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The Ghost Ranch of the Owyhees

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

The Owyhee Mountains, in the borderlands of Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada can be a mysterious place. Acres of untamed forest land, desert landscapes, high mountains, and deep canyons fill this place. This is why it is really no surprise that people can easily, and often do, go missing there. What can surprise, and chill us, is when the disappearance creates a mystery that

has endured for 126 years.

The original cabin on the ranch, circa the 1930s, before it was destroyed in a flood.-Courtesy Owyhee County Museum

Sally and Richard “Dick” Thomas established themselves on Sinker Creek, as the crow flies about four miles from Silver City, as the horse walks, 10 miles. They built themselves a cabin, had horses and cows, planted crops, and had a couple of small orchards. The nearest neighbor was more than a mile away. Although their ranch was isolated, they were still part of the community, often going into town for social functions. In October of 1893, a boy who had been shot in the neck during a deer hunting accident near War Eagle Mountain was brought to Sally and Dick’s cabin. Sally cared for the boy while Dick went to Silver City for help. Thanks to Dick and Sally's efforts, the boy was expected to survive his wound, but the Thomas's tenure on the ranch would not last long.

Sinker Creek, about a mile west of the ranch

In April of 1896, some friends stopped by to see Sally and Dick at their cabin. When they arrived, they found one of the couple’s dogs dead in the front yard, while another looked like it was starving to death. The livestock was also hungry, and the cows had not been milked for some time. The party saw that the cabin door was closed, but not locked. Upon entering the home, they found that everything seemed well kept with no obvious signs of disarray. It was reported that a meal was prepared, but not eaten on the table. Dick’s best suit was missing, but Sally’s dresses were in the cabin. The searchers also found Dick’s empty wallet and a hunting knife on a chair. The horses and saddles were all accounted for, meaning that Sally and Dick should be close by.

Corrals at the ranch

A search was put on for the missing couple, but after no sign of them was found around the cabin, most of the searchers feared that Dick and Sally had been killed. Soon theories started to circulate among the citizens of the Silver City District, with the general consensus being that one had murdered the other and then taken off, but this seems unlikely since all of the horses were still on the ranch. It seems like the Thomas's relationship was not all that great, and public knowledge at the time was that the couple often fought and had separated a few times. Dick had a good reputation, but Sally was reported to have been a “woman of the town” before they were married. Supposedly, shortly before they disappeared, Dick began to refuse to eat Sally’s cooking after she had purchased strychnine to poison squirrels. Perhaps, one of the rumors went, Sally killed Dick and then absconded with the considerable amount of money the couple was said to have possessed. Or did Dick kill Sally and run away instead? In 1896, there was a report saying Dick had been spotted in South Africa, and a renewed search took place around the cabin, with nothing found. That report was never substantiated.

Possible remains of the ranch's orchards

The mystery deepened in August of 1896, when Mrs. Murphy, sister to Sally was living in the cabin. She was outside hanging laundry on the line when a rock flew out of the bushes and struck her in the forehead. Mrs. Murphy fell to the ground and lost consciousness for a time. When she was found, she was still knocked out and had a large gash on her forehead.

The current cabin on the ranch. It appears to have been rebuilt with timber from the original structure.

In the Spring of 1898, a local sheepherder reported finding a skull east of the cabin. Hoping for a reward, he reported it to the sheriff, who went to the sheepherder’s camp to collect the skull. The sheepherder, who reportedly was not trustful of the sheriff, refused to tell where the skull was found. The sheriff convinced him to reveal that he found it among charred bone, cloth, and buttons near what looked like a shallow grave. When the sheriff arrived at the described place, he realized that the sheepherder was not telling the truth and the location was an old Native American grave. How did the sheriff know that? Apparently, he had dug up that grave himself on a previous occasion, although I have no idea why he would have done that.

Site of the original cabin

The skull was taken back to town where it was analyzed and said to have belonged to a woman who lost it three or four years earlier. Could it have been Sally?

By 1905, Dick was ruled deceased by the courts, and his remaining estate was put up for auction. The last newspaper mention of the disappearance was on July 13, 1906, when Dick’s brother and executor John R. Thomas died. As executor, John was engaged in a few lawsuits over the fate of the ranch. Dick and Sally did not have a homestead patent on the ranch but were only improving public land. After Dick and Sally disappeared, several other parties attempted to claim rights to the ranch.

The Ghost Ranch of the Owyhees is now part of the Joyce Livestock Company, said to be the oldest business in Idaho.

In the 1920s a local rancher took up residence in the cabin and lived there until the 30s. In 1962, a flash flood destroyed the cabin, with only pieces of it remaining as a reminder of the lives of Sally and Richard Thomas.

Maybe the disappearance of Sally and Dick can be explained by the greed of man, but perhaps there is something else in those woods that man cannot explain.

This cross sits next to the current cabin, but it is unclear if it marks an actual grave. The numbers "321" and "287" are scratched into it, and a coin sits on top of the rock. Who does this little marker memorialize?

Author's Note- I wrote the first version of this story two years ago after seeing mention of it at the Owyhee County Museum in Murphy. Last month I finally traveled down to see the Ghost Ranch for myself, so I figured it was time for an update. All photos are by the author except as noted. A caution-I am not revealing the exact location of the ranch, but it is easy to find. However, the route to get to it can be pretty treacherous, so make sure you are prepared for it. Also, it does now sit on private property, so please be respectful.

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