First human use of the Tom Miner Basin was by local Native American tribes as summer hunting grounds. The Absaroka (Crow) lived in a large territory bordered by the Beartooth Plateau on the south, the Yellowstone Plateau on the southwest and the Gallatin Mountain Range and Yellowstone River on the west and north. Tom Miner Basin is located on the western edge of that region, in the Gallatin Range. In addition to the Crow, the Sheepeater Indians most likely hunted in the Basin as well. The Sheepeaters were a small, isolated tribe (an offshoot of the Shoshone) who ranged in western Wyoming and southern Idaho. Timid and relatively primitive, the Sheepeaters kept much to themselves in the Yellowstone Park area.
Two hiking trails we still use – one traveling into Yellowstone and the other over Buffalo Horn Pass into the Gallatin River drainage – were likely used by Native Americans as they traversed the area. Tipi rings are still visible on the land, and some arrowheads and chips have been found in various ranch locales.
Although not known with certainty, a member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition named John Colter may have been the first person of European descent to visit Tom Miner Basin in the early 1800s. Colter’s stories include trapping in a location that could well have been this Basin. He spent months alone in the wilderness, and is widely considered to be the first “mountain man."
In the mid-1860s when Emigrant Gulch was settled as a lively gold mining camp, hunters frequented the Basin as well. It was around this time that Thomas J. Miner began trapping here, and it is for him that the area was named.
Tom Miner’s life story is not well documented. What is known is that he first came to the area to herd stock for W.W. Alderson. For $50.00 a month he stayed on to trap, prospect, poach, and eventually leave his name on the map. In 1897 Miner applied for a permit to erect a stamp mill (to assist in his gold mining operation) along Yellowstone National Park’s northern boundary. Park officials did not have a survey of the northern boundary at that time, so one was commissioned. Miner’s gold mine and proposed stamp mill were found to be within the park’s boundary and he was promptly evicted. Miner was also known for squealing on other poachers; it is presumed he did this to protect “his territory.” Once he was evicted from Yellowstone, Miner moved to Washington state to live out his last years.
The first homesteaders arrived in the Basin in the 1890s, following the settlement of Paradise Valley immediately after the Civil War and upon completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad a decade earlier. The first documented resident in the Basin was a man named Burkins, who homesteaded around 1900 where the main B Bar Ranch buildings are now located. In 1906 he sold his holdings to Charlie and Adelaide Scott, who owned the B Bar brand. There were at least six other homesteads settled about this time, as the Northern Pacific sold land in the Basin to ranchers for grazing. Names given to areas of the ranch – the Reed Place, Styers Pasture, Davis Cabin, and Anderson Place – remind us of the families who struggled to make a living in the upper reaches of the Basin.
In the late 1930s, Bill Ward (a businessman from New York) came to Montana and consolidated various homesteads into a larger B Bar. During Ward’s tenure, the ranch was managed and operated by Don Hindman, a rancher and furniture maker from Cody, Wyoming. Hindman built our shop, Skully Barn, and much of the Molesworth-style furniture in the lodge.
By the mid-1960s the Wards were forced to sell the ranch with the passing of Bill Ward. They sold to the Dunevant Corporation, an agricultural commodities brokerage firm in Tennessee. Very quickly they found that conditions here for raising cattle were very different than what they were accustomed to. When the ranch was again put on the market three long-time ranching families in the Basin purchased it to protect the property from subdivision or other development. Two of the ranchers took acreage for their share, leaving the third as sole owners of the reduced-size B Bar. It was from these owners that the B Bar, as it is today, was purchased by the current owners in May of 1978.
Children or other relatives of earlier Basin families still reside in the area. At least one Ward daughter returned to the area and settled just north of the entrance into Yankee Jim Canyon. She and her husband visited us and enjoyed seeing the changes as well as what has remained the same. We have reminisced by telephone with a son of the Reed family about what it was like to grow up in the old house by the Reed Barn. Perhaps the most poignant story occurred in the early 1980s when a couple arrived at the ranch and the woman came to the door (her husband was too shy and remained in the car) to ask if they could visit the Davis Cabin, where her husband had lived as a child. After their visit, they came back and again the woman came to the door to ask for permission to remove a board from an inside doorway in the Davis Cabin that had pencil markings showing the children’s growth over a period of years. Permission was granted and they replaced the board with another.
We’ve met the son of the gentleman who installed the first septic system here and who was still in the business – fortunately for us, since he remembered where the septic field and its trap were to be found. We’ve also met a woman who cooked for the Wards in the west end of the lodge which had a room called the spring room where our north-facing deck now stands. This was the room in the house where items were kept to stay cool.
In the last two decades, a good bit of development has occurred in the Basin. As you turn off Highway 89 and begin your trip up the Basin, one can’t miss the number of new homes. This development commenced in 1983 when the Todd family sold their ranch headquartered at the bottom of the Basin. The new owners subdivided the land into twenty-acre parcels, many of which were sold. Since then a few of the parcels have been further subdivided so that some homes are now on two acres. Several other new homes have been built a few miles further up the road. All the land beyond this point is held by several ranchers with large acreages who are dedicated to keeping the land in agriculture, with about half the land now protected by easements from subdivision. In the future, unless something drastic or unforeseen occurs, upper Tom Miner Basin will remain much as it is today: a mountain ranching enclave surrounded by 10,000 foot-high mountains with Yellowstone National Park on one side and Gallatin National Forest on the other.