James H. Cook
James was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1857. Just two years later, after his mother died, his father, the captain of a Great Lakes ship, placed James and his brother, John, into separate foster homes.
About ten years later, at age 11 or 12, James left his foster home to try his luck as a boatman on the Great Lakes. Finding it not to his liking, he and a friend traveled south and west to Leavenworth, Kansas, where James bought a horse for $15.00 and a used saddle for $5.00. He already owned a gun and had established himself as a good shot. Once in Texas, he worked as a cowboy for ranchers who ran their Longhorn cattle in brush country and, for a short time, as a railroad brakeman. In 1874, he participated in a cattle drive north out of Texas. While in Nebraska, he visited Fort Robinson and the Red Cloud Agency in what is now known as the panhandle; there he met Professor O. C. Marsh from Yale, the nation's first university-based paleontologist. He also met, for the first time, Red Cloud, the Oglala Lakota with whom he would enjoy a thirty-five-year friendship.
In 1876, James traveled to Montana to locate good hunting and trapping grounds. From 1878 to 1882, after finishing his last trail drive from Texas to Crow Creek, Colorado, he worked in Wyoming, where he guided parties of hunters seeking big game in the Rocky, Big Horn, and Laramie mountains. During these same years, he again met O. C. Marsh, who was exploring for and discovering fossils in the region. These meetings with Marsh and his rival, the Philadelphia-based paleontologist E. D. Cope, sparked James' interest in fossils. It was an interest kept alive, and maybe even deepened, while James worked in New Mexico as manager of the WS Ranch between 1882 and 1887.
James' New Mexico obligations didn't keep him away from Nebraska, though. In the mid 1880s, he found fossils in the vicinity of today's Carnegie and University Hills while out riding horseback with his sweetheart Kate Graham, whose father, Elisha, owned the northwest Nebraska ranch soon to become the Cook family's home. Married in 1886, James and Kate resided briefly in New Mexico. The next year, Kate by then pregnant with their first child, the couple returned to Nebraska, where James purchased his father-in-law's 04 Ranch, which he christened the Agate Springs Ranch after discovering moss agate near the springs flowing into the Niobrara River west of the ranch house. They started their ranching business with race horses and cattle. When raising and training horses proved unprofitable, James devoted his energy to cattle rearing. He also planted dozens, maybe even a hundred or more, cottonwood trees around the ranch house. To create this Agate Springs Ranch oasis in the otherwise treeless mixed-grass prairie, James watered the trees by hand until established. As the ranch grew, James continued to explore the nearby breaks and buttes; he even invited paleontologists to the ranch, where they found Paleocastor burrows known now as Daemonelix formations and confirmed his discovery of today's globally famous 19.2 million-year-old bonebed in Carnegie and University Hills.
In this environment, James and Kate raised two boys, Harold (b. 1887) and John (b. 1898). Harold, later educated at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Columbia University, became interested in fossils and aided paleontologists like Erwin H. Barbour, Olaf A. Peterson, and Albert Thomson when they visited and excavated in the area. John, the younger son, died in 1918, at the age of 20, after contracting influenza while attending the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. James' older brother, John, who'd come to live with him, served for many years as the postmaster of the Agate Post Office, which was located at the ranch; he was preceded in that post by Kate's mother, Mary.
During his ranching years, James remain involved in a myriad of activities. He applied progressive ideas that he learned while growing up with his Quaker foster family and, later, from the many farming and ranching publications to which he subscribed. He was one of the first ranchers in western Nebraska to use irrigation to improve his hay crop yields. His natural curiosity, meanwhile, led him to maintain a lively interest in not only the area's fossil discoveries but also the histories and cultures of the region's Oglala Lakota, Cheyenne, and other American Indian residents. With Red Cloud's visits to the ranch between the late 1880s and 1908, Cook's friendship with the aging chief and his family and friends grew. Red Cloud himself presented many gifts to James and his family, including items made especially for the Cooks and ones of great significance to the Red Clouds and the Oglala Lakota. In honor of Red Cloud's request, James preserved and displayed these items in the ranch house, showing them often to neighbors and visitors. James' desire to protect these artifacts for his friend contributed to the eventual creation of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where they're on exhibit today.
After a long, varied, and interesting life, James Cook died in 1942, at the age of 85. Fifty Years on the Old Frontier, his 1923 autobiography published by Yale University Press, records many of James' memories of life and adventure in the West. The book is available for sale today in the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument bookstore.