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Open Range Era

In the early 1880’s the open range cattle era arrived in the remote Big Horn Basin of Wyoming Territory. Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who had annihilated most of the US 7th Cavalry commanded by Custer in 1876 were pushed onto desolate western reservations. Tales from hunters and fur trappers came out of this isolated country west of the Big Horn Mountains. “The landscape was carpeted with grass that swayed and moved. Mountain streams pouring out of the canyons, dancing and sparkling, were alive with mountain trout. There was a vast variety of game birds, and the hills and valleys were alive with game animals.” 1  Big changes were on the way.

“During the late summer of 1879, three herds of cattle entered the basin. Poised in Cottonwood Pass that fall was the Two-Bar from the Chugwater country, which was ready to move down into the basin with the first signs of spring.”1   The Two Bar claimed Crooked Creek for one of several cow camps soon after their arrival. On an October morning in 1883 there was a commotion at the camp on Crooked Creek. Martha Bull was called to the door of the cabin. “‘Don’t you see anything?’ said my husband, and then I saw the hillside move. It was literally covered with elk. The men said they would number about two thousand in the herd. A short time after (that) a band of Shoshoni Indians came and camped near us. Chief Washakie and his son were with them for awhile.”2

Cattle poured into the Big Horn Basin. “Reports, emanating from the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, estimated the cattle population of the Big Horn Basin to be 300,000 head by 1886.”1   The winter of 1887 brought the collapse of the open range era on the northern plains. Range livestock and wildlife perished in the thousands during that brutal winter. Many of the large cattle companies folded their cards and left the table. Some of the open range cowboys who had worked for the big outfits had few options. So they stuck it out. That is what happened here along Crooked Creek.


Double H Ranch

Those open range cowboys were rough characters. Old “Double H” was rawhide tough and a good hand with horses and cattle. “In 1891, Frank D. Helmer filed a preemption, and by acquiring State (lands) and making certain purchases, was able to control the range, through to the top of the mountain. The ranch then went by the name of ‘Double H’. He built the large ranch house and many festivals and dances took place in the spacious dining room and living room adjoining. Mr. Helmer, more commonly known as ‘Double H’ raised two families of children. The boys grew up to be skilled cowpunchers and lively were the times out in their corral.”3   His three decades on this ranch were marked by range wars and the challenges of a rough and tumble cattle outfit in remote country. We suspect that he had a Winchester and that he knew how to use it.
The Atkinson Livestock Company was on this place for over sixty years until we came along in 1991. Good people with sheep and cattle. We marvel at the strength of character and resourceful determination needed to survive blizzards, drought, terrible markets and the depression years. They have passed along a special ranch for us to watch over for a while. We doubt if any family ever owns one of these places. We may be in awe of canyons and grasslands that really own us. We are okay with that notion.

1. P.Frison, Grass Was Gold, Worland Press, 1970.
2. P.Frison, First White Woman in the Big Horn Basin, Worland Press, 1969.
3. E.G.Ainsworth, To the Wilds of Wyoming, Self Published, 1983.

Old  "Double H"  Himself (circa 1891)