Sam Smith

Sam Smith

The Jan. 20, 2021, issue of The Mountaineer contained a feature article entitled “The Outlaws of the Wild West” by Joanna Swanson.

That account reminded me of an indirect family connection of mine, which occurred during that period of time in the history of our country. An account of that connection appears below.

My grandmother grew up in a family of 11 brothers in which she was the only girl. An uncle to those children went west during the time of the gold rush and, failing to make his fortune in the gold fields, set out on a return trip to southwestern Illinois.

Somewhere along the way he was side-tracked and, instead of returning to Illinois, ended up homesteading in Crook County, Wyoming, some 30 miles west of Sundance.

As my grandmother’s brothers grew into adulthood, six or seven of them followed their uncle, also homesteaded in Crook County, became ranchers and succeeded in becoming successful cattlemen.

In time, the great Empire Sheep Company moved into the same area, a development that ultimately spawned the classic conflict between cattlemen and sheep herders and, eventually, resulted in open warfare among the two parties.

A group of eight to 10 Crook County ranchers banded together and decided to harass the Empire Sheep men and, hopefully, run them out of Crook County. Hay was burned, wagons and barns destroyed, all with the intent of driving the sheep company out of business and out of the area.

Things got so bad that the county fathers eventually brought in a range detective from Texas to track down those responsible and bring them to justice. The cattlemen involved were eventually caught, convicted, fined and placed on probation.

In 2006, my bother and I visited our relatives in Crook County, Wyoming. While there, we spent some time in Moorcroft in a small museum, which had been established by some of our relatives.

The displays included a bulletin board that contained local newspaper accounts of the apprehension of the ranchers’ gang and the outcome of their trial.

In reading through the account, I called to my brother: “Look, Dan! There’s Uncle Henry!” Sure enough, one of my grandmother’s brothers, Henry Zimmerschied, a member of the gang, was one of the named defendants.

Fast forward to 1969

In 1969, the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released. In one episode, Butch and Sundance are up on a high rock outcropping where they’d been cornered with only a stream far below as a possible solution. It was decision time.

Either they stay there high above on the rocks and be captured, or leap into the rushing waters below and, hopefully, escape.

In the distance, one can see the posse inexorably following the trail of the two outlaws. And leading the posse was a horseman in a white hat, clearly visible and drawing nearer.

One of the pair, in exasperation says “Who is that guy?” and the other returns: “That’s Joe Lefors.” There’s a second episode in the movie. The end is near.

Butch and Sundance are cornered in an empty building. The courtyard outside is surrounded by what appears to be the entire Mexican Army.

Shot up, mortally wounded, barely able to speak, one of them looks out the door. When he turns back, the other one says: “Did you see Joe Lefors out there?” And the other one remarks: “No.” The first then responds: “For a minute I thought we were in trouble.”

And then they die in a hail of gunfire.

Family tie

Meanwhile, back to the newspaper account in the family museum in Moorcroft, Wyoming. The remainder of the account revealed that the lawman who brought the Crook County gang — including my Great Uncle Henry — to justice some few miles west of Sundance, Wyoming, was the same Joe Lefors who had tracked down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie by the same name.

It is, indeed, a small world.

Note: Incidentally, Joe Lefors is buried in the Willow Grove Cemetery in Buffalo, Wyoming.

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