A Note from Cottonwood Corners

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai thousands of years ago, he brought with him what the founders of our Republic considered to be the foundation of an honorable society.  “The Ten Commandments” became the moral code which clearly distinguishes right from wrong.  They indeed describe how individuals should conduct themselves.

The eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” has been ignored since it was first revealed to man.  According to police and press reports, the world still needs this commandment.  The variety of thieves are endless.  They range from pickpockets and purse-snatchers, to men who steal money, other personal property, and the good name and reputation of their friends.

During the homesteading and pioneer years on the Northern Plains, the rustling of cattle and horses was a common practice for some individuals, especially during the time of the “open range.”  It was common, though perhaps exaggerated a bit, that a cattleman never slaughtered his own animals.  The standard joke was that a rancher, invited to dine at a neighbor’s was pleased to have a chance to eat his own beef.  “In those days if you wanted your own beef to eat, you took dinner at a neighbor’s” was a comment frequently made on the northern prairie.

South Dakota had its share of rustlers.  Bert Hall, in his “ROUNDUP YEARS–Old Muddy to Black Hills” contained this quote from a cowboy who participated in the 1902 roundup:  “I am 68 years old, and I do not look back on my younger days, as living the life of a criminal, but as one who took part in a battle to protect our right to live.”

In February of 1907, The Miller Sun on page one in the upper left-hand corner reported that:  “The long era of peace here has given way to some fierce lawing in which a Hyde County man named Fred Cline was charged with stealing a Hand County man’s horse.  Half of Highmore seemed to be here as witnesses for Cline, while John Wilson the Miller man aggrieved had many witnesses against the accused.”  After three days of legal wrangling and a $500 bond, Cline was bound over to Circuit Court

Later in September of that year, The Miller Sun, again on page one in the same place indicated that the coming term of court promised to bring most of the Hyde County population to our town (Miller is the county seat of Hand County and Highmore is the county seat of Hyde County — it appears that some residents of the counties had a strong feeling of dislike toward their neighbors).

The Hyde County folks claimed that they should have been allowed to try the accused in their own courts, where he would get impartial justice.  They stated in open court in Miller during the last trial that the defendant would be convicted and sent to prison if tried in Hand County.  The Judge refused to transfer the case to Highmore.

The trial lasted one day and the defendant was acquitted.  However, it was discovered during the trial that three boys had been organized as a gang to help him in his stealing.  They plead guilty to burglary and were sentenced to the reform school at Plankinton.  One of them had been adopted by the defendant and was previously a resident at the reform school.

That was not the last we would hear about Mr. Cline.  In July of 1909, he and two other men (George McCarthy and Frank Brandell) were arrested on the charge of horse stealing and bound over to the circuit court.  Their trial would be held in Highmore.  The Miller Press reported:  “These parties have long been under suspicion, and if convicted should get the limit of the law, for this country is too prosperous a condition for men to resort to such means to earn a livelihood.”

McCarthy, a wealthy and popular rancher had an ailment and was hardly able to walk without assistance.  For Cline, this was to be the third trial for horse stealing.  Earlier, he had been acquitted by the court for stealing horses in both Highmore and Miller.

Hyde County authorities indicated that they would show no mercy in the conduct of the cases.  Even though one of the defendants was by his physical condition more suited to being a patient in a hospital than to occupy a cell at the penitentiary in Sioux Falls.  He furnished a physician’s certificate of ill health and his case was continued.  Within a very short time, he passed away from his illness.

The trials of Cline and Brandell attracted considerable attention in South Dakota.  The guilty verdict returned by the juries afforded great satisfaction to the public and many stockmen who had suffered losses by the operations of this gang of rustlers.

The cases were emotional and hotly contested.  A victory for law and order was gratifying to both Hyde and Hand counties.  A general expression heard in both counties was that this breaks up the last organized gang of rustlers which had been able to hang on from the earlier pioneer days.  Judge Boucher gave each of them a sentence of three years in the penitentiary.

Shortly after the trial, Cline who had been granted a brief stay to arrange his farm and family affairs, stopped at the office of The Miller Press.  The editor wrote:  “He is a well-dressed, clever looking man of affairs, and yet he must serve three years in Sioux Falls.”  He was pardoned in February of 1913.

“Thou shalt not steal” is not a suggestion, it is a COMMANDMENT!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 12, 2022

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