Friday, February 20, 2009

Butch Cassidy and The Hole in the Wall Gangs

by Jean Henry Mead

Wyoming’s infamous Hole in the Wall Canyon was inhabited by a number of outlaws during the second half of the 19th Century. The Big Horn Mountain hideout was a sanctuary for Civil War Deserters during the 1860s, followed by “Big Nose” George Parrot’s Powder River Gang from 1874 until 1885. Frank and Jesse James also used the outlaw cave following their 1878 Carbon, Wyoming, train robbery.

Word of the outlaw hideout soon spread and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch took refuge within the red sandstone walls. Robert Leroy Parker, aka George “Butch” Cassidy, is credited with first realizing the Hole’s potential for fattening and rebranding cattle before selling them in Montana. Aided by Harve Logan and other Wild Bunch members, Cassidy set up a series of relay stations with friendly ranchers so that fresh horses were available after a robbery, which enabled the gang to outdistance any posse. Once inside the Hole in the Wall canyon, several men with rifles could hold off their pursuers.

The Hole in the Wall is actually a misnomer for no hole exists. A rock littered valley stretches between two high cliffs. One is the thirty-mile long sandstone ledge called Red Wall, the other the southern end of the Big Horn Mountains. Buffalo Creek winds its way between the two ridges until it reaches a break in the wall near the Natrona-Johnson counties line.

Those who ranched along the outskirts of the Hole in the Wall noticed strange events taking place in conjunction with cattle thefts. Every spring, when Upper Buffalo Creek thawed, they would find huge bundles of weighted cowhide bound with baling wire that had floated out of the canyon. The rustlers tied the hides to large rocks and dropped them into deep pools within the canyon before selling the butchered beef to the Union Pacific and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad construction camps. The hides were carefully examined and found to have been rebranded. When the brands were impossible to disguise, patches of hide were cut from the cattle and new brands were stitched to the cattle with needle and thread.

The news media had a field day reporting on the ruggedly beautiful outlaw hideaway, claiming that every bandit in the Rocky Mountains was on his way there. But the hideout was no place for apprentice outlaws. The rough terrain is more suited to mountain goats than a rider astride a horse. Loose rocks and earth slides force inexperienced riders to dismount and scramble on foot to the opening in the wall.

My book, Escape, a Wyoming Historical
Novel, closely follows actual events of the late 1890s, the Wild Bunch’s ill-fated Belle Fourche, South Dakota, bank robbery as well as their exodus from the Hole in the Wall Canyon. A ten-page epilogue details all the Wild Bunch members' fates.

The Hole in the Wall was abandoned shortly before the 20th Century when the Four-State Governor’s Pact was enacted to exterminate outlaws. It was then that the Wild Bunch and most outlaws of their era left the country for Alaska and South America.


Helen Ginger said...

Interesting lesson, Jean. I had no idea exactly what the "hole in the wall" was.

Ben Small said...


Great article! I have friends who live in Sundance, not far from where The Kid was jailed. My brother in law has been to Hole in the Wall Canyon, says it's a great hideout because of the long vision lines. Down here in Arizona, of course, we have Cochise's Stronghold, which was more of a natural fortress. It's no wonder the feds couldn't get Cochise out for so long, although I don't think they tried all that hard. Most of the army out here were from back east, and they'd never seen an Injun, and the way the Apache moved, they wouldn't see them until they felt their arrows. But maybe their fear is why they blew those bugles so loud, to let everybody know they were coming... :<)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Great story, Jean. There is a similar boxed canyon near Alamagordo, NM, that the Native Americans used to herd stolen cattle/horses and then to hold out against the cavalry. Caves still work well for hiding outlaws -- they've just moved to Afghanistan.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Are you referring to Glorietta Pass, Mark? I lived in New Mexico for a while.

Mark W. Danielson said...

That was so many years ago, Jean. The last time I was there was in 1976, I had dark brown hair, had never thought about marriage, had more money than I knew what to do with making 15K a year, was building my airplane, and you're asking if I remember the name of a NM canyon? Not a chance:)