Visitors come from near and far to enjoy the many wonders of Southern Utah’s Warner Valley, right here in our own backyard. From hiking, off-roading, photography, camping, rockhounding, etc., one can spend countless hours enjoying the spectacular scenery and what it has to offer.
But, have you ever stopped to wonder how it got its name? Maybe it was for an explorer or surveyor passing through the area, or perhaps a pioneer rancher that helped settle the region and left the family name for us to remember. Or, as one colorful legend has it, could it have been for an outlaw associate of Utah’s Butch Cassidy?
Willard Erastus Christiansen was born April 12, 1864 in Ephraim to Christian and Huvada Christiansen from Denmark. Raised by a hard working family and community, young Willard was a somewhat typical boy, at least until a rival appeared at a town dance one night.
At 14, Willard was quite taken with a girl by the name of Alice Sabey. However, so was Andy Hendrickson. It seemed the boys decided to settle the competition with their fists. Unfortunately, fists weren’t enough when Willard picked up a picket from a fence and clubbed Andy in the head. Some people later said it was a brick or a rock, but the outcome was the same. Willard’s rival lay bleeding and unconscious on the ground.
Feeling certain Andrew was dead, Willard panicked and hightailed it out of town. With just a few belongings, some believed he rode up into Wyoming to hide out, while others say he went to the Jim Warren Ranch near Brown’s Hole in eastern Utah. Either way, he grew up quick in the ways of an outlaw, learning from some of the best in the west. Believing he was a wanted man, Willard changed his name to Matt Warner.
A year later, Matt was involved in his first gunfight. According to his son, Boyo Warner, Matt shot a fellow outlaw in the chest, then rode 50 miles to Vernal to fetch a doctor for the man. It wasn’t long before he took up cattle rustling and bank robbing for a living. He later began match-racing his horse for prize money in Utah and Colorado.
On one such occasion, he met a young cowboy in Telluride, Colorado and became fast friends. Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, was two years younger than Matt, but anxious and eager to make money. With Matt’s “banking” experience, the two came up with a plan to rob the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. On June 24, 1889, they were joined by two other men and made away with $21,000 from the bank. This was Butch’s first bank robbery.
It is uncertain when Matt Warner learned what actually happened after the bloody fight with Andrew Hendrickson years earlier. According to the Salt Lake Herald, Andrew Hendrickson survived with a broken jaw and fractured skull. Although, folks around town said the blow to the head forever changed the young man, and he was never quite the same.
In January of 1894, Matt happened to pay a family visit to Levan, where Hendrickson lived. When a few locals heard Willard Christiansen was in town, they thought it would be entertaining to have some fun with Andrew by telling him his old nemesis came back to finish the job. They also warned him that Matt carried two six-shooters, and knew how to use them.
Andrew’s fear took over when he saw Matt coming down the road on horseback alongside his brother. Grabbing a Winchester rifle, Andrew stepped outside to fire three shots. Matt fled unscathed, but later discovered a bullet hole in his coat.
Hendricksen was arrested, but officials declared the incident was the result of temporary insanity due to sudden, uncontrollable fear. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his last violent outburst. On July 25, 1898, during the Levan “Days of ’47 Parade,” Andrew used a shotgun to kill the leader of the parade, William Tunbridge, during the procession. William was a well-respected and much-loved leader in the community. No one knows what possessed Andrew Hendrickson that day, but he was soon confined in a state institution.
During an 1896 prospecting trip, Matt Warner was involved in a shootout that left two of his adversaries dead, and landed him in the Utah State penitentiary for voluntary manslaughter. In 1900, he received an early release for good behavior and a pardon from Governor Wells.
Having learned his lesson, Matt completely turned his life around, and soon began a long career in law enforcement. Successfully using his acquired skills and knowledge for the good of society, he spent the majority of his remaining years in Price, where he died on December 21, 1938. In 1939, his widow and daughter received a visit from an old friend of Matt’s, who asked the ladies not to tell anyone about the visit until he was dead and gone. In keeping their promise to the railroad man from Goldfield, Nevada, it was many years later when they told of the visit from Butch Cassidy.
Was Washington County’s Warner Valley named for Matt Warner? Did he ever travel through the area tracking a criminal, or hide out from the law there during his early days? We don’t have the proof, but at least, we do know for who Utah’s Matt Warner Reservoir was named.
“If in relating my experiences as an outlaw I’m able to convince but one potential criminal that crime doesn’t pay and be instrumental in influencing him to become a law-abiding citizen, I shall feel that my life has not been lived in vain.” Matt Warner, December 1938