SULLY, JACK (possibly born Arthur McDonald), cattle rustler, horse thief, and outlaw; b. c. 1850 in Virginia; d. 16 May 1904 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, S.Dak.
Jack Sully grew up in the state of Virginia. According to oral tradition, his true name was Arthur McDonald and by the early 1870s, after graduating from some college in the United States or Canada, he was living near Hamilton, Ont. Around this time he moved to the southern part of the Dakota Territory and took a job as a cowboy. He soon became, by most accounts, a skilled rider and an excellent shot. Then, as Hyatt Downing of Sioux City, Iowa, has written, he began “to seek the company of men whose names were spoken quietly in cattleland and with seriousness.” By 1880 he had begun his career as an outlaw under the name of Jack Sully and had married a woman called Mary who was part Sioux. In 1885 he told the census taker that his real name was Jack Sully.
On the Rosebud Indian Reservation, where Sully and his wife made their home, he became the head of a band of mixed-blood rustlers which each year ran hundreds of cattle and horses off ranches in Dakota. After changing the brands the rustlers sold the animals to dealers for substantial sums. By the early 1890s the Sully gang had extended its operations along the upper Missouri River to North Dakota and Montana, and beyond that into what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta. It worked both sides of the border, often selling Canadian cattle and horses in the United States and American cattle and horses in Canada without being detected by the law enforcement officers.
As the Sully gang’s activities increased, so too did its membership in South Dakota. Its actual size is not known, but evidence suggests that by the 1890s there were more than a dozen members. Among Sully’s earliest cohorts were Joe Blackbird, Lame Johnny, and Big Nose George. By the turn of the century, Claude Cournoyer, Night Pipe, and Robert Burns had all joined the gang. It was reportedly responsible by about 1900 for total thefts of 50,000 cattle and over 3,000 horses. These figures cannot be documented and are probably exaggerated, but certainly the outlaws were rustling on a large scale. The statement that they killed at least seven innocent settlers along the upper Missouri is in all likelihood accurate.
In 1901 the pressure of the law in South Dakota led Sully to flee to Canada. He returned in 1903, however, once more assuming the leadership of his old band. Early in May 1904 Sully’s gang stole 200 head of cattle from various ranchers in the state. Johnny Petrie, the newly appointed United States deputy marshal and until recently Sully’s close friend, attempted to arrest him. When Sully refused to surrender, Petrie shot him.
The remaining members of the Sully gang and other outlaws still brought problems to the American and Canadian west. In Alberta and Saskatchewan the concerned Western Stock Growers’ Association in December 1905 prevailed upon the Canadian government to resist the view that the Royal North-West Mounted Police had become unnecessary. It argued that “without the protection of this body of men the ranching industry would suffer in many ways. Amongst the many now settling in the North West are some of the worst criminals that the country has known.”
Bad for life on both sides of the border, the cattle rustlers increasingly felt the force of the law. By 1906 the Sully gang had disappeared. Stock growers in the Dakotas, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan were quick to appreciate the less hostile environment Sully’s story was not forgotten. South Dakota authors Kate and Virgil Dillin Boyles drew upon the story of Sully to write their novel Langford of the Three Bars, which was published in Chicago in 1907 and proved an immediate success.
GA, M2452, 163. S.Dak. Office of Hist., Hist. Resource Center (Pierre), 1885 census, Dakota Territory; Undated, uncredited newspaper clipping concerning Jack Sully. Deadwood Pioneer-Times (Deadwood, S.Dak.), 30 May 1906. Regina Standard, 13 June 1906. Hyatt Downing, “The marshal’s friend,” True; the man’s magazine (Greenwich, Conn.), April 1947: 42–45, 92–94. J. [R.] Milton, South Dakota: a bicentennial history (New York, 1977), 153.