Swindlers of the Old West
By Connie Kutac
Life in the l9th century West wasn’t easy. Most men had to labor long and hard just to keep food on their tables and roofs over their families. What little they managed to save could be lost so easily---Indians could burn them out, disease might kill all their livestock, hail or drought could wipe out an entire year’s crop.
If by luck and hard work a pioneer managed to accumulate some money, swindlers and confidence men were eager to trick him out of it. Fortunately for the con men, news often traveled slowly. A really sharp swindler could successfully use a scheme over and over before word of it spread and people became leery. Con men preyed on all segments of society---farmers, emigrants and cavalrymen. Sometimes they even finagled ways to get around government laws and regulations.
Those traveling in wagon trains were often easy to deceive. They were in new situations and locations. They didn’t understand the land or the weather. Early winter storms could immobilize them; summer dust storms could blow up out of nowhere; flash floods could be fed by storms in mountains miles away, so even when it wasnâ€t raining on the flats, walls of water could rush down the washes and engulf them. They didn’t understand the Indians or how to deal with them, even when they were friendly. Consequently, emigrants had to depend on the advice of ones who had made the trip before---wagon masters, scouts, mountain men or traders along the Western routes.
Even the best route to take was often debatable. Trails had cutoff, some considered to be easier or shorter. Members of more than one wagon train reported meeting a man by a spring near the road. He told each group that he was waiting to meet his family. He wanted to catch them before they passed the turnoff for a new cutoff that saved 200 miles. It was later found that although the road he described looked all right at first, it soon deteriorated to an impassable state. Anyone trying it would soon have foot-sore, possibly crippled animals and the rough road would tear up the wagons. Some unfortunate emigrants who took the cutoff into the isolated region found that the man who had given them the directions had henchmen there. With broken-down wagons, the emigrants had more supplies than they could carry back to the main route. The opportunists there at the roughest part of the trail offered to buy the supplies and worn-out animals at a very cheap price.
Facing so many dangers in common (drought, starvation, Indians, sudden sickness) all but the stingy and the loners tried to help each other out. If a man’s food was washed away when crossing a river, others of the wagon train chipped in with supplies. If a man lost his wagon or team, ofttimes he was allowed to finish the trek in another wagon---usually at no charge.
Then, as now, the one most likely to be taken advantage of was the good Samaritan. Some immigrants started the trip with little food because they counted on living off their kind-hearted fellow travelers. One man had journeyed from the East Coast all the way to Ft. Kearny by eating the food of others and riding in their wagons. He even bragged about depending on Christians to feed and transport him.
Early day Plains travelers wrote that the Indians always seemed to come out ahead when trading with the white man. In l850, after much dickering, an ancient Snake brave traded eight $5 gold pieces for a white man’s rifle. After the Indian left, the white man discovered that his “gold pieces” were actually just trading tokens issued by a nearby hardware store.
When some of the first emigrants through Indian country lost cattle, they paid a reward to braves who would help find the animals. The Indians quickly learned to “borrow” the livestock so they could get a reward to return them.
Owners of some trading posts along the old trails used underhanded methods to increase their business. One unscrupulous trader convinced many emigrants to take a longer, rougher cut-off, that took days longer. That made his store the last establishment for hundreds of miles and hence they bought more provisions at his store.
One trading post was well known for sending out one of his men masquerading as an emigrant. This representative would bad mouth his boss’s main competitor, claiming they had cheated him. Sometimes they would sway the opinion of an entire wagon train and gain the unscrupulous trader an enormous amount of business.
Near the end of the trail, when the teams of oxen, mules or horses gave out, the emigrants had to abandon them or lead them on without the wagons. Sometimes on easier trails, when the animals could keep going, the emigrants would be almost out of food and their animals would be all they had to trade for supplies. In either case, the stock speculator would profit. He would assure the travelers that further on in California the animals, their tack and the wagons were of little value. It would be better to trade the animals before they died anyway. Often an emigrant would trade a worn-out horse or mule for a sack of flour. The speculator would graze the animals until they fattened, then drive them to California to sell for a nice profit. One pioneer who sold his cattle for a pittance and found out later that he had been hoodwinked, said that he finally understood how Esau felt when he traded his birthright for a bowl of pottage.
A farmer didn’t even have to leave home to lose his money as swindlers went right to his homestead after it. The “farm machinery swindle” required only two things---a generous farmer and a large barn. A well-dressed, amiable salesman would appear at the farmerâ€s house with two or three piece of machinery in tow. He’d chat with the farmer for awhile about crops, weather and such. Then he would ask if he could store his machinery in the farmer’s barn. If he had room, the farmer would usually grant permission.
After the machinery was in the barn, the salesman explained to the farmer that he’d had a marvelous season and those three machines were the last of a large lot he had to sell. If the farmer would sell those machines for him, while they were stored in the barn, he could have 50% commission on the sales.
It usually sounded plausible to the farmer, especially if he had had a bad year and needed the money. The salesman was always slick-talking and before long the naive farmer was signing a contract which he didn’t really understand because of all the big words and double-talk. But the salesman had told him that it was only an agreement stating that he was storing the machinery and was also guaranteed 50% commission on each one he could sell.
Thirty days later, a stranger arrived at the farmer’s house and demanded payment for the machinery in his barn---and at an out-of-sight price. When the farmer tried to explain that he was merely doing the salesman a favor by letting him store the machinery in his barn, the farmer was shown his signature on the contract, which was actually a bill of sale. A local lawyer was usually consulted and the farmer was told that the bill of sale was legal and binding. The farmer had to pay for the machinery and ended up losing anywhere from $200-$500.
Some crafty men even figured out ways to con the government---like the itinerant trader who made most of his profits by peddling rot-gut whiskey to the Indians. Then came this new law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages to the Indians. Did he give up his lucrative business? No way! He bought a wagonload of potatoes and headed out to the reservations, taking the usual amount of whiskey along with him.. Then he moved from Indian camp to Indian camp, selling his potatoes. He sold the wagonload in no time at a dollar a potato. You see, he gave a free shot of whiskey to everyone who bought a potato.
A shrewd farmer put one over on the government too. Seems there was a local ordinance regarding homesteads that said a house built on the land had to be at least 12 x 12. Since the law didn’t specify exactly what units of measure it meant, this farmer built his house 12 x 12---but in inches, not feet.
In l855 Louis Remme tricked a bank out of $l2,500 and it was all perfectly legal---we think. In Sacramento one morning Louis was enjoying his breakfast with more than usual satisfaction. He had just made a good deal, selling some cattle for $12,500, and had deposited the money in the nearby Adams & Company Bank.
He bought a paper from a passing newsboy, flipped it open and almost choked. The bold headline proclaimed that the San Francisco office of Adams & Company had gone under.
Perhaps there was still time to draw his money from the nearby office before it closed too. Louis tried but a mob of people was there by the time he reached the Adams & Company Bank. Now what could he do? All the branch offices in California would close their doors before he could reach any of them.
He thought a few moments and then realized that what he had to do was get to Oregon before the news reached there as well---after all, there werenâ€t any telegraph lines reaching there. News would be carried on the next steamer out of San Francisco. The only way to save his money was to beat the boat to Portland, where there was an office of Adam’s & Company, so he could draw his money before they learned of the company’s collapse.
Louis rode day and night, changing for a fresh horse when the one he was riding tired. He slept an hour or so only when he could go no farther. He ate in the saddle to save time. He kept up the frantic pace for six days and nights. Arriving in Portland, he rushed to the Adams & Company office, presented his deposit certificate and asked for his money. He was paid $12,500. As he left the bank, he heard the steamer chugging up the river. In less than an hour, news of the failure of Adams & Company had caused the closure of the Portland branch. Louis had won and with little time to spare.
Even a captain in the United States Army could fall for a con man’s line. In 1864 at Fort Kearny a young man approached Captain Eugene Ware and asked if he could talk with him in private. They went off to one side and the young man said that he was with one of the wagontrains. He was headed back to the States, but had run out of money entirely.
The young man then lit a candle, set it on a wagon wheel, pulled out a gold watch and handed it to Captain Ware. By the flickering light of that single candle, that watch gleamed. As the captain examined the watch, the young man said it had been given to him by his father and although it was very precious to him, it had to be sold. Since his health was poor, he had to get home as soon as possible and he was too weak to work his way.
Although the watch had cost his father $200, the young man said he’d take $50 for it. He fully intended to get his watch back as soon as he could send the money to redeem it. He explained that the reason he had chosen Captain Ware was because he was in the army and therefore it would be easy to trace him and get his watch back..
Captain Ware later told how he turned over the $50 and the young man clasped his hand with real affection and seemed genuinely grateful as he gave him the watch. Captain Ware put the watch away for three or four days. When he finally looked at it closely, he found that it had tarnished. It was not gold but a cheap metal imitation called pinchbeck. Perhaps it had even been tarnished the night the young man gave it to him, but by candlelight it couldn’t be detected.
Captain Ware later found that a dozen of those watches could be bought for $48. There were many of them scattered along the road between Denver and Omaha and many of them had been purchased for $50 each by gullible people. According to Captain Ware, it was a new scheme and as such, a good con man could make $1,000 a month in the West, until he was found out.
Just like P. T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”