#Lookback: Distant Trails: Murder at Spring Creek

    It was right out of a 1950s Western, but this was no movie. A hail of gunfire, a flaming wagon, and the death of three sheepherders marked the end of the undeclared range war between cattlemen and sheepmen on the high plains in the darkness of an April 2, 1909, night.

    Even the names sound like something from Hollywood, the event was known as the Spring Creek Raid, it occurred in No Wood Canyon just a few miles south of the historic Wyoming mountain town of Ten Sleep.

    Tensions were on the rise between sheepherders and cattle ranchers on the open range of public land in Wyoming.

    Contrary to the beliefs of the cattlemen, no one had a greater claim on the land than anyone else. The grazing went to the man who had the agreement with the federal government to graze his livestock, no matter the species.

    Ella Watson – Wyoming State Archives

    Wyoming cattlemen, at least the wealthier ones, were still peeved at the results of the Johnson County War fought 18 years before on the other side of the Big Horn Mountains near present-day Buffalo. In that historic affair, small cattlemen were attacked by professional killers, hired by the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association in Cheyenne.

    The War began when Ella Watson, better known as “Cattle Kate” and her husband Jim Averill were captured and lynched by the hired guns. They were hanged from a cottonwood tree for allegedly rustling cattle. The war ended with the Stockgrowers Association losing stature and backing off their attempted takeover of smaller ranchers. None of the hired guns were ever sentenced, but big ranching took a hit in public opinion when the dust settled.

    An artist rendering of the lynching of Ella Watson “Cattle Kate” and James Averill – h/t Pinterest

    That hit evidently didn’t extend to sheep ranching.

    Cattlemen have always claimed sheep ruin the range by digging up grass and other edible plants by the roots. Sheepmen in response, claim that cattle ruin waterholes by wallowing in the mud, polluting water and making it unusable for livestock. As usual, the truth was somewhere between these two extremes.

    What isn’t up for debate is what happened when sheepherder Joe Allemand moved 5,000 head of sheep onto a leased section of public land south of Ten Sleep.

    Spring Creek was designated as a boundary between cattle and sheep grazing in that portion of Big Horn County, extending south through present-day Washakie County and into Northern Fremont County. Sheep were to stay on the east side of the creek, and cattle in the west.

    The “Invaders” in the Johnson County War – though they lynched two people and wounded many others, no convictions were made h/t

    The informal agreement was reached in 1908 between the sheep growers and cattle growers associations but the sheepmen ignored the boundary, a line the two groups referred to as a deadline, and dead is what happened to one of the offending groups of sheepherders.

    Joe Allemand and his partner Joseph Emge took a herd of 5,000 to 10,000 sheep, along with hired hands Jules Lazier, Charles Helmer, and Allemand’s nephew Pierre Cafferal across Spring Creek to the cattlemen’s section of the range south of Ten Sleep in March of 1909.

    Allemand was regarded as a reasonable man who followed the unwritten guidelines established to keep the peace between the cattle and sheep growers, but Emge was a hot head, a man not afraid to challenge authority and one that was always willing to fight.

    Emge was well-armed with an ample supply of ammunition and made his intentions known well in advance of the sheep drive. Both men knew what they were up against and had a deputy sheriff lead them to the grazing area to prevent potential violence from the cattlemen.

    The herd was split along the Spring Creek deadline. They had two sheep wagons, and about a dozen dogs that they separated to maintain the two camps, the one legal camp to the east (according to the cattlemen) and the rogue camp on the west side of the creek.

    Sheep grazing in a snowy field – h/t Etsy

    Various stories attribute the split camp to a challenge by Emge to the cattlemen, but more likely there was not enough early grass for a herd of that size to graze on the east alone. The snow was just off the range and packing that many sheep into one area would fulfill the prejudice of the cattlemen by destroying grazing in the area. That’s a much more likely explanation for splitting the herd and violating the agreement than simple aggression.

    Whatever the rationale, word spread among the cattlemen that there were sheep on “their” range and they were not happy.

    On the trip out at the end of the month, the deputy declined to help them on their return. Emge didn’t mind since he had over a thousand rounds of ammunition, and a pair of rifles packed into his sheep wagon.

    A typical early 20th-century sheep wagon – h/t

    They took their time on the trip back home. On their leisurely return, they let the herd graze the trail and stopped at the home of a couple of friends to have dinner.

    It’s not something you see in the Hollywood version of old west cattle range battles, but Emge used his friend’s phone to call his wife and let her know they’d be back home in a couple of days.

    Rural phones outnumbered the ones in America’s cities in those days, but there weren’t many single lines to rural locations. Phones in those days were party lines, meaning a single line shared by many people. Up to 30 homes in some locales shared the same line. Each home had an individual ring pattern of long and short rings. You’re home could be two longs, and two shorts, or maybe the reverse, or any other combination of the four. Every home heard that ring pattern and answered only if the rings indicated a call for their home.

    But, and this is the “but” that tipped off the cattlemen who attacked the Allemand-Emge party, anyone could pick up their receiver and listen to the conversation. When Emge called his wife, the rings for his house were heard all along the shared party line.

    One of the cattlemen, who shared the line, monitored calls to Emge’s sheep ranch and listened in quietly as he told his wife of their anticipated arrival. In the subsequent court trial, it was determined this is how the ambush site was determined.

    What isn’t known is if the phone line was a standard single copper line or one of the “barbed wire” systems that ranchers and farmers used from the early 1890s to around 1920 to extend the range of expensive telephone lines. Barbed wire fences were used to carry phone signals in many areas of the vast American West.

    A hard crank telephone, similar to the one that tipped off the attackers – h/t National Archives

    Dinner went a little long, well into the night, and since it was a dark night, they decided to bed the sheep down nearby. They were still several miles from the deadline.

    At the Keyes Ranch, a couple of miles away, a group of eight cattlemen gathered to attack the sheep party.

    The leader of the group was George Saban, owner of the Bay State Cattle Company. He was a prominent member of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association and one of the largest cattle producers in the state. He always had a propensity for vigilantism as expressed six years before when he led a lynch mob that killed two prisoners and a deputy sheriff at the Big Horn County Courthouse in Basin.

    It’s not clear whether Saban was involved in another attack in 1905 when a group of 10 masked men attacked sheepherder Louis Gantz in Shell Canyon, east of Greybull, and clubbed approximately 4,000 of Gantz’s 7,000 head of sheep to death. Gantz survived the attack but lost $40,000 in sheep which brought about $10 a head in those days. No one was ever tried for the attack.

    Joining Saban were Milton Alexander, Tommy Dixon, Charles Farris, Ed Easton, Albert Keyes, and Herbert Brink, along with one and possibly three more cattlemen who escaped indictment.

    The five sheepmen had settled down for a night’s rest in the two wagons, with only a dying campfire illuminating the moonless night.

    Cattle vigilantes attack a sheep camp – h/t Harpers Weekly

    Saban’s party split into two groups and approached the wagons in the darkness. They came within pistol range of the wagons and Saban called out into the night for Allemand to surrender. When Allemande opened the door to his wagon, they opened fire, hitting him in the head, neck, and chest. He fell from the wagon dead.

    The opening shots awakened another pair of cattle ranchers camped about a quarter mile away. Porter Lamb and Fred Greet approached the scene and were eyewitnesses to the ensuing violence.

    They could clearly see the muzzle flashes of the attacker’s rifles and heard the shots a few seconds later as the sound carried to the ridge they were descending.

    After a couple of minutes, the raiders stopped firing, and Lamb and Greet watched as the two wagons went up in flames. They heard the sound of horses rapidly leaving the scene and then traveled the short distance to witness the carnage at sunrise the next day.

    A lone shepherd entertains himself on the fiddle at sheep camp – h/t Pinterest

    Allemand was dead, flat on his back with bullet holes in his neck and side. Amid the smoking ruins that had been the sheep wagons just an hour before were the charred bodies of Emge and Lazier. At first glance, Lamb and Greet couldn’t tell they had been killed by rifle fire before their bodies were burned in the wagons. An autopsy later verified the cause of death as large caliber bullets fired at close range.

    Helmer and Cafferal, the two surviving herders had a harrowing story to tell. They’d been captured at gunpoint before the shooting started, had their hands tied, and were tied to nearby trees.

    They were spared according to speculation because Helmer’s father was believed to be one of the unidentified cattlemen in the attacking party that was never officially identified.

    Three hard-working sheepdogs took a break in the early 20th century – h/t

    Helmer and Cafferal claimed they had untied the ropes and escaped, but later testimony at the trial by the defendants said they had set the duo free. The truth is unknown but leans toward escape rather than being freed since defense attorneys tried to play up the compassion of the men who supposedly set Helmer and Cafferal free.

    What is known is that Cafferal and Helmer made a beeline for Ten Sleep to alert the Big Horn County sheriff in Basin and a posse was quickly sworn in.

    The posse arrived at the crime scene on April 3. The sheriff and his deputized posse found the bodies of Alleman, Emge, and Lazier, the two burned wagons, a pair of sheepdogs, killed by the cattlemen, and about 25 dead sheep.

    The herd was scattered over several square miles. Without men and sheepdogs to keep them in groups, they wandered off in small groups to search for grass.

    A lone sheep wagon surrounded by a huge flock – h/t

    Identifying the killers was a challenge on many fronts. No one had ever been brought to trial, much less convicted of killing sheep herders or destroying their property in Wyoming before, but the Wyoming Wool Grower’s Association had enough of the violence against their members. They put a $5000 bounty for information leading to the conviction of the killers, and the National Wool Grower’s Association added another $2000 with an additional $1000 reward offered from Big Horn County. An extra $500  in reward money was offered in a half-hearted effort by the State of Wyoming.

    In 2023 dollars that $8500 total from 1909 is worth $280,000 today, a substantial incentive for someone to talk.

    The five men convicted of the brutal killing of three sheepherders at Spring Creek – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    Cafferal and Helmer had a good idea of who the attackers were, but since the killers were all wearing masks, they couldn’t be identified in a lineup by the survivors.

    The reward wasn’t necessary, loose talk by Brink and Dixon in the bars of Basin and Greybull sealed the case. They didn’t fear prosecution since every killer of sheepmen in the state prior to their criminal act went unpunished.

    One of their friends, William “Billy” Goodrich contacted Big Horn County Sheriff Felix Alston and identified Brink and Dixon and all the other five as the attackers.

    Alston let Brink and Dixon know that it was to their benefit to get the rest of the criminals to surrender themselves before a grand jury convened a few weeks later in Basin.

    Keyes and Farris surrendered soon after to Alston.

    The gravity of the crime, combined with the tension between the Wyoming Wool Growers and the Wyoming Stock Growers Associations, with national attention directed towards the tiny town of Basin had Wyoming governor Bryant B. Brooks involved.

    Brooks, with a team of attorneys from the Wyoming Attorney General office, met with Goodrich, Keyes, and Farris in Sheridan.

    Sheep grazing near the wagon – h/t Pinterest

    Sheridan was on the east side of the Big Horn Mountains, opposite Basin to the west side of the 11,000-foot range and far enough away to avoid attention as the governor met with the two culprits. Keyes and Ferris turned state’s rights and testified against their fellow ranchers in exchange for a pardon from Brooks and safe passage out of the state. As guilty, but pardoned participants they weren’t eligible for the reward money.

    Back in Basin, warrants were issued for Saban, Brink, Eaton, Dixon, and Alexander. They were arrested without resistance on May 3.

    A few days before the five were arrested, another attacker, previously unknown couldn’t handle the pressure of impending arrest and shot himself. Billy Garrison may or may not have been involved in the raid but was one of the men at the bar that Brink and Dixon bragged to. He couldn’t handle the pressure of testifying against his friends and chose to end his life instead.

    The county coroner ruled Garrison’s death a suicide, but for decades after, many Big Horn County ranchers believed he was killed by the attackers to prevent him from testifying in the trial that began in county court in Basin, one of the smallest county seats in Wyoming, along with Lusk and Sundance.

    All seven men on trial either pled guilty or confessed outright to the crime. Keyes and Farris as first-hand witnesses, and Goodrich who heard the bragging of Brink and Dixon all implicated Brink as the man responsible for the three murders.

    Farris had his accusation of Brink recorded verbatim in the court record. “I heard Brink shout: ‘Show a light and come out,’” Farris said. “A man appeared at the front of the wagon. ‘Hands up!’ cried Brink. The man’s hands were in the air as he came towards us. Then Brink said: ‘This is a hell of time o’ night to come up with your hands in the air!’ There was a shot. Who fired it? Herbert Brink.”

    The compelling was enough to convict Brink and he was sentenced to be executed at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, but it was later reduced to life imprisonment.

    The penalty for first-degree homicide was traditionally death by hanging, but the Spring Creek Raiders escaped the gallows – h/t

    Saban and Alexander received 25-year sentences after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

    Dixon and Eaton were convicted of arson for burning the two wagons after dousing them with kerosene and given three-year sentences.

    The convicted criminals boarded a train from Basin south to Rawlins on November 20, 1909. Crowds gathered at the train station to give the convicted criminals food, blankets, and other gifts.

    Farris, Keyes, and Goodrich left without fanfare, escorted to the Wyoming border by a Big Horn county deputy Sheriff.

    Eaton died in prison, Dixon served out his sentence, and was paroled in 1912. Saban escaped from the penitentiary in 1913 and was never found again. Brink and Alexander served five years and were paroled in 1914. Reducing the two men’s sentences from life and 25 years to just five years by Governor Joseph Carey, a well-known cattlemen, was indicative of the power of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association and their ability to influence political decisions.

    Wyoming State Penitentiary at Rawlins in the early 20th century – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    The convictions ended the persecution of sheep ranchers by cattlemen.

    “It is significant of the beginning of a new era, of a period where lawlessness in any form will be no more tolerated in Wyoming than in the more densely settled communities of the east,” William Metz, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case said.

    Isolated incidents between individuals over grazing rights continue to the present day, but felonies are rare.

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