SUBLETTE COUNTY – In the late 19th century, cowboys roamed the Wyoming Territory, moving cattle to and from the range and to market over many days and even weeks with few boundaries.
As the Wyoming Territory grew more settled and cattle ranches covered huge swathes, it was divided north to south into four large counties. Today’s Sublette County was carved from what started as Carter County, later renamed Sweetwater County, and the new Uinta County. Sweetwater County also gave up ground for Fremont County and then Uinta County provided land for Lincoln County.
After Wyoming statehood, legislation in 1921 created Sublette County from western Fremont County and eastern Lincoln County, named after fur trapper William Sublette.
With these boundaries shifting, several early renowned cowboys are now considered to be from other counties, a fact that historian Jonita Sommers used to an advantage when nominating the old-timers to the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017.
They are Abner Luman and Percy Edwards of Sweetwater County and Walter C. “Buster” McIlvain through Lincoln County, whose nominations Sommers submitted along with Sublette County cowboys Robert Lozier and Otto Miller.
“With the county lines changing when new counties formed, they each cowboyed in both counties,” she explained.
The five were inducted in the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame’s special event in Casper on Sept. 23-24. The following biographies are taken from her nominations.
Abner Luman was born on Feb. 23, 1847, in Ohio or West Virginia to Richard and Martha Luman and left home at 14 to be a bullwhacker on the Santa Fe Trail. He left again the next year to haul corn to Rock Springs.
After that, Luman worked as a freighter and bought his first cattle in 1879, wintering them in Rock Springs and along the Platte River. He claimed he brought the first cattle into the Green River Valley.
His grandson Abner recalled, “Luman slept with his cattle on the Red Desert during the winter of 1882-1883 trying to save them. Luman would trail the wild horses through the draws and break trail, so he could put his cattle on the ridges where the snow had blown off revealing some grass and horse manure the cows could eat. Luman would build a little fire and sleep right there with the cows. The next day he would go find another bunch of marooned cattle and do the same thing.”
His herd wiped, he turned to sheep, building a cabin and ditches on the Little Sandy River and ranging them and more cattle where the Fred Radosovich and Erramouspe ranches are now.
On Oct. 22, 1885, he married Jeanette Snedden is Salt Lake City and the couple had nine children.
Luman filed his 160-acre homestead near Eden Valley, built a ranch and sold it, by 1899 owning at least 30,000 sheep. That year he bought shares in the Rock Springs National Bank and later became president of the State Bank of Pinedale. He moved his family to Idaho, but returned to the Upper Green River Valley in 1903, buying the old Piper Place where his great-grandchildren still work.
He bought up homesteads and obtained his first forest grazing permit in 1906 for 700 cattle and 15 horses branded with the quarter circle I. He got another permit for 480 cattle and applied for another homestead in the Green River.
In 1907, when seriously injured by lightning in a hayfield, he was president of the State Bank of Pinedale and active member of the Upper Green River Cattle and Horse Growers Association.
In 1920 and in 1926 he provided sons Robert and Kenneth with land. He transferred his cattle permits to sheep, running 8,000 on Klondike, Tepee and Tosi creeks. He continued to buy and sell land while keeping a home in Pinedale. Luman died on June 4, 1931, in Rock Springs.
Percy Edwards was born on April 30, 1895 or 1896 and next to “hometown,” Sommers commented, “Sublette County. Hometown is silly on these guys since they cowboyed all over the county.”
His parents, Edward Edwards and Minnie Kutch Edwards, lived on the Willow Creek Ranch north of Cora “in a dirt-floored cabin too low to stand up in.” In 1900, they moved to what is now the Edward Steele Ranch on the New Fork River, which they sold to homestead on Duck Creek.
He cowboyed for at least 70 years, working first for Art Mocroft when he registered to fight in World War I on June 5, 1917. Edwards also rode for Upper Green River Cattle Association for a number of years, helping Pete Karpi and Joe Card rebuild the Wind River corrals. He worked for the Lumans, John Bloom, the Barlows and the Richies, and was a brand inspector for the Rock Springs stockyards.
He married Mrs. Maude Holt McLoughlin in 1927; they divorced five years later.
“One fall not long before Percy passed away, he was at Richie's fall branding on the Muddy Place,” Sommers writes. “It was probably close to zero degrees with frost covering everything when everyone rode out to gather the cattle. All the cowboys were riding in a line, except Carole Richie and Jonita Sommers, and they were riding behind all the others. Not far from the corral, Percy's horse started bucking. Nobody looked or stopped talking. Percy just spurred the horse from the shoulder with each jump and his back was a straight as an arrow. Percy never bobbled in the saddle. In less than 10 jumps, the horse decided Percy had won and walked out with the rest.
He died on Dec. 30, 1980, at the Richie family’s Vible Place near Boulder.
In Edwards’ obituary, John Perry Barlow remembered him as “a gentleman” who could rope, dance, ride and work cattle.
“Percy also had in him all the qualities that define aristocracy: the dignity, the decency, and that remarkable erectness of posture he maintained,” Barlow wrote. “He came by those qualities rightly as a relation of the Great Chief Washakie on his father’s side and as the great-grandson of the Bannock Chief Tyhee, on his mother’s. However, he lived largely in a time when those attributes were much better appreciated than they are today.”
Walter ‘Buster’ McIlvain
Walter C. McIlvain was born on March 20, 1882, to Robert and Sarah Ann Woolworth McIlvain on LaBarge Creek. He wrote his life story for Eunice Ewer Wallace’s “They Made Wyoming Their Own.”
“The year I was 12, 1894, I was large for my age. I could ride and rope, and I felt very grown up. Times were hard, and there was a large family of us for my parent to clothe and feed, so I decided to leave home. The rest of the family moved to Kemmerer, but I wanted to stay in Green River country. I went to work for Rody Thornton and rode with Stan Murdock, his foreman. I worked for wages, but in my spare time I broke wild horses to ride. Would break three, and Murdock would keep two after I had chosen the one I wanted for mine. This is the way I got started trading horses – to trade horses, you must have horses to trade. The first horse I got I gave to my brother Newt (Robert) because he didn’t have a horse.”
McIlvain drove Thornton’s Figure 4 cattle to the railroad in Opal and spent “the longest night of my life” night-herding.
In 1895, he worked for the Spur Ranch, took a mess wagon and saddle horses to Idaho, received 3,000 steers and 20 horses and trailed back to LaBarge. There, they branded them, put them on the Piney range and shipped them East. After putting up hay, the Spur Ranch sold and McIlvain, just 13, worked on the Piney chuckwagon.
After that, McIlvain hung around the Ross Ranch on the New Fork. “In 1896, I was a 14-year-old lad making my own way on LaBarge and New Fork, and feeling that at last I was a man.”
He gathered and trailed steers to Opal and later was hired to break 50 “PL” geldings.
“Jim Black and I broke the 50 head and turned them over to John Angus. I was paid wages plus five dollars a head to ride these horses, and some were supposed to be real tough, but they didn’t give me much trouble.”
When McIlvain was 23, he won the Wyoming Tribune’s “most popular cowboy in Uinta and Sweetwater counties” and a trip to the Portland World Fair. He trailed and fed thousands more cattle, broke dozens more wild horses and drove the mail stage from Midway to the Charley Ball Ranch on Cottonwood Creek.
He married Mabel Nott on Nov. 15, 1908, in Uinta County and had one daughter, Lois.
In 1918, McIlvain and 18 other cowboys enlisted in the Army but he was injured and discharged. He became a county brand inspector, an inspector for the Wyoming Stockman’s Loan Company and Lincoln County sheriff for three terms. McIlvain died on Aug. 11, 1970, in Santa Clara, California.