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The Ranchers Of The Niobrara

Vigilante activity, in which a somewhat organized group takes the law into its own hands, has been extant in the United States since the 1700s and reached its zenith on the western frontier during the last half of the nineteenth century. Many a hapless horse thief, or careless cattle rustler, met his end in a hangman's noose, as those who had property sought to protect it from those who had none.

As America moved westward along the great trails, it left courts, judges, law, and order behind. Until new communities could be formed and governments established, something had to be done to protect life and the possessions of those who had them. Vigilante movements were often the answer. They were almost always an effort by the monied class in a settlement to recreate some semblance of a legal system and to protect life and property.

Although some vigilante activity did not go beyond rhetoric, moral suasion, and threatening notes to malefactors, violence was the usual hallmark of the vigilante movement, and lynch law preceded the common law across much of the frontier. Commentators differ as to whether frontier lawlessness was the cause or the result of the American proclivity toward violence as an effective problem solver, but bodies swinging from tree limbs or railroad whistling posts could lead to sober rumination among the lawless element.

Most vigilante groups, because they were constituted of middle and upper class citizens who were somewhat familiar with a written body of law, had a formal written constitution or articles that members signed. The groups usually organized for a specific purpose, such as driving the cattle thieves out of Keya Paha County, and disbanded when their goal was achieved. Most groups were formed when their members perceived local law enforcement as either ineffectual or non-existent, but, as will be seen later, some operated contemporaneously with the duly constituted authorities.

Organization and duration distinguished the vigilante organization from the lynch mob, which was spontaneously organized for a particular purpose and immediately disbanded after its purpose had been satisfied or foiled. Vigilantes often accorded their accused a speedy trial, sometimes with appointed counsel. The rate of conviction fell very little short of 100 percent, and pre-sentence investigation was not a familiar concept. Trial, sentencing, and execution of the judgment were virtually simultaneous.

Vigilantism has attracted the attention of many of America's authors. One of the first novels of the West - Owen Wister's The Virginian - portrays vigilantes in a favorable light. Cowhands, agents of their property-owning employer, hang a friend who has violated a trust and stolen horses. No lawmen are involved, and the vigilantes are drawn very sympathetically. The reader has little, if any, doubt that those lynched are guilty. In Walter van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident, the focus is entirely different. A mob of townsmen hang unfortunate strangers who are ultimately shown to have had no connection with the crime that had been committed and that was not as serious as the mob had believed. Duly constituted authorities are present but ignored.

The two antipodal views of vigilante activity serve to point up that which is good and bad about vigilantism. Where no lawmen are present, resort to self-help can be rationalized. But if there are legitimate representatives of law and order present, there is no justification for ignoring or subverting the legal process. Vigilante activity was rooted in the pernicious notion of "popular sovereignty" - a belief that the people were the real sovereigns, who could take the law into their own hands when it failed to protect them, and who could refuse to obey the law when they believed it to be unjust or oppressive. Such beliefs have spurred on many of the great moments of history, such as the American Revolution, but they do not work well on a day to day basis.

Although in the short run vigilantism may have established or preserved law and order, the net long-term effect would appear to have been detrimental. Richard Maxwell Brown suggests that vigilantism has subtly but persistently undermined America's respect for law and the legal system by implying that the people may choose when and when not to obey the law. In our culture, trial by jury, rather than trial by combat, is the preferred method of resolving disputes. But if the public has little or no confidence in the judicial system, a feeling that appears to be spreading in the United States, then trial by combat, or at least by force of arms, has a very definite appeal. And that is the essence of the vigilante movement.

Five counties - Brown, Rock, Holt, Boyd, and Keya Paha - straddle the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. The Niobrara and the Keya Paha, one of its major tributaries, offer plenty of water, rugged box canyons, and pinecovered hills; in a phrase, good cattle country. Not many farmers have tried to wrest a living from this wrinkled landscape. And for many years, the ranchers have been as hard and stern as the land.

During the 1880s when horse and cattle thieves plagued the area the locals fought back. At least three vigilante groups were formed in the five county region. They were the Niobrara Mutual Protective Association, headquartered in Brown County and led by A. T. Burnham; a group in Keya Paha County, subsequently known as the Farmer's Protective Association, led by Merritt Taylor, John Sullivan, and Sol Long; and the Holt County Regulators, under the leadership of Mike Coleman and C. C. Dodge. At least seven miscreants met their end at the hands of one or another of the vigilante bands.

There is little doubt that the legally constituted authorities, however well-meaning they may have been, were not of much help. The country was rough, the trails few, the distances considerable. Especially north of the Niobrara, it was a long way to anywhere. Waiting for the sheriff to show up could consume a lot of time.

The courts were functioning, but criminal cases were not their metier. Out of the first seventy cases to reach the Supreme Court of Nebraska from Holt County, sixty-five were civil and five criminal. Thus virtually all of the classic indicators of vigilante activity were present, and the ranchers of the Niobrara breaks responded in classic fashion. They formed into groups, swore their oaths, and set out to rid the area of rustlers.

Both local residents and historians have raised questions about the motivation of the vigilantes. No concrete evidence of chicanery exists, but the vigilantes may not have been entirely altruistic. Instead their enforcement activities may have masked cattle and horse theft or been simply a guise for disposing of unwanted obstacles.

The Keya Paha group, which included Sol Long as one of its leaders, hanged a man named Kit Murphy in November 1883. Murphy, who had a claim in Keya Paha County, north of the Niobrara, had had a dispute with Sol Long over some house logs that Long had cut on Murphy's claim. Vigilantes visited Murphy's home, drove off a young man who was visiting one of Murphy's two daughters, took Murphy out into the county, and hanged him. His body was left dangling for days. Some said Murphy had allowed a thief to corral stolen stock at Murphy's ranch; others said he had attempted to steal a team of mules. Whatever the reason, as soon as he was dead the disputed house logs were hauled away and a new filing was made on his claim.

Long's men were not the only ones who were active. On 10 November 1883, six vigilantes from the A. J. Burnham group took John Wade, father of the notorious "Kid" Wade, from the home of Justice of the Peace Charles Gates, where he had been held pending a hearing on charges of aiding and abetting horse thieves. They placed him in a wagon, took him to an isolated area, formed a firing squad, and shot him. They dug a hole northeast of Newport and buried the body in a fetal position. June rains in 1884 washed away the dirt covering the body and a coroner's jury found death was due to a head wound inflicted by persons unknown. In December 1883, a wounded horse thief, being cared for in northern Holt County, was hanged by the Holt County Regulators under the command of Mike Coleman, who had been wounded in the ribs in the same affray as the horse thief. When word got out that the thief was recovering, Coleman and six of his band found a tall tree and dispatched the unfortunate.

The most celebrated hanging in the 1883-84 round of vigilantism was that of "Kid" Wade. Kid was a well-known horse thief who had done time in the Iowa State Reformatory and had ridden with the famous "Doc" Middleton gang in 1878 and 1879. He got out of prison in 1882 and soon was back along the Niobrara. His father, John Wade, had a claim just below the confluence of the Niobrara and Keya Paha, in northern Holt County. Late in 1883, the Kid stole several horses near Niobrara and Yankton, Dakota Territory. When his father disappeared, the Kid went into hiding near LeMars, Iowa, approximately two hundred miles east of O'Neill. An informant revealed his whereabouts, and early in January 1884, C. C. Dodge, Mike Coleman, and two other Holt County Regulators went to LeMars to capture him. They returned the Kid to Holt County and exhibited him as a prisoner throughout the county, then took him to Long Pine, in Brown County, a town which had raised considerable sums to assist the vigilantes, and showed him to the hundreds who came to see the famous outlaw.

Meanwhile the Holt County sheriff, who had a warrant for the Kid's arrest, started for Long Pine accompanied by a posse that contained Dodge, Coleman, and other Holt County Regulators. In Long Pine the Regulators met up with some members of A. T. Burnham's Niobrara Mutual Protective Association, and tempers flared. The Burnham vigilantes ultimately let the sheriff's group take the Kid to Bassett, in Rock County, where they stayed the night of 6 February in the hotel barroom, waiting for the morning train. Late that night, a large number of the Burnham vigilantes, exercising their territorial imperative, stormed into the bar, disarmed the sheriff and his party, and took the Kid by wagon to a railroad whistling post on the east edge of Bassett, where he met his end swiftly and without trial or ceremony of any kind. Passengers on the next day's train were shocked to see his corpse hanging at the trackside.

Burnham, who subsequently became a prominent lawyer in the region, issued a statement on 8 February that was printed in the Holt County Banner of 19 February. He noted that three men had been hanged by the two vigilante groups, that many thieves had been caught and turned over to the authorities, and that the ring of horse thieves had been completely broken up. His statement included two classics of vigilante apologia: I have always insisted that every man should have a fair and impartial trial, and I believe that if the authorities had done their duty, not a single act of violence would have been committed. And, in the vast amount of work that we have done, we have made mistakes; it would be strange indeed if we have not. But we ask every honest and fair minded citizen to give our acts a careful investigation. What we have done, we have done without compensation, or hope of reward, other than that we may live in Brown County and feel our property is as secure as it would be in any other part of the state or in Iowa or Illinois.

Following the Kid's demise, illicit traffic in livestock dropped off substantially, and the area remained quiet until 1887, when several thefts occurred in Keya Paha County, north of the river and south of the Dakota border. In December of 1888, some cattle were stolen from Merritt Taylor, who had been one of the leaders of the vigilantes in Keya Paha County in 1883. Taylor revived the Farmer's Protective Association and began recruiting. Several suspected thieves were apprehended, interrogated, released, apprehended again, and released again. Letters and telegrams by the score were directed to Governor John Thayer in Lincoln.

Burnham, by now a member of the legislature, took the position that duly constituted authority should handle the matter and pledged to see that appropriate complaints were filed. Thayer visited Keya Paha County in May 1889. A large meeting was held at Springview, and all parties agreed to abide by the law. The governor said he would not call out the militia, and the vigilantes agreed no executions would take place. It was a pledge honored more in the breach than in the observance.

On 29 May 1889 a group of vigilantes called at the home of John Newell, northeast of Springview. Newell was thought to be a friend of some of the cattle thieves, although he was not suspected himself. When the vigilantes arrived, Newell, no friend of theirs, fired a blast from his shotgun. In answer he was riddled with twenty-four separate bullet wounds and died at once. The same evening a group of riders tracked down George Babcock, a suspected thief, at the home of his brother-in-law, approximately two miles from Newell's. The vigilantes demanded that Babcock come forth. He refused. They broke the windows of the home and threw flaming cotton inside. Babcock came out. He was bound and placed on a horse, but he managed to loosen his bonds and, as the party approached a creek, he slid from his horse and submerged himself. The vigilantes rode back and forth firing wildly, but they could not locate Babcock. After they had gone, Babcock returned to the home of his brother-in-law, borrowed a horse, and left the jurisdiction. Governor Thayer offered a reward of $200 for Newell's killers but none were forthcoming.

On 13 July 1889, A. J. Maupin, a suspected thief, went into Springview carrying a gun. The sheriff found him, seized him, and jailed him in a new steel cell in the county jail. Then the sheriff went home. During the night, vigilantes broke into the jail but could not get into the cell. Frustrated in their purpose, they put their guns through the cell bars and fired, killing Maupin on the spot with fourteen gunshot wounds. Four of the six jurors on the coroner's jury empaneled the next day felt Maupin was killed by gunshot wounds inflicted by the Farmer's Protective Association. The other two jurors felt the killers were "parties unknown." Upon instructions from the attorney general, the jurors recorded their split vote and signed the report.

Burnham wrote Governor Thayer, decrying the action of the vigilantes. The coroner also wrote, asking for help. He knew whom to arrest, he said, but the vigilantes had told him he would not be safe if he did. Thayer maintained that the sheriff had to enforce the law and that the governor could do nothing unless asked by county officials. He was not asked. He did nothing.

No prosecution of any vigilante ever took place. The rash of cattle thefts ended, but no thief was ever turned over to the lawful authorities, and no thief was ever apprehended by the law and subjected to prosecution. If the end justifies the means, the vigilantes succeeded in establishing property rights along the Niobrara. It is doubtful, however, that Murphy, the Wades, Newell, Maupin, or Babcock would agree.

James W. Hewitt. Vigilantes on the Niobrara. Great Plains Quarterly. University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Nebraska. 1992.

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