‘Flopping Bill’ Led In War on Lawless
Unusual Character, Who Won His Name as a Woodchopper, Was Chieftain of Men Who Drove Out Montana Desperadoes.
The settlement of Clarks Fork valley and this section of the Yellowstone is an interesting chapter of the claiming of the northwest to civilization, according to accounts of the early happening, as told by pioneers of this region.
Within a scant two years after the founding of Billings in 1882, it was found necessary as in the case of Virginia City to organize the vigilantes for dealing in summary manner with horse thieves, operating along the Musselshell and in the country as far north as the Missouri.
In this movement, “Flopping Bill,” a character now all but forgotten, was in the forefront.
Where “Flopping Bill” came from none can say; probably he was one of many attracted to Montana from the middle west during the gold excitement. It has been written that his real name was “Quantrell” and that he participated with the famous “Quantrell” guerrillas in war times. But this is probably a yarn, and his true name is believed to have been William Cantrell.
How He Got His Name.
The nickname “Flopping Bill” was given to him when he was a woodchopper on the Missouri river. Bill was a hard worker and chopped and piled many hundreds of cords of wood for the river boats. When asked how he succeeded in getting out so much wood he once replied, “The trees is froze and I just strike ‘em once and they flop open.” So he was named “Flopping Bill.”
Bill lived along the Missouri river for many years and knew every one of the desperate characters who crossed and recrossed the river with stolen horses and made its banks their rendezvous. He lived down there as long as it was considered healthful for one, not a member of the gang and after that he went to Maiden and became a cowboy with the “D.H.S.” outfit. He was chosen leader and guide of the fearless men who undertook to rid this country of some of the worst thieves and desperadoes who ever drove off a bunch of stock.
Two Rustlers Killed.
The first appearance of the vigilantes was at Claggett, now Judith, on the Missouri, June 28, 1884. There one breed was shot and another hanged. The name of the breed who was captured and hanged was Narcisse Laverdure; his uncle was wounded but got away. A man by the name of William T. Thompson came upon this pair with 60 head of stolen horses. He was taking Laverdure to Claggett when over taken by a posse, who relieved him of his prisoner, and after securing the breed’s confession, hanged him to a convenient tree.
Here are transcriptions of two news articles for the incident above:
A horsethief named Narcisse Laverdure was lynched at Judith Landing on the Missouri on the night of the 26th of June.
Helena Independent, The (Helena, Montana) Jul 10, 1884
Near Judith Landing, on the Missouri river, on the 26th of June last, two half-breeds stole five head of horses from A.J. Wells’s band. As they were driving them off they were met by William Thompson, who knew the horses and ordered them to stop. This they refused to do, but separated and started off at full speed. Thompson gave chase to one of them and captured his man. He was brought back to Judith Landing, and the same night, fourteen hours after the horses were stolen, was hanged to a cottonwood tree and placarded “Horsethief.” His name was Narcisse Laverdure, and his companion who escaped was his uncle.
Helena Independent, The (Helena, Montana) Jul 13, 1884
Back to the original article:
July 3 another breed, Sam McKenzie, was taken on the Fort Maginnis reservation and hanged, his body being left suspended with a placard attached reading “Horse Thief.” The soldiers cut down the body and interred the remains.
Organization of the vigilantes had not then been fully perfected, but a start had been made.
Fourth of July Battle.
On July 4 a party of men passed through Maiden en route to Spring creek in quest of Charles Owens and Charles Fallon, much desired had men. Arriving at Lewistown that night they found that the good people of the new town had already taken good care of these two, for both had been killed the same afternoon in a pitched battle with the citizens.
It was then arranged that one party should leave the following morning for the mouth of the Musselshell, where they were to be joined by another party, which, taking a different route, was to meet them at the rendezvous across the Musselshell, but on this side of the Missouri. The main party stalked their game to the cabin of one, Downs, which had been looked upon as a meeting place of the horse thieves, and, taking Downs by surprise, secured information from him which greatly assisted them in locating some of the characters most desired and incidentally ascertaining where there were cached a bunch of horses which had recently been stolen from stockmen of the basin. One story is to the effect that Downs was anchored to a grindstone in the river, but be that as it may, he was disposed of and at the same time a fellow known as California Ed met his just deserts.
But the smaller party had failed to make a junction with the rest of the vigilantes and to ascertain their whereabouts a wait occurred. Two days later the parties were united and a start was made down the river. Crossing 12 miles below the mouth of the Musselshell, the men continued down the river, traveling light and only at night, in order not to flush their game.
Fight Around Blockhouse.
Late in the evening of July 19 they came upon old man James and his gang. The thieves had guards out to note the approach of intruders, but the vigilantes succeeded in creeping in and not until about sun-up were they discovered. Here there was a blockhouse, or log cabin provided with port holes, an improvised tent made of a wagon sheet hung, over a pole, a corral and stables. One of the guards, abandoning his mount, when he saw the vigilantes had the camp surrounded, succeeded in creeping in through the brush and reaching the tent, where a part of the 13 of the gang were sleeping. Some made a dash for the blockhouse, 300 feet distant, while others took to the brush. Of the latter was Dixie Burroughs, a nephew of Granville Stuart, but one of the worst of the rustlers. He received a shot which crippled him, but he found a cottonwood well which gave him shelter and he afterward escaped to meet his fate within a month later. Old man James attempted to reach the blockhouse, but hit being made too hot for him he was forced to let down the bars of the corral and turn loose six head of fine horses, nearly all of which had been stolen from the mounted police of Canada. The old man, however, succeeded in reaching the house and participated in the battle, which lasted from soon after sunrise to 11 o’clock. In this fight two of the James boys were killed, also a fellow known as “Dutch,” and four were crippled, including Burroughs and old man James whose given name was never known.
Stolen Horses Recovered.
Hundreds of shots were exchanged between the vigilantes, protected by the brush, and the men in the house. The stable and corral, were fired but the house did not catch fire, as some stories of this fight have stated. Seeing that they were baffled and that the situation was such that some of their own men might be injured or killed, it was decided to withdraw and wait a better opportunity to deal out justice to the remnants of the gang.
In this fight there were 16 vigilantes engaged and there were supposed to be 13 of the gang of thieves. Seventy head of horses were captured, sent back to Fort Maginnis and restored to their owners as far as possible.
The party then went down the Missouri to the mouth of Hell creek, crossing the Big Muddy at the same point chosen by Chief Joseph when at the head of his Nez Perce warriors he crossed to the north side to meet General Miles in battle. On the ride up Hell creek to its head two more bad half-breeds were overtaken, but both were turned loose, after being relieved of some information and the horses they were riding.
Cattle Turned Back to Range.
From Walter & Donovan’s point 120 head of cattle were driven out and turned back toward their range. These had been stolen from stockmen on the Musselshell and driven in there for butchering.
This completed the biggest job of that summer and the vigilantes returned to their ordinary vocations.
About the middle of August word was received at Fort Maginnis that soldiers from Fort Shaw, camped on Poplar river, had captured five of the desperadoes who had successfully stood off the vigilantes at the James stockade and the authorities were advised that if a United States marshal was sent the captives would be turned over to him.
Prisoners Taken From Posse.
Sam Fishel, a deputy then stationed at Fort Maginnis, was started accompanied by a posse. He received the prisoners on Poplar river and turned back, but about 3 a.m. of August 20 he was relieved of his charges by four men who had their plans well laid, and had secured a leave of absence of two or three days from the Judith round-up and the next morning five bodies, including that of Dixie Burroughs, were laid in a shallow trench alongside the waters of the Missouri — and there weren’t any nooses left dangling from the trees either, for these five were suspended from a single rope, thrown over a branch, with a sufficient force at one end to lift the burden tied to the other end for the brief time required. These five went across the great divide in one, two, three order.
Float Down to St. Louis.
This was the last of the vigilantes in this part of Montana, for during the six or eight weeks preceding this last episode raft building had been popular and many a man had saved his neck by floating away toward St. Louis.
“Flopping Bill” afterwards acted as a guide for a party of stockmen which made a similar clean-up on the lower Yellowstone and crossing its mouth, followed up Mouse creek to the Canadian line, having occasion to dig several long and narrow graves while en route. It was reported that 60 were summarily disposed of on this expedition.
Cantrell continued to be identified with the stockmen of this section for a number of years. Leaving Fergus county he located in the southwestern part of the state and upon an expedition to Kansas City several years later he was run over by a train, his feet catching in the rails as he attempted to cross the track ahead of a locomotive.
The Billings Gazette (Montana) Saturday, July 9, 1927
For more, see previous post, “Flopping Bill” Cleans the Ranges of Desperados.