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The Wild and Woolly Wolf-Waylayer of the West

By the time settlement came to the middle of Dakota Territory, the prototype of the frontier hero a la Davy Crockett — an amalgam of rough and ready experience, promotion, and self-promotion — was well established. It came into play with Bill Corbin of Emmons County.

Uncle Bill Corbin, old soldier of Company F, 34th Iowa Infantry. A homesteader on Beaver Creek in the mid-1880s. A live-off-the-land entrepreneur who ate venison, caught and sold Missouri River catfish, and told whoppers. A grand host of community dances and a spectacular wedding celebration for his daughter, selling a little hooch on the side.

And an assiduous cultivator of his own image, courting editorial favor from Darwin Streeter at the Emmons County Record. Corbin brought Streeter fresh catfish and taught him how to skin them. He presented him with a hand-carved black diamond willow walking stick. After opening a road house in the nascent burg of Glencoe, he bought a column ad every week to advertise his hospitality — and his persona.

Streeter referred to Corbin as “happy and good-natured old Ben,” a “true-hearted old soldier and jovial companion.” Most of all — and this was Corbin’s self-interested intent — Streeter labeled him “the Wild and Woolly Wolfwaylayer of the West . . . our champion wolf-slayer” who had “picked up his rifle and traps” and come to Dakota Territory “moved by the same spirit of immigration which carried brigades and divisions of the Union veterans further west.”

The wolf-slayer — coyotes were what he hunted, really, in Emmons County — trooped into the county seat, Williamsburg, in April 1891 bearing a petition for the county to enact a wolf bounty. This would be $2 for a coyote scalp and $1 for a pup — sorry, this is a grisly business. The commissioners obliged, stacking the county bounty atop the $2 state bounty. By 14 July Corbin had turned in his evidence of 69 coyotes killed. Which moved editor Streeter to remark, “The sheep-raisers and poultry-loving housewives should have Uncle Ben’s picture hanging over the mantel-piece.”

Corbin continually badgered the commissioners for more liberal bounties. The campaign culminated in January 1897 when Streeter, abetted by Corbin, published an extended, two-part opinion piece demanding the legislature enact an $8 bounty. The piece, with Corbin as its heroic centerpiece, asserted there were vital livestock as well as household interests at stake — and indeed, a fundamental principle of democratic self-government.

The argument for livestock interests was getting threadbare by 1897. Open range had given way to close settlement, and in particular, the day of open-range sheep operations had passed. Farmers and stockmen might be expected to shoot their own coyotes. So Streeter invoked the specter of home invasion, the threat of “howling wolves to enter the barn-yards of the farmers and steal their poultry.”

Then Streeter, who was no rube — he was highly literate and politically conscious — constructed a cogent case for coyote control as a public good, which he described, artfully, as the “wisdom of Lincoln.” Sure, Streeter argued, a man might be expected to defend home and hearth, but not all citizens had the larger sense of defending the community, which was what was required to suppress coyote depredations. This justified taxing and spending by public authorities to kill off coyotes.

Uncle Ben was not capable of this level of discourse. Agitation continued, until in February 1899 Corbin was invited to address a session of the state house. He proceeded to insult the members, first joking that he was the first honest man ever to take to the podium, then then declaring there were three kinds of wolves — “gray wolves, coyotes, and two-legged” — politicians who opposed the bounty. Uncle Ben was not making friends, and his indiscretions would come back to bite him.

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