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If Zack Sutley is to be believed, he took part in many of Dakota Territory's most famous events, including the hanging of Lame Johnny. This photo of Rapid City's hanging tree was taken by Bernie Hunhoff.
If Zack Sutley is to be believed, he took part in many of Dakota Territory's most famous events, including the hanging of Lame Johnny. This photo of Rapid City's hanging tree was taken by Bernie Hunhoff.

Dakota Territory's "Most Interesting Man"

May 9, 2012

Surely you’ve seen the television commercials for Dos Equis featuring “the most interesting man in the world.” The pitchman for the Mexican beer claims to have been involved in various adventurous escapades (cliff diving in Acapulco or splash landing in a space capsule) and is afforded unique opportunities (at art museums, he’s the only person allowed to touch the paintings).

I was reminded of those commercials recently as I paged through a book called The Last Frontier, by Zack Sutley. Written in 1930, just before Sutley died, the book is a memoir of his 17 years (1867 to 1884) spent as an adventurer on the Plains. The yarns he spins within its covers make him an obvious candidate for Dakota Territory’s Most Interesting Man.

He hunted with Buffalo Bill and explored with Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Brigham Young. He guided George Custer on an expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln through the Black Hills. He happened to be in Northfield, Minn., when Frank and Jesse James robbed the First National Bank. Two days later, while camping back in Dakota, he unwittingly encountered the James brothers during their escape. He was also in Yankton when Jack McCall was hanged. Sutley writes that General William Henry Harrison Beadle (McCall’s defense attorney) asked him to speak with the condemned man just days before the execution on March 1, 1877, “but McCall would tell me nothing that we could use in his favor,” Sutley reports.

It seems remarkable that the stars would align such that one man would meet all these historical figures and become involved in so many of the West’s most famous events. The note inside the front cover claims that Sutley “tells his story without embellishment,” but I think some of his tales must be read with a grain of salt. In his chapter on the hanging of famed Black Hills outlaw Lame Johnny, Sutley describes that particular trip to the Hills and recounts how he endured a ferocious blizzard. After the storm, he took his horse to a creek in a valley for water. As they came back up the hill, he heard the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage rumbling along the frozen path. Then vigilantes stopped the coach, removed Lame Johnny and hung him from a nearby elm tree.

It’s a good story, but Lame Johnny was hanged in July. Black Hills weather can be fickle, but that’s surely too late for a snowstorm. At any rate, Sutley’s memoir is worth perusing, especially for his descriptions of early Yankton, other Dakota towns and general life on the frontier. And maybe the marketers at Dos Equis will find new fodder for commercials.

Comments

07:40 pm - Wed, May 9 2012
Jim said:
Zack Sutley could have written a book with real historical value. His descriptions of Yankton, Deadwood and the trail across the state give wonderful details about travel, commerce and perceptions at the time. Unfortunately Zack loses all credibility when he claims to be in the middle of the action. It's easy to prove he did not accompany McCall to the gallows but outrageous claims like that have made historians reluctant to reference the events he actually did experience.
06:43 am - Thu, May 10 2012
Heidi said:
Just curious, what was Zack's profession other than being an eye witness to crimes and controversies?
06:34 am - Fri, May 11 2012
John Andrews said:
Jim, you're right. I wrote a chapter on Jack McCall for a book we're working on and thought I might have stumbled upon some unique first-hand information. Then I flipped through some of his other chapters and quickly realized I couldn't use any of it. He does tell one story about early Yankton that might make a future issue of the magazine, though. It doesn't have anything to do with the James brothers, Jack McCall or Lame Johnny, and therefore might have a twinge of credibility.
09:02 pm - Fri, May 11 2012
Jim said:
Zack's frontier career was as a teamster on the Deadwood trail
06:46 pm - Mon, June 11 2012
Karen said:
He was the Forest Gump of his time, "Run, Zack, Run!"
01:38 pm - Mon, July 23 2012
I am the Grandson of Zack.T. Sutley. My Father was William B. Sutley born in Pierre in1897,youngest of Zacks' four childern. My Dad lived with Zack for the next 20 years until He was drafted for WWI. Zack served in the So. Dakota Legislature for ten years. He then moved to Texas where he lived for a number of years, finally he went to live In Oklahoma City with his eldest Daughter Ina Sutley Blandy. My Dad shared many stories about Zack and his life in the Dakotas'. He died April 1930.



11:14 pm - Tue, January 21 2014
Susan Davis said:
I am the Great Granddaughter of Zack Sutley. His daughter Ivah sutley Thomas is my paternal grandmother. Vance Sutley if you would like to contact us my Father is still living who is also his grandson.
04:10 pm - Mon, October 26 2015
Sherrilyn Yost said:
I am a grand daughter of Zack's brother --MM Sutley. I live in Deadwood. SD. I am looking for a 1st edition of his book The Last Frontier. Any suggestions?

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