The state of Montana holds the record for the bloodiest vigilante movement from 1863 to 1865, when hundreds of suspected horse thieves were rounded up and hung from the nearest tree. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Old West had instituted official legal entities throughout the states. At that time, most of the vigilante groups had disappeared.
Seguin and Rigby, in their study on lynching in the United States between 1883 and 1941, reported that there were thirteen deaths in South Dakota as the result of vigilante action. According to newspaper accounts which they reviewed, five were shot and one was hung. No cause of death was reported for the remaining seven; however, it is expected that the majority were hung. Four of the victims were white, two were Native American, and one was black. The race of the other six was not listed; however, it is expected they were likely white. Newspapers, at that time, tended to mention race even when they did not mention a name (e.g., “unknown negro”) but they would sometimes omit the race for whites.
The “Wild West” lynching regime was caused by the absence or weakness of state law enforcement. It was characterized mostly by the lynching of whites in areas where the influence of state government was weak or nonexistent. It declined rapidly as the state government became organized and law enforcement was established.
Seventy-six percent (251) of the lynching victims on the “Wild West” frontier were white, eleven percent (36) were black, and six percent (19) were American Indian.
It is interesting to note that between the years 1880 and 1905, not one person was ever convicted of any crime associated with the death of someone by vigilantes. These deaths are, in effect, the most extensive series of unsolved murders in American history.
Dakota Territory, in its earliest days attained a reputation because of the interest manifested by its settler’s interest in political matters. It was said that Dakota contained more politicians in proportion to the whole population than any other section of the Union.
The January 10, 1863, edition of the Sioux City Register reported that John Todd introduced a resolution in congress which asked that funds be appropriated for the building of the capital in Yankton. He also asked that funds be provided for the construction of two military roads to Fort Randall. One to run from Sioux City to Fort Randall on the east side of the Missouri River. The other to begin at the mouth of the Niobrara River and run to Fort Randall on the west side of the Missouri.
On the night of February 26, 1866, James Hogan was lynched at Vermillion. It was one of those cases where the people of the community felt that their personal safety demanded that he be executed. Hogan was fond of drinking to excess and when drunk he was ungovernable. Men like him were endured as a necessary evil until patience was worn out, and it was then that the gallows was the only effectual remedy.
After he had been hung, it was said that it was a most barbarous thing to do and not altogether necessary. According to George Kingsbury, “This was the first appearance of public lynching in Dakota.”
The territorial government ceased to exist on November 2, 1889, when President Harrison formally proclaimed the admission of the twin states of the two Dakotas. Neither state could claim priority over the other. The documents had been purposely shuffled so that no one would know which had been signed first. Later, an agreement was reached between the states which listed North Dakota as the thirty-ninth and South Dakota as the fortieth state.
When South Dakota was admitted to the union, cattle rustling was still a part of the frontier and it was frequently discussed in the local newspapers. In December of 1893, the Fort-Pierre Fairplay and the Pierre Weekly Free Press got into a verbal squabble over the publicity generated by the cattle rustling in Stanley County. The editor of the Pierre paper reported that his competitor on the west side of the river did not want him to report that there was cattle rustling occurring west of the river.
Apparently, the Fort Pierre editor believed that few settlers would locate in Stanley County. The Pierre editor wrote: “Perhaps the Fairplay’s idea is to have the cattlemen locate there first and then let the poor persecuted rustlers skin them afterwards. In any event the Fort Pierre papers, seemingly, can be depended upon to conceal, condone or excuse cattle stealing. They are doing it with all their might each issue.”
In 1895, cattle rustlers became the pest and terror of homesteaders and ranchers in the state. For their protection, the settlers organized a group who would run down and capture the culprits who were either arrested or hung.
From 1899 to 1902, Lyman County was infested with a large gang of cattle rustlers and horse thieves. For several years they were able to elect men to office who were either part of their organization or men who did not have the courage to oppose their stealing of cattle and horses from their neighbors.
The circuit judge was unable to secure convictions with a jury chosen by the sheriff and clerk of courts who were influenced by the gang of thieves. Affairs became so desperate by 1902 that an independent county ticket was elected. It was composed of men who believed in the enforcement of the law and the protection of the recent settlers. Within two years, twenty men were sent to the penitentiary from the county.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 8, 2021