Upper Sage Creek

The Homestead Era

Early Settlements – Upper Sage Creek and the Northern Pryors

David Harvey, 1974

Circumvention of the law in the form of cattle and horse rustling, conflicts between sheep and cattlemen, harassment of the Indians, existed during the early settlement days along Upper Sage Creek.

During the Late 1880’s, a notorious horse thief and outlaw, “Teton” Jackson, hid out in a cave above Sage Creek, known today as the “Teton Jack” Cave. “Teton” was reported to have stolen hundreds of horses and killed an unknown number of men, including several Deputy U. S. Marshalls in Idaho and Utah. Frank Canton, a U. S. Marshall in Buffalo, Wyoming, who once arrested “Teton,” called him “a most dangerous and vicious character.” Bert Schwend, of Upper Sage Creek, thought that “Teton” once holed up in the cave for a month. “In May, 1988, Teton was arrested nearby while driving a band of fifty horses across the Crow Reservation.” (1)»

Grazing of cattle on the Pryors became quite extensive after the “ceded strip” was opened to settlement in 1892. Soon thereafter, “persons from considerable distance began to drive their stock into the area. They not only crowded the local residents, but in some cases took their grazing lands away from them.” (2)» Incensed natives got together to form vigilante groups to keep out these intruders. The vigilantes were successful in their pursuit, but left themselves criminally liable for some acts that took place. All this changed in 1907 when the U. S. Forest Service came into the Pryors. They gave local residents protection, reducing the temptation for some to take the law into their own hands.

Just inside the national forest boundary, north of the road, are the remains of a rock dam on Sage Creek. The purpose of the dam was to irrigate certain farms in the Bowler Flats, west of the Pryors. But the dam was never put to that use. Stories conflict on the reasons for its nonfunctioning. One source told me the builders, Datliff Thormahlen and Jim Polly, simply ran out of money. Another source claims the builders could not get enough dirt to line it. Bert Schwend thought the Bents of Bowler Flats, claiming entire water rights on Sage Creek, Blew the bottom of the dam out! Although no proof exists that can substantiate this accusation, fights over water rights were pretty common on Bowler Flats. During the twenties and thirties, water was a scarce commodity on the flats. But Frank Clift of Columbus, a former mail clerk on the Toluca-Cody railroad line that ran through the Pryors, said the Bents did not blow up the dam. “The water just sank below the dam!”

Along the same Sage Creek Road occurred an ambush of Crow Indians by a couple of local cattlemen. Occurring around 1917 or 1918, the ambush happened at the “Battleground,” the bend in the road where Sage Creek and the canyon wall come close to each other. The old Fenner ranch, now owned by Claude Lewis, is right around the bend from where the ambush took place. Stories vary on the circumstances that led to the ambush. Some feel the Crows were asking for it!

Cattle would wander onto the reservation, and the white man would have to pay $1.00 to $1.25 a head to get them back. Some claim that the Crows deliberately drove the cattle onto the reservation. Others claim that some ranchers deliberately ran their cattle on Indian land to gain extra grazing territory. Any how, Toots Brown and Mike Wrote, incensed over the “cattle levy” charged by the Crows, waited one day atop the hill above the “Battleground” bend to “square” things with the Indians. After the shooting was over, three Indians laid dead and one wounded. Whites in the Pryors that night must have been a little jittery, wondering whether the Crows would retaliate. Jim Kelsey of Crooked Creek, Pat Marchant’s great-uncle, told his wife Edna (later married to Frank Anderson) what happened on Sage Creek. Then, to scare her, he told her the “Indians were on the warpath.” Edna did not wait around. She grabbed a blanket and went out and slept for the night on a nearby ridge, afraid of the supposedly revengeful Crows. Meanwhile, husband Jim stayed inside nice and warm, laughing quietly to himself.

Anyway, the Crows did not retaliate. Toots Brown and Mike Wrote wubsequently were arrested and convicted. Both went to Fort Leavenworth, but Toots only served around five years because of his age, being only 17 at the time of the ambush. Mike was released years later because of illness.

Art Graham of Bridger told me that his father was nearby when the ambush took place. He had warned Mike Wrote that he would be arrested if he did any shooting. Toots was a good friend of Art Graham. Art told me that other people were involved in the shooting, taking shots at the Indians from the creek bed. They were never caught. Art did not know their names, but he would not have told me, even if he knew!

Along the road to Big Ice Cave, there sits the remnants of a cabin, not too far from the road’s intersection with the Crooked Creek and Sage Creek Roads. Hugh Kelsey, older brother of Jim Kelsey, built that cabin in the early 1900’s. “Hugh, like many cowboys of his time, augmented his income by doing a little rustling.” (3)» Pretty soon he was able to set up his own ranch down on Lower Crooked Creek. His cattle rustling eventually put him at odds with the law. This necessitated a quick exit to Canada, sometime before 1910. No one knows why Hugh built that cabin up along the road there. But according to the Marchants, Hugh must have had some interesting guests stopping by at the cabin. One guest carved his name on the cabin. It was “Kid Curry,” who belonged to the Butch Cassidy gang! The name is no longer there, carved out by some souvenir hunter.

Up above the Kelsey cabin in the timber, there are the remains of an old cabin built for “Ma” Strong in the early 1900’s. No reason could be found on why it was rebuilt.

Hugh Kelsey was not the only one accused of cattle rustling, A famous rustling trial took place during the early days in Red Lodge. B. M. (Bud) Phelps and a William Sherrin were charged for attempting to rustle around 55 head of cattle belonging to C. A. Dana of Dryhead. Dana’s cattle usually grazed around the northern boundary of the forest preserve. But one day they were spotted 20-30 miles from their accustomed range, heading down Crooked Creek near Demijohn Flat. Phelps, along with Mrs. Phelps and Sherrin, were seen in the vicinity on horseback. They said they had been in charge of a party of three dudes from Bud’s parents’ (Mr. and Mrs. Charles Phelps) Lone Wolf Ranch in Dryhead. They protested to the posse, made up of the ranchers from Sage Creek, that they knew nothing of the cattle herd nearby. Ultimately, Phelps and Sherrin were found not guilty.

Sage Creek was first known to the Indians as “Yellow Willow.” Art Graham of Bridger claims his father (A.P. Graham) was one of the first settlers along Upper Sage Creek, arriving there around 1895. In 1896-97, A. P. Graham hauled mine timbers from the Pryors to Bridger where they were used to shore up mines. He also had the first mining claim on West Pryor. Art says the family still has around 2,000 acres of claims in the Pryors. But people with small claims, like themselves, cannot afford to mine them. He said, “Anaconda is just waiting for people who have claims to die off!”

During the early days, there were a lot of sawmills and lumbering operations in the Pryors. The Schwends of Upper Sage Creek built a sawmill not too far from the present-day Schwend Ranch.

Bert Schwend also had a sawmill at Tibbs Hollow on Crooked Creek. The hollow acquired its name from a cattleman from Cowley named Tibbs. He used to run sheep up there in the early 1900’s. Another sawmill was built by Stevens. He bought the Spencer homestead (Spencer has homesteaded it in 1909) on Sage Creek in 1918. A sawmill existed there for many years. Heman Smith later bought the place and leased out the sawmill, but it was used very little. Bill and Nancy Poole live there now. The sawmill is no longer in operation. Homer Wilhelm of Pryor said the Stevens’ sawmill was also a cabinet factory. Homer should know, he used to haul lumber from the Harvey Ray (who once owned the present-day Schwend ranch) sawmill. It was located less than one-half of a mile up from Hugh Kelsey’s cabin on the road to the Big Ice Cave. Bert Schwend said it was built sometime during the mid-twenties. Today, little remains of the old sawmill.

Dick Godfrey of Cowley said his father used to work at the Schow brothers sawmill. It was located near Wyoming Creek and Crooked Creek. Later on, the area where the sawmill once stood was used as a campground. Today, there is no evidence left of either. Dick Godfrey, only eleven years old at the time, used to haul lumber down to Cowley with his older brother. The lumber was used to build the old schoolhouse there.

A number of logging operations took place back then on what is called “Tie Flats,” located on the ridge west of where the Crooked Creek Road begins. The men who worked there were called “Tiehackers,” because they built the ties for the railroad. Bert Schwend thought there were 200 or more “Tiehackers” up there at one time. Their main source of entertainment, according to Bert, was a bar and “flop house,” owned by Baxter Zachery. Dick Godfrey thought the only settlement on “Tie Flats” consisted of tents. His older brother used to haul lumber from there around 1912-1913. Heman Smith felt that the only building on “Tie Flats” was a cook shack. “There wasn’t a saloon; everything was just out of your own bottle.”

Other early Sage Creek residents included the Shrivers and Cummings, both whose ranches were close together on Upper Sage Creek. Today, the Schwends own both of these ranches. The Cummings had the first Post Office in that area. “It was established in January of 1910, but closed up operations a short time afterwards, in April, 1911. Blanche Cummings was postmaster. In July of 1915, a Post Office was established at the Shriver Ranch, with Nettie T. Shriver as Postmaster.” (4)» It must have remained in existence until at least the thirties, because Homer Wilhelm’s brother, Garth, hauled mail from Shriver in the early 1930’s.

Just outside the Forest Service boundary sits Indian Springs cabin. It is on the south side of Sage Creek and the road. It was reportedly built by Crow Indians working for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) during the early 1930’s. It was used as an Indian Police Station for awhile. The spring is the “last chance” for clear, cold, spring water, if one is heading west towards the arid Bowler Flats.

If one turns north at Indian Springs, one would be heading towards the one-time “Cheese Factory,” reportedly in operation between 1916-1918. It was opposite the remains of Snyder’s Commissary, on the Crow Reservation. The owners used to make cheese from sheep and goat’s milk. It was never too successful. One source claims that the “winters were too tough for them.” Dick Godfrey once worked nearby as a sheep foreman for C. A. Lewis. He feels that the proprietors were not too careful in making sure the fecal remains of the sheep did not end up in the cheese!

As it was in the early days, livestock raising is the main occupation today on Sage Creek.

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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1. H. M. Shoebotham, “Sage Creek Cave – Outlaws Hide Out,” Billings Gazette, Sunday Magazine, September 4, 1966, p. 1.
2. “Fact Sheet on the Pryor Mountains” (Custer National Forest Headquarters, Billings, Montana, Historical Files), p.1.
3. Crosby, Rulon, “History and Folklore of the Settlers of Crooked Creek,” Unpublished interview with Edna Strong Anderson, p.1.
4. Lucius R. Maryott, “The Land of Shining Mountains – A Short History of Carbon County,” Carbon County News, February 26, 1970, p. 4.