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Who Was Beaver Dick?

A few miles out of town near Rexburg, Idaho, lies a park that’s popular with college kids in part because of its unusual name. Beaver Dick Park is sure to garner a few snickers, or at least raised eyebrows, from newcomers who don’t realize Beaver Dick was a man. But who was he, and what’s his connection to Jackson Hole? Well, we’ll tell you. It’s tale of adventure, love, tragedy, love again, and more fur pelts than you can shake a stick at. 

As you might have guessed, Beaver Dick was not the name his mother bestowed on him. In fact, the person who gave him that name had a lot more facial hair, presumably, than Dick’s dear mother. (More on that later.) He was born Richard Leigh in Manchester, England. When he was 7, his family emigrated to America. The young Richard joined the Hudson Bay Company to seek his fortune as a trapper, but he soon took a detour from that career when the Mexican-American War broke out. 

At the war’s end, Leigh settled in the Snake River valley in Idaho. He frequently made trips down south to Utah territory to sell furs. On one such trip, he encountered a Bannock couple. The woman, called Tadpole, was in the midst of a difficult labor. As one does when one encounters someone who’s giving birth in the wilderness, Leigh lent a hand. All went well, and the new parents were so grateful that they offered the baby girl to Leigh as a wife once she came of age. He was 31 at the time and no doubt appreciated the kind gesture, but she was perhaps a little young for him.

Still, not that young, apparently. Instead, Leigh met a sixteen-year-old Shoshone girl, to whom he gave the English name of Jenny. She bore him five children. Over the next decade or so, Leigh lived the life of a family man, albeit one who made his living trapping and skinning small animals. He took his wife and kids along on his trapping trips. When the geologist Ferdinand Hayden, his artist friend Thomas Moran, and a group of explorers set out to map the Yellowstone region, they employed Richard Leigh as a guide. The party was so impressed with his skills and hospitality that they named the lakes at the base of the Tetons after them: Jenny Lake and Beaver Dick Lake (now String Lake). 

In 1876, tragedy struck. A Native American woman seeking food visited the Leigh homestead. Unbeknownst to the family, however, she was afflicted with the scourge of the frontier—the dreaded disease called smallpox. Leigh fell sick and recovered, but between Christmas Eve and December 28, every other member of his family died. 

Leigh struggled through the next few years, but eventually he found love again—Susan Tadpole, the woman he once helped deliver. (We're going to assume that wasn't weird then.) He was forty-eight and she was sixteen. This time the couple had three children, and once again he took them along on his adventures. While the name Richard Leigh isn’t as well-known as others from the same time, he would cross paths with some of history’s most famous characters, like a sort of scruffy Forrest Gump. For instance, he and his family were visited by none other than Theodore Roosevelt and his hunting party, sharing stories and making a big enough impression that Roosevelt mentioned him in his account of the region. And then of course there’s Brigham Young, the one who reported gave Richard Leigh the nickname that would stay with him for the rest of his life and beyond—Beaver Dick. (Because he trapped beavers, you know?)

Beaver Dick Leigh died in 1899, aged 68. He is buried beside his family on a hill overlooking his ranch near Rexburg. 

This post was brought to you by Flat Creek Inn.


Ryan Kunz is a copywriter and freelance writer who writes on a variety of topics, including media, the outdoors, and whatever else strikes his fancy. He's definitely been to Beaver Dick Park a time or two.

Photo credit: Jackson Hole Historical Association

Sources: https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/beaver-dick-leigh-mountain-man-tetons, https://jacksonholehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/Newsletter-Winter-2014.pdf

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