Cattle Rustling and Quick Justice

Judy Buffington-Sammons
Gunnnison, Colo.
Museum of Western ColoradoSheriff Doc Shores in his later years. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Western Colorado.

“Brand changing. . .has been considerably exaggerated in Western fiction, for it was a precarious procedure which, if botched, could shorten a man’s life expectancy.”

-The American Cowboy – Julian Choate and Joe Frantz

In the early days on the Western Slope of Colorado, cattle rustling existed on a grand scale. It was rampant throughout much of the rest of the West as well. In 1867 the state’s cattlemen banded together and formed the Colorado Stock Growers Association. This group of men had, in fact, come into existence for the very purpose of dealing with what by now was blatant cattle rusting. By 1884 the Stock Growers had formed an alliance with an organization called the Rocky Mountain Detective Association.

There were many who believed that the twenty-five or so peace officers of this detective agency were, in some cases little more that hired guns – quite a few of them with pasts plenty shady. Whatever the state of affairs was with these cattle detectives – which by now is unknown – they were given a lot of latitude. They could commandeer fresh horses from any ranch, if needed, and board any train with a free pass, if it was in the line of duty and in pursuit of the lawless. It is recorded that while their detective work was pretty successful, in the end it was not enough – not sufficient to turn back the ever oncoming influx of fresh new outlaws.

The threat of being sentenced to the state penitentiary or worse yet being hanged by an angry mob – often the fate of a cattle or horse thief – didn’t seem to deter the rustlers much. Those skilled at the tricky business of brand changing and hell bent on cattle thieving seemed to be willing to take their chances. Cattle were frequently kept in very remote places and often without much supervision. Unwatched cattle could be stolen fairly easily and the temptation was great. Colorado’s Western Slope was simply too immense for any angry cattleman or any brave lawman to oversee successfully.

Cattle rustling in the early days was classed as grand larceny by the law, and considered a grave offence – a hanging offence – by the ranchers themselves. An even more serious crime was horse theft. A man’s very life might depend on his horse and there was nothing lower than a thief who would steal one. In the early days a cowboy deprived of his horse or a cattlemen coming up short on calves, often took matters into their own hands, serving quick justice with a tree branch and a rope. . .or in some cases with a gun. One such incident occurred in the little community of Ohio City, located on Quartz Creek, not far from the foot of Monarch Pass.

“Homicide at Ohio City” were the headlines of a 1906 newspaper, announcing the news that a young local cowboy had shot and killed an outlaw – a horse thief. It seems that the outlaw, who was doing some friendly drinking in the local saloon with the cowboy, had excused himself and gone outside. Once there he mounted the cowboy’s horse and took off at a dead run with not only the horse but the saddle, a rifle, and a revolver as well. The surprised victim quickly secured a gun from someone in the saloon, borrowed a horse and followed in hot pursuit. A confrontation took place further up the road and resulted in the outlaw being shot dead through the breast by the cowboy’s borrowed .38 Colt. The young killer then gave himself up to the custody of the Sheriff, keeping in mind the advice of an attorney to keep his mouth shut.

The law at that time prevented removal of the unfortunate felon’s body until the Corner had commanded the Sheriff to summon six “good and lawful men” to perform the duty of serving at a Coroner’s Inquest. The group’s conclusions (after viewing the body the next day) were that the outlaw had drawn first and the cowpuncher had acted in self-defense. The verdict was termed justifiable homicide. Thus justice was served quickly to the horse thief and just as quickly to his killer, who at the age of twenty-two had found it necessary to take the law into his own hands. In the early days of the century, if the law was miles away, well then, one settled up his own scores and his neighbors and the judge sometimes looked the other way.

They dead horse thief was buried not far from where he met his fate. . .in what is now a lonely forsaken little cemetery overgrown with sagebrush. His grave lies outside the cemetery’s fence, however. A practice of the early days was to bury outlaws and others of low station apart from the more upstanding members of the community. And so this young man, with a foolish youthful decision to steal a friend’s horse, had paid with his life. There was no trial, no rehabilitation, no second chance – quick justice had been served.

A great many other early-day horse thieves and cattle rustlers were more fortunate and got away – not all were apprehended, but one famous lawman surely tried. Early day peace officer of Gunnison and later Grand Junction, the renowned Doc Shores, was a stock detective of the first order. He was described as a man not of the “blood and thunder type” but one who “served his fellow men honestly, fearlessly and justly.” He was also said to be deadly in action and a number one shot. Sheriff Shores was paid little in the way of salary in his early days in Gunnison but earned thousands of dollars in the apprehension of horse and cattle thieves in many locations around the Western Slope.

Shores served two terms as Sheriff of Gunnison County and then moved on to put his experience to work for nearly a quarter of a century, as a special investigator for the railroads and eventually as chief of police in Salt Lake City. It was said that he never had to kill a man because no outlaw ever had the nerve to “call his draw.” Doc had a rather matter-of- fact philosophy about his chosen line of work. He is remembered as saying, “Those who live by the gun, usually die by the gun, be he peace officer or outlaw.”

Apprehension of cattle rustlers by a sheriff or marshal was always exciting and often had unexpected outcomes. It was reported in the 1882 Gunnison Review that J .H. Bowen, another of Gunnison’s sheriffs, had been shot in pursuit of cattle rustlers. The paper’s account was that three rustlers had shot and killed Bowen somewhere between Grand Junction and Delta. The newspaper was erroneous on several counts – the main one being that it was one of the rustlers who had been killed by the sheriff and not the other way around.

Friends and relatives of Sheriff Bowen were outraged on hearing of his alleged death. There was talk of revenge, but in the meantime a party was organized to retrieve the body and plans went into effect for a first class funeral for the fallen peace officer. But shortly, another message was received in Gunnison – from Bowen himself – stating that he was alive and well. The sad rites planned for the funeral were turned into an impromptu parade and celebration. Carriages were secured and decorated and the would-be pallbearers rode down the street in them, reportedly wearing wide smiles.

Sheriff Bowen later expressed his appreciation to the community in a letter to the newspaper, in which he stated among other things, “I feel I ought to offer some sort of apology for not being dead.”

And so it seems that in spite of heroic sheriffs, sometimes ordinary men felt called upon to take on the role of law enforcers in the form of vigilante committees, or unauthorized posses. Without any pretense of a trial, quite a few “neck-tie parties” took place during the days when cattle rustling was at its peak. When there was no law available, or it was too far away, there was seemingly no need to flinch from serving quick justice to those with the long ropes and the running irons – those deemed deserving of being hanged on the spot. When an angry cattleman barked out, “get the rope,” it wasn’t going to be a good day for the outlaw who had branded the wrong maverick or ridden the wrong horse.