Cattle Rustlin’ and Hangin’


In the Old West, the terms rustling, and rustler had several meanings. Livestock who forged well were called rustlers by cowmen; meaning the animals could graze or “rustle up” nourishment on marginal land. A horse wrangler or camp cook was also a rustler, but the most widespread and notorious use of the word referred to a cattle thief.

On the vast open ranges of yesteryear, rustling was a serious problem and punishable by hanging. At its peak, one of the largest ranches in the Texas Panhandle had over 150,000 head of cattle and a thousand horses. Obviously, thieves could drive stolen livestock miles away before a rancher learned he had animals missing.

The vast distances to town, hence law enforcement, often prompted ranchers to take actions of their own. Court convictions for rustling were difficult because of the animosity of small ranchers and settlers toward big cattle outfits. Many times, “vigilante justice,” hang ‘um first…ask questions later, was handed down by organized stockmen. Like horse thieves, cattle rustlers could be hanged without benefit of trial, judge or jury.

Today, even with detailed brands logged in books, registering with state officials, inspectors, and the meticulous paperwork involving transportation, not to mention a new era of branding technology to keep track of animals, ranches still face cattle rustlers…those dishonest people who want to profit from selling cattle without the bother of raising them.

No longer is a single head of beef stolen for food or an occasional Native American slipping off the reservation to provide for his family… it is big business. Modern day rustlers often sneak onto rural ranches at night, or on weekends when the owners are away, steal and sell cattle. An average calf can bring thousands of dollars on the open market; so multiply that by a trailer, or even a truck load, of cattle and you can see why it’s a profitable business for thieves.

Amid warnings that cattle rustling is on the rise in Texas, recently the state Senate passed a measure that would stiffen penalties for stealing farm animals, making theft of even one head of livestock a third-degree felony drawing up to a ten year prison sentence and a fine. Until the proposal is signed into law, a rustler can steal ten or more head of livestock and the punishment is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the law of the Old West … hang ‘um high and fast. Cattle rustling wasn’t the only crimes of the 1800’s and earlier. Train robberies closed in on it.

But was hanging always fast and efficient? Maybe you can decide from the following!

I delved into the subject of cattle rustling and the methods of rustlers while researching for one of our anthologies where my Pinkerton Agent comes to the Panhandle to break up an outfit of rustlers. But I became interested in “vigilante justice” from my mother-in-law, who passed on ten years ago at the age of 92. A story teller, she was reared in Clayton, New Mexico. One of her favorite tales was about the outlaw Black Jack Ketchum, the first man hanged in the town. His execution turned into a big town event, with the lawmen actually selling tickets to the hangin’. As history has it, the sheriff had to use two blows of the hatchet before the rope broke. Probably because of their lack of experience in “structured” hangings, coupled with the lawmen misjudging Ketchum’s weight and stretching the rope during testing, he was beheaded. Ketchum was buried at Clayton’s Boot Hill on April 26, 1901.

But my mother-in-law’s story only began there. Three decades later, when she was in grade school, Ketchum’s grave was moved to the new cemetery. Because her father was Clayton’s mayor, she witnessed the reburial. According to her, they opened the grave and she and her cousin touched the bones of Ketchum’s little finger. I’m sure in those days a casket did not weather well.

Do you have a family story you’d like to share? What are your thoughts on vigilante justice of the 1800’s and earlier?

To one person who leaves a comment, I will give you a choice of an eBook copy of Out of a Texas Night or a gift card to
Bath and Body Works.

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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

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28 thoughts on “Cattle Rustlin’ and Hangin’”

  1. My great-great-great grandfather was killed by Rebel Bushwackers during the Civil War. Because he was hastily buried in place, he has no true grave site for family to honor him. We know approximately where it is.

    • Hi Denise. Bless your heart, not knowing where your great-great grandfather is buried. From what I’ve researched this wasn’t uncommon. I bet your family honors him regularly with or without an official gravesite. Take care and good to hear from you.

  2. My dad told me when I growing that our last name was Younger instead of Young. We were related to Cole Younger but that our family was law abiding citizens anyway the story goes the Pinkertons were continuously harassing them so bad that they dropped the ER off their names and moved south down here to Alabama. Jessie James came by to visit my Great Grandfather he held in high Regard and highly respected my Grandfather. He initially came to Alabama because he was going to rob the train that came thru the town where my Great Grandfather lived and decided to visit him. My Great Grandfather tried to talk to Jessie about Jesus and asked him please to not rob the train well Jessie didn’t rob the train. He did however go to North Alabama to steal payroll for laborers in the Blue Water Camp at the Muscle Shoals Canal Project on the Tennessee River. The dates all coincide with what my great grandfather had told my dad. According to this account of the crime:
    So that’s my family story with infamous outlaws. I really wish I had got my dad to tell me the story again in my older adult years so I could have written it down.

    Greatly enjoyed your post today Mrs Phyliss! Love and Hugs to You Sweet Lady

    • Hi Glenda, what a great family story and history. My maiden name was changed, too, but for different reasons. Wow, I’m so impressed and thanks for the link. I know they’ll be a lot of our readers today who will want to check it out. I’m totally like you about wishing both my parents and grandmother had told me more when I was an adult. Even my baby sister and I differ on some of the facts, as we remember them. Thank you precious lady for dropping by and reading my post. Sure glad you enjoyed it. Hugs and love back at you, my friend.

  3. Great blog! This made me think about how the U.S. has changed. With outrage people would have today over things its hard to believe that families used to picnic at hangings and gather like it was social hour. We seem to have been going backwards in race relations for around 14 years or so and that is a sad thing. I can’t think of any infamous family stories but I wish I knew some of them now that I’m older. Stay safe in these very uncertain and difficult times.

    • Hi Stephanie, good to hear from you. You made some very accurate and noteworthy observations. I hope you can get ahold of some of your family stories while you can. My cousins and I have become closer since all of our parents have passed, so we are able to share what we know. I’m bettin’ you’ll find some interesting stories one of these days. I pray you and yours stay safe, also. I haven’t been out very much for nearly two months now, but feel safe and take precautions when I do go out. Take care and big hugs, Phyliss

  4. Great read. My family is not very exciting.I have very few relatives. My dad and mom were only children. I was an only child. My died suddenly at the age of 51.

    • Hi Cathy, glad you read my blog and liked it. I’m sorry for the lose of your loved ones at such an early age. I lost my dad to cancer at the age of 62, but I had my mother and three sisters for a lot of years. Married into a family of five boys, so we’ve had a big family. I can only imagine being an only child of two only children and knowing the family stories. Plus, although I don’t know how old you are, but when I was growing up stories weren’t shared as they are now. I learned most of mine from my grandmother and my mother-in-law. I hope you have a great rest of the week. Hugs, Phyliss

  5. You have some interesting family history. I honestly don’t know a lot about my family or the things they did or went through. All I know is my grandparents came from Hungary and they didn’t talk much about life back then. In fact I don’t ever remember them talking about much of anything. Of course we moved from New York to Texas when I was 10, so I didn’t really see them much after that except a few times when we went back to visit them.

  6. No family stories that I know in my family. Nothing exciting at all. We must be a boring family.

    • Hi Miss Quilt Lady. Good to hear from you. I bet your family wasn’t as boring as you thought. Mine raised us to be boring! My daddy was a fly boy here at the AFB and from Ohio. My mama was from Louisiana and they met and married here, so there was little they agreed on especially when it came to food! Mama was crusty and Daddy a total gentleman! Miss them terribly. Take care of you and yours. Big hugs, Phyliss

  7. Good morning Phyliss- I’m a distant cousin to Bonnie Parker On my Dads side. My dads grandmother and Bonnie’s mom were 1/2 sisters.
    Like Glenda, wished I would of asked my grandparents more details growing up.

    • Hi Tonya, so glad to hear from you. OMG, I bet you read everything on Bonnie Parker. I love her stories. Bet as time goes by, you’ll learn more about your family. Take care of yourself and I hope all goes well with you and yours. Please stay safe. Big hugs, Phyliss

  8. I do not have any stories to share but vigilante justice can result in the wrong person paying the price.

    • Hi Debra, glad to hear from you. I totally agree about vigilante justice, as we are unfortunately seeing today. I thought twice about posting this blog, but since we were talking about the 1800’s and earlier, I went ahead with it. I hope you and yours have a great week and please stay safe. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Alisa, good to hear from you. Yes, I totally agree about buying tickets to a hanging! Gives me the shivers. Take care of yourself and your family. Big hugs, Phyiss

  9. Back when Georgia was a penal colony, one of my ancestors was shipped over for “stealing something he could not return” from the lord of the manor’s daughter. I remember the first time my mother told me that story as a young teen and being equal measures scandalized and amused (the only reason he didn’t face a harsher punishment was the daughter pled for his life, leading me to believe this was a consensual act). She stayed in England, since he was beneath her station, but it wasn’t all bad for this ancestor. He built himself a good life in America.

  10. Good morning. I don’t have any stories to share. Most of my ancestors where Indian on my dads side. Mom’s were Spanish. I loved your post.

  11. I don’t have any family stories like that! However, on a Gunsmoke rerun the other day, the hung the wrong man for cattle rustling. They thought an apology was good enough. NOT! So, his widow killed a few men in return. I have heard of cattle being stolen using big rigs here in FL, and a few horses being killed for the “fun” of it. So sad!!

  12. My dad has told me some family on his side were ridge runners… I have Lenape Indian on my maternal grandfather’s side… wish I knew of some stories of my family’s past…

  13. I have family stories galore. Many from when I was very young and concerning my parents lives before they arrived in the US. Fascinating history which I know will be forgotten by the generations to come.

  14. My father was the oldest of 6. His life was one of hardship and difficulties but he succeeded in making a success of himself. His only brother who was much younger, he tried to advise about life and love but the brother was the baby of the family and spoiled. He did as he pleased and ruined lives and then disappeared. No one ever knew what happened and where he went. Many years have transpired.

  15. No rustlers I know of. But my family roots are DEEP. We’ve done a lot of family research and…by WE…I mean not ME.
    But one branch of my family came to America in 1638…that’s just 16 years after Jamestown. I’m sure plenty of my family members have gotten in to lots of trouble. 🙂

  16. There were brothers who all went their separate ways. One left to go out west and is well known where he settled many years later. Raising cattle and living on a ranch yet he was brought up in a city with no knowledge at all of the lifestyle which he followed.

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