In May 1903, Antone Kemnitz decided he’d had enough. The young cowboy caught a ride into town, sold his saddle and bought a one-way ticket east on the Rock Island Railroad. Although Kemnitz was leaving the Oak Ranch for good, he kept the Colt revolver given him by the Dewey Cattle Company. It would make a good souvenir of his adventures as a Dewey cowboy on the high Plains of northwest Kansas.
In 1901 Kemnitz and some other cowhands from Manhattan, Kan., had hired on at the sprawling Oak Ranch on Beaver Creek in southwestern Rawlins County. Soon after their arrival, long-simmering differences had heated up between their cattleman boss and a family of tenacious sodbusters named Berry. It had become routine for the Berrys to fire rifle shots over the heads of Dewey cowboys while they were out herding cattle and fixing fences. That had been a routine young Kemnitz could not get used to no matter how hard he tried. Things had gotten so bad that Kemnitz just knew someone was going to be killed. That someone would not be him.
What happened next was probably even worse than Antone Kemnitz had imagined. Just a few weeks after Kemnitz lit out with his souvenir Colt, Daniel, Alpheaus and Burch Berry lay dead in Alpheaus Berry’s farmyard in neighboring Cheyenne County, and word spread that Roy Berry would likely die from a bullet wound to his face. It was the 20th century, but this big rancher–small farmer feud had turned as deadly as most any Western land squabble of the Wild West days.
Following the bloodbath, Chauncey Dewey and his cowboys holed up at the Oak Ranch, refusing to surrender until Sheriff Robert McCulloch of Cheyenne County could guarantee their safety from angry mobs of settlers said to be gathering at the Berry farm. Dewey claimed that the Berrys had fired first and he and his cowboys had returned fire in self-defense.
If Daniel Berry had known that in northwest Kansas he would butt heads with a cattle rancher, maybe he would have stayed in the East. But then again maybe not. Standing over 6 feet tall and weighing close to 200 pounds, Daniel Berry had never been one to run from a fight, and neither were his three boys, Alpheaus, Burch and Beech.
Daniel and his younger brother Edwin arrived with their families in Rawlins County, Kan., in 1885. During the years that followed, the Berrys weathered blizzards, droughts and crop failures. While many homesteaders gave up and left, the Berrys held on even after they encountered the opposition of the cowboys from the mighty Oak Ranch.
At about the same time Daniel and Edwin came to Kansas, another pair of brothers was investing in real estate in the northwest part of the state. Unlike the Berrys, A.B. and C.P. Dewey of Chicago had more money than they knew what to do with, and they put a fair amount of it into Kansas ranchland. In 1899 C.P. Dewey sent his 22-year-old son Chauncey to Rawlins County to learn ranching.
Owning a ranch out West was a fad among wealthy Easterners in the late 1800s, and a number of ‘dudes,’ future president Theodore Roosevelt among them, invested in ranchland. Frank Rockefeller, younger brother of multimillionaire John D. Rockefeller, owned a ranch adjacent to the Oak Ranch. But the ranching business was no fad to Chauncey Dewey. His dream of an empire covering endless miles of shortgrass prairie soon collided with Daniel Berry’s vision of a landscape dotted with small family farms. Chauncey accused the Berrys of cutting fences, rustling his cattle and vandalizing ranch buildings and wells. Daniel accused the Oak Ranch of allowing its cattle to devour his crops.
While Daniel took his complaints against the Oak Ranch to the governor and the secretary of the interior, his sons Burch and Beech and their cousin Roy, the son of Daniel’s brother Edwin, turned to firearms for protection. On June 24, 1903, the Mercury of Manhattan quoted J.B. Dyatt, who the newspaper called ‘one of the most influential men in and about Goodland.’ Dyatt said that the Berry boys were ‘dead shots….Burch…could take an egg, throw it far up into the air and shatter the shell before it hit the ground. He could do the same with a rifle.’
The Dewey cowboys went armed as well at the turn of the 20th century, and Chauncey Dewey, like Burch Berry, had a reputation as a marksman. Pearl Hutchinson, whose husband Harry worked at the Oak Ranch at the time of the feud, later recalled: ‘Dewey would have glass bulbs come in by the barrel full. He would have some of the boys toss them up and he would take a pop at them just for sport.’
According to a reporter for the Kansas City Star, within a week of young Dewey’s arrival at the ‘great ranch,’ he had ‘demonstrated that there was not a cowboy…who could ride like him; none could handle a six-shooter or Winchester so quickly or shoot so true; there was not a man on the ranch he could not handle with his fists.’
In the spring of 1902 the conflict reached fever pitch when Daniel and his nephew were jailed in the Rawlins County seat of Atwood, Kan., for assaulting Dewey employees who were planting barley in a field previously owned by the Berrys. Warrants were also issued for Burch and Beech, but the two brothers had made themselves scarce.
Rumors circulated that Daniel and Roy had been unjustly imprisoned, and on April 21, 1902, 70 to 100 farmers gathered at the Oak Ranch to express their displeasure. A small group of farmers, including Daniel Berry’s eldest son, Alpheaus, were received privately by Chauncey Dewey. According to the March 4, 1904, Republican Citizen, a Dewey employee named Rolle Walters later testified that he saw Alpheaus take ‘a nickle plated revolver from his hip pocket, look at it, and return it to his pocket just before entering the office.’
A letter written by Chauncey Dewey about the meeting appeared in the May 2, 1903, Atwood Patriot. ‘A company of eight intelligent gentlemen were cordially received at ranch headquarters on Monday, the 21st,’ he wrote. ‘It was shown… the difficulty with the Berrys arose entirely out of their refusal to vacate premises owned by the ranch.’ The Goodland Republic of May 9, 1902, reported, ‘After ascertaining the facts…the majority of the farmers that were demanding Berry’s release refused to have anything further to do with the matter.’
Although other farmers may have withdrawn their support from the Berrys, this meeting failed to settle the differences between the Deweys and the Berrys. In the months that followed, threats and accusations escalated. There was no turning back, no backing down.
On May 14, 1903, a notice appeared in the Cheyenne Rustler announcing that Sheriff McCulloch would hold a public auction at the Alpheaus Berry farm at 2 p.m. on June 2. ‘One 12-foot Goodhue windmill and one 15 barrel wood stock tank,’ according to the paper, would be sold to satisfy claims against Daniel Berry and his family resulting from a suit over property rights successfully brought against them by the Oak Ranch.
On the day of the sale, Chauncey Dewey sent Al Winchip and Frederick Dye to the Berry farm to purchase the windmill and tank. Along the way, Winchip and Dye met fellow Dewey cowboy Tom LeBow and asked him to accompany them. When the three men rode into the Alpheaus Berry farm, Burch Berry drew a pistol and ordered them to get off the property. The cowboys waited in the road until Sheriff McCulloch arrived. Winchip asked McCulloch to bid on his behalf, and McCulloch made the winning bid of $5 for the tank. McCulloch also bid on the windmill, but he let it go to Roy Berry for $10.25, two bits more than Dewey had authorized Winchip to pay for it.
As Winchip, LeBow and Dye rode away, they were waylaid by Burch and Roy Berry, who gave them a good cussing and called Chauncey Dewey a ‘blue-bellied coward’ among other things. When Winchip asked if he could come for the tank the next day, Burch replied, ‘You want to be damned sure to send the right kind of man after that tank, and he wants to be a big enough man to take care of himself.’
Upon his return to Oak Ranch, Winchip reported the day’s events to Chauncey Dewey. Never one to back down when he met resistance, Dewey set out the following afternoon with 10 of his employees to bring back the $5 tank come hell or the Berrys. Those who accompanied Dewey on June 3, 1903, were Al Winchip, Frederick Dye, Tom LeBow, William McBride, Clyde Wilson, Charles Wilson (no relation to Clyde), Tom O’Neill, James Armentrout, Ben Slater and Ed Tucker. Armentrout and Dye rode in a flatbed wagon drawn by two mules. The other men rode horseback. Many years later, Dewey claimed a 12-year-old boy also went with him that day, but this boy has not been identified.
McBride and Clyde Wilson were two of Dewey’s most trusted and valued employees, in part due to their military service. The small and dark-haired McBride had served 31 1/2 years in the U.S. Army and was a stable sergeant in the 16th Battery of the U.S. Field Artillery at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when he left the Army in February 1902. McBride was a constable in Rotate Township in Rawlins County, but his jurisdiction did not extend into Cheyenne County, where the Berry farm was located.
The tall and fair-haired Clyde Wilson had enlisted May 2, 1898, in Company M of the 20th Kansas Volunteer Infantry at his hometown of Salina, Kan., and was discharged October 28, 1899, at San Francisco. During his time in the military, Wilson was in some of the fiercest fighting in the Philippine War.
Dewey obviously felt both McBride and Wilson were the ‘right kind of man’ to face up to the Berrys. As things turned out, he was right. The other men who accompanied Dewey that day were cowhands and farmers, some of whom had homesteads in the area. Most if not all the Dewey men carried guns. Chauncey Dewey himself took along a .303 Savage rifle and either a .38- or .41-caliber Colt pistol (see ‘Guns of the West’ in this issue). The others are thought to have been armed with .30-30 Winchester rifles and .41-caliber Colt pistols provided by the Dewey Cattle Company.
While Chauncey was preparing to ride out after the tank, the Berrys went about their chores. Brothers Burch and Beech Berry and cousin Roy spent the morning at the farm of Alpheaus Berry doctoring a wire-cut colt as Old Dan worked in a nearby field. Friend and neighbor Leonard ‘Len’ Capron came by in his one-horse road wagon looking for some runaway horses. Capron’s brother was married to Roy Berry’s sister.
When it came time for the noon meal, Alpheaus, Burch, Beech and Roy Berry and Len Capron traveled 11 1/2 miles south to the farmstead of Daniel and Harriet Berry to have dinner with Harriet and Beech’s wife, Winnie. Beech, Winnie and their two children were living with Dan and Harriet at the time.
Daniel stayed behind and ate dinner with Alpheaus’ wife, Viola, and her three children. Before they finished eating, Viola heard someone knock at the back door and went to see who it was. She found William McBride and Clyde Wilson, who asked where ‘the boys’ were. When Viola replied she didn’t know, McBride asked if it was all right if the Dewey men loaded the tank, and Viola told him to go ahead. Daniel rose from the table and went out to the tank, where he proceeded to tell Chauncey Dewey a thing or two.
Meanwhile, the Berry boys spotted the wagon and riders approaching the Alpheaus Berry farmstead and assumed they had come from the Oak Ranch. Alpheaus got into Len Capron’s wagon, and the two men headed north. Burch, Beech and Roy mounted their horses and followed. Beech and Roy later said they and the other boys rode down to see if the Oak Ranch boys needed help loading the tank and to make sure the cowboys did not bully Daniel.
Len Capron stopped in the road, and Alpheaus climbed down and went into the house through the front door. Capron drove on. Once inside, Alpheaus laid his coat on a chair and went out a back door to join his father and the Dewey cowboys at the tank.
Moments later, Burch, Beech and Roy rode into the yard, dismounted, and tied their horses to a wagon near the house. They began walking toward the tank, adjusting their gun belts. Who fired first is uncertain, but there is no doubt about the outcome. Within minutes, Daniel, Alpheaus and Burch Berry lay dead or dying of gunshot wounds. Nearby, Roy Berry lay unconscious, having been hit in the face by one of the first shots, and Beech Berry hid behind a barn where he had run for cover. From behind the wooden tank and a nearby sod wall, Chauncey Dewey and his men kept a wary eye on the gruesome scene before them. Suddenly, Beech Berry decided to make a dash for the farmhouse, firing as he went. The Deweys returned fire, and Beech was grazed by a passing bullet, which left a black-and-blue mark on his thigh. The only casualty on the Dewey side was the horse Charlie Wilson rode to the Berry farm that day. The animal was apparently struck in the head by a bullet fired by Beech Berry as he ran for the house.
Regaining consciousness, Roy Berry began crawling toward the road, but he hit the ground again and played possum when several shots passed through the brim of his hat. Carrying her infant in her arms, Viola Berry went out into the yard to untie Beech’s horse for him so he could ride away from the danger still lurking in the farmyard. However, Viola retreated when Dewey cowboy Tom O’Neill gruffly ordered her back inside.
After the Dewey contigent finally mounted their horses and rode away with the empty flatbed wagon, Beech Berry retrieved his horse and rode for help. Viola went out into the yard where she found the bodies of her husband and his father and brother. She helped Roy bind up his wounded face, and then Roy mounted his horse and rode to Len Capron’s nearby farm. Gathering her children about her, Viola walked toward the Daniel Berry farm to tell her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Harriet and Winnie, what had happened.
Within hours, word of the shootings had spread across the prairie like wildfire and neighbors began to arrive to see the scene for themselves. Law enforcement officials accompanied by coroners set out from both Atwood in Rawlins County and St. Francis in Cheyenne County. Long after nightfall, Dr. E.L. Waterman, coroner for Cheyenne County, held an inquest over the bodies, which were then placed on ice in an outbuilding pending funeral arrangements.
As a result of the inquest, charges were filed and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Chauncey Dewey, William McBride and Clyde Wilson. However, when Cheyenne County Sheriff McCulloch went to the Oak Ranch, Dewey refused to surrender until the sheriff could guarantee his safety from the armed mob rumored to be gathering at the Berry farm.
McCulloch rode back to St. Francis, where he telegraphed Governor W.J. Bailey, asking for the assistance of the Kansas National Guard. The governor ordered out Company G, 2nd Regiment, from Osborne, Kan., under the command of V.E. Cunningham.
Chauncey Dewey, McBride, Wilson and O’Neill–accompanied by Cheyenne County Deputy E.B. Robertson and an escort of Dewey cowboys–lit out across the prairie to meet the militia in Colby. The 54 men of Company G arrived in that Thomas County town by special train at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 7. By that time, Sheriff McCulloch had also arrived in Colby, and he and Deputy Robertson relinquished custody of their prisoners to Captain Cunningham.
On Monday, Company G and the accused men began the 40-mile cross-country march from Colby to St. Francis. The prisoners and the law officers rode, but the men of Company G marched across the prairie on foot. The odd procession arrived at the Oak Ranch Monday evening and remained until Wednesday morning, when they continued to St. Francis, arriving at 6 that evening.
The preliminary hearing was scheduled for the next day but was delayed until the following Tuesday, June 16, so that Roy Berry, who was recovering from his wounds, could attend. On the advice of his attorney, Dewey declined to testify. By this time, however, a letter written by Dewey shortly after the shootings had appeared in several newspapers. In the letter, he claimed the Berrys fired first and he and his men returned fire in self-defense.
The Berrys were also quick to tell the papers their side of the story. At the hearing, Beech Berry testified that Dewey and his cowboys fired first and that Daniel and Alpheaus were not armed. Viola Berry took the stand with her infant in her arms and confirmed Beech’s testimony.
Finally, in a dramatic moment, Roy Berry was carried into the courtroom on a cot. Testifying from the cot, Roy described how Dewey had risen from behind a sod wall and fired at him without provocation, wounding him in the face. Roy’s hat was introduced as evidence. Roy pointed out the bullet holes that he said were from the gunfire aimed at him when he tried to crawl away after regaining consciousness.
The following day, Justice of the Peace I.S. Hall found there was enough evidence to proceed with a trial. After much wrangling, it was decided that none of the jails in northwest Kansas were large or secure enough to house the prisoners. Accompanied once more by Sheriff McCulloch and Company G, Dewey, McBride and Wilson proceeded to Goodland, where they caught the train east. Dewey and his men spent a few days in a Topeka jail before they were released on bail.
After a change of venue was granted, one of the most controversial and widely publicized trials in Kansas history took place in Norton in February and March 1904. Beech, Viola and Roy Berry repeated their accounts of the shootings. Following much anticipation and speculation, McBride, Wilson and Dewey finally testified, claiming that, as Burch, Beech and Roy Berry approached Dewey and his men, the Berrys drew their pistols and fired, and that the Deweys had only shot back in self-defense. Testimony was also given to the effect that Daniel and Alpheaus were armed with pistols that were removed from their bodies before the law and coroner arrived. It was also suggested that Burch Berry’s pistol was tampered with to make it appear as if it had not been fired.
After deliberating for nearly 29 hours, on March 19, 1904, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Some of the outraged Berry supporters hanged the jury in effigy on the grounds of the Norton County Courthouse.
With the encouragement of flamboyant attorney General Leonard Colby, the Berrys filed against Dewey, McBride and Wilson for the wrongful deaths of Daniel and Alpheaus and for personal injuries to Roy. After protracted legal proceedings, the defendants were found liable, and after further delays the Berrys received $15,000 from Dewey in the late 1920s.
To this day, northwest Kansas remains divided on the issue of the Dewey–Berry feud. A year before Chauncey Dewey’s death, ‘Last Survivor Tells of Kansas Range War,’ written by V.L. Nicholson, appeared in the November 23, 1958, issue of the Topeka-Capital Journal. Looking back to June 1903, when he was 26 and Roy Berry was 27, the 81-year-old Chauncey Dewey said: ‘The fight was a long time ago and it didn’t last as long as it takes to tell. Roy Berry said to me later that it probably never would have happened if we all had been a little older. I expect that’s right.’ Finally, Chauncey Dewey and Roy Berry had found something they could agree on.
This article was written by Dinah Faber and originally published in the October 2003 issue of Wild West.
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