It was the grand theft auto of the 19th century: horse theft. But contrary to legend, it wasn’t a hanging offense in Montana Territory – though many wished it were, and some ranchers may indeed have taken the law into their own hands.
In the winter of 1877-78 as many as 50 horses were stolen in the Stevensville area alone, and many folks suspected a man by the name of Pete Matte.
Matte had a long and infamous history in the Territory. In the early 1870s, he was jailed on suspicion of being connected to ‘the Gash boys,” suspects in an Idaho murder. But everyone involved was let go after the Idaho governor failed to send the proper “requisition” paperwork to Montana authorities.
Then around the time of the Big Hole battle, soldiers saw Matte “hovering about the Nez Perce camp in company with A. K. Gird, with the apparent design of stealing Indian horses,” according to one newspaper account. The paper then added, “Gird has since died a violent death.”
In early February 1878, there were reports that Matt was sighted in Stevensville riding a horse everyone knew belonged to a man named Robinson. Moses M. Drouillard, Missoula’s first county sheriff, traveled there “with the avowed purpose of placing Pete Matte where he would do the most good – in the penitentiary,” reported the Weekly Missoulian.
When Drouillard arrived, “he unlimbered his pistol and took a valiant stand in the streets of Stevensville,” but “as soon as Peter, who was in Plummer’s saloon, heard of these proceedings, he passed out the back door, and on to a more secure hiding place in the brush.”
As many as six people witnessed the escape and could have helped the sheriff but didn’t, making it clear that at least some folks were either supportive of the outlaw or perhaps indifferent or intimidated.
In any case, Drouillard gave up the search, telling one person he didn’t have the proper papers to make an arrest anyway.
A year later, horse stealing had become so prevalent that one man had his horse stolen not once, but twice, in a few days time. After the first nag-napping, owner Andrew Whiteside, accompanied by newly elected Missoula Sheriff Daniel Woodman, rode out to recover the steed, which had been found west of Missoula.
On the trip back, they stopped at Frenchtown and stabled the recovered horse temporarily while the men ate supper. “While eating the meal, someone stole the horse out of the barn, and secreted him,” reported the Missoulian, “so Dan and Whiteside came on to Missoula intending to hold the stable man responsible for the horse.” A short time later, though, the horse was found – cached in the brush some distance from the barn.
At times, horse owners did take it upon themselves to chase the thieves. Nep Lynch set out from Missoula in the summer of 1879, following a man who’d stolen one of his horses. The trail led to New Chicago, then on to Philipsburg and Gold Creek, and finally to Cadotte’s Pass, where he caught the man.
As the local paper recounted the story, the thief “blubbered like a baby, said he wanted to see his mother, who was in a dying condition, etc.” Nep wasn’t sympathetic, but he was practical. He “figured it would cost $75 to bring him back to Missoula and prosecute him, so he gave him some fatherly advice, and set him adrift.”
Members of the newly organized Montana Stock Association weren’t feeling so merciful. Ross Deegan, a prominent member, wrote a letter to the Helena Weekly Herald, published January 30, 1879, calling for action regarding cattle and horse theft.
“Will our Legislators grant us such a law … or shall we be compelled against our wishes to become judges and executors of what we deem a proper penalty for the commission of such infringement upon the rights of property? Stockmen are law-abiding citizens and heavy taxpayers, and are undoubtedly entitled to proper protective legislation, and when this fails who can blame them for destroying the vampires that are preying upon their material interests?”
Five years later, vigilantes with the “tacit approval” of stockgrowers took action.
The Livingston Daily Enterprise reported: “On the morning of July 4th (1884), Sam McKenzie was found hanging dead to a tree one mile below Fort Maginnis. He was … a noted horse thief. At last accounts, his body was still swinging in the free mountain breezes bearing a placard ‘Horse Thief.’ He has a brother who is likely to meet the same fate.”
The Mineral Argus newspaper of Maiden, Montana, weighed in with its support of the affair, writing: “Who the parties were that took the law into their own hands on the night of the third, we have no knowledge. It is sufficient to know that they done (sic) their work with neatness and dispatch.
“McKenzie has been suspicioned for some time and certain parties have been awaiting the opportunity to raise him from the ground after the prevailing fashion, and thereby check the career of one of the despicable class that infest the territory in every section.”
By some accounts, as many as 20 thieves died by hanging or other means at the hands of the group of vigilantes called “Stuart’s Stranglers,” a reference to Granville Stuart, whose ranch hands were allegedly a major part of the group. All the deaths occurred in the span of one month, ending on August 1, 1884.
None of “Stuart’s Stranglers” were ever prosecuted, and Granville himself went on to be remembered fondly in history as “Mr. Montana,” a pioneer, cattleman, author and later, U.S. diplomat and head of the Montana Historical Society.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com.