Cougar Dave Lewis
Big Creek – Wilderness
Longtime Idaho hunter “Cougar” Dave Lewis poses with his prized team of hunting dogs. Photos courtesy Pat Cary Peek
Viola author sifts fact from legend in book about Idaho mountain man
By Laura Pierce – Daily News staff writer
When Idaho mountain man “Cougar Dave” died in 1936, he left a stack of legends nearly as tall as the mountain that state officials later named for him.
For Viola resident Pat Cary Peek, sifting through those stories became a quest that ultimately yielded a book.
But she cam across some major surprises in writing “Cougar Dave: Mountain Man of Idaho.”
“As I did the research, the only thing that held true was that he died,” Peek said of her research into the life of hunter/trapper Dave Lewis, who apparently had a yen for telling whoppers.
That included explaining to 1910 census workers that he’d been born in Arkansas, in the 1920 census revisiting that story to say Wales, and in 1930 opting instead for a birthplace in Illinois.
It was only after tracking down Lewis’ death certificate, which led her to the funeral home that sipped his remains to Oregon, that Peek ascertained her subject had been born just outside Yoncalla, Ore.
Peek, whose quest to learn the truth about Lewis led her to Oregon and central Idaho, and to scores of people who knew of the wily outdoorsman, isn’t completely sure why Lewis told the tales he did.
Bitterness over family relations back home and possibly a need to give his guiding business a more exotic bent might be culprits, she noted. But the most apparent reason Lewis told the stories he did – including several fictitious accounts of fighting in the Civil War – was that he simply could make people believe him.
“He just liked to tell stories and was very smart,” Peek said.
Lewis, who lived in the central Idaho wilderness on Big Creek, northeast of McCall, made believers out of a number of influential men during the ’20s and ’30s.
The charismatic guide/outfitter shared hunting camps with the likes of Idaho Gov. H.C. Baldridge, timber magnate Frederick Weyerhaeuser, Bunker Hill Mine manager Stanley Easton of Kellogg and a number of high-powered lawyers, doctors and magazine editors from across the country.
“Oh they loved him, all those doctors and lawyers and mucky-mucks,” Peek said. “David just charmed them. It was the persona he built.”
It was with Lewis that these men marveled at the wilderness surrounding them and discussed how they could preserve the beauty of the land for future generations.
Cougar Dave Lewis, then, for all his embellishments and revisionist history, had a hand in turning one of central Idaho’s most wild places into protected wilderness, outside the encroachment of industry and development, Peek said.
“Around David’s fire, talk of preserving the vast central Idaho region as a primitive area first took shape, and eventually the primitive area became what is now the 3,678-square mile Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest and most isolated wilderness in the lower 48,” Peek states in her book.
Peek first encountered stories of the enigmatic outdoorsman while living at the University of Idaho’s Taylor Ranch Field Station, which was at Lewis’ homestead site.
Lewis is shown in this undated photo at his cabin in the heart of central Idaho wilderness. Photo courtesy Pat Cary Peek
Peek spent the winter of 1992-93 at the ranch, in addition to other, shorter forays over the years. Her husband, Jim Peek, at the time a professor of wildlife biology at the UI, was doing research at the ranch and Pat regularly accompanied him.
Her reflections of that one winter season yielded an earlier book, “One Winter in the Wilderness,” which was selected as the Idaho Library Association’s Book of the Year for 1998.
At the ranch, where a segment of Lewis’ workshop still stood and where some of his tools still lay, Peek found herself captivated by the apparent romance of Lewis, after hearing tales of his Civil War service and apparent Welsh background.
“I was just really curious about him,” Peek said. “But the more I got into it, the more I realized nobody knew the truth about where he was born and raised.”
A self-avowed fan of research – “I just love digging around in libraries – to me that’s fun,” Peek said – it wasn’t long before she started finding material on Lewis. Much of it was write-ups in various outdoor publications from the ’20s and ’30s, when Lewis was actively guiding hunters in the rugged Idaho wilderness and getting a reputation as a real character.
But Peek found she hit pay dirt when she located Lewis’ death certificate and contacted the Boise-area funeral home listed on the document. Sure enough, the funeral home had records going back to 1936, which stated Lewis’ remains had been shipped back to Yoncalla, Ore., to a man Peek learned later was Lewis’ half-brother, Kit Letsom.
As a former longtime resident of the Eugene, Ore. area, Peek had no trouble heading back to where she still had family and tracking down some of Lewis’ relatives.
It was there that she got a hint why Lewis had been so closemouthed about his beginnings. One source of major friction, she said, involved Lewis handing over property to his stepfather.
“He was very angry,” Peek said of Lewis, who apparently left the state for good, shortly after agreeing to give 620 acres of farmland over to his stepfather, John Letsom.
Peek noted it’s not clear why Lewis gave the property to Letsom, but there seemed to be a lot of rancor attached to the transfer. She added that Letsom, in turn, left the property to his full-blooded son, Kit. And to the frustration of the rest of th Letsom clan, Kit later deeded it back to Lewis’ survivors – the children of Lewis’ sister.
“The Letsoms are still unhappy about it,” Peek said, of the reactions she got when she went to Oregon to interview Letsom family members.
In her research Peek also discovered that a number of Lewis legends were simply untrue. The fibs included his age (to which he added 10 years), his Civil War service and his place of burial (which is on the family homestead property in Yoncalla – not in Boise or Cascade, as some historical references have noted).
From the information she was able to gather, plus her firsthand experience of living in the wilderness Lewis called home, Peek crafted what she calls a story of “narrative nonfiction” about Lewis’ life.
Her book reads like a story, with characters Peek has researched speaking for themselves, and the hunting parties Lewis led unfolding in narrative fashion.
Peek, who self-published the book in 2004, said she’s been pleased with the response of readers.
“It’s sold over 800 – it’s doing quite well,” she said.
“Cougar Dave: Mountain Man of Idaho” is carried locally by BookPeople of Moscow, as well as by Hastings at the Palouse Mall in Moscow.
Pat Cary Peek is the author of “Cougar Dave” Mountain Man of Idaho.” (Geoff Crimmins / Daily News)
Editor’s note: Standing more than 9,000 feet, Lewis Peak is located in the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
source: Moscow Pullman Daily News January 20, 2005
“Cougar Dave, Mountain Man of Idaho” by Pat Cary Peek
Link to Book at Amazon
The state of Idaho named a mountain for him when he died in 1936. Cougar Dave Lewis, miner, guide and bounty hunter, was as wild and free as the mountain, as independent and solitary, as unfathomable and some would say as stubborn and immovable as the peak that bears his name. He lived alone in the center of what is now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and played a part in establishing the original Idaho Primitive Area…
“One Winter in the Wilderness” by Pat Cary Peek
Link to Book at Amazon
Highlights the experiences of the Peeks and their daily life at the Taylor Ranch Field Station, and includes historical and fictionalized stories of an existence among Idaho’s wildlife.
Link to More Dave Lewis photos from the Idaho State Historical Society
Link to 1928 Photos Warm Lake to Yellow Pine to Big Creek to Cougar Dave Lewis Ranch. Harry Shellworth Album Idaho State Historical Society, photographer Ansgar Johnson Sr.