ANTI-HORSE THIEF ASSOCIATION. The Anti-Horse Thief Association (AHTA) was first organized in 1854 by David McKee, a farmer and stock raiser, in Clark County, Missouri. McKee envisioned an organization for the protection of property, especially horses, which was often stolen by thieves living in the border area between Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa, where he lived. The AHTA quickly grew, and soon there were chapters and suborders in several states. In spite of its name, the basic principle of the organization was opposition to law violations of any kind, not just horse theft. Members were to bring criminals to justice, not through vigilantism, but through the court system. AHTA's emblem, the horseshoe, stood for Humanity, Charity, and Justice.
The first charter of AHTA in Oklahoma Territory was granted on July 27, 1894, with headquarters in Arapaho. Members had to be at least eighteen years old and of good character and public standing. Individuals enlisted for four years and paid annual dues of ten cents. The AHTA gave them protection from thieves but also required that they assist other members in times of need. The Grand Order of AHTA of Oklahoma was organized in 1895. The order was financed by an annual fee of twenty cents per member of each suborder.
Every year the suborders' presidents would appoint members to serve on pursuing committees, otherwise known as posses. If a theft or other crime occurred, the pursuing committee tracked the offender until his capture. In addition to pursuing committees, AHTA developed vigilance committees whose members kept suspicious persons under surveillance by watching their homes and sometimes following them. In order to obtain evidence, members would occasionally spend days watching the home of a certain thief, as well as a trail or river crossing suspected of being used by criminals.
One of the more notable manhunts involving AHTA members was the protracted search for outlaws Dick Yeager and Ike Black during the summer of 1895. Both were wanted for numerous offenses, including robbery. They had a knack for eluding the law. For two months posses of various deputy sheriffs, constables, and AHTA members pursued the duo over much of Oklahoma Territory and eventually fatally shot Black and mortally wounded Yeager.
There are many accounts of horse thievery during Oklahoma's frontier era. Dick Yeager and Ike Black were just two of the many outlaws who roamed the Indian and Oklahoma territories. In some areas horse thievery was so common that citizens hesitated to leave a horse tied to a hitching post in town. The AHTA quickly gained a good reputation for apprehending and convicting horse thieves.
In 1916 AHTA had over forty thousand members in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, lllinois, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, and South Dakota. By 1933 AHTA members noted that thieves were stealing fewer horses and other stock but observed that many other types of petty thefts were being committed with greater regularity. As horses ceased to be the primary mode of transportation, the organization changed its name to the Anti-Thief Association (ATA). In subsequent years AHTA, and later ATA, became more of a social and fraternal group than an arm of law enforcement. Most lodges held annual family picnics with planned activities such as horse races, roping events, and other competitions.
The importance of AHTA to early Oklahoma cannot be overstated. The organization played a major role in bringing law-abiding citizens together for the common purpose of protecting everyone's property. It served the interest of its members by being a law enforcement arm unhindered by local or state boundaries. Members could, and often did, pursue criminals into other states, capture them, and return the stolen property to its owners. From 1899 to 1909 the Oklahoma AHTA recovered stolen livestock valued at $83,000, apprehended more than four hundred suspected thieves, and obtained the conviction of 272 thieves.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bob L. Blackburn, “The Anti-Horse Thief Association,” Oklahombres 2 (Winter 1991). Blackwell (Oklahoma) Times Record, 21 October 1909. B. B. Chapman, “Anti-Horse Thief Association,” in Twin Territory Times: The Way it Was in Old Oklahoma, ed. Edward A. Shaw, (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerners, 1982). B. B. Chapman, “Anti-Horse Thief Association Played Big Role in Territory,” The War Chief of the Indian Territory Posse of Oklahoma Westerners 7 (March 1974). Daily Leader (Guthrie, Oklahoma), 27 July 1894. Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 18 October 1900. W. W. Graves, The Anti-Horse Thief Association: Its Origin and Principles (St. Paul, Kans.: The News, 1914). Hugh C. Gresham, The Story of Major David McKee: Founder of the Anti-Horse Thief Association (Cheney, Kans.: Privately printed, 1937). Glenn Shirley, Guardian of the Law: The Life and Times of William Matthew Tilghman, 1854-1924 (Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1988). Glenn Shirley, West of Hell's Fringe: Crime, Criminals, and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978). Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, 2 September 1973.
© Oklahoma Historical Society