Plains Folk

The Legend of Three Toes


The eradication of wild buffalo from the Great Plains was symbolic of something larger: the killing off of most all large wild animals that happened with settlement of the prairies by farmers and ranchers. The large herbivores were killed off for eating; the large predators were killed off because they were incompatible with livestock husbandry.

Now today, with the emptying out of the rural landscape, and the resurgence of deer populations, we observe the gradual return of predators to the plains. People on the plains love to tell mountain lion stories. Gray wolves, too, are beginning to appear again in coffee-klatch story sessions. It seems to me only a matter of time before grizzlies emerge from their mountain fastnesses to reoccupy their old range on the plains. That will be interesting.

Not yet forgotten are legendary encounters with outlaw wolves on the plains a century ago. Families pass these stories down and record them in local histories. The greatest of all the outlaw wolves was Old Three Toes.

Now, that name is significant to the legend. It seems that Three Toes was exceedingly wary, and thus became Old Three Toes, because as a youngster he had lost a toe in a trap. Thus he had suffered contact with humankind, and was embittered by it. His depredations appear in legend not as mere grocery shopping by an ordinary predator but as the vendetta of a vengeful renegade. This is a common element also in legends of Indian-white relations, by the way-the malicious renegade who moves between two worlds.

The best telling of the legend of Old Three Toes appears in the shepherd memoir, Sheep, by Archer B. Gilfillan. Gilfillan was a college graduate who chose the profession of sheepherding from the 1910s to the 1930s. Three Toes depredated livestock in western South Dakota from 1913 to 1925. Popular estimates of the value of stock killed ran to $50,000. Three Toes was reported to have killed twenty cattle in one night and sixty-five sheep in two nights.

According to Gilfillan, Three Toes eluded all pursuers for more than a decade. One fellow ran the wolf across fresh snow for 95 miles, changing horses five times, but was unable to close on him. Another pair of hunters chased the wolf forty miles from the Cave Hills to the Short Pine Hills, changing horses as they went, only to have the wolf double back on them to their own ranch in the Cave Hills! When tracked by dogs, Three Toes leaped across chasms and down embankments.

Then in 1925 Clyde F. Briggs, a predator control specialist imported from New Mexico, arrived in Harding County on a mission to take down Three Toes. He set his traps patiently along every likely line of travel, flanking every wolf set with extra traps to take out coyotes and leave the wolf set intact. This guy Briggs was resolute. If they ever make a movie out of this story, I think Briggs should be played by Tommy Lee Jones.

On July 23, 1925, Briggs found Three Toes in one of his traps. He tried to bring in the old beast, 6 feet long and only 75 or eighty pounds, alive, but Three Toes died in transport.

Briggs, a salaried state employee, refused any monetary reward for the capture of Three Toes, but local ranchers took up a collection and presented him with a watch.

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