by Bert Entwistle
In 1853, Nathaniel Kimball (N.K.) Boswell, one of twelve children born in New Jersey to parents Lucinda and John, left home at age seventeen in search of his future. After several years working as a lumberjack in Michigan and Wisconsin, he met and fell in love with Martha Salsbury and they married in 1857.
Several months later his crew was headed to an island to cut timber and the boat capsized in a sudden storm on the icy waters of Lake Michigan. Boswell’s two coworkers died and he narrowly escaped with his life. Surviving a serious bout of pneumonia left him with damaged lungs and the doctors suggested a change of climate. He decided to head west, leaving his new wife until he found a place to settle.
In the Colorado Territory he worked in various mines and the lumber business. Answering the call of the Union Army in 1861, he signed up with the Colorado Volunteers. In June, 1864, he was a member of the regiment that responded to the horrific aftermath of the Hungate Massacre (near Elizabeth, Colorado), where Arapaho braves brutally murdered and mutilated a settler, his wife and two infant daughters. A month later his regiment was with John M. Chivington at the Sand Creek Massacre (near Kit Carson, Colorado, a retaliatory raid killing some 150 Cheyenne and Arapahos, mostly women and children) and was wounded at the start of the fight.
After the war Boswell moved to Cheyenne, Dakota Territory. Finding the town to be little more than a small cluster of tents and shacks along the new railroad, he decided to stay and start a business based on the promise offered by the new railroad. Boswell sent for his ever patient wife Martha to join him. They became two of the earliest settlers and business owners in the town of Cheyenne (to become the Wyoming Territory the next year).
In the years following the Civil War, the territory became a haven for every kind of outlaw the West had to offer. The completion of the trans-continental railroad in May of 1869 saw the prosperity of railroad towns like Cheyenne and Laramie explode. Bank robbers, cattle rustlers, murderers and anyone looking to escape a bad past and make a quick buck flocked to the wide open opportunities it offered.
With little or no law enforcement, the new railroad towns like Cheyenne and Laramie had become a favored hangout for many of the really bad men of the day. Soon, Nathaniel’s brother George and his family joined him and settled in to the wild little town.
Boswell held title to a claim for a Colorado gold mine and traded it to a failed pharmacist for his stock of drugs, which put him in position to open the first pharmacy in Cheyenne. When he went looking for a druggist to run the operation, he had two applicants for the job. Hiring both of them, he started a second pharmacy in Laramie.
Boswell soon realized that the criminal element was seriously hurting the town’s businesses. He joined a local “Citizens Committee” (vigilante) group to help combat the many gangs of criminals in the area.
Denver City Marshall David J. Cook had heard of Boswell’s work in Cheyenne, and enlisted him in a group of crime fighters he called the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency. By the end of 1868 the detective group had shot or lynched most of the prominent desperados like Asa Cook, “Long Steve” Young, “Big Ned” Wilson and Con Wager. Cook shot Ed Franklin dead when he resisted arrest in Golden City. Sanford Duggan and gang leader Lee Musgrove were also captured and promptly lynched.
In 1869, Territorial Governor John Campbell appointed Boswell sheriff of newly formed Albany County that ran all the way from the Colorado border to the Montana Territory. Boswell also accepted the position as warden for the new Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary outside Laramie. One of the jobs of the sheriff was to collect taxes, a job he despised, as it meant days in the saddle collecting from every corner of the huge county. In 1872 he declined to run for re-election.
With a large following of admirers and friends encouraging him, they got him to accept the job as city marshal of Laramie. In August of 1876 he arrested Jack McCall, the infamous murderer of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, and sent him back to be tried and hanged.
Convinced to run for county sheriff again in 1878, this time without the job of collecting taxes, he won easily. When the Black Hills gold rush started the criminal element raised its head again and new gangs were robbing the stages between Cheyenne and Deadwood. When word reached Boswell that two peace officers had been killed by outlaws, he raised a posse of 14 experienced men and took up the chase. They soon captured four of the key members of “Big Nose” George Parrott’s gang without gunfire. Boswell did a little “creative” interrogation of the gang members until he got the location of Parrott and his partner “Dutch Charlie” in Montana and wired the local sheriff to arrest them. Before the trial, both men were dragged from the jail by a mob, which proceeded to issue their own version of “hempen” justice from the nearest telegraph pole.
Boswell was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 1880, but by 1882 he’d had enough of the life and moved permanently to his ranch south of Laramie along the Colorado border. Working a large cattle operation kept him busy and out of the local politics. In July of 1883, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association started a detective bureau to combat the growing problem of rustlers. They offered him $200 a month if he would run it. The bureau’s work against the outlaws was kept strictly confidential, but Boswell’s intuitive methods of locating the rustlers worked well. It was reported in the 1884 annual meeting that Boswell’s “. . . efforts had been remarkably successful.” The trouble with rustlers had dropped significantly.
He retired permanently from his law enforcement work, and spent the rest of his life operating the N.K. Boswell Ranch with Martha and daughter Minnie. He continued to work to improve the ranch and his herd and generally stayed out of public eye. The transcontinental railroad had helped tame the once wild stretch of the frontier, and with the ability to ship his beef, he settled into the role of successful rancher. When Martha died in 1893 he was devastated and rarely left the ranch.
One exception was in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt came to Cheyenne and Boswell was one of ten honorary U.S. Marshals given the honor of escorting him on a horseback trip to Laramie.
Today, the N.K. Boswell Ranch, along the east side of the Medicine Bow Mountains and up against the Colorado border has been preserved as a representative example of a medium-sized ranch of the period. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
Bert’s website is: blackmulepress.com