While the Harpes and Murrell were busy robbing and killing along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, another organized group of criminals arose in Georgia and wreaked havoc for many years on Indians and whites traveling the roads of the peach state. Rather than kill for slave stealing or highway robbery, they set their sights on horses. There are several reasons why horses are easier to steal than slaves. Horses are impersonal and don’t think of getting away; they are portable like slaves; everyone wants a horse and of course horses don’t shoot back.
Stealing horses had a long tradition in the colonies and by the early 1800s, had become big business. It had a long history in the frontier for several reasons. Horses represented movable assets for people with no land ownership, Crackers and Indians. To Indians, getting guns had been a priority: the Westos were one of the first tribes to have muskets and they immediately began raiding and enslaving Cherokees. The Cherokee learned and got their own guns and wanted horses. Horses roamed freely in the back country and grazed at will, while the planters and yeomen tended to pen all their livestock. The horse population rose dramatically as most early settlers tended to be single men with pack horses and no wagons or oxen. Horse theft soon became rife especially among the Indians. McLoughlin and Conser (1984), in Cherokee Ghost Dance, discuss the evolution of horse thievery among the Cherokee.
…while horse stealing had its roots in tribal warfare, in which booty taken from the enemy was always a sign of prowess and bravery, it also stemmed from the fact that Cherokee owned their land in common. Since no man could buy or sell land as a means of enriching himself, the prime source of frontier enterprise was closed to them…Hence movable or personal property became more important to them than to a white man as a means of investment or growing wealth once they were told to become capitalists (32)…
Land could not be sold; cows moved too slowly and could not be hidden; and slaves could fight back or inform authorities. Another reason Indians became involved in horse theft was the depletion of game. Coming home from a hunting trip without game was nothing to look forward to. Unable to hunt, the adventure and bravado of stealing horses became popular with the younger set of Indians, much to the chagrin of older tribesmen who considered it dishonorable. Furthermore, horse stealing had the inherent dangers of a raiding party with the real expectation of fighting. Indian braves became horse thieves to satisfy a once respected notion of tribal warriors defeating their enemies. Senior tribe members looked on in disgust as more and more braves took up this fake bravery. The braves themselves preferred horse thievery to hoeing a garden day in and day out (McLoughlin and Conser, 1984: 32).
The Indians had a particular system for stealing horses. Horses stolen in the east would be traded in the west and vice versa. McLoughlin and Conser discussed the Indian system:
A detailed study of horse stealing on the frontier would reveal a great deal about its economic development and difficulties. For example, it seems evident in the 1790s the Cherokees stole horses in the West and bartered them for goods in the East where the market was better, while in the early nineteenth century the need for specie on the frontier made it more profitable to steal horses in the East and trade them in the West. “This business is carried on by white people and Indians in combination”, wrote (Tennessee Governor) Blount in 1792, “and as soon as a horse is stolen he is conveyed through the Indian nation to North or South Carolina or Georgia and in a short time to the principal towns on the seaboard for sale so as to prevent recovery...” (1984: 33)
Bureau of Indian Affairs chief Meigs is also quoted 15 years later, indicating the horse stealing trade is moving west to east:
…The number of horses carried thro’ and into this (Cherokee) country is almost incredible-from Georgia, both the Carolinas and Kentucky ( McLoughlin and Conser, 1984: 33).
In either case the Indians found themselves between the eastern and western settlements and used their position to great advantage.
The Cherokee were not the only Indians stealing horses. Menawa of the Creeks’ name means “horse stealer”. The Creeks found themselves between the French and Spanish and the English and exploited that position not only in terms of politics, but also in terms of selling stolen horses and slaves. Nor was horse stealing mainly an Indian adventure. It was obvious early on the poor whites were involved in the enterprise. In many cases they worked with the Indians to steal horses:
Horse stealing, of course, was not merely a symptom of the breakdown in Indian culture; it was so endemic upon the American frontier, that it obviously represents the breakdown of European culture on its outer fringes. Horse stealing provided one of the few areas of frontier life in which Indians and whites worked harmoniously together sometimes in trying to catch the thieves, sometimes in belonging to the pony clubs constituted to do the stealing (McLoughlin and Conser, 1984: 31).
Cherokee horse theft from white border settlers usually resulted in the Federal Government repaying the victim from the Indians fund for land sales and treaties. In some cases, Cherokees stole from prominent wealthy Indians like James Vann, who sparked the use of “light horse patrols” in the lower towns, but who was undoubtedly killed by those who wished to continue the practice.
Pony Club: a club or set of individuals who deal with horses, but it doesn’t mean today what it did in 1827. Like the Murrel Gang, the Pony Club had members in various parts of Georgia who would facilitate the movement of “hot property”, mostly stolen horses, from county to county and state to state. These clubs have been called offshoots of the Murrell Gang, Tories, Indians and a number of other things and seem to have taken on lives of their own. They operated exclusively in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and to some extent South Carolina, from about 1814 until the 1840s and were found mainly in the frontier areas from Hall to Muscogee County, Georgia, , but also mentioned in Jackson and Bibb Counties as well as along the old Federal Road to New Orleans. Early travelers to the area recorded instances involving these horse thieves. In Freeman’s history of Stone Mountain, Georgia, he notes the Goulding party of explorers had a run in with the club:
Goulding’s party stopped under a cavern formed by a pile of boulders to escape the heat and eat lunch….At their camp that evening, they had a surprise visit from two members of the “pony club”, a gang of horse thieves who specialize in stealing riding stock from unwary travelers. The camp was prepared for such an eventuality, however, and the two rode off with a shot from Scipio’s gun (1997: 27).
All pony clubs seemed to have the same structure and follow the same rules that we saw for the Murrell Gang. Friends and family in different parts of the country handled stolen horses or cattle or whatever for a common cause, the resale of the property. Like slave stealing, property would be passed along and alibis for those suspected provided by a close network of individuals bent on making money the fast easy way. Even as far away as Illinois groups worked along these same lines. Wildwood (1890:) wrote about an Illinois Lawyer and his run in with a group of horse thieves. A man’s wife came to his office and begged the lawyer to represent her husband who had gotten mixed up with horse thieves:
Ah, sir," said she," a better man at heart than my George never lived, but he liked cards and drink, and 1 am afraid they made him do what he never would have done if he had not drank. I fear it can be proved that he had the horse; he didn't steal it, another stole it and passed it to him.... The gang, of which he was not a member, had persuaded him to take the horse. He knew that it was stolen, and like a fool acknowledged it when he was arrested. Worse still, he had trimmed the horse's tail and mane to alter his appearance, and the opposition could prove it (148-150)…
He was able to get the man off with a light sentence but within a few months saw the woman again at a rest stop on the Shawneetown road. He had picked up fellow travelers along the road and the woman identified them as members of the horse thief gang her husband had gotten in with earlier. He was able to extricate himself from their company and having sabotaged their wagon axles, made it to safety.
There are several theories on the development of the Pony Club in Georgia. That they were related to the Murrell Gang is hard to prove; none of the Council for Murrell in Georgia are listed as members of any Pony Club. There are several Instances wherein Murrell is said to have availed himself of hideouts in Barrow, Fulton and Forsythe counties. He is even mentioned in association with the history of Jackson County, at a place called Tallapahoo:
There Britt Langworth, believed to be a member of Murrell's Pony Club dressed in fine broadcloth and sparkling with jewels, was drowned in time of high water (Wilson and White, 1914: 53)…
The Murrell theory doesn’t hold up well because the pony club seems to predate his “mystical clan”, has an entirely separate set of perpetrators and seems to be germane to Georgia mainly: If anything, it is more likely the passage of time has telescoped people’s memories as it so often does, so that events that are unrelated become mixed together. Any incident resulting in murder, cattle rustling, slave stealing or horse theft could be attributed to Murrell or the Pony Club or both.
One theory, offered by archeologist Larry Meier, of the Greater Atlanta Archeology Society, is that the pony boys began as cut throats in Florida during the Revolutionary War and as a result of actions by the Spanish Governor, were forced up the Chattahoochee River to Sandtown, Georgia, in then Dekalb, now Fulton County. This frontier faced Creek and Cherokee Indian lands at their boundary, Buzzard’s Roost Island, a mile north of Sandtown. Meier notes:
...Sandtown had been a base for a gang of marauders called the “Pony Club” or “Pony Boys”. The complaints about the raids from these outlaws came from both Creek and Cherokee settlements and from white farmers as far east as the OconeeRiver in GreeneCounty. They seemed particularly vicious in an age already known for its rough- and- ready resort to violence. They ran off stock killing what they could not take, robbed homesteads of all movables, and were accused of Robbing and killing lone travelers.
The depredations under the name “pony Boys” appear in the records from about 1814 until 1836, when at a time that the enemy of the Georgians was welcome among the Creeks, the gang apparently joined the Upper Creeks along the TalapoosaRiver where they took up wives and families. Eventually, when the Creek Removal came, the Pony Boys moved westward with their families (Meier,1994).
Meier contends that having removed West, the Pony Boys became those fierce western outlaws like the Doolins, Daltons, Hardens and McQueens that we have become familiar with in books and cinema.
Central to Meier’s theory is the commingling of lawbreakers, runaway slaves, British Loyalists and anti- American Indians in Spanish Florida. History brings the dregs of the New World to one place and provides the impetus for attacking Georgia and South Carolina; stealing horses and slaves and anything else which isn’t tied down and performing depredations in the style of wild Indians in an attempt to undermine the new United States Government.