The cattle industry is indigenous (native, original) to America. The manner and scale upon which it prevailed west of the one-hundredth meridian existed nowhere else in the world. This enterprise originated in southwest Texas and from there it spread throughout the Great Plains.
Because of the large number of individuals who became an integral part of the cattle business, our American civilization has been vastly influenced by this new life. From it we have a large vocabulary of distinctive words, a music of new songs, a literature of unusual and exciting adventure, a costume of unique apparel, and countless action pictures depicting the rough and tumble life of a cowboy on the range.
Truly, the early cattle industry has made a rich, important, and lasting contribution to the heritage and culture of America. Unfortunately, one of the words which quickly became a part of the vocabulary of the rancher and homesteader on the “Great Plains” was “rustler.”
Gregory County citizens, in the 1890’s and 1900’s were not safe from the crime. Local area newspapers of that time reveal that the location of Gregory County resulted in stolen livestock (cattle and horses) and rustlers just regularly passing through. Residents in the county lost livestock to them or even their nearby neighbors.
The thieves were somewhat successful if they could get the cattle across the White River to the north and into Lyman or Stanley County, across the Missouri River to the east, or down to the Niobrara River and the O’Neil area of Nebraska. Both the White River and Niobrara River were used regularly by rustlers to move stolen cattle and horses.
In 1898, the story of a bizarre and unusual cattle rustling case was reported from Gregory County which rivaled the most sensational “True West” magazines. The county had been infested for some time by a bandit or cattle thief who had passed under all sorts of names, the two most common were “Ponca Jim” and “Montana Jake.”
A preacher had been discovered in the county who was a cattle rustler and bandit as well, and who pursued both avocations with a vigor that left nothing to be desired by lovers of the sensational. Four years earlier (1894), Rev. Myron Hilgard had settled with his family (wife and three children) on a farm near Bonesteel and engaged earnestly in the work of spreading the Gospel among his neighbors. He was a power in the pulpit, led an exemplary life and commanded the respect of everybody. About the same time; however, the country round about began to suffer from daring robberies.
Small herds of cattle were run off and sold and the honest settlers were driven to desperation. “Ponca Jim” was recognized as the leader of the outlaws, but no one had ever seen him except in disguise, and his name became a terror throughout the region.
In an attempt to steal a bunch of steers; however, Ponca Jim and others were detected in the act. A posse of cowboys followed in fierce pursuit, all armed to the teeth. After an exciting chase the leader was chased into an abandoned dugout. It was here that he fought the posse for seven hours. After being wounded six times, he surrendered.
The settlers were shocked when they found that the desperado, “Ponca Jim,” was none other than their beloved Pastor Hilgard. His fervid eloquence had helped themselves lead upright lives. Even with his wounded body before them and his pursuit and capture fresh in their memory, many were loath to believe they were not the victims of some mistake or strange optical delusion.
The desire of the majority to lynch him on the spot was resisted so vigorously that he was taken to jail, to await trial. Several newspapers in August of 1898 concluded their story on Rev. Hilgard by suggesting: “If the story has not been exaggerated in crossing the plains, it is entitled to take rank with the strangest of border tales, and would furnish a thrilling plot for a ten-cent, hair raising story of the west.”
In the early 1900’s, the records of the Lyman County courthouse reveal that, indeed, Lyman County was a hot bed of rustling prosecutions. They had become the cattle rustling capitol of the world.
On July 7, 1904, the Oacoma Gazette Leader, for the purpose of serving as a reference at some future date printed a listing of the fifty three criminal cases set for trial during that term. Of the fifty three cases, only in eight of the cases were the defendants found guilty. The rest of the cases were either dismissed, continued, or acquitted. Two of the individuals each had three different cases before the judge that term.
Rustlers who organized “The Circle” in south central South Dakota forced honest and prominent ranchers to join their gang. In 1903, one of the Hancock brothers was especially stern in his hostility to the rustlers and refused to join in their criminal behavior. A $500 ($15,544 today) bounty was placed on his head.
In 1905, the “rustlers” became so bold in their operations that they made many of their raids in broad daylight and in proximity to the thriving and well populated little cities (Bonesteel country was hit hard) in the ceded portion of the reservation. As one South Dakota newspaper reported:
“Bolder raids were not made during the palmy (flourishing) days of “Jack” Sully . . . .”
Later, these “rustlers” whose looting proved costly to the settlers moved their operations to the vicinity of Burke. All settlers were urged to brand their livestock for identification.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 29, 2021