There is a place in Lincoln County, northeast of Pioche about 19 miles, on State Route 322, named Horsethief Gulch. It’s the campground at Spring Valley State Park. Just how the name came to be is anybody’s guess. Certainly some sort of such activity must have occurred there to warrant the name.
However, a much more distinct place for horse thieves in the days of the Old West in this part of Nevada was in the Pahranagat Valley. Author George Goodman relates that “because of the isolation and long distances from civilization, in the years just following the Civil War, the Pahranagat Valley caught the eye of horse thieves.” Not that there were many horses here to rustle, or cattle for that matter, for there were not, but Goodman notes, “with the plentiful water supply and lush green grasses of the valley, it became a mecca for both horse and cattle thieves” coming in from neighboring states.
Just when the first horse thief discovered the valley is probably unknown, and that really doesn’t matter. But discovered it was, and soon had become a rendezvous site for those engaged in such enterprises. Goodman writes, “In the pleasant surroundings, without the worry of law enforcement officers, stock brands could be altered at leisure, tired horses rested, and stolen cattle safely fattened on pasture grass, prior to driving them on to California for sale. As a result of this splendid adaptability, thousands of animals stolen from ranges in Nevada, Utah, and the Arizona territories ultimately found their way into the valley.”
Between 1866 and 1875, rustling operations became so flagrant, it was even documented by one person who rode through the valley from Maynard Lake to Hiko, that he counted as many as 350 different brands in a single day. Most had been reworked with a “running iron or a cinch ring.”
Professor Phillip Earl, director emeritus of the Nevada Historical Society, wrote in an article called Rustler’s Rendezvous, “the valley was an ideal hideout, far removed from any major town and provided the maximum of protection for rustler bands.”
There were a few settlers in the valley at the time, the Sharp’s and the Gear’s, for example, among a few others. Hiko, was a town by now, but only a little one. There was no officially organized law enforcement. With understandable cause, settlers did not like the rustler’s bringing the animals into their peaceful valley, even if it was to stay for just a short while.
Earl writes, “Small groups rode together in heavily armed posses, well mounted, and determined to run down and provide necktie parties for some of the unwary thieves.”
But it really wasn’t enough and the problems continued as rustlers still used the valley as their headquarters.
However, on one occasion, Earl writes that some Utah ranchers trailing a suspected rustler and murderer did catch up to him in Pahranagat Valley. They informed the local ranchers they were going to take him into custody and “hang ‘em high,” the standard punishment for horse thieves. Then they would take their stock back to Utah.
Anticipation was high, now the locals had a bit more manpower. Without a great deal of trouble, the posse found the suspect, riding down on him at nightfall. He was taken to the nearest barn and a hangin’ was soon to follow. Judge, jury, and executioners all at the same time.
“By lamplight,” says Earl, “posse members tightened the rope around the rustler’s neck. Just as the leader was about to yell “hoist,” a razor sharp voice commanded “Halt!” The posse men found themselves staring straight into the double muzzles of a shotgun protruding through the barn door.”
Earl continues, “Heaving a sigh, the doomed man loosed the knot around his neck, and with a flourish and mock courtesy, bid his captors goodbye. Rustlers have friends too, and laughter echoed against the hills as all rode back to their campground at Crystal Springs.”
But that was not the end, oh no. Earl notes the incident so enraged the settlers that a ‘601’ organization (kind of vigilante group) was formed and within a few years there were no more rustlers visiting the Pahranagat Valley.
Surprisingly, according the reliable sources, even in the 21st century, horse theft is still relatively common, with an estimated 40,000 horses a year being taken from their lawful owners by strangers or opponents in civil or legal disputes. No longer a capital offense, stiff sentences of up to 60 years have been known to be imposed.