Aficionados of books about the history of the Old West will enjoy every page of Outlaw Dakota. Wayne Fanebust owns right, title, and deed to all things early Dakota. Fanebust describes the rough and tumble development of the Dakota Territory in the 1870s and 1880s by focusing on the integral role of its courts during that time. In particular, Fanebust describes the trials presided over by Dakota chief judge Peter C. Shannon as a common thread around which many Dakota stories are weaved. Tying together the Shannon trials, and Dakota's maturation toward statehood, is an interesting book concept that "works" for the reader, as Dakota courts were intertwined with the politics, crime, corruption, greed, vigilantism, business interests, and governance of the region.
Judge Shannon presided over some historically well known trials, such as that of Jack McCall for the murder of "Wild Bill" Hickok, committed during a card game at Deadwood on August 2, 1876. McCall was found guilty of the murder by a jury and hanged. Another well-known trial (and retrial) was that of a banker, Peter Wintermute, for the murder of retired General Edwin McCook. Wintermute's shooting of McCook arose out of personal animosities related to their memberships in rival political clubs within the Dakota Republican Party. Fanebust describes the gripping details of the initial trial that led to Wintermute's conviction to first-degree manslaughter, the vagaries of the appellate process which controversially overturned the conviction, and the retrial which resulted in a surprising acquittal. Outlaw Dakota [End Page 150] chronicles several other trials conducted during the same period which, while perhaps not as notorious then or now, nevertheless prove to be of equal interest.
Outlaw Dakota also identifies the people that shaped early Dakota history for good or for bad—politicians, lawyers, judges, prospectors, ranchers, newspapermen, robbers, murderers, shady characters, prostitutes, and common folk. Some of these persons are presented as admirable and likeable, and others, not so. The mainstay of the book, Judge Shannon, is depicted by the author fairly and evenhandedly. Shannon is portrayed as a capable and hardworking judge who attempted, with some measure of success, to introduce his refined Pennsylvanian legalese to the maelstrom of the burgeoning Dakota Territory.
Fanebust's prose is organized, readable, colorful, and at times dryly witted. He avoids the mistake made by some writers of western history of romanticizing events with glitzy or exaggerated language. The book's research is deep, dogged, and careful, including contemporaneous newspaper accounts of events, laws in effect at the time, historical collections, personal memoirs, and books of the period. Fanebust's original source materials enable him to describe and analyze events with detail, accuracy, objectivity, and insight. The work is enhanced by the author's background as an attorney. He explains the substantive and procedural aspects of Dakota law and trials in a manner that is plain and understandable to the Barnes and Noble reader. The book should therefore be of interest not merely to lawyers but also to the very broad audience of persons interested in the dusty development of the Old West.