Lake County War Claims the Life of a Probate Judge in Court in 1874

A picturesque lake lit by a bright, sunny day
After an 1874 water rights dispute led to murder, vigilantes assassinated probate Judge Elias Dyer in a swift show of mob justice in a Granite courtroom. / Photo courtesy Lake County government.

Water rights disputes predate many western states’ statehoods. As tensions rose over access to water in the Colorado Territory, so did speculations about whether the area would attain statehood status. Not many water disputes led to murder, but the argument between ranchers Elijah Gibbs and George Harrington in June 1874 over water access in the upper Arkansas Valley ended in vigilante slaying in a Granite courtroom. 

The Lake County War started in June 1874 when the two ranchers in Lake County got into a heated dispute about water access. Soon after the disagreement, a building on Harrington’s property was set on fire. Harrington was shot and killed as he went to extinguish the flames. The community suspected Gibbs of the murder.

Gibbs and his ranch hand were arrested and held for a pending trial in Granite, Colorado. Tensions were so high in the community that the trial was relocated to Denver. When the trial concluded in October, Gibbs and his ranch hand walked free. 

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When Gibbs returned home after the trial, he faced an angry mob of vigilantes who demanded justice. Even though he was acquitted of the murder of Harrington, the vigilantes secured a warrant for attempted murder in the argument with Harrington prior to his death when Gibbs allegedly pulled out a gun. 

Gibbs wouldn’t come out of his cabin when the mob came to arrest him, so they set fire to the building and three men were killed in the ensuing scuffle. Gibbs turned himself in for two of the deaths he caused but he was found to have acted in self defense. He fled the area with his family but his actions already polarized the community. 

Probate Judge Elias Dyer was asked by the mob on his way to court in Granite if he thought Gibbs was guilty. When he said he didn’t think so, the mob ordered him to leave the area and resign his post. When Dyer made it safely to Denver, he asked the government to take action against the mob ruling Lake County. The interim governor ordered the head of the Colorado Militia to investigate the mob but the Rocky Mountain News on Feb. 18, published his findings that there was “no disturbance or lawless elements among the citizens, but on the contrary peace and order restored.”

Dyer returned and issued warrants for the vigilantes responsible for the murders in the area of Gibbs’ supporters. But the judge couldn’t find anyone to testify against the group for fear of retaliation. He dismissed the charges but within minutes of doing so was assassinated as a crowd dispersed the courtroom. Charges were never made on his murder. 

The Lake County War fizzled out over time but the incident remains infamous in Colorado history.

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