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The Horse Thieves of Rossie

By Virgie B. Simons, former Historian, of Rossie


Horse smuggling in New York state's vast North Country was a sort of vocation during & directly after the War of 1812. Rossie at that time, a very active place, became the headquarters for a gang of hard characters. They would go to Canadian settlements, steal hores & bring them back to secert hiding places among the ledges & shelted ravines. During their leisure time beween raids they loafed about the village drinking & gambling. One gang made so many successful trips to canada that the British decided to do something about it.

Accordingly, in the summer of 1813, Colonel Frazier, with a Company of British Regulars, landed at Morristown & marched to Rossie, where they surrounded & captured the village without firing a shot. They stayed overnight at the Rossie Hotel, which had been built by David Parish in 1811 & was kept at the time by Horatio Berthrong. Colonel Frazer left part of his force to guard the place, while the ofters went out in the adjoining area looking for the thieves. It was said that the Colonel left his horse behind the hotel during the night & in the morning it was gone, supposedly stolen by the marrauders as a joke. The vistors left the next day without tracking down any criminals.

At first, horse smuggling was rather simple but later it was exspaned into a large scale business by the Loomis gang. Before this , most of the operators had had no regular channels for desposing of animals & a few were adept at changing the horse's appearance.

In building up this gang the Loomis family drew no color lines. They where opposed to slavery & two black men gained great notoriety as smugglers. Their policy of sacrificing large sums of money on bail in order to avoid convictions was followed consistently. They dressed shabbily in off-sized clothing & wore broad brimmed hats. Their ill-famed spread,& they were both feared & hated in every community which had suffered from their depredations. In summer they traveled on horseback or drove a team hitched to a high carriage or Democrat wagon. In winter they invariable used a two seated sleigh.

A large percentage of the stolen horse were disguised so cleverly that the owners failed to recongnize them. Some of the various materials used to change markings were dyes, nitrate of silver & other chemicals. To create a white star on a horses forehead, a hot baked potato was bound tightly on the on the desired spot. This process was repeated untill the color was removed. experts like this could change the appearence of an animal very quickly. One man's horses were changed that he bought them back, not knowing it was his own team.

Equipped with blindfolds & pieces of burlap or blankets to tie around hoofs to deaden the sound, the bandits rode forth on drak nights for there nefarious operations. They preyed on farmers & were constantly on the prowl for suitable horses, which they led, drove or rode to Richland to meet agents from Utica. Often meadow fences were broken where they had been allowed to feed enroute.

During the Civil War, rising prices & the army's need for cavalry & artillery horses caused a new out break of stealing all over the state. This time they were guerillas of the worse type, deserters from the Union & Confederate armys & vagabonds from both sides of the St. Lawrence River. They raided in all driections but chiefly into canada.

"Wash" Loomis covered the northern & eastern parts of the state while his brother "Grove" handled the the western & southern sections. By offering good prices & bonuses together with a steady market, the brothers had easily persuaded the renegades to join them in a syndicate which used the Reynolds farm in Rossie as a distributing point for the Northern New York. A representive of the group had previously approached Rastus Reynolds & succeeded in renting his property, craftily concealing their intent to use it for illegal purposes. This farm, with log house & barn, was rented to William & Henry Flitcroft. Another hideout also used by the Flitcrofts was the Harris farm on Grass Lake, about six miles away. Sometimes a hay stack was placed directly in front of a door when the stable was filled with horses. Concealed trap-doors covered hiding places of whiffle tree neckyokes, Harnesses, saddles & log chains.

People in the area were constantly on the alert & stories are told of men sleeping with their shotguns, after neigbors had lost valuable horses. What a harrowing experience, expecting ruffians to desend upon them at any moment along with having to listen to the errie screech of the Lynx ,Bobcat & Panther in the surrounding forest. Added to this they would hear the howl of wolves or the growl of bears coming to carry away young pigs or other small animals.

Many of the early settlers were Scotch & built their homes far back from the main roads. This was done in the light of their own experirnce & that of their forefathers in Scotland, where robber bands were numerous. At places along this underground horse railroad a bright light in certain window ment that all was clear & to proceed as planed.

A man near Rossie told that more than one night, some of the suspected horse thieves entered his home & demanded dinner & laid their revolvers on the table. They ate, paid their bill, & disappeared as they had come. An early hotel keeper in the village said that on many a dark night he heard the the thud of horse's feet passing through the dust of the crooked road to Hammond. Once he counted sixty-five of them. I doubt if that number could be found in the whole town today.

There were two entrances to the Reynolds hideout, one turning to the right at the southern end of the Indian River bridge on the Rossie-Oxbow road & the ofter also turning to the right, a few rods beyond the top of the hill. The frist one is now a pasture & the second is impassable & easily missed by the passing motorist. The secret trails, winding at the time of their use, through rocky lands in the untracked wilderness, were once important ones for this band of culprits which flourished & grew rich for a time. It was the underground highway which led from points north to the central part of the state.

Early descriptions speak of a large cave used for sheltering horses, but no trace of it has ever been found. It probablty did exist at one time, however, because the folk lore of this community reveals a that many years ago a young man & his wife were went berrying & doubt sought shelter from the a thunder storm in the cave. It is theorized that lighting must have split off a large piece of rock which fell across the the entrance, sealing it forever, for the couple never returned.

Resident were afraid to tell what they knew, if anything, of the rustlers for the fear of reprisals but a tip-off at the right time by Fidelia Flitcrof presumable led to the ultimate dispersal of the Loomis gang. The present owner & proprietor of the hotel where the British stayed in 1813 is Ray Gilligan. The Reynolds farm is owned by the Randolph Youngs, Although both house & barn are gone.The era of the horse thieves has long since been only a memory....

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