A Note from Cottonwood Corners

In Volume III of his “History of Dakota Territory” which was published in 1915, George Kingsbury wrote:  “From 1899 to 1902 the County of Lyman was infested with a large gang of cattle rustlers and horse thieves headed by the notorious Jack Sully and closely followed by dozens of others nearly as desperate as he.  They were able for several years to elect men to office who were either part of their organization or men who did not have the courage to oppose them in ‘rustling’ live stock from the settlers who were trying to make an honest living in that newly settled part of the state.”

He went on to explain that:  “The circuit judge was unable to secure convictions with a jury chosen by the sheriff and clerk of courts who were influenced by Sully’s gang of thieves and affairs became so desperate by 1902 that an independent county ticket was elected and was composed of clean men who believed in the enforcement of the law and the protection of the settlers.”

It was then that the circuit judge in Lyman County could get men on the jury who were not part of the organized group of outlaws.  The result was that within the next two years twenty men were sent to the penitentiary from the county.  Also, Jack Sully was killed on Monday, May 16, 1904 at his home on Sully Flats.

The rustlers who had their headquarters in Lyman County did not have the natural hiding spots which were available to those thieves in other areas.  It is true that Whetstone Creek and the Missouri River breaks on the west side of the river did give them some protection; however, it was nothing like that available to the outlaws whose headquarters were the Wessington Hills and the Niobrara River Valley.

The passing of the cowboy, rustler, and the big ranches had slowly come with the arrival of the homesteader and barb wire.  The open range no longer existed.

In 1905, William Williamson Jr. received his law degree from the University of South Dakota.  While he was still in college, he had decided to practice law in Oacoma and was nominated for the office of state’s attorney for Lyman County before his graduation.  He was duly elected and served in that position from 1904 until 1908.

His administration was characterized by a most vigorous prosecution of wrongdoers, and through his efforts is largely due the credit of breaking up cattle rustling and other forms of outlawry of which the early settlers of Lyman County were victims.  In the fall of 1910 he was elected for the third time as state’s attorney.  In March of 1911, Governor Vessey appointed him judge of the eleventh district.

By 1906 the courts, after years of endeavor, were slowly stamping out rustling in South Dakota as it had been practiced for decades.  At every former session the judges of all districts had occasion to handle such cases; however, now they were on the decline.

In the 1890s, it was discovered that the “Secret Circle” had been formed in Lyman County for the purpose of rustling cattle in the area.  The scheme was a gigantic one, involving some of the most prominent cattle raisers in the county.  Some of the more honest ones had been forced into the organization through fear.  A bounty of $500 had been placed on several who had been especially stern in their hostility to the rustlers.

A special undercover agent of the government had been at work on the “Secret Circle” case for some time and eventually the confessions of four individuals revealed the sophisticated gang of thieves.  Generally, Oacoma and Westover served as headquarters for the organization; however, this was difficult to determine.  Their elaborate system of rustling activities were carried on west of the Missouri River.

“The Circle” was an organization of cattle and horse rustlers who it was estimated had looted the area west of the Missouri of 900,000 cattle and killed forty men in the twenty years that it was in operation.  The members were bound by a blood oath no less terrible than that of the Mafia.  They were sworn to loyalty and secrecy and were pledged to stop prosecution even at the cost of life.

One of the few murders for which the gang was successfully held responsible was that of Mat Matson, a homesteader, whose only offense was to settle opposite Phelps Island, which was regularly visited by rustlers and their stolen livestock.

The plan was simple.  A member of “The Circle” after stealing cattle would run them to the nearest “point” in the circle where the brand was worked over and the animals would then be rushed to the next “point” and sold for a small sum to another member of the gang.  The thief always gave the buyer a bill of sale.  The last purchaser would hurry the animals to the next ranch and sell it for a sum a little larger than the first and so on until the livestock eventually was disposed of to an innocent buyer for what they were worth.  The money was afterward divided proportionately among the members of “The Circle.”

The number of cattle in each group was usually kept small to avoid attracting attention.  Threatened gang members would flee to the Bad Land where pursuit was impossible.

“The Circle” operated all along the White River from the Missouri to Chadron.  The clever schemer whose tricks allowed rustlers to have remarkable success and the “brains” of the Lyman County gang lived on the ranch of a prominent stockman near Westover.

Her name was Mrs. Meyer Winter who served as the “treasurer” of “The Circle.”  She and her husband were the organizers of “The Circle” and the members met at Westover on the afternoon of the first and third Sundays of each month.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on March 15, 2023

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