A Note from Cottonwood Corners

It was an old-timer’s vivid account of South Dakota’s last big cattle roundup in 1902 that inspired Bert Hall of Chamberlain to “assemble and compile” a 582-page book entitled ROUNDUP YEARS — Old Muddy to Black Hills.  It was first published in 1954 and for Mr. Hall, it was a “labor of love.”

The need for a book like ROUNDUP YEARS was first suggested by Peter Clausen of Mission, South Dakota, to Mr. Hall in 1942.  He again repeated the suggestion along with some stories at a meeting with Bert in 1947.  This resulted in a group of cowboys who participated in the last big roundup in South Dakota in 1902 to form the “Last Roundup Club” in 1948.

The primary goal of the “Last Roundup Club” was to insure that someone would “assemble and compile” the stories of these cowboys who contributed so much to the development and progress of South Dakota and the area.  Mr. Hall, a local cowboy and pioneer history buff who worked for the Soil Conservation Service, organized the effort.  He also agreed to do a book on the subject.  He had spent his early years on a ranch near Gann Valley and graduated from Yankton College.

In the ROUNDUP YEARS, Mr. Hall and Olof Finstad, a long-time cowboy on the Rosebud Reservation explained the difference and struggle between the “so called rustlers” and the “anti-rustlers.” Between 1850 and the early part of the 1900s, it was still the time of open range and cattle were herded by their owners.

Some of the owners, especially the small operators, did a good job in the herding of their cattle.  Others, especially the large foreign and domestic cattle ranches, were careless in their responsibilities.  This carelessness resulted in conflicts, rustling of livestock, violence, and the loss of human life.

The anti-rustlers were the commission firms, packing plants, large ranchers, and other businesses who had financial interests and investments in the raising of cattle on the open range.

The so-called rustlers included the little rancher who had a small herd of cattle out on the open-range.  The names of some of those from this area included: the Nelson brothers, John Dillon, Joe Blackbird, William Kinkaid, Ole and Olof Finstad, and others in the “Rosebud Country.”

Olof Finstad stated in the ROUNDUP YEARS:  “To give a true account of past events, would mean exposing at this time, who burned Judge Bartine’s law office in Oacoma, the attempted burning of the court house at Chamberlain, why John Ham later turned state’s evidence.  Not many now remember the time eighty-seven head of cattle were branded at Blackbird Island (also called Pocohontas Island, Sully Island, and Toehead Island).  John Ham rode up on Nels Nelson, Jack Sully, and myself, while the job was being done.”

“An indictment was taken against Nelson and Sully, but not myself,” he continued.  “William Williamson, former district judge, now at Pierre, knows about many of those early Lyman County legal tangles.  A roll-back of history would reveal that I was at the Mitchell jail twice before the eventful night when Jack Sully escaped from that edifice; Carl Nelson was there once.  Who shot Jack Sully?  Who was most concerned in getting rid of him, and why?  There are many arresting incidents that only Carl Nelson and myself know about.  How much would be gained by the unfolding the long forgotten past?”

“In closing,” Olof wrote, “I will add that I am now sixty-eight 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 that same article, Bert Hall wrote:  “There is a viewpoint of the ‘little’ fellow trying to get along, with the big outfits running pretty much at large.  Such spreads were financed often by outside money, with not too much concern as to where their stock ran or who they molested.  So when the big roundups went through, it might not seem strange if some stragglers were kicked back into the brush or secluded breaks with ‘help’, and the big bunches continued moving on toward their destinations.  I do not gather that Finstad upheld rustling but there is an insinuated element of retaliation as between the small fry trying to make it, and the big operator riding rough shod over the meager holdings of the ‘underdog.’”

All during the years of the open range on the upper north-central prairie, the large operators often grazed their cattle on the reservations without a lease.  And if they had a lease, they grazed more cattle than the number specified in the lease.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1887 owned the Maltese Cross Ranch on both sides of the Little Missouri in North Dakota, was well aware of the disrespect and arrogance that the large cattle operations showed toward the Native Americans and their land.  He knew that they overgrazed the range and allowed their cattle to roam throughout the reservations without a lease.

Before becoming president, Roosevelt traveled throughout the Dakotas and developed life-long relationships with many of the local citizens.  In 1901, after he had been elected President of the United States, he demanded that the various Stockgrowers Associations conduct organized roundups in the spring of 1902.  That is why the 1902 roundup is often referred to as the “Roosevelt Roundup.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on January 4, 2023