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Female Buccaneer of the Sagebrush

By Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner
10/11/2017 • Wild West Magazine

With grace and dash, Susie Raper faced assorted rustling charges, accusations that she murdered a business partner and all the shortcomings of her sons and lovers.

After a month in the Elko, Nevada, slammer, the female prisoner was out on bail in late February 1870, but her legal problems continued to mount. When Judge George D. Keeney gaveled the 11th Judicial District Court to order on March 10, she faced the first of three charges— rustling stock from the Mound Valley ranch of Nevada’s future governor, Major Lewis Rice “Broadhorns” Bradley. After that she would have to answer to the charge of heisting jewelry from the shop of a former employer, Carrie M. Taylor. Also waiting in the wings was another rustling charge; she and her “gang” were accused of applying their running iron to the stock of Nevada rancher J.A. Shepard. For most people such problems would cause major worry. But it was business as usual for the “Female Buccaneer of the Sagebrush,” and as a member of one of the all-male juries confessed, “It is hard to convict a woman.”

“Bronco Sue” was another of her nicknames. “She can shoot a pistol like a sportsman, ride a mustang with all the grace and dash of a vaquero, drive a bull team equal to any Missourian and, in the parlor or ballroom, ‘get away’ with most women for style,” asserted one contemporary newspaper. Hyperbole aside, the larcenies and violence that enveloped Susan Warfield Raper made her an ideal subject for Western yarn spinners, who merged fact and legend into a tale of mystery, intrigue and murder. Her colorful New Mexico years have received the most attention, but earlier she made her mark in Nevada and Colorado. This is her full story, with a number of myths straightened out.

Born in the onetime penal colony of New South Wales, Australia, on September 11, 1844, Susie Warfield left no mark until she immigrated with her brother Joseph to the United States, turned up at Forest City, one of the northernmost settlements in California’s Mother Lode country and met Thomas D. Raper, a 28-year-old Indiana native who moiled for gold on behalf of the Live Yankee Co. (a syndicate working the vein beneath Bald Mountain). On March 6, 1860, the Rev. J.A. Maddux of the local Methodist Episcopal Church married Tom and 15-year-old Susie.

The Raper’s firstborn, Joseph W. (probably Warfield), arrived in 1861. A couple of years later the family abandoned Forest City and its declining mining revenues and hauled their freight to Nevada’s Paradise Valley, an emerging agricultural area in north central Humboldt County. They settled near Susie’s brother Joseph, who reached the valley about the same time. Susie soon gave birth to Robert (circa 1863) and William W. “Bill” (circa 1864/65).

Paradise Valley belied its name. With the Civil War already raging in the Southeast, pro-Union Nevada volunteers had been enlisting in the 3rd California Cavalry, and the territory received authorization to raise its own Nevada Volunteer Cavalry in the spring of 1863. But the Union-Confederate battles seemed distant in light of a pending clash with the Bannock, Paiute, Shoshone, Ute and Goshute tribes of the Northern Basin. Collectively labeled Snakes by white settlers, the tribes had historically resisted the influx of immigrants and opened the 1864–68 Snake War at Oregon’s Wildhorse Creek in April 1864. The fighting spilled into northern Nevada near Walker Lake in March 1865, and Paiutes attacked settlers in Paradise Valley less than a month later.

Joseph Warfield lost his life in a July 26, 1865, clash with Indians near Willow Point at the south end of the valley. Somewhat more fortunate was Tom Raper, who grabbed a weapon from his wagon to join the fight and accidentally shot himself in the arm. (He was left with a permanently disabled limb.) Tradition holds that Susie strapped her wounded husband to a horse, killed two of the attackers and hauled Tom 60 miles south to safety at Camp Dun Glen, then under the protection of a detachment of Nevada volunteers. From Dun Glen they headed south to Unionville, where Susie found a teamster willing to haul the family back to California. Winnemucca’s Silver State daily later reported, “The teamster had five or six yoke of cattle and a regular freighting outfit, and Susie hadn’t a dollar, but before they reached California, Susie owned the team, and the freighter hadn’t a cent. She disposed of the team, left her husband [and] returned [to Humboldt County].” Although Susie and Tom separated, their marriage continued in a legal respect at least until mid-1870. Five years later son Joe claimed to have letters from various people informing him of his father’s death; perhaps they never divorced. Regardless, with Tom in California, Susie took up with Captain Robert C. Payne.

On April 6, 1864, at the onset of the Snake War, Robert Payne, a 26-year-old native of Henderson, N.Y., was living at Silver City, Nev. He traveled to nearby Fort Churchill and enlisted as captain of Company E, 1st Nevada Cavalry Regiment. A year later Payne was in command at Camp Nye when news of the first Paiute attack in Paradise Valley reached Fort Churchill. His orders were to proceed in force to Fort Churchill and then to Star City in Humboldt County to protect the local settlers. The next month Payne’s troop participated in the fight at Godfrey/Table Mountain (May 20), where it lost two men. In September, Payne led 18 of his troopers to investigate campfires in the Santa Rosa Range. At dawn on September 12 he led his detachment in a running fight on Willow Creek in the Quinn River valley. It was the last skirmish in Nevada, and Payne was discharged on November 18 but remained in Paradise Valley at least through mid-July 1866. He also took up with Susie, who also remained in the valley, signing a petition of Paradise Valley settlers in August.

Only fragmentary tales of Susie’s activities survive from the late 1860s— The Silver State wrongly attributed a couple of Churchill County larcenies to her —but it is well documented that by the spring of 1869 she had gathered her three sons and headed southeast to newly formed Elko County. She divided her time between the town of Elko, where she hired on as a dressmaker in Carrie Taylor’s shop, and Pine Valley, south of nearby Carlin in Eureka County, where she started gathering cattle. Her employment with Taylor proved brief; items turned up missing from the shop during Carlin’s 1869 Fourth of July festivities. A quick search revealed various stolen baubles—mostly gold jewelry and $30 in gold coins secreted in Susie’s possession— adding up to an eventual $713 grand larceny charge against her. Susie Raper’s cattle career proved somewhat more durable but no less larcenous. Payne had partnered with John Palmer and James Russell to operate a stage line over their White Pine Toll Road, which ran from Carlin through Pine Valley to Mineral Hill and other points. Susie’s ranch served as the public house or stage stop along the road, as well as the base for her rustling operation.

Just when Susie teamed with local rustlers John Barry and Eli Gibson and started tossing a wide loop over others’ beeves is uncertain, but by early December 1869 Bradley’s Mound Valley ranch and the Shepard ranch, about 65 miles east, had both reported missing stock. Shepard offered a reward for information regarding “strayed” cattle. Charles Edmond “Charley” Smith, a disgruntled former employee of Raper’s, had information that he seemed to pass on to anyone who would listen, an indiscretion that got himself and Gibson arrested. Charley named Susie as the rustlers’ leader.

Susie evaded lawmen for a few days, and the press praised her “fight, nerve and skill in the handling of a six-shooter” during her capture at Austin, Nev., on January 18—the same day a grand larceny complaint named her, Gibson and Barry (who temporarily remained at large). Although tradition has also associated Payne with Susie’s rustling ways, and Charley Smith had worked for Payne before hiring on with Susie, the captain’s name barely entered the proceedings.

John A. Palmer, Carlin township justice of the peace and Payne’s stage line partner, gaveled the preliminary examination to order on January 29, and a string of witnesses testified that Susie had lived in Pine Valley since the previous spring, she soon had a lot of cattle, and the number continued to grow as she acquired more without paying—at least 20 more, so the charges read. She was held for trial at the spring 1870 term of the Elko County District Court. She spent a month in jail on her two rustling counts before the court granted her bail on February 21. But officials immediately rearrested her on suspicion of the Taylor jewelry larceny, a charge that brought a grand jury indictment on March 2.

On March 10, Judge Keeney heard the case against Susie for rustling Bradley’s cattle. The Hon. McKaskia Stearns “M.S.” Bonnifield of Humboldt County, later a justice of the Nevada State Supreme Court (1895–1901), led Raper’s defense team and, according to The Elko Independent, “closed the argument for the defense with one of his most happy and eloquent speeches, for which he received the congratulations of a host of friends.” His opponent, F.M. Smith, Esq., of Elko, proved equally masterful, and listeners agreed it was “Greek against Greek.” Bonnifield evidently triumphed in the Hellenic confrontation. The next day a jury returned a not guilty verdict. Little time passed before Susie was back in court facing the charge of taking jewelry and gold coins from Taylor’s store. Details are sketchy, but again the verdict was not guilty. It was then that a male juror made his “hard to convict a woman” confession. Within a week Susie’s trial for rustling Shepard’s stock began, and she appeared in court with her sons in a calculated effort to wring every bit of support from that all-male jury. The ploy was successful; she was acquitted a third time.

Susie and her sons left the ranch and settled in Carlin following her acquittals. On July 9, 1870, she posted notice in The Elko Chronicle that while she remained the wife of Thomas D. Raper, she wished to “carry on business in her own name and on her own account” in accord with a recent Nevada legislative act and desired to operate a “general ranching business—raising, buying and selling horses and cattle— dairy and lodging-house business.” The court granted her application in late August, but economic problems plagued her. When the Carlin constable seized her racehorse, Humboldt, for Susie’s failure to pay a butcher bill on May 6, the “Female Buccaneer of the Sagebrush” came to town to steal back the steed. Thwarted by a vigilant lawman after what was described as “a liberal exhibition of her well-moulded [sic] extremities to the greedy street gazers,” Susie “left town with curses on her lips.” Accompanied by Payne, she abandoned Elko County, abandoned Nevada and, at least temporarily, abandoned her sons. On March 23, 1871, Joe and Robert showed up at the Nevada Orphans’ Home in Carson City. On April 25, Bill also arrived. The circumstances of their admission remain unknown, but the boys must have proved a hindrance to Susie’s immediate plans.

More than a decade later a tale emerged that Susie and Payne had headed for Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). If so, the sojourn was brief, for they soon showed up in Pueblo, Colorado Territory. As might be expected, rustling supplemented their legitimate income as teamsters. On December 23, 1873, Payne was convicted of larceny in Pueblo County and sentenced to a two-year term in the new territorial penitentiary at Cañon City. (Opened in June 1871, the prison was officially transferred to the territory in April 1874, during Payne’s confinement.) He was discharged on December 23, 1875.

In the meantime, the Nevada Orphans’ Home had released Susie’s son Bill to her in Colorado. The orphanage had discharged brother Joe on September 24, 1872, but he was indentured to Carson City farmer James T. Griffith on March 31, 1873. Joe wandered into Elko later that year to find his mother, and he, too, finally caught up with her in Colorado. The home’s lack of a written record regarding their brother Robert suggests he fled from both the orphanage and his mother. An 1886 report reveals he made his way to Sheridan, Wyoming Territory, and died there in his early 20s.

Payne’s two years as a guest of the territory caused him to turn over no new leaves. On May 1, 1878, he was again convicted of larceny in Pueblo County and sent off to the Cañon City lockup, which, with statehood in 1876, had become the Colorado State Penitentiary. Susie evidently had no intention of waiting two more years. By 1879, sporting the handle Susan Stone and joined by sons Joe and Bill, she had moved on to Alamosa in the San Luis Valley. The family ranched and operated a stage line to San Antonio, some 35 miles distant. Payne, meanwhile, served out his sentence and was released on February 1, 1880. But rather than join Susie (he probably was not invited), he went to work as a teamster for the Cañon City prison and later headed north to Laramie, Wyoming Territory. Susie, always alert to new opportunities, turned her attention south.

In 1598 Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar singled out Ohkay Owingeh a few miles north of present-day Española, as New (“Place of the Strong People”), a Tewa pueblo  Mexico’s first capital. The completion in December 1880 of the narrow gauge “Chile Line” (Denver & Rio Grande Railroad), which connected Alamosa and Española, drew Susie to the historic Española Valley and its emerging railroad town. The coming of the iron horse attracted Jacob “Jake” Youncker as well. Born in Liberty, Mo., and Susie’s junior by almost a decade, this son of a French father and German mother had immigrated to New Mexico via Independence, Ark., and opened an Española saloon to cater to the thirsts of parched gandy dancers. Jake and Susie reportedly married, and in June 1882 they hauled their saloon business to Wallace (present-day Domingo), then a railroad town between Santa Fe and Albuquerque named for Lew Wallace, the novel-writing former territorial governor.

About July 1883 Jake and Susie and her sons abandoned Wallace in favor of Lincoln County. The Younckers bought Lot 1 in Block 61 of White Oaks, a lively town then experiencing growing pains in the wake of the region’s 1879 gold discovery. They also struck up a friendship with Scottish native Robert S. Black. Described by the Albuquerque Evening Democrat as “about 6 feet tall, fine-looking, wore a heavy black beard,” Black, Susie later averred, carried a torch for “his wife who left him.” Some six months after their arrival Jake contracted smallpox while traveling from Fort Stanton to Santa Fe. Black helped out during Jake’s illness, but the acute viral disease killed Youncker in the spring of 1884. Susie dug a grave, buried Jake and exchanged letters of grief with his brother David, then proposed a business partnership with Black.

In July 1884 the pair headed to Socorro, where Susie opened a boardinghouse in the Cartmell Building and Black rented rooms for a saloon in the Walker House. They maintained separate residences until mid-August when Black’s saloon failed. About that time he also claimed to have deeded a ranch to Susie. Although land records in Lincoln and Socorro Counties fail to support the tale, tradition has it the two had a falling out over proceeds from the sale of the property. Black went on a binge late in the afternoon of August 23.

Susie raced to City Marshal Robert B. “Bob” Featherstone and begged for Black’s arrest. Featherstone collared Black, escorted the intoxicated man to the Grand Central Hotel, got him a room and accepted his assurance he would stay away from Susie’s house. Three hours later Black left the hotel and returned to the boardinghouse. Again he and Susie fought. The ruckus brought Deputy Robert W. Monroe, to whom Susie appealed, “Tell Black that all I ask is for him to give me some security—not to bother me or come around my house anymore, and I will not bother him—but if he comes around anymore, I will kill him.” Monroe hauled Black to the local lockup and held him overnight. Released the next day, the hungover man placed life and limb in jeopardy (“I know she will shoot—she is a shooter from way back,” Black had told Featherstone) and once more headed to Susie’s house. Again they clashed, and, according to Susie, he came at her with an ax and fell victim to a bullet from a smoking .44-caliber revolver. The Socorro County grand jury heard a number of witnesses on her behalf, quickly found she had acted in self-defense and ordered her discharged.

Susie moved to nearby Doña Ana County, where she met and claimed to have married stockman Charles Dawson, though the county has no marriage record on file. In common with others who took up with Susie, the rest of Charlie’s days were few in number. Doña Ana cowman John H. Good, already caught up in a bitter range-rights feud with New Mexico cattleman Oliver Lee, was also at odds with Dawson; it was understood they would shoot on sight. Some believed Good had had an affair with Susie; others thought the problem concerned range rights. Both opinions seem unfounded. It was Good’s supposed relationship with another woman and Dawson’s loose tongue that caused bad blood.  On the morning of December 8, 1885, Susie drove a wagon with Dawson following on horseback. A few miles from La Luz, Good, out for a buggy ride with a Mrs. Jenks, spied Dawson, handed his passenger the reins and grabbed his rifle as Susie ran forward begging him not to shoot.

Susie later testified, “Good halooed for Dawson to come up an talk like a man and said to him when he came, ‘You’ve been talking about me.’ [Dawson] said, ‘No, Mr. Good, I have not,’ to which Good replied, ‘You have been writing to my wife that I was living with a woman.’ My husband said that he would meet at any place and talk it over, and Mr. Good said he would meet him at the store in town. Afterward he said, ‘Dawson, the town can’t hold us both.’ Then we separated.”

Hours later Good sent a cowboy named Mackey to arrange the meeting with Dawson at the La Luz store. Joined by A.J. Burk and Susie’s son Bill, Dawson set off with Mackey to face Good. Concealed by a wall, Susie followed with a rifle. Witness Charles Rhodins recalls Susie saying that “if there was any trouble, she would be there; if not, she would keep the rifle hid.”

Dawson and his group reached the meeting site to find Good accompanied by Lewin McFerrin. The parties exchanged heated words as they approached each other, but Dawson extended his right hand toward Good and asked, “Did you tell Mackey…?”

With that, Bill Raper challenged McFerrin, “What are you doing here?”

“Looking on,” McFerrin retorted.

Even as they spoke, Raper and McFerrin yanked pistols and fired simultaneously—but ineffectively. Raper continued shooting as he dodged and fled. Seeing McFerrin fire, Burk drew his pistol and fired one shot in the direction of Good and McFerrin before he, too, raced away. Dawson then snatched his Winchester from its scabbard and snapped off an errant shot. As he fired a second round, Good shot him down. Susie started forward, and McFerrin stepped back into a hallway. She stopped, then raced for the hidden rifle, but returned too late to do anything other than cradle Dawson’s head as he died.

No prosecutor appeared at the subsequent hearing, and Humphrey Hill, the precinct’s justice of the peace, dismissed any charges against the participants. Unsatisfied, Bill Raper rode to Las Cruces and filed another complaint against Good and McFerrin.

On Sunday, December 13, Doña Ana Deputy Sheriff J.L. Sleese escorted Good and McFerrin from Tularosa to Las Cruces for a preliminary hearing. Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, the region’s Republican kingpin with a host of political enemies, represented the prosecution. Good hired prominent attorneys Major William H.H. Lewellyn and Colonel William Rynerson and also brought charges against Bill Raper and A.J. Burk for an assault with attempt to kill. On March 13, 1886, a grand jury indicted Raper on the charge, and Susie posted his $500 bail. Good’s murder trial opened 11 days later.

Fountain again prosecuted. Good hired Rynerson, Las Cruces attorney Simon Bolivar “S.B.” Newcomb and Thomas H. Franklin (a former district attorney from San Antonio, Texas) and offered the standard frontier plea of self-defense —he had repelled force with force. After several days of deliberation the jury returned a not guilty verdict on April 3. Meanwhile, in an unanticipated turn of events, Doña Ana County Sheriff Eugene Van Patton arrested Susie on March 29 and hauled her back to Socorro to face a new indictment; the killing of Black just would not go away, and some wrongly believed the arrest was an effort to prevent Susie from testifying for the prosecution at Good’s trial.

Susie quickly discovered the true circumstances behind the new indictment. To help quash the charges against him, Bill Raper had returned to Socorro and testified against his mother before a new grand jury. Later, he also involved his brother Joe. On December 1, 1886, a Socorro County grand jury indicted Joe as an accessory to murder for having incited and counseled his mother to kill Black. Already jailed in Socorro, Joe remained in Sheriff Charles T. Russell’s custody.

Fountain hired on as Susie’s attorney and secured a change of venue from Socorro’s jurisdiction on November 19; the case was sent to Grant County. Copies of the Socorro Daily Chieftain were filed in support of the motion, and Judge William H. Brinker held that the “publication of the article undoubtedly prejudiced a large number of people.”

The trial of Bronco Sue, indicted as Susie Yonkers [sic], opened in Silver City on December 15 amid fanfare and journalistic hyperbole. The local press reported, “Spectators were surprised to find the defendant a gray-haired woman of 45 years and not one who appeared dissolute. From her appearance she was evidently used to a rough life, battling with the world; stern looking, tall, rather slender, with the hand of a man, self-possessed, respectable-looking but unattractive.”

Fountain, who continued as her lead counsel, always attracted attention, but the appearance of Bill Raper as the principal witness for the prosecution drew disgust from onlookers. “Certainly,” the press reported, “no one expected that a son reared as he had been should be governed by all the finer impulses, for oranges cannot be made to grow on sagebrush; but from the mouths of men only expressions of scorn could be heard for this depraved young man—a self-confessed scoundrel.” Most damaging, Bill testified that his mother had killed Black to prevent him from sending her to jail for rustling, and that she had planted an ax by his body to support her claim of self-defense. Susie testified, claiming that she “did not wish to prove [her son] a perjurer,” but she had shot Black in self-defense.

The trial resumed the next day, and Fountain’s closing argument turned the focus on Bill: “Go forth, you accused and branded thing; henceforth no honest man will take your hand in friendship; henceforth no woman, however low or vile she may be, will submit to the caresses of the infamous being who has sought to consign his mother to the gallows.” That afternoon the jury deliberated briefly, found Susie more credible than her son and returned a not guilty verdict.

With Susie’s acquittal, interest in the dysfunctional family waned. Joe Raper posted $500 bail on February 5, 1887, and the court dismissed the “accessory to murder” charge on March 28. A month later Doña Ana County Sheriff Santiago P. Ascarate arrested the generally despised Bill Raper for making up a disparaging song about the Doña Ana County jail. Justice George Butchofsky dismissed the charge. Joe was back in the news in mid-July, accused of stealing stock from his mother and running the beeves into Mexico. Officials reportedly recovered 23 head of Bronco Sue’s stock.

While her sons occasionally worked their way into the news, their mother quietly gathered her resources together. On May 19, 1887, Susie Dawson sold her lot in White Oaks for $50 and disappeared from the documentary record.

The press described Susie Raper as having a “natural and graceful appearance, a keen eye, quick intellect, a tongue that swings on a pivot,” with “no superior in boldness, dash and intrigue, if any equals.” But was she a black widow killer or just a brash and self-confident woman plagued by a succession of bad luck? No matter the answer, she was one of the West’s more colorful and notorious personalities.

 

The wife-husband writing team of Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner Jr. has long contributed to Wild West and has authored a half dozen books, including The Bronco Bill Gang (2011). John, a longtime history professor at Palomar College in Fallbrook, Calif., died in February 2011. Suggested for further reading: The Fabulous Frontier, by William A. Kelcher; The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864–1868, by Gregory Michno; and Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West, by C.L. Sonnichsen.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.  

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