The unincorporated town of Big Horn, situated next to Little Goose Creek in the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, holds a special place in Sheridan County history. Before there was a Sheridan County, Big Horn City was the hub of activity for ranchers, outlaws, polo players, settlers, and other characters in the area.
Road to Montana
The Bozeman Trail, known as “The Bloody Bozeman,” was a spur of the Oregon Trail, connecting travelers south of the Platte River (at modern-day Casper) with the gold fields of Virginia City, Montana. The trail earned its unfortunate nickname from 1864 to 1868, when approximately 3,500 people traveled it, with a roughly 1 in 100 chance of survival.
The Lakota, Arapaho, Shoshone, and Crow nations were the primary threat. Everyone, even the U.S. government, recognized the territory as a hunting ground under tribal sovereignty. Nevertheless, the army was unable to stop the flow of immigrants north.
After the end of the Civil War, traffic along the Bozeman Trail increased significantly.
The trail followed modern-day Prairie Dog Creek, as much as it can be said to have followed anything. In reality, it took as many different turns as there were expeditions. From season to season, the crossings and grades were renegotiated.
In their struggle to protect the travelers, the Army came to rely on a shortcut. They crossed Little Goose Creek, where Big Horn is today, and continued north along the face of the Bighorns to Soldier Ridge near Sheridan.
In 1868, the Lakota leader Red Cloud negotiated the Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the closing of the Bozeman Trail and the forts that protected it.
However, by 1876, the Army had reopened the trail.
A City is Born
Oliver Perry “O.P.” Hanna, a colorful Buffalo hunter and all-around adventurer, first took note of the area where the “old Army cutoff” crossed Little Goose Creek, while on a hunt in the winter of 1878-1879 along the frozen Tongue and Yellowstone rivers.
The Rock Creek Stage Line had built a blacksmith shop at the crossing by the time Hanna returned with a plow. He chose his homestead along a nearby creek (now named Hanna Creek).
By 1882, a number of others had joined Hanna as residents, and Big Horn City was officially established.
John Sackett and Charles W. Skinner opened the area’s first mercantile and post office soon after. Hanna built the Oriental Hotel across from the Big Horn Mercantile and quickly began making a profit from weary travelers using the stageline between the Union Pacific Railroad and Yellowstone.
At its peak, Big Horn City had nearly 1,000 residents and supported a college, a newspaper, a hotel, a brick factory, two churches, two saloons, a livery barn, and a mercantile.
While every western town wants to claim association with famous outlaws, the James gang actually has credible historical links to Big Horn City. Early settlers’ journals and personal anecdotes are littered with references to the James brothers. Local historians believe that, among other hideouts, the outlaws often used a dugout along Little Goose near where the population sign stands today.
Two factors changed Big Horn City’s trajectory forever. First, in 1888, the brand-new town of Sheridan was chosen as the county seat. Second, in 1891, residents and business owners heard the news that the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad was being surveyed through Sheridan. By the time the railroad arrived in Sheridan in 1893, the majority of them were there to greet it.
The change was dramatic, but Big Horn never became a ghost town. It just lost the “City” and, if you ask some folks, that’s just fine.
The town of Big Horn has been content to let the city of Sheridan take the lead over the years. Little Goose Creek still flows out of the Bighorns; sandbars come and go, but the character of the place is unchanged.
A Horse for Every Occasion
In the 1890s, a particular type of immigrant from the United Kingdom took an interest in Big Horn. Many of them were second or third-born sons of nobility who stood little chance of inheriting any land at home.
Englishman Oliver H. Wallop, and two Scottish brothers named William and Malcolm Moncreiffe, settled near Big Horn City and began capturing, breeding, and training horses.
Wallop and the Moncreiffes held Wyoming’s first polo matches and they weren’t picky about recruiting players for their teams. On the fields near the city, cowboys could be found playing right alongside the sons of earls and barons against the British cavalry.
The relationships formed on those fields, as well as the display of impressive and readily available horses, led to a contract to supply mounts for use in the Boer War in South Africa. Further contracts followed throughout World War I.
As purveyors of highly prized (and priced) polo ponies, and major suppliers for the British cavalry, the French, and others, the U.K. expatriates put Big Horn City at the center of the global horse market.
Mechanization eventually made the war horse obsolete, but polo is as popular as ever. The Big Horn Equestrian Center and the Flying H Polo Club host matches all summer long. Many of the sport’s best players travel from around the world to play in Big Horn.
The Wild West
It wasn’t just horses that brought people to Big Horn, it was an entire lifestyle. “Just about everybody who is anybody in England came here to hunt, fish, and ‘have adventures’ in the wild west,” historian Elsa Spear Byron told a Virginia newspaper in 1984.
Americans with money were drawn to the polo culture and many of them invested in ranches made up of hundreds of smaller homesteads. These large ranches preserve the continuity of the landscape and are a legacy that benefits anyone who appreciates Sheridan County.
The Bighorn Mountains were a favorite destination for Ernest Hemingway and his short story “Wine of Wyoming” was inspired by the Last Chance Saloon in Big Horn. Hemingway visited in 1929, during prohibition.
Even Queen Elizabeth II took a private vacation to Big Horn in the 1980s, to visit Lady Jean Porchester, known locally as Jeannie Wallop (the granddaughter of Oliver H. Wallop).
A Colorful Character
The uses of some of the buildings may have changed, but the overall appearance of downtown Big Horn is remarkably similar to when it first sprung up in 1882.
• For over 100 years, the Mercantile operated as a grocery store, post office, and eventually gas station. More recently, it has housed a few different eateries and is currently a brick-oven pizzeria.
• The blacksmith shop at the crossing of Little Goose Creek is home to the Bozeman Trail Museum, full of fascinating odds and ends from local history.
• The old storage barn for the Mercantile has been completely refurbished into “The Barn in Big Horn,” a luxury event venue.
• The Bozeman Trail Inn has served as a bar and restaurant under different names over the years. Until recently, it was The Big Horn Smokehouse, but will soon reopen as The Livery Stable.
• The Last Chance Saloon is still exactly the same.
Many other buildings around Big Horn are preserved, maintaining the timeless nature of the place.
The original Moncreiffe ranch house is the home of The Brinton Museum, which mixes elements of old and new. The house and surrounding grounds are kept in peak nineteenth-century condition while, in the hill behind them, lies the fully modern, Forrest E. Mars Jr. Building. The facility is three stories, yet it is built into the hillside and has the highest structural rammed earth wall in North America at 51-feet.
Census data reveals that Big Horn has some qualities that are unique for Wyoming. Viewed in a historical context, these rankings make sense:
• Foreign-born population percentage significantly above state average.
• Length of stay since moving in above state average.
• House age above state average.
• Number of college students significantly above state average.
• Percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree or higher above state average.
Things do change in Big Horn; they always have. For example, a Big Horn resident is much more likely to work in arts, entertainment, and recreation than agriculture these days.
Also, between 2000 and 2010, the population of Big Horn nearly doubled. With the 2020 census around the corner, it seems likely that it has grown even more. Big Horn has weathered such changes before. Whatever happens, it can only add color to the character of the place.
By: Kevin M. Knapp for 82801