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Outlaws on the Mojave

The Motivation for the Horse Thefts

Just what caused this flurry of horse thievery in San Bernardino County cannot be stated decidedly. The offenders for the most part were not professional outlaws, so there must have been a feeling of opportunity provided by the Civil War for those who might otherwise have followed the straight and narrow path.

Many of the thieves may very well have belonged to that group of people referred to earlier as "transient Salt Lakers" -- Mormons without permanent roots. Of those who had answered Brigham Young's call to return to Utah in 1857, even the most faithful chafed at the tyrannical rule of this despot.

The San Bernardino Mormons had grown accustomed to the liberal regime of Amasa Lyman, Church leader and co-owner of the Rancho San Bernardino, and they resented some of the more odious intrusions of the Church into their family life. Many returned to San Bernardino over the years, some as early as 1858.

If some of the thieves were indeed transient Salt Lakers, it would explain much about their involvement in such a risky pursuit. Men who had lost their investments in the community, restless and discontented, might be tempted by the prospect of adventure and easy money.

It is also possible the Mormon horse thieves did not see their actions as criminal, but rather as heroic. During the Mormon War, the members of Utah's militia who had harassed the U. S. Army troops were seen as heroes. For years the Mormon hierarchy had preached that their people had been abused, that they should not again fall victim to mob rule as they had in Missouri and Illinois, and that the United States, or the United States Army at least, was their enemy.

The exploits of Lot Smith, in particular, delighted Mormons. He was the leader of a small band of zealots who, during the U. S. Army's incursion into Utah in 1857, burned three government supply trains, set fire to grasses on the plains to deny fodder for the enemy's stock, and drove off 1400 head of government cattle, among other daring feats. His attacks were audacious and astounding, and took place under the very noses of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston's troops.

Admiration for these exploits was only natural during a period of war. However, since anti-U.S. sentiment still ran high in the Mormon community, it is conceivable that the criminals in San Bernardino saw the theft of the "enemy's" horses as anything but dishonorable. In their eyes they may have been the modern David defeating Goliath.

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