Isom Dart, rancher and rustler

Originally Published  February 18, 2010

Isom dart is one of Colorado’s more infamous characters. Try as he might, Isom Dart was never fully able to stay on the “right” side of the law, and in 1900 he was assassinated. In fact, Isom Dart wasn’t even his real name! Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1849, with the given name of Ned Huddleston, he was a slave until the Civil War, when he was taken into service by Confederate officers, serving as their cook, occasional surgeon, and learned his first skills as a thief while ‘foraging’ for food for the officers. After the war was over and he received his emancipation, Huddleston went south into Texas and Mexico, learning to ride and herd cattle, and he served on the rodeo circuit as a rodeo clown and stunt rider for a few years. However, he quickly learned that his horse skills could be used elsewhere and to greater profit, and joined with a Mexican gang rustling horses and selling them in Texas.

Huddleston fell in with the Gault gang, continuing to rustle horses and cattle, until one evening when ranchers set an ambush and killed the gang. Huddleston survived by having been a ways away, burying a friend who had earlier been killed by a random horse kick. When he heard shots being fired, he jumped into the grave with his dead friend and spent the night there.

After this, Huddleston vowed to go straight again and moved to Brown’s Park, Colorado, now using the name Isom Dart so that he would be harder to find. Over and over again, he got involved in cattle rustling, arrested several times but never jailed. His most infamous case was in Sweetwater County, Wyoming where he had been arrested by Deputy Joe Philbrick, but the deputy’s buckboard overturned in a ditch, breaking the deputy’s leg but leaving Dart just fine. So Dart righted the wagon, took the injured deputy to the doctor in Rock Springs, Wyoming and turned himself in at the local jail. Joe Philbrick showed up at court to testify that Dart was a good man, and the jurors saw his actions as proof that he was innocent, and set him free.

Truly determined to lead a legitimate life, Dart bought a small ranch in 1890 and became deeply involved in the range wars in Moffat County, siding with the smaller ranchers like Ann Bassett (who was also suspected of being a cattle rustler) against the larger Two Bar Ranch Cattle Company. After a fellow rancher, Matt Nash, was found killed outside his home, Dart and other fellow ranchers received notes telling them to leave the area or face the same fate. Isom Dart refused to leave, and on October 3rd, 1900, he was shot from behind and killed. His killer was presumed to be Tom Horn, a Range detective brought in to drive out the smaller ranchers. Dart was 51.

Sadly, his reputation of being a gentle, kind man who would help anyone, and reputation as being a horse whisperer in his own right, did not save him from being added to the list of infamous characters of the west. Many other unsubstantiated stories of his life have surfaced, with him having short careers as a gambler, a prospector, horse trainer and bronco buster; each of these jobs he took in attempts to “go straight”. Although he was often touted as the finest horseman around, he never entered a single rodeo competition. Dart is reputed to have never shot a man, even though on occasion he may have threatened a few; instead he relied on his horse and cattle skills for rustling and later as a rancher. According to other stories, Dart ran for and won the office of Constable in Sweetwater County, Wyoming in 1884. He was defeated just a few years later and this is when he returned to Moffat County, Colorado. Some stories even claim he was an acquaintance of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who were friends of the Basset’s, Dart’s ranching neighbor, and who often stayed at the Basset ranch. Regardless of the veracity of all the stories told about him, Dart clearly led a full and active life.

Dart was buried in Routt County, near Browns Park, in a corralled and marked grave along North Hwy 72. The grave can still be seen today among the trees. The following is a map for finding his grave:


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