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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

1882 cowboys, good and bad

Monday, September 26, 2011

Nebraska cowboy, 1880s style.
In 1882 working cowboys were a common sight in McCook. A McCook Tribune writer told about some of these cowboys.

A Cowboy has qualities that many men, who have the veneer of civilization, do not possess. He is courageous, else he could not follow his hazardous vocation. He is courteous to women. He will make any sacrifice, undergo any discomfort, suffer any privation to help another in distress, be that other man friend or stranger. This when he is sober.

Last night, he wrote, was one of terror to some of the women who have recently come to this frontier settlement, and women here are few in number. A number of cowboys came off the range yesterday to indulge too freely in the beverage popularly known as "budge" or "mountain dew." When they became boisterous in the saloon, they were turned out onto the street. They spent the dark hours riding up and down the town's thoroughfare on their ponies, firing their six-shooters, shouting profanity and yelling at the tops of their voices. McCook does not have a village government---not one constable or a policeman---no officer of the law of any sort, to curtail the roistering and rioting that went on and on---until the effect of the whiskey wore off.

It is well for the citizen, especially one not handy with fire arms, to be discreet when the cowboys come to town. The cowboy is proud of his marksmanship, and when intoxicated does not care greatly as to what he aims. They recently amused themselves by popping off the heads of chickens, shooting stray dogs and cats, and lassoing unwary men. In another settlement the post office equipment was completely demolished by a fusillade of bullets from a band of drunken cowmen. The few street lights McCook merchants have set in front of their places of business are extinguished by the cowboys nearly every time they visit McCook. They will even shoot into stores and fire at a light in a dwelling house window.

The cowboys will fight among themselves. They will fight those who cross their paths, but except when drunk they are not quarrelsome. None is accused of being guilty of anything that may be considered dishonorable. The taking of human life in a drunken brawl or in self- defense is not considered a serious offense. But there is one thing among the cowboys and all frontier people that cannot be tolerated---being a thief, and a horse thief is worst of all. No man even suspected of having stolen a horse would ever be permitted to continue in the employ on a cattleman's ranch.

J.T. Wray, an early settler to this area, had a herd of 35 horses stolen by a band of rogue cowboys in October 1882. He got word that they had been seen heading east. Jack Wood, the Sheriff of Hitchcock County left immediately to pursue the horse thieves. He caught up with them at Minden. He secured the help of the Kearney County Deputy Sheriff, and the two confronted the two thieves at the Prairie Home Hotel, just as they were about to partake of their evening meal.

There were some 20 diners in the eating house at the time, including several women and the two wanted men, Mathias Simmerman and Dick Belmont. Supper was being served by the landlord to his patrons at one long table. Sheriff Wood approached the thieves and put his hand on Simmerman's shoulder, telling him that he was under arrest. Both of the outlaws sprang to their feet and began firing their revolvers. Sheriff Wood, the Kearney County Deputy Sheriff, and a Minden mail carrier (an innocent bystander) were either killed immediately or died within a few hours. The two horse thieves, now murderers, shot out the dining room lamps, and in the dark made their escape to the southwest into Kansas.

The next morning an impromptu group of searchers left in pursuit of the murderers. It was not a posse, since there were no law men in the group, but the pursuing party was made up of farmers and ranchers who had lost horses. The little group set out to track down the horse thieves. After three days most of the searchers gave up the chase and went home. Four young men---the oldest was Charlie Fouts, 21 years old---however, continued the chase for the next seven days, finally tracking down the outlaws to a sod house in SW Kansas, some 300 miles from where they had started.

The boys hid themselves outside the sod house during the night. In the morning they were waiting when Dick Belmont emerged from the soddy. Fouts called for Belmont to surrender. Instead, the outlaw tried to draw his revolver, but it miss-fired twice. Thereupon, the four boys opened fire, and Fout's third shot hit the murderer in the left breast, killing him instantly. Simmerman, hearing the shooting, came out and gave himself up without resistance.

The place where the capture was made was in the extreme southwestern corner of Kansas, seven miles from the Colorado line, and about the same from Indian Territory (OK).

The boys then rode north, with their prisoner and Belmont's body, to the railroad station at Lakin, Kansas, where they telegraphed the governor of Nebraska as follows:

"Dick Belmont is shot and killed and

Mat Simmerman is under arrest. Send

By telegram passes for three and a corpse.

I cannot hold corpse long."

Transportation passes for Belmont's body, the prisoner, Simmerman, Charlie Fouts, and 19 year old, Frank Miller, reached them promptly and in due time they reached Lincoln, where Simmerman was lodged in the penitentiary for safekeeping.

Simmerman was tried for his crime in Kearney County. He was found guilty of murder in the 1st degree, but because of an error in the proceedings, his conviction was reversed. He was tried again the next year for the same crime, and again was sentenced to be hanged. This time Simmerman's lawyer, L.C. Burr, appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the US. While this case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Lawyer Burr managed to arrange for Simmerman to go free on bail. As soon as Simmerman was outside the jail he absconded, never to be seen again in this part of the country. Simmerman's attorney, L.C. Burr, a lawyer of considerable stature, and reputed to be a man of wealth in Lancaster County was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Nebraska, and soon after left the state. Sheriff Jack Wood's murder, and the other two men was never avenged.

-- Source: H.P. Waite unpublished manuscript

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By