Wyoming History: ‘Wildcat Sam’ Never Let The Truth Ruin A Good Story

Buffalo Bill Cody may be Wyoming’s best-known showman, but the storytelling of “Wildcat Sam” Abernathy was legendary — so much so he never had to buy his own beer in saloons. He went out with a bang too, getting struck by lightning near Meeteetse when he was 89.

Dale Killingbeck

April 21, 20248 min read

Wildcat Sam Abernathy
Wildcat Sam Abernathy (Courtesy Hot Springs County Museum)

It’s a fact that the true tales of “Wildcat” Sam Abernathy’s life are nearly beyond belief. His tall tales, however, not only push the boundaries of the truth, they bust right through them.

In short, Wyoming’s original Wild West storyteller lived Mark Twain’s famous advice to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Jackie Dorothy, tourism director for Hot Springs Travel and Tourism and a local historian, said the larger-than-life character from Wyoming’s pioneer past may not be as famous as Wild West Show founder and star Buffalo Bill Cody, but was every bit as entertaining.

Born in 1839, Abernathy died in 1928. And the time between, the way he told it, was as suspenseful and exciting as any silent film melodrama. All you had to do was ask him.

“He was known for his eccentric and fun tales of early day adventures,” Dorothy said. “When we are talking about early day adventures in 1928, he’s talking about what happened in the 1850s and what life was like. He traveled around and he was really a Wyoming character, and not just here from Thermopolis. In the end he ended up living at the Wind River Canyon entrance and farmed and trapped there.”

The Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center in Thermopolis has Wildcat Sam’s saddle and a photo of him with his pet wolf. His notoriety and showmanship in the later years of his life would draw crowds with ready ears to hear stories about his life fighting Cheyenne warriors or wandering around a mountain lake and encountering a clutch of duck eggs.

Dorothy said that often people would buy the trapper and sheepherder beer in exchange for hearing his yarns and that crowds would inevitably gather when he arrived in town.

“He spent a lot of time at the Sideboard Pool Hall, and that’s still in existence, actually. It is the 7 Lazy S Cafe and Bar, and it really shows you how much our history is still alive here in Thermopolis,” Dorothy said. “And that’s where Sam would spend a lot of his time.”

Wildcat Sam Abernathy shown with two of his pets.
Wildcat Sam Abernathy shown with two of his pets. (Johnson County Library)

A Grizzly And A Bighorn Sheep Walked Into A Bar …

Dorothy said a story recorded about Abernathy in “Hot Springs County Memories From The Past” a collection of stories published in 1996 captures what a Wildcat Sam storytelling experience was like.

This particular tall tale recounts how the author walked into the Sideboard Pool Hall to see a large crowd gathered around a card table. He assumed an important card game was going on.

After pushing through the crowd, the author wrote there was a “sheepherder by trade and wearing long whiskers and was not too clean” who was talking about traveling across two states following sheep and “never washing a dish.”

“He also told of the time he was walking around a mountain lake and scared a wild mother duck from her nest. There were three eggs in her nest, which he picked up and then put in the front of his shirt and vest,” the author shared. “He claimed he forgot all about the eggs, and about two weeks later he heard a chirping and looked down and found that the little ducks had hatched.”

Dorothy said Wildcat Sam is alleged to have earned his nickname name by killing wildcats barehanded, and he told a story about how a “grizzly bear and a bighorn sheep got into a death match, and it was the bighorn sheep that survived.”

“He talked about another time that a band of Indians (cornered) him and four other prospectors into a boxed canyon and it took 15 minutes for him to tell how they fought hand to hand, ran and fought some more,” Dorothy said. “Finally (listeners) would ask the question, ‘How did you get away?’

“And Sam replied, ‘We didn’t, they killed every one of us.’”

Wildcat Sam Story 4 20 24
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Born In Virginia

Abernathy was believed to have born in Virginia in 1839 when Martin Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States.

His father fought for the South in the Civil War, and after the war moved the family to Kansas. When his father was killed by Cheyenne warriors, Abernathy took up a life of vengeance on Indians “counting coup and taking scalps.”

His obituary reports Abernathy rode with Major Frank North, a famous scout and Indian fighter.

Dorothy said Abernathy probably arrived in the Thermopolis region in the 1870s or 1880s as homesteaders came to the area. He lived around Buffalo as a younger man and survived by trapping and farming. Articles spoke of his “shack up on Birdseye Pass.” His obituary stated he had a homestead at the foot of Copper Mountain.

“He would have been here during the time of Butch Cassidy, there’s no doubt that he would have rubbed shoulders with him,” Dorothy said. “At the time of Wildcat Sam, there would have been, like, only 300 people living here and that is spread out over the whole area. There is no way he couldn’t have known them.”

Abernathy is said to have shared that he grew his beard to keep his face warm in the winter. One of his stories published in several newspapers, including the Casper Tribune-Herald on Jan. 31, 1924, chronicled his arrival in Thermopolis during a break in winter weather on Birdseye Pass.

“During that January thaw, I heard the cry of the coyote and the wail of the wolf, but investigation disclosed none of those animals,” Abernathy told the paper. “My own voice in helping out the snowbound travelers last September came back to me January and I couldn’t figure out where the noises were coming from. It was so doggone cold that the echo froze up, and the noises I heard were only the echoes being thawed out by the mild January weather.”

There’s a story of him during his trapping days of finding a lynx in his trap, the animal clawing at him, and Abernathy grabbing a hatchet to kill it. Another story involves him sleeping on a chair at the Sideboard Pool Hall when a half-drunk young man walks by, grabs him by the beard and yanks him to the floor.

“When Sam came up, he had a knife out and he would have used it on the young fellow if he could have caught him,” Dorothy said.

  • Wildcat Sam Abernathy all dressed up and without his beard, which he said he grew to protect his face during harsh Wyoming winters.
    Wildcat Sam Abernathy all dressed up and without his beard, which he said he grew to protect his face during harsh Wyoming winters. (Courtesy Hot Springs County Museum)
  • Wildcat Sam Abernathy ready for the trail with his pet wolf.
    Wildcat Sam Abernathy ready for the trail with his pet wolf. (Courtesy Hot Springs County Museum)
  • Wildcat Sam Abernathy arrived in Wyoming in the 1870s – 1880s and became one the state’s colorful characters.
    Wildcat Sam Abernathy arrived in Wyoming in the 1870s – 1880s and became one the state’s colorful characters. (Courtesy Hot Springs County Museum)

Soul Of A Showman

Abernathy was known to have been among the last buffalo hunters and told tales related to those exploits. He also was thought to have been a participant in the Johnson County War.

However, it was his showmanship and storytelling that makes him an original Wyoming character.

A headline in the Billings Gazette published a story with a Thermopolis dateline on Jan. 11, 1926, stating that “Wildcat Sam Is Going East.”

“Wildcat Sam Abernathy, who lives in his shack with is traps and dogs on notorious Birdseye Pass, came to these mountains almost as soon as the animals he hunts and tramps. He has lived in the hills ever since,” the newspaper reported. “Now he is going abroad in the land to see the country, being a part of a caravan of Indians, cowboys and the Wild West of Major T.J. McCoy, which is being assembled here at Thermopolis and will turn face to the east some time January, headed for the sesquicentennial at Philadelphia of which the McCoy outfit will be a part.”

The death of Abernathy at age 89 as he watched his sheep in August 1928 seems fitting for the life of a storyteller and showman.

The Casper Tribune-Herald wrote a salute to Wildcat Sam and his stories on Nov. 10, 1928:

“Last August, Wildcat Sam was found on the Wood River near Meeteetse, a bolt of lighting having claimed his life as he was sitting against a rock,” the paper reported. “Since his death, those who chuckled over his reminiscences have found that most of the foundations of his tales were true and that he lived a life as truly spectacular as that attributed to Buffalo Bill Cody.”

Dale Killingbeck can be reached at dale@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Dale Killingbeck