He stocked zoos and resorts but had one bison as a pet.
On this particular day in his danger-filled career, wild animal trapper “Rocky Mountain Dick” almost met his match in a particularly fierce bison (or buffalo). The big beast, according to an account in the March 1901 issue of The Wide World Magazine, unexpectedly lunged forward, knocked Dick Rock flat and left him perilously exposed, fodder for the angry bison’s hooves. Just when he feared his options had run out, one of his faithful dogs snatched the frontiersman from the jaws of death. Leaping onto the bison’s head, the cur dug his canines into the animal’s snout, eliciting a loud bellow from the huge creature. The diversionary attack allowed Rock time to recover. “The instant’s delay was my salvation,” he recalled. With no time to ruminate, from his prone position he drew his revolver, took aim and fired a bullet through the bison’s heart. Once back on his feet Rock’s sense of relief turned to disappointment as he stared at his fallen foe. He realized this bison would not be a part of his ranch or find its way to one of the zoos or resorts for which he provided wild animals. Killing the beasts was simply bad business.
In the annals of Western lore Rock’s exploits have long played second fiddle to the doings of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the showman who once shot many a bison. But Richard W. “Rocky Mountain Dick” Rock knew Cody and cut just as striking a figure. At just over 6 feet tall, he was rugged and ramrod straight, with a mustache and goatee, hair that hung below his shoulders, and a wide sombrero tipped back atop his head. He recorded many dangerous encounters with big game, which could be expected considering his line of work—capturing wild animals. Some publications suggested Rock had also faced danger while scouting for such U.S. Army officers as George Armstrong Custer, Nelson Miles and O.O. Howard. But Rock denied such accounts, insisting he was never a scout of any kind for the government.
Born back East (perhaps New York or Philadelphia) in either 1846 or ’47, Rock came West as a young man and roamed through Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and Idaho. About 1871 he established a homestead in southeastern Idaho Territory near the border with Montana Territory. His chosen spot was amid the soaring pines along the east shore of Henrys Lake, north of Sawtelle Peak and west of Targhee Pass. He built up his ranch during the summers, while continuing to serve as a guide and buffalo skinner the rest of the year. Through the end of the century Rocky Mountain Dick —so dubbed for his familiarity with the Rockies—filled his corrals with bison, bears, black-tailed deer, mountain goats, moose and especially elk, later selling the animals to parks and preserves nationwide. It became a lucrative enterprise.
Rock favored tracking in February and March when the snow in the Rockies was at its deepest and biting temperatures kept a crust on the snowpack that supported his 10-foot-long Norwegian skis. He used a team of Newfoundland-shepherd mixed-breed dogs to track elk (also known as wapiti) and deer, both of which were easy to overtake, as their hooves would sink deep into the snow. An expert with a lasso, Rock would snare the animals and lash them to 8-foot sleds, which bore runners for easy gliding when pulled along in the snow by his dogs. Other times Rock employed a more sedate tactic to collect the elk. He would place feed and hay within 12-foot-high corrals on his ranch, and when the snow covered the highlands and forage became scarcer, the hungry animals would walk straight in.
It was no small-time operation. For about five years Rocky Mountain Dick partnered in the wild game business with hunter/trapper “Yellowstone Vic Smith,” and they hired men to build the corrals. Eventually the two parted company, possibly around the end of 1890, though they remained friends. Rock kept at it. He would collect scores of elk at a time and build crates in which to carry them by wagon to the rail line at Bozeman, Mont. (Montana became a state in 1889.) It was an arduous journey over rough roads, and it was also a tedious operation, since he could take only two elk in each wagon, tolling many trips before his entire herd was amassed at the freight yard. From Bozeman the antlered animals traveled by rail to Eastern parks and game reserves. At $85 to $100 a head, Rock turned a handsome profit. His largest sale of wild game animals came in July 1895 when he shipped three carloads of elk to railroad magnate Austin Corbin’s 26,000-acre private hunting preserve in New Hampshire’s Sullivan County. (Corbin Park remains in existence today.) Not every sale went through so smoothly. Two years earlier he had shipped a carload of elk to New York City, but the would-be buyer backed out of the deal. Instead of bearing the cost of transporting the animals back to his corrals at Henry Lake, Rock donated the elk to a Brooklyn zoo.
Over the years Rock sold more than 300 elk, which dealt with captivity far better than moose. Only one of the latter survived and flourished behind the tall enclosures, but that one, whom he named “Nellie Bly” (after the pioneering female journalist) proved most useful. Raised and trained to harness, Nellie replaced the dogs as the sled puller on a number of Rock’s winter treks to capture elk. The marvelous moose also pulled carts and raced horses. In an 1892 challenge the enterprising Rock took Nellie to Twin Bridges, Mont., for a head-to-head contest with a champion trotter owned by Fred Connor. Once the wagers were laid down, the beasts lined up side by side, and the starter fired his pistol. The trotter didn’t go far. Glancing over at his strange competition, he bolted sideways. Nellie ran straight down the track and easily won. The following year Rock brought his racing moose to the Chicago World’s Fair, where he sold her to an attendee.
Looking for an unusual animal to add to his reserve in the 1890s, Rock set his sights on mountain goats—surefooted, bearded denizens of the rocky heights in the Bitterroot Mountains. He stalked a tribe of goats through an entire winter (mostly likely the winter of 1896–97) and into the spring kidding season. After much effort, he managed to capture a couple of the kids. He raised them to maturity, then sold them in 1899 for $1,200 to one Charles W. Dimick, who exhibited the pair to curious throngs at the Sportsman’s Show in Boston.
Always the entrepreneur, Rock didn’t miss an opportunity to turn a profit. His wild beast farm was the last stage stop on the route running from Monida to the west entrance of Yellowstone Park. Stage passengers could tour his menagerie for free, but Rock sold them supplies, grub and a “touch of tanglefoot.” His reserve quickly gained a reputation, attracting wealthy businessmen, foreign visitors, governors and senators.
Although he made a buck by selling his wild game to zoos and parks, Rock also played a role in stemming the tide of extinction that threatened the buffalo. By some estimates 30 million buffalo once roamed the American West, but by 1890 the bison population had dwindled to 500. Rock had done enough scouting, guiding and hunting not to be surprised by this development. He kept his captured bison in a 10-acre fenced pasture. He not only successfully bred buffalo but also met some success crossbreeding them with Galloway cows. His pair of cattalos were precursors to today’s beefalos.
Rocky Mountain Dick’s wild animal enterprise came to an abrupt end in the early morning of March 22, 1902. He was in the corral feeding “Lindsay,” a 9-yearold pet bison he had raised from a calf. For several years he had been taking rides on the back of his big pet, so he didn’t believe he had anything to fear. One of Rock’s human friends, Kirby Garner, had warned him several times: “Dick, that buffalo will kill you someday. You had better be careful.” But this morning Rock turned his back on Lindsay, and the buffalo charged, pinning him against the corral rails with no means of escape. The disobedient pet’s spiked horn speared Rock and tossed him in the air, then gored him and tossed him up several more times. Rock’s screams brought his wife and hired man, Bennie Tidcomb, to the corral. Even using a pitchfork, Tidcomb could not get Lindsay to let go of Rock. The bison gored its owner 29 times before a neighbor finally arrived and shot the beast. Rock, 55, lay trampled, his trademark sombrero crumpled in the dirt; all that was left of his clothing were the cuffs of his shirt and the socks on his feet. Lindsay was dead, and Rock soon followed his favorite buffalo. The other animals lived on in captivity, as U.S. senator and copper magnate William Clark of Montana bought them and displayed them at his Columbia Gardens in Butte.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.