A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Records from the earliest days of rustling horses, mules, and cattle on the northern prairie show a wide variety of atrocities committed by the Wessington Hills thieves.  It was reported that Fred Chamberlain and others of the “Doc” Middleton’s Nebraska gang bragged of hanging an old Dutchman to throw suspicion from themselves for the stealing horses in the Niobrara River valley.

The old Dutchman was a Mr. Hartart from Yankton.  He was innocent and there is no record showing that he was ever involved in any rustling activities.  Fred Chamberlain and his colleagues were also responsible in aiding Middleton in getting his stolen property across country from the long Niobrara River valley to Wessington Hills.  As late as 1881, Chamberlain was held in the Pierre jail on a charge of stealing horses.

It is doubtful if any of those individuals involved in rustling activities who utilized the Wessington Hills as a part of their escape route ever expected they would serve as rustling headquarters for well over fifty years.  In all my research of “Rustling Headquarters” in the upper Midwest, I have not found any which came close to that long of use.  As far as I can tell, “Wessington Hills” holds the record for the longest use as a route and headquarters for getting stolen property out of the country.

During the earliest days when thieves and other highwaymen used the Wessington Hills as their base to terrorize the residents of the Dakota Territory, the homes were too widely scattered and the law was too far away to afford them any relief.  They were attached to Hansen County for judicial purposes which in 1871 was on the north edge of Hutchinson County and extended almost to North Dakota and covered about half the area east of the Missouri.  There were no magistrates or police officers nearer than Mitchell.

Settlers living in the area suffered their losses as best they could, making no complaint except to each other.  Houses were burned when the owners were away and under circumstances that made it impossible for the fires to have been accidental.

In July of 1879, one Nebraska newspaper explained the situation which Doc Middleton found himself in after being shot by a Nebraska official near Long Pine:  “Doc states that he thought he would have to give up soon, but he would sell his life very dear if they attempted to take him.  He was well armed on his bed, and had forty men to guard him.  For the benefit of those who may not know the character of ‘Doc’ Middleton, we will say that he is the leader of a gang of a hundred or more desperadoes who, by their lawless acts have terrorized the whole Niobrara country, in the northern part of Nebraska.”

Middleton was later arrested and was tried in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for stealing horses.  He was found guilty and served a short time in the penitentiary in Lincoln.  He was released from prison in June of 1883 and left the state.  He had faithfully served his sentence without a single instance of disobedience to prison rules.  With the end of Middleton’s unlawful career, the rustling on the Niobrara did not diminish.  There were other desperate outlaws to take his place.   One of those was Kid Wade.  He was later hung on a whistling post (tall post along the railroad indicating when engineer was to sound the whistle) one-half mile east of Basset by vigilantes.

In an 1879 Cheyenne Daily Leader, Middleton made these comments about the “Kid” who was about eighteen years old:  “The Kid is the most daring and desperate horse-thief in America today, and that his career would be one of notoriety should he continue to escape from justice.  ‘The Kid’ is a gruff, burly boy, smooth-faced, medium height; cool, deliberate, and the possessor of such a physic as one would not admire.”

“HUNT ON FOR AUTOMOBILE THIEVES” was the front page headline in The Madison Daily Leader on August 21, 1920.  An automobile garage in Arlington was the scene of a daring robbery in which two individuals were identified as being the same thieves who were wanted by Beadle County authorities.

This led to the formation of an armed posse headed by the Deputy Sheriff who proceeded to the Wessington Hills region.  These hills had recently been suspected as the headquarters of a gang of automobile thieves who were operating out of that locality.

At the home of the father-in-law of one of the individuals implicated in the theft, authorities found a Dodge car containing ten of the tires stolen from the Arlington garage earlier.  The thieves were discovered and the posse was fired upon from a nearby cornfield.

Efforts were made to locate those doing the shooting; however, they were not successful.  That evening another posse was formed in Huron and in the morning they proceeded to the headquarters of the gang in the Wessington Hills.

It is doubtful that those horse and cattle thieves who first used the Wessington Hills as their headquarters thought they would later become an important part of automobile thefts.  All throughout history, “thieves were always quick to adapt to new challenges.”

A 1921 South Dakota newspaper story perhaps best illustrates the fact that Wessington Hills was still the active headquarters for thieves and cutthroats for more than fifty years:

“Two murders, a daring bank holdup in broad daylight, store robberies and lesser crimes all go to make up what apparently is a regular crime wave at Wolsey in the western part of Beadle county.  Indignation on the part of the better element in that section is demanding that an organized attempt be made to clean up the rough element making its headquarters in the Wessington Hills.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on March 1, 2023