Doc Middleton; Nebraska's Robin Hood Horse Thief

Doc Middleton was the type of frontiersmen who straddled the line between law and outlaw.

Doc Middleton was the type of frontiersmen who straddled the line between law and outlaw.

Doc Middleton straddled the line between hero and thief.

Outlaws and lawmen. Scoundrels and beloved citizens. On the frontier, sometimes the line was hard to distinguish. At times the unwarranted arrest or killing of a person would get you lynched, and other times it might earn you special respect. Some times the theft of a few horses was a good way to out do a rival, and some times it was the beginning of a war, or the end of a life. Men and women who lived in the frontier understood this somewhat vigilante system of justice better than we can, and understood how to walk the line. One man who understood how to walk that line very well was Doc Middleton.

Sources point to Doc actually being born as John Riley in 1851 in Texas, though some sources claim he was actually born in Mississippi. Whatever disputes there may be about his birth, none doubt that he grew up in Texas as a first rate cattle puncher. From a young age, Doc seemed to have a knack with animals, and for acquiring animals that weren’t his. Legend says he stole his first horse at age 14, got arrested, subsequently released, and then decided a life obedient to the law wasn’t in the cards for him.

Later in Doc’s life he followed a herd of cattle up to Ogallala, Nebraska, and liked it so much, he ended up staying in the Nebraska panhandle pretty much the rest of his life. As a born drifter though, he was always moving about, but towns like Sidney, Rushville, Crawford, and especially Gordon, are towns closely associated with Doc Middleton.

It was during his time in the Nebraska Sandhills that Doc took to stealing lots of horses. After partnering up with a fella’ named Kid Wade and his gang, Doc and “The Pony Boys” stole upwards of 3,000 horses in just a two year time period. Most of these horses were stolen from Indian tribes, but some came from the government was well. According to the linked video below, Middleton would steal the horses from South Dakota, trail them to Kansas and sell them cheap. While in Kansas, he would steal more horses and sell them to Sandhills ranches cheap. Its easy to see why the Sandhills ranchers weren’t likely to spill the beans on their local outlaw hero. Like most outlaws do, Middleton eventually was captured and sent to prison for his horse stealing escapades.

After a stint in prison, Doc somewhat cleaned up from his outlaw days, and started keeping a saloon.Then, in 1893, he was asked to join up and ride in the famous Chadron to Chicago horse race. This 1,000 mile horse race deserves its own story, and was a unique event in the west. Doc saddled up and partook, though he did not win.

Once the race was over, Doc went back to saloon keeping. Although he was a well-liked person in his community, he had a hard time staying on the right side of the line with Johnny Law. It wasn’t long and Doc was involved in a bootlegging scandal, and had been caught running whiskey up to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. After his saloon was destroyed he moved his family out to the Douglas, Wyoming area for one last move. The area was a railroad town, and Doc set up a saloon in the unincorporated town of Orin, As the town was unincorporated, Doc didn’t figure to get himself a liquor license. Eventually, Doc was arrested for operation a saloon without a license, and sent to jail. It was here he caught sick and died within a few days.

Doc Middleton really embodies what the frontier was all about. It was a rough and tumble place, where a man had to figure out how to make a go of it on his own. Oftentimes, those means might involve a little law breaking from time to time. It was just the way of the land. Doc did his crimes, and eventually paid the time. Was he a Robin Hood, two-bit crook, or an outlaw that got what he had coming? That’s up for you to decide.

Student Questions:

  1. Who was Doc Middleton?

  2. Where did Doc Middleton live?

  3. Why was Doc Middleton famous?

  4. Why didn’t his neighbors turn him into the authorities?

  5. What would you think if Doc Middleton lived in your area? What if he lived in the neighboring state?


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Doc Middleton - The Unwickedest Outlaw. Dir. David R. Higgins. Perf. Tim Benson. 2017.

Legends of America. Doc Middleton - King of the Horse Thieves. 1 April 2017. 30 March 2019 <>.

Wild West History Association. Doc Middleton. 1 March 2019. 30 March 2019 <>.