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To Catch a Thief

Many researchers joke about finding a horse thief in their family tree. How about a horse thief detective? An interesting "society" was formed in the United States during its formative years and into the twentieth century that has left a body of records sure to be of interest to genealogists.


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There was a time when being called a horse thief was the ultimate insult, intended to suggest the person "lacked any shred of moral decency." In an agricultural society, to steal one's horse seriously impacted his livelihood and could leave him isolated. Stealing horses was a real problem and law enforcement was limited. As a result, people in some communities took things into their own hands and formed a group aimed at recovering horses and apprehending thieves. The groups were known variously as anti-horse thief associations, horse thief detecting societies, or anti-horse thief detecting societies. Such groups were, in fact, a sort of vigilante committee that, in the main, worked with rather than against the law.

One source suggests the first anti-horse thief society was formed in the earliest Colonial times, as reported in an 1890 New York Times article:

Some of Miles Standish's old chums organized a horse thief detecting society in Rhode Island, the first society of its kind in the country. The ninety-forth annual supper of the organization was recently given. The children and grandchildren of the original officers are running the society to-day. In its career of ninety-four years it has lost but one horse, and for the detection of the thief who stole this animal two year ago over $2,000 has been expended. The hunt is still going on, as the old farmers who comprise the society would rather divide and squander all they have than admit that they are beaten. 1
Of course, Miles Standish, commander of the Plymouth colony, died in 1656, and we can presume most of his "chums" were not long to follow. The dates in the article suggest the suppers organized by the descendants of the group would have begun in 1796, some one-hundred and forty years later.

More recent research suggests the first such group was organized in Massachusetts following the American Revolution. Of interest to genealogists are the records kept by these organizations and their level of participation. The Genealogy Today, Family Tree Connection Database, specializes in such non-traditional sources and includes an expanding collection of Horse Thief Detecting records. In addition, groups and their participants may be mentioned in various local area histories, and some sources are available online.

The scope and history of these organizations is discussed by Robert Maxwell Brown in his book, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism:

American vigilantism has been paralleled by a number of related movements. Such movements as the three Ku Klux Klans, the White Caps, and the Night Riders were illegal and usually violent. One legal, nonviolent movement existed side by side with vigilantism from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. This was the anti-horse thief movement. It is now almost forgotten, but hundreds of thousands of Americans from New England to the Rio Grande belonged to it.

The anti-horse thief movement consisted of local societies, clubs, and associations of men -- mainly farmers -- who banded together to detect and pursue thieves, especially horse thieves. The anti-horse thief societies were much like vigilante movements in respect to organization, objectives, and types of members. There was one crucial difference: they did not take the law into their own hands. Instead, they restricted themselves to the detection and pursuit of culprits whom, after capture, they dutifully turned over to law enforcement officers. They eventually came to incorporate themselves under state law, and some stages granted them constabulary powers. 2

Brown goes on to say, the first anti-horse thief societies arose spontaneously just after the war, and suggests the first such society was probably the Northhampton Society for the Detection of Thieves and Robbers organized in Massachusetts in 1782.

Brown states that by 1800, similar groups had been founded along the Atlantic coast from Rhode Island to Delaware and thrived in the northeastern United States as a legal supplement to regular law enforcement. It was especially vital in New Jersey where over 100 local societies were founded from 1788 to 1915. "Official approval of the New Jersey societies was unstated until 1851, at which time the legislature explicitly approved organization of the societies; later it granted them the power of arrest." The success of the movement in New Jersey and elsewhere caused it to spread west; societies were organized found as far away as Oregon. As Brown reports:

The movement got underway in Indiana in 1852 with the legalization of regulator bands as anti-horse thief societies. After the Civil War, the movement grew rapidly, and an interstate combine, the National Horse Thief Detective Association (with headquarters in Indiana) spread into Ohio and Illinois. A similar development was seen across the Mississippi, where a movement that began in northeast Missouri in the 1860's had, by the 1890's and later, become the farflung with thousands of local chapters and over a hundred thousand members in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas. . . . Eventually, the anti-horse thief movement succumbed to the automobile.
According to one source, "not all citizens took kindly to being watched by their local 'detective', and public opinion was sometimes against them. . . . Unfortunately for the County's citizens, criminal offenses, such as horse theft, didn't diminish over the years, but actually increased at times." 3

It's possible not all groups were benign. Some sources suggest a connection between the Klan and the horse thief detective association in some localities and during certain time periods; however, this connection is not made by Brown who contrasts the two as violent and non-violent organizations. 4

Today, calling someone a horse thief may have little impact on their self-esteem, but in the state of Texas if you steal a horse or any cattle it is still a hanging offense.


1  "Bound to Catch a Thief." The New York Times, November 11, 1890.

2  Brown, Richard Maxwell. Strain of violence: historical studies of American violence and vigilantism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

3  "Waukesha County Detective Society alias Waukesha County Horse-Thief Society," Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc.

4  "Long Hot Summer in Indiana." The American Heritage Magazine, 1965. American

See also, Daly, Judi. "The Anti-Horse Thief Association: 'Protect the Innocent; Bring the Guilty to Justice'". The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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