parker thought this was a brilliant idea. So on the morning of June 24, he, Warner and two other cowboys donned their finest gear and rode into town. Dressed in silver spurs, flashy shirts and five-gallon hats, the bandits appeared to be wealthy ranch hands. After casing the place, they found that there was just a single teller inside. It was time to act.
According to the teller’s account, Warner entered the bank under the premise of cashing a check. When the teller bent over to inspect the check, Warner put him in a headlock and placed a gun to his nose. Parker and the other men then entered and proceeded to loot the place.
Deciding that spectacle was a better escape tactic than subtlety, the gang led the teller outside at gunpoint. After the town was alerted to the robbery, Parker and his companions jumped on their horses and rode off into the sunset with $20,000 (roughly $560,000 today) in their pockets, guns blazing as a warning to would-be heroes.
Parker had thoroughly planned for this getaway. He had fresh horses waiting for the bandits at various relays and had set up a hideout in a spindly Utah canyon that would come to be known as Robber’s Roost. There was only one hitch in the operation. During the escape ride, Parker happened to cross paths with a rancher for whom he’d done some work in the past. The rancher recognized Parker and knew the alias he’d been using in recent months. He told the authorities to be on the lookout for one Butch Cassidy.
The authorities never caught up to Parker’s gang, but because of that brief crossing of paths, “Butch Cassidy” became a household name. This marked the beginning of the outlaw’s legend. Now that Parker was a nationally wanted man, his only options were to surrender to the gallows or gather his troops in his outlaw fortress and plan his next heist. The rest, as they say, is history.