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Chasing the Sundance Kid in Alberta

It was 47 years ago when audiences first watched Paul Newman and Robert Redford die in a legendary blaze of gunfire in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The film won four Academy Awards, including best original screenplay and even best original song for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

As with any western character popularized by Hollywood cinema, there is a certain investment in a myth that might not exactly portray reality, said Andrew Nelson, assistant professor of film history and critical studies at Montana State University and an emerging scholar in the field of western film and culture.

“That’s one of the difficulties when dealing with any of these mythical figures of the American West.”

The real Butch Cassidy, born Robert Leroy Parker, and Sundance Kid, born Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, were believed to have been hunted down and killed less than heroically in Bolivia after holding up a payroll shipment 61 years before the film screened.

Nelson noted there are certain events that are known to have been carried out by these western figures, while there are others that are either carried out by different people and ascribed to those famous outlaws, or simply did not happen at all.

The year was 1889 when Longabaugh, only 22 at the time, left Colorado after he held up the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride with Butch Cassidy’s gang. Ostracized by his own family after the crime, he went on the run.

“In an attempt at a new beginning, he headed north to Canada,” wrote Donna B. Ernst, great niece-in-law of Harry Longabaugh, in her article “The Sundance Kid in Alberta” published in Alberta History autumn 1994 issue.

The development of the Canadian West was much different than the American, with cities being the directive power for expansion, explained Nelson.

Once criminals like Longabaugh crossed the Canadian border, American officials could not continue pursuit. In response, entities like the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) were developed and sent west by the Canadian government to deal with many of the American outlaws fleeing to Canada.

“The lawlessness that characterizes our idea of the mythical American West wasn’t so much the case in Canada,” said Nelson.

Though Longabaugh’s time in Canada was, as Nelson puts it, unremarkable, he is not surprised that the Kid’s short time as a range hand at the Bar U Ranch, about 40 minutes south of Calgary, is remembered.

“There is a tendency in Canadian culture to want to point to Canadian connections with famous foreigners,” Nelson said.

Mike McLean, the acting site manager at the Bar U Ranch, is in charge of visitor experience and tending to the cultural resource of Canada’s only nationally preserved ranch.

Growing up in a ranching family he would watch western films as a kid and chuckle at the differences brought on by the hyperbole of Hollywood.

The Bar U had run continuously from 1882, when it first opened, right up until it was purchased by the Canadian government in 1991.

“This is Canada’s ranch,” said McLean.

Last year broke a record, with over 19,000 tourists visiting the historic grounds.

“Everyone embraces the image of the cowboy,” said McLean.

He finds people are shocked to discover that the Sundance Kid had ties to the Bar U and Southern Alberta. He has also noticed that younger generations tend to be more quizzical at the mention of western icons like John Wayne or Sundance that were popular culture when he was a child.

“In some ways it’s almost becoming forgotten again,” said McLean.

Ernst writes some of the heroic acts of Longabaugh. Told from the narrative of Fred Ings, founder of the Midway Ranch located just west of Nanton, Alta., he and Sundance went on a fall cattle roundup when they were engulfed by a blizzard. Ings fell behind and was lost in the whiteout when the Sundance Kid rode back to help him find his way back to the herd. Both made it out of the blizzard alive.

“He was thought of as a very capable horseman,” said McLean after retelling the story of the blizzard.

A NWMP report from 1891 investigating Longabaugh for animal cruelty was probably the result of the Sundance Kid riding with a small hack saw tucked into the cantle of his saddle. McLean always imagined the Kid had the saw to break out of jail or cut handcuff if needed. In reality it was used for branding.

Near the end of 1881, Longabaugh found himself in Calgary and entered a partnership with a man named Frank Hamilton. The pair bought the saloon at the Grand Central Hotel on Atlantic Avenue, now 9 Ave. SE.

Amanda Borys, a volunteer storyteller at the Union Cemetery, tells the tale of Longabaugh and Hamilton during her tour.

Hamilton was apparently skimming money from the profits and stealing from the Kid. The story, as Borys tells, goes as such:

“When Harry found out, he confronted Frank in the saloon, Frank on one side of the bar and Harry on the other. Frank mocked Harry and asked what he was going to do about the thievery, but as the words were coming out of Frank’s mouth, Harry leapt over the bar and had his six-shooter out and pointed at Frank’s gut. Frank quickly paid up and the partnership was dissolved.”

She adds though this story is great “Hollywoodish” image of the Kid, it was actually illegal to carry firearms in the city at the time, so it was unlikely Longabaugh was brandishing a weapon.

“Certainly the Kid was known for being a quick draw, but I can’t say I’ve read anything that can substantiate these claims,” agreed Nelson.

For Patrick Davis, a fourth generation rancher who’s Great-Grandfather, Walter Davis, worked at the Bar U in the early days, the Sundance Kid was nothing more than a common criminal.

The first year Davis worked the Bar U, he was given the task of researching Harry Longabaugh for the “Roundup of Memories” event the ranch holds to commemorate the men who built it.

Throughout his research he a found a quote that really stuck with him: “Criminals at this time were being wrote as heroes and we were busy building a country.”

“I never had any use for this Harry Longabaugh whatsoever,” said Davis.

“At the time, he was stealing shit my great-grandfather was building.”

If he had stayed in Canada and continued to build a country with the men now well forgotten to history, then the myth of Sundance Kid would not have existed, Paul Newman and Robert Redford would not have died for audiences in a blaze of anti-heroic gunfire and the name Harry Longabaugh would be on the tongues of nobody as they passed through the historic grounds of the Bar U.

Published in Journalism Writing Portfolio