A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Area newspapers and law enforcement personnel during the later part of the 1800s and the earliest part of the 1900s reported on the activities of those who were suspected or participated in the theft of livestock on the open range.  The following are some examples of one of those rustlers who lived on the Rosebud:

“This region (Charles Mix County) was infested by a tough gang of horse thieves and cut-throats in an early day.  Hartrett and Henry Hyer were hung in LaRoche Township in 1871.”  It is not known if Jack Sully was involved in rustling with these two individuals; however, it was reported that:  “Among those who enjoyed this hanging bee are said to have been William Kinkaid, Jack Sully, Bill Cunningham and others.”

In 1880 Sheriff Pennypacker, of Charles Mix County, offered a reward of three hundred dollars for the arrest of John Sully (alias John Gillon, alias Jack Jones) and Frank Edwards (alias Frank Clark).  Two hundred dollars was offered for the arrest of either one of the parties.   Jack Sully was five feet eight inches in height, had dark hair, mustache and goatee, sometimes a mustache and side whiskers, exhibited a down-cast look, had two upper front teeth out, and was about thirty-five years of age.  Frank Edwards was about thirty years of age, stoop shouldered, had light hair and wore a light mustache.  Both were wanted for grand larceny.

In November of 1901, The Minneapolis Journal reported: “Jack Sully, for twenty years the most notorious outlaw of South Dakota, accused of murdering seven men, leader of the Lyman County gang of robbers, horse rustler, cattle stealer and squaw man, has been arrested after many unsuccessful efforts by United States Marshalls, sheriffs, constables, detectives and posses, and is in jail.  Sully came to South Dakota in the pioneer days, without a past.  He never told where he came from and no one ever dared to ask him.  He gathered about him some twenty or twenty-five confederates, and entrenched himself on the highest hill in all Gregory County.”

In March of 1902, South Dakota papers reported that:  “Sheriff Swindler of Davison County is out on the man hunt in company with Captain Jack Foster of Chamberlain.  A week ago Sheriff Swindler was provided with a bench warrant issued from the Lyman County Court to arrest the notorious Jack Sully, who is one of the biggest cattle rustlers on the reservation.  It is reported the Lyman County Sheriff declined the job and it was turned over to Mr. Swindler.  He left Mitchell last Saturday and in company with Mr. Foster started from a point about sixty miles from Chamberlain to Sully’s place of concealment.”  They were never able to find Sully.

However, in late May of 1902:  “Sheriff Swindler and H. C. Preston arrived in Mitchell from Verdigree, Neb., accompanied by Jack Sully, where the sheriff succeeded in getting hold of the famous cattle rustler.  The capture of Sully is a most important one, as he is recognized as the leader of the rustlers on the reservation and with him taken care of behind the prison walls the cattlemen on the reservation feel that in a great measure the rustling gang will be broken up.”

In early June of 1902, “Jack Sully was taken to Brule County.  The Brule County Sheriff was not at all anxious to take the prisoner but he was finally prevailed upon to assume control of Sully.  He has so many friends over on the reservation that it is thought an attempt might be made to liberate him from the clutches of the law.  For the present, Sully will be kept in chains.  He is recognized as a desperate character and there is no need of taking any chances with him.”  It was reported at that time that “. . . the whole country over on the reservation is now infested with the rustlers. . . .”

The Sioux City Journal on June 17, 1902 reported that a representative of the Western South Dakota Stock Growers’ Association was on his way to Oacoma to assist in “the prosecution of Jack Sully, one of the most notorious cattle thieves in the west.”

There were twenty criminal cases, all for cattle rustling, to be tried in Lyman County.  The most important was that of “the notorious Jack Sully, who has been in the cattle rustling business on the reservation for a good many years, and until the present time he has successfully eluded the officers of the law . . . it has been difficult to secure convictions on these cattle rustling cases in Lyman County for the reason that the greater share of the residents in the county are afraid to convict one of these men for fear of revenge.”

In January of 1903, the Omaha Daily Bee reported that Jack Sully and Fred Baer had escaped from the Davison County jail.  They had been assisted by outside parties, who sawed the lock from the outside door and sawed their way into the jail.  After his escape, it was discovered that Jack was able to travel 205 miles in the saddle in less than two days.  It was believed that frequent relays of horses were furnished to the fugitive by his friends.  He was killed on Sully Flats in Gregory County on the morning of May 16, 1904 by a member of the posse which had been put together by U. S. Federal Marshall John Petrie.

It is interesting to note that a May 27, 1904, story in The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal is more tragic and revealing than the telegraphic reports which earlier came from Chamberlain.  Why?

Jack Sully was not the only individual in this part of the country during the last half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century who stole cattle and horses.  In fact, it is highly likely that he was not the most dangerous and notorious outlaw in South Dakota during that time.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on January 18, 2023