Monday, July 16, 2012

Finding Charley Royer

I have the cattle industry in Wyoming in mind today because my grandfather was a cowboy there who never got to tell me his stories because he died 100 years ago this year, a 40 year old man with a wife and two children who was swept off a snowy Wyoming mountainside near where he had homesteaded, in Jackson Hole. 

They found him eight hours later. His heels were up against his head and the crowbar he was using to wedge dynamite into rocks along the path of the Nelson Irrigation Canal was resting on his chest. 

We know most everything about my Mom’s family.  The Hampsons were grocers and shopkeepers, many college educated, all documented in hundreds of pictures and letters, well-positioned on the Internet today, waiting to be found with a few keystrokes. 

Not so my Dad’s family.  They were roughnecks.  They lived on the edges of the continent and sometimes fell off, or got sick or had something fall on them or blow up in their hands.  Their afterlife on the Internet is, like their real lives, on the edge.

The Internet is one kind of life after death.  If you can be found, you can be still be alive to the people who matter.  That’s why I’ve been looking for Charley Royer.  I want more of his life. 

I have a handful of possessions that tell me something about Charley Royer.  One is unusual in that it is a candid photo shot in the A. A. Brown Studio in Rawlins, Wyoming.  He’s about to lick the edge of a cigarette he has rolled while another person -- turns out it is his father-in-law to be, my great grandfather – who is looking on across a fake tree stump and other props populating the studio.  The sun has badly faded this photo, propped, as it must have been, on a windowsill for many years. 

David Cripe had bicycled from Delphi, Indiana to Wyoming and settled with other Dunkards at Spring Creek, where with members of the Foutz family, built a pretty big house near the creek.  David axe-hewed the locally cut timber, put it all together and started taking in boarders.

That's where Charley Royer met Esther Cripe, David's daughter and just 18, while Charley boarded.  They are standing in front of the home that David Cripe and the Fautz family built five miles north of Saratoga.  Charley has a ridiculous tie on, the bottom part cut off, perhaps to repair a quilt.  Estie is her earnest self, staring at the camera just like she played cribbage, one hand behind her back.  On the front, she has written, "Just Married."

A third photo shows a few heifers in a field of sage brush.  On the back, with her shaky handwriting, my grandmother writes:   

“Charley’s and my start.”
That was Charley Royer's 'herd,' a handful of cattle that made him a rancher, gave him status in his tough town and, during the good times there, provided well enough.

Something happened recently that gave me a few more items to think about and add a bit more flesh to the cold bones of Charley Royer. 

Pick Ranch Round up Crew, 1894
Charley Royer is second from left
University of Wyoming Collections
First was a picture I found in the University of Wyoming Photography Collection when I changed the search from Charley Royer to Chas. Royer.  Bingo!  There’s the young cowboy, 22 years old in 1894, working on the Pick Ranch Roundup. 

Calm and confident, he looks into the lens with his legs around an odd looking horse with a speckled face, but I’m guessing a damned fine horse that performed to Charley’s considerable horse expectations. 

Charley’s hat is cooler than most of his colleagues and his forearms are crossed easily over the top of the saddle pommel.  He looks ready for work, a tough western kid who knows hard work and doesn’t complain, though I wonder, looking hard at the photo, if he didn’t leave his rope back in the tent.

That’s the Charley Royer I’ve been waiting a long time to see.

The other thing that happened is that I found the Wyoming Newspaper Project, an on-line, searchable data base of more than a million newspaper pages.  Charley, who moved to the Snowy Hills area of Wyoming in 1893 when he was just 21, exists on a lot of those digitized pages. 

Created by the Wyoming State Archives, the Wyoming Historical Society, the Wyoming State Library, the University of Wyoming Library and the Wyoming Press Association, the data base allows you to search by newspaper, by county, by city or by key words across the data base.  It started in 2009, long after I thought I had all the information I’d likely be getting about Charley Royer without moving to Wyoming.  While still a work in progress, it will only get better – and it is free.

Charley’s choice to move to Wyoming feels like a difficult one and made just as he was coming of age.  Born in Logan, Ohio in 1872, his father, Israel Royer and mother, Nancy Ann Fox, were rural people living in a southeastern Ohio town separated from the rest of the state by the Ohio hill country and the Hocking Forest.  Charley’s birth there would have pushed the population of Logan one person closer to 2,000.

The family bumped along, south and west to Indiana, likely into Kentucky and up to Southern Illinois where Nancy Ann Fox had family.  Babies came along the way and Charley’s dad, Israel, honed his skills as a tree fruit expert and planted fruit trees for the farms they passed through and sometimes settled in. 

When Charley was in his teens, Israel answered an ad from the Sac and Fox Indian Agency in Oklahoma, then known as the Indian Territory, where several tribes were settled under government protection.  It was part of federal policy removing tribes from the east and south to the Midwest that would, President Andrew Jackson argued, make both Indian and settler safer.  The policy also contemplated a transition into agriculture and small farming for the resettled Indians, though many wanted to keep the culture they grew up in.  Israel would become a part of that policy with his tree fruit expertise.

Moses Keokuk in 1868
American Tribes
Soon, the Sac and Fox lands were full of fruit trees and Israel was friends with the Sac and Fox chief, Moses Keokuk.  When the chief’s wife died, it was a tradition to burn the teepee they lived in, but it seemed a shame to burn the brick house built for Keokuk by the government when he brought his tribe to the Indian Territory.  He moved out of the brick house and gave it to Israel for his family.  Charley probably lived in that house for a time.

However, government policy on the Indian Territory changed as pressure mounted from settlers who wanted much of the Oklahoma lands opened up for homesteading.  Israel by now was running a transportation business around Stroud, in the Indian Territory, his horse and wagon bringing goods and supplies to the Sac and Fox Agency.  In 1889, the first of several “runs for the land” occurred, with settlers allowed to claim unassigned lands in the Indian Territory.  As federal policy changed further, additional land runs were held until in 1891, Israel would join thousands of others to run for the land on the Sac and Fox reservation where the tribe ceded its reservation in return for 160 acres to each of the nearly 600 tribal members, the remaining land subject to the run for the land settlers. Israel was successful, got his land and is buried there.  The property is still in the hands of his descendants. 
That year, when he was 21, Charley headed up toward Wyoming.  He was no tree fruit guy.  Charley Royer was a cowboy.

When Charley arrived in Wyoming, the state was in considerable turmoil.  An open range war was taking place, the Johnson County War, with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association deciding on violent action against smaller homesteaders who they liked to call rustlers.  It was a particularly tough time for anyone ranching in Wyoming.  Their stock operations were badly damaged by the cattle die-offs during the blizzards of 1886/87.  It wasn’t all weather that worked against them.  The monopoly practices of the stock growers, who decided what cowboys would be hired for the round-ups, what unbranded cattle would go to whom and who was a rustler and who was not.  Those who were deemed rustlers by the association were lynched or otherwise murdered at no legal risk to the association or to their employees who actually looped the rope around the necks of people they believed were rustlers -- or those they thought were about to become one.

In 1892, the small groups homesteading in the north of the new state formed their own association, a move the stock growers, urged on by the big Johnson County ranchers, saw as abetting the rustlers. The stock growers decided to do something about it once and for all.  They first hired some muscle, 21 gunmen from Texas and one from Idaho.  Their plan was to take the train from Cheyenne to Casper, gather there and head up to Buffalo, the county seat of Johnson County, where they would seize the court house, get hold of the heavy weapons stored there and chase off or kill somewhere between 15 and 70 people they had on a list.  All of this, they thought, would take place with the full support of the good citizens of Johnson County.

On the way, they stopped at the big Tisdale Ranch, picking up some reinforcements, but while there they heard that 14 rustlers were holed up at the KC Ranch nearby.  They changed plans and laid siege to one of the cabins on the ranch where, in fact, two local cattlemen and a couple of trappers were staying there.  The two trappers tried to escape and were captured by the stockgrowers.  The private army then opened up on the cabin, killing one of the residents and, after they set fire to the house, capturing the other.

Two locals passing by saw what was happening and were detained.  However, they managed to escape and lit out for Buffalo, bringing news of the insurrection.  Buffalo was not a friendly place for the big ranchers and people there believed the big guys were after small ranchers, not rustlers, who many people in Buffalo used a different name for -- neighbors. 

After the confrontation at the KC Ranch, one of the Johnson County ranchers urged caution and the insurrection went to a ranch nearby to consider options.  Soon, the Johnson County Sheriff and a number of locals surrounded the ranch and were reinforced by state militia.  After two days, the stock growers and their muscle gave up, were arrested and several were later charged.  None were brought to trial. 

In 1897, Charley had to return briefly to the Indian Territory to help bury his dad, Israel, who died of ptomaine poisoning while transporting goods from Guthrie to Stroud. 

Estie Cripe at about 16 years
When Charley returned, he signed on as one of two boarders in John Cripe’s house in South Spring Creek, outside Grand Encampment.  David's daughter Estie lived there and soon her sister, Sadie, joined her. They had come from Indiana where the family was part of the German migration that took place before the Civil War and had a role in saving border states for the union, especially Missouri.  The Cripes were Dunkards, full immersion protestants, and Wyoming was promising.

When Charley went to his dad’s funeral in the Oklahoma Territory, Grand Encampment, Wyoming was a cattle town.  When he came back, it was becoming a copper town.  Nearby, copper ore yielding nearly 33% copper had been discovered at the Ferris-Haggarty Mine.  Soon, the Boston-Wyoming Smelter Company found a lot of money to build a smelter and an overhead tramway that ran 16 miles from the mine face to its smelter in Grand Encampment.  Suddenly, Grand Encampment was thinking about incorporating.  And it did, in 1900.  It also thought about hiring Charley Royer as a town Marshal, which it also did, in 1902, paying him $90/month. Soon they needed an opera house, and they got one of those too.

Charley worked at just about everything, calling himself a rancher, a miner, a butcher and a cowboy.  He was well-liked and wowed the folks at a costume dance in 1998 which he attended with his brother Lew as an Indian Chief, perhaps something he brought back after Israel’s funeral, perhaps something given him by Moses Keokuk.  His costume was voted the most beautiful.   

His companion at these dances was Estie Cripe and, in June, 1900, they were married in Saratoga, at the home of the Justice of the Peace -- just family present.  Then they went out to the house on Spring Creek and posed on the porch.

Grand Encampment, About 1900
His wedding announcement had him also working as a butcher partnering with a man named Norwich.  Moving into Saratoga from the Cripe place at Spring Creek.  Then he became Marshall in Encampment and he bought half a block along with his brother in laws.  There is evidence they were doing well.  Chas.  Royer, for instance, had a telephone, #55.  Marshal Charley was praised highly in the Grand Encampment Herald in the spring of 1903, a few months after my dad was born:

"The town of Grand Encampment is an orderly place, one of the best behaved mining camps known.  This fact is due chiefly to efficient officers such as Marshal Charles Royer and Night Marshal Ben Gabbott, who have been reappointed by the city council.  These gentlemen are indeed stars in their line and know how to keep order."

On the other hand, Estie and Charley frequently showed up in the newspaper listing properties to be sold for non-payment of property tax, on which was added a late fee and a charge for the advertising announcement in the paper.  While Charley worked hard, he appears to have been a lousy businessman.  Even worse, the combination of law enforcement and cattle ranching made life dangerous for him.  

“Chas. Royer Shot.”

“Tuesday, while looking for stock in the Jack Creek country, Chas. Royer was fired upon by an unknown party, inflicting a flesh wound just over the kidneys.  Royer rode to the ranch of Alex. McPhail on Spring Creek after receiving the wound, and Wednesday was taken to Encampment.”

“Royer had dismounted to water his horse and take a drink of the water from Jack Creek, himself, when he felt the twinge of a bullet and the report of a rifle.  The bullet entered the left side, passing just under the skin and missing the backbone by but a hair’s breadth.”

Saratoga Sun, May 1905

My grandmother, not much of a talker, told me once as a child a story of their returning to Saratoga from Encampment late at night in a carriage.  Three toughs on horseback followed them the whole way, a hundred yards back.  Charley loaded his rifle and handed her his pistol. 

I asked her what she expected to do.

“I’d of killed those that Charley didn’t.”

Two fires at the smelter, a stock scandal and a drop in copper prices took the Grand out of Grand Encampment and the mine and smelter closed in 1908.  There was no one to police or cut meat for and a brief item in the Rawlins newspaper notes that a certain plaintiff, the Cosgriff Brothers, the largest sheep owners in Wyoming, had won a judgment of $569.56 against Chas. Royer, six months pay if he was still working as a sheriff, which he wasn’t.

Charley and Estie did what many people in dying communities do – they turned to tourism.  In 1908, they guided two couples from Chicago into the lake country around Spring Creek for a month’s worth of fishing and hunting.  The Grand Encampment Herald was effusive:

“They went with a complete pack out-fit and with Mr.  Royer as guide they are assured of having a splendid time in the hills.”

The Sidleys and the Copelands of Chicago came back the next year, 1909, and spent a month in Yellowstone.  Charley and Estie decided to just stay there in Teton County, filing papers on a homestead in Jackson Hole where they continued working on what they called a dude ranch, taking in people at their house or guiding them into the wilderness.  Charley was particularly well-known as an elk hunter and brought some fancy names, like Robert W. Service, the poet, to a big game prize. 

After they buried Charley, Estie tried to hold on to the homestead, but took up with a cranky older man named Roth who was mean and had just one eye but promised to take care of the kids.  He ran off after she had one of his.

Estie turned to cooking in logging camps while raising her three children.  But the dangerous world that was Wyoming in the first two decades of the last century fought her the whole way.  One son died in the great influenza epidemic, another was crushed in a railroading accident and a third blew off his hand while playing with a blasting cap. 

She didn’t say much, never wept and was a cutthroat cribbage player, even while teaching a child.  She worked.  She’d kill a chicken for Sunday dinner while pulling weeds in the garden.  There was nothing sentimental about her, except I knew, somehow, she loved me. 

I have no idea what she did when they told her what had happened to Charley up on the Nelson Irrigation Project.  But I have an informed supposition.  The snow slide happened at 5:00 PM and they found him at 1:00 AM. 

I’m almost sure that when the men who delivered the news left, she went back into the kitchen and started breakfast for the kids, who’d be waking up soon, and she needed to carefully figure out the 35 or so words she’d have to say to them.

Oklahoma State Oral History, Israel Royer Farm

Wyoming Historical Society, Johnson County War


  1. What a great delivery of a compelling story! Thanks for sharing the rewards of your intensive research! We are all the product of luck, good fortune, bad weather, and marginal decisions that seem simple at the time, but reflect an overwhelming confidence in the future. Charley and his progeny have changed the world...

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. It is so well written. It completely captivated me. I didn't know you were a writer! Laurie Claudon

  3. My great-grandparents had a beef ranch and road house in Riverside/Encampment at the same time Charley lived there. In fact Charley and Estie were married the same summer as my grandparents. I am sure they all knew each other.

    1. In fact, your great grandfather married them in his brand new house!! He was the Justice of the Peace!

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