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Otto Franc

Texas Jack led four groups of European aristocrats on hunting expeditions in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. In all four cases, those aristocrats returned to either buy land or invest in livestock management during the cattle boom that began shortly after Omohundro's death. The last of those men to make the Western trek with Texas Jack was Count Otto Franc von Lichtenstein, and he became the only one of those men to not only invest in buying Wyoming land and filling it with cattle but to actually live on and run the ranch he started.

Otto Franc

We covered Franc's trek with his friend Amandus Ferber under the watchful eye of Texas Jack in detail earlier this year. They began in Rawlins, Wyoming, and traveled south for a few weeks before restocking and heading north, passing through the Wind River Canyon and into the Bighorn Basin to hunt deer, elk, antelope, and buffalo. In his journals, Franc marveled at the abundance of wildlife feeding on the tall grass of the basin. He asked his guide if he thought the region would be well suited for raising cattle, and Texas Jack told him that in his experience cattle could thrive anywhere buffalo could. When the trek was over, Franc returned home, got his affairs in order, and went back to the Bighorn Basin where he broke ground on his first cabin on the Greybull River, a tributary of the Bighorn River, near present-day Meeteetse.

In the course of running the ranch, Franc hired a pair of young men named Robert Parker and Al Hainer. After three of Franc's horses disappeared, the pair were arrested. Hainer was acquitted, possibly because he testified as a witness against his friend Parker, who was convicted of the crime and sentenced to the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Parker was pardoned by Wyoming's governor three years later, but while serving time he became convinced that he could make more money as a full time criminal than as a ranch hand. Using a nickname from his time as a butcher in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and the surname of a cattle thief he had worked with named Mike Cassidy, Butch Cassidy formed the Wild Bunch and began the most successful train-robbing spree in history.

Front row left to right: Harry A. Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texan, Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy; Standing: Will Carver & Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry; Fort Worth, Texas, 1900.

From that single cabin came the Pitchfork Ranch, one of the most important and iconic western ranches in American history. Franc ran the Pitchfork for the next thirty-three years, and turned the ranch into one of the largest in the state and himself into one of the most powerful of Wyoming's cattle barons. According to Pitchfork's own history, it at one point encompassed seven ranches and 250,000 acres and ran 10,000 Hereford cattle and 20,000 Rambouillet sheep. Years after Franc's death, the ranch was visited often by Charles Belden, a photographer who documented ranch life in a way that immediately caught the public imagination. His photographs of life on the Pitchfork graced the cover of Life magazine and remain some of the most iconic images of cowboys and ranch hands in the early 20th century. Later, the ranch was used as the backdrop in one of the most effective and memorable ad campaigns in modern history, with hard-working cowboys on horseback taking a moment to enjoy a smoke, letting you know that this was Marlboro Country.

The Pitchfork remains a working cattle ranch. The Baker family, who have owned the ranch for over a decade, say that "Our focus for the future of the ranch is to build our quality commercial herd to offer ethically raised beef from our pasture to your plate. Although our primary focus is raising cattle we understand the importance of being stewards of the land so that we can leave the soil, grasslands, and water resources better than we found them." This attitude pays tribute to the intertwined commercial and conservationist themes that have been present in the ranch's management from the beginning, from the careful planning of Franc, the advocacy of Belden, and the discovery of the black-footed ferret on the ranch in the 1980s, well after they were thought to have gone extinct.

Otto Franc died on November 30, 1903, and many in the area believed then and maintain now that he was murdered. His body was found alone next to a fence on his property with a double load of buckshot through the heart. Sadly, this experienced rancher and cattleman was the victim of an unlikely accident. The Billings Gazette explained the situation:

News was received here last night of the accidental death by shooting of Otto Franc, one of the large and well-known stockmen of the Big Horn basin, which occurred sometime yesterday afternoon.
Mr. Franc, who resided on his ranch, about 15 miles from this place, was killed by the discharge of his own shotgun. At about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, he left home for the purpose of coming to a corral some distance from the ranch house, where he was feeding some cattle, taking his gun along. In going to the feeding pens it was necessary for him to pass through a wire fence, at the door of which his body was discovered later in the day.
As he failed to return within the time supposedly necessary for him to visit the corral and get back to the house some of his employees went in search of him, eating that he had met with an accident. They followed the trail usually taken and found Mr. Franch's remains lying near the fence, with his shotgun beside the body. From all appearance, he had attempted to pass through the fence by crawling under the lower wife and after he had emerged at the other side evidently tried to pull the gun after him, with the muzzle toward his body. The hammers seem to have caught in one of the wires, as both barrels had been discharged. The two charges entered the body near the heart and death must have resulted almost instantly.
Mr. Franc was a gentleman of the old school, kindly, sociably and generously disposed to all with whom he came into contact. By reason of his amiability of disposition and uprightness of character he made many warm personal friends and enjoyed the well-merited esteem of all that knew him. As a businessman, he was successful, and at the time of his death by thrift and the exercising of good judgment had amassed a generous share of this world's goods. He was never married and had no relatives in this part of the country.

Franc turned a single trip west with Texas Jack into a successful business and a sprawling ranch that remains active almost 150 years after its founding. The town of Otto, Wyoming is named for him, as is Francs Peak, the highest point in the Absaroka Range, but his legacy extends deep into the way we view ranching and the American West.

Francs Peak covered in snow. Image by Charles Belden.

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