Learning How to Explode: Anti-Horse Thief Societies, Stockgrower’s Associations, and Vigilantism along the Middle Border

I delivered this paper on October 17, 2020 at the online Western History Association Conference. Parts of it were taken from my Marquette University MA Thesis, which is entitled “In the Name of the Law: The Pine Bluff Detective Association and the Anti-Horse Thief Movement, 1885-1916” (2005).

This conference paper brings my research on extralegal responses to horse stealing full circle: it started with anti-horse thief associations in Wisconsin, and culminated most recently in my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. I don’t know if or when I will continue working on this subject (I have some ideas), but for now this feels like a good way to put a pin in it.

In the popular mind, vigilantism is most often associated with the frontier. One might think of Montana and California, where angry lynch mobs often wielded the hangman’s noose and where the lines between civil and legal authority were visibly blurred. Even though vigilante groups have appeared throughout the United States, some of the most spectacular – and memorable – movements have associated vigilantism with the San Francisco Committee of 1856, the Montana vigilant societies in 1864, and the Nebraska Niobrara during the 1880s. However, throughout the mid to late-nineteenth century, the vast majority of vigilante organizations never tied a noose or fired a shot. These groups, known as anti-horse thief associations, could be found throughout the Midwest, from Ohio all the way to eastern Nebraska. But for some reason these organizations, much like the rain, seemed to dry up at the 100th Meridian.

In my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, I discuss the role that vigilantism played in local efforts to mitigate horse theft. I argue that while there was relatively little vigilante activity directed against horse thieves in the area, homesteaders, small ranchers, and newspaper editors often invoked the threat of lynching as “the old system of justice” for dealing with thieves. They did this because a dearth of law enforcement, the sheer financial and utilitarian value of horses, and the almost non-existent borrowing market for acquiring new ones rendered them vulnerable to theft. Horse thieves became a bogeyman for all their problems as a result, and by the time people started stealing cars instead the horse thief figure had already entered Western mythology as a villain who, in the words of Nellie Snyder Yost, was “never caught twice.”

In this context, I wondered about the absence of anti-horse thief societies from Western Nebraska. They seemed ubiquitous farther east, and the loss of a horse was magnified on the Plains by the sod, aridity, long travel distances, and lack of cash, so why aren’t there more in that region? To answer this question, look to the Pine Bluff Detective Association, which was an anti-horse thief association based in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin.

Map data ©2020 Google

Pine Bluff was (and remains) a small hamlet about ten miles west of Madison. It was, in many ways, an idyllic, tranquil farm community. Industrious farmers made up the majority of the population and the town itself had a relatively low crime rate among its own citizenry. These conditions, however, did not guarantee citizens’ safety. For one, gangs of criminals were notorious for stealing horses in one community and then bringing them to another state for sale. Their actions precipitated an endless series of crime waves throughout the country that resulted in rising tensions among potential victims. Horse stealing was particularly feared – horses were essentially the most valuable pieces of property that farmers owned, with the exception of their house and land, and the horse market was so large and diverse that, depending on the time and place of the sale, thieves could usually sell their stolen goods for a high price. Fortunately for horse thieves, the high number of horses in agricultural areas such as Pine Bluff offered a steady supply.

In the spring of 1885, several horses were stolen in Middleton, a village between Pine Bluff and Madison. A series of thefts elsewhere in the area prompted Sheriff William Pierstorff to call for local communities to “organize for their own protection” in May. Apparently, the call was heeded. As panic began to grow within the farming communities of Dane County, the citizens of Pine Bluff and the surrounding villages united in June to form an anti-horse thief society, the Pine Bluff Detective Association. Anti-horse thief societies were generally nonviolent organizations that attempted to protect members’ property by facilitating local law enforcement and creating a “neighborhood watch” of sorts. “The people have become excited over the matter,” wrote William Dunn, the Pine Bluff correspondent for the Madison Democrat who would eventually become a member himself. He predicted, “Societies will be formed in nearly every town in this part of the county.” He also warned, “Suspicious characters traveling about will be roughly handled.” Although nobody from Pine Bluff seemed to have been directly affected by the outbreak of horse thefts, locals were already willing to mobilize and intimidate “suspicious characters” with vague threats.

Facing West along Mineral Point Road towards Pine Bluff. Google Maps, Map data ©2020 Google

What is more surprising is that these organizations were a common occurrence throughout the nation, especially the Midwest. Richard Maxwell Brown has hypothesized that hundreds of thousands of men and women were members of these societies during the latter half of the nineteenth century in an area stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes.

Before proceeding with the discussion of the P.B.D.A., however, it would be helpful to further frame it within the context of vigilantism. Consideration should be given to Wisconsin during the late nineteenth-century – was it a hotbed of vigilantism or a relatively quiet area? Although far from quiet, it was generally stable. Initially settled in the 1830s and granted statehood in 1848, Wisconsin had long ceased to be a frontier by 1880. In fact, in Brown’s lengthy catalog of the hundreds of known vigilante movements that have occurred throughout the United States, only one from Wisconsin made the list: the La Crosse Vigilance Committee of 1857, a short-lived organization created by the local population to help control a prostitution ring and other vices. Ultimately, an angry mob ended up burning down a local bordello. However, on the whole, Wisconsinites only lynched six men between 1882 and 1968, all of whom were white.

Despite these occurrences there was a much larger trend towards nonviolent, supplemental law enforcement in Wisconsin during the 1880s. Not only were horses extraordinarily valuable, but police were not yet technologically or institutionally able to proactively protect private property or investigate theft with forensic methods. This put the onus of private property protection on the private parties themselves. Between 1880 and 1890, anti-horse thief societies were founded in Waukesha (1881), Fulton (1884), Dayton (1884), Beloit (1887), Racine (1889), and Rock County (1890). Meanwhile, detective associations were founded in Dodge County (1881), Whitewater (1885), Palmyra (1888), and Ashland (1889). The Whitewater and Beloit societies had memberships numbering nearly 200, and the Ashland society published a polite, if stern, letter for a local murder suspect to leave the county. These, in fact, were only the larger societies and the ones that managed to file articles of incorporation, a procedure which actually gave these organizations the right to exercise constabulary powers and make arrests.

For the PBDA, historians can review its constitution and meeting record book at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Aside from the standard executive committee – president, vice president, secretary and treasurer – it also allowed for the creation of a vigilance committee. This was the enforcement arm of the organization, and could be called upon in an emergency to assemble and hunt for any suspected thieves. However, the size of the organization probably allowed a great deal of informality among the members. If there was a situation, it was probably expected that most members would come to the aid of the victim and search for the thieves. At any rate, the vigilance committee and the president were responsible for the conduct of any searches. In  1887, a measure was passed allowing officers to draw $2 a day for expenses when conducting a search.

Pine Bluff Detective Association, Records (1885-1916), Wisconsin State Historical Society. Author photocopy

The members themselves reflected the diversity of the community’s social and economic strata. The P.B.D.A.’s first president, James Quigley, was born in Ireland in 1846. He settled in Springfield as a young man and learned the carpenter trade. His family, the Quigleys, were known at the Fourth of July picnic games for their brawn, which may or may not have helped James Quigley obtain his office as the leader of a vigilante group. He owned a farm of about 200 acres and had a wife with 2 children. However, he died in 1890 of appendicitis and was succeeded by James Bonner in 1891. Matt Anderson was perhaps the most prominent man to join the society. He served as a state assemblyman in 1871 and was a state senator from 1879- 1883. He owned a substantial dairy farm and, as mentioned above, retired fairly wealthy. Another prominent member was the Rev. Joseph Hausner, the pastor at St. Mary’s from 1905 until 1917. The latest in a long line of German priests dating back to the first mass at Johann Kalscheur’s home in 1852, Hausner continued to help hold his ethnically divided parish together. William Dunn had very positive things to say about him: “He was a good preacher . . . I can never forget his kindly Christian character and his exemplary life as a priest.” Like his predecessors, Hausner continued to help promote good relations in the community by refusing to condemn Protestantism, and he helped build a $5,000 parochial school during his first few years in the parish.

It is interesting that Hausner joined the P.B.D.A., especially since he did not hold property in the area or operate a farm. However, it is conceivable that he did so to promote crime awareness or facilitate, perhaps even join, what was at time a social organization. By promoting crime awareness, it is clear that his presence further distanced the organization from violence. Perhaps more importantly, priests in small villages such as Pine Bluff were active in building good community relations and promoting organizations that enabled farmers to get together with one another and socialize.

The most important source of information about the members comes from William Dunn, who wrote a memoir of his life in Pine Bluff. At 80, Dunn remembered a great deal about his past. Curiously, though, he mentions nothing of the P.B.D.A., despite describing the work of local pickpockets on three different occasions. Why wouldn’t he – or anyone else – have any reason not to mention or at least remember such a group, especially since it was clear that they were not a secret society? It is conceivable that it simply was not a big deal in the minds of the members.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Pine Bluff, WI. Photo by Corey Coyle (2009)

This hypothesis is especially interesting in light of the apparent inactivity of the organization. There is no record of the P.B.D.A. doing anything other than issuing a couple of $25 rewards in two separate years. For one thing, dairy farmers were exceedingly busy people. Add on the burdens of having a family, participating in church, and having other social, civic, and recreational preoccupations, one may ask just where the dairy farmers would have found the time to make patrols and hunt down criminals. The annual meetings did not meet their quota during certain years. This possible lack of interest may be related to the fact that there is no known evidence of any manhunts or captures during the society’s 31-year existence. It seems as though the executive board had little more to do than pass bylaws and call meetings.

This would all be irrelevant if their organization was something more than a sleight of hand trick to make gangs of horse thieves think that the countryside was more mobilized than otherwise thought. That’s what many locals later believed, anyway – according to a reporter who interviewed the P.B.D.A.’s only surviving member in the 1950s: “it is possible that the knowledge of such a body was enough to put the quietus on horse and cattle stealing.” Since horse thieves were well aware of what vigilance societies were capable of once riled up – note Dunn’s remark that “the people have become excited over the matter” – it would have served the P.B.D.A. well to have only created a caricature of vigilance, if not an actual instrument of such. Their use of rewards for the capture of thieves might have reinforced this system, though it is not known why the two rewards issued by the society were given.

Caricature or not, it lasted for 31 years. Towards the end of that span, it ceased to be useful, although it did amass 67 members by 1916. In the twentieth century, the organization often met at a tavern in Pine Bluff, in a building known for its entertainments as well as its political assemblies. There is not a whole lot to say about the organization between 1890 and 1916, although the seeds of its dissolution were sewn well before the turn of the century. By 1916, most of the founding members were either dead or too old to participate. The need for anti-horse thief societies had passed, as had their founders.

Old Schlitz’s Tavern. Google Maps, Map data ©2020 Google

When I first researched the Pine Bluff Detective Association some 15 years ago for my MA, I gave the organization the benefit of the doubt. I was reluctant to accept that the group was more of a social organization than a neighborhood watch. And my research on horse stealing in Western Nebraska bolstered, if anything, the notion that horses were important enough to late-nineteenth century Americans that they felt the need to protect them by any means necessary. But something stands out for me now that did not stand out nearly as conspicuously 15 years ago: Pine Bluff was, by all indications, a stable community. People raised their families there, and now many of their descendants continue to live in the immediate area. Dunn, Quigley, and Anderson were invested in this place. So too was the priest, Hausner, who likely would not have joined an organization whose members intended to murder wrongdoers.

The comparative rarity of lynchings in Wisconsin in some ways justifies the idea that most anti-horse thief societies were non-violent. After all, it makes sense to think that a well-organized and disciplined group of community watchers could successfully reduce crime to a point where it would no longer justify more rash vigilante action. But perhaps it’s actually the opposite: maybe the large number of thriving, longstanding anti-horse thief societies actually led to fewer lynchings. The history of vigilante violence elsewhere in the country seems to suggest this. Southern lynchings were a byproduct of white terrorism, not vigilantism, while farther west the largest vigilante movements occurred in relatively new communities with immature and graft-prone civil institutions. Anti-horse thief societies in this respect may actually act as emotional sponges, places where horse owners could express their fears and organize an active response to a disastrous outcome, like the loss of a horse, that would otherwise lie beyond their ability to act. In other words, rage does not necessarily lead to helplessness, but helplessness can easily lead to rage. Anti-horse thief organizations may have preempted that rage by giving an outlet to that helplessness. They might have even facilitated community organization, thereby promoting stability and peace. The fact that many other anti-horse thief societies were modeled after the Freemasons, with initiation rites and sacred insignia, suggests as much.

Perry Yeast, State Complaint for Grand Larceny, Grant County District Court Files, Hyannis, NE. Author photo.

More research on these groups as community organizations, rather than as vigilante sleeper cells, is needed. In the meantime, my more recent research on western Nebraska can provide a brief counter-example. In this region, stockman’s associations, rather than anti-horse thief associations, were the primary organizational tool for locals wishing to combat horse and other livestock theft. These organizations were primarily formed and controlled by ranchers who not only excluded but sometimes acted in concert against Homesteaders, farmers, and small-herd owners. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s involvement in the Johnson County War is surely the famous and most notorious example, of this. But we see similar machinations within the Northwest Nebraska Stockman’s Association, a smaller, regional cattlemen’s association based in Hyannis. Not only did the organization preclude farmers, but one of its executive members, Perry Yeast, was accused of running a rustling operation in the early 1890s and later convicted of fencing public lands in the early twentieth-century. Local homesteaders, meanwhile, had a much more difficult time in western Nebraska proving their claims and creating economically viable farms than farmers further to the east. Many left within five or ten years. Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers both chronicle the instability of these farming communities on the Great Plains, and a growing historical literature, including David Wishart’s masterful Last Days of the Rainbelt, is deepening our awareness of what can only be described as a failed frontier.

The farmers who persisted did so in spite of these circumstances. And those who did seldom prospered. Communities, rather than building up and out, instead came and went. Civil institutions remained immature. Neighbors who could be relied upon to help in times of crisis might leave at the drop of a hat. Yet the need to protect their animals remained. If anything, the lack of generational wealth and only moderately rising property values magnified the losses farmers incurred whenever their horses were stolen. In this socially dystopian landscape, farmers organizations like the Anti-Horse Thief Association could not thrive. Instead, farmers felt their feels with little support, little help, and few people to whom they could complain at the local tavern.

When we imagine vigilante organizations, we tend to think of the ones with the highest body counts. Yet quantitatively they were in the minority. Most organizations might not have even been organizations at all. They were groups where, in the evening, after the many tasks of the day had been concluded, farmers could sit and commune over their anxieties which never seemed to go away. They could aggressively make plans against actionable threats that jeopardized their lives and communities, like horse thieves, while raging against those threats that – like locusts, drought, bad weather, railroads – only demonstrated their helplessness in the face of unending economic precarity and danger. By turning their helplessness into rage, and then their rage into bonding, they could learn how to explode.

November 1942: Stateside

On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.

No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.

Elmer usually liked to send postcards back home of the places he visited, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find one of San Francisco. So here is a representative non-tinted postcard from the 1940s. “The Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco and the Redwood Highway,” by photographer Alexander Zan #1532.

This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.

Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.

Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”

Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”

nov17 -
The front page of the San Francisco Examiner on November 17th. Elmer, a voracious news junkie, might have read this edition of the paper when he was in town.

After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:

Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942

I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.

At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.

San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.

Next Entry:
December 1942: Dreaming of a White Christmas

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An Interior Border Love Song

Between travel and midterms grading I will not be able to post a book review this week. Instead, I have posted the talk that I gave a few weeks ago at the Western History Association Conference in Las Vegas. It was for a panel discussion of Jon Lauck’s The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains, for which I contributed a chapter (you can check out the book on Amazon or at the Center for Great Plains Studies Online Shop). I hope that no one minds the gratuitous references to early 90s music or cow butts. Have a great weekend! – Matt

This past summer marked the 25th anniversary of the album Purple by Stone Temple Pilots. This was one of the cornerstone albums of my youth, so I’ve been thinking it about it some over the past few months. My favorite track on the album, and probably one of the most popular songs from the 90s overall, is “Interstate Love Song.” While the lyrics themselves are about, according to Scott Weiland, “honesty, lack of honesty, and . . .  heroin],” the song’s title in my fourteen-year old brain became associated with . . . well, the Interstate. And the specific image it brings to mind for me is from a road trip my family took in the spring of 1995. My brother and I piled into the backseat of my parent’s Ford Escort – not the best car choice in the world for a family with two teenage boys, but it wasn’t my call – and we drove from our home in St. Louis to Colorado Springs. I had never traveled west of Springfield, Missouri before that trip, and I’d never seen what folks in the West would call “mountains.”

Anyway, while my parents kept scanning the radio dial for the strongest oldies stations, I fortunately had a Walkman, and a mix tape I made from the radio which had, among other tracks, “Interstate Love Song.” And now, as I think back on that song, and as much as that song and that album for me provided the soundtrack for my early teenage years, the first and last image that comes into my mind when I hear it today is this: the flat, level horizon of the west Kansas prairie along Interstate 70. And me thinking that, somewhere between Topeka and Hays, we had entered someplace new. The rolling hills of Missouri and eastern Kansas were gone. The trees were gone. The curves in the road were gone. And I remember just staring at that distant green horizon, knowing but not quite understanding either the song lyrics or the fact that we had left the Midwest and had entered the Great Plains. 

Kansas from a car window, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

This nebulous, invisible border between the two stands in stark contrast to what we found when we arrived in Colorado: the Rocky Mountains rising abruptly and sharply from the prairies below. Flying over the Front Range, you can even see the sudden uplift of the first foothills beginning in peoples’ backyards!

Front Range, Colorado Springs, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

But for most people traveling east to west, the eastern border of the Plains is less perceptible. It was even less so for the hundreds of thousands of migrants who made the trip on foot, on wagons, or on horseback. The border was experienced and usually noticed after the fact: alkali water, less interesting terrain, less shade, different animals, taller grass, even more annoying insects. Trail diaries and memoirs are a fantastic resource for getting a sense of where migrants believed this border lay. Of course, these recollections lack the specificity and certainly of Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition report in which he infamously characterized Nebraska as a “Great Desert,” or John Wesley Powell’s claim in 1878 that the 100th Meridian provides a clean and intuitive border between the arid Plains and the more agriculturally suitable Midwest. Many Western Historians – including me – have satisfied ourselves with these so-called official explanations, and have used them to frame both contemporary experiences as well as our own, making them more intelligible and perhaps less surreal. But trail diaries and official reports both lack a broader, dynamic sense of not only where this so-called border lies, but how it changes over time, and how the ecological, agricultural, and geographic borderland it anchors between the two regions affects the evolution and development of communities, institutions, language, and even the stories we tell about how we won the West. 

Selfie from one of my more recent journeys (2016) through the Great Plains. Taken at the 100th Meridian line in Cozad, Nebraska. Photo by M. Luckett

This book, Interior Borderlands, goes a long way in expanding the ways in which we think about this border by treating it as a borderland zone in its own right. And borderland zones are both fascinating and essential in that they force us to think critically and creatively about how borders and transitional zones affect historical change. This book and the breadth of ways in which its authors approach and treat both the border’s definitions and its impact on surrounding peoples, cultures, and economies has already influenced at least one historian’s approach to the middle border: my own. 

Of course, credit for this change lies outside of my own contribution to the volume. The chapter I included for this book utilizes several advertising tracts I found at the Huntington while researching my book on horse stealing in Nebraska These brochures were created by ranch and railroad companies trying to sell off their massive Great Plains land holdings. These tracts were fascinating, providing a wide variety of exaggerations and distortions about the arability of the lands for sale. Yet unlike Scott Weiland in “Interstate Love Song,” who expresses genuine remorse for misleading his girlfriend about his heroin habit, these pamphlets almost exulted in their lies. As a result, the growing desperation and hyperbole that characterized land sales in western Nebraska created a kind of real estate borderland there, where the aridity of the climate in that region forced sellers to either oversell the land’s benefits or, in the case of some less unscrupulous sellers, propose practical solutions to maximize profit, like growing alfalfa or supporting bonded irrigation districts.

Welcome sign at the Grant County, Nebraska border. Grant County is unapologetically and unambiguously ranching country. Photo by M. Luckett

But while I confess to using some of my unused dissertation research for this chapter, once this book came out earlier this year it spurred me to think differently about my research on horse stealing in western Nebraska along the 100th Meridian. Specifically, it helped me recognize a fact that has eluded me for ten years: that the interior border between the Plains and the Midwest not only affects the distribution of stock grower associations and anti-horse thief associations, but the absence of the latter west of that border dramatically impacts how farmers view the morality and necessity of violent vigilantism. 

Stock grower organizations brought self-imposed regulation to the once wild-and-wooly range where ranchers could steal from one another, but could not chase rustlers far beyond their own territory. Unlike the homesteaders and settlers who employed vigilante rhetoric to make up for the perceived inadequacies of law enforcement, ranchers relied on an individualistic, libertarian ethos and rhetoric that fought federal range regulation on the one hand, while promoting advances in veterinary science on the other. Much of this stemmed from the ranchers’ original goal of banding together and busting up the gangs of horse thieves and cattle rustlers that once preyed on their ranches.

Art by H.M. Wilder from the eBook THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP by Hayden Carruth. Taken from https://equinequickresponse.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/the-anti-horse-thief-association-circa-1863-1939/

While the inspiration for stock-grower associations came from Texas and Mexico, farmers’ organized responses to horse stealing could be found further east. After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of farmers across the Midwest joined local, state, and even national anti-horse-thief societies. Similar in organization to stock-grower associations, these groups usually collected dues for income, relied on an executive committee to disseminate stolen horse information and pursue thieves, and often filed articles of incorporation and formally adopted constitutions with county and state authorities. 

Unlike their western counterparts, however, anti-horse-thief associations borrowed heavily from the Freemasons. Members usually gathered in secret and often incorporated rituals into their meetings. These societies grew quickly and over a wide area because anti-horse-thief societies were a tailor-made response to horse stealing. They channeled the concerns of worried farmers across the Midwest, alleviated anxieties over inefficacious law enforcement, and in general expressed the precariousness of the postbellum agricultural economy. 

Despite the popularity of anti-horse thief societies across the Midwest, western Nebraskans expressed little enthusiasm for the idea. This was likely because the conditions that made homesteading in western Nebraska so difficult overall—namely poor rainfall—prompted many sodbusters to leave the state before they had firmed up their land patents. Farmers often moved into and out of townships, creating demographic and population turnover and resulting in the more economically successful and socially connected people in most communities throughout the region being ranchers, not farmers. Homesteaders in Nebraska had common cause with one another, but because too few people stayed on their claims long enough to build stable communities they could not effectively direct their anxieties into productive group-building. This explains why stock-growers’ associations were the primary organizational tool in the region for combatting rustlers and horse thieves, as well as why homesteaders and other farmers in western Nebraska often embraced violent solutions and rhetoric when dealing with horse thieves. 

Anti-horse Thief Associations were typically governed by constitutions and other documents. Some even filed articles of incorporation. From Kansas Historical Society (https://www.kshs.org/km/items/view/226300)

At any rate, in spite of both my own participation in this project and this book’s influence on my own work since it came out, I don’t really believe that the book satisfactorily answers its own question of where this middle border lies. But I don’t think it needs too. Perhaps the interior border is, above all else, impressionistic, biographical, even visceral. The very amorphousness of it demands that we interpret it experientially, though the prism of our own stories and aspirations, which in turn gives it power. It’s why the legendary Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip’s aptly-named song “At the Hundredth Meridian” conjures up such vivid imagery in its lyrics: 

Driving down a corduroy road (crashing through the window)
Weeds standing shoulder-high (through the window)
Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance
At the hundredth meridian
Where the Great Plains begin

The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”

And it’s probably why “Interstate Love Song” resonates with me so many years later. Not because of the topical appropriateness of the lyrics I heard through my headphones, but because of the strange, sublime, incomprehensible, and unforgettable beauty of what I was seeing for the first time outside my car window. 

The giant cow outside the Sirloin Stockade in Abilene, Kansas. Photo by M. Luckett
When I was 14 I thought that this was hilarious for some reason. And considering how expensive film was back then, I guess it still is. Photo by M. Luckett.

June 1941: Tiger Sharks and Thank You Notes

Elmer spent the majority of the month at sea, so he had fewer opportunities to write his folks. Not that he had a great deal to say, anyway. “There really isn’t much to write about this time,” he wrote apologetically. “Our duty is the same, and not much to speak of.” His writer’s block appeared to be contagious as well. “Ozzie is writing a few lines also, he is sitting next to me. He doesn’t know what to say either.” His time at sea was not entirely uneventful. In the next paragraph, Elmer recounts spotting various kinds of marine life. “Ozzie and I saw a tiger shark this morning,” he wrote. It is “the most fierce of sharks.” They also watched “flying fish and porpoises” on the trip.

Thank you’s dominated his letters. His mother continued to send him candy. His sister Irene shipped him cookies, which “sure [were] good” despite being delivered a month late. “That happens every once and a while by parcel post,” he offered.” Thanks a million, sis.” He also sent home three Father’s Day cards, as thanks for “being such a swell dad!”

One reason for the lack of commentary was both straightforward and inevitable: after six months, life in the Navy was becoming routine. Elmer stressed in his letters that he still missed his home and his family: “I’m not kicking [out of the Navy] but a home with mom and dad suits me any time.” He also continued to reassure them that he was OK, “safe and shipshape.”

However, he did not fail to mention that he was studying for his new rating, and that the pay increase would be substantial. Compared to his pay in the Navy, “when you stop to think about it I wasn’t doing all that well at home.” Similar economic circumstances drove thousands of men from across the United States to join the Navy during the 1930s and early 40s: the promise of paid room and board, adventure and excitement on the government’s dime, and pay on top of all that. It was a great deal, at least for the time being.

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Half a world away, Hawaiians read with foreboding – and maybe a silver lining’s worth of hope – about Hitler’s invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941.

Yet his June letters sounded more ominous notes about the waters ahead. For one thing, the Navy announced it would begin censoring sailors’ mail. Elmer explained that he would have to be careful about what he could say, and that he would no longer be able to describe the ship’s activities, location, or other details that could be intercepted by a potential enemy. He also responded to Hitler’s invasion of Russia that month. “I think Germany has bit off too much time,” he wrote his father. “At least I hope so.”

But Elmer, ever the optimist, expressed no regrets. “It is such a beautiful day today,” he wrote on June 15th. “The waiting room [at the Y] is open around the front and the sun is beating down on the palm trees. A cool breeze is drifting through here and it is refreshing. Gee, it is great to be alive.” Regardless of what was happening elsewhere in a world gone mad, it was a lovely afternoon in Hawaii, and Elmer was determined to enjoy it.

Longer letters were nice, but as far as his parents were concerned, that is all he needed to say.

Next Entry:
July 1941: Day Trips

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No Brochures: The Camp Grant Massacre in Local Memory

I was in Tucson last weekend with my family for the Arizona Wildcats football game. My father in law is an alum, and each Fall I watch a game with him in the alumni box. I’m not necessarily a Wildcats fan (not that the Bruins are doing much these days, despite finally beating Stanford this weekend), but the food is good and the company is better.

Anyway, we had most of a day to kill in Tuscon, and one of the things I was interested in doing was going to the site of the Camp Grant Massacre. Located 59 miles north of Tuscon, this location was where on April 30, 1871 a group of Tohono O’odham warriors, Mexican civilians, and six Americans killed 144 Aravaipa Apaches. Without going into too much detail about what led to this brutal event (for those who are interested, I highly recommend Karl Jacoby’s wonderful – if haunting – account, of the massacre, Shadows at Dawn), it was a fairly significant event in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

What was really surprising to me, though, is that there is no monument. No park, no commemorative plaque, not even a roadside marker. Nothing. Just desert.

Limited access roads? To what I assumed would be a park?

In recent years there has been a great deal of controversy over Confederate monuments and whether or not they should be removed. While I don’t intend to weigh in on that specific issue here, one of the comments often made in defense of keeping Confederate monuments is that by losing them we risk forgetting our history. I don’t agree with that argument (I’m an historian, after all – I am literally paid to make people learn and hopefully not forget history), but it does bring up an interesting point: do we risk forgetting about tragic events if we don’t memorialize them in any way?

I think we do.

How many folks in Tuscon know about this attack? Not many, I’d wager. Yet there they are, sixty miles from what could be a fantastic opportunity for local students and others to learn about the US-Mexico borderlands, regional indigenous groups, and frontier violence . . . and there is nothing.

For a good template for what is possible, one might check out the Massacre Canyon Monument in Trenton, Nebraska, where as many as 100 Pawnees were killed by the Lakota as they hunted bison in the Republican River Valley on August 5, 1873. I discuss this event in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing and Culture in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890.

Despite its isolation (it is VERY far from virtually everywhere), the monument is respectful, informative, and an enduring tribute to the men, women, and children who died that day.

While it is disappointing to learn that there is no similar monument for the Camp Grant Massacre, it is never too late to build one. And for those who defend existing monuments to more controversial figures, it is never too late to reevaluate their ability to not only teach us about the past, but to inspire us to be better in the future.

[Note: I realized that I promised a blog about why non-academics should attend academic history conferences. Let’s, uh, put a pin on that . . . not that I don’t stand by this sentiment, but I had a number of conversations this past weekend about the present and future direction of the WHA, and about some of the rival organizations out there that are currently attracting more members, that compel me to think about the matter some. Stay tuned . . . I do plan on talking about this at some point. – ML]

[Monday, 10/21 update: I should never try to update and edit a post after a couple pints of Guinness in a casino bar. Lesson learned. – ML]

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Greetings from Las Vegas!

Hi folks,

This morning I flew to Las Vegas to attend the annual Western Historical Association (WHA) conference at the Westgate. The WHA is your typical academic conference: there are dozens of interesting panels, a huge book exhibition, enormous quantities of burnt coffee and tiny danishes, and everyone from prestigious scholars to first-year graduate students can be found milling about the place. But the difference, of course, is that we study Western history . . . probably the least stodgy historical field of them all (with the possible exception of Medievalists, who are pretty wild and crazy . . . in a good way, of course!). We have professors, students, ranchers and cowboys, American Indian historians, US-Mexican borderlands scholars, environmental history folks, lots of pubic and government historians, and this year we have a couple of panels on the relationship between the West and space exploration. It’s going to be an exciting weekend! 🤠

I am on a committee and have some business to attend to this afternoon, but if anyone plans on being at the conference tomorrow I will be participating in a panel conversation about the recently published book Interior Borderlands, for which I contributed a chapter. It is at 8:30 am on Friday morning. And if enough people laugh at my jokes I may post my remarks online later.

Since I will be busy at the conference this weekend there will be no book review tomorrow. However, next Friday I will post a review of Clint Johnson’s Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers That Won Two World Wars (thanks to Jackie Smith for the suggestion!). For Monday, I will recap the conference and make an argument for why every self-described “history nerd” should take the opportunity someday to go to a history conference, and on Wednesday I will post a narrative about Elmer’s experiences in June 1940.

By the way, I want to say hello and thank you to everyone who has followed the blog this week, and special thanks to my mom and my cousin Celia for banging the drum! This site’s page view counter is already in the tens of thousands, and I would love to get to 100 followers by Thanksgiving.

Last but not least, thank you to the reader who bought me a Ko-Fi this last week . . . let me know if you would like a shout-out on the blog. And the same goes for anyone in the future who contributes to my Ko-Fi fund . . . I don’t want to out any donors on here without their permission, but I am also more than happy to give them public props.

OK, thanks for reading. Time to go rustle up some grub . . .

– Matt

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There goes my diet . . .

Gold Rushes and Golden Leaves

One of the things I miss the most about growing up in Missouri is the fall colors, which light up the bluffs along the rivers with slashes of orange, red, yellow, and brown. When I was a kid, my family and I would travel up the Great River Road from St. Louis, drive to Calhoun County, and buy apple cider from one of the many roadside stands lining the strip of land between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers before taking the Golden Eagle Ferry back. Good times.

After nine years of living in Los Angeles, I became disenchanted with the California fall. I’d find any excuse I could to travel east during the autumn. Sometimes we would go up to Big Bear or even Mammoth Lakes, but it just was not the same. The closest I ever felt like I came to experiencing a real autumn was when I’d go up to Sacramento to visit family for Thanksgiving.

Now that I’ve lived in the Sacramento area for a couple of years now, I have to say . . . the fall up here is spectacular. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it could be a destination fall. Crowds of leaf-peepers back east got you down? Come out to Northern California, where we have all the trappings of fall, including that nice cool autumn breeze, but without the fuss. Check out Apple Hill, near Placerville, with its line of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and food stands. Or take a drive through Sacramento itself in November, which is sometimes called the “City of Trees,” and enjoy the juxtaposition of color-changing maples against pines, redwoods, and even palm trees. It’s a fascinating sight.

But since this is ostensibly a history blog, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the historical destinations that await travelers here. Autumn is probably the best time of the year to visit one of our local Gold Rush history attractions. Apart from the changing colors, it is not brutally hot (as summers tend to be), nor will you need snow chains for your vehicle.

Here are some places you can visit:

The Gold Rush Museum – Auburn: This is a one-stop shop for all things related to Gold Rush history. Located in historic Auburn, this museum is a fantastic place to get acquainted with one of the most important events in North American history.

Firehouse #1 Museum – Nevada City: After you are done taking in the sights in Auburn, take a picturesque drive up Highway 49 towards Grass Valley and Nevada City. Once you get there, this museum offers both a fascinating look at the region’s history as well as a beautiful view of the surrounding treescape.

Donner Memorial State Park – Truckee: No visit to the Sierra would be complete without a stop at Donner Pass and a visit to the place where the ill-fated Donner Party camped in 1846. Be sure to pack a lunch . . .

National Automobile Museum – Reno: If you make it to the other side of the California-Nevada state line, this museum in Reno is not to be missed. Even though this has little to do with the Gold Rush, it does at least give you a sense of what some of the most successful gold miners might have spent their money on in later years . . .

About the horse stealing book . . .

It’s no secret that most of the stuff I post here stems from my work digitizing, reading, and then blogging about the letters my grandpa wrote to his parents and his future wife, Rose, during World War II. Eventually I am going to work this material into a book manuscript, which I would really like to be available in time for the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2021).

However, most of my research and historical work until recently has focused on horse stealing in the nineteenth-century American West, specifically Nebraska. I began this research nearly a decade ago, when the Autry National Center in Los Angeles awarded me a fellowship to conduct research on the John Bratt Ranching Collection. My goal was to use Bratt’s voluminous ranching records to better understand how horse stealing affected ranchers and their bottom line. The material, which few historians have used up until now, yielded some fascinating insights, and I used these to get a head start on my dissertation writing.

After finishing my dissertation, “Honor among Thieves: Horse Stealing and Culture in Lincoln County, Nebraska, 1860 – 1890” in 2014, I was slow to pick the project back up and finish it. However, I started getting serious about it a couple of years ago and decided to expand my analysis beyond Lincoln County to Western Nebraska in general. I finally finished the manuscript this summer, and it should be out next fall.

* Not the actual book cover, which has not yet been designed . . . this is just something I whipped up on Photoshop. The photo however will be in the book. (Source: Edward S. Curtis, Brulé war party, [1907?], b&w film copy negative, Edward S. Curtis Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-46958.)

I don’t want to give too much away about the book . . . after all, it is a narrative, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending! But my book, which is the first to tackle both American Indian horse raiding and white horse stealing as related historical phenomena, will cover a lot of ground. As the year goes by I will periodically post updates here, as well as tidbits from the book, items of interest that didn’t make the final cut, and other stuff.

I apologize in advance if the blog seems to ping-pong between the old West and the Pacific Theater, with occasional references to Midwestern earthquakes from time to time. Most academic historians are a bit less cluttered with their varying projects, although I would argue that my grandpa’s letters project would never happen if these letters did not literally fall in my lap (my dad, after my grandpa died, actually dropped a suitcase full of these letters inside right on my lap! It was pretty heavy . . .). In the meantime, once Never Caught Twice is out I would like to write another book about the Great Plains, which I’ve grown to love over the past ten years. I have some ideas, but, for now, I think I’m going to focus on writing just one book at a time. 🙂