Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vigilantes: Chelsea Regulators / Niobrara Mutual Protective Association

Governor Thayer

I wanted to write just a bit more about the vigilantes from the early Nebraska days.  In the area of the Niobrara River where Newt Turpin resided, it was well-known that vigilantes existed.  The area included Brown, Rock, Holt, Boyd, and Keya Paha counties.  After doing a little poking around, it seems that the spirit of the vigilantes played an immediate role in the Turpin family’s life in Rock County.   I’d mentioned before that neighbor suspected neighbor sometimes and that law enforcement was a scarce commodity.  In analyzing Louis Goochey’s story that he told to grandchildren, I could see that Goochey was incorporating some facts of local history into his own tale of woe to enhance it and justify what he did.   

So here is a bit of what I discovered.

One source that was very informative was James W. Hewitt’s paper “The Fatal Fall of Barrett Scott: Vigilantes on the Niobrara" published in the Great Plains Quarterly in 1992.  It can be found at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/greatplainsquarterly/659

Hewitt explains that as “America moved westward along the great trails, it left courts, judges, law, and order behind.  Until new communities could be formed and governments established, something had to be done to protect life and the possessions of those who had them.” Newt Turpin lived north of Newport, Nebraska and the distance to the nearest village or law enforcement was considerable.  Hewitt says that “waiting for the sheriff to show up could consume a lot of time." Neighbors had to help each other by necessity.     

And thus the neighborhood groups such as the Niobrara Mutual Protective Association sprung up.   According to Jim McKee’s article “The Short, Unfortunate Career of Kid Wade" at    http://journalstar.com/news/state-and-regional/article_3b6ab3be-0f61-11df-8f7c-001cc4c002e0.html#ixzz1pi7DvLww, a “ group of 18 farmers, ranchers and settlers in the Niobrara area called the Niobrara Mutual Protective Association and the Chelsea Regulators, or simply the Regulators, formed under the loose control of "Captain" Burnham, though the title seemed to drift between leaders.” 

With a little digging, I found Capt. Burnham had settled in Keya Paha County.  He arrived there “in 1883 and was instrumental in having the county separated from Brown County and establishing the county seat in Springview.  He engaged in the practice of law and was the first representative elected from this district to the State Legislature” according to the History – Settlers section of the Springview, Nebraska website:  
http://www.springview-ne.com/historySettlers.asp   Genealogists would be happy to know that Capt. Burnham was the census enumerator in 1885 too!   

But back to Keya Paha County…McKee says a group of 18 farmers formed one of the vigilante groups.  The Keya Paha Early Settlers website lists 17 early Keya Paha settlers in addition to Capt. Burnham, for a total of 18. http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ne/county/keyapaha/early_settlers.html
The Keya Paha site goes on to say that the “early days of Springview have often been referred to as “Vigilante Days” due to the many horse thieves that roamed the area and the apparent lack of justice. It earned Keya Paha its nickname that still sticks today, “Mob County".”  

Hewitt identified three vigilante groups along the Niobrara.   “They were the Niobrara Mutual Protective Association, headquartered in Brown County and led by A. T. Burnham; a group in Keya Paha County, subsequently known as the Farmer's Protective Association, led by Merritt Taylor, John Sullivan, and Sol Long; and the Holt County Regulators, under the leadership of Mike Coleman and C. C. Dodge.  At least seven miscreants met their end at the hands of one or another of the vigilante bands.”

The Spell of the West website at 
http://www.jcs-group.com/oldwest/justice/niobrara.html  explains how one vigilante group took Kid Wade’s father John Wade in November 1883.   The father was awaiting his hearing on charges of aiding and abetting horse thievery.  The vigilantes killed John Wade and buried him northeast of Newport.  The next spring, rain washed the loose dirt from the grave, exposing the vigilantes’ crime. 

Historian Harold Hutton mentioned that as late as 1888, settlers in northern Nebraska were appealing to the government and involving Senator Burnham and Governor Thayer in the conversation about the law enforcement problems the settlers experienced.    Burnham who once led the vigilantes now “took the position that duly constituted authority should handle the matter and pledged to see that appropriate complaints were filed. Thayer visited Keya Paha County in May 1889” according to Hutton in his book Vigilante Days (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1978).  

As late as 1889 a group of vigilantes went to the home of John Newell in Keya Paha County.  Newell was thought to be friendly with some of the thieves but was not involved in theft.  (The same was said of Newt Turpin.)  When the vigilantes arrived, Newell fired a blast from his shotgun to defend himself.  In answer he was riddled with twenty-four separate bullet wounds and died at once. (This sounds a bit like the story that Louis Goochey tells.) The same evening the group went after another suspected thief named George Babcock about two miles from Newell's home. After a struggle Babcock was captured but he later escaped.  A reward of $200 was offered for the names of the vigilantes, but it never claimed. 

Hutton also tells that in 1889, A. J. Maupin was jailed as a suspected thief in Springview.  During the night, vigilantes came in and killed Maupin in his cell.  Most of the coroner's jury thought Maupin died from gunshots from the Farmer's Protective Association.

So was the net effect of vigilantism good or bad?  It seems to me that a lot of innocent people very likely suffered as in the case of Newt Turpin and Louis Goochey.  On the other hand, the selling of stolen horses and cattle dropped significantly after Kid Wade was hung and Doc Middleton retired.  Life was more stable for settlers after the thefts ended.  Hewitt concludes that “if the end justifies the means, the vigilantes succeeded in establishing property rights along the Niobrara.  It is doubtful, however, that [the vigilantes’ victims] would agree.”  

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