KEEPING A LEGACY ALIVE: South Dakota ranching family’s success spans generations
A biracial widow, her seven children, and her band of horses traveled from Wyoming to Colorado then north to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation of South Dakota.
The generations that followed built more than one successful ranch in the beautiful country that offers challenges but also rewards.
Tradition called for large families with many hard-working children. The Cunys did not stray from this custom.
Now a successful ranching family, there are many stories of struggles passed down through the generations, not for sympathy but for the importance of keeping the legends alive.
The scenic ranch tucked into the South Dakota Badlands, north of the Pine Ridge and east of the Black Hills is ruggedly beautiful. Challenges exist, as with any ranch, including water availability, but it is the story that led to the Cuny ranch of today that makes it special.
The ranch today is operated by Dave and Carole and their son Ross. They raised their seven children on the home place. Another son, Scott, and wife Mia ranch in the area and their other children and grandkids live throughout the region and are all involved in the ranch work from time to time.
Dave’s great-grandfather Adolph Cuny didn’t let opportunity slip through his fingers. A Swiss immigrant who came into the U.S. by way of Canada, Adolph stopped traveling south when he hit the Laramie River in Wyoming in the 1850s.
Cooney Hills west of Wheatland, Wyoming, were in the middle of Adolph’s ranch and still bear the family name. According to Dave, Adolph and his partner ran a couple thousand head of cattle and around 200 horses there.
Along with business partner Jules Ecoffey, Adolph put up a trading post near Fort Laramie, about 90 miles north of Cheyenne, along the Cheyenne and Deadwood trail route. They built a large general store and many buildings, including a concrete dwelling, store-house, bunk house, ice house, blacksmith shop, billiard hall and sod corral that was a hundred feet square and twelve feet high, according to the book “The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Express Routes.”
Dave and Carole recall visiting the Fort Laramie visitor’s site and seeing a familiar antique spur hanging on the wall. It looked like a mate to one that Dave had hanging on his wall at home.
The station headquarters, known as the Three Mile, were three miles down the Laramie River from the famed “Six Mile” relay station, which was, naturally, six miles south of Fort Laramie. Both operations were home to “hog houses” at one time or another, according to the book, and the Three Mile’s establishment was occupied by Calamity Jane for a time.
The book said that many prospectors that had evaded the military and gone into the Black Hills came back to the Three Mile for supplies. “Gold dust began to be plentiful at the place and in November, 1875, Coffey and Cuny sent three flasks full of gold, about one hundred and twenty five dollars worth, to the editor of the Cheyenne Leader.”
The book goes on to say that good meals were served at 50 cents apiece at the Three Mile. Ecoffey died in 1876 from injuries sustained in an attack.
According to Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy Website, “On July 22, 1877, Adolph Cuny was deputized by Deputy Sheriff Charles Hays to assist in the apprehension of Clark Pelton and his gang for numerous stage coach robberies of the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage line near Fort Laramie.
“Deputy Cuny and Hays apprehended Pelton. Deputy Hays continued after the remainder of the gang while Deputy Cuny began escorting the prisoner back to Laramie. Near Fort Laramie, after stopping at a local ranch for provisions, an accomplice of Pelton’s murdered Deputy Cuny by shooting him in the back and then helped Pelton escape.
“In 1879, Sheriff Draper determined that Pelton was serving time in a Minnesota penitentiary under an alias name for other crimes committed there. Upon his release, the sheriff arrested Pelton for the conspiracy to murder Deputy Cuny and transported him back to Wyoming for trial. Pelton served 4 years on the lesser included offense of manslaughter for his role in Deputy Cuny’s death.”
The book says Cuny was known as “one of the oldest pioneers in Wyoming,” and Dave said that his grandfather and father passed down stories of dignitaries attending Adolph’s funeral.
Dave, Carole and family were recognized in a 2011 ceremony honoring Peace Officers who died in the line of duty. Adolph Cuny is considered the first in Wyoming to have done so.
The end of the enterprising pioneer’s life marked the beginning of a new era for the family.
Dave’s great grandmother Josephine (Bissonnette) Cuny, was one of 21 children born to Joseph, a trapper. “She was half Indian,” Dave explained.
Originally from Nebraska, after Adolph was killed, Dave’s great-grandma Josephine, now a widow, packed up her family and headed south to Fort Collins to join some family there. But the family she had hoped to find had gone north, to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota.
Josephine, her horses, and her seven children followed.
“As they were traveling new colts were born. That meant they had to travel slow,” Dave said. “She decided she would have to shoot the colts so she could speed up her trip.” But after sleeping on it, Josephine decided to keep the colts, which became the foundation of her remuda on what would become the South Dakota ranch.
The widow’s oldest son Charles was Dave’s grandfather. When he grew old enough to hold a job, he worked for “the Bureau” as an interpreter and then as a boss farmer to teach modern agriculture to the Indians in the area, said Dave.
Charles eventually settled on the place where Dave and Carole live now, about 40 miles east of Buffalo Gap, married Louise LaRacque and raised eight children in the house where Dave and Carole raised their children and lived until the early 90s. The home and most of the ranch’s pastures are below “Cuny Table,” a large flat badlands hilltop that is home to “Cuny Church,” built in the 1920s, that sported a bell and until the last few years welcomed visitors from the community.
“What attracted him was the water. There is a big spring here,” Dave explained, adding that Charles also held a job overseeing the allotments when the government set up the land ownership system for tribal members on the reservation. Plus he ranched and ran a meat processing shop in nearby Manderson, South Dakota and raised and sold remount horses.
Dave tells that ranching in those days was different than it is today. “They had to ride on their cattle all the time. When they would gather, there would be large herds of cattle to work all along the White River because there were no fences. Yearlings, calves, 3-year old cattle, 4-year old cattle.” Shipping cattle in those days called for trailing them to Scenic, South Dakota, to the railroad.
Dave’s mother, Mabel (Speck,) Cuny, wife of Charles Jr., was no stranger to ranch life. She was born at the C Bar ranch in the sandhills of Nebraska. Eventually, her father Jess moved his family to Gordon, Nebraska, so their five children could attend school. After a few years he moved his family to Cuny Table where Mabel and Chat Cuny (Charles, Jr.) met at a dam while watering their horses. Chat’s younger brother Lawrence would marry little sister Sadie Speck.
Sadly one of Dave’s brothers died as a young child and another, Jess, died in the Battle of the Bulge. His oldest brother, Sidney, came back to Cuny Table to ranch after serving in the war. His children, Allen Cuny, Marvin Cuny and Sandra Buffington still ranch in the area. Another brother chose to teach school, leaving Dave, the baby by 22 years, to follow his dreams to become a rancher. Throughout his growing-up years Dave learned much about managing the ranch working side-by-side with his father.
“When I graduated from high school I had plans to enroll at Chadron State and play basketball. My dad asked me to stay and help him run the place and I realized they needed my help and I have been here ever since,” he said.
Carole points out that Dave is fortunate to love his profession. “They say if you find something you love you never work a day in your life. Dave is one of those people. He loves the land, he loves his cattle and he loves his horses. He doesn’t care to do anything different.”
For many years Dave has been working to better the landscape across the reservation through prairie dog management. At times, his ranch, and those of his neighbors have been nearly decimated by the ground rodent. Persistently, Dave and others in the community have educated local, state, tribal and federal governments regarding the need for continued prairie dog control, using aerial photos of pastures with inches and even feet of blowing top soil caused by prairie dog damage.
Dave said he runs the place in a similar manner to the generations before him, with range cows as the main enterprise and a band of mares to provide horsepower.
A gravity-flow water line that runs the length of the ranch is one improvement Dave has made, allowing them to more efficiently utilize their grass. “The conservation techs told me it wouldn’t work,” he recalls, of the line that starts with 2-inch pipe drawing out of a creek.
“I remember waiting for that first drip. Finally a little trickle came. We went to the house and had dinner and when we went back to check on it, we had a full tank of water,” he remembers.
Carole points out another important advancement in ranching: the cake feeder. “It used to be I’d drive the pickup and he’d shake cake out for the cows. I’d always be hitting prairie dog holes. If I’d turn to miss one, I’d hit two and dump Dave out of the pickup,” she chuckles.
The pair’s 15 grandsons and seven granddaughters all help on the ranch, Dave said. All Of his children and grandchildren can rope and ride.
“They love working cattle. All the kids help the neighbors too,” he added.
About five grandkids stay with the couple every summer to learn and help with ranch work.
The sweet, classy ranch lady that keeps an immaculate home and welcomes visitors with a smile and a cup of coffee is at home on the range. But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1967, the young lady from New Jersey who had applied for the Peace Corps and worked in marketing for New Jersey Bell was deciding what to do with her upcoming two-week vacation.
“A friend told me about a missions opportunity on the Indian Reservation in South Dakota,” she said. “I called and asked if they could use me for two weeks. They said they had gotten a lot of books and they needed someone to catalog the books. I said, ‘I’ll come.’”
While on the trip, Carole was asked to take Genevieve Cuny, a nun and teacher at the school, for a drive to see her family. “We were in a pickup. I remember coming across the Table – it was just tracks. I said, ‘Sister, hold on, I’m going to have to line these tires up in the crevices.’”
When the pair arrived at the Cuny ranch they realized it was branding day.
“I looked up at Dave and he was looking at me too,” she remembers.
She didn’t see the man who would be her husband again during that visit. “The superintendent of Holy Rosary Mission asked if I’d be interested in coming back to work as the grade school librarian, teach P.E., and work as the school secretary.”
Soon the Peace Corps offered her an assignment to Hawaii, which she promptly declined.
“I came back to South Dakota in August,” she remembers. She and the young rancher were married in New Jersey the next summer.
And the rest is history. F