Big Horn County, Wyoming

Big Horn County, on the west side of the Bighorn Mountains, takes up most of the northeastern portion of the much larger Bighorn Basin, which stretches north from the Owl Creek Mountains to the Pryor Mountains in southern Montana. On its east and west sides, the basin is rimmed by the Bighorn Mountains and the Absaroka Range, respectively.

The Bighorn River flows from south to north through the county, with the Greybull and Shoshone Rivers flowing into it from the west. When displayed on a map, this suggests a wiggly tic-tac-toe design with one vertical bar missing. Beginning in the late 1800s, canals tapping into these three main waterways furnished water for irrigation.

Approximately 10,000 years ago, mammoth hunters probably occupied the area. Crow ceramics suggest the presence of that tribe in perhaps the mid-1700s. The Medicine Wheel on Medicine Mountain overlooking the Bighorn Basin is clear evidence of the work of native cultures, most probably Indians sometime in the 1770s.

In 1807, George Drouillard, who had first come west three years earlier with the Lewis and Clark expedition, may have been the first beaver trapper to enter the northern Bighorn Basin. He encountered a Crow village near present-day Cody, Wyo.

Other expeditions followed, including members of the Missouri Fur Company in 1823-24 and a party headed by General William Ashley in 1825. Ashley chose this roundabout route back to St. Louis from a rendezvous on Henry's Fork of the Green River. Blackfeet attacked Ashley’s group as they followed the Bighorn River north, downstream, through the basin.

Early settlement

Cattlemen moved into the area starting in the 1870s. Henry Clay Lovell owned one of the largest herds--approximately 25,000 head--with his range covering nearly the whole length of the basin from southern Montana to present Thermopolis, Wyo. Otto Franc von Lichtenstein, who soon shortened his name to "Otto Franc," established his Pitchfork Ranch on the Greybull River in 1879 with about 1,200 head of cattle. His ranch was in part of what is currently Park County and also stretched into the modern boundaries of Big Horn County. The present-day town of Otto in Big Horn County was named for him.

Settlers also began filtering into the basin in the 1870s, including, as time went on, men with their wives and children. Many of the earliest settlers ran sheep as well as cattle, and an inevitable clash arose between those who regarded the open range as their property and those who wanted to fence and farm the land. In 1895, when Mormon settlers arrived from Utah by the hundreds and began digging canals to irrigate their crops, the era of the small farmer had clearly begun.

Hyattville, one of the first settlements in what’s now Big Horn County, predated the arrival of the Mormons by perhaps a decade. First called Paintrock for the creek next to it, the town was renamed for Samuel W. Hyatt, an early settler who established a store there in 1886. Hyatt was the town's first postmaster, and by all reports was a fine citizen.

Another early town, Bonanza, southwest of Hyattville near the confluence of Paintrock Creek and the Nowood River, was likewise started in the 1880s and became the focus of activity surrounding the discovery of a small oil spring. Bonanza was also the location of the first newspaper in the Bighorn Basin. The premier edition of the Big Horn Rustler, edited by Joseph DeBarthe, was published June 1, 1889. Like many other early newspapers, it exaggerated the virtues of the new settlement, telling of unlimited coal deposits and the healing powers of "Bonanza Oil." Also like its contemporaries, DeBarthe’s paper included very specific news items about specific people—who, for example, was cutting logs for a house. A copy of this first edition of the Rustler has survived and is currently housed at the Fremont County Library in Lander, Wyo.

In March 1890, less than a year after the Rustler began publication, the Wyoming Legislature approved creation of Big Horn County out of parts of what then were Sheridan, Johnson and Fremont counties. The new county was not officially organized until Jan. 4, 1897, however, with the election of commissioners and the beginning of county government.

The original Big Horn County covered approximately 8 million acres in the Bighorn Basin—roughly 12,500 square miles, or about an eighth of the entire state. It stretched west from the crest of the Bighorn Mountains to the Continental Divide, and from Owl Creek on the south, just north of the Owl Creek Mountains and Thermopolis, it stretched to the Montana line. The northwest portion included part of Yellowstone Park.

Basin City finally won voters’ approval as the county seat after a heated campaign, reflected in newspaper editorials in the Otto Courier, edited by Lou Blakesley, and the Basin City Herald, edited by Joseph Magill. Both newspapers are long gone, though the Basin Republican-Rustler, descendant of the earlier Rustler, continues to thrive, as do the more recent Lovell Chronicle and Greybull Standard.

As population in the basin grew, more counties were proposed, and eventually the original Big Horn County was divided into Park County on the west, organized in 1911, and Hot Springs and Washakie counties to the south, both organized in 1913. Thus, present-day Big Horn County is approximately 1,990,400 acres, less than a fourth of its original size.

Towns, too, were founded and began to grow. Lovell, in the northern part of the county near the confluence of the Shoshone and Big Horn rivers, began with a post office in 1888 and became a town around 1900. Also in the north, farther west along the Shoshone, were Cowley, incorporated 1907, and Byron, incorporated 1912. Deaver, approximately 15 miles north of Byron, was incorporated in 1919. Greybull, about 32 miles south of Lovell, at the junction of the Greybull and Bighorn rivers, was incorporated in 1909.

Seventeen miles west of Greybull, Emblem, its name changed from Germania in 1918, established its post office in 1899. Shell, on Shell Creek in the foothills of the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains, was platted April 28, 1900. Shell was named for the many shells and fossils in its vicinity. Manderson, on the Bighorn River near the southern border of Big Horn County, was incorporated in 1921.

End of mob rule

Prior to the organization of Big Horn County in 1897, there was little law enforcement. To file on land and conduct other legal business, settlers who lived east of the Bighorn River had to travel 100 miles or more east through the Bighorn Mountains to get to the Johnson County seat at Buffalo. Those who lived west of the river were in Fremont County, and had to travel south even farther, all the way to Lander.

Later, with an established government in Big Horn County, county business could be pursued and crimes prosecuted in Basin City. This became especially important after the notorious Spring Creek Raid of April 2, 1909, south of Ten Sleep in what’s now Washakie County, but then was still part of Big Horn County. Three sheepmen were murdered, two of them burned inside their wagon and the third shot dead. Two more men were kidnapped, and dozens of sheep were also killed.

In Basin City, the ensuing trials and their outcome became a pivot-point in the history of the whole region. Two of the seven perpetrators turned state's evidence, and after a sensational trial in November 1909, the other five were convicted. The event marked the end of Wyoming's 30-year era of lynchings and thwarted prosecutions.

Worland attorney John Davis, who has written three books on those troubles, notes that jury demographics were a crucial factor in the successful convictions. Unlike previous attempted prosecutions in sheep-cattle conflicts, the 12-man jury was comprised of probably four Mormon farmers who almost certainly had no special prejudices either for or against the sheep or cattle interests. Davis notes they would have been likely to sympathize with victims of mob violence, because of their own people’s persecution by mobs across the Midwest, three generations before.

Mormon settlement

By the time of the Spring Creek Raid, Mormons had been in what’s now Big Horn County nearly 15 years. In the spring of 1895, a hundred families moved to the land along the Greybull River to live and to dig a canal, and this settlement became the town of Burlington. By 1897 there were 250 families in Burlington, west and north of Basin City. Structures in the town included a combined meeting house and school, a water-powered gristmill and three sawmills.

Three years later, in February 1900, a party of Mormons traveled from Salt Lake City to investigate water development and farming near the Shoshone River in the northern Bighorn Basin. An existing water project near the growing settlement of Lovell, begun by the Cincinnati Canal Company in 1896, had been relinquished to the State of Wyoming two years later.

Charles Kingston, working on behalf of the Mormon Church, applied for transfer of the Cincinnati Canal water right and lands, and the name was changed to the Sidon Canal.

Big Horn County
quick facts

Land Area

3,137 square miles, 13th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Big Horn County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
National Park Service 15,603 .77
Forest Service 351,168 17.37
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 1,159,878 57.37
Bureau of Reclamation 20.307 1.00
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 75,990 3.76
Recreation Comm. 200 .01
Game & Fish 7,746 .38
Local Government/Other 9,505 .46
Total Public Lands 1,640,398 81.14
Private Lands 381,362 18.86
Surface Water 14,061 .70
Total Area 2,021,760 100

Big Horn County Population

11,668 (2010 U.S. Census)
11,759 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Basin (county seat) 1,285
Burlington 288
Byron 593
Cowley 655
Deaver 178
Frannie (pt.) 138
Greybull 1,847
Lovell 2,360
Manderson 114

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 750
Forestry, Fishing & Related (D)
Mining 589
Construction 488
Utilities 30
Manufacturing 253
Wholesale Trade 174
Retail Trade (D)
Transportation & Warehousing 163
Information 125
Educational (D)
Health Care & Social Assistance (D)
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 64
Accommodations & Food Service 263
Management of Companies (D)
Finance & Insurance 228
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 175
Professional, Scientific & Technical (D)
Administration & Waste Services 287
Other Services except Public Admin. 298
Fed, state, local gov't 1,580
Total 6,597

D=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, but estimates included in totals.
L=less than 10 jobs, but estimates included in totals.

Sources: Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis Equality State Almanac, County Profiles, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/almanac/Page135_183.pdf ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/demog_data/cntycity_hist.htm; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/i&e/Inc_Emp_Report09.pdf; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/
demog_data/pop2010/2010_Census_Summary.pdf
; 2011 county population estimates, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/pop/CO-11est.pdf.

About the Author

Rebecca Hein is the author of more than 80 published articles, mostly about cello playing and its relation to a variety of subjects from marriage to taxes. Her book, A Case of Brilliance, is a memoir about the discovery that her two children are profoundly gifted. She is the former principal cellist of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, and wrote arts columns for the Casper Star-Tribune from 2000-2006. She blogs about writing at musicofwriting.wordpress.com and about the special needs of gifted children at caseofbrilliance.wordpress.com.

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