Amazing Emma Yearian

Idaho businesswoman on list of state's great women History Corner

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It was 1911 and big events were taking place around the world: George V was crowned king at Westminster Abbey, then with his queen went to India to be showered in glory, and Kaiser Wilhelm told the world that the German fleet would assure that "No one will dare challenge the 'place in the sun' which should be rightfully ours."

In Russia, Premier Peter Stolypin was assassinated, the Italians and Turks were at war, the wearing of pigtails by men in China was abolished, and south of the American border, the Mexican Civil War ended.

Sitting at her roll-top desk upstairs in her ranch home in Idaho's Lemhi Valley near Salmon, Emma Yearian read the newspapers every evening, concerned that world events might affect her thriving Idaho business.

Born Emma Agnes Russell in Leavenworth, Kan., in 1866, she never made world headlines, but she lived through times when range wars raged between cattle and sheep ranchers in frontier Idaho.

Emma graduated from Southern Illinois Normal College in Carbondale and dreamed of the Wild West. After her mother died, she said goodbye to Dad and headed for the Rockies. She was just 21.

She found work in Salmon as a governess and then after a few jobs in between became a schoolteacher in a one-room, sod-covered schoolhouse in the Lemhi Valley. Better times were ahead.

During those days, she played piano with a group that entertained at ranch social parties. At one of them, she met a cattle rancher named Thomas H. Yearian. They married and had six children, tragically losing one of them.

Raising her children was a top priority for Emma and she knew that their education would be expensive. She noticed that sheep ranchers seemed to be making more money than cattle ranchers like her husband. She failed to talk him into switching from cattle to sheep, but they compromised to raise both. She handled the sheep operation.

It was the Spanish who first introduced sheep to America in the early 1600s but posed no problems until much later with the influx of Anglo-Americans. As the West was growing, cattle grazed on both private and public lands. Then when sheep were brought in to share the same food resources conflicts broke out.

Throughout most of the 1870s, clashes occurred in many western states, most notably along the Texas-New Mexico border, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon.

Cattlemen complained that sheep eating the grass cropped it too close to the ground and that their hooves trampled roots. They also charged that sheep odor contaminated the ground and watering places making them distasteful to cattle and horses. Sheep men disagreed, claiming that sheep, cattle and horses could all graze indefinitely on the same pastures if managed properly.

Sheep didn't hurt the ground they said, claiming that the sheep in fact helped it by turning the sod with their tiny hooves, fertilized it with their droppings and ate weeds that the cattle didn't like.

Throughout the grazing wars, cattlemen usually dominated - though not in Arizona during the 1880s and 90s, when it was the sheep men who controlled the ranges and threatened the cattlemen.

In Pioneer Cemetery in Oakley, Idaho, near the Utah border lies the body of Gobo Fango, born in South Africa in 1856. Tribal warfare made him an orphan and a Mormon missionary smuggled the 3-year-old boy into America.

In February 1886, Gobo was doing his job tending sheep, when he was shot in the head and back allegedly by a cattleman named Frank Bedke. Mortally wounded, he dragged himself four and a half miles in great pain to the home of Walt Matthews where he died several days later - a victim of the ongoing sheep war. Bedke was acquitted of the killing after two trials, though reports today suggest he was guilty.

Sheepherders, usually working alone in the fields with their flocks, were no match for angry armed mounted cattlemen attacking in the middle of the night. Murders like Gobo Fango sadly marked those turbulent times.

Around 1900, some 50 Basques arrived in Idaho from Spain, bringing with them a special talent for shepherding. They too became part of the lonely and dangerous life on the range, and were easy targets for well-armed cattlemen.

Jay Monaghan wrote in The Book of the American West, "In Idaho in 1896, two herders encamped in the Shoshone Basin were shot to death and their flocks scattered. In Montana four years later, 11 cowmen killed R.R. Selway's whole band of 3,000 woollies."

The Sheep Wars were even worse in other states, especially in neighboring Wyoming.

"In Wyoming, raiders killed nearly 12,000 sheep in a single night," historian Monaghan continued. "In other instances, they drove flocks over precipices or scattered poison on the ranges. A report from Tie Siding said that raiders set fire to the wool of Charles Herbert's 2,600 sheep, killing most of them."

Wyoming sheep rancher Jack Edwards said, "I am compelled to keep a small army about my place all the time. A short time ago three hundred sheep were killed and two herders."

Also in Wyoming, on an April night in 1909 five sheepherders tending 5,000 sheep were asleep when they were attacked by scores of armed masked horsemen. Three of the sheep men, several dogs and sheep were killed, and the wagons soaked in kerosene and set on fire.

A man named Herbert Brink and six others were caught and indicted for the crime. Brink was tried and sentenced to hang but the penalty was reduced to life in prison.

A shrewd businesswoman, Emma no doubt knew that these horrendous events made raising sheep dangerous, but undaunted she boldly obtained a bank loan, bought 1,200 ewes and started her sheep business in Lemhi Valley. Her cattlemen neighbors weren't pleased.

The Yearian's wool enterprise prospered and the family built a grand limestone six-bedroom home, with electricity and indoor plumbing.

Keeping an eye on world affairs convinced her that there would soon be war in Europe and that soldiers would need woolen uniforms. She again hit the bank for a business loan - this time for $35,000. When World War I broke out, demand for wool skyrocketed and the money rolled in.

But the winter of 1918 hit with a vengeance. Blizzard winds and freezing temperatures killed livestock, and hay prices quadrupled. Hard times loomed. Once again Emma went to the bankers for a loan, and returned home with $100,000 to weather the crisis.

There was a Two-Mile Limit Law that said no sheep could graze within two miles of a neighbor. In the narrow Lemhi Valley, that was all but impossible and over the years she was frequently taken to court for violating the law, but was never convicted. Then she started buying up land from her neighbors. By the early 1930s, she owned 2,500 acres and 5,000 sheep.

The Great Depression brought difficult times to everyone, but again Emma survived - with her "head bloody but unbowed," she said.

The range wars in the West lasted about 40 years and took many lives of man and beast, but with new grazing laws the violence declined and by about 1920 there was peace on the range.

Over the years, Emma made a name for herself, not only for her business acumen but also her part in a number of civic groups, including the Episcopal Church, the Order of the Eastern Star, National Business and Professional Women's Club and others.

In 1930, she was elected to the State Legislature, serving on several committees at $5 per day pay. She is credited with sponsoring a bill creating Sacagawea Park - honoring Lewis and Clark's Shoshone interpreter - and supported erecting a monument honoring her on top of the Continental Divide.

The government eventually passed new grazing laws, with grazing operations controlled today by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service, making it possible for cattle and sheep ranchers to share range resources in peace.

Even the cattlemen finally agreed that raising sheep along with the cattle made sound business sense because it evened out the financial risk when the price of beef dropped.

They called Emma "Big Mama." Loved and respected, she will be forever known as the Sheep Queen of Idaho.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. Contact him at

New laws stop the violence

Helping keep the peace between sheep and cattlemen was the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 that established grazing regulations on public lands that were not already restricted by the national forests. They do not include Alaska, Indian reservations and certain other areas. Fees are charged and permits are renewable every 10 years. Permits can be revoked in times of drought or other natural disaster.


You are hereby ordered to keep your sheep on the north side of plainly marked line or you will suffer the consequences.

- Inland Sheep Shooters

Emma's sheep breeding program

Emma crossbred Rambouillet rams with Cotswold ewes to produce quality products. What are these breeds?

* Rambouillet sheep are a cross between the French merino and English long-wool breeds, producing larger animals - ewes grow up to 200 pounds and rams up to 300 pounds. Started in 1786 by Louis XIV in France, they are also known for longer wool clips and excellent meat quality.

* Cotswold sheep are a rare breed from the English Midlands, known for luxurious wool that grows eight to 10 inches per year, and also producing quality meat.

Death of the Sheep Queen

Emma died on Christmas Day 1951 at the age of 85. A week earlier she suffered a massive heart attack while writing Christmas cards at her dining room table. The whole town of Salmon closed down for her funeral. Her biographer Lynn E. Bragg wrote that, "Emma never turned her back on a friend or employee."

What happened to Emma's husband?

Thomas H. Yearian (born in Du Quoin, Ill., in 1864) died in Salmon, Idaho, on Dec. 16, 1963, at age 99, outliving Emma by 12 years. He arrived in Lemhi Valley in 1871 with his parents who were in the mercantile business before cattle ranching. He was a Mason in Salmon for 75 years. Both Thomas and Emma are buried in Salmon City Cemetery.

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