Early Day Gilt Edge -- horse thieves and vigilantes

Lewistown News Argus December 23, 1973

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is two excerpts taken from the "The Montana Horseman", written by the late Sam Sherman and copyrighted this year by his brother, Thomas R. Sherman, of Villa Park, Ill. The first excerpt tells about the early days and people of Gilt Edge and the surrounding area and the second about gathering range horses east from the Judith River in 1920. Thomas R. Sherman describes his brother, Samuel Tekumseh Sherman, as "a rugged type frontiersman that we now see exemplified on the movie and television screen". Sam Sherman died Sept. 30, 1970) 

Permission was given for putting this on the Internet by a nephew Fred Sherman. Bd By SAM SHERMAN

    I was born Jan. 10, 1893 in a log cabin in a little settlement called Sun River Crossing which is a few miles west of Great Falls. My father had several teams of horses and hauled material for the Great Northern Railway, and also hauled freight from Great Falls to Fort Shaw where an Indian school was being built.

    In the summer of 1893, the family of my parents and five children moved to the newly opened gold mining town of Gilt Edge, about 14 miles east of Lewistown on the east slope of the Judith Mountains.

    A small stamp mill had built there and Father hauled ore from the mine to the mill. Father built a log cabin with a dirt floor and dirt roof; a log barn with two corals, one for hay and one to gather horses in.

    About the time Gilt Edge was getting started, a big gold strike was made at the head of the Spotted Horse Canyon, about six miles north of Gilt Edge. Miners and prospectors came in by the dozen and the country started to settle up. There were some good cattle ranches to the north, south and east of Gilt Edge at that time.

    Gilt Edge grew fast and by 1900 there were two livery barns, a blacksmith shop with two blacksmiths, four stores and 13 saloons.

    Our school was a converted dance hall with the first four grades in the back of the hall and the 5, 6, 7, 8 grades at the front. There were miners' kids, ranchers' kids and Indian kids. We did not have desks, but benches to sit on with tables between two rows. Benches and tables were made by the local carpenter. The kids learned as fast as now in the modern expensive schools.

    In 1901 a new school house with four classrooms was constructed.

    At that time there was no law in Gilt Edge, the closest marshal being at Lewistown, 14 miles away across the mountain. In the fall of 1896, three men drove some cattle into father's corral, butchered one of them and dressed it out. Father did not go out as there were some pretty bad men in the country. The men left the hide and the off-fall of the beef and put a quarter of it on the roof of our low log house. It was after dark when they finished and they carried their beef away on a pack horse. Father did not take the quarter of beef from the roof. He went out and looked at the hide and saw that the animal had belonged to Owen Dunn who had a ranch about a mile south of Gilt Edge. Mr. Dunn had a small herd of cows which he milked and sold milk and butter to the miners and mill workers.

    Father told him of the beef being butchered. That night the rustlers came back and took the quarter of beef. Mr. Dunn went to Lewistown and had the three men arrested. They had been batching in a prospector's cabin in the mountain west of Gilt Edge. The three men were put in jail in Lewistown and a date set for their trial. Father was the only witness.

    One night some men stole all of father's horses. Father had some mares that he worked and some of them had colts. Father would put the colts in the corral in the evening and turn the mares out to graze as they wouldn't go far.

    The men did not take the colts. When the men had driven the horses about 25 miles, they turned the mares loose to come home to the colts.

    Father got a man to go with him and went to look for his horses. The second day out, they met a mare and gelding coming back. Father and his friend went on to Custer Junction on the Yellowstone River where there was a stage station and trading post. While they were in the post getting something to eat some men held them up and took their guns. Then one of the men told father where his horses were so he could take them home, all but the saddle horses.

    When father and his friend got home, the three men who had butchered the beef had been turned loose as there was no witness to testify against them. About 10 days later, the stage driver from Custer brought father's saddle horses and guns. Said a stranger had paid him to return the horses and guns to their owners.

    No one knew these men but most people thought they were of the Cassidy and Curry gang which had a camp about a hundred miles north of Gilt Edge, near the town of Landusky. Kid Curry had killed Pike Landusky, the man that started the town and had a store and saloon there. Christmas, 1894, the Cassidy and Curry gang had split up and were hiding out in Montana, Utah, Wyoming and would steal horses and sell them in Canada where they would bring a big price.
Ranches near Gilt Edge were the Spud Stevens ranch northeast, the D.H.S. about 12 miles east, and the Fergus Ranch, 20 miles northeast.

    One day a man was mowing hay in his meadow when something broke on his mower. He tied his team to a tree and went home for repair parts. When he came back his team had been stolen. He never saw his horses again. This ranch later was the Tom Peppard ranch.

    There was a livery stable next to the school hall run by a man named Rice Dougherty. A freighter by the name of Anderson kept his horses there. The school kids liked him.

    One morning, he went to feed his horses and five of them were gone. G. P. Burnett, a cattle man, found them the next day about ten miles east of Gilt Edge on the old D.H.S. ranch which Mr. Burnett had acquired. The five horses had been shot and their brands cut out. Mr. Anderson had bought the horses from some of the local horse thieves, and the owners were probably getting close to theirhorses. Nothing was ever done about it.

    There was an old prospector friend of father's working in his mine tunnel when someone shot him in the back with a shotgun. Another prospector living in a nearby cabin was suspected and arrested but nothing could be proved.

    There was so much horse and cattle rustling that the stock men organized a vigilante committee. They hanged a man named Ford about six miles east of Gilt Edge on a limb of a cottonwood tree.   A little creek there the people named` Ford Creek which name it still has.

    Granville Stewart of the D.H.S. ranch was one of the vigilante committee leaders. The vigilantes went east to the Musselshell river and hung some men about six miles above the mouth of the river. There were some cabins there where some men stayed who were supposed to be wood cutters for the steam boats that freighted up the river from St. Louis. The men probably did more horse stealing than wood cutting.

    When vigilantes crawled up on them, there was a bunch of stolen horses in a corral back of the cabin. The vigilantes took the wood cutters by surprise and hanged four men, one of whom they tied a grindstone around his neck and threw him in the river.

    Then the vigilantes went down on the south side of the Missouri river to Round Butte where a bunch of horse thieves were camped in a log cabin. These men saw the vigilantes coming and opened fire on them  from the cabin. They held the vigilantes off until dark when the vigilantes set the cabin afire and circled the cabin. When the men came out, the vigilantes killed them. According to reports brought back to Gilt Edge, they killed seven men there.

    When I went to the Musselshell river in 1912, the ropes that two men were hanged with were still knotted around a cottonwood limb. The ropes were pretty well preserved. Kenny Thomas, a rancher, later cut the ropes down and I saw them at his house.

    There was a character named Tex Alfred who had come up the trail from Texas three times with herds of longhorns. He had started a saloon on the north side of the Missouri River above Rocky Point. I knew him well though I never was at his place of business.

    One day a stock inspector rode up to his cabin. Tex had butchered a beef a short time before. He kept a couple of saddle horses in a little pasture and used to watch out for cattle for some of the north side cattlemen, and they allowed him a beef when he needed it.

    Tex asked the inspector to get down, put his horse in the pasture and stay the night. Tex cooked him steak and potatoes and coffee for supper and steak and hot cakes for breakfast. The inspector got his horse from the pasture next day and was ready to go when he asked Tex to show him the hide of the beef.

    Tex took the inspector down to the river to a deep spot and said, "The hide is down in there. Kin you dive?"

    A man named Joe Dingell and his brother had a cattle and sheep ranch about 30 miles southeast of Gilt Edge. They were hard working German people and had big families. Joe used to haul his wool and other freight past our house and over the mountain to Lewistown and also hauled to the stores and mines at Gilt Edge.

    Once Joe was coming over the mountain from Lewistown with two wagon loads of dynamite and eight horses. The roads were icy in the winter and in places only wide enough for the wagon. Joe locked the four wheels of the trail wagon and the rear wheels of the lead wagon with chains.

About three-fourths of the way down, he crossed a small bridge over a coulee and the trail wagon went over the bridge and upset. Lucky the dynamite was frozen solid.

    Joe got the outfit stopped, unhitched his four horses and came down to our ranch. He told father, he "kick-up wagon wagon on grade". Father said next morning he would help straighten the outfit up, so had Joe stay all night and feed his horses. Next morning after breakfast, father took a team and wagon and with Joe's horses went up there. There were frozen dynamite boxes and dynamite scattered for yards down the mountain. What an explosion there would have been had the dynamite been dry. They righted the wagon, gathered up the dynamite and were home in time for dinner. Joe ate with us and went on his way.

    A cowboy who came up from Texas with a trail herd was called "Panhandle Bob". He was working for the Spud Stephens horse and cattle outfit, a ranch north and east of Gilt Edge. He was known as a wolfer and trapper. He set traps for wolves in their dens in the fall and hunted their dens in the spring when their pups were being born. Bob was camped at the Red Barn ranch a few miles south of Roy. One day he saw a grizzly bear at the head of a creek that runs past the Red Barn ranch. The bear was in some timber eating berries. Bob tied his horse to a tree and slipped up close as he could to get a good shot. He crawled up a wind blown tree with his 44-40 saddle Winchester rifle and shot the bear.

    When Bob fired, the bear came at him standing on his hind legs. Bob fired five shots at the bear's heart until his saddle rifle was empty. The bear clawed him on the left arm from the shoulder down, then came over the log. Bob pulled his 45 colt pistol and stuck it in the bear's mouth and fired one shot which broke the bear's jaw. The bear dragged Bob over the log and stood over him.

    Bob crawled out from under the bear and got to his horse. He rode to Gilt Edge where a red light woman bandaged and took care of him, since there were no doctors or nurses in Gilt Edge at the time.

    When Bob told the people what happened, no one would believe him. They thought he had a fight with some Indians. The creek where this happened was named Bear Creek after Bob's story.

    One day Bob came to Gilt Edge, put his horse in the livery stable and went to one of the saloons which was run by Patsy Dwyer. Bob gave him his 45 pistol which Dwyer put behind the bar.

    Bob got fairly drunk and when he decided to go back to his camp he asked Dwyer for his pistol. Dwyer refused to give it to him so Bob went back to the livery stable and got his saddle rifle. He came back to the saloon holding the rifle, barrel down. Then Dwyer shot him with his own pistol.

    There was a small wooden jail on the next street. The body of Bob was laid out in the jail until a grave could be dug in the cemetery north of town. So they put the dead man in jail and let the man who killed him go free. Later Dwyer killed a man in Butte.

    About this time, a young women came to Gilt Edge and worked at a hotel. Soon she met and married a cowboy named Barney Hedican who was foreman at the Fergus horse ranch. The Hedican's had a two-story house, so Mrs. Hedican kept roomers and boarders there.

    One day a cowboy rode into Gilt Edge, got a haircut and shave at Jack Williams barber shop and inquired where he could find Barney Hedican. Williams told him where Mrs. Hedican lived. The cowboy went there and knocked on the door. When Mrs. Hedican came to the door, the cowboy shot her twice and killed her. A roomer upstairs heard the shooting and started down the stairs. When he got to the kitchen, the cowboy shot him too, then turned the gun on himself. The roomer recovered. No one knew who the cowboy was.

    Later Barney Hedican was arrested and convicted of stealing horses in Fergus County. Many thought he was in on the stealing of Anderson's horses.

    A tall dark man with a black mustache came to Gilt Edge as marshall of the territory. His name was Ed Martin. Crime quieted down, the mines worked and the country prospered. Father died in 1907 and my oldest brother took over the ranch. I lived at home and went to school in the new school house.

    In 1914, I got married. My wife owned a ranch and one hundred head of horses on the north
Musselshell river. Each spring we'd gather the horses in the country. There were about ten horse owners. The horses ranged in a country about 50 miles square. Every thing went along good. Then the first world war started and most of our young riders went to war. I did not go as I had a family.

    In 1919, there was no snow in the winter and very little rain all summer. Little grass or grain was
raised to feed the livestock. Poor hay sold for $ 50 per ton and little was available. About half of the ranchers' horses and cattle starved or froze to death in the 1919-1920 winter. Many ranchers went broke and most of the homesteaders moved away.

    We lived about one hundred miles east of Lewistown. West of Lewistown was the Judith Basin wheat country. The wheat farmers bought all the horses they could get and turned them loose in the breaks of the Musselshell and Missouri rivers -- about 4000 head. Nearly all the land there was government owned before the Taylor Grange law was enacted.

    In the Spring of 1920, a representative of the farmers contacted John Mathewson who had a horse camp on "Crooked Creek", about 30 miles from the river and 75 miles to the closest town.    The representative of the farmers made a deal with John Mathewson to hold what horses of theirs we gathered and he pay us $5 per head.

    We got together some cowboys, or horse runners as we called them. There was John Mathewson, Jake Atherton, Joe Y. Doney, an Indian, Harry Dundom, Tom and John Link, Sam Farrell, Roy Hanson, Lynn Phillips and myself. We had the best horse runners in Montana. We  went west to the Judith River where it empties into the Missouri River, about 100 miles west, and worked east on the south side of the Missouri River. Every couple of days, Joe Y. would hunt for dear or antelope meat.

    We were generally well supplied. Everything worked fine. We were seven or eight days gathering the west country. We worked as fast as we could as John had given a date when we would be at the
horse camp, June 15. We gathered about 1,500 horses. The last day, it stated to rain.

    When we got to the horse camp about a dozen farmers were there waiting for us. None had brought grub. We were out and could not get out to get supplies. There were corrals at the horse camp to hold the horses at night but we had to herd them in the day time.

    The horse runners did not have any slickers (rain coats) because they could not get on a horse wearing a slicker. So the boys would take turns herding the horses and go to the cabin and change clothes and hang their wet ones on wires across the room. Some of the boys had no change of clothes with them. Soon no one was wearing his own clothes and there some pretty bad misfits.

    Our cook had to go home and I was elected cook. It wasn't much of a job as there was little to cook and it was 75 miles to a store, all heavy gumbo, every creek and coulee swimming. We had a little tea and flour.

    Joe Y. could not hunt so we decided to butcher a yearling colt. Lynn Phillips and the rest of the boys butchered and hung the meat on the cross pole over the gate. Next morning we had steak, hot cakes and tea. That was the first horse meat I know of being eaten in Montana. Next day, the rain had stopped, and the sun was out bright and warm.

    A homesteader stopped by the camp and saw the meat hanging. He wanted to know where we had got the beef. I was at camp making dinner alone. I told the homesteader that we had butchered a U bar yearling because we were out of grub. He traded me some beans and potatoes for some of the meat and I gave him a big piece. Lynn Phillips went to get the beans and potatoes and some coffee and everything was fine until someone told the homesteader that the meat was horse meat. He said he would as soon eat a piece of a man. I stayed away from the homesteader after that.

    We gave the farmers what horses we had gathered and finished our job. The bottom started to fall out of the horse business and the unbroken range horse price dropped where they were not worth gathering to brand. There was little market in the southern cotton fields, and I shipped a few loads of horses to St. Louis, Kansas City and to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

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