By Christina Schmidt
The Sheridan Press
BIG HORN — In 1880, William Jackson arrived in the Big Horn area from Iowa with his family. Jackson settled his family in a tent on the Goelet Gallatin Ranch until an unexpected vacancy in a cabin came open nearby.
According to Ann Helvey, in the book “Big Horn Pioneers,” “…a friend told them of a cabin which was being left vacant by the James brothers. This cabin was located on the bank of what is now Jackson Creek…”
The James brothers that Helvey is referring to are the outlaws Frank and Jesse James.
An Internet search about the James brothers will not show information about them spending time in the Big Horn area of Wyoming. Rather, clues about the James brothers and accompanying gang members hiding out in northern Wyoming come from more personal sources — diaries and family histories of local Big Horn residents.
“We have family accounts of the people who lived in Big Horn at the time who knew the James gang,” said Michael Dykhorst, who works in The Wyoming Room at Sheridan Fulmer Library where some of the accounts are to be found. “I don’t know if Jesse was ever here, but I am pretty sure Frank was here.”
For many years, stories have circulated around the James brothers and their possible locations and hideouts.
In addition to the cabin noted in the Jackson story, there were at least two crude dugouts located near the current ‘S’ curve into Big Horn that were supposedly occupied at various times by Frank James or members of his gang.
One of the most detailed of these stories comes from George Beck.
Camp on Goose Creek
In the 1924 quarterly bulletin of the Wyoming State Historical Department, Beck writes, “The James Bros. lived on Goose Creek where the town of Big Horn now is…There were nine of them and a negro (John Lewis). They had disappeared from Missouri for two years; they were on Goose Creek, eleven miles south of me.”
Beck goes on to describe how he first became aware of who the James brothers were. He was acquaintances with a fellow Kentuckian, Elisha Terrill and stopped at Terrill’s home one evening after a successful deer hunt. A group of eight men arrived and shared the supper of fresh deer meat with Beck and Terrill.
Beck noted the odd behavior of the guests that night, who slept with their clothes on and their guns at the ready. The next day, the men departed.
“After they had gone, Elisha told me who they were and warned me not to know them except by their first names, Jack and John, or whatever they happened to call each other,” Beck wrote.
Terrill had evidently become acquainted with at least one of the James brothers when they all served under the notorious William Quantrill during the Civil War and Terrill was dedicated to protecting the James brothers from the law.
Of course, the appeal of coming to a place like Big Horn in the late 1870s was avoidance of the law.
“The closest sheriff’s office would have been Rawlins,” said Judy Slack, director of The Wyoming Room. “The military forces that were here were just trying to control the Indians and not any outlaws. So this would have been a great place to be centralized around the railroad. They were robbing the railroads in the south but coming north to get away from the law. There were no newspapers, no reporters and the telegraph was really only used for military reasons. If anybody knew who they were, they weren’t going to report them.”
Missing deer, finding thieves
Another lengthy report comes from O.P. Hanna. Hanna had a cabin one mile south of Big Horn near Little Goose Creek. After a series of train robberies in the Black Hills and elsewhere, Union Pacific Railroad hired Hanna to conduct “secret service” work in the fall of 1878 to look for the suspected robbers.
“I went to Fort McKinney and (Frank) Grouard told me there were seven bandits,” wrote Hanna in his memoir, “An Old Timer’s Story of the Old Wild West.” “Frank James, Big Nose George and Jim Cummings were the leaders…He gave me a picture of Frank James and one of Big Nose George and a pretty good description of some of the others.”
With photos in hand, Hanna was able to recognize George and James a few days later at a cabin occupied by John Lewis. Hanna even claims to have sheltered George overnight during a storm, though he made no attempt to arrest him.
A short time later, Gus Trabing’s store at the crossing of the Crazy Woman Creek and the Bozeman Trail was robbed.
A clerk at the store, Mrs. Stimpson, was caring for a local cowboy named Long Shorty who had a broken leg. While they were in the store, several men entered, stating they would not hurt her but that they were robbing the place. When they left, Long Shorty told Mrs. Stimpson, “that is the Frank James gang who operate from here north and they have a hideout to the west in the Bighorn Mountains somewhere.”
A couple days later, while tracking a deer he had wounded while hunting, Hanna stumbled into a camp of seven men. He tried to back out, but had already been seen, so struck up a conversation, asking if they had seen the deer.
“They were sorting over the goods stolen from the Trabing store,” he writes. “When they saw me, they jerked a blanket over them. Had they gone through my pockets they would have found the pictures of Frank James and Big Nose George, also a letter from Detective Leach giving me instructions as to what to do when I found their camp.”
Hanna was able to convince the men he was simply a hunter. He rode to Fort McKinney that night to report what he had seen and a posse of deputies was dispatched. However, they arrived too late, after the camp had been deserted.
Twenty-five years later, Hanna visited Frank James at his mother’s home in Missouri. He had retired from the outlaw life many years earlier.
“I talked with Frank James and told him about accidentally running into his camp,” Hanna said. “He remembered me and we talked about that event and the beautiful country.”
James inquired after the Foster family who were Sheridan County residents.
“T.J. (Foster) knew who James was all the time but wouldn’t give him away, as they both had fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War,” Hanna said.
Though Beck and Hanna’s accounts are perhaps the most detailed about Frank James in Big Horn, Slack said that other accounts are notable not for their long, embellished accounts, but for their short, matter-of-fact style.
The various accounts differ in the number of suspected gang members encountered, usually seven to 10, but Sheridan resident Nancy Mickelson, who has researched the topic, said it was not unusual for outlaw gangs to constantly change members.
“They would have conflicts or disagreements with each other and so some would leave and others would join,” she said.
Lending some credence to the possibility of at least some of the James gang being in Big Horn is the fact that Big Nose George was eventually captured in Montana in 1880.
He was executed in 1881 after a botched hanging. His remains then embarked on a strange journey, with part of his skin being made into boots by John Eugene Osborne, the doctor who examined him after his death. Osborne wore the boots to his inaugural ball when he became governor in 1892. Osborne also gave part of George’s skull to medical assistant Lillian Heath, who used the skull as a doorstop for many years.
The evidence for proving Frank James and others being in Big Horn during the late 1870s is not ironclad and perhaps never will be. However, according to Slack, the circumstantial evidence and the written accounts of early settlers in the area are convincing.
“A lot of people don’t believe O.P. Hanna,” Slack said. “But if we didn’t have oral histories and family stories written down or diaries, where would our history really be? It is how our early pioneers recorded history. These are first-hand sources. Not everything had to be printed in a newspaper back then because there weren’t any. I just can’t believe that many people could have come up with that many stories, observations and experiences and made it all up. The truth can be stranger than fiction.”