Early Photos of the Bitterroot

We are very excited to share this collection of photographs depicting ranch life at the Bitterroot 100 years ago.

The images were shared with us by our neighbor John Finley, a descendent of the original settlers in this area. A very special thanks to John for the photos, the information about them and also for providing us with much of the history we know about the ranch.

John’s great uncle, Gavin Duncan, settled the part of the Bitterroot that is on the north side of the East Fork River. Gavin was the youngest of 4 brothers, all of whom immigrated from Scotland and homesteaded on the East Fork. The part of the Bitterroot on the south side of the river was originally part of the Wind River Indian Reservation but it was opened to settlement in 1906. It was purchased by the Campbell family, also from Scotland, and friends of the Duncan’s. Such a large number of Scots came to this area, in fact, that it became know as “Little Scotland.”

Binding Oats

Gavin Duncan stands in the foreground as a team works to bind oats in the fall. We still grow our own oats for the horses but now use a combine with 250 horsepower.

Family in wagon.

The Campbell family ready for a trip. The two distinctive spruce trees to the right of the family are still alive today, over 100 years after this photo was taken. We hope they last another 100 years.

The children in these photos are probably all from the family of John and Jeanie Campbell, as Gavin Duncan and his wife (also named Jeanie) never had children.  John’s brother Bob settled at the Bitterroot first and wrote his brother in Scotland to let him know he had a cabin ready for him to live in if he came to Wyoming with his family to help on the ranch. Apparently, only the first few logs had actually been put together when John and Jeanie arrived with their two oldest children. Doubtless Jeanie oversaw an increased speed in the pace of the construction project after her arrival! John and Jeanie’s grandson, Colin Campbell, said that the family lived in a tent for some time while that the cabin was being finished and told us that his father claimed to have been born beneath one of the spruce trees in the the photo behind the wagon.

The ranch seems relatively remote today but 100 years ago it was a completely different reality. Most families would travel to Lander, the county seat and only town in this part of Wyoming, twice a year to purchase necessities. The journey took two and half days on the way down and four days coming home with the wagon fully loaded. The nearest high school was also in Lander but understandably many children didn’t attend school after eighth grade. The Campbell’s ultimately moved to Lander in 1927, primarily so the children could attend high school according to Colin.


Boy on horse

The bloodlines of this horse looks slightly different than Mel’s current Arabian breeding program…

Pulling kids on sled

It wasn’t all hard work…

Today, the Bitterroot maintains a farm lower in the valley to feed and winter the livestock, but 100 years ago ranchers had to be almost completely self sufficient. On average we have only sixty frost free days each year, and it is hard to imagine the long hours that must have been put in to grow the feed necessary for the winter during such a short growing season. We now use the large irrigated flat area above the ranch, know as “the bench,” for summer pasture but as these images show it was previously used to produce a magnificent crop of hay. The labor to harvest the tons and tons of hay each year using only human and horse power (real horse power!) must have been extraordinary. It is little wonder that the ranchers did anything they could to make the work easier. One ingenious idea was the construction of a hay slide from the bench down to the vicinity of the barn yard to save hauling hay down in a wagon. Remnants of the old wood and tin chute can still be seen today.

We feel fortunate to have these photos and with them a record of the past. They came to us by a circuitous path. This area is not an easy place to make a living as a farmer and rancher and the Bitterroot went through a number of owners before Bayard arrived in 1971 (for a more complete description of ranch ownership visit the History of the Ranch page). Gavin and Jeanie Duncan sold their part of the ranch in 1921 and moved to the Lander area before ultimately returning to Scotland in 1925, taking with them this collection of photos. In 2001, Margaret Templeton, of Scotland found a photo album that had been passed down to her husband Douglas, the nephew of Jeanie Duncan. Margaret figured out that the ranch Gavin and Jeanie had homesteaded was now part of the Bitterroot. She got in touch with Bayard, hoping to find some descendants of the Duncan family who might be interested the photo album. Bayard introduced Margaret and Douglas to John Finley and they came over for a family reunion of sorts, bringing with them the photos.

Haying on bench

In the old days hay was raised on the bench for winter feed. All the labor was done by horse or by hand. This foal would follow along during the day’s work and grab a quick drink while the haying crew took a break.

Kids in hay on bench

During the harvest season the whole family would assist with the hard work of preparing for the long and hard winters