July 15

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 15, 1904:

The Mad Trapper of Rat River heads for U.S.

Young Johan Jonsen, the future "Mad Trapper of Rat River," leaves Norway with his family and heads for America.

When he was six years old, the Norwegian Jonsen headed for America with his family on this day in 1904. His Swedish father settled the family on a barren 320-acre homestead in North Dakota. At an early age, Jonsen became a skilled outdoorsman and hunter, and by the time he was in his teens was bored with the backbreaking life of a high plains farmer. He struck up a friendship with a local rustler and gunslinger named Bert Dekler who helped him refine his expertise with a pistol.

In 1915, at the age of 17, Jonsen committed his first robbery, seizing $2,800 from the Farmers' State Bank of Medicine Lake, Montana. He managed a successful escape, but was later apprehended in Wyoming for horse theft and returned to Montana. He served three years in the Montana State Penitentiary before being released and quickly returning to a life in crime.

Because he used a variety of aliases, it is difficult to know exactly how many crimes Jonsen committed, but they were apparently abundant. Yet, as he grew older Jonsen began to retreat into the wilderness, where he increasingly became an antisocial hermit. By 1930, he was living in a cabin along the Rat River in an isolated far northeastern section of the Canadian Yukon. There he tolerated no visitors and survived by trapping beaver. He had not totally abandoned his larcenous ways, though--other trappers complained that he pillaged their trap lines.

In late December 1931, an officer for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and three other men arrived at Jonsen's cabin with a search warrant to investigate the claims that he was pilfering from other trappers' lines. When the Mountie knocked, Jonsen replied by shooting through the door, wounding the officer in the chest. The four men fled, but a larger force returned soon after and began a 15-hour attack with gunfire and dynamite that failed to force Jonsen's surrender. The following day, a blizzard swept in and Jonsen managed to sneak off obscured by the thick curtains of snow. A massive manhunt began that eventually involved scores of men aided by airplanes, dog teams, and skilled Indian guides. Yet, Jonsen-traveling on foot with almost no food-managed to avoid capture for more than month.

On February 17, 1932, the posse found Jonsen and trapped him on the ice in the middle of a frozen river. Still Jonsen refused to surrender. He shot one of his pursuers before the posse killed him with a massive volley of bullets. Having survived 45 days traveling through some of the roughest country in the world with almost no food, the once robust "Mad Trapper of Rat River" was skin and bones. His corpse weighed less than 100 pounds.

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