Justice on the Prairie: Farmers Break a Horse Thieving Ring in Clinton County, Iowa

   From his home in Elvira, Iowa, Captain Robert Lyons surveyed his property with his mariner’s telescope. A relic from his 18 years as a sailor and sea captain, Lyons still liked to use it on occasion, and what he saw on that day in 1851 surprised him.


   There, in one of his fields, some of the men from the Jacqueses family were trying to catch one of his horses. It was a very spirited animal, and Lyons wasn’t really worried about them succeeding. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the men to give up and leave.

Still, the incident troubled Lyons. The Jacqueses, who were his neighbors, had just tried to steal one of his horses.

   Throughout the 19th century, horses were the engines that drove agriculture and transportation, thus making them a highly valuable and prized commodity, also making them a prime target for theft.


   In 1851, Clinton County, Iowa was just emerging from the wilds of the frontier. While towns and farms were growing fast and had long passed the stage of having virtually nothing but the bare essentials, there was hardly any law enforcement to speak of. Granted, there was a constable for the region, but he was one man covering a vast area of land.


   Horse thieves understood this, and saw opportunity. Before long, a ring of horse thieves were thriving in the county.


   Lyons, along with many other residents of the area, was well aware of this. They also knew that there wasn’t any real law enforcement to rely on. If this problem were to come to an end, they would have to take care of it themselves. Lyons went to another neighbor, Robert Welsh, to discuss the problem.


   They quickly realized that the Jacqueses’ were a little strange. While friendly, they had settled in an area populated by farmers, and yet did nothing to improve their farm. They ran no business, and yet the men of the family were often away for extended periods of time. These same men also frequently asked to borrow saddles.


   But being strange didn’t necessarily make you a thief. There could easily be other reasons for their behavior. Accusing someone – or a whole family of someones – of thievery was definitely not a charge that anyone would take lightly. The two farmers had to be absolutely sure.


   After some deliberation, Welsh and Lyons theorized that perhaps one of the female members of the Jacqueses’ family would reveal something if asked while the men were away on one of their mysterious trips. Knowing that the Jacqueses men had just left their homestead a short time before, the men set out for their farm.


   Once there, they split up. Welsh went to talk to the women. True to form, the Jacqueses ladies were friendly and invited him inside to talk.

Meanwhile, Lyons snuck around behind the home. Finding a window, he boosted his way through into the house and hid under a bed. Lyons lay there, still and quiet, listening to the folks talking in the next room.


   The conversation flowed smoothly and, gradually, he began to talk about horse thieves in the county.


   Welsh and Lyons’ hunch proved to be correct. Eventually, the women not only admitted that the family was stealing horses from around the area, but gave every detail they knew about the operation. Lyons, having heard everything, left the house as stealthily as he had entered.


   The next morning, the old sea captain immediately set off to find one of the Jacqueses men based on the information obtained the night before. It didn’t take long.


   Once he realized that his crimes had been discovered, the Jacqueses man tried desperately to get away. Lyons gave chase and caught him. The two immediately began to fight. Having lived on the ocean with grizzled sailors, Lyons was no stranger to violence, and he quickly captured the horse thief.


   Eventually, the rest of the Jacqueses and other members of the thieving ring were caught, allowing the county to breathe a sigh of relief.


   The pioneers had to do many things by themselves. They tamed the land, built homes, and raised towns from the raw prairie itself. And, when needed, they also took care of their crime problem.


The History of Clinton County, Iowa.” Chicago; Western Historical Company, 1879

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