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Estray and Herd Laws


By 1906, the days of the Wild West were over. Barbed wire closed off much of the open range. Cowboys no longer guided vast herds of cattle up the well-known trails. But there were still echoes of the past. On this date in 1906, the Bismarck Daily Tribune published a clarification about the “North Dakota Herd and Estray Law.”

No one was allowed to take possession of a stray between November and March unless the animal was on the person’s property. Anyone taking in a stray was required to make an effort to find the owner. The finder had to take out a newspaper ad describing the animal and within ten days had to send notification by registered mail to the commissioner of agriculture in Bismarck. The receipt for the registered mail and a copy of the newspaper ad had to be sent to the county auditor as proof that the law had been followed. A person failing to follow these rules would be guilty of a misdemeanor and liable to the owner of the stray for any damages.

The Washburn Leader was designated as the “official stray newspaper.” Newspapers had to forward all stray notices to The Leader. An editor who failed to do so was also guilty of a misdemeanor. The Leader would then send copies to each state auditor.

In order to recover a stray, the owner had to appear before a justice of the peace and sign an affidavit asserting ownership. The owner had to pay the finder for any expenses. If the finder had used the stray for work – for example, using a mule to plow a field – there was no compensation.

If no one claimed the animal after a year, the finder became legal owner. It was more complicated if the animal was worth more than twenty-five dollars. In that case, the animal was sold at auction. If the owner came forward after the sale, he or she would receive the money. If not, the money would be turned over to the county school fund.

Livestock was allowed to range free from December through April, although counties were permitted to pass fence laws. The stray laws applied to stray “horses, mares, colts, donkeys, mules, cattle, sheep, hogs, and goats.”

Dakota Datebook Written by Carole Butcher


The Bismarck Tribune. “North Dakota Herd and Estray Law.” 27 February, 1906.