Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame: Bill Francis, Cowboying in Jackson Hole

After serving on the front line in Europe during World War I, earning sharpshooter status, Bill Francis returned home to Jackson Hole and was horseback nearly every day, working cattle, breaking and training horses, and maintaining his cowboy lifestyle working right beside his wife. He was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2021.

Candy Moulton

August 01, 20237 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Louis William “Bill” Francis was nearly seventeen when his family relocated from Lava Hot Springs, ID to Jackson Hole. Shortly after getting to Wyoming, he had to give up his cowboy work when he was inducted into the Army to serve in World War I.  He soon found himself on the front line in Europe, winning sharpshooter status, and fighting from the trenches when the armistice was signed.,

After the war he was relieved and glad to return to Jackson Hole and ranch work. At the time his father was serving newly created Teton County as Sheriff and his brother Warren had married, so Bill took care of the ranch, which they had purchased from Harry Kelly. It was at the mount of Gros Ventre Canyon, and a fine place to operate.

In June 1925, a piece of Sheep Mountain shifted and a large piece of it slid into the Gros Ventre Canyon, creating a natural dam. This caused formation of the Slide Lake. The ranching operations were not hindered until two years later on May 18, 1927, when heavy rains caused another natural calamity.

The rain overtopped the earthen dam that had been naturally created by the Gros Ventre slide, and it was soon apparent the dam itself would burst, creating a major flood along the river.

The Francis family had enough warning to hitch a team to a wagon and save a few clothes and other personal belongings as they outran the flood waters that came pouring down the canyon. They escaped with their lives and not much else; faring better than neighbors in the town of Kelly who lost their lives.

In addition to destroying their home and ranch building, the flood took a toll on Bill’s mother Etta, who died not long after. His father continued work as the county sheriff, but some of his brothers and sisters departed the valley. Bill married Geraldine Hansen, the daughter of a neighboring rancher, Peter Hansen. Her brother was Cliff Hansen, who would eventually become governor of Wyoming.

Following their marriage Bill and Geraldine Francis bought a ranch from his uncle.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Bill Francis loved horses and handled them very well.  He rode horseback doing cattle work, hunting, and going to town or neighbors to help while he was ranching in the Jackson area.  He worked teams on the sleds feeding cattle.

Bill Francis was an excellent hand with a horse and spent most of 45 years in Wyoming a horseback. Debbie Francis-Davis, a granddaughter, gathered letters Bill wrote to Geraldine before their marriage and included them in her book The Diaries of Geraldine Francis. A few of the letters paint a picture of Bill Francis as a cowboy, and also show that Geraldine was his partner in life and on the ranch as well. 

March 16, 1928 — Our “doggies’ got a gate down and all mixed about a week ago.  Tobe  [Bill’s brother] and I managed to work them again, though. Someday I’ll let you ride “Blackjack,” when you want to cramp a cow, he sure knows his stuff.

April 4, 1928 — I’m afraid you started something when you mentioned wild horses. … One of the prettiest [sights] I ever seen was a wild stallion on a knoll one clear morning. He would trot back and forth for about 25 yards and stamp his feet. I could hear him whistle more than a half mile away. And I believe the wildest animal I ever seen was a wild horse. 

May 13, 1928 — Did you ever rope any pigs?  I did! Cecil Woods bought one at the sale that he couldn’t catch so Rusty and I made us a big loop and took after him. They sure are hard to make a rope stick to, but we got him the third throw. 

October 6, 1928 — I am breaking Banjo now, have given him two rides so far.  He is pretty smokey but handles nice enough, goes pretty high sometimes when I drag my tapaderos though a sagebrush.

October 11, 1928 — I am in Victor [Idaho] tonight with the beef, on my way to Omaha, ….I just about had Banjo broke when I left but had to turn him out until I get back. I rode him six items and he was coming along fine, I would have like to [have] kept on riding him for a while. 

October 26, 1928 — The “doggies” are all coming home now. We are all going to ride tomorrow. Guess I’ll have to break Antelope and Banjo all over now. Yes, Banjo is the bay horse that was so mean to kick. I rode him six times before I left and had him quite gentle but guess he will be wild again now. Blackjack died while I was away. I sure feel like crying, he was the best cowhorse I ever owned.

February 18, 1929 — Am going to break some mules next month.  Jack says he will hold their heads while I hook the tugs [to the wagon].

May 7, 1929 — Have has two thrilling runaways with the mules. Was hauling hay with four head and had two males on wheel. The first time my leaders wouldn’t run and when I got stopped they were both flat on the ground, never broke a thing.  The second time, one mule got scared and reared, over the neckyoke, and that started things moving. …  Jack was doing his best to overtake me, he said about the time he started to gain a little, I would holler gid up to Bess.  Hit several big ditches, went so high once, I don’t see how I ever landed in the hayrack, finally one mule fell and that made a pretty good rough lock. [A rough lock on a wagon served as a brake]. 

After their marriage Geraldine Hansen Francis kept the diary on a sporadic basis, writing of their cattle and horse work. They went camping for their honeymoon and then returned to the ranch where she helped with the cattle on a regular basis. They herded cattle over Teton Pass to Victor, ID in late October, then put the animals on the train to ship them to market.

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Bill Francis went with the cattle while Geraldine joined some friends and rode back to Jackson Hole. She wrote of the trip on October 22, 1929, “We all rode walking horses tonight. Five of us and five loose horses to drive.  Boy, it was fun, but cold—we damn near froze.”

In a much later entry, she wrote in early December 1936: “Billy went up to the highway and across the river at 7:45 to put cattle across the ice….Looks like winter, snow and wind.  Billy put another bunch of cattle across the ice and down the lane…Billy rode all day.”

The diaries, which span two decades, show that Bill Francis was horseback nearly every day, working cattle, breaking and training horses, and maintaining his cowboy lifestyle working right beside his wife. Bill Francis was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2021.

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Candy Moulton


Wyoming Life Colunmist