When it comes to Taos legends, they don’t get much bigger than the story of Long John Dunn. Perhaps because his actual life was so incredible or because his biography was written shortly after Dunn’s death by a good friend, the tale doesn’t seem to need much embellishment. As his friend and biographer Max Evans says, “He lived, in his 90 or more years, one of the most incredible lives of any of the old-time westerners…John was one of the best gunfighters, gamblers, bronc riders, ropers, stagecoach drivers, trail-herd drivers, saloonkeepers, outlaws, and ironically, hardheaded businessman.”
Before coming to Taos, Dunn by his own admission had killed several men and was a horse thief, smuggler and gambler. But although his life was a rough one, there was always a thread of nobility in his actions. He first killed a man when involved in a fist fight with his brother-in-law who had been abusing Dunn’s sister. One of his main purposes in making money by whatever means possible was to send it back home to his mother to support the family. Dunn’s father was a Civil War veteran and died shortly after the war due to his injuries, leaving the family constantly poor.
Dunn was born in 1857 in Victoria, Texas, to a family of farmers. "In Long John Dunn of Taos: from Texas Outlaw to New Mexico Hero", by Max Evans, Dunn is quoted as saying “We were trying to make a living on a little rolling dry-land, slow-starvation farm.” Dunn was hired out to work on farms for others. As an inexperienced teenager, he was often low in the farm pecking order – doing the hardest work, receiving the lowest pay and sleeping in the barn. After one of his early employers kept him working day and night, and then underpaid him, Dunn stole the man’s stallion and headed west.
His travels led him to a ranch near the Río Grande in Texas and then on a trail-drive north to the N-Bar-N ranch in Montana with 2,000 steers. As Evans says, “The trail drive tested every good and bad quality in a man. During the trails of hundreds of miles across open spaces, the best or the worst was certain to come out.” Dunn became well-known for his expert use of both his gun and rope, as well as having keen eye for outlaws lying in wait to rob the cowboys.
This trail drive stopped in Dodge City, Kansas, where he saw his first train, which he tried successfully to lasso. Dodge City is also where he first learned to gamble. It was on his return to Texas that Dunn encountered his drunk and abusive brother-in-law in the street. Dunn got a good punch in to the jaw and the other man went down, hitting his head on a hitching rail. He died and Dunn was sentenced to life imprisonment at the state penitentiary. Using a smuggled file, Dunn cut himself free of his leg irons and made his escape by jumping into the surging river nearby.
After a period of gambling and smuggling in Mexico, a time marked by brawls, double-crossing and tequila-drinking cats and another escape from the law, Dunn was smuggled into New Mexico by a man headed to Elizabethtown to investigate a gold-mining boom. After becoming friends with the town marshal, who was also on the run from the law in Texas, Dunn won enough money gambling to open his own saloon.
In 1889, Dunn rode through Eagle Nest into Taos Valley. He noticed how isolated the town was and began to work on an idea to bring transportation to Taos. Dunn learned that there was a bridge across the Río Grande at Taos Junction owned by a Mr. Meyers. When Dunn tried to buy the bridge, the price was set at $15,000. With money won during a gambling tour across several states, Dunn eventually bought the bridge from Meyers for the reduced price of $2,000. He found out that the price was lowered because another bridge was being built farther north near Arroyo Hondo. Dunn purchased that bridge too, only to have both bridges destroyed by a flood. Undeterred, Dunn rebuilt the bridge in Arroyo Hondo and charged a toll to people and animals to cross. He established stagecoach service and mail delivery from the train station in Tres Piedras to Taos. He also built a hotel near the bridge and arranged the stagecoach schedule, so that the passengers on the last coach of the day found it most convenient to stay overnight at the hotel before continuing on to Taos. With his stagecoach, hotel and bridge tolls, Dunn was quite well-off. He also owned four saloons and a gambling hall. As he had a virtual monopoly on travel in and out of Taos, he had the opportunity to meet the well-known artists who were coming to Taos to paint. He also brought them art supplies and took their paintings into the outside world to sell.
Dunn would later own the first car in Taos, transitioning his business from stagecoach to automobile. As time went on and more roads reached Taos, he felt that something was lost. He said the roads “changed peoples’ personalities – friendships broke up when folks no longer needed to depend on each other for company, sympathy and entertainment.” Later in his life, Dunn married a woman named Adelaide and had four daughters and a son, John Dunn Jr. The boy died when he was 11 years old, breaking Dunn’s heart.
Evans recently met with Polly Raye, the owner of the John Dunn shops to share some of the stories that were not told in his biography from 1959. Evans says that Dunn became good friends with Mabel Dodge Luhan. “Between them, they controlled the art scene in Taos. John helped her with Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda and D.H. Lawrence, Leopold Stokowski and others,” he said. According to Evans, there was a third player in the power structure, sort of a triumvirate who was reputed to be a witch with mystical powers. “Together they controlled all of Northern New Mexico,” he said.
Raye has collected stories about Dunn and honors his memory by preserving his history in the John Dunn shops between Bent Street and the Taos Plaza. The walkway that connects the two is called Juan Largo Lane, after Long John Dunn, who was 6-feet, 4-inches tall and “ladder-like straight.” She said that according to her discussion with Evans, “John Dunn was highly respected in the region. In his later years he held ‘court’ four to five days a week near or on the plaza. Everyone came up to ‘the King’ to talk and pay their respects. He showed a lot of dignity.” Dunn died on May 21, 1953, and tributes to him covered most of the front page of El Crepusculo, the forerunner of The Taos News.
In 1982 Harvey Mudd asked Raye to buy the John Dunn House because they shared a philosophy about creating community and supporting merchants, rather than running a business only to make money. She owned the Apple Tree Restaurant and was interested in creating a beautiful walkway to connect Bent Street with the Plaza.
Over the years, she has preserved John Dunn’s historic home, expanded a second building where he stabled his horses to include ten more shops, and built a third structure for more shops on a formerly abandoned lot. John Dunn’s porch is still visible, wrapping around three sides of his home. It houses Coffee Cats and the bookshop. Mudd’s original seven stores have changed ownership over the years, but as in the early 1970s, they still sell leather, maps, fabric and books. Raye says that with a brick walkway through the shops rather than a road, friendships and connections are nurtured, bringing back some of the feeling of comaraderie that existed before there were so many roads to Taos.