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Mojave Desert History - Pioneer of the Mojave
Outlaws on the Mojave

New Sheriff Pursues Horse Thieves

Months had now passed since the rampant horse theft first began, but the worst of it was soon to be over. The fall elections had taken place on September 4, 1861, and one of the offices on the ballot was that of county sheriff. Following a vote count made tardy by the slow receipt of ballot boxes from remote precincts, the official results had been approved on September 16th, and certificates issued to the duly elected officers. Eli Smith had won the election for sheriff, and one of his first acts after taking office was to assemble a posse and pursue the horse thieves.

A San Bernardino correspondent informed the Star that he had received a letter from Sheriff Smith, posted at Fish Ponds, in which the sheriff reported that he was on the thieves' track, "with some prospect of catching them." The correspondent had confidence in the new sheriff, and concluded, "Mr. Smith don't know any such word as fail." At this same time, another party of seven men started out to pursue the horse thieves, but this group gave up when they found out that the outlaws they were tracking were "numerous...and well armed."

These failed vigilantes would have had a taste of glory had they joined forces with the sheriff, because the following week news was received that Smith had been able to capture three prisoners and recover 40 head of horses. This caused quite a stir, and earned him effusive praise from the Star:
    This is the most important movement ever made, of this kind, in this lower country, and reflects the highest credit on the sagacity, the courage and enterprise of Mr. Smith. He penetrated into the very camp of the outlaws, and carried off their booty. The confidence reposed in Mr. Smith by the voters of the county, has already been amply vindicated. One of the prisoners effected his escape on the Mojave, but as he was left without provisions, boots, hat or coat, his capture is certain.
As it so happened, the Star was once again justified in its opinion that most of the thefts were being perpetrated by Mormons. The outlaws captured by Sheriff Smith turned out to be three local men, brothers Daniel and Jacob Harris and Peter Sprague. Justice was swift in those days. In this case indictments were issued by the grand jury, the defendants tried, and the verdicts and sentences published in the newspaper, all by early November.

The Star announced on November 5, 1861, that Sheriff Smith had boarded the steamer Senator at the port of Los Angeles, together with his "traveling companions," Peter Sprague and Daniel Harris. These two, the paper said, would be boarders at the state hotel at San Quentin, where Sprague would be provided with board and lodging for five years. Harris was "not so lucky," the reporter quipped, since he would have "only a four years engagement." The outcome of the case against Jacob Harris is unknown, as there was no information that could be found in either the newspaper or in the court records.

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