THE AFFAIR AT CUNNINGHAM'S RANCH1
By ROALD FRYXELL
Close against the Idaho-Wyoming border, at the
headwaters of the Snake River, lies the high, mountain-girt valley of
Jackson Hole. Fiercely beautiful in setting and richly historic in
background, Jackson Hole and the raw, jagged peaks of the Teton
mountains to the west have captured popular imagination as has no other
region in the Rockies. Jackson Hole has become a fabled out-post of the
vanished Western frontier, the legendary "last stand of the outlaws."
And of all the stories which have given rise to that picture, perhaps
none is more starkly simple than one which has become known as The
Affair at Cunningham's Ranch.
As in the case of other frontier communities, the
story of the early settlers in Jackson Hole is one of isolation and
hardship. When winter closed in and cut off the valley from the nearest
settlements across the mountains, life was a struggle for survival
against the bitter cold and drifting snow. Occupied with the task of
making a home in the face of tremendous odds, the homesteaders were
solid, law-abiding citizens with little time for lawlessness, and less
for violence. On the rare occasions when gun-play broke out between men
in the valley, it was of a nature that could hardly appear heroic except
through the romantic eyes of a novelist. In the harsh light of reality,
violence was brutal and ugly, and dispatched with a speed and finality
grimly typical of the frontier.
The Cunningham Ranch affair broke with a suddenness
that shocked the entire valley. It was as cold-blooded as it was simple.
A posse came riding in from Montana in the spring of 1893, and at a
little cabin near Spread Creek two men were cornered and shot for
Little news of the Spread Creek incident ever leaked
out of the valley in the early days, and when the first general flow of
tourist travel into Jackson Hole began nearly 40 years later, the affair
at Cunningham's Ranch was still a widely known but reticently guarded
story. By then most of the old-timers who had been members of the posse
were dead, and those who were left still were not interested in
discussing the matter. And so the story of the killing relies almost
entirely on the memory and information of the one man who cared to talk
about it, Pierce Cunningham.
A quiet, weather-beaten little man, Pierce Cunningham
came into Jackson Hole with the first influx of settlers during the late
1880's and early 1890's. He homesteaded in the valley, and there, on
Flat Creek, he worked his ranch and married and raised his family.
In the fall of 1892, while he was haying on Flat
Creek, Cunningham was approached by a neighbor named White who
introduced 2 strangers, stating that they wished to buy hay for a bunch
of horses they had with them. One of the men, named George Spenser, was
about 30 and had come originally from Illinois; the other was an Oregon
boy named Mike Burnett, much younger than Spenser but already rated a
first-class cattleman after having punched cattle for several years
elsewhere in Wyoming. Cunningham sold them about 15 tons of hay and
incidentally arranged to let the men winter in his cabin near Spread Creek,
about 25 miles to the north. Since Cunningham himself intended to remain
at Flat Creek, he also arranged for his partner, a burly Swede named
Jackson, to stay with them.
Rumor began spreading during the winter that the 2
men on Cunningham's place were fugitive horse thieves. Some of the
rustlers' horses, it was said, belonged to a cattleman in Montana; a
valley rancher had worked for him and recognized some of the brands.
Before the snow was gone Cunningham had taken it upon himself to
snowshoe to Spread Creek, investigate conditions, and warn Jackson to be
on guard. Once there his suspicions were confirmed. Cunningham spent
several days with the men, went with them to search for their horses,
and recognized certain stocks and changed brands that left no question
in his mind as to their guilt. The die was cast, and although he could
readily have warned the men of their danger, Cunningham returned home
without doing so.
The next spring, however, he ordered Spenser and
Burnett to leave, and they did but unfortunately for them, they
returned to look for some horses on the very day they should have been
This was in April 1893. Across the mountains to the
west a man from Montana was organizing a posse in the little Idaho
settlement of Driggs. Somehow, possibly on a tip relayed from the Hole,
he had got wind of the rustlers on Cunningham's place and was coming to
get them. One of the valley homesteaders saw the posse leader there with
a group of 15 men on saddle horses, and a few days later they came
riding over the pass from Teton Basin into Jackson Hole.
In the valley of the leader completed organization of
the posse. Including him, there were 4 men from Montana, 2 from Idaho,
and 10 or 12 recruited in Jackson Hole. Asked to join the outfit,
Cunningham refused, and stayed at Flat Creek. The posse elected a
spokesman, and then started up the valley to the Spread Creek cabina
group of 16 men, all mounted and heavily
Under cover of darkness, the posse approached the
cabin, a low, sod-roofed log building in dark silhouette against the
night sky. Silently they surrounded it; 6 men in the shed about 150
yards northwest of the cabin, 3 took cover behind the ridge about the
same distance south of the cabin, and the rest presumably scattered at
intermediate vantage points. And then they waited for dawn.
The Cunningham Cabin, where on an April morning in
1893 two men were cornered and shot for horse-stealing. Photo by
Inside the cabin the unsuspecting men were sleeping
quietly: Spenser, the older man, sandy-haired and heavily built;
Burnett, the cowpuncher, slender and dark; and of course Swede Jackson,
Cunningham's partner. The two rustlers intended to leave when it got
Early in the morning the dog which was in the cabin
with the men began to bark shrilly, perhaps taking alarm at the scent of
the posse. Spenser got up, dressed, buckled on his revolver, and went
out to the corral.
The corral lay between the cabin and the shed, and
after Spenser had entered it one of the posse called to him to "throw
'em up." Instead Spenser drew with lightning speed and fired twice, one
bullet passing between two logs and almost hitting the spokesman, the
other nicking a log near by. The posse returned fire and Spenser fell to
the ground, propping himself up on one elbow and continuing to shoot
until he collapsed.
Meanwhile Burnett had got up, slipped on his overalls
and boots, and fastened on his revolver. Then he picked up his rifle in
his right hand and came out of the cabin. As he stepped forth, one of
the men behind the ridge fired at him. The bullet struck the point of a
log next to the door, just in front of Burnett's eyes. Burnett swept the
splinters from his face with his right hand as he reached for his
revolver with his left, and fired lefthanded at the top of the gunman's
hat, just visible over the ridge. The shot was perfect; the bullet tore
away the hat and creased the man's scalp. He toppled over backwards.
Burnett then deliberately walked over to the corner
of the cabin and stopped, with rifle in hand, in full view of the entire
posse, taunting them to come out and show themselves. From inside the
cabin Jackson pleaded with him to come in or he would get it too.
Burnett finally turned, and as he did so one of the members of the posse
shot him. The bullet killed Burnett instantly, and he pitched forward
toward the cabin, discharging his rifle as he fell.
Now only Jackson was left in the cabin. A big,
bumbling man with a knack for trouble, Jackson had once before been
taken by mistake for a horsethief and been scared almost to death; when
he was now ordered to come out and surrender with his hands in the air
he did so immediately.
The work of the posse was done. Mike Burnett lay face
down in the dirt at the corner of the cabin, the bullet from his last
shot lodged in a log beside him; George Spenser, his six-shooter empty,
was sprawled inside the corral with 4 charges of buckshot and 4 or 5
bullets in his body. They were buried in unmarked graves a few hundred
yards southeast of the cabin, on the south side of a draw.
No investigation was ever made, no trial held, and
the matter was hushed up. As years went by the subject of the killing at
Spread Creek became a touchy one, and most of the men directly involved
preferred not to talk about it. Swede Jackson, apparently thoroughly
shaken by the incident, left the valley and did not return. The affair
at Cunningham's Ranch was a closed story.
What information the members of the posse did
volunteer in later years was in justification of their actions. The
posse leader was a Montana sheriff, they said, and he and his men had
come from Evanston, Wyoming, with the "proper papers," and deputized
the Jackson Hole men. According to them there had been no intention of
killingthe 2 victims had been given a chance to surrender, and
after the affair one of the men in the posse had gone to Evanston to
report it to the police.
Those in the valley who had not been in on the posse
were not so sure of the legality of the shooting. Cunningham said he
thought the leader was not an officer, and reiterated that the posse had
been instructed not to arrest but to kill. He stated that 2 local men
had previously been asked to dispose of the pair, but had refused. When
asked who raised the posse and investigated the killing, Cunningham
laughed and said he could tell but preferred not to; asked if he cared
to state whether the move was local or not, he quickly said, "Oh
noit wasn't only local."
Cunningham himself was rumored to have warned the
outlaws to be on guard, having returned from the Spread Creek ranch only
a short time before the killing. The story easily gained credence, since
Spenser had caught the posse completely by surprise when he armed
himself and started directly for the corral and shed where the men were
hidden. Cunningham denied "tipping them off," and Jackson later said it
was unusual for the dog to bark as it did that morning. Spenser probably
sensed from the dog's actions that something was amiss and so put on his
gun before leaving the cabin, a precaution which Jackson said the men
had never taken during the previous winter.
Cunningham seemed more favorably impressed by the
behavior of the 2 horsethieves than by any heroism on the part of the
posse, an attitude which was general in the valley. Members of the posse
had little to say about it.
In 1928, several years before his death, Pierce
Cunningham recounted the story of the killing at Spread Creek and ended
by pointing out the spot where the rustlers were buried. With 2 timbers
he marked the sage-covered plot, one corner of it crossed by the road
then running past the cabin, where George Spenser and Mike Burnett had
lain since their death in 1893.
Years later badgers threw out some of their bones
into the sunlight.
1 Reprinted from Saga, literary magazine of
Augustana College, 1955 with permission of the author and the editor of
Saga. This narrative is based on detailed historical notes obtained by
the author's father, Fritiof Fryxell, more than 30 years ago, in
conversation with early settlers of Jackson Holeincluding Pierre
Cunningham himselfwho were in a position to furnish reliable
information concerning The Affair at Cunningham's Ranch. In the
recording of these notes, and their use in preparing the present account,
every effort was made to reconstruct as accurately as possible, except
that the names of the posse were purposely omitted.