Sublette County history: Residents take pride in the past, present and future of beef production
The centennial of Sublette County, as a county unto itself is under way right now, building up to the climax of its 100th year since its official designation.
The story – and history – of what is now called Sublette County began before history that can be seen, with ancient Indian hunting grounds and camps. In the early 1800s, a trickle of fur trappers and traders began gathering each summer for the Green River Rendezvous. Within several decades, the Upper Green and Hoback river basins attracted pioneers, families, soldiers, explorers, both men and women traveling through on their search for land and livelihoods.
Trails led the hopeful west to Oregon and California. In Sublette County, they crossed the New Fork River, where a park, along with county signs, maps and old gravesites marking history byways now commemorate this adventure. Tired travelers dropped out along rivers and springs to set up trading posts and farms, with homesteaders claiming land slowly increasing.
Big Piney, on the flats east of the Wyoming Range, was the first incorporated town. People slowly moved north along the Green River and its tributaries by the end of the 19th century to build many small settlements that grew into towns – or fell as ghost towns.
As less arable land opened in the Upper Green River Valley, some ranchers summered their cattle over the Hoback Rim into what was called the Fall River Basin, now Hoback Basin, ringed by the Wyoming and Gros Ventre ranges.
In the early 20th century, homesteaders in Sublette County struggled to claim their acreage, and after years of enduring the basin’s long, deep winters, most began selling homesteads to ranchers and left to where they came from.
In the Upper Green River Basin, though, more families stayed on and grew their land holdings, hay, some sheep, horses – and of course, cattle.
These establishments are celebrated as centennial ranches, and Sublette County holds more than a dozen multigenerational ranches fed by the Upper Green, New Fork and Hoback rivers. Only one lasted in Hoback Basin, the Campbell Cattle Company, fed from snowfall in the Gros Ventres and headwaters of the Fall, now Hoback, River.
Get to work
Looking forward in time, the settlers in Sublette’s river basins, alpine desert and high mountains found ways to progress and put the land to work for them. Timber, wildlife, rivers, minerals and wind were harnessed and put to work.
Native prairie grasses and mountain meadows fed cattle and horses; as livestock numbers increased, so did the need to store hay against the long, harsh and lonely winters. With the headwaters of the far-reaching Green River in its mountains, the waterway had great value for the people settling here. Ranchers floated timber down and began haying giant meadows along the river to protect themselves against winter.
Cowboys herded cattle previously summered in these meadows higher into the grass-filled meadows of the Wind River Mountains.
The Green River Drift began more than a century ago as a 99-mile stock driveway from ranches near the confluence of the New Fork and Green rivers over the Pinedale Mesa – even during the county’s boom and bust oil and gas developments – to the Cora junction, where cowboys still hold herds in a natural sagebrush corral. It was called the “Drift” because after the cattle moved up to Union Pass and were counted, they were left to graze.
Today, cowboys ride up high, checking and moving them depending on water, forage and injuries. Grizzly bear and wolf conflicts are not uncommon as the predator’s population moves outward from Yellowstone National Park.
The U.S. Forest Service eventually required permits for grazing in the forest, most of which are still in family names of original ranchers, who are members of the Upper Green Grazing Association.
More recently, the apex of this range, the U.S. Forest Service approved its new Upper Green River Rangeland Grazing Plan. Conservation coalitions consistently challenge the agency’s decisions to keep livestock numbers close to its original stocking numbers, citing increasing grizzly bear conflicts and damaged rangeland.
The Upper Green River grazing decision is still tangled in court, according to Pinedale and Big Piney’s district ranger Rob Hoelscher.
Last year, the U.S. Forest Service proposed an additional rangeland expansion by converting previous sheep grazing permits to cattle. This issue is slowly making its way through the federal agency’s process, Hoelscher said.
This October, as always, experienced cows will “drift” back down the wide route to Daniel to be sorted. Those going farther south are sent on their way and the Green River Drift – a “cultural tradition landmark” on the National Register of Historic Places – filling its purpose into its second century.
“It has been an essential corridor between seasonal grazing lands for ranches in the Upper Green River Valley for over 100 years,” Historian, Author and Cora Rancher Ann Noble wrote in the nomination of the Green River Drift. “With 99 miles of trail and spurs, the Drift has been essential to the operation of these ranches in the area.”
Noble continued, “The Drift showcases how a stock drive works and its significance within the ranching industry. It also highlights the relationship between federal agencies and ranchers through the use of public land for grazing. The trail has been continuously used since the 1890s to get cattle from what are now Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotments at the south end of the trail to the U.S. Forest Service allotments at the north. The Drift crosses BLM-managed property, state of Wyoming property, private property and U.S. Forest Service-managed property. The trail also makes use of some county roads along its path.”
Hard work, hard life
Many settlements sprang up around growing cattle ranches, which boasted blacksmith shops, post offices and dance halls – for those who looked around and decided to stay put. The sense of community, even with many miles between, was of great importance.
Homestead cabins were built, enlarged and rebuilt as people proved up their stakes and started families. Larger ranches meant more labor and called for many skills – from building and fixing fences to breaking and shoeing horses to fixing and running equipment. Although some itinerant cowboys traveled from ranch to ranch, many married and started families.
Ranching families were proud of their successes and often bought out other properties and homesteads to augment their holdings. Some created empires; others failed.
Everyone who stayed in Sublette County learned early on that working toward survival and even a bit extra is the traditional way of life.
Today, as longtime families look back at their pioneer histories, many strands still connect them directly to the forebears a century or more ago. Those everyday lives were fraught with isolation, traditions and self-sufficiency that keep legendary names alive in their stories.
In Sublette County, history – and prehistory – is not kept separate from the present and future. It’s past stories stand as a testament to keeping names, places and customs through the years. Each era is celebrated, from before the white men and women arrived, to trail travelers, homesteaders, oil and gas and ranching.
Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.