The Battle of Bonesteel

Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 2

The Battle of Bonesteel

Scroll to the end for a writing prompt.

“Not every man who came to Bonesteel that summer was a good man. Mama read in the newspaper about pickpockets and thieves and gamblers—she called them the bad element. They came to the town to take ad­vantage of all the rich people who were coming for land.” Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux

Oscar’s Gift begins with Tomas and his mother coming to the South Dakota town of Bonesteel in the summer of 1904 to try their luck in the land lottery (see “The Open Range and New Land Openings“). It is here where Tomas meets Oscar Micheaux.

According to Micheaux biographer Patrick McGilligan, on July 5, 1904, Micheaux got off a train in Bonesteel, the end of the line of the Chicago & North Western Railroad, but found the town, in Micheaux’s words, “crowded and lawless” and “overrun with tinhorn gamblers.” Instead, he moved on to Chamberlain’s land lottery three weeks later, where McGilligan writes there were “superior hotel accommodations and service from three separate railroads.”

“He stood in a long line, swore an oath that he was a citizen of the United States and twenty-one years of age (not quite true), and signed his application. By the end of the day, ten thousand applicants had registered in Chamberlain alone.” ~ Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker, by Patrick McGilligan (Harper, 2007), p. 31

In our story, however, Oscar arrives in Bonesteel on the day of the lottery and remains there long enough to stand in line with Tomas and his mother before deciding to move on.

A July 24, 1904 New York Times article (see a pdf here) tells the story of what happened in Bonesteel during the intense summer of 1904:




Vigilantes Round Up 100 Bad Men

and Ship Them Away.




South Dakota Town Patrolled by 200

Determined Citizens—Land Seek-

ers Will Be Protected


Special to The New York Times.

                BONESTEEL, S.D., July 23.—State troops are being mobilized at several different towns to-night and will start for Bonesteel Sunday or Monday in order to protect the people during the drawing and filing period, which begins next Thursday. If Bonesteel passes to-night without being destroyed all will probably be plain sailing thereafter because of the presence of the militia.

                Two hundred armed vigilantes are patrolling the town to-night to prevent friends of the thieves and gamblers from firing some of the flimsy buildings and destroying the whole town.

                One hundred thieves, pickpockets, gamblers, and bad men in general were this morning rounded up by the vigilantes and this afternoon were placed in cattle cars and carried out of the State, being dumped on the Nebraska prairies, nearly 100 miles from Bonesteel.

                The real trouble between the citizens and the tough element is due to the utter lack of means among the latter. People of that class had gathered in Bonesteel from all parts of the country expecting rich picking when the crowd came. But the crowd was made up of good, solid men, and the gambler and the sure-thing men were left severely alone by the land seekers. Many of the gamblers had been in town for a year or more, and were about all in. This forced them to turn robbers, and to clash with the citizens, who were attempting to protect the land seekers.

                Last night passed quietly, but a serious shooting affray occurred to-day. Two special policemen, Sylvester C. Harrison of Witchita, [six] Kan., and a man named Stanbrough were shot in front of a saloon by a gang of thugs, who then escaped. Harrison was shot in the forehead, but it is hoped he will recover. Stanbrough’s wound is in the leg, and is not serious. Harrison is a young man of means, and when he arrived here last night he joined the police force from his love of adventure.

                It is reported that a battle has occurred a mile east of the town, in which a dozen or fifteen shots were exchanged, but the details are not obtainable.

Bonesteel today has a population of 275 residents, with a historic marker commemorating the “Battle of Bonesteel.” The photos below are courtesy of Jimmy Emerson (jimmywayne on Flickr), a veterinarian whose goal is to “visit all 3,143 counties or county equivalents in the United States before it’s all said and done.”

Battle of Bonesteel Historic Marker (photo credit Jimmy Emerson)
Battle of Bonesteel Historic Marker (photo credit Jimmy Emerson)
Downtown Bonesteel (photo credit: Jimmy Emerson)
Downtown Bonesteel Today (photo credit: Jimmy Emerson)

Writing Prompt: The New York Times article above mentions Sylvester C. Harrison, “a young man of means” from Wichita, Kansas, who, upon arriving in Bonesteel, “joined the police force from his love of adventure.” He was shot the next day in his role as “special policeman,” with stated hopes for his recovery. Write a short story about the Battle of Bonesteel from Sylvester’s point of view.

Click HERE for the full Reading Guide.

Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

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