A Note from Cottonwood Corners

In the early days of ranching on the frontier, the stealing of livestock was usually accomplished by the simple and straightforward means of openly riding up to a herd of cattle and driving some of them away.  The effort might be simple and forthright, or it could be “decorated with violence and gun play.”  Those stories in the “True West” magazines were often the result of colorful exaggeration and explicit details.

This thievery could be the result of one individual or an organized gang.  In the latter, small, local civil wars were occasionally fought.  And in some cases, they evolved into a much larger conflict.

Such was the “Johnson County War” in Wyoming from 1889 to 1893.  This range war started when cattle companies began brutally persecuting local settlers who they alleged to be rustlers.  These local settlers competed with the large cattle companies for land, livestock, and water rights.

As the violence escalated between the large established ranchers and the smaller settlers in the state, it finally culminated in the “Johnson Country War.”  The large ranchers hired gunmen to invade the county.  This aroused the small farmers and ranchers who formed a posse of 200 men which ended in a grueling stand-off.

The siege ended in 1893 when the U.S. Calvary, on orders from President Harrison, relieved the two forces.  Although, further fighting continued during the following months.

In 1894, Tom Horn, who had previously worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, was employed as a hired killer for the privately run Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association.  The large Wyoming cattlemen had been fighting a vigilante war against a diverse group of small farmers, ranchers, and sheep men who resisted their power and control.

Horn had been hired to ambush and kill any man the ranchers identified as a troublemaker.  As his victims were often shot from as much as 200 yards away, it is doubtful that they knew what hit them.

Writing in the Last Grass Frontier: The South Dakota Stock Grower Heritage, Bob Lee and Dick Williams reported that Joe Reynolds, a rancher in the Black Hills, had purchased purebred and registered cattle back east in 1881.  He had them shipped to Pierre where they were ferried across the river and driven over the Pierre-Deadwood trail.  He hired a cowboy in Pierre to assist him in getting his cattle to the Black Hills.  That cowboy was Tom Horn.  Lee and Williams also reported that Horn worked for the Swan Land and Cattle Company west of the Black Hills.

John Simpson, in his West River 1850-1910, wrote:  “Bruce Siberts relates that sometime in February, 1892, Tom Horn came to see a neighbor in Stanley County, South Dakota.  Horn was hiring gunslingers for W. C. Irvine and the Wyoming Stock Growers for the impending Johnson County War in Wyoming.  He was offering $150 a month plus expenses and a bonus of $500 for each rustler killed.”

Tom Horn was hung on November 20, 1903 for having allegedly murdered Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of a southern Wyoming sheep rancher.  Some historians question whether Horn really killed the boy since his confession was made while drunk.  Others suggest that Willie may have been murdered by accident, having been mistaken for his father.  Others argue that it is more likely that Horn was deliberately convicted for a crime he did not commit by those seeking revenge.

Five months before Tom Horn was hung in Wyoming, The Mitchell Capital, on June 19, 1903 contained the following headline on page two:  “BAND OF RUSTLERS AT LAST CORRALLED — ‘Circle Society,’ west of the River, Terrorized the Range Country.”

  1. H. Wilke of the Stockman’s Association discovered the inside workings of a desperate group of livestock thieves who had looted Lyman and adjoining counties of 900,000 cattle (they averaged 45,000 a year) cattle and killed at least forty men during the previous twenty years. Wilke had disguised himself as a rustler and got in touch with the outlaws. He was then able to learn the innermost secrets of the organization.  It was later learned that the “Circle Society” was headed by a lady (more about her later — it would be five more years before she and her husband were identified in the newspapers).

Members of the “Circle Society” were bound by a blood oath no less terrible than that of the Mafia.  In many instances, respectable stockmen were compelled to join the group for self-protection.  Some were threatened with assassination if they did not.  “The Circle” had about 1,000 members in 1903.

The headquarters of the “Circle” were at the ranch of a prominent stockman eighty-five miles west of Oacoma.  The plan adopted in their stealing was substantially as follows:

  • A member of the society after stealing an animal would run it to the nearest “point” in the circle where the brand was worked over and the animal was rushed to the next “point.”
  • It was sold for a small sum to another gang member who provided a bill of sale.
  • The last purchaser would hurry the animal to the next ranch and sell it for a sum a little larger than the first and so on until the animal eventually was disposed of to an innocent purchaser for what it was worth.
  • The money was afterward divided proportionately among the society members.

Frequently when hard pressed by the owners or officials, the thieves would shoot the animal and cut off the ears and the brands, thus destroying the evidence against them.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 15, 2021

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