Wessington Hills

Yankton Sioux Elders told a story of a group of these Potawatomi (Potawanami) and Miami, who made their way west to find new land.  The Potawatomi tried to claim the hills and great spring of the hills for their own, but the Yankton were a proud warrior people and would not allow their territory to be taken without a fight.  Near the sight of the Big Spring, a great and terrible battle ensued.  The Potawatomi were led by a war chief with a legendary name, Little Turtle.  Chief Little Turtle may have wielded the pistols and sword personally gifted to his family by George Washington into the battle.  But the Yanktons were great warriors, fighting on their own land, and in the end, the Potawatomi were defeated.  Little Turtle died bravely and was honored by the Yankton.  They buried him on the highest nearby point overlooking the land Little Turtle had hoped would be a new promised land for his people.  The Yankton marked his grave with two stone turtle mosaics on the ground.  

On this episode, we tell the story of a place where pioneers tell stories about terrible killings and forgotten lore.  Where horse thieves and night riders ruled cast a shadow over the entire eastern half of Dakota Territory and legendary Deadwood lawmen fear to tread.  A place called the Wessington Hills.  

This episode features an interview with Dr. Armik Mirzayan Associate Professor of

Modern Languages and Linguistics at the University of South Dakota.  An expert on American Indian languages.

I really hope you enjoy this episode.  If you want to do your own research or dig deeper into the sources used in this episode, the full works cited for each episode are available to Patreon supporters.  Your donations help me access more books, research databases, and other resources that I couldn't access otherwise, and that helps keep the show going.   Donations are accepted through Venmo and Patreon.

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Before we get started a little business this month, I just wanted to say that if you are looking for something to laugh about you Should Check out my friend Dan Bublitz Jr’s Podcast the Art of Bombing. Traveling comedians share the stories about their most embarrassing onstage moments and what they learned from them. It's a fascinating and hilarious look behind the microphone of working comedians. That’s The Art Of Bombing available on all major podcast platforms. I also want to give a big shout out to Peter Pischke and his podcast The Happy Warrior Podcast. If you like a political podcast you should check out his show, that’s the Happy Warrior Podcast available on all major podcast platforms. And a Special thanks to John E and Leah S for your donations to the Sioux Empire Podcast. Your donations help me access more books, research databases and other resources that I couldn’t access otherwise and that helps keep the show going. Donations are accepted through Venmo and Patreon. More details about how you can help at the end of the show. Thank you! *** Body So this episode started as a pretty straight forward chronological history of the Wessington Hills area of South Dakota. Why the Wessington Hills? Well part nepotism and host discretion. I grew up in Wessington South Dakota and exploring the history of my home town and region is part of what inspired me to become such a history nerd. So in a way, this podcast would not exist without the stories and legends of the Wessington Hills. So in a way, you could think of this as a deep dive meta prequel to the podcast itself. Second reason is this is an area of South Dakota that is little known other than by the people who still live there and yet has a rich and fascinating history to explore that many who live there today may not even be aware of. My hope is this episode is the epitome of the show’s new tagline “Stories about the Sioux Empire, you’ve never heard in the Sioux Empire.” So if I had to pick a relatively obscure piece of Eastern South Dakota History to start with, my home region seemed like a logical place to start. So like I said, this started as a straightforward chronology like the last two episodes but then I hit a little road bump. This Episode more than the others is going to go into pre settlement events where often oral history and very limited scholarly research are all we have to go on for sources. So you’ll notice as we go that at a number of points our timeline may splinter into different versions of the same story. For example, just figuring out how this region got the name Wessington has turned out to be a complex enough story it could almost make its own episode. Before we let things get too complicated and add too many moving parts and narratives, let's start with something basic, lets define the area of “the Wessington Hills” and the geology of the area. I know geology isn’t exciting for everyone but it’s very important to understand why these hills are so important to natives, settlers, and anyone in a preindustrial society trying to survive in the area and why the area would go on to be such a strong point for outlaws. According to google the Wessington Hills is a mountain in South Dakota and has an elevation of 1785 feet. To be more precise the Wessington Hills are a moraine between the James and Missouri River created around 20 thousand years ago. Moraines consist of loose sediment and rock debris deposited by glacier ice, known as till. They may also contain slope, fluvial, lake and marine sediments if such material is present at the glacier margin, where it may be incorporated into glacial ice during a glacier advance, or deformed by glacier movement. The eastern part of this particular moraine is flat rich land which once laid at the bottom of glacial Lake Dakota. The Wessington Hills are a recessional moraine which means that while the range is large, it doesn’t mark the furthest extent of the glacier that once covered all of East River South Dakota but is more like a large echo or aftershock that came after the glaciers first major series of melt off and break off began. We make a big deal in South Dakota about East River and West River geographically and culturally but the Wessington Hills Moraine is in fact the true geological boundary marker. The hills not only set area apart from other, more prairie-locked communities. Longtime Wessington Springs newspaper publisher and local historian Duke Wenzel once said: “The hills also act as a perfect dividing line between tall and short grass prairie, farming and ranch country, and eastern and western South Dakota.” Thousands of years of rain would erode the morain and produce numerous draws across the range. A draw is a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain a seasonal stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. In a draw the ground always slopes downward from a draw in only one direction, and upward in the other three. The slope on a draw is generally quite sharp, with a clearly established fall line and characterized by a generally steep vertical drop over a short horizontal distance. This combined with random large boulders and washouts can make this terrain hard to move on by foot and can be very challenging to horses, pickups, ATV’s, and about every other contraption you could imagine chasing cattle or people on through these hills. Especially if the person being pursued knows a safe path and the pursuer does not. Stick a pin in that, it comes up later. Further complicating movement through the hills is the tree growth in the draws. The draws consolidate the moisture of an area in a way that the flat prairie does not while offering shelter from South Dakota's legendary straight line winds that destroy so many trees every year in the region. Some draws have sparse vegetation while others are large enough to support significant stands of cottonwoods, willows and sycamores. The hills also enjoy abundant and diverse wildlife, before settlement it was an especially heavily trafficked grazing area by buffalo as well as a number of species of deer and antiope. Wetter areas such as lakes and springs supported large numbers of minks, otters, beavers, muskrats, and raccoons. The following account of life in the Wessington Hills before white settlers came to the area is based on interviews with Sioux Elder Eugene Brother of All, conducted sometime around the 1970s in Ft. Thompson SD. He said the original name of the hills was “Highho Keopahah,” which means uphill and downhill. As someone who grew up in the Wessington Hills, I find this an apt description. Another elder “August with Horn” described the seasonal cycle that life in the area had before white settlement. The tribe would start from an area where they wintered, which was sometimes at Skunk Island in the Missouri River, and travel north, up into the Sisseton area, and often even as far as the Canadian border. They would then swing back down along the James River into the Redfield area where they would spend some time and harvest corn that had either grown up volunteer or perhaps had been planted in the spring. They would then swing down into the Wessington Hills, where they would spend the fall. The Hills were famous for their game. There were often buffalo in the hills. There were many beavers and deer as well as turkeys. They spent their winters close to the water and in the big timber, because of the protection there. There is some archeological evidence that winter camps were also made in the Wessington Hills. In the summer they avoided lakes and rivers because of the mosquitoes and preferred to stay on the hills where there was a breeze. This also made it more difficult for enemies to sneak up on a village. Game is still abundant in the Wessington Hills. I grew up hunting mule deer in those draws and they are extremely numerous almost every season. When I was in college (say around 2005 ish) the Game Fish and Parks started a program to re-introduce turkeys to the areas of the hills where I grew up. From what I can tell talking to my siblings who live in the hills the program has been fairly successful. So the traditionally known tribes of the Wessington Hills area are the Yankton, the Yanktonai and some Santees. There are some stories about Tetons in the area but historians are skeptical that they spent much time there, more likely they passed through or met up with Yankton’s to trade in the area. There is evidence that the Potawatomis came through looking for a place to settle and find horses. Multiple sources indicate that a major battle between the Yankton and the Potawatomis happened near the big spring. Many Yankton elders including August WIth Horn tell the story of how the great Potawatomis chief Little Turtle was killed in the battle and was buried by the Yankton on a point in the hills known as Turtle Peak. They then marked the spot with a stone mosaic of a Turtle. Turtle Peak is 2 miles north of Wessington Springs. Speaking of Wessington Springs and more specifically the name Wessington it’s time to talk about where that name came from…. Maybe. [1700s Music] First some background of the very earliest of European interaction with the area. The area we now call the Wessington Hills was claimed by France in the middle of the seventeenth century and it was about that time that there is some evidence that the first european traders passed through the territory. Though little to no permanent settlement happened in the area during this time as it was still fully under control of the Yankton Sioux. With the 1806 Louisiana Purchase, the region became territory of the United States. Still this area would remain the most distant fringe of the United States frontier and would be considered wild territory for a long time. There was trade and exploration along the Missouri River but the Wessington Hills being away from these waters were not easy to travel to. Because of over hunting of buffalo in other parts of Dakota Terretory there were few of them left in the eastern half of the state by the mid 1800’s. So few that any Yankton living in the Wessington Hills would not have found enough of them to sustain their way of life in the area. A military expedition known as the Warren Expedition in October of 1856, noted Buffalo were already depleted in the area. Some notes from that expedition’s logs: “In 1850 buffalo were seen as low down on the Missouri as Vermillion River and in 1854 a few were killed near Ft. Pierre; but at present [1856] non, unless it be a stray bull, are seen below Fort Clark. Even at the base of the Black Hills it would be difficult for a party of hunters to support themselves by hunting.” The officer goes on to note the affect this was having on the Yankton and would prophetically, have on most of the tribes of the American West: “It is not, as many suppose that those Indians disposed, retire further west. This they cannot do. For the regions to the west of one tribe are occupied by another with whom deadly animosity exists. Hence, while the white settlements advance their frontieres, the natives linger about ‘til disease, poverty and vicious indulgences consign them to oblivion. The present policy of the government seems therefore, the best calculated way that could be devised for the extermination of the indians.” - Lieutenant G.K. Warren, U.S. Army 1856 [sad music] In 1857, William Nobles, a retired US army Colonel realized the money that could be made by being first to settle an area so when congress set aside money to develop wagon roads to the west he helped found the Dakota Land Company Inc. With some well placed bribes in the MInnesota legislature they secured tons of exclusive rights for ferry traffic across the James, Sioux and Missouri rivers. But the same political games that allowed him to gain this position alos backfired when an enemy gained a position of power in Washington and cut off funding for Noble’s road. Still convinced he could make this work, Nobles assembled the equipment and men needed to build a wagon road across the region. The Yankton Sioux Ceded Rights to the region by treaty in April 19, 1858. [12:26 Left Off Editing Here in Part I clip] The Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising, the Dakota Uprising, the Sioux Outbreak of 1862, the Dakota Conflict, and Little Crow's War. The U.S.–Dakota War of 1862 was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of Dakota (also known as the eastern Sioux). It began on August 17, 1862, along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota, four years after its admission as a state. Throughout the late 1850s in the lead-up to the war, treaty violations by the United States and late annuity payments by Indian agents caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota. During the war, the Dakota made extensive attacks on hundreds of settlers and immigrants, which resulted in settler deaths, and caused many to flee the area. This ended with soldiers capturing hundreds of Dakota men and interning their families. A military tribunal quickly tried the men, sentencing 303 to death for their crimes. President Lincoln would later commute the sentence of 264 of them. The mass hanging of 38 Dakota men was conducted on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota; it was the largest mass execution in United States history. The Dakota war of 1862 is an extremely important event in the history of South Dakota and practically defines the region we now call the Sioux Empire, so while I can only give it to you as basic background now, we’ll eventually do a whole episode, possibly multiple episodes on those events down the road. So the classic version of the story of Wessington goes like this account found in a the book “A History of Jerauld County” published in 1910. Also just a heads up, this being written in 1910 it is not terribly PC in its descriptions of Natives: “Even the man for whom was named the range of hills that run north and south through the center of the country, is only known to have been a trapper who frequented the lakes and streams in this part of the great territory prior to 1863. Of him is related, that he in the company with other trappers was engaged in his usual avocation along the Firesteel and Sand Creeks at the time of the indian uprising at New Ulm, Minnesota, in 1863.” Side note here. The book is actually incorrect, the uprising took place from August 17 to December 26, 1862. Which might be your first clue that this story has some issues. “The whole western country was then swarming with hostile bodies of Sioux. As these bands were driven westward by the soldiers from Minnesota, the trappers were caught in the line of retreat taken by the savages. Wessinton and his companions took refuge in the grove near the big spring. For several days the trappers fought off their enemies, but provisions and ammunition failing, they attempted to break through and escape. One by one they fell, selling their lives as dearly as possible. Wessington was the last of their number. He was wounded and captured. Taking him back to the grove where he and his friends had made such a gallant fight, the Indians tied him to a tree and put him to death by torture. The story of his capture and death is told by the Indians. Various trees about the sprint have been pointed out in later years as the spot where the trapper met his death. This was the last of the Indian raids in the country between the Missouri and James rivers. During the next fifteen years the Sand Creek and Firesteel valleys and the Wessington Hills were mainly occupied by peaceful indians and trappers, and horse thieves.” The earliest written record we have of this version of events comes from The Wessington Springs Herald newspaper wrote a history of the area on their front page in January (4th) of 1884: “At the time of the memorable Minnesota massacre of 1862 there were a number of trappers who visited the “Hills” regularly on their hunting excursions. One of these trappers was named Wessington. When attacked by the Indians they fled for the hills but were pursued and killed near the big spring. In honor of the man who thus offered up his life and minglied his hearts’ blood with the water gushing from the rocks, the hills and the springs have since been known by the name Wessington.” Among the settlers and oldtimers of the Wessington Hills area this version of events is by far the most popular and is probably the story every farm and ranch kid in the area is still told by their parents passed down from their parents. There is some regional variation. In the Northern Part of the Wessington Hills where I grew up he’s almost always burned at the steak. The account from 1910 seems to imply he was flayed. But what they all share in common is a trapper was killed very violently in the area by Sioux. While the 1910 book version states that the story is told by the Indians, this is apparently news to the Indians or at least the Yankton Sioux. The Tribal elders I mentioned earlier who were interviewed on the topic in the 1970s and earlier deny that their people would have harmed any trappers in the hills area. The Yankton used the hills and especially the big spring as a meeting and trading area. There are even more problems with this theory but we’ll get to them shortly. The area’s first unofficial historian, Rev. A. B. Smart, who arrived in this area in 1880, wrote a series of historical articles for a local newspaper, one of which contained the following: “One of Nobles’ ox teamsters named Wessington first discovered the springs, and they have borne his name ever since. There is another story that he was killed by Indians, but I have not been able to find the foundation of it. It is doubtful.“ So Rev Smart is talking about a different theory that’s very common among some of the more well read theorists on how the hills got their name. LEFT OFF RECORDING HERE PART I From the Monthly South Dakotan, Volume 3, April 1901, Page 408: “There has been a good deal of speculation as to how these springs received the name they bear, and some ingenious romancer has given currency to the story of one one Wessington, an engineer in the employ of the Government, was encamped with several companions at these springs on the fatal day of August 18th 1862 the day the indian uprising occurred at redwood minnesota, and that the very hour that the massacre occurred, a party of ‘Sioux swooped down on Wessington and his men and massacred all of them but one, who, escaping, reached the settlements and told the harrowing tale. The writer accepted the tale in good faith and has related it in these pages or at least mentioned it. The fact that Wessinton was a teamster in Colonel Nobles’ party or road they reached the hills, they suffered greatly for water. Wessington set out to see if he could not find a watering place, and presently came upon the splendid springs of water which gush forth, and Colonel Nobles honored him by marking the find on the map as Wessington’s Springs. Some years later, Wessington was killed in an Indian raid, but not in the vicinity of the springs.” But all of the trapper or team leader versions of the story have problems. Some of this analysis ahead is leaning a lot on research done by historian Tom Shonley of Wessington Springs before 1981. First off the word Wessington is rare and of some antiquity, Described in a legal opinion in the year 1859: “The insufficiency of Christian name to distinguish a particular individual where there were many bear the same name let to necessarily ot the giving of surnames; and a man was distinguished, in addition to his Christian name, in the great majority of cases, by the name of his estate, or place where he was born, or where he dwelt, or from where he had come. As in the name of Washington, originally Wessington, which as its component parts indicate, means a person dwelling in the meadow land, where a creek runs in from the sea.” So an extremely old english word for where a creek meets the sea doesn’t make a lot of sense as a name for the area on it’s own, and was not in common use among most Americans who would have used the word Washington. But it’s still possible it was someone’s name right? Well maybe not, thanks to the wonders of modern historical databases I can tell you that not a single person in the United States had the last name Wessington in the 1850 or 1860 Census. Not One. Now it's possible that this trapper was very off the grid which would make sense for a trapper except that would mean they have no family in the US with the same name. Still possible but the odds are getting extremely long. What about more direct records? So we have microfilm of literally hundreds of letters and records from Noble’s road building trip and there is not one mention of anyone named Wessington. On August 30th, 1861 Governor Jayne issued a proclamation calling every able bodied man to arms in protection of the public. Pursuant to the Governor’s proclamation, practically every able bodied man in the territory not already enrolled in the army came forward and was registered in four companies. No name bearing any resemblance to the word Wessinton is on that list. And then there are the fur trapper legends. Lots of stories about Wessington state he was “A fur trader or trapper in 1862 or 1863.” So let's look at the Fur Trapper records we have. The last year that a Trader's license was issued at Fort Lookout, the closest point to Wessington Springs, was in 1840. The only company doing business in the Missouri region in 1863 was Todd Frost and Company of Yankton. It is highly unlikely that anyone was in the fur business in this area as late as 1863. In a 1979 letter to historian Tom Shonley, Richard C Crawford Natural Resources Department, Civil archives division of General Administration, says: “we have searched the pertinent records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the National Archives but have found no references to a fur Trader by the name of Wessington. The records searched include the register of traitors licenses from 1847 to 1873, the register of Traders licenses from 1876 to 1882, and the register of letters received by The Bureau for 1863.” Volume two of the South Dakota historical collections deals in great detail with the Minnesota Uprising, and makes it quite evident that the Sioux of Minnesota were not assisted by the Sioux of the Missouri area, nor did they, except in the case of going North Dakota first, go west of the Sioux River. This makes the part of the legend of the uprising doubtful. In the fall of 1863 a train of 130 wagons drawn by 6 oxygen each was dispatched from Mankato, Minnesota and pass through the prevalent Gerald County area on its way to supply the starving Indians at Fort Thompson with food. The report of the route taken by Shawn King Lieutenant of Engineers to William Crook Colonel of the sixth Minnesota volunteers, mentions the Springs at the base of La Cacho, however there is no mention of the name for them. WW Brooks, the superintendent of Minnesota Cheyenne Highway stated in his reports that all the information he could get from Friendly Indians, mountain men, and frontiersmen, the route he selected was only practical route through that District of the country. at what location along the Route did he confer with Frontiersman, and their names, he did not state. So was a white man killed by Indians at the big spring? The reports of digest of the Indian commissioner for the time contain such items as at Fort Defiance at the mouth of the medicine Creek much dissatisfaction is caused by Renegade white men who live with the Indians who should be expelled from the country. The reports failed to name any of those termed Renegade. The reports also say that about five white people each year were killed by Indians but failed to name any of them. A list of white people killed by Indians between 1821 and 1880 does not list anyone by the name of Wessington. Historian Tom Shonley Goes on to say: in all my research, I have never been able to find a reference that indicates that Sioux ever use burning as a means of torture or extermination. Nearly everyone who entered the area had to have his name on some permanent record. That is, unless he was one of the Renegades living with the Indians and probably a fugitive from creditors or Justice back east. In 1863 Fort Thompson was established, and previous to that, it's founder, Clark W Thompson passed through the hills twice, the friendly winnebagos from Minnesota passed through here on their way to the reservation at Fort Thompson. Sully brought 250 women and children captives down the James River and passed the springs on the way to Fort Thompson in 1863 they were called the survivors of the battle of Whitestone Hills Captain William Tripp lead a Patrol pursuing the Renegade murderers of Sergeant Eugene Trask up the Chateau Creek and then up the North Branch of the Firesteel Creek in all of these accounts there is no mention of meeting any White people in the Big Spring area. So if there never was a person named Wessington, where did this name come from? The first printed use of the word to identify this area was by Sam Medary, the Engineer for the Nobles Road, on a map submitted on January 18, 1858 to the U. S. Department of the Interior. However, we not that the word was spelled using the letter “a” instead of “e” designating this place “Wassington Spring” singular rather than the Plural “Wessington Springs” the area will be known as in the 20th Century. If you notice that year, it majorly undercuts the stories about it having anything to do with the Great Sioux War of 1862 since the name in some form is already around in 1858. And remember we confirmed with microfilm of that expedition's letters, maps, and journals that there is no one in this group named Wessington or Wassington for that matter. The first time the name is used in the form we know today appeared in a letter to James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior from WW Brookings, superintendent of the construction of the Minnesota-Big-Cheyenne highway which was built through the present Jerauld county area in 1865. It has been suggested that the word Wessington is Indian or French origin rather than English. This is a good assumption. And as of right now this is the theory I subscribe to based on everything I’ve found and reviewed. LEFT OFF RECORDING HERE PART II [Interview Here] In 1838 Joseph N. Nicollet , a geographer who had arrived a short time before this from France, was hired by the government to explore and map the entire area. His reports were done in French language. The French names, Nicollet reported, or suggested by the appearance of the kaito as seen from the James River. James C Fremont of later civil war fame was Nicolhet's assistant and named many of the places after men in Washington or his relatives. Nicollet spent the winter of 1838-39 at Fort Pierre studying the language and the culture of the Sioux. The word WICHIYENAN means “Our People” or “those who are ours.” Anyone who was adopted by the Sioux or accepted by them could be considered WICHIYENAN. Historian Tom Shonley speculates that WICHIYENAN is phonetically similar to the word Wessinton, and could be corrupted easily. There is also the lakota word RHEATONWAN “The Village on the Mountain.” WASHICON is used to describe Frenchmen. WASHICUS was used to describe anyone who was not an indian and is very similar. Or it could have a French origin. The first known writings in French of the Sioux by Paul Le June 1640 called them “Nadowessi.” In 1641 Father Raynbault learned of the tribe called “Nadowessi.” The last syllable is like the first part of French as “QUISY” which is pronounced the same as Wissy in English. The suffix “ton” as in Wessington is common in the Sioux language, such as Yankton, Wahpeton, Sisseton, Titon or Teton ext. [Interview with Linguist] The Wessington Hills were first mentioned in the Yankton Press in 1876. They are described as: “Our trip included a visit to the Wessington Hills, a locality in the unoccupied portion of Dakota about which little is known.” It’s not long after this that the Wessington Hills start developing a reputation with the first report in the territory written down of horse thieves using the hills as a base. From the Press and Daily Dakotaian Nov 1878: “Maj. Douglas received a telegram this morning notifying him that eleven ponies and on black horse were stolen from Yanton agency Friday night. The thieves moved north with their plunder and a band of Indians has been sent out on their trail. The stealing occurred at the close of the day for the distribution of annuity goods and the Indians had not reached their homes. The Wessington Hills are the supposed destination of the thieves.” This unexplored territory nestled neatly in Eastern South Dakota made a convenient getaway point for any outlaws looking to hide. The system of draws and valleys can become very confusing to someone unfamiliar with the terrain. That same month the Hills would again become the refuge of outlaws in the newspaper. Again from the Yankton News Paper in Nov of 1878: “Deputy Marshal Bullock, of Deadwood and a pose of fifteen men arrived at Pierre in pursuit of robbers who made the $25,000 haul on the Cheyenne route a week or so ago. Just before they arrived at Pierre a man crossed the river to this side who was considered suspicious. He was a medium size, sandy complexioned man, mounted on a bay horse branded “U.S.” He carried a needle gun and was careful not to let any one handle his saddle… The man started from Pierre in the direction of Firesteel or more likely the Wessington Hills.” First off, yes this is THAT Marshal Bullock from Deadwood. Second, $25,000 in 1878 is $644,492.50 in 2020 dollars. I was unable to confirm if they ever found the thief. According to some sources the pioneers in the Wessington Hills area at this point are pretty much constantly having livestock go missing and occasionally glance at “unscrupulous characters” that no one knows traveling alone in the area. There is little the locals can do as other than complain to each other about the constant plague of theft. More thieves make the Yankton paper in February of 1879: “The Stolen Mules have been recovered but the thieves made good their escape. They were pursued so closely that somewhere south of the Wessington Hills they dropped the mules. The thieves are the same two who escaped from your United States Jail in Yankton last fall, Hunter and Molison alias Morris and Smith. They have so far been successful in stealing about 30 head of horses from the Missouri river and the Jim river settlements. This is the first unsuccessful operation they have made since their release from the United States bondage. They are the most bare faced villains that were ever heard of. They are seen every few weeks by the settlers in open day at various places resting themselves to be ready for a midnight run, when the chances afford them their spoil. We do hope that the next pursuit of the scoundrels may be successful in ending their career, it matters not if it be done by lead or rope.” Man, newspapers don’t write them like that anymore. And this isn’t just one crew operating either. Here’s another report of a solo operator from that same year and area. “The Stable of C. E. Worthington, of Herman was broken open and a valuable pony stolen therefrom. The thief was pursued but escaped into the Wessington Hills.” The spring of 1880 brough no sign that the activity was slowing down. From a History of Jerould County: “The spring of 1880 found the little band of settlers at the foot of the hills all in good health. They were somewhat curious as to the movements of strange men, who mysteriously came, were seen about the hills for a few days and then as mysteriously disappeared. There were rumors of the existence of an organization of horse thieves and cattle rustlers that extended from below Sioux City to far up the Missouri river, with a staton somewhere in the hills. It was hinted that the depot or stable existed in the Nicholson gulch, but if so it was so well hidden that none of the settlers chanced to find it. So far the settlers were content to let the mysteries of the hills remain unsolved.” Officials and the paper in Yankton speculated about this den of thieves as well. “A gentleman who makes frequent trips into the upper country says he is certain that there is a horse thief gang not less than twenty five of the the worst characters on the frontier in the Wessington Hills. They are completely armed and well organized for offensive and defensive operations. It is more than probable that Maxwell and Bon Homme county escaped prisoners are with them. The latter were seen near Pratt creek a few days after their escape.” So who are these outlaws with a secret base in the middle of Dakota territory? We don’t have a lot of details about the membership. The group was pretty nebulous with members coming and going and some joining for a time as members of opportunity like the escaped inmates mentioned earlier or even rouge natives mixed with the white outlaws who made their homes in the draws and valleys. The group seems to have been surprisingly egalitarian and racially mixed for the time. In fact, one report published in the the Yankton paper in May of 1880 implied that either their leader was native or had at least adopted a famous Sioux War chief’s name as his own. “A band of outlaws which demand immediate attention are the Wessington Hills Gang, who for two years past have rendezvous in the section and made their hiding places in the deep ravines and high, wooded hills, from which they derive their name. They are led by an outlaw named “Red Cloud,” who has collected about himself a band of followers as daring and desperate as himself. Two months ago a party of surveyors, engaged in running a line for the Milwaukee road, had occasion to penetrate one of the dark ravines of the Wessington Hills, and ran across a band of nine men, who motioned them back. One look at the outfit was enough and the surveyors gracefully retired. Under the leadership of “Red Cloud” the Wessington band have made innumerable successful excursions into the country for a radius of many miles adjacent, highway robbery and horse stealing being their principal exploits. The government proposes to thoroughly investigate this section during the coming summer.” In Charles Mix County in October of 1880, Sheriff Pennypacker offered a reward of $300 for the arrest of John Sully, alias, John Gillon, Alias Jack Jones and Frank Edwards, alias Frank Clark. $200 was offered for either of the men separately from the other. The settlers in the Wessington Hills area were beginning to feel the pressure of having this gang operating so close. More from a History of Jerould County: “During the fall several unaccountable things occurred to annoy the settlers. A few animals mysteriously disappeared and no traces of them could be found. The homes were too widely scattered and too few in number to render available and concerted action. They had their suspicions, but could prove nothing and the law and courts were too far away to afford them any relief even though the evidence could have been produced. The area was attached to Hanson county for judicial purposes and there were no magistrates or police officers nearer than Mitchell. They suffered their losses as best they could, making no complaint except to each other. The houses of Strong, McCarter, and Tucker were all burned while the owners were away and under circumstances that made it impossible for the fires to have been accidental. Strong and Tucker abandoned their land and went away, but McCarter built another residence and prepared to stay through the winter. The Shanties of Paddock Steves and J A Palmer were broken open and robbed while the proprietors were away from home for a night. Palmer’s shanty was torn down and the boards were scattered about over the prairie. Hudson Horsley had a fat cow among his animals that would have afforded a good supply of meat for his family during the winter. Shortly after the winter set in the cow was missing and was never heard of after. One night a span of horses disappeared from P R Barrett’s stable and all search for them proved fruitless. The mysterious strangers continue to come and go, but who and what they were, or what their mission was only a matter of surmise.” [Winter Wind Howling] The winter of 1880-1881 was absolutely brutal in the area. It was so bad the mail carrier between Wessington Springs and Mitchell was lost in a blizzard for two days. No one is sure why, maybe that brutal winter had killed off or driven off the outlaws but 1881 was actually a quiet year for crime in the Wessington Hills. [Education Music] The Rev A. B. Smart who’s theories about the Wessington Hill’s namesake we covered earlier and you may recall I even called him the area’s first historian makes a trip to Huron and speaks with the local paper about his ambitious plans to quote “colonize the Wessington Hills in the name of Education.” “It has been customary to think of the Wessington Hills with a sort of dred and to believe that in the gulches and woods and hidden recesses, horse thieves of the border held high carnival and undisputed sway. Weird stories of the doings of these gentry have frequently gone over the country to chill the marrow of the owners of horse flesh and cattle, and lead them to increase their vigilance and the strength of their corrals. It is no longer to be so. A transforming reformation is to purify the atmosphere out there, and a community is to be established which shall make the ragged old hills more famous in the future for the morality, learning, and virtue which shall exist there, then they have been for vice and crime in the past.” His plan is to build a University near the current site of Wessington Springs. His university will eventually be built but that’s a story for another episode. But first the locals would have to deal with the horse thieves, because it turns out 1881 was a temporary reprieve from the threat they posed. So, we’re about to go into the area of local legend vs what we know for sure vs what’s in the region's news papers. The following is the 1910 edition of “A History of Jerauld county”’s version of how the locals of Wessington Springs and the surrounding area finally defeated the horse thieves once and for all. “Other losses were sustained and the settlers began to guard their stables with dog and gun. The presence of “night riders” was again reported and the mysterious comings and goings of strange men and of some “hangers-on,” who had no visible means of support was a subject of much discussion in the neighborhood. The Settlers were now sufficiently numerous to dare to protect themselves and about Sept. 1st a move was set a foot to drive the lawless characters from the hills and gulches. A party captured a young fellow whose actions appeared suspicious and by threatening him with serious consequences if he did not reveal all he knew of the desperadoes, obtained from him a full statement of who the thieves were, their place of rendezvous and their method of operation. Boy was detained and an application made to justice of the peace Shyrock for a warrant for the arrest of all members of the gang. The warrant was issued and placed in the hands of CWP Osgood, constable. The news soon spread through the settlement that a raid was to be made on the horse thieves, supposed to be somewhere in the gulches. Constable did not feel like searching the hills and Ravines alone and began to look about to gather a posse to assist him in making the arrests. While the Constable was gathering his assistance a party of settlers, growing impatient and fearful that the Desperados would get into hiding, started to capture some of them before the Constable could arrive. The result of this move was the shooting of one-man and The Escape of the fellow supposed to be the leader of the horse thieves. Meanwhile the Constable was writing about with great Bluster, calling for a posse and spreading the news of the proposed arrest. In the midst of the excitement, William Bateman drove to the residence of rev J G Campbell and asked him to join in helping the officer to serve a warrant. The minister readily ascended and took his Winchester rifle set Out with Bateman to join the Constable. Mr Osgood was satisfied with the acquisition to his force and immediately started for the ravine indicated by the boys story as the hiding place of the men named in the warrant. At the entrance of The Gulch indicated the Posse found a strange man, heavily-armed, standing as a sentinel, who commanded the party to Holt and then informed them that his instructions were to not allow anyone up to go up that Valley. “Look here, my man," said the minister, "you come and look in this buggy." The man came to the vehicle and saw several rifles and revolvers lined up on some hay at the bottom of the box. "Now” said Campbell, "it may be for your Eternal welfare, to here and Hereafter to get into that buggy and ride along with us." “I guess maybe your advice is good,” replied the stranger as he climbed into the buggy and the party drove on. [LEFT OFF EDITING PART 3 HERE 13:36] They ascended the Ravine to where they expected to find the man they were looking for, but he was gone. The party returned to the mouth of The Gulch and they separated, Campbell and Osgood going on North along the Foothills to look for the other man named in the warrant. Campbell and Osgood went to see the man that had been shot and found him suffering considerable pain and terribly frightened. The bullet had struck a rib, followed around his body to the back where it had passed out, giving the appearance of having gone directly through him. Campbell probed the wound Having learned the course taken by the bullet assured the man that his injury was not fatal. He then sent for Mrs. Dr. Weens to attend the injured fellow and departed on his errand with the constable. [nighttime cricket noises] It was afternoon when they left home and the trip up the Ravine had taken considerable time. Night had now come on and the two men preceded by Starlight. After traveling a mile or two they heard the loud voices of men evidently Intoxicated. The Strangers were on foot and coming along the trail with the minister and the Constable or following. Osgood at once recognized the voices as those men he wanted. He and Campbell got out of the buggy and took their weapons Advanced to meet the approaching group. The drunken men did not notice the constable and His companion until the minister stepped squarely in front of them with a leveled rifle and ordered them to throw up their hands. The men were dumbfounded, but their hands went up instantly. Soon they realized that they were facing a leveled rifle and two revolvers. Then their profanity became terrific, but lower their hands they dare not. They obeyed An order Too Faced about, and then Stood Still with uplifted hands until the Constable had taken a brace of revolvers from each of them. They were put into the buggy and guarded by the constable and His companion were taken to Osgood's Residence where they were detained until the next day. A preliminary examination was held before Justice Shyrock and the settlers then realized that it was one thing to have suspicions well-founded, in fact to be fully convinced, and feel that they absolutely know a thing, and still not be able to prove it. The boy was brought into court to clear the story he told the men who had threatened him was all false, and told to save himself from punishment. The Justice could do nothing but discharge the prisoners, except the young fellow, who spent a long time in jail at plankington. The result however, was effectual. The settlers were no longer molested by Desperados.” So that version of the story leaves out a few things that we can pick up on in the newspaper records. For example, the boy that gave the false confession, he had done so because the punishment mentioned was that the locals in Wessington Springs were going to hang him, and according to the Press and Daily Dakotaian. “The neighbors gathered in and put a rope around the young fellow’s neck to hang him. Seeing a determined crowd around him he agreed to tell what he knew if they would spare his life.” According to the Deadwood Pioneer times, the name of the man they shot was Charlie Williams. Charlie, while not convicted of any crime, would be crippled the rest of his life from being shot by the pose. Two men, W. N. Hill and M. J. Thornton were charged with shooting Charlie Williams and held on $500 bail. Though apparently they were acquitted. This episode was not quite the end of the horse thieves of the Wessington Hills. The Black Hills Times reported that on November 7th: “Last night O B Deering, better known as the “Kid” a noted young horse thief under bonds to answer to the district court for stealing horses in Bon Homme county, broke jail in Chamberlain. He succeeded in breaking the hinges off the cell door and getting into the big cell and from there into the small one and cut a hole in the floor that had been patched up before.” After describing the location and direction of his trial in the light snow that morning it was concluded that. “He probably is making his way to the Wessington Hills, where the thieves are reported to be congregating and raiding.” On December 1st a report reaches Yankton that: “A valuable team of horses was stolen from Mr. Joseph Dickson, a farmer in Lake county, about one week ago. The rogues got away with their booty and are supposed to have gone to the Wessington Hills.” This incenend is only remarkable in that specific case recorded that cites the Wessington Hills gang as the culprits. That doesn’t mean the legacy of the hills was diminished though. For years after, general information in newspapers would carry entries like this one from the December 15th Deadwood Pioneer Times: Headline: “Where Our Old Road Agents Came From.” “Every horsethief in southern and central Dakota, and there are dozens there to one in the Black Hills region, retreats to the Wessington Hills in Beadle county. These hills are in plain sight of the railroad track of the Northwestern road and are nothing more than high rolling prairies. It is said that the section contains innumerable gullies, ravines, and crooked trails, and that it is not only difficult to hunt down an outlaw in them but very difficult to find your own way out after penetrating the section to even a limited extent. There has been a gang of horse thieves and robbers infesting those hills during the past ten years. The Cold Springs Stage robbers, who got away with the bullion in 1878, were from there and were on their return home when they were compelled to drop their swag and skip flying light to escape their pursuers. Several large gold bricks were thus left and were found by Dr. Whitefield, of Rapid City, near the Pierre road. That second is now being thickly settled, yet the robbers hold their retreat there, and every day we read in our territorial exchanges of horses having been stolen by the gang and run into the Wessington Hills.” [Desperado Music] *** Show End I really hope you enjoy this episode. If you want to do your own research or dig deeper into the sources used in this episode the full works cited for each episode is available to patreon supporters of the show. 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