PROSPECTOR OF JACKSON HOLE1
By FRITIOF FRYXELL
In the 1880's and 1890's it was widely supposed that
the Snake River gravels of Jackson Hole, in Wyoming, contained workable
deposits of placer gold, and there were many who came to the region,
lured by such reports and a prospector's eternal optimism.
Color, indeed, could be struck almost anywhere along
the river, but the gold of which it gave promise proved discouragingly
scarce and elusive. None found what in fairness to the word could be
called a fortune. Few found sufficient gold to maintain for any length
of time even the most frugal livingand who can live more frugally
than the itinerant prospector? So through these decades prospectors
quietly came and sooner or later as quietly left, leaving no traces of
their visit more substantial than the scattered prospect holes still to
be seen along the bars of the Snake River. Even today a prospector
occasionally finds his way into the valley, and, like a ghost out of the
past, may be seen on some river bar, patiently panning. Probably he,
too, will drift on. It is apparent now that the wealth of Jackson Hole
lies not in gold-bearing gravels but in the matchless beauty of its
snow-covered hills and the tonic qualities of its mountain air and
But one prospector stayed. Mysterious in life, Uncle
Jack Davis has become one of the most shadowy figures in the past of
Jackson Hole, little more than a name except to those few still left of
an older generation who knew him. He deserves to be
remembereddeserves it because of his singular story, and because
he has the distinction historically of having been the only confirmed
prospector in Jackson Hole.
He was "Uncle" only by courtesy for he lived a
lonely hermit until his death; and so far as is known he left no
relatives. He first appeared in 1887 as one of the throng of miners
drawn irresistibly into that maelstrom of the gold excitements,
Virginia City, Montana. In a Virginia City saloon he
became involved in a brawl and struck a man down, struck him too hard
and killed him. Davis, it should be remarked, was a man of herculean
strength and, at the time of this accident, he was drunk. Believing
himself slated for the usual treatment prescribed by Montana justice at
the timequick trial and hanginghe fled the city.
Davis reappeared shortly after this in Jackson Hole,
the resort of more than one man with a past, and in the most isolated
corner of that isolated region he began life anew. At the south end of
the Hole, a few miles down the Grand Canyon, he took out a claim on the
south side of the Snake River near a little tributary known as Bailey
Creek. There he built a log cabin, the humblest structure
imaginableone room, no windows, a single door hung on rawhide
hinges. This primitive shack was Jack Davis' home for nearly a quarter
of a century. True, more than two decades later he built himself a new
cabin, but death knocked at the door of the old one before he could
Uncle Jack's cabin was located on the Snake River near the
mouth of Bailey Creek. The plank structure on the roof is the old sluice box
which was used to make his coffin. Photo by Al Austin.
Down in the bottom of this magnificent canyon which
he had almost to himself, Davis plied his old trade of placer mining,
putting in the usual crude system of sluice boxes and ditches. In
addition, he cultivated a patch of ground which yielded vegetables
sufficient for his own needs and for an occasional trade. The income
from both sources was ridiculously small, but his needs were modest
enough. Primarily he wished peace and seclusion, and these he found.
The Virginia City episode never ceased to trouble
him. It made him a recluse for life. He lived alone, and limited his
associates almost entirely to the few neighbors who, as the years
passed, came to share his canyon or that of the nearby Hoback River.
Trips to town were made only when necessary, and were brief. On such
occasions it was his practice to cross the Snake near his cabin and hike
or snowshoe up the west side to the store at Menor's Ferry, 50 miles
distant. Having made his purchases he shouldered them and returned by
the same route. In the course of his journey he saw and talked to few.
He rarely went to Jackson, the only town in the region. He is said to
have been a sober man, afraid of drink.
Davis' solitary habits sprang from a haunting fear of
pursuit, not from dislike of companionship. The presence of a stranger
in the region made him uneasy, and he did not rest until his mission was
known, sometimes pressing a friend into service to ascertain a
stranger's business. He rarely allowed his photograph to be taken.
Apparently his fears had little foundation, for no one from "outside"
ever came in after him. Very likely Virginia City soon forgot him.
Davis' past was known to only 1 or 2 of the most
intimate of his neighbors. They kept it to themselves. Nor would it have
mattered had this story been more generally knownnot in Jackson
Hole where such a distinction was by no means unique, and where a man
was judged for what he was, not for what he had been, or had done.
Though a strange recluse, he was a man to be admired
and respected. Physically he was tall, broad, of magnificently erect
carriagea blue-eyed, full-bearded giant. Stories of his strength
still enjoy currency. According to one of these, Uncle Jack once lifted
a casting which on its shipping bill was credited with weighing 900
poundslifted it by slipping a loop of rope under it, passing the
loop over his shoulders, and straightening his back. And it was well
known that for all his solitary habits, Uncle Jack was kind and generous
as he was strong.
It seems as though for the remainder of his days
Uncle Jack did penance for his one great mistake. He impressed one as
trying hard to do the right thing by everyone and everything. Such was
his love for birds and animals that he would go hungry rather than shoot
them. To callers at his shack he explained the absence of meat from the
table by a stock alibi so lame and transparent that it fooled no one:
"He'd eat so much meat lately that he'd decided to lay off it for
awhile." His unwillingness to kill turned him into a vegetarianhere
in the midst of the best hunting country in America. A hermit, yet
Uncle Jack was hardly lonely. In birds and beasts of the canyon he found
a substitute for human companionship. The wild creatures about him soon
ceased to be wild. His family of pets included Lucy, a doe who lived
with him for many years; Buster, her fawn, whom the coyotes finally
killed; two catsPitchfork Tillman, named for a prominent
political figure of the times, and Nick Wilson, much given to night
life, so named after a prominent pioneer of the valley; and a number of
tame squirrels and bluebirds. Not to mention Dan, the old horse, and
Calamity Jane, the inevitable prospector's burro, which had accompanied
Jack in his flight to Jackson Hole, where it finally died at the
advanced age of 40 years. Maintaining peace in such a family kept Uncle
Jack from becoming lonely.
Uncle Jack Davis, the only confirmed prospector of
Jackson Hole, was tall, broad, of magnificently erect carriagea
blue-eyed, full-bearded giant. This is a rare photograph taken shortly
before his death. Photographer unknown.
Al Austin, who for many years was forest ranger in
this region, and who in time came to enjoy Uncle Jack's closest
confidence, presents an unforgetable picture of the old man and his
family. Dropping in at mealtime for a friendly call, Austin would find
Uncle Jack in his cabin surrounded by his pets, each clamouring to be
fed and each jealous of attention bestowed on any creature other than
itself. If the bluebirds were favored, the squirrels chattered
vociferously. Buster, if irritated, would justify his name by charging
and upsetting the furniture. Add to this the audible impatience of
Pitchfork Tillman and Nick Wilson, Lucy was ladylike but nevertheless
insistent. To this motley circle Uncle Jack would hold forth in
inimitable language, carrying on a running stream of conservationscolding,
lecturing, admonishing, or when discord became acute,
threatening dire punishment if they did not mend their ways. It is
hardly necessary to add that to Uncle Jack's awful threats, and the
vivid profanity, which it must be admitted, accompanied them, the
members of the household remained serenely indifferent, and there is no
record that any of the promised disasters ever fell on their furry
Having no windows, Uncle Jack left his door open
during the good weather. One spring a pair of bluebirds flew through the
open door into the shack and, having inspected the place and found it to
their liking, built their nest behind a triangular fragment of mirror
which Uncle Jack had stuck on the wall. Uncle Jack then cut down the
door from its leather hinges and did not replace it until fall. Six
successive summers the bluebirds returned to the cabin, and, finding the
door removed in anticipation of their coming, built their nest and
raised their young behind Uncle Jack's mirror.
Nearby Uncle Jack made a little graveyard for his
pets, as they left him one by one. It was lovingly cared for. In the
course of the 24 years which he spent there the burial ground came to
contain many neat moundsmounds of strangely different sizes. But
Lucy, Pitchfork Tillman, and Dan outlived Uncle Jack.
He would not accept charity, even during the last
year or two of his life when he was nearly destitute. Neighbors had to
resort to strategy to get him to accept help.
On his periodic trips up and down the canyon, Austin
brought the mail to Davis and to Johnny Counts, who lived next to the
north. Counts and Davis, too, occasionally exchanged visits. On March
14, 1911, Austin called at Counts' and, finding that nothing had been
heard of from Uncle Jack for some time, snowshoed on down the canyon to
see if all was well.
The old man lay in bed, delirious. The last date
checked off on the wall calendar was February 11. Outside the cabin, elk
had eaten all the hay, and the horse and Lucy were at the point of
starvation. Austin stayed by his bedside for several days, then, finding
it impossible to care for Uncle Jack decently in the dark old cabin,
summoned Counts. Several days later they moved the old man 6 miles up
the river, carrying him where they could, most of the way pulling him
along in a boat from the shore. The old trail was one Jack himself had
built many years before. In Count's cabin, a week later, Uncle Jack
Austin made Uncle Jack's coffin from one of the old
man's own sluice boxes. Together the two men carried Uncle Jack to the grave
they had dug for him at Sulphur Springs, nearby in the canyon. A wooden
headboard on which Ranger Austin carved the inscription, "A. L. Davis, Died
March 25, 1911," marks the gravethere Uncle Jack sleeps alone.
In Davis' shack was found the "fortune" which
placer mining had brought him$12 in cash and about the same value
in gold amalgam.
1 Reprinted from American Forests, October
1935, with the permission of the author and editor of American Forests.