Monday, February 4, 2019

Two Sheepmen Shot to Death, Could Spark Range War [otd 02/04]

On the morning of February 4, 1896, two riders guided their horses along a rough track through the scrub-covered foothills of south-central Idaho. James E. Bower, a superintendent for the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Company, had headed south from Rock Creek after breakfast. He was in no particular hurry and, after about a half hour, cowboy Jeff Gray had overtaken him. Awhile after they joined up, they glimpsed another horseman galloping far ahead of them along the stony road.
Sheep camp. Library of Congress.

Bower thought the rider might be a cattleman suspected of being in cahoots with encroaching sheep raisers. Gray agreed that it might be.

The two followed the horseman south until his tracks disappeared from the winding path. Further along, the cattlemen topped a rise and saw two sheep camps in the distance. One looked empty, but the other showed some activity. Its location along Deep Creek, about 26 miles south of the near-future town of Twin Falls, was well west of the "deadline," the informal boundary between sheep and cattle range.

Bower and Gray rode up to the camp not long before noon and dismounted about ten yards from the wagon. A sheepman stuck his head out. He and a partner inside were just preparing lunch. The sheepmen seemed friendly enough and apparently invited the cattlemen inside for a cup of coffee.

However, Bower had lived in the area for a quarter century; the two young sheepmen were strangers. That meant they might be interlopers who grazed their animals on the range but paid no local taxes. After some chitchat, Bower asked quietly, "Do you think it is right to come in here with your sheep?"

The sheepman nearer the door averred that they did pay taxes in the county. The young herders may well have been told that by the owners of the flock. Bower answered in an ordinary tone: “I think you are mistaken about that.” 

The vehemence of the reaction surprised Bower. With an angry retort, the argumentative sheepman rushed him. Bower landed on his back, while Gray was pushed or jumped outside. Physically over-matched, the foreman tried to retrieve his pistol from inside his coat, but the sheepman wrested it away and growled, “I’ll fix you both.”

The attacker ignored Gray’s shouted order to drop the gun, so Gray fired once, then again when the man didn’t react. Still not sure if he’d stopped the assault, he raised the revolver for another shot when Bower called out, “Hold on.” That ended the altercation.

As they helped the active attacker toward the bed, he seemed stunned and said, “I am hurt pretty bad.”

Bower and Gray saw only a little blood on the man’s chin, seemingly a minor, superficial wound. The sheepmen had friends nearby who would have surely heard the shots. They could help with whatever injuries the man might have. Fearing further trouble, the cattlemen hurried off.

(Of course, the surviving cattlemen provided the above self-defense scenario; there were no other living witnesses.)

In actual fact, both sheepmen – John Wilson and Daniel Cummings – had been mortally wounded. Wilson, the aggressive attacker, probably died within hours, while Cummings might have lived a day or so.

Discovery of the bodies would trigger an intensive manhunt for the notorious cowboy-gunman “Diamondfield” Jack Davis. His capture was followed by a celebrated trial, and a legal odyssey that would not be settled for over half a decade [blog, Oct 13].
References: David H. Grover, Diamondfield Jack: A Study in Frontier Justice, University of Nevada Press, Reno, Nevada (1968).
William Pat Rowe, "Diamond-Field Jack" Davis On Trial, thesis: M.A. in Education, Idaho State University, Pocatello (1966).


  1. Comment forwarded from Dan Sullivan -

    Wilson and Cummings' headstone is a weathered white obelisk in the Oakley, ID cemetery. Barely readable. Deadline Ridge was given that ominous name for a reason. This story points out another old west fact. Most men, gentlemen or otherwise did not carry a gun in a fancy belt holster. Those were for the likes of Johnny Ringo. Side arms were usually carried in a coat pocket.
    Interesting account. Thanks for sharing !

  2. This was a pretty iconic event in southern Idaho history that had many ramifications for years to come. It is interesting from so many angles.

  3. "Ramifications" indeed. In his Aftermath chapter, David Glover noted that many people in the region -- some of them, of course, descendants of principals in the case -- simply refused to discuss the events, despite that fact that over a half century had passed.