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My grandfather, the cattle rustler | History Files


Last updated 10/24/2018 at Noon

I intended to write about the man who, more than any other, has framed our perceptions of the Old West.

And I was going to write about his connection to Puget Sound. But, as I researched and contemplated, I was reminded of my grandfather, the owner of a small ranch, and … a cattle rustler.

I didn’t know he was a cattle rustler until nearly 40 years after he died. He never spoke of it in my presence, and no other family member ever mentioned knowledge of it. When I told my older brother, it was news to him.

The story takes place in Ridge, Montana. Like so many small towns of 100 years ago that were built in agricultural, logging, or mining areas, Ridge doesn’t exist any more. There is just an identity at a crossroad of what was once there.

I visited Ridge because our family vacation included Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Devil’s Tower.

I remembered stories that my mother told me about being able to see Devil’s Tower from their ranch. The distance is less than 30 miles of relatively flat country, so she probably could see Devil’s Tower.

Since I was going that direction anyway, mom asked if I would check on her little sister’s grave in the cemetery in Ridge. I said that I would. I didn’t realize what was involved in getting to Ridge.

That portion of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming is an area as big as Snohomish County, without a single paved road.

I left my family at the Best Western in Gillette, Wyoming. Folks in Edmonds may know Gillette as the source of the coal that lumbers through Edmonds on 100-plus car trains. I went north on Highway 59 to Biddle, Montana.

There, after checking at the general store to make sure I was going the right direction, I left the pavement and drove 18 miles of dirt road to the crossroad at Ridge. The folks in Biddle had called ahead, so I was expected at the home of the local historian who was, with his wife, also the only resident in what had once been Ridge.

He told me that there was no one of that name buried in the cemetery, and no family of that name had ever lived in that region. But he did get out the map of the cemetery, and I was able to find my aunt’s grave.

The stone only had her initials, but a footnote indicated that she was an infant from the right family. Then it was a matter of actually getting to the cemetery.

It turned out that the cemetery was located on land that was leased by the next-door-neighbor from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. It also turned out that the young woman who had sat quietly in the corner was one of that neighbor family.

In that part of Montana, distances to the next-door-neighbor can be a bit more than we experience in Edmonds. She was riding a dirt bike. I followed her in my four-wheel-drive at 50 mph down a dirt road for 4 miles. We were almost to Wyoming when she pulled into a very long driveway.

I met her parents, and we talked.

Her father knew who I was. His grandfather and mine had been best friends. As we talked, we also realized that our family histories were similar. Neither of us had realized that our grandfathers had married sisters.

We were second cousins.

Before his grandfather had passed, he had typed out a personal history. There were many interesting stories in that history, which I don’t have space for today, but I may return to. But in that history was mention of when my grandfather had been charged with cattle rustling.

And my grandfather had rustled the cows in question, probably with a little help, but that wasn’t noted.

The full story was that there was a big ranch in the vicinity, and the small ranchers were losing cows. They believed that their cows were ending up in the brand of the big ranch.

In order to stop this activity, my grandfather (and probably a friend or two) took some of the cows from the big ranch. This was a big risk, because if found guilty he could have been hanged.

Well, apparently whoever had dreamed up this scheme realized that the jury pool was made up of registered voters. The jury was very likely to be made up of small ranchers and farmers, and residents of Ridge.

My grandfather was acquitted and cows no longer disappeared from the small ranches.

I had a lot of time to think about that as I drove an even longer route on dirt roads to get back to Gillette. Would I have had the courage to do what my grandfather had done?

Of course, I don’t know the full truth of the story. All I know is an old man’s recollection late in life, and I have learned to be suspicious of those.

But it makes a great story.


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