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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Troublemakers of 1880 McCook

Monday, July 30, 2012

In September the editor of the Tribune was still complaining about the cowboys, among others.

"Sept 17, 1883. The cowboy is not an outlaw. On the contrary, he is often superior, both mentally and physically, to the average man. Many of the cowboys in this country come from Texas, having followed the herds, which for a number of years have been driven through this country to the northern ranges. In fact, it is only recently that the cattle business has flourished here, and that there has been a demand for the services the cowboy renders. Until ten years ago this was Indian country, and as long as the Red Men claimed this land, cattle would not have been safe from marauding bands of savages. The herds are comparatively small, seldom numbering a thousand head under one brand, and often only two or three hundred. North of the Platte larger herds are found, but they do not match the vast droves that are held under single management in the south.

"The Texas cowboy was born to his trade and knows none other. In Nebraska, the ranks of the cowboy have been recruited largely from among eastern-bred farm lads, who have been lured to the west by reading dime novels. The Texas cowboy is a gentleman, except when he is drunk, and even then, unless the quality of the whiskey he had imbibed is exceptionally vile. The novice often thinks he must sustain the reputation given members of his craft by the authors of the fiction that induced his choice of vocation. Few of them, in spite of the bad pranks they play when they come to town, are really bad men.

"A favorite sport is riding wildly through the streets and shooting out the lights. McCook has no street lights, but three or four of the merchants have placed kerosene lamps in front of their places of business. These are invariably demolished whenever the cowboys come to town in sufficient numbers to believe they can take care of themselves and their fellows if the owners of the lamps object. They will also shoot out the lights in stores and even in residences -- firing through the windows. They seldom hurt anyone, their principal object being to terrorize their victims. On the way home, after a wild night in town, they sometimes amuse themselves by dragging dead animals into country churches and school houses. If they know of a dugout tenanted by some homesteader, they will ride over its roof -- often with disastrous results -- not only to the house, but to themselves and their ponies, as the roof of dugouts are not designed for such purposes, and the ponies legs sometimes go through the roof. They may play they are Indians and surround some isolated dwelling, especially if it is occupied by someone whom they have a grudge -- letting forth wild whoops and yells, which are occasionally answered from the house with gun-fire.

"Sometimes their pranks end tragically. On the 14th day of December, 1881, Clinton Dill shot and killed Sam Esman at Culbertson. The story goes that the day before Thanksgiving a number of cowboys from the Haigler ranch went down to Culbertson to enjoy the holiday season. Dill was engaged in the drug business (he had a drug store) at Culbertson, which was also an unlicensed saloon. Esman, becoming enthused, fired his revolver through the ceiling of the room in which he and his companions were drinking. The bullet lodged in a bed, in which Dill's wife lay sick, in the upper story of the drug store. The trouble seems to have been quelled for a time. The cowboys became sober and returned to their work. The day before Christmas the cowboys from the Haigler ranch again went to Culbertson. Esman supposed the trouble had been settled. Dill resented his presence in his place of business, and, it is said, shot Esman dead, without warning.

"For a time Dill was in danger of being the victim of mob violence, but was taken in charge by the sheriff and removed from the scene of his crime. The lawyers, who were employed to defend Dill against the charge of homicide lodged against him, applied for and were granted a change of venue to Red Willow County. He was tried before Judge Gaslin and a jury in Indianola. On May 5, 1882, he was found guilty of murder in the 2nd degree and was sentenced to imprisonment in the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, for life. In 1885, while still incarcerated in the Penitentiary, he committed suicide."

Drunken cowboys, however, were not the only troublemakers in Southwestern Nebraska in the 1880s.

February 26, 1885:

"A number of drunken and hilarious Swedes and Germans created an unusual amount of noise on our streets Friday afternoon. The disturbance was fully sufficient to warrant a $10 fine, or 48 hours in the cooler, but neither was imposed upon them.

"Dynamiters are reported to have been at work in Indianola last week. The Major and a number of his congregation, becoming muchly imbibed of 'good for the soul,' attempted to blow up the Major's brown-stone front, by touching a match to one pound of gun powder. One fellow was painfully injured.

"Matt Zimmerman, the murderer of Sheriff Jack Wood, of Hitchcock County, in 1883, at Minden, Nebr., has been granted a new trial. Zimmerman was to have been hanged this month, but the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of error -- the main point being that Wood had no "jurisdiction without a warrant" in Kearney County. This puts Zimmerman's case where it cannot be disposed of under four more years.

"We learn from an Oberlin account that the cowboys in that town attempted to "round up" the Chicago Comedy Company Show last Monday night, during their performance, but were prevented from doing so by the citizens joining in and "rounding up" the cowboys instead. One cowboy was thrown down the stairs and his skull was cracked. It is high time such nonsense was stopped, and more severe punishments be meted out for these 'pranks'."

As in 2012, prairie fires were a real problem in 1882.

"A serious quarrel among the settlers living 5 miles west of town terminated in a fight that resulted in several bruised and battered bodies. It seems one of the homesteaders, while burning a fire guard to protect his property, let the fire get beyond his control. The flames swept over his neighbors's lands and threatened to destroy property of some value. When the man, who feared he was about to be burned out, called on the neighbor who had started the fire, for assistance. The latter, being busy saving his own property, refused to respond.

"The victim thereupon proceeded to inflict corporal punishment on the man who set the fire. The corporal punishment was sufficient, to the extent that made the services of a physician necessary. The controversy has not yet reached the courts, but there seems to be every prospect that it will do so before it is disposed of. The fire hazard is so great and the consequences of a prairie fire so serious that short shift is made of a man who deliberately starts a fire and does not watch it."

-- From Ed Waites' clipping of the McCook Tribune

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By