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Early Bullies and Ruffians in West Point, Iowa

The people of the frontier are often colorful characters, and the young town of West Point saw its share in the 1830s.  North of town, along the Skunk River, was a camp of horse thieves and desperadoes that had come from southern Illinois.  Chief among the group was Hamp Ralton, a “terror to the whole county.”  To the south, along Devil’s Creek, was a settlement of honest, but destitute Kentuckians.  Their leader was Bill Ponts, a burly individual whose only apparent ambition was to be the best fighter in the county.  West of town was a third group, a wild band that was fond of horse racing.  The head of that crowd was Bill Eldridge.

Every Saturday, the Eldridge and Ralton bands would meet and run quarter-mile horse races through the heart of town.  While the noisy participants fully enjoyed themselves, the townspeople were greatly annoyed.  Eventually, the citizens of West Point, a religious and orderly bunch, made their feelings known to the rowdies.  The Raltons responded by whipping the crowd and injuring several.  The local justice of the peace issued a writ (comparable to a subpoena) for the leaders and sent town constable Barrett into the street to arrest them.  The Raltons threatened to shoot Barrett, a spindly man.  They rode defiantly over to the town square, hollering all the time.  When the Raltons realized the town was forming a posse to take them, though, they galloped back to the Skunk.

On the following Monday, Bill Ponts was ordered to come into town.  He was given a writ for Hamp Ralton and some of the principal men in his band.  He was told to take a posse to Ralton’s settlement and arrest or exterminate them.  Ponts went by himself and returned with all his prisoners.  Ralton was placed in jail and then asked to go home to raise bail money.  He was allowed to leave, but left the county and never came back.

Another incident involved an old Kentuckian by the name of Driscoll who lived five miles from West Point.  He got liquored up and swore he was the best man of his age to ever visit West Point.  Driscoll weighed 200 pounds and was a good fighter, when sober.  Another old fellow named Dodd was in his son’s store, heard Driscoll’s bragging, and approached him.  “You say you are 65,” said Dodd.  “I am 72.”  He commenced to fight like a wildcat, knocking down Driscoll and jumping on him.  Driscoll hollered that Dodd was trying to kill him.  Some bystanders removed Dodd, who was only 125 pounds but the clear winner of the fight.

One of the few inhabitants of the prairie outside town was a man named Allen, a shoemaker from Maine.  He was regarded as something of a tramp, and not a good representative of his trade.  Allen claimed to be an experienced fighter.  He said he had fought all over Maine and had never been whipped.  When he heard that John Ponts was regarded as a skilled fighter, he sent word to Ponts that on a certain Saturday night he would be in West Point.  If Ponts thought Kentucky was a better state than Maine, perhaps the issue could be settled by a friendly fight.  This was in spring 1838.  Neither man had ever seen the other, but they met as proposed.  Ponts had his crowd there.  Allen was alone.  They made a ring and went at it, rough and tumble.  The justice of the peace attempted to break up the fight, but was roundly ignored.

It became a desperate fight, and both Allen and Ponts were beaten to a pulp.  Finally, Allen gave in and the two were separated and arrested.  Allen argued that they shouldn’t be fined, as it was a friendly fight.  However, they were later taken to court and fined $5 each.  Neither paid the fine, and the two parted as best of friends.

--John Stuekerjuergen

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