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Beginnings of agriculture, Washakie County remains integral in Bighorn Basin

Washakie County was first settled in 1903 when a pioneer camp was established on the west bank of the Big Horn River. The county’s early history is rich.

Prehistory

Archeological evidence supports the notion that the first humans inhabiting the area settled near present day Worland at the Colby Mammoth Site.

“The Colby Mammoth Site, located on private land close to the Bighorn River, was excavated by archaeologist George Frison in the 1970s,” says Annette Hein on wyohistory.org. “The site contained three Clovis projectile points and the remains of several mammoths that dated to approximately 11,000 years before the present.”

The Clovis people, according to Frison, lived in small wandering bands, utilizing sand dunes and gullies to hunt mammoths and bison that were their main food source.

Furs and gold

In more modern times, trappers and prospectors were next to explore the country. 

“Several of the first explorers of what’s now Washakie County were trappers, but fur was never of great importance to the area’s economy,” Hein continues. “In 1829, employees of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company made one of the few serious attempts to trap beaver in the area, but they achieved nothing spectacular.”

In the late 1850s, U.S. Army members traveled through Washakie County searching for routes between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers and reportedly found traces of gold in the streams of the Washakie County, Hein says, and while the route was named for Jim Bridger, Washakie County’s namesake supposedly showed them the way.

Chief Washakie

The Eastern Shoshone tribe’s Chief Washakie reportedly wintered in the area, particularly following the establishment of the Wind River Reservation in 1868.

“After 1863, Washakie saw it in his band’s interest to remain at peace with the whites, and he was often called ‘the white man’s friend’ by the settlers and the U.S. Army,” Hein says. 

Agriculture beginnings

In the 1880s, ranching became a part of the landscape of Washakie County.

“The first cattle rancher was Charles Carter from Oregon, soon followed by Henry Belknap and Otto Franc,” Hein reports. “Charlie ‘Dad’ Worland brought the first flock of sheep, but they died in the winter of 1886.”

Sheep flocks attempted to move into the area but were frequently discouraged by cattlemen.

“Dave Dickie, who planned to settle in Canada with his sheep, homesteaded near the Owl Creek Mountains after cattlemen forbade him to pass the present-day site of Worland,” Hein continues. “Beginning in the 1800s, flocks belonging to Lucy Morrison Moore, based on Copper Mountain, and to J.B. Okie, based at Lost Cabin, also grazed parts of what is now Washakie County.”

While cattle dominated early Washakie County agriculture, by the mid 1890s, sheep flocks outnumbered cattle, and herds were turned out onto the open range with little supervision.

“Ranches operated from headquarters on small homestead parcels near water, but the cattle roamed over thousands of acres of unclaimed land,” says Hein. “Cattle ranchers worked together on roundups every spring to brand that year’s calves and again in the fall to divide animals to be trailed to market from the ones that would winter over.”

Changing times

While production thrived for many years, the winter of 1886-87 decimated many operations, as was common throughout much of Wyoming. 

“Following this winter, many ranches throughout the Wyoming Territory, including the Bighorn Basin, gradually changed to smaller operations with fewer cattle that might be fed native hay grown on the premises, if necessary, during the winter,” Hein says. 

Sheep ranching continued to expand, and tension grew between producers. 

“Cattlemen began enforcing ‘dead lines’ in the Bighorn Basin and other parts of Wyoming,” Hein says, explaining that these “dead lines” formed range boundaries that sheepherders and their flocks were forbidden to cross.

When three sheepherders crossed a dead line with their flock south of Ten Sleep in 1909, they were promptly murdered in a famous attack known as the Spring Creek Raid. 

Settling towns

After the establishment of the initial pioneer camp on the Big Horn River in 1903, settlement soon followed.

Charles H. Worland selected the site as a halfway point between Basin and Thermopolis and an overnight stop for stagecoaches and freighters. Worland established on the west bank of the river. 

“The Burlington Railroad also passed close to town but on the east side of the river,” says Hein. “Residents decided to move the town, using horses to slide the building across the frozen river in January and February of 1906.”

Initiating irrigation

Large-scale farming was not possible in Washakie County until irrigation projects were constructed beginning in 1902. 

“Prior to this time, farmers were dependent on seasonal creeks,” Hein says. “Now, water from the larger and more reliable Big Horn River was available. The first significant man-made waterway, the Hanover Canal, was constructed by crews working by hand and using horses to pull the equipment.”

The canal system, which still operates today, irrigates nearly 35,000 acres of land, enabling farmers to grow barley, corn, oats, beans and sugarbeets.

“As more irrigation and drainage projects were developed, farming grew in importance in the county economy,” Hein notes. “In 1912, an alfalfa mill opened in Worland. The Holly Sugar Company opened a sugarbeet factory in 1917. Both businesses helped assure farmers a market for their crops.”

The industries established during Washakie County’s early days continue to thrive.

Hein notes, “The industries established between 1880 and World War I – ranching, farming and energy production – remain the foundation of Washakie County’s economy.”

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, compiled this article. Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..