In an age when Idahoans relied on horses for transportation, for hauling freight and for every kind of farm work from plowing to haying, horse thieves were despised. Their victims felt the outrage people feel today when a thief steals the automobile they rely on to get them back and forth to work, to do their shopping and to handle a dozen other chores.
A “Warning to Horse Thieves” appeared in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman on Oct. 12, 1871: “The first thing somebody knows around here, some rogues will be found one of these bright mornings climbing a tree, who are not looking for fruit.” This was no idle threat, for several men had been hanged without trial within the recent memory of Statesman readers. Not all who were lynched were horse thieves, but some undoubtedly numbered that among their crimes.
“Horse Thief Caught,” noted the Statesman in September 1869, after Ada County Sheriff J.D. Agnew chased and arrested John Lund, recovered the horse he had stolen and sold at Keeneys Ferry on the Snake River, returned the horse to its owner, and brought the thief to Boise City and put him in jail.
In June 1870, a Montana man named Davis who had been robbed of four horses trailed the thief all the way to Boise and had him arrested. Davis was able to recover two of his animals, but the thief had sold the other two at Blacks Creek station on Overland Road. In May 1871, Ada County Sheriff William Bryon arrested Joseph Sears and James Anderson, who had stolen 18 head of horses, mules and colts from their owners at the site of abandoned Army Camp C.F. Smith in eastern Oregon. In October that year Ada County Deputy Sheriff Smith Barker chased and arrested a horse thief within 7 miles of Cope, Nev. The man and the horse were brought to Boise; the man was jailed.
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Col. George Laird Shoup, elected Idaho’s first state governor before going to Washington, D.C., to represent his state in Congress, was also a victim, as this story from the Yankee Fork Herald on Oct. 20, 1881, tells us: “The horse thieves that got away with Keno and another race horse belonging to Colonel Shoup, at Challis, a few weeks ago, were nabbed at Eagle Rock the other day. A description of the thieves was telegraphed, and as soon as they brought up at Eagle Rock were arrested. One is a white man and the other a half-breed Indian.”
In July 1883 it was reported from Eagle Rock (present Idaho Falls) that one I.C. McVey had stolen two horses from J.H. Stoner in Cokeville, Wyo., and was headed west. Cokeville Constable Cameron took up the chase and was joined by Deputy Sheriff E.F. Winn of Eagle Rock. McVey was found sleeping at a ranch 12 miles north of Eagle Rock. When they woke him up and ordered him at gunpoint to throw up his hands; he grabbed the barrel of the deputy’s shotgun and pushed it downward, deflecting the shot, and then jumped up and started to run for it. After refusing the order to stop, he was shot in the back as he fled. A newspaper account of the incident reads, “McVey cannot live. He had evidently anticipated trouble, as he had two revolvers in his bed.” Had he not been asleep when found, it might well have been one or both of the lawmen who were shot.
In August 1889, the Statesman printed a letter from Payette Valley reporting that the section known as Washoe Bottom was “infested with horse thieves” and that local people “should be on the alert to save their horses and bring the thieves to justice.” A horse thief caught a year earlier in Washington County had been sent to the Territorial Penitentiary in Boise for two years. He was lucky that he had not been shot, or sentenced to five years, as was the fate of Ben Shearer, sent to the penitentiary in April 1890 for “Grand Larceny, to-wit: horse stealing.” The Weiser Leader summarized the case by stating, “The good people of this county have no use for horse thieves.” A month later the paper reported that several hundred head of horses had been stolen in the past few weeks, and that “if the thieves are caught with the stock, they should be promptly shot, and thus end their operations.”
In fact, several Idaho horse thieves did meet that fate in the years ahead.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.