In the 1890’s, cattle rustlers were well organized and active up and down the Missouri River between Nebraska and what would later become North Dakota. They were also willing to commit murder to protect their identity.
A front-page story in the January 13, 1894 edition of The Kimball Graphic told of the sentencing of Henry Schroeder, who with Frank Phelps, was found guilty of the murder of Mat Matson in May of 1893. “Sentenced for Life” was the bold head-line which caught the reader’s attention on that cold January.
The paper reported that: “Judge Haney, last Friday, sentenced Henry Schroeder to the penitentiary for life. This was the lightest sentence the law allows, although Schroeder confessed his crime and did all that he could do to convict Phelps, the instigator of the crime whereby Mat Matson was murdered.”
“There is more or less sympathy for Schroeder,” the story went on to say, “but nevertheless it is generally admitted that a man who can be prevailed upon to kill another in cold blood should be taken care of by the state. Sheriff Morgan took the condemned man to Sioux Falls Monday.”
The editor concluded the story with his personal thoughts regarding the crime: “Thus is the great crime of May last partially avenged, but it never will be completely until Phelps is behind bars for life or strung up by the neck like a dog.”
Matson was apparently killed only because he had established a home on the Lyman County side of the river, directly west of Phelps Island. His home and property were directly in the path used by rustlers to move cattle and horses up and down the river.
After Phelps was found guilty in a trial held at Alexandria, he sold the island to the sheriff of Davison County. It was always believed that the place was the headquarters for a gang of horse and cattle thieves, and that this fact was the cause of Matson’s murder.
In March of 1894, after the island had been sold, wood-choppers at work on the island found a cave which showed that many horses had been kept there. It was sufficiently large enough to hold six to eight horses at one time and the entrance was carefully hidden from view.
Frank Phelps, who was in jail at Alexandria, was granted a stay on probable cause until May 9th by the South Dakota Supreme Court in April. The motion for a new trial would then be argued before the court at that time.
The Madison Daily Leader on June 8, 1894, reported that Frank Phelps had died from a heart attack in his cell at the Alexandria jail. His remains were taken to Mitchell where his wife lived, for interment. Five years later, preliminary steps were taken to secure a pardon for Henry Schroeder, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of Matson.
While at the penitentiary, Schroeder was unassuming and industrious. He was in all respects a model prisoner. The Board of Pardons denied his application for a pardon.
“A MURDERER DEAD — Henry Schroeder, a Life Prisoner for Murder of Matt Matson, Dies in Penitentiary” was the headline in The Mitchell Capital on December 26, 1902. Schroeder had died in the penitentiary from consumption (tuberculosis was commonly called “consumption” at that time).
George Kingsbury, in his History of Dakota Territory wrote that in November of 1904, Judge John Carland held a session of Federal Court in Aberdeen in which cases of larceny, cattle rustling, horse stealing, and embezzlement were tried. He wrote: “Many of the best lawyers of the state appeared in the various cases.”
The Supreme Court of Dakota Territory and later the State of South Dakota heard many cases concerning squatter rights, cattle rustling, and the stealing of livestock. During the earliest days, the stealing of livestock was a daily occurrence.
To protect themselves from the homesteaders, and from cattle rustlers among their own ranks, the fiercely individualistic cattlemen surrendered to necessity and formed protective stockmen’s associations.
Few other frontier organizations ever achieved the power and efficiency of these associations. They employed a large force of range detectives to keep an alert eye on everyone and everything in the cattle business.
They organized and supervised roundups, administered grass and water rights, and investigated cattle diseases. And they exerted strong influence on State and Territorial legislatures to assure laws favorable to the welfare of the large cattlemen. By 1885 they blanketed the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain States.
This was the beginning of the long and sometimes bitter conflict between the large cattlemen and the lowly homesteader who only wanted a small piece of land on which to raise his family. This battle did not end in some parts of South Dakota west of the Missouri until in the 1920s.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 21, 2021