Collection of Ervin F. Cheney

Collection of Ervin F. Cheney (1844 to 1922)

It is often said that men like Ervin F. Cheney invented the old west, but it seems just as likely that the old west invented him. In fact, his life reads like a script for a Hollywood movie, beginning in the carnage of the Civil War and running through all the phases of life for a pioneer in territorial Wyoming, from Indian wars through gold fever, rambling, and ranching. Where truth ends and fiction begins, a white pioneer in Wyoming as it transformed from territory into state.

Born in far -upstate Jefferson County, New York in 1844, Ervin F. Cheney was volunteered for duty in the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry a few scant days before his seventeenth birthday in 1861. The next spring, he was thrust into the blood of the Peninsular Campaign, being left of the field for dead at Mechanicsville after earning a Minnie ball in the lung and hip. Taken prisoner and nursed back to a semblance of health, and learning a little dentistry while in hospital, Cheney was discharged on disability, but in September 1863, he returned to the ranks, enlisting in 21st New York Cavalry, where he rose to Quartermaster Sergeant. His second enlistment was no easier than his first, breaking an arm in a skirmish at Solomon’s Gap, W.Va., and a leg when his horse was shot from under him during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Cheney’s cavalry service changed his life in unexpected ways. Having been raised for three years in 1863, the regiment did not muster out immediately when the war ended. Apparently made from flint too hard to strike, Cheney and the veterans of the 21st NY Cavalry were sent west in May 1865 and assigned to protect the mail and rail lines in the vicinity of Fort Sedgwick, in the northeastern corner of Colorado, until the regiment mustered out in June 1866. There he began a storied career as a reinvented westerner. After making a half hearted attempt to homestead near Greeley, Colorado, Cheney sold out his holdings and headed north to the bustling railroad camps of Wyoming, finding work at a supply depot at Camp Carlin on Crow Creek and during the fall of 1867, working as a finish carpenter at Fort Sanders. Like any of the mythical settlers of the territory, Cheney learned to make do, calling on a remarkable fortitude and resourcefulness to make his way. When spring arrived in 1868, he was one of the surveyors called upon to lay out the new town of Laramie, settling down just long enough to start the first lumber business in town in partnership with John Connor.

But like any young man of the Old West, Cheney was not about to settle down, and when news of a gold strike at South Pass and Atlantic City arrived during the fall, Cheney lit out for the mines. Although he never struck it rich in gold, the remarkably enterprising 24 year old instead established a wagon shop and blacksmith, using his spare time to hit the western trifecta: reading law, practicing dentistry, and making coffins (much needed). When game in the region was depleted by the hungry hordes of would-be miners, he became one of the first to run cattle to the region.

After marrying a sixteen year old girl, Cheney settled down in the nearby metropolis (by Wyoming standards) of Lander in November 1878, where he ran a wagon shop and ran cattle until public land for winter range became scarce. On his ranch, Cheney was said to have employed many Shoshone Indians as laborers and cowboys, and he befriended the elderly and already legendary leader of the Eastern Shoshone, Chief Washakie, who became a frequent visitor. Cheney’s children remembered learning to speak “Indian” before they spoke English. At Washakie’s death, Cheney served as his honorary pall bearer.

He could hardly avoid becoming a prominent citizen, Cheney was elected state assemblyman in 1887 and served variously as Sweetwater County Commissioner, Clerk of the District Court (three times), and in the U.S. Land Office in Lander twice. He purchased a ranch on the lower North fork of the Big Popo Agie in 1901, remaining there until he retired from ranching in 1920. Cheney died on September 29, 1922.

Betty Nalls was the mother of current owner and grand-daughter to Ervin Cheney.

Information courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc.

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