The legend of “the incident” at Cunningham place

Written by Samantha Ford

On April 6, 1893, an event took place at an old cabin that would go down as Jackson Hole legend. At the time, it shocked the community so much that they downplayed the events and only referred to it as “the incident” at the Cunningham place, if they spoke of it at all. In the 1890s Jackson Hole had a reputation as a holdout for outlaws, spread by outsiders. An isolated mountain town was the perfect backdrop for stories associated with The Wild West. In Jackson, the reality was much different. One early homesteader illuminates how the locals felt about these tall tales, “Any time you’d hear the sheriff couldn’t get him, you’d hear about Jackson Hole. At the boarding house in Idaho, they talk about outlaw hideouts in the Hole. The damn fools were crazy. You couldn’t live in these mountains and keep a horse or feed. An outlaw wouldn’t come into country like this.”

John Pierce Cunningham was one of the first homesteaders in Jackson Hole, arriving in 1885. He hunted and trapped for a few years before settling on his land and marrying. In 1888 John and his wife Margaret built their log cabin, which still stands today. By 1895, the Cunninghams constructed a house, and the old cabin was converted for use as a barn. In 1893, Pierce was working land on Flat Creek by the newly forming town of Jackson. From here, we embark on a story purposefully confusing, and conflicting by those involved, trying their best to cover their tracks.

The Cunningham Cabin. Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum collection, 1992.4336.001.001

Mike Burnett and George Spencer were living at the Cunningham cabin while Pierce was near town. It is speculated that Cunningham gave the men permission to use his ranch, as his hired man was with them, to keep an eye on things. Other stories report that they were squatting on the empty ranch, and when Cunningham went to check on the men (or his ranch), he noticed altered brands on the horses the men were moving through the area and raised the alarm. Two men arrived from Idaho claiming to be trailing horse thieves through Montana and believed them to be Burnett and Spencer. A posse departed from Jackson, intent on taking in the thieves. It wasn’t until much later that anyone thought to question the identity of these two mysterious sheriffs, who claimed the ability to deputize the locals.

The sheriffs and deputized posse rode up to the ranch under cover of night, expecting an easy capture. Cornered the next morning, Burnett and Spencer declined to surrender and opened fire on the posse. They were outnumbered and killed. The bodies were carried a short distance and buried. When the posse had arrived on the ranch, there apparently were no horses to be found. Those involved reasoned that the thieves may have already taken the horses out of the valley, and returned to gather some items. Many feared that rather than serving justice, they had actually committed murder.

After the incident, Cunningham continued to live and work on his ranch, undeterred by the violence that had taken place. In his later years, he was the only old-timer who would speak about the event. Whether his stories were based on fact or fiction isn’t known, as he declined to be part of the posse. He may have intended to keep the fictional elements alive when people began digging into history and rediscovered the Incident at the Cunningham Ranch.

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