Dakota Datebook

Burlington Horse Thieves

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Horse thieves and hangings…Dakota Territory certainly could be a rough place at times.

In the summer of 1883, two mysterious men arrived in the upper Mouse River valley, settling west of Burlington on the Des Lacs River. Claiming to be railroad contractors, John Bates and Stanley Ravenwood were quickly welcomed into the growing community; even joining the Burlington Regulators, a well-armed citizen protection unit formed to watch for horse thieves, claim jumpers and desperados. But one local Burlington man, Jim Johnson, remained wary of the newcomers. There were just too many inconsistencies. He suspected they weren’t railroad contractors, but horse thieves. According to Johnson, several horses in the community went missing following Bates and Ravenwood’s arrival. While the Regulators, including Ravenwood and Bates, would scour the countryside looking for the missing animals, they were rarely found. However, once in a while a reward was offered and it was invariably Bates or Ravenwood who located the missing horse. On another occasion, the two men racked up a large bill with Mr. Benson, a local distiller. After Benson asked for payment, a few of his horses went missing. The very next day, the supposed railroad contractors paid off their debt in cash. Although the distiller suspected nothing, Jim Johnson was certain the funds came from the sale of Benson’s own missing horses.

His suspicions were justified. It was eventually discovered that Bates and Ravenwood were operating a trading post, a nineteenth century black-market dealership of stolen horses, near present-day Tasker.

Their thriving business came to an abrupt end on this date in 1884 as several members of “Stuart’s Stranglers” approached Burlington. A vigilante group from Montana, Stuart’s Stranglers actively hunted down rustlers and subsequently dealt out their version of “frontier justice.” When Ravenwood attempted to sell the men of Stuart’s Stranglers stolen horses from Montana, he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. They captured Bates shortly after. Handcuffed, both men were taken to the vigilantes’ camp while the stolen horses were rounded up. Three days later, Stuart’s Stranglers moved out of the area, taking the horses and two prisoners with them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the residents of Burlington never saw or heard from the two men again.

Just what happened to John Bates and Stanley Ravenwood no one knows for sure, but judging from the reputation of the Montana vigilante group, it’s a pretty good bet the horse thieves met their fate at the end of a rope.

Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall

Burdick, Usher. “The Honorable James Johnson.” In Reflections from a Distant Mirror: Minot State University and Its Regions, ed. Dr. Eric Clausen Teresa M. Fox: Midcontinent Institute Publication 1994.

Johnson, James, “Burlington, ND, Thirties and Forties” http://jjburlington.ms11.net/HorseThieves.html.

Timbrook, Mark. The Last Hurrah: An Account of the Life in the Mouse River Valley, Bone Town, Little Chicago, and the Magic City. Minot: Niess Impressions, 2008.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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