On December 31, 1863, Owyhee became the first county created by the newly-formed Idaho territorial legislature. With 7,665 square miles, about the size of the state of New Jersey, it is the second largest county in Idaho.

In 1866 the population of Owyhee County was about 5,000 people, mostly miners. By the late 1860’s early ranchers had established small herds of beef cattle and had milking cows to supply their needs. Con Shea, George Miller, Tom Bugbee and Bob Enos saw the demand for beef and organized a trip to Texas to buy the best stock they could find. Fifteen riders were hired for the trip over dusty trails across the plains by way of Osage, Wichita, and Smoky Hill roads. This was the first large cattle drive into Idaho and arrived in the Bruneau Valley in the fall of 1869. George Miller stayed there with his share of the cattle and established the T Ranch. In the herd there were Texas Longhorns and Durham or other improved breeds of cattle. Miners in the Owyhee mountains who had been restricted to a diet of wild game, sourdough biscuits, beans and sowbelly paid good prices for a beef steak or a shank bone to season their stew.

1950 - Silver City cattle drive

Cattle drive through Silver City.

Con Shea and Tom Bugbee returned to Texas for more cattle in 1870. Cattle ranching had become a way of life in Owyhee County that continues today.

In the late 1870’s there were still a few remaining Indian attacks, killing mostly stock, so cattlemen Matthew Joyce, Sr. and Mike Hyde led an effort to form a local cattle group to protect the stockmen. The Owyhee County Cattle and Horse Growers’ Association resulted in 1878, with headquarters in Silver City. A $5 fee was required to join in the original cattle “union” and this guaranteed protection of all grazing and assistance against Indian raids to all who belonged. The group soon disbanded, only to reorganize periodically over the years. Reorganizations in 1883 and 1933 are recorded in Bruneau and Murphy, but it was not until a regathering of stockmen in 1949, after World War II, that Silver City again became home to the group.

A big celebration was held each year after this reorganization to greet friends who, due to the large size of the county and limited travel, were not often seen and to hold a great community dinner and dance. The idea caught on and this tradition continues to this day. (1)

1938 October - crossing cattle - Boise River

1938 October – crossing cattle – Boise River

It was early discovered that cattle that were fed on the nutritious bunch grass and white sage that abounded on the plains and mountain slopes of Owyhee County attained a perfection of bone, muscle and flesh not equaled by any other locality, and this led to a rapid settling of the ranges of Bruneau, Reynolds, Castle, Catherine, Sinker, Cow and Sucker Creeks, which were speedily covered with immense herds of hardy cattle.

In 1885 it was estimated that there were over 60,000 head of cattle within the confines of Owyhee County. In 1888-89 the cattle interests in the county reached their maximum and, as we are reliably informed, there was at that date over 100,000 head of cattle in the county. These were flush cattle times of Owyhee, when the cattle kings viewed with swelling pride their increasing herds and pocketbooks; but a couple of severe winters, the inability to find sufficient suitable food for such large herds, and several other causes created a great loss of cattle and the cattle trade gradually shrank to its present condition, there not being, it is believed, at present date [1898], over 15,000 head of cattle within the county.” (2)

Putting up hay

After the disastrous winter of 1888-89 and the staggering losses suffered, the ranchers began to develop their ranches and meadowlands to raise more hay for winter feeding.

Preemption Claims, Timber Culture Claims, and finally the Homesteaders, who built more permanent homes, laid the goundwork for Owyhee’s number one industry today, agriculture. Hundreds of homesteads were taken up in Owyhee and Malheur counties. Dugouts and small shacks, along streams or by a spring of water, dotted the landscape. Homesteads at the higher elevations were primarily for grazing purposes. Fences were built around the homesteads, as was required by law.

A correspondent  for the Chronicle, writing from the Bruneau Valley February 10, 1870, printed in the Owyhee Avalanche (March 5, 1870) – I propose to give you a few items from this part of Idaho, as but few persons in the country know anything about this valley which is undoubtedly the garden of Idaho. I was surprised beyond all expectations on coming here to find the green grass fully six inches high and the stock of all kinds rolling fat. This is undoubtedly the finest climate in the Territory, as not a particle of snow has been seen here this winter. The lower Bruneau valley is about twenty miles long by two wide, every foot of which is the best kind of land–consequently will admit of about 150 settlers. At this time there is only about 40 ranches taken and none of them older date than last July. I am astonished how such a fine valley has lain dormant so long when there has been such a rush for land in other regions of the country, and this goes to prove that the country is not half prospected. I am told by those that have lately made an examination of this and the surrounding valleys that there is sufficient good mining and farming country to have a new county organized.

Railroad and Livestock Yards in Murphy
Stockyards in Murphy, 1916

Stockyards in Murphy, 1916

The town of Murphy grew up around the railhead of the Boise, Nampa and Owyhee Railroad, which was Owyhee County’s first railroad. The bridge for the B N & O Railroad, connecting Owyhee and Canyon counties is located on the Snake River. The structure is on the National Register of Historic Places and was constructed in 1897 as part of Colonel William H. Dewey’s dream of building a railroad to his thriving mining interests in the town of Dewey in the Owyhee Mountains. Dewey was originally called Booneville, but after Colonel Dewey bought the mine in 1896 and rebuilt the town, including a magnificent three story hotel, it was renamed in his honor.

Drover's Ticket for A.H. Blackstock from Omaha, Nebraska to Murphy, 1930

Drover’s Ticket for A.H. Blackstock from Omaha, Nebraska to Murphy, 1930

The railroad advanced up Rabbit Creek to the Murphy townsite in 1899. The town was named after Cornelius ‘Con’ Murphy, crew boss on the railroad and a friend of Dewey. An electric railroad was to extend the line to the mining town of Dewey. A drop in metal prices contributed to the halting of further construction.

Due to the fact it was the only railroad terminal in the county, passengers, mail and freight bound for the Owyhee mining districts all arrived in Murphy. Local cattle and sheep herds were shipped out. In the early twentieth century, the small town of Murphy led the Pacific Northwest in the number of livestock shipped.

Stockyards in Murphy, 1930

Stockyards in Murphy, 1930

The last cattle were shipped by rail from Murphy in 1946. It was only fitting that they belonged to the Joyce Livestock Co., of Sinker Creek. The ranch, one of the oldest in Owyhee County, was founded in 1864. The railroad from Murphy continued to operate a little longer and finally closed in 1947.

The land on which the stockyards was located was conveyed by Union Pacific Railroad to the Owyhee Cattle and Horse Grower’s Association in 1948. Of what used to be a hub of activity for the people of Owyhee County, very little remains today of the stockyards except the bare land.

Silver City
Idaho Hotel in Silver City

Idaho Hotel in Silver City, about 1871

Silver City was established in 1868 with the discovery of gold on Jordan Creek. Nestled in a canyon between War Eagle Mountain and Florida Mountain, Silver City is one of Idaho’s most picturesque “ghost towns.” At one time its silver production was surpassed only by the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Between 1863 and 1865, over 250 mines were located in the area. During its heyday, Silver City had a population of 2,000 with over 60 businesses. Homes were built, “stair stepped” up the hillsides. Houses were so close that a man “couldn’t step out on his doorstep to spit tobacco juice without puttin’ out the fire in his neighbor’s chimney.” Silver City had the distinction of having the first telegraph service in Idaho. In 1874, a line was built north from Winnemucca, Nevada, and in 1875, a line was continued from Silver City on to Boise City.


Idaho Hotel in Silver City, 2009

The original county seat of Ruby City was moved to Silver City in 1867, where it remained until 1935. In a county-wide election, residents approved to move the county seat from Silver City to Murphy (a more central location) by only four votes. More than 30 buildings remain today in the Silver City Historic District.

The Idaho Hotel was built in Silver City in 1866. It consisted of three stories and a bath house. In 1869 running water was piped into the hotel. On July 4, 1873, some townspeople shot off a cannon and broke one-third of the window glass in the hotel. The owners decided that this was a good time to do some remodeling so they enlarged and improved the hotel, adding a woodshed, a large kitchen and two rooms over the bar room. The Idaho Hotel was the depot of all the stage and express lines which came to Silver City. The hotel continues to open for business today during the summer months.

Silver City Schoolhouse, 2011

Schoolhouse, 2011

The school was built in Silver City in 1892 and housed all grades. Three teachers were hired, one for each elementary, intermediate and high school levels. Though it has been many years since classes were held, an historic restoration completed in 2008 has helped to preserve the school building for years to come.

Today, on Saturday of the last full weekend in July, the schoolhouse is home to the annual meeting of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association. The day begins with a business meeting of the members, followed by a social hour and potluck dinner.

At 9:00 p.m. the dance, typically with music by Owyhee County’s own “Runnin’ for Cover” band, is held at the Nettleton corrals. Maybe not as often, but as they did over a century ago, the mountains once again echo with laughter, good company, good food, and good music! At midnight, a drawing is held for the OCA silver bit, handcrafted by one of several talented local silversmiths. For those who camp, stay in cabins or at the hotel, on Sunday morning a buffet breakfast is available at the nearly 150 year old Idaho Hotel.

Centennial Celebration of OCA

In 1978, the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association celebrated their centennial, “100 Years in the Saddle.” The festivities not only included a large gathering of members and their families, but many dignitaries as well. Some of those included Governor John V. Evans; Frank Gregg, National BLM Director; the President, First Vice President, and Executive Vice President of the National Cattlemen’s Association; the President and Chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Association Public Land Council, Arizona; the Director of Government Affairs for Land and Natural Resources, Washington, D.C.; Bud Purdy, President of the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association; and, Allan Saylor, Executive Vice President of the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association.

In a special publication by The Owyhee Avalanche about the OCA Centennial Celebration, the Owyhee Soil Conservation District board of supervisors acknowledged the important roles the cattle industry and rangelands play in the economy of Owyhee County. Of the 1,320,000 acres within the boundaries of the Owyhee SCD, approximately 1,226,000 acres are rangeland. During the past 25 years that the SCD has been in existence, personnel have assisted ranchers in improving their rangeleand and livestock operations. The Owyhee SCD board of supervisors know there is much yet to be done to improve the rangeland. They have determined needs and objectives for this land and have included it in the district’s Long Range Program. These “Conservation Needs” include: 1) Proper rangeland management to prevent deterioration of the range resources, 2) Proper water distribution, 3) Joint rangeland planning, and 4) Sagebrush and Juniper control. The district’s “Objectives” include: 1) Work with landowners, State and Federal Agencies to obtain proper grazing systems on rangeland, 2) Develop and implement grazing systems that will take into consideration early spring grazing, 3) Increase range seedlings, 4) In cooperation with ranchers, State and Federal agencies, develop water facilities for better livestock distribution, 5) Assist in developing management programs, and 6) Assist in development and continuance of an active brush control program.

The Owyhee Avalanche also interviewed Hubert Nettleton, grandson of Matthew Joyce Sr. who was one of the founders of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association. When asked what the main problems are facing cattlemen today [1978], Nettleton said: 1) government interference and landgrazing complications; 2) poison weeds such as larkspur which appear appetizing to cattle; 3) yellow fever and other epidemics which occur each decade, and; 4) tough winters each three or four years which kill a large number of calves or weak stock. Nettleton noted, “The BLM spends thousands of dollars each year studying our land to tell us what we already know.” Nettleton, much disturbed by the array of longwinded rules and regulations tacked on grazing livestock, said there is no need for the number of regulations involved. “We know when the range is good and when it’s poor,” he said, “because we raise good stock and want them to remain that way.”

1) from The Owyhee Avalanche; The Tidal Wave; Owyhee Trails; Sketches of Owyhee County; Warbonnets and Epaulets; The Story of the Owyhees
2) from A Historical Descriptive and Commercial Directory of Owyhee County, Idaho, January, 1898 [NOTE: This book was dedicated to "those pioneers who pinned their faith to the ultimate prosperity of Owyhee County, and expended their 'bottom dollar' to achieve that result."]. This book is now known as the Owyhee County Blue Book.