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The Legacy of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

A two-hour bumpy ride from Uyuni across Bolivia’s high plains will take you to the small town of San Vicente. At the entrance to this remote settlement is a sign that proclaims: “Welcome to San Vicente. Here lie Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid.”

The notorious outlaw duo, made famous by the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, allegedly met their death in a gun fight at this old miners' settlement high in the southern Bolivian Andes, not far from Uyuni’s famous salt flats. On the town’s only cemetery, an area has been cordoned-off to mark Butch's supposed grave. About a decade ago, a small one-room museum was opened to celebrate the town’s strange legacy, and private tour operators from the nearby towns of Uyuni and Tupiza take tourists along the "death trail". Butch and Sundance hats, t-shirts and key chains are sold in the San Vicente town store.

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The welcome sign at San Vicente, in southern Bolivia. Photo credit: bradshawsinbolivia.blogspot.in

The story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fascinating one.

Butch Cassidy was born as Robert Leroy Parker in 1866. During his teen years, while working from ranch to ranch, Parker met and forged a close relationship with a cowboy named Mike Cassidy, on whose honor he chose the nickname "Butch Cassidy". The “Butch” part is said to have come from his brief stint as a butcher in one of the ranches he worked.

Cassidy started his criminal career stealing horses, before he began associating with other criminals and going after bigger pursuits. One of his trusted associates was Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, who named himself “The Sundance Kid”, after a successful robbery in Sundance, Wyoming.

By the end of the 19th century, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and other members of “the Wild Bunch” gang became notorious for robbing banks and holding up trains. In 1901, with law enforcement agencies hot on their trails, the outlaws headed to South America, changed their names and found employment at the Concordia Tin Mine in Bolivia. Ironically, their job was to guard the company payroll.

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The Wild Bunch gang. Harry A. Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, is sitting on the far left. Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, is sitting on the far right.

Cassidy wanted to settle down as a respectable rancher, but old habits, as they say, die hard and the two returned to their old ways. Now this is where the story turns interesting. On November 3, 1908, a convoy of mules carrying the payroll of a mining company near San Vicente was attacked and robbed by two masked men. The bandits then proceeded to San Vicente, where they lodged in a small boarding house.

The house’s owner became suspicious of the two foreign lodgers when he saw that a mule they had in their possession carried the mining company’s brand on the mule's left flank. He alerted a nearby telegraph officer who in turn notified a small Bolivian Army cavalry unit stationed nearby.

On the evening of November 6, three soldiers from the regiment along with the police chief and other officials surrounded the lodge with the intention of arresting the robbers. But the bandits opened fire and a gun fight ensued. After several hours of exchanging fire, all went quiet inside the house. When the Bolivian soldiers entered the house the following morning, they saw two men lying in a pool of blood, riddled with bullets. Apparently, one of them had shot his fatally wounded partner to put him out of his misery before killing himself with the final bullet.

No positive identification of the dead bandits were ever made, but somehow it was assumed that the saga of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had come to an end. The bandits were buried at the small San Vicente cemetery and the town’s name was forever engraved in history books.

Predictably, rumors persist till this day that the outlaws escaped the law and lived out their remaining lives anonymously in the United States or another country. Cassidy's sister, Lula Parker Betenson, who died in 1980, even claims that Cassidy returned to the family home in Circleville, Utah. Another theory, perpetuated by a doctor, states that Cassidy went to Paris and had his face altered by a surgeon.

Local historians believe that there is enough evidence to support that Butch and Sundance died in Bolivia, but in the end it’s all circumstantial.

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Somewhere in this cemetery lies the supposed graves of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Photo credit: cliff hellis/Flickr

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The town of San Vicente. Photo credit: cliff hellis/Flickr

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San Vicente’s main street. Photo credit: cliff hellis/Flickr

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An information board at the San Vicente Museum. Photo credit: www.triphistoric.com

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