The Legacy of Tarzan: #ThisWeekInWYHistory
(Photo Courtesy of the Park County Archives)
Almost 80 years ago to the day, the story of one of the most skilled woodsman that Wyoming will ever know, who would later be immortalized as the Tarzan of the Tetons, captured the imagination of an entire nation.
It all started on March 13, 1939, when Earl Durand of Powell, Wyoming, and three companions killed four elk out of season near the North Fork of the Shoshone River, just west of Cody.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall and nearly 250 pounds of solid muscle, Durand was described as a man who could run 40 miles by night and shoot four bullets through a thrown baseball (before it hit the ground) by day.
Durand’s intense love of books—particularly those concerning woodcraft, wildlife, camping, and nature— earned him a reputation as a particularly gifted hunter by the time he was 26.
Durand is believed to have been the leader of the Shoshone River outfit, and is the only one to have escaped capture when game wardens, seeking evidence, ambushed the men at the Shoshone National Forest boundary.
The Cody Enterprise, as quoted by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBHC), described a harrowing scene where one of the game wardens reportedly jumped onto the side of the car, as it was driving past, and shoving a pistol into the driver’s ribs, telling him to “Stop, or I’ll stop you!”
Durand, rifle in hand, reportedly jumped from the passenger side of the vehicle and disappeared into the surrounding wilderness.
The next morning, a North Fork rancher reported that two of his cattle had been shot, one of which was dead and missing meat from its flank.
Backed by a hastily put together posse, the two game wardens tracked Durand to the Shoshone River Canyon, where they surprised him, disarmed him, and brought him in back to Cody.
Durand was sentenced to six months in jail and a $100 fine after he pleaded guilty to killing two elk.
But on March 16, while Park County Undersheriff Noah Riley was bringing prisoners their evening meal, Durand reportedly grabbed a milk bottle and smashed Riley over the head with it.
Durand took Riley hostage, relieving him of his sidearm and an additional rifle and escaped and forced Riley to drive him to his parent’s home near Powell to gather some gear.
When a sheriff’s deputy named D.M Baker and Town Marshal Chuck Lewis arrived there to take him back into custody, Durand shot them both. Baker died at the scene and Lewis would later succumb to his wounds at the hospital.
Once again, Durand escaped into the wilderness.
The escape signaled the beginning of a nine day man hunt, but local officials and posse members were wary about pursuing Durand into the woods.
First, there were Durand’s skill as woodsman to consider. His reputation said that the 26-year-old fugitive was more at home in the wilderness than he was inside his family farmhouse, having foregone such comforts for a wall tent back home when he was in the eighth grade.
Second, if they did choose to chase after him, they first had to find his trail. Durand successfully eluded capture for five days.
On Tuesday, Durand reappeared near Powell at the Herf Graham home, where he took a rifle and sent a letter to Park County Sheriff Frank Blackburn.
In the letter, Durand advises Blackburn to notify other authorities that they had better carry a pistol with them wherever they go, because he would challenge them to an even draw if he ever saw them.
The letter ends with the following statement:
“Of course I know that I’m done for and when you kill me I suggest you have my head mounted and hang it up in the courthouse for the sake of law and order. Your beloved enemy, Earl Durand.”
In days that followed, the gloves came off. Authorities had learned that Durand had retreated into the Clark’s Fork Canyon, to the north of Cody near the Wyoming-Montana border.
Wyoming Governor Nels H. Smith authorized the Montana National Guard to enter Wyoming and Montana Governor Roy Ayres directed his adjutant general to provide all necessary assistance.
The Montana National Guard brought with them a 3-inch trench mortar and a 37-mm howitzer, to which the Wyoming National Guard added another trench mortar, dynamite, and tear gas bombs.
Durand was discovered hiding in a rocky fortress, virtually inaccessible, between Little Rocky Creek and the mouth of the canyon. It was impossible to attack from the top and, given Duran’s uncanny accuracy with a rifle, to storm the front was generally viewed as suicide.
Ignoring a warning from Durand himself not to approach, two posse members were killed trying to overtake his position.
In response to a question posed by a reporter as to whether or not authorities had Durand cornered, Blackburn responded “We haven’t got him cornered by any means. He’s got us cornered,” according to the BBHC.
Unnoticed by the posse, which had retreated some distance down the canyon, Durand fled from his rocky fortress and, the next day, hijacked a car that he took back to his parent’s home.
After saying goodbye to Walter and Effie Durand, the fugitive made his way back to Powell, where he intended to rob the First National Bank.
No one knew that Durand had escaped from Clark’s Fork Canyon, not even the posse and National Guard who were supposedly keeping a close eye on Durand’s hideout.
With a rifle in his hand, Durand entered the bank and emptied out several cash drawers. Then, for some reason that remains unexplained, he opened fire.
Perhaps that was what Durand intended all along. Armed Powell citizens converged on the bank, waiting to shoot, what they thought, was an average bank robber.
When Durand emerged from the bank and the shooting started, a 17-year-old by name of Tip Cox, is credited with firing a single, well-aimed shot that dropped Durand where he stood.
The massive woodsman, however, did not die there and managed to claw his way back inside the bank, where authorities of the time reported that he took his own life.
It was the end of one the most epic outlaw sagas Wyoming had ever known.
Newspapers of the day blew the events out of proportion, sensationalizing Durand as a huge, shaggy, “raw-meat-eating wild man of the mountains” who slew four law enforcement officers.
Newsmen around the country likened him to Tarzan, a character that first appeared in the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan of the Apes.
One reporter in 1973 stated that many admired Durand, where others appeared to be trying to bury Durand’s memory, a vain effort.
“The legend of Earl Durand is buried in fertile soil,” the reporter said. “It continues to grow.”
Durand was immortalized and is still remembered to this day as the “Tarzan of the Tetons.” His story has been depicted in news stories, Hollywood dramas, and published works both fiction and nonfiction.