In his 1913 "Early History of Idaho," ex-Sen. and Gov. William J. McConnell observed, "One of the peculiar characteristics of the people in all frontier countries is their hatred of horse thieves, and the belief that nothing less than capital punishment is adequate to suppress them." He notes that many a murderer got away with it if self-defense could be proven, or even if those examining the evidence agreed that it had been a fair fight. "Yet these same men would hang a horse thief without compunction."
McConnell himself had been part of a company of vigilantes in Payette Valley in the 1860s that had driven out a notorious band of horse thieves and counterfeiters from a canyon east of Emmett known as Pickett's Corral.
That horse stealing was a common crime on the frontier, but that the thieves rarely paid for it with their lives, is revealed by many items in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman. On May 5, 1866, for example: "A Dangerous Neighborhood. - Babington's on Reynolds Creek is getting a bad reputation. It is a dangerous place for either stock or whisky to be laying around loose. Last February Kale's pets moved about every beef in the neighborhood across the Owyhee, and now just as we are flattering ourselves that the road between here and Owyhee is a safe one, news comes to us that a packer who built his campfire almost within sight of Babington's had nothing left but his campfire and aparajoes (sic) the next morning.
"Mr. Aleck Weir, with a train of 48 mules, camped in a gulch three-fourths of a mile this side of Babington's, on the evening of May 1st. Half a mile nearer the tollgate a teamster was camped with two teams of horses. Early next morning it was discovered that the pack train and teams had joined in making a broad trail, pointing in the same general direction as that taken by Hill Beachey's horses last February. It was supposed from the signs that about 15 rascals - red or white -were very close to the stock when they started on their pilgrimage. By 8 o'clock in the morning about 20 men, well mounted and armed, had started in pursuit, of whom we hope to have good news before the next issue.
"In the matter of whisky it has been noticed for several months that if a bottle of that exhilarating liquid happened to be left in the stage while the passengers were breakfasting at Babington's, it was sure to be missing by the time the meal was over. We hope when that other regiment of soldiers comes up, a sufficient number of them will be posted there to protect the stock and whisky which may be taken into that dangerous neighborhood."
In September 1869, James D. Agnew, proprietor of Boise's chief livery stable and owner of some of the city's finest horses, rode after and captured a man who had stolen a horse from him, sold it at Keeney's Ferry on Snake River and was nearly to Eldorado City in eastern Oregon when Agnew caught up with him. He brought the horse and the thief back to Boise and put the man in jail. In 1865, Agnew had been a partner with H.C. Riggs in the town's most popular saloon at the corner of Seventh and Main before going into the livery business. The courage he showed in hunting down an armed horse thief added to the qualities that made Jim Agnew a popular citizen of Boise City.
A Montana horse thief was arrested in Boise in June 1870. A Mr. Davis, from whom he had stolen four horses, tracked him for nearly 200 miles before catching up with him in Idaho's capital trying to sell two of the animals. "He recovered two of his horses, and the robber admitted having sold the other two at Black's Station on the Overland Road." A problem all runaway criminals faced in frontier days was the fact that the wide-open spaces along their escape route were so vast that anyone who saw them noted it and remembered. There was no way to escape detection by "mingling with the crowd." There were no crowds.
Some thieves were so rash as to steal horses from the U.S. Cavalry, as did Joseph Sears and James Anderson in May 1871. They stole 18 head of horses, mules and colts at Camp C.F. Smith in Oregon. The Idaho Statesman was so used to reporting such incidents that it made no comment, except to note that Sheriff Bryon had caught the thieves.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.