Idaho History

Horse thievery ran rampant on the frontier, and retribution often was quick

After they got horses, Idaho’s Indians could ride fast, hunt big game and sometimes raid their neighbors’ horses.
After they got horses, Idaho’s Indians could ride fast, hunt big game and sometimes raid their neighbors’ horses. Idaho State Historical Society

The penalty for stealing a horse varied widely in Idaho over the years, from a few months in jail for the thief to death without a trial at the hands of men who had chased and caught him.

Thanks to the wonderful capabilities of the computer, I am reminded that horse stealing has a long history. Two hundred years ago this month, the last man hanged for stealing a horse in Scotland was sent to the gallows. I also learn from an American historian that our country has never had a law specifying the death penalty for horse stealing – which did not save the necks of the many men lynched for the crime.

An “Indian Raid” was reported in the Statesman on Nov. 20, 1866: “On Sunday morning, just about daylight, five or six Indians on horseback were detected trying to run off about 300 head of cattle, the property of Messrs. Dean & Bailey.”

Idaho’s Indians first got horses around the year 1700, descendants of horses brought to Mexico by the Spanish two centuries earlier. The Native American lifestyle, culture and prosperity improved thereafter. They could now hunt big game on horseback and kill bison without having to chase them on foot and drive them over a cliff chosen for the purpose, after which other Indians would kill the injured animals with spears and arrows. Such sites, usually called “buffalo jumps,” have been found in Owyhee County.

On Sept. 9, 1869, the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman reported that J.D. Agnew, of Boise, had chased and caught a man who had stolen a horse and sold it at Keeney’s Ferry on the Snake River. Agnew recovered the horse, brought the thief back to Boise and put him in jail. Such news appeared in the Statesman regularly thereafter.

In June 1870, a man who had stolen four Montana horses was tracked by their owner to Boise, where he had him arrested. He recovered two of his horses, but the thief admitted that he had sold the other two at Black’s Station on the Overland Road.

In October 1871, the Statesman printed: “Warning to Horse Thieves: 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.”

That horse thieves were sometimes shot for their crimes we learn from items like these: In May 1872, “Pursuit and killing of a horse thief.” A Sheriff Rynearson had killed a man named Al Priest.

In July 1883: T.C. McVey, who had stolen two horses in Wyoming, was tracked to Eagle Rock, Idaho, where lawmen found him sleeping. When ordered to surrender he ran for it and received a fatal gunshot in the back. The paper commented, “He had evidently anticipated trouble as he had two revolvers in his bed.” He never got to use them.

In April 1892, a posse from Market Lake, Idaho, shot and killed two horse thieves in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and in May 1903, two rascals tried to run off 14 horses from a construction camp at Milner, near Twin Falls. One of them drowned in the Snake while trying to escape from the angry crowd chasing him, and the other was caught and nearly lynched, “before cooler heads prevailed.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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