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Grab-a Root


Life was harsh in the military posts on the Plains. They were lonely, isolated places, and frontier soldiers often sought solace through the post trader’s whiskey, but they needed to be wary. Public intoxication at the post could land them in the guardhouse.

Such was the case of one Private Schute of Company B at Fort Yates as related on this date in 1902 by Dan Quin, a witness to the event in the early years at the post. Private Schute had been charged with “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline,” which was an often-used charge that covered a multitude of sins. A court-martial was conducted with the usual pomp and ceremony associated with military legal procedure. Public intoxication was usually a routine event, with the witnesses testifying to the conduct of the prisoner, and the sentencing of a five and ten, which meant a five dollar fine and ten days in the guardhouse. But, when the prisoner pleaded not guilty, the panel took notice.

The prosecutor called his first three witnesses, and their testimony was so overwhelming, he deemed it unnecessary to continue. The prisoner was allowed a proper defense, and Private Schute not only wished to testify in his own defense, but also have a fellow soldier, Private Gunn, testify to his sobriety. Private Gunn was called, and simply stated that he was with the prisoner all day and never saw him intoxicated.

Based on what he heard from the other witnesses, Major Ball, who was conducting the court martial, was astonished with this response and he decided to question the private. “Did you see him drink five drinks?” asked the Major, and the response was yes. “Ten drinks”” and again the response was affirmative. “More than ten drinks?” and again the response was affirmative, but Private Gunn stated that his buddy was still “not full.” Incredulously, the Major, trying to keep his composure, asked Private Gunn, “When do you consider a man intoxicated, or full in your words?” “Well,” explained the private, “a man can’t be called downright drunk ‘til he topples over and has to grab a root to keep from falling off the earth!”

What dignity was left in the hearing quickly vanished as howls of laughter erupted from the rest of the panel. Of course it didn’t do Private Schute any good as he got five and ten, but it did set a new benchmark for determining the level of intoxication at Fort Yates – “Grab a Root.”

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


The Litchville Bulletin July 25, 1902