All images courtesy: Irean Clasen.
Northwestern South Dakota was one of the last-settled places in the American West. The big cattle drives were over but as the 20th century began, ranch-branded cattle, horses and sheep still roamed the open prairies of Meade, Ziebach, Corson, and other South Dakota counties west of the Missouri River. Livestock was big business and grey wolves were among the biggest threats to the prosperity of that business. But unlike other natural threats to livestock such as harsh weather, something could be done about wolves.
Clipping from the Forest City Press, April 25, 1907. Courtesy: South Dakota State Archives
Bounty programs on wolves and coyotes could bring a hunter/trapper up to $40.00 per pelt. Ranchers and others could and did earn some extra income off of wolf bounties. The betters hunters could make a decent living. Matt Clasen was one of the best hunters.
Matthias Clasen was born in Iowa to German immigrant parents in 1878. The family moved to the Nebraska Sandhills when Matt was still a child. His parents hoped that he would become a priest but Matt wanted to work with cattle and livestock, certainly as a cowboy and maybe as a rancher. In 1897, at the age of 19, he left the Sandhills on horseback and headed north into South Dakota. There was only one small town, White Owl, between his home and his destination, a ranch on the Moreau River.
Clasen found work as a herder and fencer on the Flying V ranch, but at some point he made acquaintance with a government wolf hunter named Charles Bollinger. Clasen paid $100 to teach him the trade. Within a year, he was on his own.
Matt Clasen at his cabin on Flintrock Creek north of Faith, SD.
The grey wolf population had been growing in the west since the demise of the big buffalo herds. With a mainstay of their food supply gone, the wolves turned to livestock. They were prolific killers and tended to favor calves and young horses. Some of the more elusive and effective wolves became legends of the prairie. One wolf operating in Harding County, nicknamed "Three Toes" was credited with killing some 50-thousand head of livestock over a period of approximately 11-years. (Matt was done with bounty hunting by the time "Three Toes" was trapped and killed in 1925.)
Matt Clasen has been credited with more wolf kills than any other hunter. He was known as Little Matt the Wolfer and despite the nature of his job, he was known as a gentleman and man of neat appearance and fastidious habits. He was well-liked and respected by those he worked with, and by the many Lakota and Dakota people he interacted with. Matt Clasen's daughter Irean Clasen Jordan, says some Natives gave Matt an Indian name: "Good-hearted White Man."
Mattias Clasen married Mary Kletsch of Oahe, South Dakota, on February 11, 1910. They had four children, Catherine, John, and Irean, and a baby who died shortly after being born.
Matt Clasen died in 1966. Mary died in 1977.
Matt and Mary Clasen at their cabin near Faith, SD. All three of their children were born in the cabin.
Irean Clasen Jordan, Faith South Dakota
Irean Clasen Jordan, 96, wrote a book about her father, "Matt the Wolfer." She says she wrote it because she thinks people today don't realize what a scourge the wolves were in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She also wants people to know that her father was a kind man and a gentleman well-liked by his neighbors, and that he always took good care of his family.