Cunningham Cabin 2: The horse thief that got away

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Certainly, a great many people are familiar with Cunningham Cabin and the famous shootout that occurred there in 1893. The incident involving a posse made up of men from Montana, Idaho, and Jackson Hole that resulted in the killing of two alleged horse thieves is one shrouded in mystery. All one can truly be certain of is two men died that day at the home of John Pierce Cunningham near present day Triangle X Ranch.

But the story that intrigues us at Buckrail is a lesser known tale, also involving alleged horse rustlers. In extensively researching it, we could find no confirmation on the validity of this story. No additional source to collaborate the memory of its author—Marion V. Allen—who documented the account in his book Early Jackson Hole.

There is no reason to believe the story untrue. Allen is often quite accurate and precise in his recollection and writings on the history of Jackson Hole when he lived in the valley from 1906-1923.

Horse thieves from Montana

Cunningham Cabin today.

This particular Allen yarn caught our eye. As a boy, Allen recalled spending time in JP Cunningham’s cabin. Allen worked for the man for a spell. One particular evening Allen remembers his boss playing host to some visitors who wanted to know more about the time when Cunningham was a Justice of the Peace.

Cunningham never liked to talk much about the shootout incident, but that was before he was a JP. On this particular night when Allen was listening, the author recalled another tale of horse thieves at the Cunningham cabin. [Allen does not reference a date here but it was likely sometime in the early 1900s.]

A couple of US Marshals from Montana stopped at the Cunningham place with three prisoners.  Two young men and an older man about 21 or 22 they called “Tutler.”

Apparently, the trio was caught swimming a herd of stolen horses across the Buffalo River at Turpin Meadows on their way to the Wind River. Cunningham was the nearest Justice of the Peace at that time so the marshals brought the prisoners there to spend the night and have Cunningham prepare the paperwork necessary to extradite the men back to Montana the next morning.

As they all sat in the living room after dinner, the marshals wanted to hear all about the shootout of 1893. Tutler wasn’t interested in that, and asked if he could sit outside on the porch in a rocking chair and chew some tobacco. It sounded alright to the marshals. Most of the porch was in view and they could hear him rocking.

The story of the shootout must have been engrossing because after an hour of its telling, marshals realized they hadn’t heard Tutler rocking in a while. One went to check. Sure enough, Tutler was gone.

The chase is on

The marshals searched the immediate area. It was dark by now and they could see no tracks. They relaxed a little when they checked the barn and saw Tutler’s horse and saddle still there. He couldn’t get far on foot in the dark, the marshals thought. So they decided to wait until daylight to run him down.

The next morning marshals made a disturbing discovery. Mrs. Cunningham’s saddle horse was missing from the pasture behind the barn. Tutler had taken the horse and, not stopping for saddle or even a bridle, made out south across Charlie Hedrick’s place and modern day Lost Creek Ranch until he hit the foothills and followed along those down through Antelope Flats.

Tutler’s getaway ride in black. Red building is Cunningham Cabin. Yellow diamond is approximate place Tutler turned back in Ditch Creek. Green symbol is Wiley Smith place where Tutler changed horses.

Marshals were hot on his trail when they noticed Tutler headed into Ditch Creek after watering his horse at Antelope Springs. Here they thought they had him for sure. They were hoping Tutler would mistake Ditch Creek for the Gros Ventre and get himself boxed in at the headwaters of Ditch.

But no, by his tracks, Tutler doubled back after too long and headed back down south to find the Gros Ventre. He passed the Greenough place then spied Wiley Smith’s old cabin along Turpin Creek just before in meets the Gros Ventre River.

It was nearly daylight by now and Tutler had about 15 miles on Maggie Cunningham’s horse, riding it bareback and presumably with only a halter rope for steering. Tutler traded out his spent mount for a fresh black horse at Smith’s place and continued up the Gros Ventre drainage.

It was here the marshals gave up the chase. With Tutler on a fresh mount, there was no chance of overtaking him now. They returned to Cunningham’s place defeated and dejected.

Maggie and J. Pierce Cunningham at home with their beloved Buick. (Discover Grand Teton)

According to Allen, the marshals turned the two younger boys loose to their parents in Montana who were ranchers. Without the ringleader Tutler they didn’t have much of a case.

Meanwhile, Wiley’s nearest neighbor, Billy Biers, made a visit to the Smith place to inform him he had a horse of a different color in his pasture. It was news to him but he did recall his dogs barking sometime during the night. Smith’s black horse eventually returned on its own months later. Maggie’s horse was brought back to the Cunningham place, and Pierce said that horse wasn’t much good the rest of the summer for the hard ride. Maggie admitted she was glad Tutler had gotten away because she thought him too young to hang for the offense.

Was that the last anyone saw of Tutler? Pierce Cunningham claims he met a successful rancher going by a different name years later who sure looked an awful lot like him.

Buckrail could find no record of the incident or Tutler himself. Nor Tuttle, nor Butler, nor Cutler, nor Turtle. We’ll have to take the story as just that. And what a tale it is.

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