Crooked Creek Country

The Homestead Era

Crooked Creek Country

David Harvey, 1974

“The Land God Forgot” – Bessie Tillett of Crooked Creek, Montana

The Strong and Tillett families have influenced much of the history of the Pryor Mountains. Bessie Strong Tillett (born November, 1889) and Edna Strong Anderson (July, 1885) came with their parents to the Lovell area in 1894. Their parents opened the successful Strong Hotel and Saloon in Lovell. Frank was also involved in the building of the first irrigation canals in the Lovell area. “In 1903, the Strongs bought the Hugh Kelsey ranch and two others on Crooked Creek.” (4)» A few years later, the whole Strong family moved to Crooked Creek to live.

Frank Strong also had contracts with the government to carry the mail to the Dryhead, Crooked Creek and Kane area. Edna carried the mail by horseback for a number of years. Bessie also carried the mail on and off between 1905-1910.

Around 1902, Frank Strong and others were involved in a shooting spree near Medicine Creek (previously known as Davis Creek) in the Dryhead country. It all got started when Frank Strong decided to have the Ewing boys run some of his cattle in the Dryhead. Link Hannen and Marry Mogan, Dryhead ranchers, did not take much to what they considered encroachment of “their” range. So Hannen and Mogan rimrocked 28 of Strong’s cattle in the Big Horn River! Hearing of this, Frank Strong, Lee Ewing and Ed Morse headed toward Hannen’s ranch near Medicine Creek to even the score. A shootout occurred and Ed Morse was slightly wounded. Frank Strong, thinking Morse was dead, and Ewing nowhere to be seen, “got the terrible feeling that he was facing Hannen and his henchmen alone, so he ran for the nearest horse and vacated the area as fast as possible. As the story goes, Hugh Kelsey is supposed to have seen Frank riding toward town and started after him to give him a letter mail. Frank, thinking that he was being pursued by Hannen, nearly killed his horse getting away.” (5)» After the shootout, Hannen became paranoid over the fact that maybe Strong and his men would return. So Hannen stayed indoors for a good while. When he had to venture from his cabin to get water, he would disguise himself in his wife’s clothes in order not to get shot at.

Bessie Tillett said no one was arrested for rimrocking her father’s cattle. She remembers Hannen being arrested many times in his life, but he was never convicted.

Around the same, time, Edna strong married her first of three husbands, Jim Kelsey. Not too long after, Hugh Kelsey, who had come back to Crooked Creek around the time of the Strong –Hannen incident, asked his brother to hide him from the law. Hugh had been arrested in Livingston, Montana, for cattle rustling, but had jumped bail. Hugh, as mentioned in the Sage Creek chapter, had been involved earlier in cattle rustling around Crooked Creek. Years later, it was reported that cowhides were found in the roof of Hugh Kelsey’s barn! Anyway, Jim hid Hugh down at Frank Sykes’ place, then Edna took Hugh on her horse to Kane to catch the train to escape from the law. As the story goes, Edna complained bitterly about Hugh, because his suitcase wore the hide off her horse! Later, Hugh Kelsey made his way to Canada, “and established a ranch on the Peace River”. (6)»

“After the turn of the century, most men in the northern Wyoming area did not wear guns, unless they were riding the open range or expecting trouble. Frank Sykes, however, wore his pistol all the time, up until the day he died.” (8)» Before Frank Sykes came to Crooked Creek, he lived among the Shoshone Indians in central Wyoming. He was a mountain man and a trapper. In the early 1890s, Sykes and his wife Ann Forsche, “squatted” on Lower Crooked Creek near Sykes Spring, just south of the “ceded strip.“ Sykes’ cabin is near the road that leads into the Dryhead. “He built the cabin on high ground, so as to command all approaches.” (9)» Sykes was suspicious of everyone, one reason he wore his pistol all the time. If one crossed Sykes, that person most likely would end up on Sykes” “Death List”. Sykes had no intention of going out and hunting down his “enemies”. But if his “enemies” were wise, he or she would not go near his place. “Mrs. Warren LaRoche, wife of a French-Canadian who had settle on Lower Crook Creek in 1895, had befriended Mrs. Sykes (whom Frank was not on good terms with), possibly siding with her on a dispute with Frank. She earned a place on the ”Death List!” (10)»

Jim Kelsey almost earned a place on Sykes; “Death List”. Jim was a good friend of Sykes, but he too had to be careful not to cross Frank. One time Jim stopped in to visit, leaving his horse outside eating hay. Sykes was preparing a dinner of potatoes cooked in bear grease. Sykes offered Jim some, which he politely took. When offered more, Jim declined. Sykes became incensed and put his hand on his gun and forcefully told Jim, “Go ahead and finish up these spuds, because you are going to eat potatoes just like that horse of yours is eating my hay.” (11)» Jim gained an aversion towards potatoes whicih he never got over.

George “Starky” Teeples did gain a place on the “Death List”. One time Teeples asked Sykes if he could have some of his young plum trees, planted near Sykes’ cabin. Sykes said okay but warned Teeples not to take any of his wife’s trees. But Mrs. Sykes’ trees looked better to “Starky” so he took them instead. When Sykes found out, he went straight to Teeples’ place, drew his gun and forced Starky to cut them up into little pieces. He told Starky to “never come near his place again.” (12)»

As Rulon Crosy said in his study on Crooked Creek settlers, “They were hospitable to those who deserved hospitality and were willing to fight to preserve that which they had worked hard for.” (13)» The pioneering, shooting and rustling that took place on Crooked Creek was typical of frontier cattle-raising areas in America.

Hiram Bischoff of Lovell knew Frank Sykes. Sykes used to come into Lovell with his wagon to get supplies. Several times Sykes would stay overnight in Dad Bischoff’s blacksmith shop. Hiram also used to get plums from Sykes’ place! A Lon Cribbs, former stage driver, claimed Sykes was a “nice man, he wasn’t like a westerner or theses guys that were so rough. He was very quiet….” Frank Sykes died quietly in his cabin, during the early twenties.

The above is excerpted with permission from: Harvey, David. A General Historical Survey of the Pryor Mountains. Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Boulder, Colorado. 1974.

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4. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p. 3.
5. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p. 4.
6. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p. 5.
8. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p. 5.
9. Edwin Bearss, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Vol. II (U. S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, 1970) p. 391.
10. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p. 6.
11. Bill Scott, Pioneers of the Big Horn (Denver: Big Mountain Press, 1966), p. 75.
12. Bill Scott, Pioneers of the Big Horn (Denver: Big Mountain Press, 1966), p. 76.
13. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p. 9.