Death in the Disappointment Valley

Chapter excerpt from my book, “Notorious Telluride.”

Sometimes a story emerges from the pages of history and proves that life does imitate art. The saga of the Nashes, Dunhams and Estes of Disappointment Valley possesses all the love, betrayal, devotion, and tragic death of a Shakespearean tragedy.

In 1879, a small party of explorers headed by Wilson “Wilks” Nash entered the Disappointment Valley in the western portion of today’s San Miguel County. They were looking for an unspoiled area where they could raise cattle, and they found it. Although the area was known to be a Ute hunting ground, Nash brought his wife, Mary Ann, and their four children, and they settled on a homestead and went to work building up their herd. Thirteen years old when they arrived, their eldest son, James (Jim) Nash, would become one of the Disappointment Valley’s most prominent and controversial citizens.

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Disappointment Valley. Photo by Carol Turner

Around the same age as Jim Nash, a boy named Jack Dunham also grew up in the valley and ran cattle. Dunham was more quiet than the rowdy and charming Jim Nash.

Another important family in the region was the Estes family. Back in 1859, Joel Estes had been one of the first pioneers to enter what today is Rocky Mountain National Park. The town of Estes Park is named after him. Several years later, Estes moved his family west to the Dolores area, a journey that killed his first wife, Martha. He later married again but his children considered the new stepmother to be cruel and they got away as quickly as they could.

In January of 1888, the oldest Estes daughter, Lena, married easy-going Jack Dunham. Lena was a beautiful woman with a dark intense gaze, a temper and a mind of her own. In December of that same year, she objected vigorously when her younger sister, Tennie, suddenly announced that she was going to marry the carousing, womanizing Jim Nash. Like her sister, Tennie was a pretty girl but had a gentler nature than Lena. Still, she had made up her mind, and Lena was unable to stop the marriage.

Despite a certain competitiveness between the couples, the two men rode the range together. Jack and Lena Dunham had two children; Jim and Tennie Nash had three. As the years passed, the Nash herd grew considerably larger than the Dunhams’ and the common wisdom among range folk was that Lena envied the wealth enjoyed by her younger sister.

On October 11, 1901, Jim and Tennie were struck by tragedy when their ten-year-old son Lee suffocated to death when a creekside cave collapsed on him.
Meanwhile, Jack Dunham had developed rheumatism and was increasingly unable to keep up with his ranch work. Soon, he could no longer ride the range. Lena Dunham, who reportedly hated housework, put her six-year-old daughter, Laura May, to work in the kitchen and took over her husband’s job. By all accounts, Lena’s proficiency on a horse and running livestock was as good or better than most men.

Soon, gossip about Lena Dunham and Jim Nash flourished in the Disappointment Valley cow camps. Tennie, still grieving over the loss of her son, dismissed the rumors.

On September 25, 1904, Jim and Lena rode into the Dunham ranch house from a day rounding up cattle. When Nash entered the house, he and Dunham had an argument. On that day, Jim Nash shot and killed Jack Dunham.

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Dunham Ranch in the Disappointment Valley. Drawing by Richard Turner

Conflicting stories circulated about what really happened in the Dunham ranch house. According to newspaper accounts, Lena Dunham headed into the kitchen to prepare dinner and Nash followed her, playing with his niece in the kitchen. Jack Dunham was stretched out on the lounge in the front room. According to Nash, Dunham suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway, waving a knife and cursing at Nash, telling him to “hit the road.” Nash said he pulled his gun to keep Dunham away and backed out of the door. Dunham then ran to the barn and got his revolver. He ran after Nash who had mounted up and was headed home. Nash turned and shot Dunham in the head. He shot him twice more in the chest before Dunham dropped dead in the dirt.

Nash quickly turned himself in to authorities in Rico, telling them that Dunham had often been depressed about his situation and jealous of the amount of time Lena spent with Nash out on the range. He was arrested for the shooting and went on trial in October of 1904. He pleaded justifiable homicide on the grounds of self-defense. The jury failed to come to a verdict, with eight of them voting for acquittal. With that, the prosecutor entered a nolle prosequi, which means they declined to proceed with further prosecution. Jim Nash went home a free man.

It wasn’t long after the trial that Lena Dunham moved into the Nash homestead. Rumors instantly circulated across the desert landscape that Jim Nash had divorced Tennie and married her sister Lena. Other salacious stories described the threesome living together in a bigamist relationship. Later on, it came out that immediately after Nash shot Dunham, Tennie Nash had left the house and moved in with her brother, William “Wid” Estes. She obtained a divorce from her husband in May of 1905.

In the fall of 1905, a year after killing her husband, Jim Nash married the widow Lena Dunham in New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, Jack and Lena Dunham’s fourteen-year-old son, Irving “Honey” Dunham, had difficulties adjusting to the idea of his mother marrying the man who had killed his father. From that day on, bad blood existed between stepson and stepfather, and Honey Dunham never stopped believing that Nash had murdered his father. This state of affairs that would come to a violent conclusion 18 years later.

Meanwhile, about a year and a half later, Jim Nash was arrested once again. This time, Wid Estes rode into Rico and swore out an arrest warrant for Nash, charging that Nash had beat up his first wife, Tennie, with a six-shooter.

Lena accompanied her new husband to jail in Rico. He was charged with assault with intent to kill Tennie Nash. Lena paid his bond and the couple left.

Nash’s story differed considerably from Wid Estes’. He claimed he was asleep in bed when urged to get up and go to a dance. When he arrived, a brawl arose. Nash said he was under attack and he lashed out at everyone in his path. Tennie just happened to be at the wrong spot at the wrong time. He said he was convinced that he’d been lured there so his enemies could kill him.

Nash did not serve any time for the assault.

Jim and Lena continued living and ranching together, growing more wealthy. Jim possessed enough charm that many folks still grudgingly liked him, but the iron-willed Lena was less popular. Some said it was her conniving that ultimately resulted in the death of Jack Dunham. Lena’s daughter, Laura May Dunham, lived with them until she married in 1907 at age 16. That same year, Lena bore Jim a son, Alvin Nash, and they eventually moved to Farmington, New Mexico. In 1911, Tennie married Henry. L. Ellermeyer.

In 1910, step-brothers Earl Nash – the surviving son of Jim and Tennie – and Honey Dunham lived together, working as stock ranchers near Dolores, Colorado. Early on, Honey Dunham showed signs of being disturbed, getting into repeated scrapes with the law. Lena always came to his rescue, much to the disgust of Jim Nash, who felt she indulged her son. In March of 1909, Honey was arrested at Norwood for forgery but got off without a prison sentence. In October of 1911, he married Cordelia McDermott, and the couple eventually had three children.

On June 12, 1914, another tragic event struck this star-crossed family. Twenty-year old Earl Nash was living in a cow camp on the Nash ranch. As an adolescent – before Jack Dunham’s death – Earl had ridden the range with his father and Lena Dunham. For the past year or so, young Earl had often made “jokes” about how he was going to kill himself. On this occasion, he rode into the camp, dismounted, and handed his horse over to a friend. To another man in camp he gave his bridle and to another he gave his dog. Next, Earl Nash drew his revolver and shot himself in the eye.

His stunned comrades could do nothing to help him and he died early the next morning. Friends and family claimed it wasn’t suicide, that he had merely slipped while performing his “stock joke,” a theory that ignored the fact that he gave his belongings away before pulling the trigger. Others were simply mystified by the act, pointing out that his father was wealthy and that Earl therefore had no reason to kill himself.

Yet another tragedy struck when Lena’s half brother, Cleve “Unk” Estes shot a local cowboy during an argument in 1916. Cleve spent the rest of his life in prison and mental institutions.

In late April of 1922, the sins of James Nash finally came home. Now in his sixties, Nash was on a cattle drive in Utah with his stepson, Honey. One night, the men were playing cards in a cabin on Montezuma Creek when an argument erupted. Honey Dunham drew a gun and shot Jim Nash dead.

Newspaper reports said Nash’s body, riddled with bullets, was taken in a wagon to Dolores where he was laid to rest.

The general consensus was that Honey Dunham finally had his revenge for the murder of his father.

In May, Honey had his preliminary hearing. The single eyewitness to the shooting was a man named Rex Perkins. He testified that Nash had made threats against Dunham and ordered him out of the region. Another man present in the cabin had slept through the entire event.

The judge charged Dunham with voluntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder, setting his bond at $2,500. As she had been doing for years, Honey’s mother and two-time widow, Lena Nash, provided security to the bondsmen.

Later that year, in November, the involuntary manslaughter charge was dismissed but he was once again arrested on a charge of first degree murder.

In April of 1923, Honey Dunham went on trial for the murder of his step father. Many family members, including Lena, attended the trial in a show of support for Honey. After a large number of witnesses testified, the jury went out for eighteen hours and returned with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Honey Dunham was set free.

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Mug Shot of Irving B. “Honey” Dunham

Despite his lucky escape, Honey Dunham set out on a path of self-destruction, only in a different manner from that of his step-brother, Earl Nash. In June of 1923, thirty-year-old Dunham was arrested in Cortez for stealing tires. Lena Nash spent all afternoon at the jail, but he had no other visitors. That night he escaped, apparently with assistance from friends on the outside who sawed through the outer bars of his cell and gave Dunham a gun which he held on his cell mates while he crawled out. His friends then whisked him away in a Buick automobile. Officers from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah joined the chase. He was quickly caught by officials in Moab who held him for Colorado authorities to come and fetch him.

Dunham pleaded guilty, paid a fine and promised to leave Montezuma County. However, his criminal career was just getting started. In 1933, Dunham was sentenced to two-and-a-half to seven years for running a confidence game. He was paroled after about two years but was returned to prison after violating his parole in 1937. He was discharged in 1938.

In 1941, Dunham was back in prison on another charge of running a con game. In 1950, he was charged with forgery and again on the same charges in 1955. His last stint in prison lasted one year and he was released in 1957. His prison record states that Irving “Honey” Dunham had an eighth grade education.

Side Note: After doing a bit of research, I’ve learned that the Disappointment Valley is home to some of the last wild horses left in North America. There used to be 2 million of these beauties; now there are about 25,000 left.

Cover for THE TROUBLE WITH HEATHER HOLLOWAY Check out my novel, THE TROUBLE WITH HEATHER HOLLOWAY, available on amazon kindle or on any device using the amazon kindle app.

Her first week on the job, and Marshal Beth Mayo is hit with a sex assault case. It’s a nasty shock for the bucolic mountain town of Sugarloaf and for Mayo, who is still recovering from her husband’s death. Her initial skepticism grows into disbelief over the victim’s zany story, and she dismisses the case as a false report. Unfortunately, the same woman is soon discovered in the ruins of a ghost town, most definitely murdered.

Mayo unravels the complex case through a parade of colorful suspects and misfit family members, all the while following a common thread from 150 years earlier — Colorado history’s most notorious event, the Sand Creek Massacre.

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26 thoughts on “Death in the Disappointment Valley

  1. Thank you for saying wild horses and not mustangs. I live in disappointment valley. My boyfriend is a Suckla and it is a wonderful place to be. It’s a shame what the BlM and Forest Service are trying to do to the land and what they have already done so far

  2. I sure would like to know why this valley was called Dissappointment Valley, would you know. I used to live in Naturita, CO. I sounds like an interesting place to visit, as I have driven around the area.
    Thanks
    Lauryce

    • Hi Lauryce,
      I don’t know — but I can sure imagine! I picture pioneers hearing about the place, and heading over a great rise and seeing the valley and thinking “No water!!” Anyway, there is a book by a local women whose name I can’t remember. It might be in there. It’s a very rare book but if I ever get hold of a copy maybe the answer will be in there.

  3. The name of the book is “Where Eagles Winter” by Wilma Crisp Bankston It details a few of the Disappointment tragedies. My Great, Great Grandfather and his children and Grandchildren lived there. Their names were Lavender, if anyone has any more information regarding the old Lavender Cemetery or Lavender Post Office I would be very grateful.
    Greg

  4. Greg, I saw posting just now. Mabel Lavender was your great Aunt! That is great. Do you have anything on her? Thomas Reddick was my dad, Donald Reddick’s grandfather. Thomas Reddick’s son was Lance Reddick who happened to be my dad’s father.

  5. Deborah send me your email address to gmcclelland at surewest dot net and i will forward a link to the family tree I have built and you can see who I have found so far.
    Greg

      • Your grandfather was Eugene aka Pete Lavender? I am granddaughter of John Wilson Lavender. Who is your mother? Is it Hazel? Was your grandmother called Rusty? I remember a couple of boys who were sons of Pete and Rusty’s but can’t recall their names. If that was the same Eugene, i was at his memorial service. My email is bettytheloon at yahoo dot com
        Alice Liapis McClelland

  6. Does anyone know where it got it’s name? the Disappointment Creek has lots of water all year so it can’t be that.

    • Did you get an answer to your question, “how it got it’s name?” My neighbor had a book that described a feud between families. Nearly all of the men in both families were killed and the survivors named it, according to the book.

  7. FACT: There is no such thing as wild American horses. They are 100% invasive species brought here along with the Conquistadors. Just like kudzu vine, asian carp, and zebra mussels.

  8. It seems that the goverment owns enough land .That there would be plenty enough land for the wild horses.Its awonderful sight to see them run free.AGM

  9. I worked in Naturita in 1996-97 with my 12 yr old son. We drove all over the area every chance we got. I learned to drive in snow and ice from local people, even with my 2 wheel drive truck. I thought if we were careful, we could go anywhere, no matter road conditions. Fortunately we never had a disaster. That year was 150% snowpack and we drove twice from Nucla to play in Durango on icey snow-packed roads, and then home again the same night. Each time we hit the Disappointment and the Dolores River about midnight. The horses were bedded down along the river and what a sight to see in the moonlight.

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