There is a certain beauty in the harshness of western North Dakota winters. Winds howl across the prairie, through the coulees, and sometimes bring the effective temperature as low as forty below. Snow, not always abundant, is often a patchwork with gray and brown rather than a continuous blanket of white. Days are short in deep winter with as little as nine hours of daylight. Men and beasts adapt, putting on their winter coats and hunkering down for those long months until the ground thaws and grasses grow tall again. Those that survive these winters are men with resilience and determination, and animals that herd together for warmth and scratch through frozen ground. Every so often there is a temporary respite when days warm and the ground begins to thaw.
The winter of 1918 was Charles Martell’s tenth year out west. In 1908 he came to visit his uncles who were early pioneers along the border of North Dakota and Montana, near the Yellowstone River. Martell started with one hundred sixty acres filed under the Homestead Act and established a prospering horse business. His ranch was about thirty miles west of Watford City in McKenzie County, tucked back in the hills along Charbonneau Creek. His brother Ernest had a place about twenty miles south of his in the badlands of the Little Missouri River. Martell brought his horses there for the winter where it was more protected and provided better foraging;when spring came they would round them up and bring them back to his ranch to get ready for sale.
The men that pioneered the west were mostly honorable and hard working. However, there were always those who thought nothing of taking someone else’s hard work and livelihood as their own. For years the area had been plagued with rustlers.They had a large operation working out of Belfield, a small town in Stark County. They were stealing stock by the carloads. The “brains of the outfit” were men named McCarty, Dans, and Hardy, who stayed mostly at eastern markets disposing of the animals the rustlers shipped to them. They had a large network of accomplices, a hundred miles in all directions from Belfield, locating stock and giving the thieve shelter.The locals were becoming increasingly frustrated.
In December 1918 there was a stretch when days warmed and the frozen ground softened. Ernest was happy for the respite and ventured out. He heard something a few nights earlier; it could have been any number of things, but now he knew what it was. Ernest traveled to his brother’s place to let him know he had found a large number of horse tracks going through his pasture. He was certain they went through at night about ten days earlier. The tracks clearly avoided the more natural trail that went along Bowline Creek, through badland canyons and several other ranches. Martell sensed immediately this was the gang; anyone taking horses through that country at night, in the dead of winter, was not moving them honestly. The rustlers knew the horses had been turned out for winter and would not be looked for until spring.
Martell figured they went south to ship the stock out on the Milwaukee Railroad where they were less apt to be seen. He went to talk with the McKenzie County States Attorney who declined any action; he was not sure who, if anyone, had lost horses and Martell could not be certain who had gone through Ernest’s place. This was unacceptable. The thieves were already two weeks ahead and someone had to get on their tail now. Martell decided it would have to be him.
Quickly packing Martell grabbed his old pepperbox pistol, he knew it was unreliable but otherwise only had long guns. He was not looking for a fight, but he might be up against a ruthless bunch. It was well known that at least one of the gang always wore a gun. Martell first went to Belfield and met with the town marshal. Working together they learned two railroad cars of the stolen horses had been shipped to East St. Louis for sale at auction. Martell began tracking the thieves and ultimately got on their trail at Lemmon, South Dakota. He continued on by train arriving in East St. Louis the night before the auction.
East St. Louis was the perfect place to take stolen stock. In the early twentieth century it was an important transportation center where twenty – two railroad companies converged. A group of investors began the St. Louis National Stockyards in 1873 building a complex that included a hundred acres of animal pens, exchange building, national bank, post office, and one of the finest hotels in the area, the National Hotel, where Theodore Roosevelt once stayed. In 1907, the stockyards were incorporated, and by 1910 had a population of 58,000. By 1920, the stockyards had the largest horse and mule market in the world. Not only was this the best place to market stock, it was a great place to do business without drawing attention.
Martell arrived and checked into the National Hotel learning Hardy and McCarty had checked out the day before, having been tipped off he was on their trail. Martell also learned some horses had already been sold by private transactions. However, he made it to the auction and was able to get paid for the group of stolen horses that were sold at that sale.
By the time the auction was over Martell was sick with the deadly Spanish flu which reached North Dakota in the fall of 1918. Ironically, the flu hit young robust adults the hardest. Martell spent the next six weeks in bed at the National Hotel; the flu developed into pneumonia and other complications bringing him near death. The hotel management, afraid the man who alone came after a gang of rustlers would die on their premises, brought in a nurse to tend him
Martell finally pulled out of it and was strong enough to return home. The local farmers and ranchers now realized their stock was gone and the States Attorney came out to his place to find out what he knew. This did not sit well; he gathered information, followed a notorious band of rustlers alone at his own expense, retrieved sale money for victimized owners and nearly died because the States Attorney had not been ready to act. However, being more interested in justice than his pride, Martell reached an agreement to share what he knew.
The State’s Attorney felt he needed more proof to be sure the charges would stick and the gang could not regroup. In June of 1919 he and Martell traveled back to East St. Louis and gathered enough additional evidence to all but guarantee convictions. Hardy, one of the ringleaders had disappeared, but ranchers and farmers who lost stock put up a $1000 reward for anyone who “will give information leading to the arrest and actual delivery of Hardy…” When Hardy was ultimately sent to prison, he listed his employment when arrested as “dealing in stock”.
As members of the gang were caught they began talking. A range detective arrested one who then informed on the others and more members of the gang were picked up. One of these, Al Metsler, who always carried a firearm, boasted if his comrades squealed he would kill them. Instead, he quickly turned state’s evidence and made a deal for himself.
Regardless, these bandits who had devastated many honest and hardworking families were finally gone. Martell briefly addressed this stating: “There have been stories written in books by parties who wanted to get the credit for the cleaning up of this gang, but these are the true facts.” The gang was broken up with six members, including leaders of the outfit, going to prison due to evidence Martell obtained with his determination to act when others would not.
North Dakota Horizons magazine
- Autobiography of Charles Franklin Martell
- Letter of Charles Franklin Martell, Jr.
- Helen Martell Kane, San Diego, Ca.
- Lloyd Lester, Fairview, ND
- The West That Was, by John Leakey
- Newspapers: Schafer Record, McKenzie County, North Dakota, 1919, 1920
- North Dakota State Petitionary records
- Wikipedia; National City, IL.
- Martell family photo archives