A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Sometime in the early 1880’s, a small band of rustlers who stole both cattle and horses west of the Missouri River, organized into what would be by 1900 a large and innovative gang of thieves.  They were able to steal thousands of livestock in a year from their neighbors in south central South Dakota.

Late in their existence, this gang of outlaws acquired several different names by which they became known in the newspapers.  Instead of just reading a news story with the name of one or more rustlers being arrested, by June of 1903 the papers referred to the gang as “The Circle,” “The Circle Society,” “Secret Circle,” and the “Golden Circle.”

By June of 1902, a special officer of the Stockmen’s Association was able to infiltrate the gang as a disguised rustler where he learned the innermost secrets of the organization.  Because of his diligence, eight members of the gang were found guilty and sent to prison in June of 1903.  None of them were the principle organizers involved in the planning and selection of who would suddenly have some of their livestock disappear.

That was not the end of the investigation by law enforcement officials.  With the assistance of the undercover agent who had been accepted into the gang, county law officials were finally able to gather enough information to arrest the leaders.  That would take another five years.  Finally, on April 24, 1908, The Mitchell Capital printed this headline on page one: “CATTLE THIEVES WERE DIRECTED BY WOMAN’S WIT.”   This same headline appeared in almost all of the South Dakota newspapers that week.

The indictment of Joseph DeMarsche for cattle rustling and the action of Judge Carland, of Sioux Falls, in holding him for trial in Deadwood in May, brought to light a remarkable story of the formation of an avowed thieving society.  The wit of the wife of one of the members of the gang was primarily responsible for the long success (about eighteen years) of the rustlers.  Her cleverness and savvy was the reason for their success and ability to elude law officials for so long.

“The Circle Society,” as the organization was called, was the product of the brains of Mrs. Meyer Winter and her husband.  From a small beginning, the society grew in membership to nearly one thousand which was dreaded by every stockman in Lyman, Presho, Meyer, Tripp, and Gregory counties.  It was estimated that they had stolen 900,000 cattle and killed forty men in about twenty years.

“The Circle Society,” was bound by all the rules of a Black Hand society.  They had a membership so secret that no man knew whether his neighbor was a thief or an honest citizen.  It held its monthly meetings at the large Winter ranch and store at Westover.   The officers were:  Meyer Winter, President; David Colombe, Vice President; Mrs. Meyer Winter, Treasurer, and Joe DeMarsche, Secretary.

Earlier, Mr. Winter had fled the country to escape liability on a bond.  He had a store at Westover, where members of the circle came to talk over plans with him and his wife.  Colombe was currently in the penitentiary for cattle rustling and DeMarsche was facing a trial in Deadwood.

Mrs. Winter, as treasurer, received the profits of the wholesale thefts and distributed them pro rata among the members.  As natural to one in her prominent place, she was never at a loss to suggest ways and means to increase the loot of the society.  She would point out herds that could be taken and rebranded and showing the precise way to do it.

Monthly assessments were paid by each member into the treasury and the funds raised were used in defending any member of the organization who might be arrested.  Because of its extensive membership and the secrecy of the society, it could never be known whether or not members were on the juries that heard the evidence against those on trial.

John Bartine, the County Attorney, dared to undertake the breaking up of this organization and to put an end to their lawlessness.  His house was burned while he was home.  He was threatened with death time and again.  The influence of the gang was so strong that the Lyman County commissioners reduced his salary to $400 because he insisted on prosecuting cattle rustlers.  Later, the South Dakota Legislature fixed the salaries of both the county attorneys and auditors.

So profoundly secret was the society that members of their organization were elected to county office.  Two regular meetings of the circle were held each month, usually on Sunday afternoon.  There was always a large attendance at these meetings.

John Anderson, a determined opponent to “The Circle” and a rancher at Crow Creek got into a fight with a member of the gang in Chamberlain.  Other members of “The Circle” heard about the fight and at their next meeting they adopted a motion to ruin his business.  All members took an oath that he would shoot every head of livestock belonging to Anderson, wherever he might find it within the next two weeks.

At the next meeting, the members were called upon to report how well they had carried out their pledges.  The report showed that they had killed over 200 of Anderson’s cattle and horses and the society provided the ammunition!

The actions of John Bartine, Lyman County State’s Attorney, were later immortalized in the popular novel, “Langford of the Three Bars” which was published in 1907.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on October 13, 2021

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