Wyoming Sheep


From Wyoming Tales and Trails

Continued from previous page, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Insanity among sheepherders, sheepwagons.

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Sheep camp, Big Horn Mountains, 1917

Life in the sheep camp would be lonely. Usually there would be one sheepherder in a camp. He, with his only companion a dog, would tend to the sheep alone for months at a time. The camp would be established in the center of the pasturage. When the sheep had exhausted the grass in the area, the flock and camp would be moved to another area and the process repeated through the season. The loneliness of the sheepherder was noted by the Episcopal Missionary Bishop of Wyoming, Ethelbert Talbot, in his 1906 My People of the Plains:

The life of a sheep-herder is a peculiarly lonely one. Often months pass without giving him the opportunity of seeing a human being. His faithful dog is his only companion. He generally has a team and a covered wagon in which he sleeps at night during the winter, and wherein he stores the necessary provisions for his daily food. It is his duty to seek the best available pasturage, and, when the grass in one neighborhood has been exhausted, to drive the flock to a new and fresh supply. It is not to be wondered at that such a life often ends in insanity. It is said that the asylums are repleted year by year by a large contingent of these unfortunates. Indeed, their lot is a most pathetic one, and they sometimes even lose the power of speech and forget their own names.

Sheep camp, Box Elder Creek, 1910. Photo by H. R. Daniel.

The Right Reverend Talbot was not the only one who suggested that sheepherding led to insanity. while many of the images of cowboys and cattle trailing depict a romantic or adventurous life, but To be blunt, sheep herding aint romantic. It is, and remains to this day, lonely. It entails being on duty tending to the sheep, guarding against preditors, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Sundays and holidays included. See In re Workders Compensation Claim of Raul Bejarnano Gomez, Deceased, 2010 WY 67, 231 P.3d 902 (1910). [Writer's note: Gomez was shot by a fellow sheepherder with a rifle used to kill preditors. After the two had shared a thirty-pack of beer. The two got into a fight. Even though the two were where they were supposed to be, the Court held that the claim had to be denied because the drinking fest and the subsequent fight was a "recreational or social event"]

Indeed at the time of Bishop Talbot's comment, many believed that sheep herding lead to insanity. John Beiter and Mark Beiter in their 2000 "An Enduring Legacy: The Story of Basques in Idaho," University of Nevada Press, Reno, p. 36. note that insanity was regarded as an occupational hazard, referred to as "being Sheeped" or "Sage Brushed."

The 1897-1897 Biennial Report of the California State Commission on Lunacy reported that two inmates of Stockton State Hospital were driven insane by sheepherding. In contrast, the Report listed only one whose mental problems were caused by "drinking California wine." In the early years of the Twentieth Century the debate raged in the leading magazines as to the cause of the alleged insanity amongst sheepherders. Several writers of the day contended that it was the constant bleating of the sheep. When E. P. Swan, Secretary of the Wyoming State Board of Sheep Commissioners in attempted to refute such allegation by pointing out that writers statisically are twice as likely to go insane, the writer of the original article in Pacific Magazine, 1905, rejoined:

"Sheep herding is a lazy job at best, and the [pajoritive] is the laziest creature on earth. For twenty dollars a month he is willing to sit in the sand and listen to the never-ending bleating until the little mind he has gives way, and they fetch him in from the range insane. He is glad to take the chance for twenty dollars a month. And the [pajorative] is not the only shepherd in the west. On the vast ranges of Nevada and Wyoming you may run across an occasional college man tending the sheep. Once, indeed, a college professor, ill of consumption, undertook to follow five thousand bleaters for the summer. In autumn they found him insane, on his hands and knees among the sheep, bleating with them. Day after day his eyes behold only a brilliant turquoise sky, in which hangs a sun of brass; an ocean sweep of sage-flecked sand, and a slowly moving, compact mass of sheep. His ears hear no sound save the steady, baa, baa, day and night, affecting him as the Chinese criminal of ancient days was affected by the regular tap, tap, of a hidden drum."

Sheep Herder, Red Desert, 1907.

Of course, there is always a different viewpoint. Arthur Chapman, a columnist for a Denver newspaper and later famed for his poem "Out Where the West Begins," printed at the bottom of the page, painted an almost idealic picture in "In the Land of the Sheep Barons," North American Review of Reviews, Vol 33, p. 212, 1908:
Naturally the central figure in the sheep business is the herder. He is the man upon whom the owner depends for the safety of an average flock of from 2000 to 2500 sheep, which may be worth from $10,000 to $30,000. It has been the custom to look upon the sheep herder as a man who takes up this employment because he is "locoed" or because he cannot do anything else. Nothing could be further from the truth. No sheep-owner could put so much responsibility on the shoulders of an incompetent or irresponsible man. The herders are selected from the best material the labor market has to offer, and are paid from $50 to $75 a month and board. The herder is furnished with everything he needs, and there is no limit to the quantity or quality of his fare. He is given carte blanche to order what the market affords, and the "camp tender," who comes with supplies once or twice a week, sees that the order is promptly filled. The sheep wagon, in which the herder lives in winter, is a veritable house on wheels. It is a canvas-covered wagon, containing cookstove, bunk, cupboard, and, in short, everything that can make life bearable for the herder. In one of these wagons a man can remain comfortable while a "norther" rages without. In summer, while in the mountains, he lives in a tent, but this is all a man requires among such ideal natural surroundings.

Sheep Wagon, Lincoln County..

The skitting around the bottom of the sheep wagon is to keep out the raging northern cold. And the Carte Blanche? In 1920, the Lincoln County Growers Association adopted a list of provisions to be provided sheep camps:

The following list of supplies for sheep camps, which includes no canned goods, was adopted: Apples, evaporated or dried; apricots, axle grease, axe, ammunition for rifle, bacon, also salt side; baking powder, beans, butter, (three pounds per man per month), beef, only through special arrangement with foreman; cheese, coffee, corn meal, coal oil, extracts (limited—vanilla and lemon); fruits, dried or evaporated; flour, honey, horse shoe nails, horse shoes, jam, ketchup, lard, milk, macaroni, mustard, mutton, matches, nails, nutmeg, oatmeal, onions, potatoes, prunes, pickles, pepper, raisins, (three packages per camp a month); rice, sugar, syrup, soap, salt, soda, tea, wagon and harness repairs.

In some areas such as Burntfork there might be two herders to a camp. Elinore Pruitt Stewart (1876-1933) in 1909 took employment with Burntfork as a housekeeper for a Wyoming ranchman Henry Clyde Stewart(1868-1948). She began a series of letters to a former employer, Juliet Coney of Denver. Not withstanding that Clyde Stewart, to whom she later married, was a cattleman, Elinore was sympathetic to the loneliness of the sheepherder's life. She observed in a letter reprinted in her 1914 Letters of a Woman Homesteader:

If you only knew the hardships these poor men endure. They go two together and sometimes it is months before they see another soul, and rarely ever a woman.

Thus, without telling Mr. Stewart [Writer's note, in Burntfork there was a mutual hatred between cattlemen and sheepmen], for Christmas, Elinore and a neighbor prepared care packages for the sheepherders. On Christmas Day the two women made the rounds of the sheep camps in a four-horse sleigh delivering the goodies:

There were twelve camps and that means twenty-four men. We roasted six geese, boiled three small hams and three hens. We had besides several meat-loaves and links of sausage. We had twelve large loaves of the best rye bread; a small tub of doughnuts; twelve coffee-cakes, more to be called fruitcakes, and also a quantity of little cakes with seeds, nuts, and fruit in them,--so pretty to look at and so good to taste. These had a thick coat of icing, some brown, some pink, some white. I had thirteen pounds of butter and six pint jars of jelly, so we melted the jelly and poured it into twelve glasses.

* * * *

Then we clambered in and away we went. Mrs. Louderer drove, and Tam O'Shanter and Paul Revere were snails compared to us. We didn't follow any road either, but went sweeping along across country. No one else in the world could have done it unless they were drunk. We went careening along hill- sides without even slacking the trot. Occasionally we struck a particularly stubborn bunch of sagebrush and even the sled-runners would jump up into the air. We didn't stop to light, but hit the earth several feet in advance of where we left it. Luck was with us, though. I hardly expected to get through with my head unbroken, but not even a glass was cracked.

It would have done your heart good to see the sheep-men. They were all delighted, and when you consider that they live solely on canned corn and tomatoes, beans, salt pork, and coffee, you can fancy what they thought of their treat. They have mutton when it is fit to eat, but that is certainly not in winter. One man at each camp does the cooking and the other herds. It doesn't make any difference if the cook never cooked before, and most of them never did.

And even today, the sheepherders spend Christmas out in the basin, alone, miles from anywhere working their three year contracts. As Rick Hampton in "Today's Shepherds are along on the Range at Christmas," USA Today December 23, 2010, observed, they are on Christmas day "alone except for a few dogs and 2,200 sheep," sleeping cramped in their sheepwagons lit by "kerosene lantern or candle, without electricity, running water or toilets."

Sheep wagon, 1936

As indicated in the above photo, on the outside of the sheep wagon there were boxes to hold food, supplies, and equipment. The canvas top was stretched over hickory bows. The canvas would often be in three layers and was insulated by woolen blanketing.

Interior Sheep Wagon, Photo by Geoff Dobson

In the interior of the sheep wagon there is a bunk across the end. The bunk would originally been fitted with a matress. The bunk is about four feet above the floor. Above the bunk a small window, in conjunction with the window and dutch door at the tongue end of the wagon, provides cross ventilation. In the center beneath the bunk is a slide-out table under which are cabinets. On one side of the table under the bunk would be drawers. On the right side next to the door reposes a stove which burns coal, wood, or cow chips. Between the stove and the bunk is a bench. On the left side is another bench with more cabinets below. The wash basin would not, as in the above photo, be kept on the pull out table because the table needs to be retracted in order to climb into the bunk, boosting oneself up on one of the benches. The floor might be covered with linoleum, although the writer has seen some sheep wagons that have been modernized with carpeting. [Nothing like alighting with bare feet on cold linoleum in the wnter.] In some instances, the sheepherder might decorate the interior with pictures cut out of magazines. Other than the built in benches on either side of the pull-out table, there is no furniture. Sheep wagons were not limited to sheepherders, but were also used in cowcamps and at the end of wagon trains as shelter for freighters much in the same manner as modern semi-tractors have sleeper cabs.

Sheep wagons were supposedly invented by Rawlins blacksmith James Candlish in 1884. Around 1900, Schulte Hardware Company of Casper standardized the wagon as 11 feet long and 6 1/2 feet wide, canvas top and stove. By 1904, sheep wagons were being manufactured in the Big Horn Basin by D. V. Bayne of Thermopolis.

Interior of Schwoob Wagon Works, Cody. approx. 1911. Photos by A. G. Lucier.

Sheep wagons were also built by Jacob M. Schwoob of Cody. The wagons later could be purchased from, among others the Studebaker Brothers of Southbend, Indiana. Some are still in use in the Big Horn Basin. Cope described the sheep wagon as "a unique house on wheels, in which, by means of lockers, closets, fold-up and take-down appliances, one may live with all the comforts of a commodious city apartment, be absolutely free from its distractions, and quite at liberty to move from place to place, without the formality of a lease."

The sheep industry started in southern Wyoming in the 1870's along the UPRR. The coming of the railroad also led to large sheep drives from Oregon to Wyoming along the old Oregon Trail. On some drives in the 1880's as many as 20,000 sheep would be trailed to Rawlins. Even after the construction of the Oregon Short Line, discussed with regard to Kemmerer, sheep would be trailed from Oregon rather than be entrained. Even within the state trailing sheep remained the general means of transport. In 1928, as an example, a herd of 1500 sheep purchased from the Yellowstone Sheep Company was trailed from Hudson to Douglas even though the railroad was available. The reason was simple, as previously depicted in photos, one sheepherder with a dog and a sheepwagon, could herd as many as two thousand sheep. By 1910 there were over 5 1/2 million sheep in the state. And regardless of the old animosities and sheep deadlines gradually the large ranches turned to sheep.

Sheepherder and his dog, 1906

In Burntfork, Mrs. Stewart wrote of the daughter of settlers whose sympathies lay with the cattlemen:

The Edmonsons had only one child, a daughter, who was to have married a man whom her parents objected to solely because he was a sheep-man, while their sympathies were with the cattle-men, although they owned only a small bunch. To gain their consent the young man closed out his interest in sheep, at a loss, filed on a splendid piece of land near them, and built a little home for the girl he loved. Before they could get to town to be married Grandpa was stricken with rheumatism. Grandma was already almost past going on with it, so they postponed the marriage, and as that winter was particularly severe, the young man took charge of the Edmonson stock and kept them from starving. As soon as he was able he went for the license. Mrs. O'Shaughnessy and a neighbor were hunting some cattle that had wandered away and found the poor fellow shot in the back. He was not yet dead and told them it was urgently necessary for them to hurry him to the Edmonsons' and to get some one to perform the marriage ceremony as quickly as possible, for he could not live long. They told him such haste meant quicker death because he would bleed more; but he insisted, so they got a wagon and hurried all they could. But they could not outrun death. When he knew he could not live to reach home, he asked them to witness all he said. Everything he possessed he left to the girl he was to have married, and said he was the father of the little child that was to come. He begged them to befriend the poor girl he had to leave in such a condition, and to take the marriage license as evidence that he had tried to do right. The wagon was stopped so the jolting would not make death any harder, and there in the shadow of the great twin buttes he died. They took the body to the little home he had made, and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy went to the Edmonsons' to do what she could there. Poor Cora Jane didn't know how terrible a thing wounded pride is. She told her parents her misdeeds. They couldn't see that they were in any way to blame. They seemed to care nothing for her terrible sorrow nor for her weakened condition. All they could think of was that the child they had almost worshiped had disgraced them; so they told her to go.

Mrs. O'Shaughnessy took her to the home that had been prepared for her, where the poor body lay. Some way they got through those dark days, and then began the waiting for the little one to come. Poor Cora Jane said she would die then, and that she wanted to die, but she wanted the baby to know it was loved,--she wanted to leave something that should speak of that love when the child should come to understanding. So Mrs. O'Shaughnessy said they would make all its little clothes with every care, and they should tell of the love. Mrs. O'Shaughnessy is the daintiest needleworker I have ever seen; she was taught by the nuns at St. Catherine's in the "ould country." She was all patience with poor, unskilled Cora Jane, and the little outfit that was finally finished was dainty enough for a fairy. Little Cora Belle is so proud of it.

At last the time came and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy went after the parents. Long before, they had repented and were only too glad to go. The poor mother lived one day and night after the baby came. She laid the tiny thing in her mother's arms and told them to call her Cora Belle. She told them she gave them a pure little daughter in place of the sinful one they had lost.

The young man's house and lands were placed in the name of the infant daughter. Twelve years later, the grandparents, themselves, were raising sheep.

Sheepherder near Hanna

By Arthur Chapman

Out where the handclasp's a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,

That's where the West begins.
Out where the sun is a little brighter,

Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter,
Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter,

That's where the West begins.

Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
Out where friendship's a little truer,

That's where the West begins.
Out where a fresher breeze is blowing,
Where there's laughter in every streamlet flowing,
Where there's more of reaping and less of sowing,

That's where the West begins.

Out where the world is in the making,
Where fewer hearts in despair are aching, That's where the West begins.
Where there's more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there's more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying,

That's where the West begins.

Next Page: Sheepherding continued.