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Dabner the Horse Thief

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I grew up in Willow Springs, next door to the author of this article, J. Carl Ferguson, who told this story to me a few years later. This story was written by Ferguson in 1969 for the maiden issue of the Howell County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 1. It was also published on the occasion of the Willow Springs Centennial.
 
Carl began his story with a note: “There are probably slightly different versions of the Dabner story, but this is the way I heard it as handed down through the family of Jim Harris, who lived in Willow Springs at the time and was a member of the posse.” Jim Harris was James Ward Harris, credited with founding Willow Springs in 1869. The event described likely occurred sometime between Harris’ arrival in Willow Springs between 1867 and 1870. Harris was Carl Ferguson’s grandfather, and Carl heard the story firsthand from family members. 
 
During the war, James served in the Fifth Missouri State Militia, a Union Cavalry Regiment, and saw combat on several occasions, often with guerrilla bands. Following the war he was unable to live at his home in Birch Prairie (Birch Tree) and traded his property to Ezekiel Jones, who had lived in what is now Willow Springs near the MFA Exchange. Harris built a home up the hill from Jones’ home, which was burned in the war, where the Masonic Lodge is today. There he started a general store, first in a portion of his double-pen log home, later in a building housing the first post office for Willow Springs. The Harris’ had eleven children, ten surviving into adulthood.
 
Dabner, the Horse Thief, by J. Carl Ferguson
 
“Settlers who lived in the Ozarks and soldiers returning to their homes after the Civil War had seen enough of violence and outlawry. They wanted only to be left to go on with the business of rebuilding their lives and property, in peace. Any criminal bent on upsetting this plan was apt to find himself meeting swift and rough justice.”
 
“The James-Younger gang and their faraway ventures in train and bank robbery might go pretty much unnoticed, but let a horse thief start operating in a neighborhood and, as one old timer put it, ‘pistols would bark on the hillsides like foxes!’ And with good reason. For when a thief made off with ‘old dobbin,’ he was taking not only transportation, but also the principal means of providing food, shelter, and clothing for the family as well.”
 
“Knowing this, it is unlikely that the notorious John Dabner gave his real name when, shortly after the war, he showed up at the Jim Harris home in Willow Springs and asked for a night’s lodging.”
 
“The Harris home stood at the corner of the present First and Harris Streets and was used by many travelers in those days as an overnight stop. Mr. Harris had never seen Dabner, and since there was nothing too unusual about a rider showing up with a string of horses, Dabner was told to stable his horses and join the family in the hewed log house. Neither did his departure, early next morning, raise any suspicion. He had a lot of miles to travel if, as he said, he was going to deliver the horses in Arkansas.”
 
“That afternoon, as Harris tended his country store and post office, he was visited by an armed posse of five or six men led by a deputy from one of the counties to the north of Howell. They were looking for stolen horses. Dabner was the suspect, and he was evidently the man who had stopped there overnight.” 
 
“It didn’t take long for Harris to saddle up, get his old Civil War revolver, and join the posse. They soon found that Dabner was traveling isolated roads leading, generally, toward the North Fork of the White River, which was southwest of Willow Springs. The group, making inquiries along the way, stayed on the trail well into the night. They camped and rested their horses near the present-day community of Siloam Springs.”
 
“The next morning, as they neared the site of Hammond Mill in Ozark County, they met a hunter who told them he had seen a man fitting the description and thought he was headed downriver. Signs indicated that Dabner had left the main road not far from Blue Spring, which is a short distance from Hammond Mill. The posse soon found the string of horses tied off the trail. They were identified as the stolen ones by owners who accompanied the deputy as part of the posse.”
 
“Dabner was later flushed out of the woods nearby and was ordered to surrender. He refused and started shooting instead. He was soon cut down by fire from members of the posse, thus escaping the usual penalty for horse thieves- that of being hung from the nearest tree. This case was widely publicized at the time and probably did much to discourage would-be thieves and other types of criminals seeking to set up shop in the area.”
 
Local lore and a stone marker near Bat Cave on the Norfork River marked the grave in the Mark Twain National Forest just off the Ridgerunner Trail. I floated this section of the Norfork many times over the years but did not see the marker. I have spoken to several who have.  
 
Indeed, the area of South Central Missouri had become a refuge for bushwhackers and thieves after the war. Many men had taken to the brush during the war and resorted to living off the remaining populace after the war. Many were disgruntled Confederate soldiers who were reticent to surrender because of what they had done during the war. Some had no allegiance to either side and had fled to the woods to avoid conscription by both. In Oregon County, the Missouri State Militia was called out to suppress “horse shines,” as they called horse thievery. The heavy-handed tactics of Monks and his men led to a request from the populace to allow Oregon County to raise its own armed posse, which they did, and eventually eliminated much of the threat. Still, horse stealing persisted, often a source of hard money in a cashless economy. The stolen horses were most often transported south during the war to be sold or given to the Confederacy and after the war to the Indian Territory, where much lawlessness existed, and buyers did not ask questions as to the source of the animals. 
 
To the west of Howell County, post-war activities of Douglas and Christian counties to suppress horse-stealing included ad hoc associations and groups formed for that purpose, the most notorious “Baldknobbers” being the most extreme example. The punishment was universal in this era: hanging, most often on the spot, and the body left to hang in the woods until it rotted and fell, as an example to others. Knowing their fate, most suspects chose to fight it out when cornered.
 
Eventually, civil law, through the use of the telegraph and railroads, became effective in suppressing the problem, though Howell County Sheriff Elihugh Cordell would be the first law enforcement officer in Howell County to be killed attempting to arrest a horse thief.
 
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