History in Focus: The Sevens
For the Craig Press
The late 19th century witnessed the rise of massive and dominant open range cattle ranches in northwest Colorado. The Sevens was one of the biggest, and along with the Two Bar and Two Circle Bar ranches (see History in Focus: Two Circle Bar), these three controlled 75% of the range from Utah to the Continental Divide. Named for its brand, a straight up 7 on the left shoulder and a “lazy” (or horizontal) 7 on the left hip of each steer, the Sevens was an influential presence in the early days of Moffat County..
The Sevens was a partnership between Jeremiah (Jerry) Pierce and “Uncle Joe” Reef. Energetic and entrepreneurial, both men were involved in wide-ranging business interests. Out of Kansas, Pierce came to Colorado in the 1870’s and ran cattle in Fremont County. He got into the butchering business in Leadville. In the 1880’s he and his brother, Al, brought cattle to the White River Valley. They soon parted ways and Jerry moved his herd north and set up the Sevens roughly two miles east of Cross Mountain Canyon on the Yampa River, along today’s County Road 85
Joe Reef was the financier of the operation. Born in Illinois, he served in the Union army during the Civil War. in 1865 Reef was part of the triumphant celebratory parade of the Union Army through Washington, D.C. known as the “Grand Review” (Steamboat Pilot, 8/22/23).
After the war, he came to Kansas and then to Colorado supplying cattle to the railroads and the front range cities. He moved on to Southwest Colorado and worked in the mining industry in the San Juan Mountains. Finally, he arrived in Leadville and was involved in chartering the Carbonate National Bank.
The men joined forces to form the Sevens and ran roughly 20,000 steers from the Continental Divide all the way to Brown’s Park, while shipping 4,000 to 5,000 to market each year. The vast operation was a classic open-range ranch that relied on the free grass and forage available on public lands.
In the early days the cowboys would meet a shipment of 4-5,000 yearlings brought by rail to Wolcott, and then drive them north to Steamboat Springs and into the Yampa Valley. Later, as the railroad expanded into the Yampa Valley, the Sevens would receive and ship cattle from nearby rail connections.
News blurbs of the era indicate the size and large expanse of the Sevens’ operation. In Nov. of 1908, the Routt County Courier reported the Sevens trailed a large bunch of yearlings through Craig (11/28). In February of 1910, the Sevens had moved their cattle out of Brown’s Park. In January of 1916, the Moffat County Courier stated, “The Sevens men passed through Maybell with seven hundred and fifty cattle taking them to Elkhead for the winter.” (1/27) In May of that same year the men were working the water holes around Cedar Springs. (Moffat County Bell, 5/18/16).
In May of 1917, after a 55-hour trip, 22 carloads of yearlings came in from the Phippsburg rail yards. Forty of the poor beasts died during the trip (Craig Empire, 5/9). At any given moment, the Sevens appeared in every nook and cranny of the Yampa Valley.
Remarkably, the Sevens stayed out of the major conflicts that were always brewing between the cattle barons, sheep herders, small ranchers, and homesteaders.
In 1911, “Queen” Ann Bassett and Ora Haley of the Two Bar ranch were pitted against each other in a high-profile cattle rustling case. Wise and shrewd, “Uncle Joe” Reef flew under the radar and presented Ann with a beautiful bay gelding that became her favorite horse. According to author J.R. Burroughs, this act of calculated generosity spared the Sevens from the plague of cattle rustling in the Brown’s Park area.
However, Northwest Colorado was filling up with homesteaders and sheepherders, (see History in Focus, Desert Drama, 11/11/2019), national forests were being created, and after WWI the cattle market took a nosedive.
In 1916, Uncle Joe sold his share of the ranch to Pierce. In 1919, after the death of Pierce the ranch was purchased by the Clay Springs Cattle Company (Moffat County Courier, 4/24/19). Beloved “Uncle Joe” Reef, now spending winters in Berkley, Calif., kept investments in the valley and returned yearly until his death in 1922 at the age of 75.
As demands for the land changed the Sevens was eventually squeezed out, but not before it played an important role in shaping our local identity centered on the ideas of wide open spaces, the cowboy, and rugged individualism.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at email@example.com. Sources for this story: Where The Old West Stayed Young by John Rolfe Burroughs (1962), and the newspaper archives of The Museum of Northwest Colorado.
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