LONG JOHN DUNN
1857 – 1953
Long John Dunn–bronc rider, stagecoach driver, saloon-keeper, gambler and lovable rascal–is a legend in Northern New Mexico.
John’s lanky six-foot-four frame, broken-nose twang, spicy vocabulary and wide-ranging humor left a lasting impression on everyone he met. That included just about everyone who came to Taos, for over 30 years, because he owned the only bridge and the only stage-coach (later the taxi) into town.
John was born in Victoria, Texas in 1857 on what he later described as a “slow-starvation farm.” As a young man he made several trail drives of nearly 2,000 miles up into Canada over the old Chisholm Trail with as many as 5,000 cattle. In those days Caldwell, Kansas was the last white settlement after Fort Worth and there wasn’t a house or a fence from there to Canada. Buffalo herds were small, but bones were sometimes piled twenty feet deep over an acre of ground and collected as fertilizer. The river bottoms swarmed with mule deer and there were hundres of thousands of antelope.
“A feller learned to use a rope,” John reminisced, “for more reasons than one. Sometimes it would save miles of hard riding after a steer…and it was handy to drag wood to the cook, tie up a bronc or even hang a man. Out of necessity the man, the horse, the rope and the gun became inseparable.”
John caught the gambling bug in Dodge City. Bat Masterson was marshal. John also knew Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and Billy the Kid–“he was as ugly as the devil with his teeth sticking out in front like a mad beaver,” John said.
John himself had trouble with the law. He accidentally killed his wife-beating brother-in-law during a fight in Texas, was imprisoned and escaped by sawing through his leg irons and floating down a river. Evading the law in Texas by hiding under a Taoseno’s load of hay, John landed in Elizabethtown, New Mexico where a gold boom had started in 1866. There he opened a saloon and gambling business that prospered with the mine. He became friends with Doc Martin, an Easterner who arrived around the same time and was credited with healing more bullet holes than illnesses.
“A feller leaned to use a rope for more reasons than one. Sometimes it would save miles of hard riding after a steer…and it was handy to drag wood to the cook, tie up a bronc or even hang a man.”
Long trail rides and his escape from the law fueled Dunn’s dream of starting a transportation business. “If I could just find a place that was good and isolated and so damn rough it wouldn’t pay to build railroads,” John said, “I’d have just what I wanted.”
In 1887 John rode from Elizabethtown through Eagle Nest and down to Taos. Teams of wagon horses and burros loaded with wood stood at hitching posts encircling the plaza. Families from Taos Pueblo watched. In a 1930 interview John said, “Taos was set up here then just as it is now in a little world all by itself. Our nearest railroad point was Tres Piedras on the Denver and Rio Grande and we got mail when someone happened to be coming out to bring it.” To earn enough money to finance his transportation business John ran a prosperous saloon in Golden, Nevada, started two gambling houses in Taos and when gold was found in Red River, opened another gambling house there.
In the 1890’s John bought the bridge at Taos Junction from a man named Meyers and the bridge at Manby Springs from Miller and Gusdorf. Soon afterward floods wiped out both bridges. John built a new bridge in Arroyo Hondo that still stands. “I put in a bid with the Post Office to establish a mail line from Tres Piedras to Taos and got the contract for daily service. There was also quite a passenger and freight business to be done, but we had to get some sort of road better than the pack trail that was our only line of communication. I put $2,500 of my own money into the road and raised another $2,500 by passin’ the hat among the people of the valley. Men who couldn’t contribute any money put in labor and soon we had the road build–a road such as it was.”
John Dunn’s toll bridge across the Rio Grande near Arroyo Hondo gave him a monopoly on road travel in and out of town. He charged $1 per person, 50 cents for horses and cattle and 25 cents for sheep. In good years he averaged $250 a day. He also erected a hotel at the bridge–he called it a “road ranch”–and it is said that he timed the arrival of the statecoach so that darkness would keep the travelers there overnight. He prided himself on clean beds, kept a milk cow on the premises and hired a man to fish the Rio Grande for a constant supply of fresh trout.
John hauled all the artists as well as others who came to Taos until 1930. On his mail route much of the parcel post was paintings and painting supplies for the artists who had recently begun arriving–Sharp, Phillips, Blumenschein and Couse. He was a close friend of Mabel Dodge and met Will Rogers and Vice President Dawes.
“In handlin’ the public as I’ve been doin’ all these years, a fellow sees a great cross-section view of the human animal,” he later recounted. “I’ve met so many worthless people, I’ve often thought the wold is bossed by an unjust God. A just God would have put fur on some the the people I’ve known—skunk on some, and beaver on others. Then they could be hunted in the winter for their pelts and be of some use to the rest of mankind.”
John bought the first car in Toas from Mace MacHorse who had opened a Ford agency. He stocked brake lining by the hundred-foot roll and when starting down a steep grade, made his passengers get out and push up to save the brakes. He disliked the coming of the mechanical age and the roads that were eventually build from Santa Fe and Raton to Taos because he said “they changed peoples’ personalities–friendships broke up when folks no longer needed to depend on each other for company, sympathy and entertainment. I think I’ve lived through the most dramatic period of history the West will ever see. This is an age of specialization, one-track jobs and one-horse minds.”
The man affectionately known as Juan Largo de Taos died on May 21, 1953 at the age of 96. His old friend Doughbelly Price–a little potbellied ex-bronc rider, newspaper columnist and realtor whose sign read “Doughbelly’s Clip-Joint”–covered most of the front page of El Crepusculo (which later became The Taos News) with John’s obituary. “The early part of his life was rocky and uphill. …He was caught in the web of law and Texas gave him 40 years in the State Pen. …He had no education, but what he knowed was plenty and was learned from cattle, horses, natural observation and mother nature–the hardest, most tolerant, and wisest teacher humanity ever had. …John Dunn was at his best behind a roulette wheel or a monte table, where you never got more than was coming to you and if you didn’t watch it was less.”
“Transportation made the West, not blazing guns as is so often preached.”
Long John Dunn lived through three phases of the West: the gun-fighting days, the cattle-working days and the modern West. John said about the making of the West: “Transportation made the West, not blazing guns as is so often preached–although I know the guns played a big part. It was those sweat-stained horses and tireless mules, those worn saddles and creaking wagons and the men and women who were riding them across muddy rivers, rocky ridges and up those long dusty trails.”
“I invested everyting I had in Taos County. I build a home, opened up four saloons, a gamblin’ hall and a livery stable.” John Dunn’s home still stands today between Bent Street and Taos Plaza. It is the center-piece of a beautiful garden courtyard and pedestrian walkway and home to Taos’s best shops.
Sources: J. Hogg’s inverview with John Dunn, 1930. El Crepusculo, 1953. Long John Dunn of Toas, Max Evans, Westernlore Press, 1959.