In the spring of 1890, Butch Cassidy rode into the southern Big Horn Basin for the first time. Flashing a lot of cash, and spending wildly, he was easily noticed in the poverty-stricken area of then Fremont County.
He spent all his money and headed west out of Thermopolis, riding along the ridge of the Owl Creek Mountains to Blondie Pass.
The high mountain pass would become a familiar sight to Cassidy over the next few years.
He crossed down into the Wind River Valley, rode over South Pass, and ended up in the prosperous boomtown of Rock Springs on the Union Pacific Railroad.
It was in Rock Springs that he picked up his infamous nickname, “Butch.” He was working in a downtown butcher shop cutting up beef when patrons started calling him “Butcher Cassidy.” It didn’t take long for the name to get shortened to “Butch,” and a legend was born.
During his time in Wyoming, he often rode across Fremont County from his “Hole in the Wall” hideout near Kaycee to one at Hidden Butte, north of Riverton and along the back of Copper Mountain and the Owl Creek Range.
Born Robert LeRoy Parker, Butch wasn’t destined for the devout, hard-working lifestyle of a Utah Mormon family. His parents Maxi and Anne Gillies Parker, and his grandparents followed Brigham Young to Utah Territory.
The elder Parkers arrived in the 1850s and Robert Leroy was born on April 13, 1866, in Beaver, the first of 13 children.
As a teenager, Parker began working at neighboring ranches. His first case of petty crime came in stealing a pair of overalls.
Parker tore his only pair of work pants and rode into nearby Circleville to buy a pair of overalls from the dry goods store. The store was closed, but that didn’t matter to LeRoy. He broke in, took a pair of overalls, and left an IOU explaining what he had done. The note said that he would pay later. Instead of taking the boy’s word, the store owner had him arrested.
The local judge let him off, but Parker was on his way to becoming the most notorious outlaw in Wyoming.
As a teenager, Parker set out on his own, working on ranches across Northern Utah.
At one ranch, he met Mike Cassidy, a known cattle rustler and horse thief.
At 18, Parker began calling himself Roy Cassidy.
On June 24, 1889, Cassidy robbed his first bank. He made off with $2,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank in the mining boomtown of Telluride, Colorado.
The 23-year-old Cassidy was on the run, with a posse in hot pursuit. He rode north into Wyoming with his partner Al Hainer.
He spent that first winter in a cabin on the Rocking Chair Ranch, owned by Jack Wiggins just a few miles east of Dubois.
Wyoming Territory only had four original counties, arranged east to west and stretching from Colorado and Utah Territory on the south to Montana in the north. From east to west, they were Laramie, Albany, Carbon, and Carter, Carter was later renamed Sweetwater.
In 1884, Fremont County was created from Sweetwater.
As Wyoming grew towards statehood, counties gradually sprang up to better serve the ranchers, farmers, and townspeople moving to the territory.
Hot Springs, the smallest county geographically, was carved out of Fremont, Big Horn, and Park on February 9, 1911.
It was in Fremont and Hot Springs Counties that Butch Cassidy gained much of his Wyoming fame, aside from blowing up a train occasionally in Albany County.
Fremont County was just five years old when Cassidy first rode into it after the Telluride robbery.
A butcher’s life wasn’t for Cassidy, and he returned to the Thermopolis area, living on the Quien Sabe ranch, just 10 miles southeast of Thermopolis on the other side of Copper Mountain.
Neighbors considered Cassidy an all-around good guy, and helpful friend. His fellow travelers didn’t always share that same good reputation.
Cassidy took up with Jacob Snyder, Elzy Lay, and Billy Nutcher. They began calling themselves the Big Horn Basin Gang. They had a lot of honest and not-so-honest adventures from 1890 to 1894.
A popular hangout was the now-defunct town of Embar, near Torrey Lake, just a few miles east of Dubois and on the opposite side of the Owl Creek Mountains from Thermopolis across the Wind River Valley.
Legend has it that Cassidy once roped a cougar and tied it to a hitching post outside the bar in Embar.
Cassidy often made the 50+ mile trek over Blondie Pass to Dubois or Lander, returning on the same route. The road remains open today but much of it is nearly impassable and crosses the Wind River Indian Reservation.
One of Cassidy’s favorite haunts was the tiny town of Mail Camp. Mail Camp is no more, but once had a bar, a restaurant, a post office, and a boarding house.
The Big Horn Basin was the least populated area of Wyoming with fewer than 1500 people living between Thermopolis to the south and Cody and Frannie to the north in an area of 15,000 square miles.
It was an area of hard-working farmers and equally hard-drinking ruffians. One night a couple of local characters got into an argument at the LU Ranch on Gooseberry Creek. The area is on the present border of Hot Springs and Washakie Counties.
Fists flew and the fight quickly escalated to gunplay between “Six-shooter Billy” Rodgers and David “Dab” Burch. Both men were shot up with wounds to the chest, head, shoulders, and thigh. They were initially pronounced dead by their inebriated friends, but both recovered.
A frequent visitor to Lander, Cassidy began taking a new route from the Quien Sabe. He rode the Owl Creeks to Embar, crossed the reservation along the Wind River then dropped across the Wind River Valley through Kinnear to the seat of Fremont County.
With no railroad through the Wind River Canyon for another couple of decades, the hot springs at Thermopolis that gave the county its name was already popular. Similar natural mineral springs from the same geologic formation can be found at Ft. Washakie on the reservation and in far away Saratoga.
Cassidy kept hanging out with his friends in the Big Horn Basin Gang.
His larcenous friend Billy Nutcher brought Cassidy back to the life of crime.
Nutcher “found” some horses he claimed to have lost in Johnson County back in 1890 and sold them to Cassidy. The horses were, of course, stolen.
Wyoming was a powder keg waiting to explode just after statehood in 1890, with rich ranchers centered in Cheyenne, considering smaller ranches throughout the state nothing more than thieves.
The Wyoming Stockgrowers Association hired mercenary gunmen from Texas to eradicate what the rich cattlemen considered were common outlaws.
The fracas that became known as the Johnson County War quickly escalated after Nate Champion and Nick Ray were killed by the Texans 75 miles east of Thermopolis near Kaycee.
The murders raised the ire of the ranchers in the Big Horn Basin and they quickly formed their own association to battle the invaders. Cassidy was at these association meetings, but the threat never materialized when small eastern ranchers surrounded the Texans, and the rich cattlemen called in the Army to rescue their hired killers.
With the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association retreating back to Cheyenne, attention turned back to Cassidy’s questionable horse purchases.
Cassidy felt the heat from his purchase of the three stolen horses and rode over the mountains to Evanston near the corner of Utah before moving north to spend the winter among Mormon relations in the Star Valley near Afton.
The isolation on the Idaho border didn’t hide Cassidy for long.
On April 8, 1892, with a Fremont County arrest warrant, he was captured by Uinta County sheriff Robert Calverly and his posse. Cassidy put up a good fight but was still sore and bruised when he arrived back in Lander to stand trial in a Fremont County court.
He was released when witnesses couldn’t be located and promised to return in 1893 to stand trial. Amazingly he did return.
Cassidy was on his best behavior, working for ranches up the Wind River. His old friend Billy Nutcher wasn’t such a model citizen. Nutcher began writing bad checks in Lander, defaulting on loans and Cassidy was guilty by association.
Cassidy eventually went to trial, where the judge believed at least part of his story of not knowing the horse he bought were stolen and was let off with a $25 fine.
He spent a lot of time in and out of the county courthouse. Andrew Johnson, an overzealous sheriff’s deputy decided to round up cattle and horses owned by Cassidy and his friends but took livestock belonging to many other ranchers by mistake.
Cassidy argued successfully that the deputy was wrong and the judge issued a writ of replevin, allowing Cassidy and the others to sort out their livestock on their own.
Cassidy returned to the Quien Sabe but was arrested again for horse theft. This time judge Jesse Knight sentenced him to four years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Laramie.
His old friend Jacob Snyder, maybe the worst of the Big Horn Basin Gang joined him in prison.
Despite his criminal tendencies, Cassidy was an engaging man, who could charm almost anyone, and who was always willing to help a friend.
Judge Knight reconsidered his decision and wrote to Wyoming Governor William A. Richards asking him to pardon Cassidy.
The governor complied with the stipulation that Cassidy promised to not rustle cattle or steal horses in Wyoming again. Cassidy agreed and on January 20, 1896, he walked out of the Laramie prison a free man. He kept his word and never stole another animal in Wyoming again.
A short seven months later, Cassidy walked into a bank in Montpelier, Idaho, and made a withdrawal with a pair of associates, an illegal withdrawal.
Cassidy was back in the bank-robbing business with new partners. His old Big Horn Basin Gang broke up and he formed the infamous Wild Bunch.
Harry Longabaugh, AKA “the Sundance Kid” is the most famous of the gang, but contrary to the popular belief made famous by the movie starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, was not Cassidy’s best friend. That honor went to Elzy Lay. Kid Curry, Will Carver, and Harvey Logan were also in on many robberies. The Wild Bunch even had a sort of women’s auxiliary with sisters Ann and Josie Bassett joining on a few robberies. Most of the time the Bassett sisters kept a hideout for the gang and kept fresh horses ready.
Cassidy claimed he never killed anyone in his entire criminal career, but the Wild Bunch killed at least 13 lawmen and numerous civilians.
Banks were their favorite target but they moved to train robberies in their final years together.
On June 2, 1899, the Wild Bunch stopped the Union Pacific Overland Flyer just west of Rock River in Albany County. They may have been adept at robbery, but demolition wasn’t one of their skills. They used too much dynamite and blew the baggage car apart in blowing up the safe on the train. The explosion at 2 a.m. stunned the train crew and the gang rode off into the darkness with $50,000 in gold, currency, and jewelry.
A year later they struck the Union Pacific for the final time in Wyoming. On August 29, 1900, they stopped the train 50 miles west of Rawlins near the railroad station of Tipton. Once again they packed too much dynamite in the passenger car that held the safe and blew the sides out of it.
Pursued by the Pinkerton Agency, who were hired by the Union Pacific to end the robberies and private lawmen like Joe LeFors and Tom Horn the Wild Bunch was undeterred. An attempt at saving face by the Union Pacific failed to pan out when they claimed only $50 was taken from the train at Tipton. The actual amount was between $50,000 and $100,000.
The turn of the 20th century was a time of transition in America. Modern civilization began to squeeze out the cowboy and the outlaw. The Wild Bunch rode and shot in the best traditions of the West, but they also stopped, decked out in the latest eastern fashions, wearing derby hats, vests, and suits to have their photograph taken.
Legends of Cassidy killed in a shootout in some dusty canyon, riding over a ridge in a hail of gunfire, or surrounded near Jackson Hole, but always getting away, popped up often over the first two decades of the 20th century.
The most famous story is of Cassidy and Longabaugh dying in a shootout with the Bolivian Army after hiding out in South America. These are all the stuff of legend, legends that continue to the present time.
The Willy Nelson hit “Pancho and Lefty” is a loose adaptation of the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
What is true is that Butch rode the Owl Creek Mountains from present-day Natrona County to Dubois, north of Thermopolis and south to Lander many times. He was a bank robber, a train robber, a horse thief, a rustler, and an outlaw. But he was always liked among the people that knew him best in the Big Horn Basin, and Fremont County from Thermopolis to Lander and on to Dubois.