In the late 1800s, cattle rustling posed a serious danger to the cattle business on the open range. One of the most influential of the cattlemen was Granville Stuart. He wrote that the cattlemen were as peaceable and law-abiding as could be found, but they had $35,000,000 worth of property spread over some 75,000 square miles of nearly uninhabited country. They had to find a way to protect that property. On this date in 1884, the Eastern Montana Stockgrowers Association met to discuss the problems facing the industry, including overstocking of the range and Texas fever. But in spite of those problems, the discussion was soon taken over by the topic of cattle rustling. This meeting is recognized as a turning point in the fight against rustlers in Montana and North Dakota. The meeting was for Montana cattlemen, but it was held near the border of North Dakota and North Dakota ranchers also attended. Two of those cattlemen are well-known to North Dakotans: Teddy Roosevelt and the Marquis De Mores. These two men were in favor of an all-out war against the rustlers. But another faction, led by Stuart, favored restraint. He was afraid that a confrontation could find cattlemen being tried for murder.
When the rustlers learned that the Stockgrowers Association would not take action, they became more brazen. They openly raided into North Dakota, stealing horses as well as cattle. It may have been the theft of his prize stallion that convinced Stuart to respond in a forceful way. He held a meeting at his ranch and organized a group called “Stuart’s Stranglers.” Both Roosevelt and the Marquis wanted to join, but they were too well-known. Stuart thought they would bring unwanted attention.
The group gathered intelligence on the rustlers and hunted them down. They killed at least thirty, and some estimate the number to be as high as seventy-five. Some of the rustlers were hanged with placards around their necks that read “horse thief” or “cattle thief.” The vigilantes brought cattle and horses back to Stuart’s ranch, and were returned to their owners. In a few months they had recovered more than three hundred horses and hundreds of cattle.
There were those who criticized the vigilante justice, but none of the Stranglers was ever brought to trial.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Milner II, Clyde A. and Carol A. O’Connor. As Big as the West: the Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Stuart, Granville. Forty Years on the Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.