The term cattle rustling is derived from the cowboy culture of the Old West, and is used in America in regards to the raiding of ranches. Rustlers were very rarely arrested but it was still considered a serious offence, and vigilantes took matters into their own hands normally lynching the accused. The introduction of fenced grazing, to replace the open range, resulted in a decrease in the amount of cattle rustling but ranchers still suffered great loss.
The ranches in the western country were large, and long periods of time would pass before owners even realised that their cattle was missing. Whenever an incident was reported it would normally be done after too much time had gone by for the thieves to be tracked. This contributed to the lack of legal convictions. The majority of the rustlers were rogue cowboys with the knowledge of both the trails and handling the livestock. They were also skilled in the area of rebranding the cattle, which played a major role in their ability to sell the animals. After a while ranchers stopped hiring cowboys with their own stock, to avoid any problems that might arise from roamers being accused of cattle rustling.
Ranchers would brand their cattle, using a hot stamp iron on their hindquarters, to showcase ownership. Brands had to be registered, and the officials would only do this after somebody proved that they owned several beasts. Rustlers found ways of changing these brands using a running iron, which was a straight rod with a curve at the heated end. Catching up on their techniques, the law made this illegal and the cattle thieves resorted to using just a piece of curved wire which could be manipulated easily into the desired shape.
The ranchers usually waited until calves were weaned before branding them, and these young ones became easy targets for cattle rustlers. They would cut holes in the fences, steal the calves and put their own brand on them. Sometimes the young cows would instinctively attempt to return to their mothers, regardless of the distance between them. This led to trouble between the ranchers and rustlers, whose brand would be identified when the calves returned.
The rustlers started to pen the young ones, only branding them after they had learnt to eat grass. There were other more heinous methods used to keep them from returning to their mothers such as: the muscles supporting the calves eyelids were cut to make them temporarily blind and therefore incapable of finding their way back; a hot iron was placed between their toes making their feet too sore for them to walk; the calves tongues were sometimes split so that they would be unable to suckle and in the most extreme cases the cow was killed meaning that the calf would no longer have any reason to return.
Associations for cattlemen were formed and these would be responsible for checking the brands at auctions to decrease the number of stolen cattle making it to sale. In the 1930s, cattle rustling changed with vehicular advances. Thieves with trucks would steal the animals during the night, immediately butcher them and then sell the meat in nearby markets the following morning. In 1941, the McCarren Law was passed which stated that the maximum penalty for transporting stolen cattle, and/or meat, would be a fine of U$5000 and 5 years imprisonment.
The Beefsteak Raid
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when the Confederate Army began running out of food during the American Civil War they were forced to become uniformed rustlers. In September 1864, a historical cattle raid was carried out led by Major General Hampton, and included 3000 troops on horseback. They raided 100 miles of cattle, owned by the Union Army, and stole 2468 of the animals. The Confederates lost 10 men, suffered 47 injuries and 4 of their soldiers went missing. The cattle were immediately slaughtered, because the thieves had no grain to feed the herd, and a feast followed.
President Abraham Lincoln referred to the incident as ‘The slickest piece of cattle stealing ever,’ and The Beefsteak Raid has been recorded as an important part of The Civil War. In order to commemorate the event, an annual steak dinner is held by the Prince George County Historical Society on the anniversary of the raid.
Native American Cattle Rustling
Even though they were more likely to steal horses, the American Indians did engage in cattle rustling when there was a shortage of food, or simply as a form of revenge. They would try to drive the unwanted white settlers from their lands by stealing their major source of income, even starting stampedes to kill those animals that they were unable to take with them.
Mexican Cattle Rustling
During the American Civil War cattle were left to roam freely in the States closest to the Mexican border. With the Mexican government’s full support, its citizens stole approximately 145,298 cattle between the years of 1859 and 1872 from South Texas ranches. The settlers in the West also rustled large amounts of Mexican cattle by swimming herds, wet stock, across the Rio Grande during the night and taking them directly to Kansas.
Born as Arthur McDonald in 1850, in Virginia, Jack Sully moved to what is now South Dakota in the 1870s. As a cowboy, he quickly became known for his sharpshooting skills and expertise horse riding. In 1872, he was elected as the Charles Mix County Sheriff. The victory was a landslide, 61-1, but was obviously rigged because the total number of votes counted was more than the amount of people that had voted.
Sully gave up law enforcement to become an outlaw in the 1880s, and formed his own gang, which started plaguing the ranches in many Dakota territories. By 1900, they were also wanted for several murders and forced to flee to Canada to avoid capture. The gang returned to the States in 1903 and Sully was arrested for cattle rustling. Being familiar with the methods that lawmen used he was able to escape and avoided recapture until May 1904. He refused to surrender and was shot by US Marshal and former friend, Johnny Petrie, and his gang disbanded shortly after.
Ellen Watson was born on July 2, 1861 in Arran Lake, Ontario, but moved to Kansas in 1877, with her family. By 1879 Ellen had gotten married but, when she realised how abusive her husband was, returned to her parents’ house and filed for a divorce. She began drifting from town to town supporting herself by cooking, or doing other odd jobs, along the way.
Eventually Ellen ended up in Rawlings, Wyoming and became involved with James ‘Jim’ Averell. She became known in the area as Cattle Kate when she bought her own ranch, against the will of the wealthy cattlemen who thought of the territory as their own. Opposing them once again, she filed for a brand but settled for buying an already registered one in 1889. This sparked an accusation by the influential cattle owners that she was stealing their animals and rebranding them. Taking the law into their hands the ranchers kidnapped her, and Jim, and lynched them before they could be saved.
There was no shortage of witnesses at the time and many of the wrongdoers were identified and arrested, however, none of them ever went to trial. The majority of the witnesses died or disappeared and others refused to come forward. Cattle Kate’s ranch eventually became the property of her killers and, even though there is absolutely no proof that she ever stole one cow, she became labelled as an outlaw.