August 10, 2010


Last September, while doing research for my new series, I visited an interesting historical site in Jackson, WY. If you start at Jackson and drive north, the J. Pierce Cunningham cabin lies midway between Moose and Moran on US 191 in Grand Teton National Park. The cabin, which still stands today, is one of the few remaining homestead cabins in Jackson Hole. It’s a mere 30 minute walk around the entire site which has markers depicting foundations where the ranch house used to be and depressions of the remains of outhouses and wells used to exist.

It was established somewhere between 1888-1890 and named the Flying U Ranch by Cunningham. They selected this spot overlooking the Snake River because of its rich silt sediments from a lake that formed the glacier’s melt water, providing nutrients and moisture for wonderful lush grasses for raising cattle. Cunningham took his bride, Margaret and staked a claim there. Originally, the ranch was 160 acres that the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed. They had to reside there for five years, build a cabin, and cultivate crops in order to claim the title to the land.

The cabin was a “dogtrot” design in which two cabins are built adjacent then joined by a covered breezeway. Saddle notches joined and secured the corners as you can see from my photo that I snapped. The cracks were filled with dirt mortar, reinforced with willow wands. Sapling poles were used for the roof and dirt piled on top. Naturally, the floors were dirt, then wet down to compact it then swept.

By 1897, Cunningham had 100 head of cattle and eight horses and was raising hay on his two hundred acre of cultivated land. Even more interesting to me was how much hay was needed to feed one cow or horse which was about twenty pounds a day! Using this amount the US Park Service calculated the amount of hay needed:
            1 Cow x 20 lbs Hay x 180 days=1.8 Tons hay/cow/winter

            100 Cows x 1.8 tons hay/cow/winter= 180 Tons/winter for cattle

            8 Horses x 1.8 tons hay/horse/winter=14.4 Tons of hay/winter for horses

            180 Tons hay for cattle+14.4 Tons hay for horses=194.4 Tons of hay for winter

Wow! That means he would have to cultivate and store around two hundred tons of hay to feed his livestock just for the winter! Rather staggering, don’t you think! When the “Great Die Up” winter of 1886-87 hit, much of the free-ranging cattle was coming to a close because of the great losses of livestock, but also due to ranchers developing more into small cattle operations. I can only imagine how hard the winters with its bitter cold and deep snow, brought difficult testing to the ranchers in Jackson Hole. I stood outside the cabin while the Park Service were repairing the dirt and grass to the thatched roof, and the view the Cunningham’s had from their cabin every single morning, took my breath away. The magnificent Tetons seem to jut straight out of the ground. Though there was little snow left on the peaks in September, I could imagine the frosty peaks and crystal blue skies in the winter. What a site it must be to behold during leaf change in autumn! That occurred about a week earlier, as winter was soon to bear down on the valley of Jackson Hole.

I felt a shadow of sadness in my spirit with the quietness that filled the afternoon air, and I wondered if it was the gloom belonging to a terrible shoot-out that occurred one April day long ago in 1893… In the fall of ’92, two Montana wranglers, Spencer and Burnett, approached Cunningham interested in buying his hay. They struck a deal which included that the men could winter over at the ranch. One spring day, a man who claimed to be the US Marshall, rode up to the ranch with a posse claiming that the two Cunningham visitors were horse thieves. With darkness covering the ranch, the vigilante posse surrounded the cabin, waiting for daybreak. When the two men left the cabin, they were gunned down when they refuse to give themselves up. Cunningham wasn’t directly involved, but he thought the horses’ brands had been altered. Oddly enough, the Marshall’s identity and allegations were never proven.

In 1925, cattle ranching hit an economic low and Cunningham, along with rancher, Si Ferrin, drew up a petition proposing that the land be preserved for education and recreation for our Nation in the future. It was later signed by 97 other ranchers. J. D. Rockerfeller started purchasing while touring Jackson Hole. The Grand Teton National Park was created in 1929, but it included only the mountain range and lake. Later, Rockerfeller donated 32,000 acres to the federal government which ultimately became the entire Grand Teton National Park.

Eventually, the Cunninghams grew weary of the hardships of ranching and sold the Flying Bar U Ranch to the Snake River Land Company in 1928. He retired in Victor, Idaho. The Cunninghams and their cabin, which stands proudly today beneath the vista of the magnificent Grand Tetons, represent the homesteader’s fortitude which later produced the true spirit of Jackson Hole, WY. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever out that way.

Happy Trails,



Janalyn Voigt said...

Thanks for such a vivid glimpse of this amazing site. I hope to stop there one day.

Margaret Brownley said...

Hi Maggie,
The Grand Teton National Park is one of my favorite places for sheer beauty. Your description of a dogtrot cabin was especially interesting. I can't imagine the hardships those early pioneers endured. Thank you for sharing this interesting bit of history.

Karen Witemeyer said...

Great stuff. And how beautiful! I guess the scenary helped make the winters worth the trouble.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Hi Karen,I think the winters are horrible. I talked with the cowboys at the Bar J Ranch and they get totally snowed in. Many people in Jackson leave for the winter. But oh, what an incredible area of the West!

Sandy Ardoin said...

Such interesting information, Maggie. That's an incredible amount of hay to store. It makes me wonder if his cattle grazed on open land and he used that 200 acres strictly for cutting hay.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Sandy, his cattle was free range , but the hay was definitely used to feed the herd during the winter. That's why so many ranchers gave up becaue of the harsh winters. I assume he may have sold some too, but I personally didn't have proof of that, other than the mention of the 2 men who wanted to strike a deal with him. Those calculations were from the US Park service and not mine. :)

Brenda said...

What a beutiful place, thanks for the photos! Life there has to be very rough by far during the winters!

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brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Hi Brenda! Yes, just the thought of the snow drifts against that cabin make me shudder. And just think, only a fireplace for heat. I remember once when I lived in CO, we had icicicles hanging inside a bedroom window. That was the year Denver broke a 100 yr. record. I don't want to repeat that again, but oh how lovely and quiet the world was...magical.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Just in case anyone wanted to know, the blizzard in Denver that I spoke of was on Christmas Eve, 1982. I'll never forget it...

Kameko said...

I really enjoyed your article! I've never been to this part of the country, but have a vacation planned for Yellowstone in 2011 or 2012 - I have just added this location to the list of places to stop.

Blessings to you,


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Beverly, you will truly love it! If you can work it into your route, you should see Ft. Bridger. It was an emigrant supply stop along the Oregon Trial in 1843 then obtained by Morons in 1850's then a military outpost in 1858 and later became US property in 1890. Great history there. That was another favorite of mine.