Wyoming People: Driskill Family Roots Run From The Cattle Trail To Devils Tower

The Driskill family started raising cattle in Texas 166 years ago, which led them to the Devils Tower region, where they’ve been punching cows since before Wyoming was a state.

Candy Moulton

October 07, 20236 min read

Campstool ranch 10 8 23

Jesse Lincoln Driskill was born in 1824 in Tennessee. He was 23 when he moved to Missouri and married Nancy Elizabeth Jane Day. The couple moved to Texas, where he became a merchant living in San Antonio, then eventually moving to Bryan.

In 1857, he entered the cattle business, and for three years during the Civil War he furnished beef to the Confederate Army and the Texas Rangers.

He made a fortune as a beef supplier and earned the title colonel. But he was paid with Confederate dollars and by the end of the war, with no cattle and no money, he was broke.

After the war ended, Colonel Driskill began driving cattle to northern markets with his brother-in-law, William H. Day.

Taking the herds north was hard work and required Driskill to be both adventurous and fearless. His combination of skill and work ethic helped him again become successful in the cattle trade.

When the trail drives to Abilene, Kansas, on the Chisholm Trail declined in 1871, Driskill, by then with a family of four daughters and two sons, moved to Austin. Simultaneously, he expanded his cattle operations with ranches in South Texas and Kansas.

Compass Points North

Then the colonel looked north to the Dakota territories. During this period, Driskill branded his animals with a D brand, a mark still in use on family legacy ranches in Wyoming and South Dakota.

Colonel Driskill's son, William Walter "Tobe" Driskill, first came to the Black Hills area in 1868 when he trailed cattle to Cheyenne to be delivered to Indian agents.

He saw the rich grasslands of eastern Wyoming on that trip, and in 1878 he headed north from Texas once again.

Using a Confederate ambulance wagon pulled by mules with the lines handled by a black teamster, Tobe was intent on taking a cattle herd to Dakota.

Tobe followed the Texas Trail north. This route came through Ogallala, Nebraska, and then extended into Wyoming Territory near Fort Laramie before it cut a swath to the north (roughly along present U.S. Highway 85) through the area just west to Lusk and ending in Moorcroft.

In his ambulance wagon, Tobe followed buffalo trails to the head of the Little Missouri River and, liking what he saw, went up the river to set up the home ranch — the D Ranch — on Prairie Creek. Then he returned to Texas.

John Wylie "Bud" Driskill, left, and Col. Jesse Lincoln Driskill
John Wylie "Bud" Driskill, left, and Col. Jesse Lincoln Driskill (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A New Ranch

The next year, Tobe and his brother Bud trailed a herd of Texas cattle up to the new ranch in northeast Wyoming territory. The cattle spread out on the grasslands starting a legacy that continues for the family today.

Back in Texas, Colonel Driskill built the grand Driskill Hotel in Austin, a place that soon became known as one of the finest hotels west of the Mississippi River.

He operated the hotel for about a year before the devastating winter of 1886-87 took such a toll on family cattle herds – and the finances – that he was forced to sell out.

That winter, called the “Big Die-Up,” changed the industry permanently as herds from Montana to Texas were caught in deep snow and extremely cold temperatures. Tens of thousands of head of cattle died in the harsh weather conditions.

At that time, cattlemen kept track of their herds using a “book tally,” according to Jesse T. Driskill, J.L. Driskill's great-great-grandson.

"They had the number they started with, calculated a 5% death loss, plus what was sold. In 1886, the records showed they had 67,000 head of cattle in Wyoming and South Dakota,” Jesse T. once recalled.

“When they counted in the spring of 1887, there were only about 5,000 left.”

A New Start In Wyoming

Down, but not out, the Driskill family rebuilt their operation. In 1910, Jesse L. "Diddy" Driskill, a grandson of the Colonel, acquired the Campstool Ranch at the base of Devils Tower near Hulett, a place that still serves as the headquarters for the Driskill Ranch.

On that land and other properties on Beaver Creek north of Alva, and in South Dakota, Driskill cattle herds ate the lush grass.

The cowboys in the family kept track of the livestock and managed the ranches. Several generations from the family were inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2022 as a family induction.

The multi-generational induction started with Colonel Jesse Lincoln Driskill, who was born in 1824 in Tennessee and died in Moorcroft on May 1, 1890. This patriarch is the great-great-great-grandfather of William Ogden Driskill, the current president of the Wyoming State Senate.

John Wylie "Bud" Driskill, left, and Col. Jesse Lincoln Driskill
John Wylie "Bud" Driskill, left, and Col. Jesse Lincoln Driskill (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

There’s Something About Jesse

Several generations of Driskills use the name Jesse, and almost all of them have nicknames. Those also inducted into the WCHF with the colonel were his sons William Walter “Tobe” Driskill, born in Texas in 1851, and John Wylie “Bud” Driskell.

The induction also included other descendants of the colonel: Jesse Lincoln “Link” Driskill II, Malcolm Franklin Driskill, Jesse Loring “Diddy” Driskill, Jesse Belvin “Buz” Driskill and Jesse Thomas “Tom” Driskill.

Not included in the family induction, but with their own cowboy roots, are the sons of Jesse Thomas “Tom” Driskill. And just to keep it in the family tradition there is a Jesse in this generation too, Jesse K. “Tobe,” plus Ogden and the late Matthew Driskill.

The Campstool Ranch near Hulett is still in the family but wasn't the only Driskill place in the area. A cousin of Diddy's, "Link," had a ranch on Beaver Creek north of Alva.

There also was the T Cross T Ranch near Moorcroft, which was the ranch originally set up by Tobe and Bud in 1879.

The Driskill family also spread into South Dakota, where the family built and maintained numerous grand houses in Spearfish.

"It wasn't a rough cow town like some of the others," Jesse T. said. "It was the only place that had some of the social amenities."

Heavenly Beef

Family stories abound.

One of them is that Diddy was headed back to the ranch in Wyoming from Spearfish one year around Christmastime when he stopped in at the home of a preacher family at the top of the Bearlodge Mountains.

He had supper with the family and the preacher had a confession to make.

"I have to tell you, Mr. Driskill, that you are eating your own beef tonight,” he said. “I'm sorry, but times are tough.”

Apparently, the stop at the preacher’s house was a common occurrence, as was the confession.

The third time the preacher told Diddy he was eating his own beef, he replied to the preacher, “I can't keep you from butchering my cattle, but I sure as hell can keep you from telling me about it."

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Candy Moulton


Wyoming Life Colunmist