Idaho History

Horses, cattle, whiskey – thieves targeted it all in early frontier days

These ranchers were photographed hanging a horse thief.
These ranchers were photographed hanging a horse thief. Idaho State Historical Society

“One of the peculiar characteristics of the people in all frontier countries is their hatred of horse thieves and their belief that nothing less than capital punishment is adequate to suppress them. This sentiment was no doubt prompted in Idaho by the well-known fact that those who were entrusted with the enforcement of the law – the sheriff and his deputies – were nominated and elected to their positions through the influence of the admirers of horse-flesh.”

These are the words of former Idaho Gov. and U.S. Sen. William J. McConnell in his 1913 “Early History of Idaho,” published by the Caxton Printers of Caldwell.

He continued: “I was once told by a former resident of Arkansas that ‘when a man was killed in this state, the authorities empaneled a jury, not for the purpose of determining whether the accused was guilty of killing the man, but to ascertain whether it had been a fair fight.’ If the latter was shown by the evidence, the verdict of the jury was ‘bully for him.’ Yet these same men would hang a horse thief without compunction.”

In May 1866, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reported: “A Dangerous Neighborhood – Babington’s on Reynold’s Creek is getting a bad reputation. It is a dangerous place for either stock or whisky to be laying around loose…Now just as we were flattering ourselves that the road between here and Owyhee was a safe one, news comes that a packer who built his camp fire almost within sight of Babington’s, had nothing but his camp fires and aparajoes (pack saddles) left the next morning.

“Mr. Aleck Weir, with a train of forty-eight mules, camped in a gulch three-fouths of a mile this side of Babington’s on the evening of May 1st. Half a mile nearer the toll gate a teamster was camped with two teams of horses. Early the 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 stolen last February. It was supposed from the signs that about fifteen rascals – red or white – were very close to the stock when they started on their pilgrimage.

“By eight o’clock in the morning about twenty 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. A friend of ours who came over last trip was among the sufferers. He left a bottle of tangle-foot in the stage while he took breakfast, and while he was eating his bottle was stolen.”

We knew that early Idaho had its share of horse thieves and cattle rustlers, but we hadn’t heard of its whiskey rustlers.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email