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Determining the Facts - Reading 3: Continued Violence

Cowboy Violence in Western Dakota

The gunplay at Little Missouri in June, 1883, which resulted in the death of one man and, if nothing else, caused the Marquis de Mores a great deal of inconvenience, money and lost time, was not an altogether unusual occurrence.  Indeed, two such instances took place during a single week in February, 1885 at Mingusville (now known as Wibaux), Montana:

Superintendent Green was out with his car this week paying off the employees along this division. Everything was lovely until he reached Mingusville, Montana, Wednesday evening, when a number of Montana cow boys with their hides well soaked in Montana forty-rod, boarded the car and began a fusilade with their six shooters, much to the discomfort of Mr. Green and his assistants.  Report says that the floor of the car was perforated and the occupants badly scared. After the cow boys enjoyed their so-called amusement for a few minutes they departed, leaving the superintendent to meditate over his first experience with the fraternity.

Since the above was in type news reached here that the cowboys boarded passenger train No. 2, west bound, Thursday evening at Mingusville, and terrorized the passengers by promiscuous shooting in the coaches. The train was in charge of Conductor Clerk who was powerless, and supposing him to be Conductor Phillips, he was subjected to all manner of abuse until they were satisfied that he was not the man they wanted. The train was delayed twenty minutes. Upon reaching Glendive the conductor telegraphed the railroad officials of the•affair and they immediately notified officers at Glendive. The officers and deputies, eight in number, started for the scene of disturbance and succeeded in arresting three of the cow boys, W. Jones, Jack Truesdelland and Julius Kline. The prisoners will be held on the charge of stopping the United States mail, an offense punishable by several years in the penitentiary. The full extent of the law would be a light punishment for such men.

While it might be argued that the Medora desperadoes were hunters rather than cow boys, the fact is that the northern buffalo herd was almost totally decimated by 1883. In addition contemporary sources clearly indicate that O'Donald and his cohorts, while perhaps engaged in a certain amount of market hunting, were actually holding down claims and working with livestock on a daily basis very much in the manner typical of cowboys.

The public view of the cowboy varied widely. A Bismarck Tribune editor noted that ". . . throughout the East the name "cowboy" is looked upon as a synonym for lawlessness and cussedness in its most active form. . ." On the other hand Arthur Packard took another view in explaining to his readers why he chose to name his paper the BAD LANDS COW BOY. "Cow boys in the West are, as a rule, one of the most peaceful and law-abiding classes of citizens that we have. ... By far the majority of cow boys in the Bad Lands are right off of farms in the East and are as honest, honorable and capable young men as can be found anywhere."  "Of course," he admitted, "there are lawless cow boys, as lawlessness can be found everywhere on the frontier." But "the term cow boy has been a reproach long enough."

Another editor sought to explain away the second February 1885 fracas at Mingusville in these words: "They had been having a good time, with everything their own way and thought it would be fun to make the conductor dance..." "They forgot all about law and meant only to have some fun..." "They are all good hearted fellows and meant no harm."

A Miles City, Montana, editor explained it all away in these words: "None who know the facts .....will say there was malicious mischief intended by the cow boy coterie that caused such a flurry, but their noisy ways were not understood by people unacquainted with the rapid gestures and strong inflections that often emphasize the cow boy dialect."

On the other hand editors on the Dakota and Montana frontier in the 1880's, while not adverse to portray gun-toting cowboys in their own towns as misunderstood, were quick to point an accusing finger at competing towns. "The people of Billings County should turn out en masse and insist upon Governor Ordway lending his assistance in stopping the disgraceful shooting scrapes which are becoming an every day occurrence at Little Missouri," thundered the Bismarck Capital, while the Glendive Times under the headline "DICKINSON HAS A FESTIVE TIME WITH COWBOYS," reported that "six cowboys came into the town and getting a little under a heavy load of whiskey, proceeded as customary to run the town. Promiscuous shooting was indulged in and any objections promptly met with a severe thumping."

The Bad Lands Cow Boy regularly admonished its fellow newspapermen to tone down stories of violence at Little Missouri and Medora since "they easily give a place a hard reputation even when they are as devoid of foundation as was the article above referred to." Another story which appeared as a "Bismarck telegram to a Chicago paper," was denounced as "the most scurrilous libel that even long-suffering Medora has ever endured."

That cowboys would come to the towns of western Dakota and eastern Montana and spend time in the local saloons drinking and blowing off steam was considered not only inevitable but even desirable in terms of the local economy. But drunken cowboys were one thing while armed, drunken cowboys were altogether another and town residents began to press for measures which would disarm the celebrators. In July, 1884, the Dickinson Press pointed out that existing Dakota territorial laws outlawing such behavior already existed with punishments of up to a year's imprisonment and/or a $500 fine.

While claiming that "Medora has never been the scene ...of a six-shooter row among cow boys," the Cow Boy opined that "we cannot help but join with other cattle papers in urging the necessity of discarding the six-shooters while in town." Following a crackdown in Miles City, it was noted that "rather than pay heavy fines for the fun of going around the streets decorated with a gun they choose to leave the weapons in charge of some friend and visit their friends or attend to their business unarmed."

By 1886 the attitude of the Bad Lands Cow Boy towards its namesakes had cooled considerably and it published without comment a notice warning that anyone "who willfully discharges any species of fire-arms, air-gun or other weapon," would be prosecuted. "The gang of midnight howlers who occasionally make night hideous," it later reported, "will be in condition to learn that a fine, costs and a trip to Dickinson come pretty high unless they stop their foolishness."
Respected historians writing in recent years have routinely disagreed over the relationship between outlaws, gunfighters and cowboys. Edward Everett Dale probably came closest to the truth: "That there were bad men and worthless men among the range riders cannot be denied, but their number was not large and even the worst were not as black as they have been painted, or as they at times sought to paint themselves."

Rustling and “The Stranglers”

For some time rustlers had been active in eastern Montana and along the Little Missouri. During the autumn and winter of 1883-84, theft, or rustling, of horses and cattle increased. The rustlers' hideouts were hard to find and, once found, their cabins were miniature fortresses. In the spring of 1884 several individuals took the matter before the regular meeting of the Montana Stockgrowers Association in Miles City. The stockmen decided that the association itself should take no action. As a consequence, the rustlers became bolder. In July The Bad Lands Cow Boy summarized the situation:

From all parts of Dakota and Montana came reports of depredations of horse-thieves. . . . Several men have been hung for horse-stealing, but the plague still goes on. We wish to be placed on record as believing that the only way to cure horse-stealing is to hang the thief wherever caught. . . .

To combat the rustlers, several prominent Montana cattlemen during the summer of 1884 banded together as vigilantes. They raided eastern Montana in the late summer, and during early autumn they invaded the Little Missouri region. They hanged a number of suspicious characters, and in some instances intimidated innocent men. While their methods may be deplored, they did discourage horse and cattle stealing. The Cow Boy in the following year reluctantly admitted, "the result of their work has been very wholesome" as "not a definite case of horse stealing from a cowman has been reported since."

Murder in Masquerade

The summary killing of an individual by a mob, without trial and regardless of court pronouncements, under the pretense of administering justice, has been practiced in nearly all countries, particularly where unsettled conditions have prevailed. In the United States such acts of mob violence, since the middle of the 18th century have come to be termed lynching or on occasion, lynch law.
Lynch mobs succeeded in eight North Dakota locations, taking the lives of ten of the state’s citizen’s between 1882 and 1931. While at least three others died in 1884 during the rampage of the “Montana strangles,” sufficient information is lacking.

In reviewing instances where mob violence, or lynching, was successful in taking the life or lives of persons supposedly guilty of some heinous crime, there are a few conclusions to be drawn. In all cases but those including horse theft, women were among the victims for the crimes for which the perpetrators subsequently died. Examination of inmate records of the North Dakota penitentiary at Bismarck demonstrates rather conclusively that crimes against women were more sternly punished during the 1880s and 90s than in the decade of World War I. No member of a North Dakota lynch mob was ever apprehended or punished. Seldom did local action proceed beyond a coroner’s inquest. State officials didn’t take much interest until 1913.

The motivation behind mob violence can be merely speculated upon since no North Dakota lyncher was ever caught. Liquor was undoubtedly an important catalyst in each event despite the fact that North Dakota was legally dry from 1890 until well into the 1930s. The state’s 19th century lynchings were probably crimes of passion – they occurred within hours of the act that they were intended to punish.

While mob-incited violence did cost a number of North Dakotans their lives, the gathering of a lynch mob did not necessarily mean the affair would end fatally. The crowd may have found another outlet for their emotions as was the case in December 1895 when angry residents of Billings County hanged an entire jury – in effigy, fortunately. After a ranch hand died under peculiar circumstances an investigation resulted in the ranch owner being charged with murder-for –hire. A change of venue was granted and the case tried in Bismarck where the rancher was eventually acquitted. Back in Medora citizens proclaimed their disagreement with the decision by hanging twelve cloth figures, representing the jury, from a handy tree. A banner blasted on a nearby wall made clear their feelings about the verdict.

Reading 3 was excerpted from Frank E. Vyzralek, The Marquis de Mores, His Dakota Experiences and His Enterprises in Dakota, 1883-1913. Bismarck. An unpublished report for the State Historical Society of North Dakota 1995. Chester L Brooks and Ray H. Mattison, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1958 (Reprinted 1962) Reprinted, with revisions, Medora, Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association.1983. Frank Vyzralek, “Murder in Masquerade: A Commentary on Lynching and Mob Violence in North Dakota’s Past, 1882-1931, North Dakota History 57, no.1 1990

Questions for Reading 3

  1. Is the public view of the cowboy different today from the 1880s? If so, how?
  2. What was the view of the press toward the cowboys and the “Stranglers?”
  3. What forms do mob violence take today in comparison to the late 1800s?

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