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Cattle rustling

September 2, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

In the old west, rustling was considered a serious offense and frequently resulted in lynching. Cattle rustling by Indians was a common hazard for many settlers also. Though the Indians more often stole horses, when their food supply was short they drove off and butchered beef. Sometimes they stole more than their needs, just to drive white settlers from their hunting grounds. Occasionally they started stampedes and killed the cattle they could not drive off.

Most rustlers of the open range era were cowboys who had drifted into dubious practices. They not only knew the cattle company, but they were adept at roping, branding, and trailing. In that day one only needed to buy a few legitimate cows, register a brand, and then begin to brand strays.

The most common theft was the theft of large, unbranded calves, not yet weaned. When a ranchman neglected to brand some of his calves before they were weaned, it was easy for the rustler to cut a pasture fence, drive the calves to his corral, and stamp his own brand on them.

The smaller not weaned calves were trickier. Longhorn cows and calves have a strong instinct for returning to each other, even when separated by miles. These reunions had to be prevented, for if a rancher found a calf with the rustlers brand nursing from one of his cows, there would be big trouble. So, before branding unweaned calves, often the rustler kept them penned until they quit bawling, and learned to eat grass. Unfortunately sometimes the rustler would kill the mother to make the calf a genuine orphan.

Early cattlemen often had to take law enforcement into their own hands in dealing with rustlers. Following the end of open range, rustling was diminished, added by efforts of law enforcement, Texas Rangers, and inspectors of cattlemen's association.

As the days of open range faded, conflicts between western cattle barons and homesteaders who had settled on the open range became bitter. Usually the disagreements were limited to cutting the settlers fences, or diverting their water. Ranchers complained the homesteaders were rustlers. Such was the case in Wyoming, with Elia Watson and James Averell, who may or may not have been married, but filed two separate homesteads. Both were claims on a powerful ranchers lands, even though technically the ranchers had no legal claim on it, but used the land for grazing. In 1889, when the rancher, Bothwell, accused Averell and Watson of rustling Bothwell and five of his men took the couple prisoner and hanged them. Bothwell and his men were later charged with murder, but a pro-rancher jury promptly acquitted them. It was the only incident of a woman being executed, legally or illegally in the state of Wyoming.



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