The Good Kind of Desert Dust

If you’ve spent any time driving through Wyoming, you’ve probably seen huge herds of wild horses on the roadside. These beautiful animals are an icon of the American West, and Frank “Wild Horse” Robbins spent his whole life working with and protecting wild horses. Frank Robbins was born near Box Elder Creek near Glenrock, Wyoming on November 7, 1894. He was a rancher and a cowboy his whole life. For a time, he even broke horses for the Army’s Remount Service during World War I. In 1935, after his time working for the Army, he moved back to Glenrock and began catching wild horses. He mainly worked out of the Red Desert, which is between Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Frank Robbins on his ranch near Glenrock.
Envelope 1, Frank Robbins papers, Collection No. 10496, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In March of 1943, the U.S. Grazing Service (today called the Bureau of Land Management) held a meeting to discuss reducing the population of wild horses on federal ranges in Wyoming. At that time, an estimated 100,000 wild horses lived on this land. Robbins attended this meeting and presented a plan to gather the wild horses and put them to use instead of just getting rid of them.

Robbins created “horse traps” (corrals constructed a certain way to prevent horses from escaping them) all over the Red Desert. After a few attempts at gathering wild horses had been disrupted by a mail plane flying overhead, he began to gather horses more efficiently by herding the horses with small planes. He captured an estimated 30,000 horses which were either sold as rodeo stock or sent to Europe to supply meat during World War II. Robbins would also take the best roan and buckskin mares back to his ranch near Glenrock and breed them with American Quarter Horses to create a breed called “Robbins Roans.”

Wild horses being corralled during a Robbins’ round up.
Box 1, Andrew Springs Gillespie papers, Collection No. 175, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

On a July morning in 1945, Robbins caught a wild palomino stallion which he later named “Desert Dust.” Verne Wood, a Rawlins photographer, happened to be riding along with Robbins on the day Desert Dust was captured. He took a photo of the stallion that soon became one of the most famous wildlife photos of the American West.

Desert Dust.
Box 714, James L. Eherberger papers, Collection No. 10674, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Verne Wood hand-tinted the photo and distributed several copies, including one to the Cheyenne Capitol building and one to Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney’s office. The photo caught the attention of newspapers and magazines across the United States, and even the attention of Hollywood. In 1946, Universal Studios created an Oscar-nominated short film called “Fight of the Wild Stallions” which featured Robbins, Desert Dust, and Robbins’ method of using airplanes for wild horse gathering. Robbins even used the photo to promote his own “Robbins Wild Horse Rodeos,” which were held each year around July 4 at his ranch and used horses Robbins had gathered.

Desert Dust in action, Robbin’s Rodeo – July 4-5, 1947.
Box 1, Andrew Springs Gillespie papers, Collection No. 175, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In the end, Desert Dust’s fame attracted the wrong sort of attention. In 1952, Desert Dust was killed in a drive-by shooting. The killer was never caught. Frank Robbins passed away on July 5, 1984, and was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2016. Even though Robbins and Desert Dust aren’t around anymore, you can still see their impact on today’s world. The corrals and rock formations Robbins used to capture wild horses, Desert Dust included, are still standing near Wamsutter, Wyoming. Desert Dust and Robbins’ work with wild horses also helped inspire the passage of the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1959 and later, the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Both of these acts protect wild horses in the West.

Post contributed by Archives Aide Sarah Kesterson, AHC Reference Department.


This entry was posted in Agricultural history, Rodeo history, Western history, Wyoming history and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply