Clarion Homesteaders of Rawhide Butte
How Amateur Historian Solved Family Mystery
Bob Henry grew up hearing stories about his great-grandfather who had supposedly homesteaded in Wyoming. The details were murky, and nobody in the family seemed to know much, but as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, the mystery captured his imagination, and over the years, his curiosity grew.
Seven years ago, now retired and living in Cheyenne, Henry set out to piece together this genealogical mystery. In doing so, he not only unearthed his own family’s story, but wove together the history and story of 35 homesteaders in the Rawhide Butte community during the early 1900s, with lasting ties and connections that still linger today. Over the weekend, Henry shared his findings, which he hopes to turn into a book, with a two-part presentation at the Rockpile Museum, where many residents gathered to hear his story and share their own.
Theirs, like others, was just an ordinary family, Henry began almost apologetically.
“They were just average people,” he said. “Nobody went to jail, but there were no presidents either.”
Regardless of their legendary status or fame, these shadowy figures from the past are for many families heroes in their own right. Patriarchs and grandmothers, uncles, and great-aunts at the head of family trees, whose lives have meaningful relevance and whose mysteries subsequent generations innately feel compelled to solve.
In Henry’s case, his great-grandparents were two of three dozen people from the tiny town of Clarion, Iowa, who had headed West with the promise of a free 320-acreparcel of land in the wake of the Enlarged Homestead Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Henry’s great-grandparents, Allen and Elmina Jane (Thorp) Hughes, settled with the other Clarion transplants on Rawhide Butte in 1910. He has no idea what prompted them to come, though as farmers, they probably felt well suited to give life in the western plains a try.
Though his grandparents, along with the majority of other Clarion families, left the area nearly a decade later after battling a few bad years of drought, their story, for him, is not one of failure but rather just another interesting chapter in their lives that he’s enjoyed spending the last several years unraveling.
Reading Between the Lines
Though no doubt intrusive to those names who appeared in those early pages of the Campbell County Record, the stories nonetheless provided Henry with a wealth of information that ultimately opened other doors.
Not knowing where to begin, he did a few Google searches that led him to the Wyoming Newspaper project database, which contains over 800,000 digital archives of newspapers from around the state dating back to 1849. Initially, he was shocked to see how many times his family’s names appeared in print, which due to the gossipy nature of the reporting, he was able to assemble a fairly exhaustive – if not, judgmental – accounting of their early lives.
Front-page articles letting readers know that “Mr. Hughes is busy husking corn,” “Mr. Hughes and family were among those who came in to vote Monday,” or “Mrs. AA Hughes was in from her ranch home Saturday attending to shopping errands” provided an exhaustive, if not tedious, snapshot of their daily lives homesteading in Rawhide Buttes. Other stories about family dinners and meetings helped connect other ancestral dots as well as help him piece together the larger story.
Back then, as Henry pointed out, there were no privacy laws and much of the “news” was gathered by “reporters” at church or at the depot as trains were coming and going. As such, he was able to weave together a mosaic of his grandparents and the small Clarion community based on facts and innuendo in the news pages.
“Nothing delighted them more than rumors of romance,” Henry said with a smile, pointing out stories of couples “who slipped out” to return married, or married neighbors spending too much time talking across fences in their yards.
Regardless, they proved to be pivotal in Henry’s own research.
“There were a lot of footprints in those papers,” he said with a secretive smile.
Wealth of Local Resources
The Rockpile Museum also proved to be a great resource for Henry. He’ll never forget his first conversation with Education Coordinator Penny Schroder.
“She asked me, with some glee, if I knew that my great-grandparents had divorced,” he said with a laugh. “No, I told her, I didn’t.”
Schroder was also able to connect Henry with local residents whose relatives’ lives had overlapped with his own, helping him solve the mystery of where his mother got her first name, which was something he’d never thought to question. Henry’s grandmother, as it turned out, had been named after a close neighbor in the Rawhide community, a mother with tuberculous, who later died.
Other resources, like the family records section at the Campbell County Public Library, also helped him fill the holes, complete with obituaries, and news stories organized and catalogued under individual family names.
“It proved to be an amazing resource,” he said.
The Campbell County Clerk’s recording office was also a great help. Henry was able to track the sale of his great-grandparent’s homestead after they proved up and sold before heading to New York to begin a new life, for reasons that still remain a mystery for Henry.
As part of the homesteading process, proving up is what happened at the end of five years, and required building a home and farming the land in order to take legal possession of the property.
One thing to note, Henry cautioned, is that homesteads that were not proved up didn’t have any documentation filed, so those records are not necessarily conclusive.
Adoption, marriage, and military records, too, are sealed off, so people need to be forewarned that they might hit a brick wall, like Henry did as he tried to piece together two mystery children that his great-grandparents had adopted in addition to their own.
Another tip he has for anyone researching their own genealogy is to be aware of the various misspellings of their family name, a problem he ran into this a lot during his own research.
“A lot of the newspaper articles were written by hand and later deciphered by a typesetter, who may or may not be able to read that reporter’s notes,” he said. Multiple searches utilizing spelling variations went a long way in helping him.
In the end, the people he met along the way and the generous support of those he contacted ultimately proved to be the greatest surprise for Henry, who in researching his roots, made several new friends and connections as the family stories overlapped.
“I was amazed at how helpful people were and how interested they were in helping me track down my family’s story,” he said. Now, he is enjoying his new connection to Gillette, a town he’d maybe stopped in once or twice prior to his research, and had never given much thought.
Now, he has new roots and a whole new chapter to write about.