On the western border of Colorado stands a landmark named for tales of a local rancher who took neighbors’ cattle from the open range and drove them into and onto the mesa. He would then purportedly cut the brands from the cattle and “sew ‘em up” using rawhide and barbed wire. When the wound healed, he would put his brand on the cattle and turn them loose on the range and none were the wiser.
Since skin grafts don’t work this way and hides were kept as proof of ownership based on the brands, the rawhide stories are apocryphal. However, changing brands was a common practice. A quiet, remote place with good water and good grass where brands could be changed and new markings could heal is advantageous when stealing cattle. The mesa and the surrounding canyons provided everything needed for a successful rustling operation.
Brand changing has a long and storied history in western United States cattle ranching. A brand could be changed by with a branding iron or even just a heated ring. Other rustling methods included bull borrowing—cutting fences and either taking the bull or just providing it with cows. A cow could also be “borrowed” (and the Sewemup Mesa would make a perfect hiding place) and used until she was of no use for breeding, at which point she would mysteriously return home.
In addition to steep cliffs, the mesa is further protected by a stream of salt that comes from salt seeps from a small salt dome in Salt Creek Canyon. The canyon is both rugged and highly saline. The water is about 10 percent salt, which means it can’t be consumed by animals and grass doesn’t grow in the lower canyon. No cattle would wander up the canyon voluntarily, since there is nothing for them in it, making it the perfect hiding place for pilfered stock.
Know Before You Go
Salt Creek is 10 miles from Gateway and on the northern edge of the Sewemp Mesa. The Z6 road follows Salt Creek for approximately three miles to the salt seeps. Another road, S12, provides limited access to the mesa to the south. Any path to the top of the mesa requires effort to climb to the top.