A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Those early settlers (really squatters) who established a residence in what is today Gregory and Tripp counties had three different centers (headquarters) of horse and later cattle rustling to deal with.  They were “Wessington Hills,” “Niobrara River Valley,” and “Lyman County.”

Wessington Hills became the first headquarters (rendezvous location) of organized thieves in the area.  The Wessington Hills are a conspicuous landmark which extends from the northern limit of Brule County, entirely across Jerauld County, and to about the center of Hand County.  Some of these hills are more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

In the early days, before 1870, these hills were a hide-out for rustlers (first horses, ponies, and mules and then later cattle) and other renegades who wished to conceal their unlawful activities.  The timber-lined draws afforded excellent concealment for the movement of their stolen critters to Minnesota and markets in the east.  The summits which rose 500 feet or more above the surrounding lowland allowed them to discern approaching parties.  The air was filled with the aroma of moonshine much of the time.

Trees and shrubs were found along almost all the drainages.  They included the willow, cottonwood, American elm, boxelder, bur oak, golden current, buckthorn, gooseberry, chokecherry, plum, hackberry, sumac, buffalo berry, and snow berry.  These drainages also provided excellent habitat for a wide variety of wildlife which the thieves ate when not dining on beef (often referred to as tame elk).

Before 1870, the rustlers were active on both sides of the Missouri River.  The May 27, 1910 issue of The State-Line Herald (North Lemmon, Adams County, N.D.) reported on the cattle rustling in the area before 1870.

It reported:  “The Wessington Hills in Jerauld County were a famous rendezvous for stolen horses, ponies and mules, and from there the animals were driven into Iowa and Minnesota and sold.”

A Nebraska newspaper on July 4, 1878 reported:  “Two horse thieves who gave their names as Morris and Smith, arrested in Minnesota a few days ago, have in their possession fourteen horses stolen from Chateau Creek, forty miles from Yankton.  These men are members of the gang which operates between Minnesota and the Black Hills and has its headquarters at Wessington Hills.  They have stolen from the Indians in the past six months about one hundred and fifty head of horses.”

Today, when you are driving on Highway #50 to Yankton, you cross Chateau Creek just west of Avon.  This is most likely where the theft of those horses occurred one-hundred forty-five years ago.

Later, in November of 1878, thieves stole $25,000 ($741,993 today) of gold from the stage on the Cheyenne route east of the Black Hills.  They finally made it to Pierre where the man with the gold in his saddle bag was careful not to let anyone handle his saddle.  Apparently someone at the livery stable did lift the saddle and found that it was unnecessarily heavy.

This raised suspicion that the saddle bag was stuffed with gold.  Somehow the thief was able to get away with the gold and headed for Wessington Hills.  While he was in Pierre, he represented himself as a handkerchief peddler who had with him a wide variety to sell.

When the railroad was pushed through from Huron to Pierre in 1880, there was not a settler along the line at the time.  The only one known to be in the county then was Levi Haines and family who claimed to live in Wessington Hills.  He was also generally considered to be a horse thief and outlaw.  He was known in the early days as “Horse Thief Haines” and took no exception to the title.  He was somewhat migratory; however, and had several places of rendezvous between Wessington Hills and Yankton.

While the railroad was being constructed from Huron to Pierre, a party of surveyors had occasion to penetrate one of the dark ravines of the Wessington Hills. They came across a band of nine men, who motioned them back.  It was reported that “one look at the outfit was enough and the surveyors gracefully retired.”

Sheriff Pennypacker of Charles Mix County, in October of 1880, offered a reward of $300 ($5,820) for the arrest of Jack Sully (alias John Gillon and Jack Jones) for grand larceny.  The sheriff mentioned that “he usually stops with Star Platt in the Wessington Hills.”

At the time, it was generally known that Mr. Platt was the “leader of a gang of horse thieves.”  An underground stable with room for eighty horses was discovered in 1881.  These hills had become a horse thieves’ paradise.

This was a regularly organized gang that extended over a wide area.   When some of the captured outlaws were questioned with the rope securely fastened around their neck, they revealed the names of some of their confederates.  Some were well known citizens.

In 1890, the practice of the open range was still the practice.  Large herds of horses, cattle, and flocks of sheep were being wintered in the gulches and ravines of the Wessington Hills.   That winter they picked up a good living without any expense to the owners.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on February 22, 2023

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