The story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
A lot of people know the classic Western movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid(1969). It made Paul Newman and Robert Redford famous. Fewer people know the script was based on a real story, and even less people know that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent their last days in Bolivia, more specifically... in Tupiza!
I did some research to find out about the real Butch and Sundance. It's an amazing story, a great part of modern Western history, that came to a dramatic end right here in Bolivia. In Tupiza you can see the places where they lived, the bank they planned to rob and so on. The best thing though is that you can do a tour to follow the trails of Butch and Cassidy, from the pass high up in the mountains where the held up the payroll transport, to the trails they followed trying to shake off the police and angry armed miners, right up to San Vicente, a miners' settlement where the final shootout took place. The graves of Butch and Sundance are still here. We provide the horses and gear. We'll spend the night enjoying the hospitality of a local family, up in the might mountains, where times haven't change much since the days of Butch and Sundance. It's a great adventure. If the horse riding would be a problem, we can also do this tour by 4 wheel drive car. See the video of Butch and Cassidy in Hostal Valle Hermoso.But first, scroll down and read the story of:
Two pistoleros norteamericanos in Bolivia
November 7, 1908. It was a crisp and bright morning in San Vicente, a small miner's settlement, north of Tupiza, up at 4,200 m in the mighty mountains of the Cordillera Occidental. As the sun rised over the Andes peaks, Justa Concha, capitano in the Abaroa Regiment, the cavalry unit of the Bolivian army, peered over his gun to the house. It had been quiet all night. Still there was no sign of life from the two bandidos that were hiding there. The holes in the walls were silent witnesses of the heavy gunfight of the night before. El capitano ordered the master of the house, called Bonifacio Casasola, who sat beside him, to take a peek inside. Wearily, covered by the guns of the handful of soldiers that circeled the house, Casasola approached the door. The clicking sound of the soldiers unlocking their rifles, ready to shoot, was the only thing heard. Tension was hanging in the air. Then Casasola shouted. The captain came up and ran to the house, his revolver in hand. Casasola pointed at the two men lying inside, in a pool of blood. Concha looked and put his gun away. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were dead.
Butch Cassidy was born in Utah as Robert LeRoy Parker on April 13, 1866. His criminal career started by stealing a horse when he was a lad. Because he had worked as a butcher, he chose 'Butch Cassidy' as his nickname. His crony Harry Alonzo Longabaugh had also pinched a horse, for which he spent 18 months in a prison in Sundance, Wyoming. Since then he was dubbed The Sundance Kid. When he was released, he teamed up with Butch. The two of them headed for the wild wild West. Easy money and ditto women, that's what they were going for.
The real Sundance Kid
After their first clumsy encounter with the sheriff, Butch and Sundance became professional outlaws, robbing banks and holding-up trains. Their gang, with other cowboys such as Harvey Kid Curry Logan and Ben Tall Texan Kilpatrick, became widely known as... The Wild Bunch.
At the end of the 19th century, robbing the payrolls of the Rocky Mountain West mining company made them America's most wanted criminals. The police promised $ 3,000 ( a fortune in those days) to anyone who would bring them in, dead or alive. Eventually, Butch and Sundance had to flea and leave the country. Just crossing the border to Mexico wasn't safe enough to escape the premium hunters. They took the boat from New York to Argentina, an area with more wiselike pioneers and adventurers. Besides local people and some North-Americans, a lot of Welsh immigrants inhabited this part of Argentina.
With the fortune they had made robbing banks and under a false name, Butch and The Kid bought themselves a cattle ranch in Patagonia. They started a new life as peaceful farmers. In fact, they became known as respectable citizens in the small community where they settled. But perhaps things weren't what they seemed, as in 1904, a few hundred miles to the south, a bank was robbed by two masked, English speaking gringo's. Were Butch and Sundance leading a double life?
Although Argentina was far away from home, the Pinkertons, US premium hunters par excellance, never stopped looking for the outlaws. The prize on their heads was just too big to let them go! The detectives even managed to trace Butch and Sundance down to Argentina. With the staggers on their trail, the two desperado's had to run again. They left their ranch and their respectable life behind to fly to Chile. There they started a-new, but apparently, they were running out of cash. Or maybe they just couldn't resist the temptation. Anyway, in 1905, Butch and Sundance crossed the border to Argentina again and robbed the bank in a place called Villa Mercedes. Although they had many posses chasing them now, they managed to escape to their refuge in Chile again, with the stolen money in their saddlebags.
Another year later Butch and Cassidy were spotted in Bolívia.
This is how they put it in the film:
Sundance: What's your idea this time?
Bolivia. That's a country, stupid! In Central or South America, one or the other.
Why don't we just go to Mexico instead?
'Cause all they got in Mexico is sweat and there's too much of that here. Look, if we'd been in business during the California Gold Rush, where would we have gone? California - right?Right.
So when I say Bolivia, you just think California. You wouldn't believe what they're finding in the ground down there. They're just fallin' into it. Silver mines, gold mines, tin mines, payrolls so heavy we'd strain ourselves stealin' 'em. (chuckling) You just keep thinkin', Butch. That's what you're good at.
Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.
Of course the gringo's were travelling incognito again. They mingled with the North-Americans that lived here, most of whom made lots of money in the mining industry. Butch and Sundance must have been very smooth talkers, for again they easily won the trust of the locals. Someone even hired them to escort the company's payrolls! At first the (former) outlaws seemed to be worthy of the trust of their new friends. Both of them liked Bolívia a lot, and they seemed to be dedicated to settle down here and live a peaceful life. But as they say, what is bred in the bone, will come out in the flesh. Soon Sundance was found bragging about his former robberies at drunken parties. When several hold-ups took place in Bolivia, Butch and Sundance became the prime suspects.
Around these times they went down to Tupiza. In those days, Tupiza was the center of the tin and silver mining industry in southern Bolivia. The actual mines where all a few miles around in the area, and everybody, most notably the foreigners, came to Tupiza to party and spend the money they made. Butch and Sundance, using another alias, chatted their way into the house of a Scottish engineer who lived in Verdugo, 15 miles south of Tupiza. Without their host knowing, the Americans made plans to rob the rich Tupiza bank.
Soon they found out that the Abaroa Regiment, the cavalry unit of the Bolivian Army, was stationed at the same square as the bank, hence they had to make a change of plans. Opportunity knockedwhen they heard that the Aramayo mining company was planning a caravan of mules to carry the payrolls from the Tupiza bank to the company's headquarters in Quechisla. We are talking 80,000 pesos here, worth half a million US dollars today!
The Aramayo family owned the richest mining company in Tupiza. At the picture at the Home page of this website (also at the Pictures page), you see a statue of founder Avalino Aramayo (1809 - 1882) at the main square in Tupiza. This is also the square were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their plans to hold-up that payroll transport. The outlaws lived in a house just behind the mansion of the Ayamaro family, called Chajrahuasi. You can still visit these places today. The Tupiza citizens will be most happy to show you the way.
The payroll transport went off on November 3, 1908, early morning. Butch and Cassidy were sneakily following them into the mountains. The caravan spent the night at an Ayamaro hacienda in a village called Salo. The next day, the bandits were waiting for the money transport at Waca Wañusca (the Dead Cow Hill). At the riff (4,000 m) the hold-up took place. Naturally, Butch and Sundance were masked, but their accents gave them away easily. It is said that they robbed the transport in a polite and gentlemanly way. But then again, they were hugely disappointed to find only 15,000 pesos ($ 90,000)! They learned the bigger money transport was scheduled for next week!
From that moment on, it seemed like Lady Luck had let the robbers down. Pretty soon after Butch and Sundance left, the employee who escorted the transport called for alarm. In no-time the police were notified and messages went out by telegraph to watch out for the gringos, especially at the Argentinan and Chilenian border. Lots of miners, who's monthly pay was stolen, took their guns and everything to could use as a weapon to search the mountains for the two robbers. The army sent patrols as well. When the outlaws came to collect their stuff at their Scottish friends house, they had to 'fess up about their deed and reveal their real identity. They said they never stole from the poor, only from rich companies, and had never hurt anyone other than in self-defense.
When they hit the road again, they headed for Uyuni. Via a place called Cucho, 10 miles north of Estarca, they crossed the Andean mountains to arrive in San Vicente. It's a beautiful track in the mountains. At Hostal Valle Hermoso, you can arrange for a jeep tour following in Butch and Sundance's footsteps. At the time though, being chased by the army and posses of angry miners, instead of enjoying the scenery, the outlaws probably had different things to worry about. In San Vicente, they had to pause and feed their mules and themselves. They asked a local for an inn, but since there wasn't any in San Vicente, the man invited the strangers to his house. When he provided them with food and drink, they paid for it with cash money. The host got a little suspicious. What were these gringo's doing here with such a load of cash? Why were they in such a hurry? The gringo's asking about the road to the border only added to his suspicion.
Stating he went out to get some beer for them, the Bolivian went straight to the army post and informed the commander about his suspicious guests. Three soldiers went to the house immediately. When they approached the house, Butch saw them coming and fired a shot at them with his Colt. One soldier got wounded and died. The others now took position and a heavy gunfight started. But there was no escaping, the bandidos were trapped. The soldiers besieged the house until the night. Only the next morning the soldiers dared to enter the house. They found Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lying dead on the floor, riddled with bullets. The police report stated that, judging from the positions of the bodies, Butch had probably shot his fatally wounded partner-in-crime to put him out of his misery, just before killing himself with his final bullet.
In the following investigation by the Tupiza police, Butch and Sundance were identified as the men who robbed the Aramayo payroll transport. They didn't know their real names, though. The bodies were buried at the small San Vicente cemetary, where they still rest up 'till this present day.
It was never really proved that the two gringo's were in fact Butch and Cassidy. In 1991 a scientific team even excavated a grave to take a DNA test, without satisfying results. For years after their death, some people insisted they had seen the desperados elsewhere. Although the the film the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not completely historically valid (for instance the final shoot-out turned into a heroic fight with practically the whole Bolivian army in the Hollywood production - a reason for the Bolivian government to ban the film in earlier days!), I would highly recommend that any Bolivia traveller would rent the video before going there. But not to worry if you forget it, because you can also see a video at Hostal Valle Hermoso. In Tupiza you can of course see the place were the outlaws lived and the bank they planned to rob. Ask at Hostal Valle Hermoso for the directions to Waca Wañusca, where to hold up took place. You can rent a bycycle or a horse or just go hiking. You can also go on a jeep tour to follow the track the outlaws used on the run to San Vicente. You'll love it! The scenery is magnificient here. See the Tupiza surroundings page for more info on the above mentioned sites.
Finally, one more quote from the film:
You've gotta get used to Bolivian ways. You got to go easy...(patooiee!!!! Damn it!)...like I do. Course you probably think I'm crazy, but I'm not. (patooiee!!!! Bingo!) I'm colorful. That's what happens when you live ten years alone in Bolivia - you get colorful.