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A Good Catch


On this date in 1899, the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean reported that a young horse thief’s grand plans came to a sudden end. Devils Lake police chief Hurst received a telegram asking him to be on the lookout for William Lester. Lester had stolen seven horses from Williston and sold them in Minot. It was apparently his plan to head for the Canadian border. Hurst came across Lester enjoying a meal at Reed’s Restaurant. The thief was promptly arrested and returned to Minot.

At one time, stealing a horse was considered a hanging offense. “Horse thief” was one of the worst things a person could be called. While a good horse was worth a great deal, horse theft was far more than a matter of money. A horse was a very important possession, used for transportation, farm work, and herding. Stealing someone’s horse, stranding them far from a town, could mean their death.

The act of stealing a horse could be a very simple matter on the sparsely settled Great Plains. The thief could easily take a horse into another state or territory where the animal could be sold. Thieves frequently took stolen animals into Canada. In 1854, concerned horse owners formed the Anti-Horse Thief Association in Missouri. The purpose of the organization was to protect against theft of livestock and recovering the stolen animals whenever possible. The idea spread, and branches of the organization were founded in other states. By 1916, there were over 40,000 members in nine states. While some horse thieves were lynched without the benefit of a trial, the Association was not so militant, pursuing proper apprehension and prosecution.

Modern conveniences made it easier to track down horse thieves. The telegraph and later the telephone were put to good use.

As cars came into common use, the priority put on horse theft decreased. In many places, it was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. The Anti-Horse Thief Association faded away, although there are a few holdouts in small towns that remain as social clubs. Very few members are called upon anymore to ride out in search of horse thieves. A new organization, Stolen Horse International, has taken on that role. Just as the earlier group adapted modern technology, Stolen Horse uses the internet to report stolen horses and to offer the latest in microchip identification.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Devils Lake Inter-Ocean. “A Good Catch.” 5 May, 1899.

The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation. “The Anti-Horse Thief Association.” "http://www.lrgaf.org/articles/ahta.htm" http://www.lrgaf.org/articles/ahta.htm Accessed 2 April, 2017.