Though both of these landmarks are in Hodgeman County and have almost identical names, they are miles apart and totally different.

Horsethief Reservoir, 9 miles west of Jetmore on Buckner Creek, has little history as it opened in 2010.

History-laden Horsethief Canyon is about a dozen miles southeast of Jetmore. It is in the bed of Sawlog Creek, which connects to Buckner Creek, and is 12 miles northeast of Dodge City on the east side of U.S. Highway 283.

A large cottonwood tree which settlers claimed to be the largest tree in western Kansas used to occupy the canyon.

The canyon got the name Horsethief because in the late 19th century it was a gathering place for outlaws including cattle rustlers and horse thieves. The large tree was the site of at least one vigilante hanging.

In the spring of 1878, John Callahan, John Cole and an unknown, who were working for "Dirty Face Ike" allegedly herded stolen horses 300 miles to the canyon. A Sumner County posse had little trouble pursuing them since this occurred during the wet season which made it easy to track the imprint of their horse’s hooves in the wet soil. While alleged thieves were eating lunch with a 16-year- old boy, who worked for early Dodge City homesteader Henry L. Sitler, the posse caught up with them. After Callahan pleaded for the boy’s life, the posse let the young man go, but they hung the men from the large tree. While searching for stray cattle, local homesteader W.H. Labrand, found their bodies hanging from the cottonwood. He notified Ford County sheriff, P.F. Sughrue and coroner, John B. Martin, who buried them nearby.

Hearing the tragic news, Callahan’s father came from Topeka and, with the assistance of Ham Bell and Sughrue, he had his son’s body removed and shipped home. The other two bodies were later moved to the Spearville Cemetery.

There may have been many other undocumented illicit executions at the tree. Rumor had it con artist and thief Ben Hodges, after being caught in one of his schemes, had a choice of having his hamstrings cut or being hung from the cottonwood. By the time he died in 1929, he was considered a beloved old-timer by the residents of the area. And the tree outlived Hodges.

By the turn of the century, the tree and the surrounding Horsethief Canyon provided a place for family picnics, dancing, swimming, horseback riding and general playing. People flocked from all around the region. Eminent late 19th and early 20th century photographer, F.M. Steele, had his photograph taken at the base of the tree.

In the summer of 1931, Bob DuPruee and Charles A. Everton opened an "amusement park" at the site with a dam forming a 4-mile navigable reservoir stocked with bass, bluegill, perch and crappie. The spot even had a nine-hole golf course and miniature golf.

Sometime in the 1930s or early 1940s lightning struck the tree and its south side was killed. In April 1959 the tree still stood and was estimated to be over 100 years old. The tree has since completely died, though the canyon, which sits on private property, still exists.

 

Kathie Bell is the curator of collections and education for Boot Hill Museum.