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Keith County, NEGenWeb
Barbed Wire
The Law at the End of the Trail
1873 - 1887
by Karyn Stansbery
Transcription by Keith Hughes

Permission to reprint granted by The Author

Barbed Wire
Page 2

On December 9, 1878, Gillan, with Phil DuFran, a Custer County deputy sheriff and Olive cowboy, brought the prisoners by train to Plum Creek, now Lexington, and took them north by carriage. The next morning Olive met the group on the road and took charge of Mitchell and Ketchum. Gillan and DuFran were barely out of sight before Olive shot Mitchell and then hung both men, still manacled together. Somehow the bodies were burned, and when they were found it was widely assumed that the victims had been burned alive. The horror of what became known as "The Nebraska Man-burner Case" aroused near hysteria.

Gillan’s participation seemed particularly ugly: a sheriff operating several counties away from his jurisdiction, knowingly carrying two men to their deaths. Keith Countians, although often tolerant of cattlemen’s misdeeds, quickly petitioned the commissioners to force Gillan’s resignation "as his conduct was unbecoming to an officer of the law." After a delay of three weeks, the commissioners re-appointed Joe Hughes sheriff.53 Gillan was arrested, but escaped from jail early in 1879. Though his whereabouts were known that summer, no effort was made to recapture him, and Gillan later fled the state.54

The cast of characters at the end of the trail, and the cattle industry itself, was changing. The number of foreign owners and investors was increasing. Stock growers organizations, originally set up to fend off rustlers and horse thieves and to fix grazing boundries, in 1879 jointly formed the Wyoming Stock Growers Association with an elegant clubhouse and headquarters in Cheyenne.55 Members began to wield its marketing influence among themselves and in the East, and a few years later joined Texas cattlemen and Midwest packers in a futile effort to maintain an open trail from Texas to the northern ranges in the face of increasing settlement.56

The longhorn blood was being bred out. Cattle began to look more like Shorthorns, Durhams, and Herefords. Barbed wire was coming into use by cattlemen as well as by grangers. An overstocked range was breaking down. Grasses and forbs that formerly broke the runoff, were grazed so low that rain falling on the tablelands flowed unimpeded to the rivers. Ogallala, located in a narrow valley, was particularly prone to flash floods, and 1879 was a wet summer.57

According to end-of-trail narrator Edgar Beecher Bronson, there was a prodigious flash flood three days before the next major Railroad Street bloodletting. Contemporary newspaper reports disagree on the details of the happening on July 8 and 9, 1879, but local records help clarify events.58

Drovers working for Hunter and Evans arrived in the vicinity of Ogallala with a herd at about the same time as the sky opened. Some of the crew braved the high-flowing South Platte River to "Hurrah" the town. Four or five of them were arrested for promiscuous shooting, but escaped from the jail and dared the sheriff to rearrest them. Then they shot into the jail building.59

Hughes formed a posse and ordered the rioters to surrender. In return the cowboys pulled out their revolvers:

Sheriff Hughes then fired his revolver at one of them, Wm. Shook, the ball entering his neck. This did not stop his warlike movements and the sheriff discharged one barrel of his shotgun at him, the contents taking effect in the left side of Shooks [sic], killing him instantly. The rest of the mob ran out of the saloon at another entrance and made for their homes. The sheriff and posse followed and ordered a halt, which was not heeded, and the sheriff discharged the second barrel of his shot gun at Henry Parker, killing the horse which he was about to mount, and severely wounding him in the abdomen.60
A coroner’s jury exonerated Hughes and the North Platte Republican commented:
We do not know who the sheriff is, not even his name; but he has a way of dealing with unruly cases which, considering it is sometimes the only way, is commendable, an d makes us think that he is the right man in the right place.61
The 1880 census mortality schedule for Ogallala lists the shooting deaths in July 1879 of cowhands William Shook, age twenty, and William H. Brewton or Breuton, age nineteen. It does not list Henry Parker. Some accounts say a wounded cowhand was carried back to camp. This could have been Parker, whose death, if it occurred, might have been unknown to the census taker nearly a year later. Another possibility is that the newspapers had the name wrong and Brueton and Parker were one and the same. The county commissioners, however, on October 11, 1879, paid three men for digging a grave apiece.62 Jasper Southard, Hughes’s brother-in-law, built Shook’s and Breuton’s coffins and acted as undertaker; the county paid extra for some "heavy cloth" with which the coffins were lined.63

Nearly a century later, in August 1978, five bodies were unearthed on the northeast slope of Boot Hill. Three of them lay side by side in similar coffins. Michael Gunn, a University of Nebraska graduate student working under the direction of anthropologist Richard McWilliams, reported that they were between the ages of eighteen and twenty, sixteen and eighteen, and seventeen and twenty, respectively. Two were men. It was difficult to determine the sex of the third. It appeared that the first two bodies had been interred by the same hand - "both in brown wool suits, both with porcelain-headed tacks in their coffins," while the third body was interred in an adjoining grave, but the coffin and clothing were different. No causes of death could be determined.64

The shootout had another result: "Under the new police regulations inaugurated by the authorities in Keith County, the cowboys, as soon as they enter Ogallala, have to turn over their revolvers and guns to the officers".The strict enforcement of this order should be insisted upon in every western town.65

The balance of Joe Hughes’s term was uneventful. On November 4 the Omaha Daily Bee noted with wonder, "Keith County has not a single prisoner in her jail, nor a single case on her district court docket."66 That November, livery stable owner Martin DePriest was elected Sheriff. Although a decade later when residents talked about end-of-trail law enforcement they remembered DePriest and his deputy Joe Hughes, always armed with his shotgun or his buffalo gun, Hughes disappeared from the records of law enforcement for two and one-half years. In the 1880 census his occupation is given as rancher and herder, indicating a return to more peaceful pursuits.67

DePriest was a Texan born in Alabama and a Democrat in a county that was increasingly Republican, but people liked him. His first recorded official act was to sit as coroner at the inquest into the death of Michael Kearney, a section hand who was found crumpled beside the track on January 16, 1880. Jurors concluded he had died of a stroke.68

In February a herder found the body of a dead tramp on a South Platte River sandbar east of the village. Inquest jurors determined that he died of blows to the head. His description was circulated, and the commissioners offered a $200 reward for the identification and conviction of his killer, but neither his identity nor his murderer was ever discovered. The county boxed his remains and buried him on Boot Hill.69

In May the sheriff arrested Henry Gaylord (again) and John Walters for stealing beer from a Union Pacific boxcar. Both men were sent to the penitentiary following their trial in district court.70

On June 21, 1880, Bill Thompson, younger brother of Ben Thompson, one of the West’s most notorious gunmen, precipitated a shootout with Bill Tucker, owner of the Cowboy’s Rest saloon. The two men had disliked each other for some time. On June 21, both had been drinking, and Thompson decided the time had come to settle old scores. He stepped inside the saloon door and fired a shot at Tucker, which cut off one of Tucker’s fingers and mutilated several others. The victim slumped to the floor behind the bar. Thompson, satisfied, sauntered away down the street. Tucker recovered quickly, grabbed a double-barreled shotgun from behind the bar, and ran out in the street. He fired at Thompson, "fairly filling that individual’s rear, almost from his neck to his heals, with the assorted shot which the gun contained."71 Bystanders hauled Thompson off to his room at the Ogallala House.

Charges of assault with intent to kill were filed against Thompson in county court.72 He was patched up by a North Platte doctor and spent the next seventeen days lying on his stomach under guard, afraid that Tucker and his friends intended to lynch him as soon as he was healthy enough to hang. Word had also gotten out that Ben Thompson was en-route to Ogallala. Sheriff DePriest appointed deputies "and will use every effort to keep the peace, but his ability to do that is questioned by those who judge the Thompson family from an intimate acquaintance with that member of it."73

The Ford County, Kansas, Globe reported July 6, 1880, that W.B. "Bat" Masterson had gone to Ogallala on behalf of Ben Thompson. According to Masterson, he spirited the younger Thompson out of Ogallala one night while a community celebration was going full-blast at the school house.74 The Sidney newspaper merely reported on July 17 that "Bill Thompson, who figured so conspicuously in the recent shooting affray at Ogallala, has shipped out of the burg. A case of French leave."75 Despite Thompson’s departure, he was later indicted in district court for shooting with intent to kill, but was never brought to trial.76

They may have laughed long and loud at DePriest’s expense in Dodge City, but Ogallalans were satisfied with their sheriff. Two days after the Thompson-Tucker incident the commission made the sheriff’s position salaried - $500 annually plus fees, mileage, and expenses, but it took them two more years to set aside an additional $200 to pay deputies.77

Judge Gaslin arrived again in the spring of 1882 and tried Thomas Scott Gray for highway robbery and the court indicted Thomas "Arkansas" Ware or Hare, probably Aufdengarten’s horse thief. Hare later jumped bail and left several Ogallala citizens holding the bag for his bond.78 After holding up a companion on November 30, 1881, Gray had escaped to Denver where Sheriff DePriest captured him. Gray’s trial was noteworthy for its brevity, a mere three hours from the grand jury indictment to Judge Gaslin’s sentence of ten years in the penitentiary. A newspaper correspondent expressed surprise that the "cowboys" who made up both the grand and petit juries did not let their "natural sympathy for their kind" deter them summarily visiting upon him the consequences of his crime."79 In reality, court records reveal that the jury was drawn from among the permanent citizens of the county. Given the small population, many of these long-suffering individuals were called as jurors repeatedly .

Gunfire was a common occurrence in Ogallala, but in May 1882 two cowboys went too far. The commissioners offered a $100 reward for the capture of drovers who shot holes in the town’s water tank and into Louis Aufdengarten’s house. A spent bullet fell into the baby’s cradle. No one collected the reward. The commissioners renewed DePriest’s salary anyway.80

And in May 1882, Joe Hughes reappeared. He was paid $74.40 as a temporary deputy sheriff.81 It was probably about this time, as his wife later remembered, that he moved his family to Ogallala and into semi-permanent residence in the jail shanty and became the permanent jailer and intermittent deputy sheriff, census enumerator, election canvasser, and man of all county work.

Criminal behavior in 1883 and early 1884 consisted of more horse thieves and more drifters - with notable exception of the case involving saloon owner Bill Tucker. The Omaha Daily Bee, after receiving information from an Ogallala correspondent, reported that thirteen-year-old Flora Rayner of Ogallala had been raped by Tucker on May 14 during a buggy ride. Tucker had tried "to purchase peace from the parents." The Bee said, and added that because Tucker had threatened the editors, only brief reports of the incident had been published in North Platte newspapers, and those urged the public not to rush to judgement. Apparently the uproar died quietly for no further reference to the case appeared in available newspapers or court records.82

The Tucker scandal overshadowed the June 1883 trial of Peter King for shooting Martin DePriest with intent to kill. DePriest was wounded in the leg, and King was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.83

In early fall, DePriest, Hughes, and Elmer Leech collected fees from the county for arresting horse thieves named Snell or Sell and Oscar Tobin, who were given four years and three years in prison, respectively. Locally, horse thieving had subsided enough so that on October 29, 1883, the commissioners revoked the $200 reward that had been in effect since April 1879.84 DePriest increasingly dealt with another kind of criminal, city punks rather than Texas desperados. By the end of the 1884 season Ogallala was becoming a farming community, and across the cattlemen’s West the trail driving culture was sputtering out. For example, on April 15, 1884, Charles James killed himself in Keith County jail. He used a .32 revolver, rarely a cowboy’s weapon.85

Then on August 16, 1884, Ed Worley was shot to death by Lang or Lank Keyes. Keyes was a well-known Omaha gambler and "sporting man" and the brother of John Keyes, also notorious as the former sheriff of Cherry County who had (while in office) killed two men in a fashion that looked suspiciously like murder and then another in Omaha. Worley also brought a reputation with him. He had retreated suddenly from Wyoming to Sidney. He left there after he attacked a man with an axe and had stolen money, crimes for which he spent time in jail.86

This time the trouble occurred at the Crystal Palace Saloon, recently purchased by DePriest from William Phebus.87 Contemporary reports of the Worley killing contradict one another. Some say that Worley was playing three-card monte with Keyes and asked for $9 to continue gambling. Other accounts have both men planning to go to Wyoming, with Worley needing a loan for a train ticket. Whatever the reason, when Keyes refused to give him the money Worley became angry, threatened to kill Keyes, and flashed a knife. Keyes jumped up from the table and shot him.88

Though the newspaper said Worley died on the spot, in fact the county paid for housing him and for his medical treatment.89 He could not have lived long, however. A coroner’s jury disagreed on whether the shooting was justified, and Keyes was arrested. A few days later DePriest turned him loose because "all of the witnesses had been gotten out of the way" before a preliminary hearing could be held.90 The divided coroner’s jury indicates that some in Ogallala thought the shooting was murder. After a little thought, however, most residents probably decided that killing Worley was not a great evil. Keyes drifted off to Valentine where, less that a year later, he murdered his mistress during a drunken spree.91

After ten years as the legendary "town at the end of the trail", Ogallala was formally incorporated on November 25, 1884.92 Joe Hughes was appointed town marshal. There had never been more than about 125 residents in Ogallala, including a fluctuating number of section hands and whatever tramps and criminals were in jail, and there probably never were more than another eighty people living elsewhere in the county, including the tiny settlements of Alkali and Brule and at two or three permanent ranch headquarters.93 That total did not include a peripatetic population of Texas drovers that during the height of the trail season fluctuated between three and nine hundred men. Then suddenly the permanent population of both town and county boomed. The 1885 census put the count at about 250 in Ogallala and some nine hundred in the county.

Settlers came crowding in. All available land as far west as the North Platte area had been claimed as early as 1879, but then even the land-starved hesitated. Not only were they wary of the unfenced herds that swarmed over Keith County, but the traditional fear of farming west of the 100th Meridian slowed them. But a respected University of Nebraska scientist, Dr. Samuel Aughey, announced in 1883 that "rain follows the plow," a view widely encouraged by the Union Pacific Railroad, desperate to sell land cattlemen had been grazing free for more than fifteen years.94

By September 1885 Ogallala boasted at least three doctors, three drug stores, two banks, six real estate offices, five general stores, a furniture store, two butcher shops, an implement dealer, two hardware stores, three lumber companies, a brick kiln, a skating rink-community hall, and a second newspaper.95 The town built a new courthouse and school. Most of the new businesses and several of those that had burned in August 1884, were constructed north of the railroad tracks. Louis Aufdengarten, always good at spotting local trends, changed his emporium’s name from the Drovers Store to the Keith County Market, and, as the agricultural focus in Keith County changed from cattle to crops, opened a flour mill.96 In April 1885 the cornerstone of a Congregational church, Ogallala’s first house of worship, was laid.97

All was not peaceful, however. Riley Thompson shot Town Marshal Joe Hughes in the hand August 8, 1885. Thomas Newdick was arrested on a charge of assault with intent to kill at about the same time. Both men served time in the county jail.98

The trail by then was largely irrelevant. Settlers in early 1885 prevailed upon the Kansas legislature to prohibit Texas cattle drives and then camped at the southern border of that state to enforce the ban. Northern Plains ranchers, frightened by a new outbreak of Texas Fever in 1884, joined forces with the grangers to make the ban stick. Except for a few herds that sneaked through, the Texas Trail closed forever that spring.99

Ogallala as a shipping point was irrelevant, too. The railroad for four years or more had been constructing sidings anywhere a village or rancher built a set of loading pens.100 The open-range cattle industry itself was undergoing massive changes. At the very time profits from ranging semi-wild cattle on free grass promised to spiral endlessly upward, the beem began to collapse. Wild speculation that gripped the industry in the early and mid-1880s was a sign of impending disaster. Though "The Big Dieup" of the winter of 1886-87 is a legend on the range, losses were severe every winter from 1882-83 through 1887-88.101

It took years for end-of-the-trail behavior to disappear entirely, but by 1887 the desire for respectability had taken a firm hold on the Ogallala community. That December William Muland of the Keith County News editorialized:

For shameless, brazen faced corruption, Tuesday night’s proceedings at one of our saloons certainly takes the lead. When prostitutes enter and carouse in plain view of passersby on the street, and without even a screen to hide their iniquity, we have reached a condition which would make the cheek of every honest citizen burn with shame and indignation, that such things should exist in a town that makes any pretensions to decency and morality.102
Doubtless such activities would have been ignored only a few years earlier.

The open-range cattlemen who survived into 1888, except for William Paxton, John Bratt, and a few others, moved west and north out of Nebraska.103 But thanks to Paxton and his successors who had learned to build fences, dig wells, and lay up hay; to homesteaders who turned to stock raising to survive; and to old-time cowboys who moved into the vacuum left when the huge outfits moved out, Ogallala remained, and still remains to the extent any modern city can, a cowtown.

Martin DePriest was sheriff until 1888. When Perkins County was organized November 8, 1887, the farm he bought after he relinquished his claim near Ogallala was within the boundries of the new county, and he was asked to resign. He retained his Ogallala saloon, however, and moved back and forth across the divide. By 1890 he was again the Keith County sheriff. Local people believed he retired in New Mexico.104

Joseph Hughes lived a long, useful life and was buried in the Ogallala Cemetery following his death on March 4, 1915, his grave marked by a headstone with his name misspelled.105 But that hard-working man, who stepped more than once into the breach when law enforcement in Keith County threatened to collapse, never filed for election as sheriff. His great-grandson, John Walraven, remembered his great-grandmother saying, "No, he didn’t really relish the aggravation."106

Providing a semblance of law enforcement was a continuing problem for Ogallala’s city fathers during the trail-driving days. The tiny, permanent population of Keith County provided only a minimal tax base from which to fund basic services such as jails, courts, and even the sheriff’s salary. The sheriff’s office, along with other county offices, suffered from high turnover, and its occupants were rarely well-qualified. Some officers, such as Barney Gillan, later ended up on the wrong side of the law. Even the well-respected Martin DePriest found it necessary to supplement his salary by running one of Ogallala’s saloons, an institution that, itself, contributed mightily to the community’s law enforcement problems.

Given the large number of cowhands, gamblers, and prostitutes who invaded the otherwise sleepy village each summer, coupled with the shortcomings of Keith County’s criminal justice system, one would expect to find a community plagued with a high level of violent crime. Yet the overall level of lethal violence during Ogallala’s trail driving days seems remarkably low. Between 1875 and 1884 only six fatalities from gun-related altercations can be firmly documented, an no one from Keith County was sent to jail for murder. Several other shooting scrapes, such as the Thompson-Tucker affair in 1880 and the assault on Sheriff DePriest in 1883, while adding color to Ogallala’s cowtown reputation, did not terminate fatally.

Though Ogallala’s fame as the wild and wooly "Cowboy Capital" rests mostly on a few well-publicized incidents such as the Campbell-Moye, Tucker-Thompson, and Worley-Keyes shootouts, violent crimes were relatively rare. For Joseph Hughes, Martin DePriest, and other Keith County lawmen, providing law at the end of the trail more often meant tracking down local rustlers and horse thieves, acting as coroner, or sweeping out the jail.

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