Maybe you remember how the subplot goes in Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian. The Virginian joins in the efforts of the big cattlemen on the range to clean out the rustler element, through lynching. This brings him personal pain when he discovers that a friend named Steve is one of the rustlers, but justice-that is, vigilante justice-takes precedence. Wister spends a fair bit of print in the novel explaining the necessity of vigilante action on the open range, where formal systems of justice proved inadequate to protect property.
Some say this story is based on the Johnson County War of Wyoming in 1892, but I think in fact it is more generalized than that. There were other places on the western range where vigilantes took the field against parties alleged to be rustlers. In a previous column I recounted how the historian John W. Davis has ferreted out the facts in regard to the Johnson County War and concluded that the big cattlemen and their hired guns invaded the county not to clean out rustlers but rather to kill off competitors for resources-small ranchers horning in on the open range.
I’m starting to get suspicious about all these stockman-vigilantes of the west who posed as respectable elements cracking down on crime. It’s odd that for so long such vigilantes have enjoyed the favor of writers like Wister, along with a lot of western historians. The same commentators would be agitated on the subject of lynchings in the South, while taking a sanguine stance toward lynch law on the western range.
Puzzling on this, I decided to trace the stream of lynch law to its headwaters, to the Musselshell country of Montana, the domain of the founding father of the range cattle industry in the Treasure State, Granville Stuart. He tells his own story in a memoir entitled Forty Years on the Frontier.
Stuart led a party of cattleman vigilantes known as Stuart’s Stranglers. In 1884 they set out to rid the country around the mouth of the Musselshell of rustlers by burning them out and stringing them up. They gave the same murderous treatment to Indians found off reservation and, presumably, killing cattle. “The men that were taken were members of an organized band of thieves that for more than two years had evaded the law and robbed the range at will,” Stuart writes.
He defends lynch law in terms rather similar to those employed by the Virginian. “In the broad open country of the range a man’s conscience is apt to become elastic,” Stuart explains. “A strong stand against anything approaching cattle stealing must be taken if the industry was to thrive.”
Wait a minute, did you notice that phrasing? Not just outright rustling, but “anything approaching cattle stealing” was to be considered grounds for killing a suspect.
Stuart goes on to describe how he let his homesteading neighbors milk his range cows, and then helped them out by buying the butter they made from his own cream. Cattlemen such as he had no quarrels with homesteaders, or for that matter sheepherders, Stuart insists. I think he protests too much. My sense is that the vigilantes of the range commonly used “rustling” as an excuse for violence against anyone who threatened their hold on the public domain.
The remaining question is, why have we so long condoned this historic violence on the prairies? The explanation lies in our long love affair with the frontier. Lynch law equates itself with frontier justice, and the ways of the frontier must be good ways. Frontier justice was democracy in the raw. In Johnson County and, I think, in the Musselshell, just a little bit too raw.