The Dumb Gray Fox

Whenever watching western films, particularly those produced between 1950-70, a standard line of dialogue in a hold up might begin with, “Hands up!”  The man actually responsible for this phrase was a real-life bandit by the name of George Anderson —also, Ezra Allen Miner, popularly known as Bill Miner.  Bill was born near Onondaga, Michigan on 27 December 1847 but raised near Bowling Green, Kentucky[1].

Bill_Miner

Ezra Allen (Bill) Miner

As with many of these old timers, we do not know much about Bill Miner’s formative years; what we do know is that he began his life of crime early in his life.  He was first arrested when he was 19 years of age, in 1866 and served time in three California counties: San Joaquin, Placer, and Calaveras.  Whether these jail periods represent three separate convictions, we do not know, but by 1880, Bill Miner was a veteran outlaw —one who learned no important lessons from his past mistakes.

Not long after he was released from prison in 1880, Bill formed a partnership with a fellow outlaw named Bill Leroy (also known as W. A. Morgan) to rob stagecoaches.  Their association would be a short one.  While it can be said that Bill Miner was an energetic outlaw, he wasn’t very bright.  On their first stagecoach robbery, Leroy/Morgan was apprehended by vigilantes who dispatched him to the promised land.  Miner escaped the lynching but was later arrested for another robbery in Tuolumne County.

After his release from San Quentin Prison in 1901, Bill Miner relocated to British Columbia.  He may have been looking for a fresh start in life —or perhaps he was simply looking for a place where no one knew him.  In any case, Bill changed his name to George Edwards.  In September 1904, someone robbed a stagecoach near Silverdale, some 30 miles east of Vancouver.  We do not know the identity of the robber, and it may have been a mere coincidence that Miner/Edwards was living in the area at the time, but there were folks in the neighborhood who later claimed that had it not been for Bill Miner, no one in Canada would have ever experienced a genuine stagecoach robbery.

A few months later, unknown persons attempted to rob a train near Kamloops, Canada.  The incident stands out in history as an example of what NOT to do during a train robbery.  Initially, lawmen weren’t sure who pulled the job.  What they did know was that three armed men boarded the train, robbed the wrong train car, and ended up with around $15.00 and a small bottle of kidney pills.

An extensive manhunt conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police netted three suspicious characters near Douglas Lake: George Edwards, Tom “Shorty” Dunn, and Louis Colquhoun.  The boys were enjoying a meal over a campfire when the law moved in and made their capture.  George, the brightest of the three, stepped up as their official spokesman.  He told the Mounties that they were prospectors.  The lead investigator, noting the absence of prospecting equipment, promptly arrested them.  Shorty Dunn, the least bright of the trio, avoided trial by drawing his six-shooter and firing at the RCMP.  Bill Miner was convicted on the strength of a bottle of kidney pills found on his person.  Ignoring the fact that kidney pills could be purchased at any number of apothecaries in Canada, a jury nevertheless decided that the bottle was sufficient evidence to convict Edwards for the train robbery.  Miner was transferred to the penitentiary at New Westminster.

But Bill Miner had become a cause célèbre in Canada; literally hundreds of people lined the railway tracks to give him encouragement as he made his way back to prison.  Apparently, Canadian prisons weren’t as comfortable as those in the United States, prompting Miner to escape from confinement and return to the United States in 1907.

In 1909, Miner continued his career by robbing a train near Gainesville, California.  He was again arrested and sent to jail but managed to escape two more times.  Bill’s end came while still a prisoner on 2 September 1913.  By this time, he was around 66 years old.  History recalls Bill Miner as the Grey Fox, a well-mannered old fellow who never harmed a fly.  A 1982 Canadian American film production of Bill Miner’s story starred Richard Farnsworth in the title role.  It was certainly true that Bill Miner was gray, but the man was no fox.  Polite or not, Bill Miner may have been the least successful outlaw in the history of the old west, although Shorty Dunn gave him a run for that title.

Source:

Dugan, M. and John Boessenecker.  The True Story of Bill Miner, Last of the Old Time Bandits.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Endnote:

[1] The first Anglo settlers in this area arrived around 1775.  It was first known as McFadden’s Station, which was situated on the north bank of the Barren River.  Present-day Bowling Green was erected from homesteads constructed by Robert and George Moore and General Elijah Covington.  The Moore brothers arrived from Virginia around 1794, two years after the formation of Warren County.  The Commonwealth of Kentucky incorporated Bowling Green on 6 March 1798.  By 1810, 154 people lived in Bowling Green.  The area developed around river commerce.  The first railway was in place by 1832.  Most people made their living in agriculture, the likely vocation of Bill Miner’s father.  If true, then we can probably assume that Bill Miner’s formative years involved back-breaking labor on his father’s homestead.

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Mountain Men

Hawken WoodsmanA mountain man was a frontier explorer.  Many of these men travelled alone across the vast forested wilderness of what became the northwestern United States; a few travelled in small groups of two or three, but all these men survived by their fieldcraft, skill as a hunter/sharpshooter, and their ability to live alongside native Americans —or defeat them.  (Shown left is a 50-caliber Hawken Rifle, the preferred weapon of the mountain men).

The heaviest concentration of mountain men existed in the Rocky Mountains from around 1810 to the mid-1880s —a peak population of about 3,000 occurred between 1840-1850.  Some of these men were “free trappers,” but most were affiliated with fur companies.  Significantly, the trail-blazing of mountain men helped to facilitate migration into the western territory.  Without trails, there would have been no wagon train roads/routes.  The likely inspiration for this lifestyle was the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806).  It was an exciting, adventurous time, but it only lasted a few decades.  Ultimately, it was the success of the mountain men that led to their demise.  When they realized that they had over-trapped beaver, or that eastern markets no longer demanded their furs, they took jobs as army scouts, wagon train guides, opened trading posts along the migrant path, or they settled to farm or ranch the lands that they helped to develop.

Jim Bridger 001James Bridger (1804-81) was one of the best-known of the mountain men.  Born in Richmond, Virginia, his father was an innkeeper who eventually migrated to St. Louis, Missouri.  Jim Bridger was orphaned at the age of 13.  At such a young age, being illiterate with limited prospects, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith.  He left the apprenticeship on his 18th birthday to join the fur trapping expedition of William H. Ashley along the upper Missouri River. Ashley’s party also included Jedediah Smith and Hugh Glass, who in their own time were as famous as Jim Bridger[1].

Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) was born in Jericho (present-day Bainbridge) New York.  His parents were Jedediah Smith and Sally Strong, both descendants of English puritans who arrived in the colonies between 1620-40.  Jedediah was not an illiterate man, having received an adequate education from his mother.  He could speak Latin, had a legible hand, and could talk about some of the literature classics of the day.  Around 1810, Jedediah Senior, who owned a general store, was caught up in a legal issue involving counterfeit currency.  He afterward moved his family to Erie, Pennsylvania to get a new start.

Jedediah was working as a clerk on a Lake Erie freighter, where he learned business practices and likely came into contact with hunters/trappers/traders returning from Montreal.  This was the life Smith wanted most because his love of nature and adventure was nearly unparalleled at the time.  Smith was also well aware of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Legend tells us that Smith carried the Lewis and Clark journal with him on his travels.  In 1817, the Smith family moved to Green Township, Ohio.  As with most young men of the day who were raised in modest households, Jedediah struck out on his own at an early age.  In 1822, he was living in St. Louis.  It was in this year that he responded to a recruiting advertisement in the Missouri Gazette: General William H. Ashley was looking for “One-hundred enterprising young men” to explore and trap in the Rocky Mountains.  At age 23, Jedediah was six feet tall, had clear blue eyes, and exuded a commanding presence.  Ashley hired him immediately.  Jedediah Smith disappeared while scouting for fresh water near the lower Spring of the Cimarron river.  Owing to the fact that a Comanchero was found with Smith’s personal belongings, it is generally believed that Smith was killed by a band of Comanche.  The version of this story where Smith fought to the death against tremendous odds could be true, but since Smith “disappeared,” there are no witnesses to what actually happened to him.

Hugh Glass 001Hugh Glass (1783-1833) is best known for his story of survival (and his retribution) after being attacked by a Grizzly Bear and being left for dead by his companions[2].  Glass, born in Pennsylvania, was raised in an Irish household.  He too joined the Ashley Expedition, serving as an explorer and hunter within the watershed of the Upper Missouri River (present day Montana, the Dakotas, and the Platt River area of present-day Nebraska.  After being mauled by a Grizzly, Glass was left for dead.  Without any supplies or adequate clothing, he managed to crawl or stumble two-hundred miles to General Ashley’s headquarters at Fort Kiowa, South Dakota[3].  Hugh Glass died with two companions in the spring of 1833 near the Yellowstone River when his hunting party was overwhelmed by Arikara Indians.

John Jeremiah Johnson (1824-1900) originated in New Jersey near Union Township, born as John J. Garrison.  During the Mexican American War, Johnson lied about his age to join the US Navy.  While serving on a fighting ship, Johnson struck an officer while at sea, a serious offense (then and now), so at the first opportunity, he deserted and traveled west to try his hand at prospecting.  For his own safety, he changed his name to Johnson.  As with most prospecting, things didn’t quite work out to Johnson’s benefit.  To feed himself, he worked as a wood hawk, which was someone who supplied cord wood to steamboats.

In 1847, Johnson married a woman of the Flathead tribe.  When the woman was murdered by a Crow Indian a few years later, Johnson embarked on a vendetta against the Crow tribe.  Scholars contend that he killed and scalped more than 300 braves and, to avenge his wife, ate their livers.  This behavior terrified the Crow Indian because they believed that the liver was vital to achieving the afterlife.  According to a diarist of the time, Johnson became known as “Liver Eating Johnson.”  The vendetta lasted for 25 years, and the story of Jeremiah Johnson was well known among competing Indian tribes.  To them, Johnson was known as the Crow Killer.  Eventually, Johnson made his peace with the Crow Indian tribe.  He passed away at the age of 75 years in Santa Monica, California.  In 1974, his remains were moved to Cody, Wyoming.

Two films have been made of Johnson’s life, including Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford (1972) and Crow Killer: the Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, starring Raymond Thorp and Robert Baker (1958).

The American frontier in the early 1800s offered adventurous times —whether a man wanted them or not.  Tough times produced tough people —both men and women.  The choice was simple: the only alternative to survival was certain death.  This wasn’t a time when metrosexuals went off on weekends to play paint-ball games or sexually confused men demanded access to the lady’s room.  It was a time when hostile Indians, desperados, carnivores, and bucking broncos were efficient in killing those weaker than themselves.  Age or gender had nothing to do with it.  In the time of the mountain men, thousands of adventurous Americans never lived to see their 25th birthday.

Tobin T 001Another of these tough hombres was a man named Thomas Tate Tobin.  Tobin was born in 1823 in St. Louis, Missouri.  St. Louis in the early 1800s looked nothing like it does today.  It was a rough and filthy little town that had but one purpose: it was a point of resupply and departure for western territories.

Thomas’ father was an Irishman named Bartholomew Tobin.  He married a widow named Sarah Autobees, a lady of mixed white/Indian blood.  Sarah had a son from a previous marriage whom she named Charles, who was known by his mother’s surname.  Thomas’ had a sister named Catherine, but beyond this, we have no information about her life.

Charles Autobee was sixteen years old when he left home in 1826 to work beaver traps.  The next time anyone saw Charles was when he returned to St. Louis with his colleague Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain in 1837.  St. Vrain was a noted mountain man/fur trader near Taos, in the New Mexico Territory.  It was at that time that Thomas fell under the influence of his older half-brother.

When Charles returned to the wild, Thomas went with him.  Charles taught him field craft and survival skills, hunting, trapping, and scouting/tracking.  Thomas also learned how to run a business by clerking at a trading post, how to mill grain, and how to distill whiskey.  Thomas became Charles’ constant companion, even accompanying him on overland resupply missions to Rendezvous, where whiskey and other goods were traded for furs and pelts.  Through Charles, Thomas became acquainted with such men as Kit Carson, Dick Wooten, John C. Fremont, Wild Bill Hickok, and William F. Cody.  Loaded down with furs and pelts[4], Charles and Thomas transported them to St. Louis, where they were traded for more supplies.  The brothers made regular stops in such places as Fort Jackson, Fort Lupton, Bent’s Fort, and El Pueblo.

In 1846, 23-year old Thomas married a woman named Pascuala Bernal.  They lived in Arroyo Hondo near Taos.  He continued working for Simeon Turley while delivering dispatches to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for General Stephen Kearny.  After the Mexican American War, all western territories previously under the Mexican or Spanish flag became territories of the United States, including the territory of New Mexico.  In August 1848, the US Army directed General Stephen Watts Kearny[5] to lead a force to New Mexico.  His orders were simple: either accept the surrender of Mexico’s governor Manuel Amijo[6] or seize the territory by force.  Governor Amijo surrendered peacefully.  Afterward, Kearny departed for California leaving Colonel Sterling Price[7] to command American forces in New Mexico and serve as temporary military governor.  Charles Bent received an appointment as the civilian territorial governor of New Mexico in September 1846.

Governor Amijo’s willingness to surrender, along with General Kearny’s willingness to seize the New Mexico territory, alienated many of territory’s Mexican citizens.  To add to this problem, Sterling Price may not have been the most enlightened territorial administrator in his treatment of local citizens.  Governor Bent appealed to Price’s superior officer, Colonel Alexander Doniphan, “As other occupation troops have done at other times and places, they undertook to act like conquerors.  I implore you to interpose your authority to compel these soldiers to respect the rights of our inhabitants.  These outrages are becoming so frequent that I apprehend that serious consequences must result sooner or later if measures are not taken to prevent them.”

The issue affecting citizens of New Mexico involved far more than the surly behavior of soldiers; many landowners feared that the United States government would refuse to recognize their Mexican land titles.  Early on 19 January 1847 insurrectionists revolted in Don Fernando de Taos(present-day Taos, New Mexico).  The leaders of this insurrection included Pablo Montoya, Tomas Romero, and a Pueblo Indian whom everyone called Tomasito (Little Thomas).

Romero led an Indian force to the home of Governor Bent.  They broke down his door, shot him with arrows[8], and scalped him in front of his family.  Bent was not killed, however, and with the help of the wives of Kit Carson and Thomas Boggs, the Bent family escaped by digging through adobe walls and dragging the wounded Bent along with them.  When the insurgents discovered that the party had attempted escape, they killed Bent, but left the women and children unharmed.

Bent wasn’t the only official murdered that day: Stephen Lee, Acting County Sheriff, Cornelio Vigil, Prefect and Probate Judge, and J. W. Leal, a circuit attorney joined Bent in the afterlife.  Colonel Price later reported, “It appeared to be the object of the insurrectionists to put to death every man who had accepted office under the American government.”

The following day, 500 Hispanics and Pueblo Indians attacked and laid siege to Simeon Turley’s mill in Arroyo Hondo.  Charles Autobees saw the group coming and leaving eight to ten mountain men to defend the mill, rode to Santa Fe for help from the Army’s occupation force.  After a day-long battle, only two mountain men survived: John Albert, and Thomas Tobin.  Both men escaped on foot during the night.  On that same day, Hispanic insurgents killed seven white traders who were transiting through Mora.  At most, fifteen people lost their lives.

Colonel Price moved quickly to quell the revolt, deploying three-hundred US regulars from Santa Fe to Taos.  An additional force of sixty-five volunteer militia augmented Price’s men, which included a few Hispanics organized by St. Vrain, who was then a business partner of William and Charles Bent.  En route to Taos, the US force beat back 1,500 Hispanic and Pueblo Indian insurgents at Santa Cruz de la Cañada and Embudo Pass.  The insurgents retreated to Taos Pueblo and took refuge in the thick-walled adobe church.  One-hundred-fifty of these rebels died when the Army broke through the door of the church with canon fire; two hundred more received serious wounds.  Hand-to-hand fighting resulted in the capture of 400 insurgents.  Only seven of Price’s troops died in the battle.

A separate force of US troops under Captain Israel Hendley and Captain Jesse Morin assaulted the rebels at Mora.  The first attempt was a defeat for the Americans, but a subsequent attack ended resistance there.

Tobin, having made good his escape, joined up with Charles and both served as scouts for a company led by Captain St. Vrain.  Their mission was to search for, locate, and capture insurrectionists.  Insurrectionists who were not killed in actual battle ended up hanging from a rope.  Private John FitzGerald, an American dragoon, assassinated Romero while he was confined awaiting trial.

After the revolt, Tobin turned to farming in an area bordering the San Carlos River, southeast of El Pueblo.  He sold his crops to Lieutenant Colonel William Gilpin (later serving as Colorado’s first territorial governor), who camped with his troops near Bent’s Fort.  In the next year, Gilpin asked Tobin to scout for him during a planned spring campaign against Indians.  Tobin also served as a courier carrying dispatches from the Canadian River valley of Oklahoma to Brent’s Fort.

Prior to the Civil War, Major B. L. Beall hired Tobin as a scout and guide in search of land suitable for a railroad route to California.  Beall described Tobin as a man equal to Kit Carson for bravery, dexterity, and mountain skill.

Espinosa F 001America’s first serial killer was a man named Felipe Espinosa.  In 1860, Espinosa sent a letter to Governor John Evans informing him that he intended to kill 600 gringos (thus establishing him as a bona fide leftist).  Then, aided by his brother Vivian, Espinosa began his killing spree in the thinly populated area of present-day Fremont County, Colorado.  In 1863, trappers came across the body of the Espinosa brother’s first victim.  The corpse had been horribly mutilated, suggesting the possibility of torture before death; the man’s heart had been cut out of his chest.  Later that summer, the Espinosa’s killed an additional 25 people in a similar manner.

Sometime later, Felipe dispatched a second letter to Governor Evans demanding full pardons for himself, his followers, and a grant of 5,000 acres of land in Conejos County.  He also demanded an appointment in the Colorado volunteer militia.  He warned the governor of more killings should Evans ignore his demands, including the governor himself.

Evans dispatched Conejos County Sheriff Emmett Harding and Colonel Sam Tappan (Commanding Fort Garland) in search of Espinosa, but they failed to locate him.  A posse out of Park County, Colorado did manage to track the brothers southwest of Canon City where Vivian Espinosa died in a gunfight, but Felipe managed to escape and went into hiding for the rest of that summer.  After recruiting his fourteen-year old nephew, named José, Felipe’s killing spree continued.

Running out of options, Governor Evans turned to Thomas Tobin in the fall of 1863 to join in the search for Espinoza.  Evans offered Tobin $2,500 for the successful capture of Espinosa and a militia to help him achieve it.  Tobin accepted the monetary offer but declined the militia.  He and three hand-picked men accepted the task of finding Espinosa.

Using the location of Espinosa’s last murder as his starting point, Tobin tracked the killers for three days.  The trail led to the Sangre de CristoMountains.  Tobin and his party ambushed Espinosa and his nephew in that area and then decapitated them.  Tobin delivered a gunnysack containing two heads to Evans as proof that he’d earned his reward.  Tobin never received the $2,500.00 but he did receive a fine Henry Rifle and a dinner party in his honor.

In 1868, Thomas Tobin was appointed to serve as Chief Indian Scout during the western region Indian campaigns.  Serving alongside Tobin at the time was his half-brother Charles Autobees and a fellow named James Butler Hickok, who some folks called Wild Bill.

In 1878, Tobin’s daughter Pascualita married William (known as Billy) Carson.  Billy was the son of famed frontiersman Christopher Houston Carson (who was also known as Kit Carson).  Some years later, when Tobin learned that Billy had mistreated his daughter, Tobin told him, “I will see you dead Billy,” and then attempted to stab Carson.  Billy, acting in self-defense, clobbered Tobin on the side of his head with a sledgehammer, and then shot him in the side.  Over time, Tobin and his son-in-law reconciled their differences, but while his headaches finally went away, Tobin never fully recovered from the shooting.  As it turned out Tobin’s prophesy came true when Billy Carson died in 1889.  Tobin, who died in 1904 at the age of 81 years, outlived Billy Carson by 15 years.  During his lifetime, Tobin was a prosperous farmer, rancher, and Army Scout and even though he was illiterate (as were most of the mountain men), Tobin at one time served as the president of the local school board.

Sources:

  1. Baird, J. D. Hawken Rifles: The Mountain Man’s Choice.  Buckskin Press, 1968.
  2. Cecil, A. J. James Bridger: Trapper, Frontiersman, Scout, and Guide: A Historical Narrative.  College Books, Inc., 1951.
  3. Hewett, E. L. Campfire and Trail.  Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
  4. LeCompte, J. Charles Autobees.  University of Nebraska Press, 1972.
  5. Morgan, D. L. Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the American West.  London: Bison Books, 1964
  6. Nash, J. R. Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws.  Da Capo Press, 1994.
  7. Perkins, J. E. Tom Tobin: Frontiersman.  Herodotus Press, 1999.
  8. Sides, H. Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.  New York: Random House, 2006.
  9. Twitchell, R. E. The History of the Military Occupation of the Territory of New Mexico, 1846-51.  Denver: Smith Books, 1973 (reprint)

Endnotes:

[1] In 1850, while guiding the Stanley Expedition out of Utah, Bridger discovered an alternative route which shortened the Oregon Trail by 62 miles; it became known as Bridger Pass and is now located in south-central Wyoming.  The Bridger Pass would later become the chosen route across the Continental Divide for both the Union Pacific Railroad and US Interstate 80.

[2] There has been some speculation that Jim Bridger was one of the men who left Hugh Glass for dead after the Grizzly attack.  There is no evidence to support this theory, however.

[3] Hugh Glass’ life story was adapted into two feature-length films: Man in the Wilderness (1971) and The Revenant (2015).  The details of his ordeal have been questioned owing to the fact that Hugh Glass never told his story to anyone, other than an accounting delivered personally to General Ashley at Fort Kiowa.  The popular (often repeated) story originated with James Hall, who wrote his version of the saga in 1825 while working for his brother’s news sheet, The Port Folio.

[4] There is a distinction between furs and pelts.  Pelts are the skin of a beast with its hair, a raw or undressed hide.  A fur is a hairy coat of various animal species.  Some of the products traded to Autobees and Tobin were dressed, which I imagine brought a higher value in trade in St. Louis.

[5]  Major General Kearny (1794-1948) served as the military governor of New Mexico (August-September 1846) and the fourth military governor of California (February-May 1847).

[6] The same Manuel Armijo (1793-1853) who put down the Revolt of 1837 and captured the Texan Santa Fe Expedition.  He served as governor of New Mexico on three separate occasions.

[7] Promoted to Brigadier General by President Polk in 1847; advanced to Major General of the Missouri State Guard in 1861 and appointed to serve as a Major General in the Confederate States Army.

[8] So much for enlightened attitudes in the western territories.

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The Masterson’s

Sheriff ShieldThe old west produced a number of legends, some of whom became famous in their own lifetime, others only after they were dead, and some of these fellows were only legends in their own minds.  As children, we were most fascinated with the Hollywood version of frontier or old west characters, people such as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson.

And then there were characters who were entirely fictional, such as Lash La Rue, Hop-Along Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger.  I didn’t hear about Butch Cassidy or John Wesley Hardin until many years later.  Some of the men I mentioned were hardened criminals and dangerous to peace-loving communities.  Thinking back to my childhood, when we were role playing some of these characters, Billy the Kid never seemed to get through a session without being shot with a cap-pistol.  It finally got to the point where none of the boys wanted to be Billy the Kid anymore.  Maybe we learned a subtle lesson in our role-play.

The old west produced a few lawmen who commanded respect, too.  They were as tough as nails, unafraid of standing up to evil-doers, and some of these became models of the western hero.  I’ve written about a few of these characters, but I suspect most people living to day never heard of them:  John Hughes, Cap Arrington, Ira Aten, and Lee McNelly, to name a few.  I only excluded Wyatt Earp because everyone today knows who he was and what he did in the old southwest.  I suspect that none of the men I mentioned above saw themselves as heroes (few heroes do); they were just men who had a job to do —and did it.  These men never apologized for putting a bullet into someone who deserved it.  If one happened to be a desperado, these lawmen were very, very dangerous people.  No one went to a gun fight with a lavender colored water pistol in the days of the old west.  In a real gunfight, some people didn’t walk away.

The Masterson brothers were the real deal.  None of them were born in the United States.  They came from Henryville, Quebec, Canada.  Their father was Thomas, also born in Canada, of Irish ancestry, and Catherine McGurk Masterson, who was born in Ireland.  Thomas was a farmer, so his children (seven in total) were raised on farms in Canada, New York, Illinois, Missouri, and Wichita, Kansas.

While still in their teens, Edward, Bartholomew, and James left the family farm to hunt for buffalo on the Great Plains.  They then worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad under a man named Ray Ritter.  Their task was to grade a five-mile section of track.  Ritter eventually quit his position—and that would normally be okay.  In Ritter’s case, though, when he left, he took with him the Masterson Brother’s wages earned over several months of back-breaking work.  It took a year for the Masterson’s to track him down, but they did manage to corner him and collect their wages —at gunpoint, of course.

For a time, the brothers split up and went their separate ways.  We know far more about Bartholomew (Bat) than we do about either Edward (Ed) or James (Jim).  For a time, Bat Masterson went back to hunting buffalo.  While quartered at Adobe Walls, Texas, Bat became a non-volunteer participant in one of the west’s more celebrated Indian fights.

True West Mag 001Adobe Walls was the remains of an old trading post and the place of a previous confrontation with hostile Indians.  Buffalo hunters routinely quartered themselves there.  Hovel or not, it was better than sleeping out on the range.  On 27 June 1874, several hundred Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne hostiles, led by Quanah Parker, surrounded Adobe Walls.  The Indians were agitated, quite understandably, by the buffalo hunters who were, in consonance with the official policy of the United States government, systematically eradicating a critical source of food for the plains Indians.  (Note: Visual from True West Magazine).

The assault turned into a five day siege.  Masterson and the other twenty-seven hunters defended themselves [1].  At the conclusion of the confrontation, there were four dead hunters and between thirty and sixty dead Indians.  Realizing that he was facing a standoff of undetermined length, the Indian leader Quanah Parker and his band withdrew and the hunters were allowed to leave with their scalps intact.

Jim Masterson, the youngest, had returned to Kansas where he formed a partnership with Ben Springer in a Dodge City, Kansas saloon, which they called Lady Gay Dance Hall and Saloon.  This was before the word “gay” meant something smutty.  It was a successful enterprise due in large measure to the short-term rental arrangements saloon customers could make with the local ladies.  

After Adobe Walls, Bat signed on as a scout with the US Army, serving under Colonel Nelson Miles.  Miles commanded a force from Fort Dodge in pursuit of Comanche and Apache war parties across the Cherokee Strip (in Oklahoma) and into Texas.  Miles was also looking for the “four sisters,” young girls who had been kidnapped by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers [2] just outside Ellis, Kansas on 11 September 1874.  The girls, aged 9 to 15 years, were all that remained of the family.  After six months of searching, Colonel Miles managed to recover the girls alive.

Bat Masterson’s first shootout occurred in 1876 in Sweetwater, Texas.  Masterson was courting a young woman named Mollie Brennan, who was also the love interest of Corporal Melvin A. King, US Army.  Early in the evening of 24 January 1876, King engaged Masterson with his pistol and Masterson returned fire.  Masterson was hit in the pelvis, King was shot in the head, and one of King’s several rounds also found Mollie, who soon died —which enabled Melvin and Mollie to spend eternity together.  Bat eventually recovered from his wound and remained single.

Bat and Ed found their way to Dodge City, Kansas in 1877.  The brothers did not get off to an auspicious start, however.  On 6 June, Bat attempted to prevent the arrest of his friend Robert (Bobby Gill) Gilmore.  The arresting officer was Marshal Larry Deger, who was said to weigh around 315 pounds.  Bat was able to get his arms around Deger and hold him off while Gilmore escaped.  Masterson’s reward for this act of loyalty was a pistol whipping by Deger and his deputies.    In addition to serious bruises to his face and head, Bat was fined $25 for interfering with a law officer in the performance of his duties.  Gilmore, who surrendered, received a fine of $5.00.

In July, Sheriff Charlie Basset of Ford County hired Bat as an undersheriff.  The State constitution prohibited Basset from seeking a third term in office, so Bat decided to enter the race for county sheriff.  Masterson’s opponent in the contest was Larry Deger.  On election day, Bat Masterson was elected.  A month later, Ed Masterson replaced Deger as the town marshal of Dodge City.

On 1 February 1878, Sheriff Masterson captured the notorious outlaws Dirty Dave Rudabaugh and Ed West.  Both men were wanted in connection with an attempted train robbery.  Two additional suspects in the robbery were captured by Bat and Ed on 15 March. 

Ed Masterson 001As town marshal, Ed Masterson was responsible for enforcing city ordinances.  The violence existent in Dodge City at the time persuaded city fathers to impose a ban on vagrancy, street violence, and carrying firearms inside the city limits.  On 9 April, at about 2230 in the evening, Ed Masterson attempted to disarm a drunken cowman by the name of Jack Wagner.  Wagner shot Ed in his right side.  When Wagner fired his weapon, he was standing close enough to Ed that the discharged weapon set his clothing on fire.  At this point, the story becomes somewhat muddled and there are two accounts.  (Shown right: Edward Masterson)

In the first account, Sheriff Masterson was standing directly across the street from the Masterson/Wagner confrontation at the moment it occurred.  Ed, shot, staggered down the street and into Hoover’s saloon.  Bat ran across the street and shot both Wagner and his trail boss, Alf Walker, who was holding an unholstered six-shooter.  Ed Masterson passed away an hour later.  Wagner, who was hit in the abdomen, died the next day.  Walker, although shot in the lung and twice in his arm, survived.  This testimony came from the people who witnessed the event.

The second account is that Ed Masterson shot his attackers, and if not both of them, then certainly Wagner.  Meanwhile, there was some concern in Dodge City that the Texas cowhands might avenge the shooting of Wagner and Walker, and according to some academics, this would explain why the local news account was ambiguous in their reporting —to shield Bat. 

Jim Masterson 001Dodge City Mayor James H. Kelley named Charlie Bassett as Ed Masterson’s replacement.  Bassett in turn hired Wyatt Earp, James Earp, and Jim Masterson (shown left) as his deputies.

In the summer of 1878, a cowhand by the name of George Hoy discharged his pistol from inside the Comique Variety Hall.  At that moment, Wyatt Earp and Jim Masterson were standing just outside the hall.  Apparently, Hoy rushed from the hall, mounted his horse and was making his escape when Earp and Masterson fired and Hoy fell from his horse.  Although only wounded in his arm, Hoy died a month later.  Earp claimed to have fired the shot that killed Hoy, but there is no way to validate that claim, since Masterson could have also fired the shot that hit Hoy.  Earp may have been quick to claim credit for the shot because he and Hoy were involved in an altercation earlier in the day.  What we know for a fact is that Wyatt Earp was a deadly accurate shooter.

More violence erupted on 4 October when James (Spike) Kenedy, the 23-year old son of a wealthy Texas cattleman named Miflin Kennedy [3], shot and killed the actress Dora Hand (stage name Fannie Keenan).  Hand was a beautiful and talented 34-year old woman who, like Doc Holliday, suffered from consumption.  Dora migrated to Dodge City on the advice of a friend, who knew Mayor Kelley, who was also the owner of the Alhambra Saloon and Gambling House.  Through Kelley, Hand was hired as a performer at the Lady Gay Dance Hall and Saloon, which was jointly owned by Ben Springer and Jim Masterson.

Mayor Kelley was attracted to Dora and was known to escort her around the town.  By this time, Hand was earning good money at both the Lady Gay and Alhambra.  Spike Kenedy joined a long list of cowboys who became smitten with Dora Hand and he was exceedingly jealous of Mayor Kelley.  It was believed that this jealousy prompted Kenedy to fire a rifle into the town house of Mayor Kelley.  Kelley was out of town at the time, and Dora Hand was occupying the residence.  Spike fired two rounds of .44 caliber ammunition.  The first round lodged in a door, the second hit Dora in her side while she was sleeping, killing her instantly. 

Sheriff Masterson’s posse included Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, William Duffy, and Bill Tilghman [4].  Kenedy was apprehended the next day after Masterson wounded him in the arm with a .50 caliber rifle shot; Earp shot Spike’s horse out from under him.  Kenedy was returned to Dodge City and placed in jail pending trial.  Predictably, Miflin Kenedy soon arrived with a satchel full of money.  When Miflin left town with his son, he was poorer; the county judge was richer, and Dora Hand had the finest funeral ever held in Dodge City, Kansas.

In the late 1870s, gold prospectors discovered large deposits of silver in the Rocky Mountains not far from Leadville.  One way to reach these riches was to travel up the Arkansas River canyon.  The railroads had a better idea: construct track and service the extraction and transportation by rail.  Two companies had the same idea: the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company, and the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe.  The challenge, of course, was the 1,000 foot increase in elevation and a narrow access that would allow only one set of tracks.

By 1878, the DR&G line ran almost to Canon City, Colorado, a small supply town about 100 miles southeast of Leadville, at the mouth of the Great Canyon Gorge.  DR&G was a bit slow getting started, however, and AT&SF construction engineers began grading a rail bed westward into the canyon.  This began the so-called Royal Gorge War, and Bat Masterson was in the thick of it.

The issue went to court, which ruled in favor of AT&SF, so the DR&G erected a few stone-walled forts along the river’s mountain path and sabotaged the Santa Fe crews by rolling boulders down on top of the grading effort; at night, they sent men out to locate the workman’s tools and throw them into the river.  The court battle went on and DR&G won the right to build through the gorge.  Santa Fe threatened to build parallel tracks.  It was good old fashioned American competition and thuggery.  DR&G began to fear that the costs of all this would eventually ruin them, and so they offered to lease their tracks to Santa Fe for thirty years.  The offer resulted in a temporary truce, but as DR&G finances worsened, the company went back to court and tried to break the lease agreement.  Soon after this, pistols and rifles replaced pick-axes and shovels.

To head up their band of ruffians, Santa Fe hired Bat Masterson.  Masterson quickly brought in John “Doc” Holliday as his primary recruiter.  Of course, a Kansas sheriff had no jurisdiction or authority in Colorado, so he was never acting in an official capacity in this endeavor.  Soon lining up behind Masterson and Holliday were noted gunmen, such as Ben Thompson [5], Dave Mather, and J. J. Webb [6].  In total, around sixty men took up positions at the Santa Fe roundhouse in Pueblo, 35-miles east of Canon City.   

Bat Masterson 001Determined to drive Masterson and his gang out of the roundhouse, engineers and lawmen of the DR&G rode to Pueblo to commandeer a cannon from the state armory, but Masterson had beat them to it.  The incident ended peacefully enough when DR&G met with Masterson and convinced him that it would be the right thing to do to surrender the roundhouse.  An alternative, and equally plausible explanation was that Masterson ended up with a fist full of cash to send him back to Kansas.  Back home in Kansas, voters were not thrilled with Masterson’s moonlighting in Colorado and he was voted out of office in 1879.  (Shown right, Bat Masterson in 1879).

In that same year, Jim Masterson was appointed town marshal after Charlie Bassett resigned.  During his tenure as a deputy marshal and later, town marshal, Jim made several hundred arrests, mostly involving drunken cowhands who transited through Dodge City on annual cattle drives.  In 1881, Jim lost his job when the city government changed hands, the citizens electing people who felt that the Marshal’s office was too restrictive with fun-loving cowboys.  Jim then concentrated his energies on the saloon business with partner A. J. Peacock.

In 1880, Bat received a telegram from Ben Thompson asking for his help.  Thompson’s brother, Billy, had gotten himself in some trouble over in Ogallala, Nebraska.  Billy had managed to shoot the thumb off of a man named Tucker, who despite the missing digit, returned fire and wounded Billy.  Masterson went to Ogallala and spirited him out of town on a midnight train.  Aiding Masterson was William F. Cody, who gave Masterson and Thompson sanctuary until they could return to Dodge City.

Instead, Bat Masterson relocated to Tombstone in February 1881.  In Tombstone, Masterson met the gunman Luke Short and they became friends.  Bat, Luke, and Wyatt Earp worked as faro dealers at the Oriental Saloon.  Masterson had only been in Tombstone for a few months when he received a telegram that compelled his return to Dodge City.  Jim had a falling out with Peacock and threats of death were made.  The issue, in terms of the total history of the old west, was minor.  Peacock had hired his brother-in-law as a bartender over Masterson’s objections.  Jim apparently believed that Al Updegraph was dishonest; Peacock stood in defense of Al and suggested that Jim might lose his life if he pursued the matter further.

Bat arrived back in Dodge City on 16 April 1881.  Exiting the train depot, Masterson spotted Peacock and Updegraph waiting just outside.  Firing erupted between Peacock and Updegraph and the Masterson brothers, but no one is sure who among them initiated the gunplay.  Bullets ripped through the Long Branch Saloon, and people scurried for cover.  Other gunmen soon chimed in and bullets were flying everywhere.  Updegraph, the only casualty, was shot in the lung but later recovered.  Mayor A. B. Webster arrested Bat, but since the actual shooter of Updegraph could not be identified, Bat was assessed an $8.00 fine for discharging his weapon inside the city limits and released.  He and Jim left Dodge City soon after.

Bat Masterson’s reputation as a gunfighter developed as a result of a practical joke played on a gullible news reporter in August 1881.  Seeking a story in Gunnison, Colorado, the reporter asked Dr. W. S. Cockrell about “man killers.”  Cockrell pointed to a young man nearby and identified him as Bat Masterson, saying that Masterson had killed 26 men.  Cockrell followed up by telling him a few made up stories about Masterson’s exploits.  The reporter made notes and published his story in the New York Sun.  It was a well-written story, picked up by several other newspapers, and this is how Bat Masterson became known as a gunfighter.  Masterson wasn’t even in Colorado at the time.

In April 1882, Bat Masterson accepted an appointment as the city marshal of Trinidad, Colorado; Jim Masterson became one of his deputies.  Masterson was hardly a week into his new job when Wyatt Earp requested his assistance in preventing the extradition of Doc Holliday from Colorado to Arizona.  Masterson met with Colorado Governor Frederick W. Pitkin, who after listening to Masterson’s appeal, denied Arizona’s request for extradition.  In any case, Masterson continued dealing faro while employed as city marshal, which voters overwhelmingly objected to, and in 1883 Marshal Bat Masterson was no longer employed in that capacity.

As a member of the Trinidad Police Department, Jim Masterson arrested John Allen for the shooting and death of Frank Loving, in what is remembered as the Trinidad gunfight [7].  On 15 April 1882, John Allen and Frank Loving were playing cards when an argument ensued.  Both men left the saloon and stepped into the street, threats were exchanged, and both men went for their guns.  Mutual friends intervened, however, and each man went his own way.  The next morning, Loving entered the Imperial Saloon, where Allen worked, with a pistol in his hand.  Allen drew his weapon and shot at Loving —but missed.  Loving returned fire —and he missed.  Saloon patrons scrambled for cover, and in this melee, Loving’s gun was knocked from his hand.  Allen, using another man as his shield, discharged several wild shots at Loving —all of them missing their mark.  Loving recovered his pistol and shot at Allen several times —and these shots went astray as well.  Allen escaped and went into hiding in Hammond’s Hardware Store.  When Loving entered Hammond’s to purchase more ammunition, not knowing that Allen was inside, Allen stepped out and shot Loving in the back.  Ultimately, as was often the case back then, Allen was acquitted of murder on account that he shot Loving in the back in self-defense.  Allen later moved to Dodge City, where he became a preacher.

In 1883, Bat Masterson responded to a request from Luke Short to aid him in a matter in Dodge City.  Short, who had become part-owner of the Long Branch Saloon felt that it was inappropriate for Mayor Larry Deger to close down his saloon and order him out of town.  Deger was Bat’s long-time enemy, so it didn’t take him very long to respond on the side of Luke Short.  Within weeks, Masterson recruited a group of gunfighters, including Wyatt Earp, intending to resolve what had become known as the Dodge City War.  Masterson dubbed his group the Dodge City Peace Commission. 

Dodge Peace 1883Deger’s decision to close down the Long Branch coincided with the cattle season; closing down saloons would financially ruin a number of saloon owners.  The issue was serious enough to involve Kansas Governor George W. Glick, as well as the Santa Fe Railroad.  Eventually, the saloons and gambling halls were reopened, including the Long Branch.  No blood was spilled, but the event did result in one of the more famous old west photographs posed for by eight renowned gunmen: Bill Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Charlie Basset, Bill Petilion, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLean, and Neil Brown.

Late in 1884, Bat Masterson started a small newspaper he named Vox Populi.  The paper operated for about a week before folding.  He would have to come back to journalism later in life.

In 1884, Bat was living the good life in Denver, Colorado.  On 18 September, he attended a Denver theater where comedian Lou Spencer was performing on stage.  During his performance, Spencer looked down into the audience and spotted his wife Nellie sitting on Masterson’s knee.  Spencer cut short his act and confronted Masterson, perhaps using his loud voice, and Masterson clubbed him across the face with his pistol.  A struggle then ensued while Nellie watched in amusement from the wings.  Masterson and Spencer were arrested, fined, and released.  Nellie filed for divorce within the week and, if the local paper is believable, Nellie and Bat “eloped.”  There was never any record of a marriage between the two, and Nellie soon disappeared from Bat’s life.  At the time, Bat Masterson was known as a “ladies man.” 

Soapy Smith 001Several years later, Bat Masterson and crime boss Soapy Smith (shown left) became good friends.  There was some talk of Smith and Masterson being involved in fraudulent voting.  Soapy got his moniker from a swindle scheme he had of selling bars of soap with prize money hidden inside the packaging —a scheme to increase the sale of bars of soap.  It was a swindle because through sleight of hand, Smith would ensure that only members of his gang purchased the bar with the prize money inside.  His real name was Jefferson Randolph Smith II (1860-98).  Smith was shot and killed by members of a vigilance committee who had some objections to his “three card monte” scheme and stealing $2,700 from miner John Douglas Stewart.

Jim Masterson, meanwhile, had become an undersheriff in Colfax County, New Mexico.  In 1889, he returned to Kansas and took an active role in the so-called Gray County War.  Cimarron and the nearby town of Ingalls were locked in a contest to decide which town would become the new county seat, an important factor in the financial stability of the town.  The election ended with claims of fraud from both sides and so the matter was referred to the Kansas Supreme Court. 

Bill TilghmanIn the meantime, Mr. Newt Watson, the new county clerk, demanded that Cimarron turn over all county records so that they could be transported to Ingalls.  The Cimarron men refused, so the folks from Ingalls organized a resistance mob, which included Bill Tilghman (shown left), Jim Masterson, Ben Daniels, Neal Brown, and Fred Singer—all of whom were former Dodge City lawmen.  Added to these, a few “cowtown mercenaries.”  To give these men “semi-official” standing, Tilghman deputized them.  He was empowered to do this through his appointment as temporary county sheriff after the elected sheriff, Joe Reynolds, was incapacitated by a bullet wound to the stomach.

Tilghman and his men arrived in Cimarron on 12 January 1889.  They pulled the wagon up in front of the courthouse and Watson, Masterson, Singer, and Billy Allensworth entered the building to begin loading the county records; the rest of the men waited outside.  While this was going on, Cimarron men were moving into position to attack.

Suddenly, the Cimarron men opened fire on the men standing nearest the wagon.  Tilghman was hit in the leg, Brooks was gut shot, and the wagon’s teamster was also hit, but they all managed to get into the wagon and drive it out of town.  Inside, Masterson and his crew took up firing positions on the second floor, where they were able to defeat attempts by the Cimarron men to storm the building.  The Cimarron men rushed the building several times, but each effort was thwarted.  The battle lasted for around six hours, ending only after the Cimarron men received a telegram from Bat Masterson warning them that unless his brother were allowed to leave town, he would hire a train and bring enough men to blow Cimarron off the face of Kansas.  Masterson and his boys put down their weapons and were briefly taken prisoner.

In total, there were ten casualties: seven wounded, three killed.  Tilghman and his men were later prosecuted, but acquitted on account of the fact that no one could tell who shot whom.  Although there was no further violence, the dispute over the county seat lasted until 1893 when Cimarron became the new county seat.

Bat Masterson was a sportsman with a keen interest in prizefighting.  He knew John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, and Jack Dempsey.  In 1892, Bat moved to Creede, Colorado where he managed the Denver Exchange Gambling Club until the town was destroyed by fire.  Masterson then joined Luke Short and Charlie Bassett in attendance at the Sullivan-Corbett fight in New Orleans.  All three men made a lot of money from gambling, but they also spent a lot of money in maintaining their upper-class lifestyle.

After the Gray County War, Jim Masterson moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma and was later appointed a deputy sheriff in Logan County.  On 1 September 1893, while serving as a Special Deputy US Marshal, Jim participated in the Battle of Ingalls, Oklahoma against the famed Doolan-Dalton gang.  Jim was responsible for the capture of Arkansas Tom Jones.  Even then, Jim was not well.  He passed away in Guthrie from tuberculosis on 31 March 1895.  He was 39 years old.

After serving briefly as a bodyguard for the millionaire George Gould, Bat decided that he wanted to settle down in New York City.  For a few years, he traveled between Denver and New York City.  Rumors that he had taken to heavy drink persisted in Denver.  Whether or not true, he became a resident of New York City in 1902—but not without some scandal.  He was accused of running a bunko operation against George H. Snow, a Mormon elder, but all charges were dropped in this case.  He was also arrested for carrying a concealed weapon.  At about this time, Alfred H. Lewis hired Masterson as a journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph.  Bat Masterson became a sports writer with a focus on boxing and wrote a weekly column from 1905 until his death in 1921. 

Bat Masterson 002While employed by the newspaper, Lewis encouraged Masterson to write a series of sketches about his adventures, which were later published in Human Life magazine.  He also wrote stories about Ben Thompson, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, Doc Holliday, William F. Cody, and Bill Tilghman.  He also provided his readers with some insight to the best properties of a gunfighter. (Shown left, Bat Masterson in his 60s).

In 1905, Bat Masterson received a Presidential appointment as Deputy US Marshal for the Southern District of New York.  During his appointment, Theodore Roosevelt prohibited Masterson from gambling or other disquieting behavior that might reflect unfavorably on his administration.  Masterson, earning $2,000 per year, served in this capacity until 1909, when Roosevelt left the White House.  Newly elected William Howard Taft did not share Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for Masterson and the famous Bat Masterson was “let go.”

Bat Masterson died from a heart attack on 25 October 1921.  He had lived an exciting 67 years.  

Sources:

  1. Silva, L. A.  Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend, Volume I: The Cowtown Years. Santa Ana, CA: Graphic Publishers, 2002
  2. DeArment, R. K.  Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979
  3. DeArment, R. K.  Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years.  Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013

Endnotes:

  1. One of the hunters died from an accidental discharge of his rifle.  See also: The Red River War. 
  2. “Dog Soldiers” were from six Cheyenne military societies from around the 1830s that played a dominant role in Cheyenne resistance to the westward movement of Anglo-Americans.  They operated mostly from Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming.  Most of these hostiles were killed by the US Army at the Battle of Summit Springs.  Remnants of the Dog Soldiers became more secretive in their lodgings and activities.
  3. Miflin Kenedy was a stern former ship’s captain and a Pennsylvania Quaker who earned his fortune as a cattleman.  For a while, Kenedy partnered with Richard King (of King Ranch fame), which ended in 1868.Kenedy purchased the Laureles Ranch, a 172,000 acre spread 23 miles west of Corpus Christi.  Both King and Kenedy contributed much wealth to Dodge City, Kansas.  Spike was the mixed blood son of Miflin and Petra Vela de Vidal Kenedy, the daughter of a former Spanish provincial governor.  Petra was 26-years old and the widow of Colonel Luis Vidal when she married Miflin in 1852.  Spike was nothing like his parents.  He loved his whiskey, and he loved whoring.  Arrogant by his father’s wealth, Spike did not think that the law applied to him.  
  4. For more information on Bill Tilghman, see The Guardsmen.
  5. For an account of Ben Thompson’s assassination, see: A Dangerous Dandy. 
  6. Webb was a respected lawman turned bad in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Michael Keliher, a tough who refused to relinquish his weapon to Marshal Webb.  Keliher went for his gun, but Webb was much faster and shot him dead —three times, which the jury in the case believed was a  clear demonstration of excessive zeal.
  7. Loving was known as “Cockeyed Frank.”  He was involved in two well-publicized shootouts, the other being in Dodge City after a squabble with Levi Richardson, a man with a sour disposition and a highly misplaced reputation as a gunfighter.
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The Elm Creek Raid

There are those who lament and deplore the atrocities foisted upon American Indians as Anglo-settlers moved westward through the present-day United States.  Looking at these events through the rose-colored lenses of the twenty-first century, one might argue that (a) white people started this problem by moving into lands “belonging” to the Amerind, (b) whites were unnecessarily cruel to the native population, and/or (c) the whites embarked on a program of genocide, which caused the Indian populations to defend themselves and their families.  Such arguments do have some merit, but they do not tell the complete story.  There were atrocities committed by Anglo pioneers —but such acts, as much as we may deplore them today, were both provoked and, in the context of the times, warranted.  

Comanche 003As a reminder, one of the reasons Spanish-Mexico invited Anglo settlers to the Southwest in the first place was because, for 350 years, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache made the settlement of present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kansas untenable for Spanish/Mexican colonists.  After the War of Mexican Independence, Mexico realized that it could not claim to control lands that were mostly unpopulated.  Besides, the Americans weren’t the only people with an eye on Texas, and so early Mexican leaders decided that it would be far better to allow Anglo-settlements, where Mexico would be in a position to control their size and locations than to run the risk of an effort by the United States to annex Texas or to have to contend with a profusion of French colonies.

Populating Texas was a priority, but so too was populating it with people who might be able to contend (deal) with hostile Indians.  The number of Indians living between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains in 1830 has been estimated at around 110,000.  The Comanche alone is said to have numbered around 45,000 people, although since many the Kiowa bands merged with the Comanche, this number could be larger.

The story of the southwestern United States between 1850-1912 is one of perpetual Indian depredation.  As we learn about the events of the Elm Creek Raid and understand that it was but one among hundreds of others, we must take care not to judge these events by our modern concept of morality.  Doing so will fail us on two levels: (1) It is doubtful that the Plains Indians ever equated their behaviors to a western standard of ethicality, and (2) the Plains Indians behaved toward white settlers in the same way they acted toward other Indian tribes.

As a further reminder, Texas became the 28th state to join the Union in 1845.  Statehood precipitated the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  It was a turbulent time —and then came the American Civil War (1861-65).  In 1865, no one north or east of Texas cared about the plight of Texas settlers —not even after desperate pleadings by the Texas Judiciary [1].  The American frontier was a low priority in the United States at a time when everyone in Washington was trying to figure out how to put the nation back together.  Still, while this was going on, the realities of the American southwest in 1864 were:

    • In 1860, the U. S. Army began withdrawing all regular troops from frontier forts; in 1864, there was no immediate plan to reoccupy them.
    • Texas was the only place in the United States where large numbers of white settlers lived within reach of horse-mounted hostiles.
    • Local militias and “minutemen” were inadequate to confront the hostilities of the Plains Indians.
    • The Amerind generally, and the Kiowa and Comanche in particular, did not understand the Civil War.  What they did understand was the fact that there were no military forces in the Southwest.  When their raids went unopposed, the number of raids and depredations increased exponentially.
    • In total, the Comanche-Kiowa bands killed more white people than any other American Indian tribes—a fact that is not well known in this country.
    • As a result of Indian depredations, the Texas frontier was in full retreat in 1865 —with no relief in sight for frontier settlers.
    • Between 1865-74, the United States pursued a “peace policy,” through which the hostile tribes were to be placed on and sustained by government-funded reservations, educated and Christianized [2].

Between 1850-68, Texas settlers lived their lives “forted up” —they were in constant danger from hostile Indians.  They fought a hundred unseen and unrecorded battles; they suffered the death, injury, mutilation, rape, and kidnapping of thousands of loved ones, family members, and close friends.  The events of Young County, Texas in October 1864 is representative of this terror.  History remembers it as the Elm Creek Raid.

Fort Belknap TX 001

Fort Belknap, Texas

With the removal of Indians who were willing to live on reservations [3], the population of white settlers in West Texas grew at a rapid rate.  Young County had been organized by 1864, but just barely; there was no mechanism for the protection of settlers.  In truth, Young County, Texas was on the edge of nowhere.  Settler Francis Peveler was one of the county’s earliest settlers.  He noted in his journal, “We were right on the frontier —nothing north of us but  the North Star.”  Mr. Peveler was wrong about that because north of Young County were bands of Comanche [4] and Kiowa [5] hostiles who roamed the land as freely as the wind.

Texas militia captains Buck Barry and Jim Bourland tried to get the people to “fort up,” but not everyone was interested in doing that.  Constructing fortified cabins was hard work, and suitable logs were difficult to obtain.  At nearby Fort Belknap, long abandoned by the Army, Captain Barry constructed cabins in 100-yard long squares.  A similar structure was thrown up at Fort Murrah 1858.  Within these stockades, settlers lived almost exactly the way their forebears lived in early Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1750s.

Ten or twelve families lived at Fort Murrah; they were Anglo-Celtic clans from Kentucky who had migrated through Missouri; in all, between 60 to 80 white settlers lived along Elm Creek. 

Elm Creek Raid 001In the late summer or early fall of 1864, large parties of Kiowa moved into the Llano Estacado.  They fell under the influence of a young Comanche brave named Little Buffalo, an ambitious chief with a thirst for horses, loot, and prestige.  A careful planner, Little Buffalo scouted the territory along the upper Brazos.  Observing the widespread farms and ranches of the white eyes, he determined that the time was right for raiding.  He circulated among the northern bands of Comanche and Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache on the Wichita range.  He spoke to his Indian allies of great victories ahead of them.  After all, there were no horse soldiers in Texas.  And, because their numbers were so small, there was nothing to fear from Texas Rangers.  Hundreds of warriors signed on for the raid —including the Kiowa war leader Aperian Crow.  Having gathered extra mounts, the Indians streamed into northern Texas.

On 13 October, Little Buffalo reached the Brazos River where it joined Elm Creek, approximately ten miles above Fort Belknap.  Riding behind him were seven-hundred braves.  This is where the killing began.  There are numerous versions of what happened that bright and clear day, explained by the fact that everyone affected told their own version of how they remembered it.  

The Indians rode down both banks of Elm Creek at midday. They first came across Joel Myers and his young son, who was out looking for strayed oxen.  The Myerses never had a chance; they were killed, stripped of their clothing, and their remains mutilated.  The Indian war party moved on.  Next came the Fitzpatrick homestead.  As a number of the men were away, gone to the trading post at Weatherford for supplies, only three women and their children remained behind: Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, her daughter Susan Durgan, and a Negro woman named Mary Johnson, the wife of Britt Johnson [6].

As howling Indians surrounded the Fitzpatrick place, Susan Durgan grabbed a rifle and went outside.  The gutsy woman put up a good fight, but was quickly overwhelmed by Comanche warriors who cut her down, stripped her naked, raped her, and then mutilated what was left of her.  The Indians then flooded inside the house and seized the remaining people.  Two braves quarreled over which of them had captured and was therefore entitled to enslave Mary Johnson’s oldest boy, aged 12 years.  Unable to resolve this problem, the braves amicably killed the boy.  Other warriors threw Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Mary Johnson, and four of their children onto the back of horses and rode off.

Not far away was the Hamby Place, where Thomas (Doc) Wilson also lived with his family.  There were three men at the homestead when the Indians arrived, including Thornton Hamby (a wounded/recovering Confederate veteran soldier).  When the men heard the commotion at the Fitzpatrick place, they rushed their women into a hiding place in a cave along the nearby bank.  Then, these men mounted up to warn neighbors of approaching danger.

The William Bragg family warned of approaching danger, hid in thick brush and avoided contact with the marauders.  Doc Wilson rode hard while the Hamby’s fought a rear-guard action to keep the rampaging Indians at bay.  Wilson reached Judge Henry Williams’ ranch and gave the alarm.  One of the men at the Williams ranch grabbed a horse and carried the alarm forward.  

Two women visitors and their children were with the Williamses, also a young man named Callan. When Callan understood the severity of the situation, he seized his horse and rode away to warn others. Mrs. Williams herded her five children and her guests across Elm Creek where they lay down in the screening brush; Sam Williams, aged fifteen years, stood guard with a shotgun.  The Williamses weren’t discovered by the hostiles when they arrived, but their homestead was sacked. 

Depredations 001Thornton Hamby (the wounded veteran} and his father rejoined Doc Wilson at the Williams place, then rode for the George Bragg ranch, a short distance further on.  George Bragg’s home was a two-room cabin built for strength.  Arriving at the Bragg homestead, the Comanches were in full fury after the Hamby’s. They leaped from their ponies in Bragg’s yard and rushed to the cabin door.  Doc Wilson didn’t make it —a Comanche arrow struck him through the heart.  He staggered into the cabin and said, “Hamby, I am a dead man.”  He jerked the missile out of his body and died.

George Bragg was inside the house with five white women, a Negro girl, and a great brood of children.  The Hamby had thought to fort up here since they expected to find more men to defend, but now they were surrounded by hostile Indians who wanted their blood.  They were committed to a defense whether they wanted it or not.  There was no escape.  Thornton Hamby later said: “I might have jumped under the bed —had it not been occupied by three families of women and children who made their way to the ranch for protection.”  This is the statement of a cool man.  When the Indians, blowing a captured or discarded bugle, advanced on the blockhouse, it was young Hamby who took charge of the defense.  The older men were excited, but Thornton had been under fire before.  He ordered the women to load the rifles and pistols, which task they undertook with great vigor.

1823 Texas Cabin

Texas Cabin c. 1823

Within mere seconds, the Comanches rushed the house, howling like madmen.  The elder Hamby killed an Indian with a pistol shot but received four wounds in return.  The Bragg defense devolved on Thornton, whose coolness under fire helped everyone maintain their wits.  He stayed at the firing ports, killing or wounding Indian after Indian; the women recharged his weapons and pressed them into his hand.  Although struck by an Indian bullet, he kept fighting.  In the afternoon, Hamby brought down Little Buffalo with a well-aimed shot.  Little Buffalo’s demise demoralized the attacking Indians.  Within a short time, the savages mournfully withdrew, carrying off their dead and wounded.

A few hours later, after dark, Thornton Hamby and George Bragg went to the Fitzpatrick ranch to see what had happened.  They buried the bodies.  Meanwhile, the Peveler & Harmonson clans had assembled at Fort Murrah, a pioneer settler’s fortification.   Little Buffalo had not known that the stockade existed as it had only just been built.  From the top of the fort, the defenders scanned the countryside through a spyglass and found it writhing with hostiles.  Francis Peveler saw the Indians playing with something in the mesquite brush.  What he observed were hostiles toying with Old Man McCoy and then finally killing him and his son.  The McCoy’s lived about a mile distant on Boggy Creek and were unable to make it to the fort.  

The war party did not try to storm the fort; if the Indians had learned one thing from the Texans, it was never to charge Texas rifles.  Meanwhile, Lieutenant Carson of Bourland’s border regiment ranged near Fort Belknap with about twenty men.  The Indians may have avoided the fort, but when Carson and fourteen men attempted ingress to the Elm Creek area, they soon found themselves facing three hundred braves.  Five of Carson’s men were killed outright, with several more wounded.  Carson’s after-action report indicated that he and his men behaved themselves with courage, but the fact was that his troops fired once and then raced away for their lives.  It was probably the wisest course of action.  It was either that or painful death.

During his retreat, Carson and his men passed by Isaac McCoy’s house and picked up the two stranded McCoy women.  Riding double, militia and women made it safely to Fort Murrah but a number of the horses had arrows protruding from their necks and rumps.  Fort Murrah prepared for a siege: the women brought in milk and water from the spring branch and the men passed around ammunition.  As night fell, the defenders could see Indians on three sides —a large fire blazed in the North.

Plains IndianThe Peveler clan, who was still mourning the death of one of their men a few days earlier  —and the Harmonson’s— agreed that a dawn attack was likely.  Someone should try to ride to Fort Belknap for assistance.  Carson’s men refused to ride out, so Francis Peveler and a man named Fields from Gainesville saddled up.  On the way out, they passed by a picket who was standing guard outside the fort—the young man was but 17-years old.  Staying off the high ground to avoid detection, the two riders passed a white object on the ground —it was the remains of Joel Myers.  A short distance further on, they came across a horse, pinned to the ground with a lance but still alive and trembling.  They could not stop to shoot the pitiful animal for fear of bringing attention to themselves.  They galloped six miles into Fort Belknap only to find that all the border regiment men had gone —it was said that they were on a scout looking for Indians.  Chester Tackett volunteered to ride to Veal’s Station, the next nearest settlement seventy-five or so miles away.  Tackett, who was about nineteen years old, rode out at 1 a.m. the next morning.  Changing horses at every white clearing he passed, he finally arrived at his destination at 9 a.m.  He found no help at the Station but the exhausted Tackett had to stop for a rest.  Another rider hastened on to Decatur, another thirty miles.

At sundown, Major Quayle at Decatur, commanding a company of militia, learned that Fort Murrah was besieged. Quayle’s command mounted up —destination Fort Murrah, some 80 miles distant.  At dusk the following day, Quayle was within twenty miles of the fort when he met a rider who told him that the Indians were gone.  Quayle detached a few of his men to track the hostiles, which they did for about 100 miles, but to no avail.

In all its details, the Elm Creek Raid was a classic hostile raid —its only difference being in the number of Indians involved, which in this case was huge.  Eleven settlers were killed, eleven homesteads were destroyed, and seven women and children were carried off.  The settlers defended themselves as best they could have, either by flight or by forting up.  The cavalry was, as usual, worthless.  The winter of 1864–65 was difficult for the survivors of Elm Creek, of which only three homesteads remained intact.  Food, clothing, bedding, furniture, and most of their horses were all lost.  The Indians had ripped up bedding to amuse themselves watching the feather ticking float in the air.  They dumped out 500-pound sacks of flour for the flour sacks, which they prized.

In furtherance of endnote 2 and the so-called Quaker Peace Policy, it is true that having located themselves within Indian territory, white settlers became the aggressors, although no more or less than the Spanish-Mexican settlers before them.  It is also true that frontier Texans developed an intense hatred for “red vermin.”  These are facts, untempered by modern-day moralistic judgments.  Human migration into areas long-populated by “indigenous” persons (no matter what their skin color) has been an often-repeated fact of history for thousands of years and the strongest tribe always wins.

In the same way, the Plains Indian assaulted Spanish/Catholic settlements, their clash with Anglo-American settlers was inevitable.  The whites weren’t going to “go away,” and the Southwest tribes weren’t going to give up their territories without a fight [7].   One interesting observation, however, is that the plains Indians were willing to sit down and negotiate with representatives of the US government (the Americanos), but they refused to meet with any Texan.  I have often wondered if this was not the result of the Council House Fight.

Nevertheless, the willingness of the hostile tribes to negotiate with the United States government was a mistake of epic proportions.  What the US government wanted after 1866 was to remove the Indians as threats to westward expansion by confining them to reservations.  Confinement is an incorrect word in this instance because the provisions of the Quaker Peace Treaty permitted Indians to leave the reservations at will, to hunt and war with other Indian tribes.  Since many of the Indian agents were corrupt [8], withholding food supplies as but one example, hunting off the reservations was necessary.  At the same time, some Comanche and Kiowa bands used their “hunting excursions” as an opportunity to conduct raids on white settlers on the frontier —a known fact.     

To achieve relocating all Southwest Indians onto reservations, and making them dependent upon their “white father” in Washington, it was first necessary to create circumstances that would convince a rational man that reservation life was preferred to starvation.  The increase in Indian violence upon white settlers after 1866 —the result of a triumph of Washington theory over stark reality in the Southwest United States— led General Phil Sheridan and General William T. Sherman to conclude that there could be no solution to the Indian problem for as long as these Indians could support themselves off the reservation.  With this in mind, the United States Congress authorized the U. S. Army to pursue a policy of extermination of the American Buffalo.

Sources:

  1. Mooney, J.  Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians: Summer, 1871.  Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and The Texans.  Open Road Media, Kindle Edition.
  3. Tatum, L.  Our Red Brothers and the Peace Policy of President Ulysses S. Grant, Philadelphia: Winston & Company, 1899.
  4. Greene, J. A.  Indian War Veterans: Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864-1898.  New York: Savas Beatie, 2007.
  5. Kessel, W. And Robert Wooster.  Encyclopedia of Native American Wars and Warfare, 2005.
  6. Wooster, R. A.  The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903.  Published 1988.

Endnotes:

  1. “For a long time have this people endured an almost uninterrupted warfare bloody and savage at the hands of Indians.  But, sir, those depredations have been growing from bad to worse until they are perfectly alarming to our people.  I might give your Excellency scores of instances of recent dates of murder, rape, and robbery which that have committed alone in the counties composing my judicial district.  It has been but a few days since the whole Lee family, consisting of six persons were inhumanely butchered, three of them being females were ravished, murdered, and most terribly mutilated.  Then Mr. Does, the Justice of the Peace of Palo Pinto County was but last week murdered and scalped; his ears and nose were cut off.  Mr. Peoples and Mr. Crawford of the said county met the same fate.  Wm. McCluskey was but yesterday shot down by those same bloody Quaker Pets upon his own threshold.  I write to your Excellency, as to one who from your Exalted position in our nation can if you will protect us from this inhuman butchery.  Your humble correspondent believes your Excellency to be endowed with at least a moderate amount of human feeling and a mind that cannot be trammeled by this one dread insane Pseudo humanitarian policy, called the Quaker Indian Peace Policy.  Am I mistaken?”  Signed, Charles Howard, Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District, addressed to President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.
  2. In devising this peace policy, not a single US official had ever studied the fate of Spanish missions or the failure of this peculiar ideology on the eighteenth-century frontier.  No matter how well-intentioned this policy may have been, “It [policy] was a form of idiocy, because it completely failed to halt Kiowa-Comanche depredations on the Texas plains.  The policy brutalized the Anglo-Saxon frontier, and it prolonged the agony of the American Indians.”
  3. These were Indians fooled into believing their white Indian agents, who promised the Indians a utopian existence but delivered nothing even remotely similar.  Promised food stores, the Indians were starved; promised blankets, they were occasionally supplied with blankets infected with smallpox.  One can conclude from this sad story that socialism didn’t work for the Indians, and it hasn’t worked for America’s ethnic/racial minorities, either.  Life on the reservation was hell to the Indians, just as life in the “projects” is hell to the minorities who are imprisoned there.
  4. The movement of Comanche was part of a larger phenomenon known as the Shoshone Expansion during which the language family spread across the Great Basin and across the mountains into Wyoming.  These nomadic people following the bison as their primary food source.  After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Comanche acquired horses and mules, which transformed them from mere nomadic Indians into a distinctive Comanche culture.  It may have been the search for horses that caused the early Comanche to break away from the Shoshone and move southward into the Great Plains. 
  5. The Kiowa likely shared their ethnic origin with other Amerinds of the Kiowa-Tanoan language family.  As hunter-gatherers, the Kiowa are likely to have originated from the northern Missouri River Basin, moved southward seeking more land of their own, ending up in the Black Hills region of the Dakotas, and in turn, driven further south by the Cheyenne and Sioux.  They eventually dominated the area of western Kansas, eastern Colorado, most of Oklahoma, and the Llano Estacado.  At a council meeting in 1790, the Kiowa and Comanche agreed to share the hunting groups of the Great Plains and to support one another in mutual defense.
  6. Legally, Britt Johnson was a slave in 1864, but on the West Texas plain, no one cared about that.  He had lived as a free man for most of his life.  Most people referred to him as “Nigger Britt.”
  7. As noted in endnotes (above), the Comanche themselves were comparatively recent arrivals in the areas of the present-day Southwestern United States.  Moreover, they attacked with equal ferocity any other “encroachers,” whether white, brown, or other red men.  At one stage, Comanche and Kiowa bands targeted the Tonkawa Indians for extermination—the point is that modern-day readers should dispense with this notion of the Southwest tribes being cruelly and unfairly set upon by white settlers.  In the judgment of rational thinkers, they reaped what they sowed.
  8. Indian Agent corruption was a problem almost from the beginning of the United States.  Numerous examples exist within the Congressional Record of hearings and investigations into allegations of furnishing Indian populations with inferior goods, raking off food stores and selling them to other than Indian populations, selling Indians whiskey, and pocketing government appropriations.  See also, U. S. Congress, House, Transfer of the Indian Bureau to the War Department, House Report 241, 45th Congress, 1878 (Serial 1822), and U. S. Congress, House, Report of the Indian Peace Commission, House Executive Document 97, 40th Congress, 1868 (Serial 1337).
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John Coffee Hays

Jack Hays 004In 1836, a 19-year-old young man by the name of Jack Hays migrated from his home in Tennessee to the Republic of Texas.  He came from a good family, was well-educated, and had influential friends or friends of the family, including one former governor of his home state by the name of Sam Houston.  Jack’s father, Harmon, fought alongside Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston in the War of 1812.

Arriving in Texas, Jack presented himself to General Houston, made his manners, and presented to him a letter of recommendation from his great uncle, Andrew Jackson who was, at the time, serving as President of the United States.  Rachel Jackson was Jack Hays’ great aunt from the Donelson family, and a relative of Jack’s mother.

The well-mannered Jack Hays spoke in an even, measured tone.  He was thoughtful, considerate, and logical.  Houston liked the young man and appointed him to serve with the Texas Rangers, variously referred to as ranging spies and scouts (the term spies being synonymous with scout).  History doesn’t remember much about Jack between 1836-40.  He was apparently in the learning stage of his career.

The Stars have gleamed with a pitying light

On the scene of many a hopeless fight,

On a prairie patch or a haunted wood

Where a little bunch of Rangers stood.

They fought grim odds and knew no fear,

They kept their honor high and clear,

And, facing arrows, guns, and knives,

Gave Texas all they had—their lives.

~W. A. Phelson

Life in Texas demanded uncommon practicality and an uncompromising attitude toward survival.  The entire purpose behind Mexico’s invitation to these migrating Americans was so that they could deal with the problem of hostile Indians, which in the course of the previous three hundred years, Spanish Mexico never resolved [1].  Texas promised but one thing: a hard life.  Initially, if settlers were plagued by Indians with hostile intent, it was up to them to band together and solve the problem —or die.  But small groups were only capable of defending themselves; they were not equipped to address the larger problem of Comanche culture.

When Jack Hays arrived in Texas, the rangers had been in existence for thirteen years, although not as a formal organization and not labeled as Texas Rangers.  They were an irregular force, unpaid, poorly equipped, and their only reason for existing at all was the necessity of defending the colonies.

By 1839, rather than waiting for the horror of an Indian assault in the dead of night or at first light, the Texans had begun to take the fight to the Comanche.  This aggressiveness was a new experience for the Comanche.  Four events in 1839-40 became more than episodical footnotes in Texas history.  They included the discovery of a Mexican plot to unite hostiles against Texas settlements, the fight with Cherokees and their expulsion from Texas, the Council House Fight in San Antonio, and the Battle of Plum Creek.

The Battle of Plum Creek unfolded as a consequence of the Council House Fight in San Antonio [2].  Under the Comanche Moon [3] of August 1840, a band of Comanche warriors and their allies, numbering between 500 and 1,000 Indians, moved south from the Comancheria under the war chief Buffalo Hump of the Penateka Tribe.  Their route of march took them east of San Antonio, near Gonzalez, and struck deep within the Anglo-Texas region above the Nueces.  The Comanche cut a swath of destruction and no white was safe.

On 6 August, Buffalo Hump surrounded the town of Victoria and did something that few Indian war leaders had ever done before: he seized the town.  The citizens of Victoria, hastily thrown together within a span of moments, held but a small section of the town.  Comanches rode howling through the town, killing fifteen people, including slaves.  When they left, they took with them upwards of 2,000 horses [4].  These horses would be the undoing of the Comanche raiders.

When Buffalo Hump was finished with Victoria, he led his marauders to Peach Creek, moving toward the Gulf of Mexico in a great half-moon formation.  Texas militia turned out, but they could only hover on the Indian’s trail and observe them from the flank of the Comanche formation.  Settlers unfortunate enough to find themselves in the Comanche’s path welcomed death after their horrific torture.  The corpse of one man, Parson Joel Ponton, was found with the soles of his feet sliced off, and to make sure he suffered, the Indians dragged him along for miles before they bashed in his head and took his scalp.

The Indians were easy enough to track; all one had to do was follow the burning houses and plumes of dust kicked up by hundreds of Indians.

On 8 August, Buffalo Hump arrived at Linnville, Texas, a small town situated on Lavaca Bay.  People who survived at Linnville did so only because they quickly boarded boats and put out into the Bay.  When Buffalo Hump was finished, Linnville ceased to exist.  Every building was burned to the ground.  Linnville was never rebuilt.

The Comanche’s loot from this sortie was about two-years worth of merchandise consigned to Samuel Maverick and James Robinson.  Three whites and two Negroes were killed.

Retribution for the Council House fight had been obtained and Chief Buffalo Hump was finally sated.  It was time for the war party to return to the Comancheria.  Buffalo Hump had with him between 2,000 and 3,000 horses, mule-loads of loot, dozens of prisoners.  Thus burdened, the Indians could not move quickly back to the high plateau. 

Jack Hays 002As the Indians walked their horses and prisoners back to the West, dusty riders were pounding their horses through the coastal prairie.  Every male who was old enough to carry a gun was turned out from Lavaca, Gonzalez, Victoria, and a hundred widely scattered farms.  The Texans answered the call of their captains: J. J. Tumlinson [5], McCulloch [6], Caldwell [7], and Burleson [8].  Present too was a young ranger by the name of John Coffee Hays. 

Very early in his ranging career, Hays had become friends with an Apache chief named Flacco [9].  In the years of their acquaintance, not once did Jack lead a charge into an enemy formation where Flacco wasn’t at his side.  But Flacco wasn’t Hayes’ only native American ally.  In August 1840, the Tonkawa chief Placido and thirteen of his braves joined with Hays’ rangers in dogging the Comanche war party as they headed for the Big Prairie, just off Plum Creek.  Tracking wasn’t necessary because it was impossible not to see massive plumes of dust into the distance.

Plum Creek runs adjacent to the town of Lockhart, Texas, about 30 miles south of present-day Austin, a branch of the San Marcos River.  When Felix Huston [10] and Colonel Burleson reached Plum Creek, they dismounted their militia and independent rifles and had them conceal themselves within the scrub along the creek near Good’s Crossing.  There, they awaited the arrival of Buffalo Hump.

Once the Indian cavalcade entered the prairie, Huston, Burleson, and Caldwell walked their horses out from their concealed positions, their mounted rifles following in column.  As the two great lines of horsemen converged, the Comanche began to display their impressive skill on horseback—showing off, as it were.  The young Texas were suitably impressed with the Comanche’s skill, but the experienced officers were unimpressed and impatient with the bravado.  Burleson and Caldwell waited for Huston’s order to charge, but he seemed mesmerized by the Comanche show and said nothing.  Burleson and Caldwell knew that the Indians were only trying to delay combat until they had pushed their stolen horses forward.  Burleson finally leaned over to told Huston to give the order, which he promptly did.

Screaming and shooting, the Texans spurred into the Comanche flank, stampeding the herd of horses and the Comanches as well, who floundered while trying to control their mounts, the herd, and the pack animals.  Horses and mules piled up on the boggy stretch and the Indians began to show signs of panic.  At this moment, the Texans rode into and among the Comanche and began firing their .36 caliber Colt six-shooters, methodically killing every Comanche in their path.

Plum Creek wasn’t a battle in the sense of opposing sides in fixed formations; it was more of a running gunfight that lasted fifteen to twenty miles.  At first, once the Comanche settled down and realized it was time to withdraw at the gallop, the Indians easily distanced their pursuers, but they were bearing too much loot and trying to control thousands of horses.  And their prisoners were in the way, as well. 

Early in the confrontation, panicked Comanche bashed their prisoners in the head and left them for dead.  One captive woman was tied to a tree and pierced several times with arrows—only her bone corset saved her.  But the Comanche were cruel to their own in equal measure.  One warrior, angry because his squaw was holding him up, ran her through with a lance and left her there to die.

The combat was up-close, personal, and cruel.  Despite the ferocious reputation of the Comanche, the battle was less that than it was a massacre.  The Texans were angry, dozens of Indians fell mortally wounded from their mounts.  In the end, between 80 and 100 warriors lay dead.  One Texan combatant was killed.  Soon after the battle, owing to his performance at Plum Creek, President Lamar elevated Jack Hays to Captain of Texas Rangers.

In 1842, Hays commanded Texas Rangers against the invasion of Mexican General Adrian Woll.  Hays, handsome and quiet, a gentleman of the purest character, and through his utter fearlessness in the face of grave danger, set an indelible stamp upon the Texas Rangers.  In his own day, Hays’ reputation was such that every young man wanted to emulate him.

Three characteristics stood out.  First, he was self-contained and self-confident.  He was no talker, would not tolerate rudeness in any man, a born partisan who was intensely loyal to Texas and what it stood for.  Second, he was not a great gunman, but a man possessed of unsurpassed leadership, devoid of fear or hesitation, and whose rise to fame came from his own ability.  Third, Hays was a superb psychologist, able to bend friend and foe to his will.  He was the same kind of man as Ben McCulloch, Sam Walker, Leander McNelly, and Big Foot Wallace —good men who became better men under Jack Hays’s influence.

Jack Hays was the first to use the Colt revolver on Plains Indians.  On one occasion, he was jumped on the Pedernales River (present-day Kendall County) by a war party of seventy Comanches.  Serving under Hays were fourteen rangers.  His choices were run and die, or fort up and fight [11] —and this is what the Comanches thought he would do.  Texans could not match the Comanche on horseback, and so when confronted by hostiles, they routinely dismounted their horses and fought a defensive action from the ground, which immediately gave the Indians the advantage.  On this occasion, Hays took a different route.  He and his fourteen mounted rangers attacked the Indians on horseback.  He lost a few rangers but killed 35 to 40 Comanche.  The difference was in the fact that each ranger carried two six-shooters.  The Indians couldn’t compete with the Colt revolver.

Shortly afterward, Hays’s company encountered another superior force of Comanches west of San Antonio, in the Nueces Canyon. The Indians, shrieking and shooting arrows, swept around and surrounded the mounted rangers.  At Hays’s order, the Texans emptied their long rifles, then leaped into the saddle. Hays yelled “Charge!” in his high, clear voice. The Rangers were at close quarters before the startled Indians —who had rarely known white men to do anything but fort up or run— could turn their horses. “Powder-burn them!” Hays screamed

As Texas Rangers rode between the Comanche ranks, they shot the Indians from their horses on both sides.  The Comanches were entirely brave; they turned to stand —only to observe the Rangers coming on, fire-spitting again and again from their fists, striking down milling horsemen on all sides.  The Indians fled, and Hays and his boys pursued them for three miles.  In the end, the demoralized Comanches threw aside their useless shields, lances, and bows.  Leaning low over their horses, the hostiles raced away in routed flight.  The Comanche war chief stated later that he lost half his people, and that wounded warriors died on the trail for a hundred miles to the Devil’s River.  “I will never again fight Jack Hays, who has a shot for every finger on the hand,” the Indian moaned.

Neither Hays or any of his rangers ever tried to downplay the crucial role of the Colt six-shooter in mounted combat. “They are the only weapon which enabled the experienced frontiersmen to defeat the mounted Indian in his own peculiar mode of warfare….” Read one testimonial. 

Colt 1836The six-shooter was important beyond the romanticism and enduring symbolism it produced. A superb horseman in open country, armed with one or more long-barreled Colts, represented the most effective weapon system known to the middle nineteenth century.  In one step, Texas borderers achieved parity with the Plains Indians and a marked superiority over the Mexican cavalry lance and the vaquero’s rope.  They would hold both until the dispersion of an effective, accurate breechloading rifle, which did not appear until the 1870s. The revolver, very simply, meant power in southwest Texas, and long after the power was no longer needed, this symbol is synonymous with Texas today.

Between 1846-48, Hays commanded the First Regiment of Texas Rangers at the Battle of Monterrey, established six companies along the northern and western frontier, and then later commanded the Second Regiment of Texas Rangers in Winfield Scott’s Mexico City campaign.  While fighting under General Joseph Lane, who was defending the American line of communication at Veracruz, Hays defeated a superior force of Mexican cavalry at Galaxara Pass [12] and a guerrilla force at Matamoros, which enabled General Lane to capture the Mexican supply depot.  Once again, Jack Hays was the first to use the Navy Colt Paterson (Paterson being the name of the city in New Jersey where they were produced) five-shot revolver in an armed conflict.  He subsequently dispatched Captain Sam Walker to meet with Samuel Colt, which led to the legendary Colt Walker six-shot revolver.

After the Mexican-American War, Jack Hays married Susan Calvert, a descendant of George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore.  Between 1947-49, they lived quietly in Seguin, Texas.  Upon the birth of their first child, Chief Buffalo Hump sent the Hays family the gift of a golden spoon. 

Jack Hays 003In 1849, Jack Hays received an appointment as an Indian Agent for the Gila River reservation in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona.  In that same year, Hays led a party of Forty-Niners from Texas to California, and upon arrival, the Hays family decided to remain in California.  In 1850, Jack Hays was elected sheriff of San Francisco County, where he served for three years.  In 1853, he was appointed to serve as United States Surveyor-General for California.  He was one of the earliest residents of Oakland, and over several years, amassed a fortune in land speculation, real estate development, and ranching investments.

Civil War came to America in 1861, but John Coffee Hays wanted nothing to do with it [13].  We hear nothing more about Jack Hays until 1876 when he was elected as a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention.  Jack passed away at his home 21 April 1883.

Sources:

  1. Conger, R. N.  Rangers of Texas.  Waco: Texian Press, 1969
  2. Greer, J.K.  Colonel Jack Hayes: Texas Frontier Leader and California Builder.  New York: Dutton, 1952
  3. Webb, W. P.  The Texas Rangers.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982 (Reprint)
  4. Wilkins, F.  The Highly Irregular Irregulars: Texas Rangers in the Mexican War.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1990

Endnotes:

  1. The reason Spanish Mexico had so many problems with the Comanche is that the Comanche held the Spaniards in utter contempt.  In the early days of Anglo-Texas, the Comanche, having no experience with them, treated the Texians with caution and friendliness.
  2. On 9 January 1840, three Comanche chiefs and their entourage rode into San Antonio where they sought a conference with Texas Ranger Henry W. Karnes.  They stated their desire to negotiate peace with the Texans.  For an account of this event, see Of Conflict and Sorrow. 
  3. Comanche moon refers to that stage of the lunar cycle when the brightness of the moon enabled Comanche warriors to travel at night, a tactic of stealth that enabled them to travel great distances undetected.
  4. To the Comanche, horses were as valuable as gold was to the white man.
  5. John Jackson Tumlinson, Jr. (1804-53) served as a captain of Texas Rangers in DeWitt Colony.  When in 1823 his father was killed by Indians, John and his brother Joseph led a handful of settlers to track down and kill the guilty parties.
  6. Ben McCulloch (1811-62) was a Texas Ranger, United States Marshal, and a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.  He traveled to Texas with his brother Henry in the company of David Crockett, who was a neighbor in Tennessee.  Ben served as a first lieutenant and second in command to John Coffee Hays.  During the Battle of Plum Creek, McCulloch distinguished himself as a scout and commander of the right-wing of the Texas Army.
  7. Mathew Caldwell (1798-1842) (nicknamed “Old Paint” on account of his whiskers appearing spotted) was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, a soldier in the Texas Army, a captain of Texas Rangers from Goliad, a captain of infantry in the Texas first regiment, and led a company of mounted rifles at Plum Creek.  Caldwell had been wounded at the Council House Fight. 
  8. Edward Burleson (1798-1851) served in the War of 1812, migrated to Texas in 1830, served as a lieutenant colonel of infantry under Stephen F. Austin, was appointed as Brigadier General of Volunteers to replace Austin in command of the Texas Army,  In 1836 he commanded the first regiment at the Battle of San Jacinto; at Plum Creek, he commanded a militia company of mounted rifles.
  9. Two Lipan Apache war chiefs were named Flacco: Flacco the Elder, and Flacco the Younger.  Flacco the Younger became the friend and scouting companion of Jack Hays.  Flacco the Younger was murdered by Mexican bandits while herding horses south of San Antonio in the winter of 1842.
  10. Huston (1800-57) was an attorney, adventurer, and a brigadier of the Texas Army.  Huston arrived at Plum Creek on the evening of 11 August and took command of all gathering troops.  Most people viewed Huston as a peacock; great to look at but deficient in matters of courage and military efficiency.
  11. The last mistake any Texan ever made with the Comanche was to try and run from him.
  12. With 35 Texas Rangers, Hays assaulted and defeated a Mexican cavalry force of 150 men.
  13. Jack’s brother Harry served the Confederacy as a Brigadier General with responsibilities in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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The Chisholm Trail

Who do we associate most with the Chisholm Trail?  John S. Chisum?  John Wayne?  We’ve allowed ourselves to become a bit confused about this period of history and I think it’s time we sorted it out.

Here we go.

The first film I remember seeing that mentioned the Chisholm Trail was titled Red River (1948), whose list of Hollywood Stars was by itself significant: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Noah Beery, and Shelly Winters.  Two authentic Indian chiefs also had roles in the film.  The film did quite well at the box office.

In 1970, Wayne starred in another film titled simply Chisum.  It was another block buster with a good cast: Forrest Tucker, Christopher George, Ben Johnson, and Richard Jaeckel.  There was almost nothing accurate about this western film, but it was loosely based on the events surrounding New Mexico’s Lincoln County War (1878).  It was good entertainment, though, and yet the film did a disservice to actual history given the fact that most Americans today aren’t capable of differentiating between real or revisionist history.

Longhorn 002The Chisholm Trail (which many people pronounce as Chisum Trail) was the major route out of Texas for livestock between 1867-84.  Its significance is that the Texas Longhorn cattle driven north along the trail provided a steady source of income that helped Texas recover from the effects of the Civil War.  The young men who participated in these cattle drives helped to cement the vision most people developed about Texas, the old west, rampaging Indians, back-shooting outlaws, and the Texas Rangers.  The Texas cowhand became a romantic figure among young boys trying to imagine what it was like to live that adventure.

In any case, the Texas economy was effectively in shatters at the end of the Civil War, its only assets being tens of thousands of Longhorn cattle —for which there was no demand.  Kansas and Missouri had closed their borders to Texas cattle in the 1850s because of the deadly Texas fever [1].  Gradually, the demand for cattle increased in the East and this provided the impetus for such men as Joseph G. McCoy in Illinois to supply it.  In 1867, he persuaded officials of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad to install a siding at the small town of Abilene, on the edge of the quarantine area.

Having constructed cow pens and loading facilities at the siding, McCoy sent the word to Texas cattlemen that a cattle market was emerging; come and get it.  In that year (1867), McCoy shipped 35,000 head of cattle to eastern markets.  The number of cattle shipments doubled each year through 1871, when 600,000 cattle managed to gut the market.

Oliver W. WheelerThe first Texas herd to utilize what would become the Chisholm Trail belonged to Colonel Oliver W. Wheeler of San Antonio, Texas (and investors) [2].  Initially, Wheeler planned to winter the cattle on the plains and then trail them to California.  At the North Canadian River, deeply in Indian country, Wheeler’s point riders discovered wagon tracks and followed them.  The tracks were made by Jesse Chisholm.

Chisholm (1805-1868), was the son of Ignatius Chisholm, a Scottish immigrant and Martha Rogers Chisholm, a Cherokee from the area of present-day Polk County, Tennessee.  In the 1820s, he migrated with his mother to Oklahoma during a period when Cherokees voluntarily removed themselves to the western territories.  At age 20, Chisholm joined a gold-seeking party that blazed a trail and explored the region of Wichita, Kansas.  In 1830, he helped establish a trail from Fort Gibson, Oklahoma south to Fort Towson.  In 1834 he became a member of the Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition, the first whites to make contact with the southern plains Indians as representatives of the US government.

Jesse Chisholm

Jesse Chisholm

In 1836, Jesse married Eliza Edwards and they established a homestead near her father’s trading post on the Little River near its confluence with the Canadian River.  In these days, Chisholm made his living trading with the Indians.  As Chisholm was fluent in the Indian tongue, he served as an interpreter between the Republic of Texas and local Indian bands.  He did this for over twenty years (1838-58).  Jesse stayed out of the way during the Civil War, but concerned about becoming targets of both sides who were attempting to exert their control over adjacent territories, he led a band of refugees to the western part of Oklahoma.  It was not an easy decision, and the results were dismal because during the war, Indians withdrew into the western territories as well and trade with them dried up.

After the war, Chisholm settled near Wichita and reestablished his Indian trade.  He built up what had been an Indian and military trail into a road capable of carrying heavy wagons; this trail became known as Chisholm’s Trail (later, The Chisholm Trail).  Jesse passed away in 1868 from food poisoning.

Initially, the trail was simply referred to as “the trail,” “the Kansas Trail,” “The Abilene Trail,” or “McCoy’s Trail.”  Originally, the trail only applied to the pathway north of the Red River, but Texas cowmen soon named it the Chisholm Trail, which included the entire trail from the Rio Grande to central Kansas.  Its first reference as such in print was published in the Kansas Daily Commonwealth in 1870.

The Chisholm Trail was not the first (or best) of cattle trails.  Texas cattle were herded up the Shawnee Trail from around the 1840s.  It’s popularity fell off when Missouri ranchers blocked the passage of Texas Cattle owing to the (then) unknown disease that infected them.  The Shawnee Trail passed through Austin, Waco, and Dallas, crossed the Red River near Preston, veered north along the eastern edge of Oklahoma, into Missouri ending variously at St. Louis, Sedalia, Independence, Westport, and Kansas City.  Many called it simply, “The Texas Road.”

The cattle drives did not follow a clearly defined trail except at river crossings where fording was well established.  The reason for this was that it was necessary in moving cattle to spread them out to find grass.  It was important to keep the cattle as fat as possible en route to rail or market heads.  Beyond this, cattle well fed and watered were unlikely to stampede.  Generally, the stockmen rarely moved their cattle more than ten or twelve miles a day.  After trailing techniques were well established, a trail drive would involve a trail boss, ten cowmen, a cook, and a wrangler (responsible for the horses).  This small number of men could trail a herd of 2,500 cattle for three months.

The Chisholm Trail and demand for cattle after the Civil War led to the so-called cowboy profession.  These were men contracted to move cattle for a rancher or several ranchers.  A few large ranchers delivered their own stock, men such as Captain Richard King (King Ranch) and Abel (Shanghai) Pierce, but the majority of cattle drives were handled by professional drovers.  John T. Lytle and his partners were responsible for diving 600,000 cattle.  George Slaughter & Sons, Snyder Brothers, and the Pryor’s were also professional contractors.  In 1884 alone, Pryor delivered 45,000 head of cattle in fifteen separate trail drives.  

Once the plains Indians were subdued and the buffalo herds decimated, cattle ranches began appearing all across the plains.  Most of these were stocked with Texas Longhorn and manned by Texas stockmen.  Raising cattle on the open range (access to free grass) attracted investors from the East, who formed partnerships with such men as Charles Goodnight.  Ranching syndicates appeared, such as the Scottish Prairie Land and Cattle Company, and Matador Land and Cattle.  Texas attempted to outlaw foreign investors, but failed.  There was simply too much opportunity for profit.  Then, in a reversal, Texas granted the Capital Syndicate of Chicago three-million acres; it became known as the XIT Ranch.  This was a deal that led to the construction of a new capital building in Austin when the original burned to the ground in 1881.

The Chisholm Trail was finally closed by barbed wire, which led to the range and fence cutting wars of the 1880s.  In its time, however, more than five million cattle and horses were moved along the Chisholm trail, setting a livestock migration record in the entire world.  And there was never a Chisum Trail.

Sources:

  1. Hoig, S.  Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.  Oklahoma Historical Society.
  2. Rossel, J.  The Chisholm Trail.  Kansas Historical Quarterly, Kansas Historical Society, 1936.
  3. Cushman, R. B.  Jesse Chisholm, Trail Blazer: Sam Houston’s Trouble-Shooter and Friend.  Eakin Publishing, 1991.
  4. Skaggs, J.  The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1973.
  5. Worcester, D. E.  The Chisholm Trail.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

Endnotes

  1. Unknown to Texas cattlemen at the time, the so-called Texas fever was caused by blood-sucking ticks.  This was a fact left undiscovered until the microbiologist Theobald Smith (1859-1934) discovered the causes of several infectious and parasitic diseases between 1888-93.  This discovery and his research led to the later identification of mosquitoes as the primary spreader of malaria and yellow fever.   
  2. Wheeler was born in Connecticut in 1830.  While still a young man, he contracted consumption and left home seeking a better climate for his health.  He came ashore in Panama, where he became infected with a tropical fever (malaria or yellow fever) which weakened him further.  Finally arriving in California, Wheeler engaged in several jobs: prospecting and mining proved too strenuous for him, but mercantile sales and freighting seemed to be a good fit.  Wheeler migrated into the livestock business with sheep, cattle, and horses.  In 1837, Wheeler was 37 years old.  He departed San Antonio with 2,400 head of cattle and 54 cowhands.  The trail took him through Indian country into Kansas and made him the first man to drive cattle through hostile (Indian) territory.  We aren’t sure why he was titled “Colonel.”
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Milt Yarberry

People change their names for all kinds of reasons.  In the old west, it was more likely that a man or woman was running away from something, a result of having something to hide, or possibly as simple as not wanting to be found.  This was the case of John Armstrong, who in time would be known as Milt Yarberry —a thoroughly dangerous gunman.

Armstrong was born and raised in Arkansas.  Around 1860, the Armstrongs became involved in a land dispute of unknown scope, but it must have been quite serious because John killed a man as a result of it.  According to our understanding, the Armstrong family was locally respectable and the incident did little more than bring them shame.  For this reason, John Armstrong left home for another county and, owing to the fact that he was wanted for murder, he changed his name.  A few months passed and John was living in Helena, Arkansas when a confrontation between he and another man resulted in the other fellow’s murder.  We have no facts of this second murder, only the rumor that has followed Armstrong’s reputation.  In any case, we know that he fled again, and changed his name.

Calling himself Milt Yarberry, he joined up with the outlaw Dirty Dave Rudabaugh [1] and Mysterious Dave Mather.  In 1870, Mather was working as a laborer and was boarding with a cousin.  The pay must not have been enough, because between 1870-73, Rudabaugh, Yarberry, and Mather committed several robberies operating mostly out of Missouri and Arkansas.  When the three men were implicated in the murder of a prominent rancher in Sharp County, they split up and took flight.  For his part, Mather went back to Connecticut and signed on as an able seaman, eventually making his way to New Orleans.  Rudabaugh went to South Dakota where he found robbing stagecoaches lucrative and suitable for his hitherto demonstrated skill set.  Yarberry settled in Texarkana, on the Arkansas side.  When a bounty hunter appeared in town, asking questions about John Armstrong, Yarberry killed him.  A bounty of $200 was offered for the arrest of John Armstrong (a.k.a. Milt Yarberry).

Yarberry fled to Texas and, as many men before him, enlisted in the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers.  After mustering in, he was assigned to Jack County [2] and, although he didn’t remain with the rangers for very long, he served  honorably and earned a good reputation for toughness and fidelity.

Bounty Hunter Generic

If someone was looking for a bounty hunter, he might look something like this.

In 1876, Yarberry was in Decatur, Texas (in Wise County), living under the name John Johnson.  Partnering with a man named Bob Jones, he opened a saloon.  All might have been well had a second bounty-hunter not shown up asking questions around town looking for a fellow wanted for murder in Sharp County, Arkansas.  Yarberry quickly sold his half of the saloon to Jones and left town.  A few days later, the bounty-hunter’s body was discovered a few miles out of town riddled with holes from a .44 caliber handgun.

For the next few years, Yarberry kept on the move.  In 1877, he was in Dodge City, Kansas; a year later, in Canon City, Colorado.  In Colorado, he established a partnership with Tony Preston and established a saloon and variety house.  Eddie Foy [3]  performed at the variety house.  In an interview several years later, Foy said that Yarberry was a good violinist, but somewhat negligent in paying his debts.  When Eddie Foy and Jim Thompson had completed their engagement, which had lasted several weeks, Yarberry and Preston were unable to settle the account.  This prompted Thompson to steal a barrel of whiskey and considered the matter closed.  What surprised Foy is that Thompson had the guts to go up against Milt Yarberry.

On 6 March 1879, as a result of some disagreement between Tony Preston and a local barkeep, a man who actually worked in two saloons, the barman entered Preston’s saloon and shot him.  Preston was seriously wounded and Yarberry joined the posse to pursue the shooter.  The man eluded them, but he turned himself in to the town marshal the next day.  He explained the he only ran away because he was afraid of being lynched.  Either his story was pure gas, or Preston was locally popular in Canon City.  In May, when Preston was well enough to travel, he and his wife Sadie packed up and moved to San Marcial, New Mexico.  Some writers suggest that Yarberry’s saloon was a brothel, which is entirely plausible given the reputation of Las Vegas at that time.

Eventually, Yarberry sold his share of the business to Steamboat and moved to San Marcial, New Mexico where he rejoined Tony Preston.  Preston was still recovering from his wounds.  Within a month or so, Yarberry departed San Marcial, and took with him Sadie Preston and her four year old daughter. 

NM Marshal BadgeYarberry and Sadie arrived in Albuquerque, where Milt befriended county sheriff Perfecto Armijo.  With Armijo’s support, Yarberry obtained an appointment as Town Marshal, the city’s first lawman.  He apparently was needed because in 1880, Albuquerque was plagued with gun violence.  Within a short time, Yarberry confronted two separate gunmen and , as both men resisted arrest, Yarberry killed them both.

In January 1881, a man named Harry A. Brown drifted into town.  He was a self-proclaimed gunman without fear or common sense.  Earlier, in 1876, Brown had participated in thwarting an attempted robbery by Dave Rudabaugh and others near Kinsley, Kansas.  Although he was never known to have shot anyone, he bragged about having killed several men.  This may have been typical of drifters in the old west, particularly those with drinking problems.  His drink shortened his temper and he was known for pulling his gun with little provocation. 

Albuquerque 1880

Albuquerque NM 1880

Brown and Sadie became acquainted, under circumstances that aren’t entirely clear, but by February the two were romantically involved.  On the night of 27 March, Brown and Sadie were having dinner at Gerard’s Restaurant.  Up until this day, Yarberry was not aware that the two were involved.  Sadie had left her daughter at home in Milt’s care while she “took her love to town.”  John Clark, a coach driver, had taken the couple to the restaurant and was the only eye-witness to what then transpired.

Brown and Sadie entered the restaurant and were seated.  Shortly after, Yarberry appeared walking up the street holding the hand of Sadie’s daughter.  Someone mentioned to Brown that Yarberry was coming down the street, so Brown walked out the doorway to Gerard’s.  Yarberry walked past Brown with the little girl in tow, took her to her mother, and then a moment later, walked back outside.  He spoke a few words to Brown and Brown became irate.  

Brown accompanied Yarberry to a nearby vacant lot, still speaking in loud voices, Brown saying that he wasn’t afraid of Yarberry.  Before they reached the vacant property, Sadie appeared in the doorway to Gerard’s and called out to Brown.  Brown immediately hit Yarberry in the face while drawing his weapon and firing.  The bullet grazed Yarberry’s hand.  Yarberry then drew his weapon and fired two quick rounds into Brown’s chest, which effectively ended Brown’s career as a gunman.

Sheriff Armijo took Yarberry into custody and held him for an inquest.  Several witnesses testified that they heard Brown say on more than one occasion that he intended to kill Yarberry, others testified that Brown had drawn his weapon first.  The inquest cleared Yarberry on the grounds of self-defense, but some citizens complained and demanded a grand jury to hear the evidence.  A grand jury convened in May 1881.  Yarberry’s attorney, S. M. Barnes, Esq., introduced a parade of witnesses on Yarberry’s behalf and the charge of murder was dismissed. 

Milt Yarberry

Marshal Yarberry

On 18 June, Yarberry was sitting on the porch of his friend’s home, Elwood Maden, conversing with gambler Monte Frank Boyd.  As they were talking, a shot was heard coming from the direction of the Greenleaf Restaurant.  Yarberry and Boyd ran to see what was going on.  The next few moments were confusing and witness accounts were inconsistent.  Apparently, Yarberry asked a bystander if he knew who had fired the shot.  They man pointed toward a man who was walking away from the restaurant and Yarberry called for him to wait; Yarberry wanted to have a few words with him.  Within mere seconds, three shots were fired, and Charles D. Campbell lay dead on the street.

Sheriff Armijo arrested both Yarberry and Boyd.  Yarberry claimed that Campbell, who was not known to him, had turned toward him with a gun, and so he fired in self-defense.  One of Campbell’s bullet wounds was in his back, but Yarberry explained that it must have happened when, having been shot, Campbell’s body turned after being shot in the chest.  Campbell was armed, but no one could verify Yarberry’s story, that when Campbell turned around, his gun was already drawn.  Still, as before, Yarberry and Boyd were cleared at a preliminary inquiry. 

Lionel Sheldon

Governor Sheldon

Once again, some citizens complained that Yarberry was being “let off.”  Boyd took his leave of Albuquerque and headed west, toward Arizona [4].  Yarberry was again taken into custody and held for trial.  A grand jury indicted him in the murder of Campbell.  New Mexico’s governor, Lionel Sheldon [5], having only recently assumed office, was reconciled to stop the killing in New Mexico.  It was the time of the Lincoln County War and a fellow named William F. Bonney was running amok.  Sheldon intended to make an example of Yarberry.  The territorial attorney general, William Breedon, prosecuted the case.  Yarberry was represented by Jose Francisco Chavez and John H. Knaebel.  During the trial, Thomas A. Parks, an attorney from Platt City, Nebraska, testified that he saw the entire event.  He saw no gun in Campbell’s hand.  It was damning testimony.

Yarberry, in defense, pointed out that Campbell’s gun had been fired, and that Campbell had fired it at least once at him.  No one could testify for Yarberry, but no one, save Parks, could refute his testimony.  Yarberry also testified that he had fired only once, hitting Campbell in the chest, adding that the only reason he had shot Campbell was because Campbell had fired at him first.

The trial lasted three days.  Yarberry was convicted of murder and was sentenced to hang.  While awaiting execution, on 9 September 1882, Yarberry and three other men escaped from the Santa Fe jail.  New Mexico authorities placed a $500 bounty for his recapture.  The other escapees were quickly recaptured, but Yarberry was more elusive.  Santa Fe County Sheriff Romulo Martinez organized a posse and the manhunt had begun.  On 12 September, Santa Fe Police Chief Frank Chavez captured Yarberry twenty-eight miles outside of town.

Gallows 001

The steps to eternity.

In February 1883, Yarberry’s appeal was denied.  Knaebel filed additional appeals with the federal government,  insisting that his client was innocent, but his efforts proved to no avail.  In his final interview, a journalist observed that he looked pale, to which Milt Yarberry replied, “Maybe.  But I ain’t sick, and I ain’t scared, neither.”

On 9 February, under guard provided at the order of Governor Sheldon, the so-called Governor’s Rifles, Yarberry was marched to the gallows.  His friend, Sheriff Armijo was tasked with pulling the lever to the trap door, through which Milt Yarberry/John Armstrong fell.  Around 1,500 people attended Yarberry’s hanging.  His last words were, “Gentlemen, you are hanging an innocent man.”

Long after Yarberry’s death, his supporters, which included Sheriff Armijo, continued to insist on his innocence.  According to Armijo, the issue wasn’t guilt or innocence.  The issue was that the more affluent members of the community wanted him dead because men like Yarberry impeded commerce inside the town limits.  

Sources:

  1. New Mexico Historical Society
  2. Nash, J. R.  The Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1994 

Endnotes:

  1. See: They Were All Dirty
  2. The county is named in honor of Patrick Churchill Jack and William Houston Jack who served Texas in the Texas revolution.  In 1874-75, Jack County was on the edge of Comanche country.
  3. Eddie Foy (1856-1928) was an actor, comedian, dancer, and vaudevillian.  Vaudeville was a stage performance that included comedy, poetry, songs or ballads, and dancing.  It was popular in the United States from around 1875 to 1930.
  4. Boyd was killed by Navajo Indians the following year.
  5. Sheldon, a former Union (Brevet) Brigadier General, was a carpetbagger who, during reconstruction, served in the US House of Representatives from Louisiana (1869-75) and received an appointment as Territorial Governor of New Mexico in 1881.  In 1886, he moved to Los Angeles, California where he practiced law.  He died in Pasadena, California in 1917.
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The Davis Guards

This article is about the First and Second Battle of Sabine, Texas in 1862 and 1863.

But first, some background 

Join or DieThe United States declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776.  It was a bold move, not simply because the colonists had pulled the tail of the British tiger, but also because not every American colonist supported it.  There were some who were devout loyalists —viewing themselves as more British than American; some who were American and no longer British, and about another third who were apathetic to either cause.  Despite these contrasting sentiments, those who championed independence, who listed their grievances within the Declaration itself, realized that divided colonies could not stand against the might of the British Empire.

Thus motivated, and having made their declaration, the Continental Congress in 1777 developed a confederation of states.  The colonists called their instrument the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  Despite their urgency and its necessity, the states were fearful of central authority; colonial Americans had suffered under one central authority and were hesitant to create another.  As a demonstration of the uneasiness among state delegates, the instrument wasn’t ratified until 1 March 1781.

The Articles of Confederation provided that the states would remain sovereign and independent entities.  Congress would serve to resolve disputes.  Collectively, the states were named The United States of America —even when the states were far from united.  Authority to make treaties and alliances, create and maintain armed forces, and the right to establish a monetary system rested with the Congress.  Central authority was prohibited from levying taxes and regulating commerce between the states.  In essence —the Articles of Confederation created a completely unworkable relationship among the states because there was no trust between the states, and no trust in the central government [Note 1].  There was at the time little confidence that a republic could serve the interests of a large nation or act in the interests of its citizens.

Unbeknownst to these early founders, their concerns would carry forward, past the development and acceptance of the United States Constitution (ratified on 21 June 1788).  In 1798-99, Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence) and James Madison (Father of the Constitution) developed the doctrine of nullification (arguments as set forth in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions), which opposed the Federal Alien and Sedition Acts [Note 2].  Written anonymously [Note 3], Jefferson’s primary argument was that the national government was a compact between the states and that any exercise of undelegated authority by the central government was invalid and unlawful.  The states, he argued, had the right to decide when their powers had been infringed upon by the central government, and it was their right to determine the mode of redress of their grievances.  Virginia and Kentucky thus declared the Alien and Sedition Acts “null and void.”  Madison’s argument, somewhat more restrained, argued that the authority to determine the validity of federal law must rest with state legislatures.

The issue of nullification became a crisis in 1832-33 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson when South Carolina declared that the Tariffs of 1828-32 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of the state.  South Carolina (and its citizens) had been adversely affected by the economic downturn in the 1820s and claimed that their economic woes were the direct result of tariffs imposed following the War of 1812.  The tariffs were designed to protect northern industrialists from European competition.  The “Tariff of Abominations” was enacted during the presidency of John Quincy Adams in 1828.  Of concern to southern states, the tariffs were unfair to agrarian states who suffered most from their effects.

The election of Andrew Jackson gave southern states hope that these tariffs would be reduced.  They were not.  President Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun (a son of South Carolina) were split on this issue.  Calhoun was at the time the most able proponent of Nullification Theory and was so set against the tariffs that he resigned the vice presidency over his objection to Andrew Jackson’s recalcitrance.  Eventually, Jackson did reduce the tariff of 1832 but not enough to satisfy South Carolina.  At a state convention in February 1833, South Carolina’s legislature adopted the Ordnance of Nullification and to back it up, initiated military preparations to resist federal enforcement.  A month later, Congress authorized the president to use military force in South Carolina, but a new negotiated tariff (1833) was found acceptable to South Carolina and the crisis was averted.

The issue of the right of states to nullify federal edicts (and of secession from the union) was once more asserted by opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 [Note 4].

US-CSA Flags 001Among the (several) causes of the American Civil War, historians frequently cite slavery, territorial expansion, states’ rights, sectionalism, protectionism, nationalism, and the election of Abraham Lincoln.  These were, of course, important issues that demanded resolution —but what caused the American Civil War was the unwillingness of men to find solutions.  I believe that thoughtful men will examine the events leading to Civil War and conclude that powerful men in the North wanted war more than they did solutions and worked hard to achieve it.

Foremost among the issues leading to war was, in my view, the right of states to govern themselves pursuant to the United States Constitution, specifically:  The Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Bill of Rights): The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people; Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery as an abomination to a nation founded on equality among men, but he was more concerned about maintaining the union.  Even as much as Lincoln abhorred slavery, he did not believe it was an issue that could excuse bloodshed and treason.  Civil War, when it came, was a horror of epic proportions and its effects lasted for over 100 years [Note 5].  Not only was the war devastating in terms of its carnage, or its effects upon the land, but also in terms of the psychology of an entire cultural region of the United States.  Worse still, it was a war easily avoided by reasonable men.  Between 1850-77, the United States had no reasonable men.

The First Battle of Sabine Pass

It wasn’t going all that well for the Confederate States of America in 1863 —for all kinds of reasons.  In a war of attrition, the Northern states had a larger population of men able to fight.  It was a war of resources.  The economies of the southern states were agrarian; the northern states were industrialized, which meant that the northern states had the ability to produce armaments (from rifles to cannons, and from Gatling guns to navy ironclads).  The northern states had a sophisticated network of roads, and interconnecting railway systems.  The southern states had railroads, but only a few.  The northern economy was self-sustaining; the southern economy was heavily dependent upon trade (if not with northern states, then with European countries).  Realizing its advantages, the Union developed a strategy designed to strangle the southern states into submission.

Sabine, Texas is the waterway serving the outlet of Sabine Lake estuary.  It is formed by the confluence of the Neches and Sabine Rivers.  In 1862, the port at Sabine City was connected by a rail spur to the railroad line running from the eastern border of Texas to Houston and Galveston, serving the coastal trade in Texas.  As part of the Union’s strategy to deny southern states access to foreign trade, Texas became the target of riverine blockades.  In September 1862, Rear Admiral David Farragut commanded the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.  Farragut commissioned Frederick Crocker and the steamer USS Kensington to capture Sabine City.  The USS Rachel Seaman was ordered to assist Kensington.  On 23 September, USS Henry Janes (a mortar schooner) joined the operation.  Kensington’s deep draft prohibited negotiation of the shallow waters, so it was decided that Rachel Seaman and Henry Janes would coordinate their attack.

Early in the morning of 24 September 1862, Henry Janes went aground within sight of the fort at Sabine City.  Captain Lewis Pennington ordered a barrage against the port, soon joined by Captain Quincy Hooper, commanding Rachel Seaman.  Gunfire from these two ships (as well as from the fort) fell short of their mark.  Henry Janes was freed from the muck after five hours and maneuvered to within a mile or so of Fort Sabine.  A second barrage began at around 5:30 p.m.

Within the fort, Confederate artillerists numbered 28 men supported by 30 troops of mounted cavalry.  Armed with outdated guns, the Confederates were unable to return effective fire.  The rebels took shelter until the barrage ceased after nightfall.  At that time, Major Josephus S. Irvine, commanding the Confederate artillery, re-emerged to spike his guns and organize an orderly withdrawal.  There were no casualties on either side of this confrontation.

One year later, a second engagement would produce a different result.

The Second Battle of Sabine Pass

France was openly sympathetic to the Confederacy, but typical of the French, it never matched its empathy with diplomatic or military support [Note 6].  After defeating Mexican forces in 1863, Mexican President Benito Juarez escaped his capital and France installed Maximillian as Emperor of Mexico.  After France seized control of Mexico, the Confederates hoped to establish a trade route between Texas and French-Mexico to obtain much needed supplies.  And if that should happen, the Sabine Pass would become a vital link in Confederate resupply.

Responding to anticipated Confederate intentions, President Lincoln sent a joint army-navy expedition to establish a military presence in Texas.  Major General Nathaniel P. Banks exercised overall command.  Banks was a political weenie; great at organizing offices and paperclips, but somewhat inept in command of combat forces.  Initially, Banks wanted to launch his campaign in northwest Louisiana.  This scheme called for the US Navy to send warships from the Mississippi River up the Red River to the point where Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas came together.

New Orleans was captured on 1 May 1862.  After Confederate capitulation of Vicksburg in 1863, the Union exercised absolute control of both east and west banks of the Mississippi River.  Beyond this, shallow water in the Red River prevented Union gunboats from any effective operations there, so the idea of an overland Union invasion of Texas was scraped.

In 1863, General Banks ordered Major General William B. Franklin to enter the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico and defeat the small Confederate detachment at Fort Sabine, located on the river’s west bank —about two miles from the mouth of the river.  The Army’s plan was that after the Navy silenced the fort, an assault group of 200 infantry would force the fort to surrender.  The Union battle plan included 22 ships carrying US Army regular forces: in all, about 5,000 men augmented by a small artillery detachment.  Neither Banks nor Franklin believed that this was an insurmountable challenge —but then, neither of these gentlemen had been introduced to First Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, Confederate States Army, the Texas Davis Guards, commanding at Fort Sabine.

Fort Sabine was renamed Fort Griffin in honor of Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Griffin [Note 7].  The Confederate Detachment at Fort Griffin were the Davis Guards, named in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  The company was manned by mostly Irish American men from Houston and Galveston, recently merged into the First Texas Heavy Artillery.  Their post was a hastily constructed earthwork about one mile upstream (north) of the Southwest bank of the Sabine Pass.  Lieutenant Dowling commanded 47 men and six smoothbore cannon, which Dowling had placed on an elevated platform.  To Union observers, it was an unimpressive sight.  The elevated guns may have given Union officers a dim view of the rebel commander’s expertise as an artilleryman, and while that may be true, Lieutenant Dowling had a clear view to the horizon for many miles.  The flat marshlands stretched to the North toward Port Arthur and Beaumont, northeast into Louisiana, southeast toward to the Gulf of Mexico, southwest toward Galveston, and westward toward Houston.  The nearest observation point afforded the Union force, besides the topmast of a naval ship, was the lighthouse at Sabine Pass at the mouth of the river. 

Clifton-Sachem captured

Capture of Clifton and Sachem

On the afternoon of 8 September 1863, Lieutenant Frederick Crocker [Note 8], US Navy, was in temporary command of the advance squadron of four gunboats.  Crocker was a veteran naval officer, experienced in riverine operations and blockade duty.  His ship was the USS Clifton, a steam-powered side-wheeler.  His squadron consisted of the ironclad vessels USS Granite City, USS Sachem, and USS Arizona.  Seven naval transports were anchored three miles southeast of Fort Griffin, well out of range of the rebel guns.  The transports were carrying most the Army’s landing force troops.  The landing force commander, Major General Franklin was headquartered aboard USS Suffolk.  Outside the sandbar at the mouth of the Sabine, an additional two miles downstream, were a 22-vessel invasion fleet.

The first wave of 500 men aboard Granite City steamed behind Clifton as close as possible but remaining out of range of the rebel guns.  They infantry planned to land in an open space adjacent to and downstream of the fort.  The landing area was wide and muddy.  The rebel garrison had cleared away brush, affording the fort with clear fields of fire for their canister and grapeshot.  The Union army intended to silence the fort’s guns before the main body of the landing force went ashore.  It was the largest amphibious invasion assault force ever assembled on enemy territory in the history of the US military up to that time.

At Beaumont, Texas, Leon Smith [Note 9] ordered all Confederate troops in that city —about 80 men— to board the steamer Roebuck and dispatched them down the river to reinforce Fort Griffin.  Smith and Captain Goode rode to the fort on horseback, reaching Fort Griffin three hours ahead of Roebuck just as Union gunboats came within range of the rebel guns.  Smith and Goode assisted Dowling in the defense of the fort.

Dowling’s men were efficient artillerymen and supremely confident.  The garrison had placed range-stakes in the two narrow and shallow river channels.  The white-painted stakes helped the artillerists determine the range of the fort’s guns.  Gun crews knew how much charge was needed for each type of projectile available, which guns, charges, and loads had the best potential to hit each range-stake.

Conversely, Lieutenant Crocker had only a general knowledge of the river’s channels; there were no river pilots to advise him, and he had no assurances of water depth.  Nevertheless, on Crocker’s order, with Clifton in the lead, Sachem and Arizona advanced up the right channel (Louisiana side) while firing their port-side guns at Fort Griffin.  Crocker’s orders were to delay landing troops until the rebel guns had been silenced.  When Sachem was within Dowling’s range-stakes, the Lieutenant ordered his men to fire for effect.  Clifton and Arizona soon came into range.  Dowling’s fires were deadly accurate.  As a result, the Confederates captured Clifton and Sachem with their 13-heavy cannon and two new Parrott rifles [Note 10].  Two dozen Union men were killed or badly injured; 37 men were declared missing in action.  Dowling’s men captured 315 Union sailors.  The combined Union Army and Naval invasion force withdrew and returned to New Orleans.  The Davis Guards suffered no casualties.

In recognition of Dowling’s victory, the citizens of Houston collected funds to provide a specially struck medal to the Davis Guard.  The only medals awarded to Confederate troops during the war, they were made from Mexican silver pesos, strung from a green ribbon, and presented to the men during a later formal ceremony.

The battles of Sabine Pass were of little tactical or strategic significance to the Civil War.  A Confederate supply line from Mexico to Texas was never established, although Texas did continue to export its cotton through Mexico to European markets.  But, without a formal supply line, the Confederates were forced to rely on the highly dangerous tactic of blockade running against a vastly superior naval force. 

Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Richard William Dowling (1837 – 1867)

Richard William Dowling (1837-1867) was born in County Galway, Ireland, the second of eight children.  In 1845, young Richard was taken by his older sister to New Orleans.  A year after his parent migrated to New Orleans in 1851, yellow fever took both his parents and one of his younger brothers.  Dowling moved to Houston when anti-Irish sentiments in New Orleans made life there untenable.  In Houston, he worked as a saloon keeper, operating two establishments.  In 1857, he married Elizabeth Ann Odlum, the daughter of a Texas congressman.  By 1860, Dowling owned several saloons.  With the rumor of war, Dowling formed a militia company dominated by Irish Americans.  Initially, it was more of a social club than a militia, but the company was mustered into the Confederate Army in 1861 and Dowling was elected First Lieutenant.

Dowling was elevated to hero status after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass; he subsequently served as an army recruiter in Houston.  After the war, Dowling returned to running his saloons and became one of the city’s leading businessmen.  He died in 1867 from another outbreak of yellow fever and was laid to rest at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery in Houston, Texas.

Sources:

  1. Cothan, E. T.  Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004
  2. Cornell University: The Making of America, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion: Series I, Volume 6: Atlantic Blockading Squadrons (1861)
  3. U. S. Government Printing Office: Crocker, F.  Official Report, Official Record of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Pp. 546.  1921.

Endnotes:

  1. Given what we know of our history, the suspicions of these early founders toward central authority was well justified.
  2. Imposed limitation on civil liberty and the growth of an authoritarian central government.
  3. Its authors were not identified until 1823.
  4. Nullification has been asserted in California (1863), by opponents of civil rights legislation (1964-65), and by opponents of federal acts regulating firearms (throughout the twentieth-century, and in the prohibition of the sale and possession of marijuana (2001).
  5. Actually, longer when one considers the damage that Barack Obama did to race relations in the United States (2009-2016).
  6. France learned its lesson when, after supporting the American colonies in their war with Great Britain, the USA reneged on its promise of financial renumeration.  Given the outcome of the American Civil War, France made a wise decision.
  7. Griffin was known for extraordinary courage under fire while commanding the 21st Texas Infantry in East Texas and Louisiana.
  8. Crocker (1821-1911) was an experienced seaman achieving command of a whaling vessel at the age of 24-years.  At age 40, Crocker volunteered for service in the Union navy.  He demonstrated courage and ability in several successful naval engagements on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.  Taken prisoner after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, Crocker was held at Camp Ford near Tyler, Texas for 17 months.
  9. Smith (died 1869) was a volunteer naval officer.  In this capacity, he was named Commander of the Texas Marine Department under General John B. McGruder.  Smith participated in most major conflicts along the Texas coast during the Civil War.  He was described as the most able Confederate naval officer in the Gulf waters.
  10. Muzzle-loaded rifled artillery of various weights.  A 20-pound rifle weighed over 1,800 pounds.
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The McCanles-Hickok Shooting

D C McCanlesDavid Colbert McCanles (the family name was later changed to McCandless) was born in 1828 in North Carolina.  He was the son of James M. McCanles and Rachel Alexander.  It has been said that before moving his family west, he served as the sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina but there is much about David McCanles that we are uncertain about.  We believe that McCanles and his brother James were traveling westward in 1858 intending try their hand at prospecting in Colorado.

In Nebraska, McCanles encountered several disappointed men who had also gone to Colorado expecting to strike it rich, but who were then returning to their homes in the east with nothing to show for their efforts.  Their stories were enough to convince McCanles to change his plans.  He instead purchased the property of Mr. S. C. Glenn, who operated a way station along the west bank of Rock Creek —known simply enough as the Rock Creek Station.

The property wasn’t much to look at, consisting of only a small cabin, a barn, and a small make-shift store.  McCanles continued to operate the station and, noting the difficulty pioneers were having getting across the creek [1], he constructed a toll bridge, which added to his growing wealth.  He also constructed a cabin and dug a well on the east side of Rock Creek, which he named East Ranch.  The following year, McCanles either sold or leased the East Ranch to the Russell, Waddell, and Majors Company (RWM) (a freight and overland stage company [2]), who in turn hired Mr. Horace G. Wellman as their station keeper, and Mr. James W. Brink as their stockman.  If McCanles sold the property to RWM (rather than leasing it), the terms of the sale obligated RWM to make installment payments to McCanles.

J B Hickok 1860

James Butler Hickok c.1859

In 1860, James Butler Hickok worked for Russell, Waddell, and Majors driving a freight wagon between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Hickok found the road blocked by a Cinnamon Bear (related to the Black Bear) and her two cubs.  He dismounted the wagon, approached the bear, and fired a shot into its head.  Unfortunately for Hickok, the round glanced off the bear’s head and it attacked him.  Hickok did manage to kill the bear after a harrowing struggle, but he was badly injured with a crushed chest, broken shoulder, and a mauled and broken arm.  He was bedridden for several months and while recuperating, the company sent him to Rock Creek to work as a stable hand under “Doc” Brink.

McCanles was a known bully who, having taken a dislike to Hickok, regularly harassed him because of his slight (feminine) build and unflattering looks.  McCanles called Hickok “Duck Bill” due to the protruding shape of his face.  McCanles is also known as the leader of a gang of murdering outlaws who are said to have robbed banks, trains, and rustled horses and cattle.  The only evidence we have that McCanles did any of these things is Hickok’s claim (see below).  Beyond this, there is no evidence that McCanles led an outlaw gang or robbed any banks or trains.  It would not have been unusual for a western rancher to help himself to other people’s cattle, particularly in an area settled by German immigrants.

RWM fell behind in their payments to McCanles, prompting him to confront the station master.  On 12 July 1861, McCanles arrived at the station with his 12-year-old son, Monroe, cousin James Woods, and one of his employees named Jim Gordon.  McCanles pounded on the door the cabin and was met by the station master’s wife, Mrs. Wellman.  James Hickok was in the cabin, as well.  Either Wellman was away at the time or refused to meet with McCanles.  In any case, whether by force or invitation, McCanles entered the cabin demanding payment.  Voices were raised, and no doubt threats were made.  Hickok shot McCanles, killing him.  Monroe rushed from the cabin and hid himself in the nearby creek. Hickok stepped outside of the cabin and shot both Woods and Gordon, who like McCanles, were not armed.  Woods and Gordon were wounded, but still alive when “Doc” Brink killed Gordon with a shotgun blast, and Mrs. Wellman finished Woods off by hacking him to death with a garden hoe.

In an 1867 interview for Harper’s Monthly, Hickok later claimed that he single-handedly killed nine desperadoes known as the McCanles Gang.  This particular fairy tale, along with other embellishments made by Hickok, contributed to Hickok’s reputation as a gunfighter.  Hickok’s luck ran out on 2 August 1878 when he was assassinated by Jack McCall while playing cards in Deadwood Gulch, Dakota Territory.

Post-script

Fifty or so years later, the U. S. Navy awarded David McCanles’ grandson Byron the Navy Cross in recognition of his courage while commanding the USS Caldwell (DD-69) during World War I.  Byron McCandless was also responsible for several inventions, including a heavy tractor, a camera, portable lamps, and a light-projection system.  Byron’s son was Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism and taking command of the cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38) after Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Captain Cassin Young (and their staffs) were killed on the bridge during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  His son, Navy Captain Bruce McCandless II served 13 days in space as an astronaut.

Sources:

  1. Weiser, K.  Nebraska Legends: Rock Creek Station and the McCanles Massacre.  Legends of America, (2012)
  2. Kelsey, D. M.  Our Pioneer Heroes and Their Daring Deeds.  Kessinger Publishing, (1883)
  3. Arthur, J. P.  A History of Watauga County North Carolina.  Overmountain Press, (1992)

Endnotes:

[1] Crossing this or any creek was a tedious process that involved raising heavy wagons off the ground by the use of a hoist, swinging them over the bank of the creek, lowering them down into the creek, pulling the wagon across the creek, and repeating the process to move the wagon out of the creek onto the opposite bank.  McCanles charged from ten to fifty cents, depending on the size and weight of the wagon.

[2] Also founders of the Pony Express Company.

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New Mexico, Part II

(Continued from last week)

American Civil War 

Between 1850 and 1861, the lower portion of the New Mexico Territory was largely neglected by the federal government and the territorial government in Santa Fe.  As a result of this neglect, and with the expectation that the people living in this area would receive better treatment from the government in rebellion, Confederate sympathies were strong.  Seeking to capitalize on these sympathies, rebel forces seized Mesilla and captured federal troops stationed there.  Early in 1862, the Confederacy established the Confederate Arizona Territory, which included the southern portions of present-day New Mexico and Arizona.  Mesilla, situated 45 miles west of El Paso, Texas, became the Confederate Territorial capital.  What the Confederates wanted was access to gold and silver mines in California and Colorado and access to seaports in Southern California.

Opposing military forces were commanded by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, CSA and Colonel Edward Canby, USA.  In February 1862, Sibley managed to push Canby back into Fort Craig at the Battle of Valverde, but in doing so failed to secure Canby’s surrender.  Sibley then by-passed Fort Craig and occupied Santa Fe on 10 March.  While Sibley established his headquarters at Albuquerque, Canby held fast at Fort Craig awaiting reinforcements.

Realizing the value of Glorieta Pass, General Sibley directed Major Charles L. Pyron and 300 Texans to conduct a reconnaissance and, if possible, seize the western side of the pass in order to keep it out of Union hands.  Sibley followed up by dispatching six companies under Colonel Tom Green to block the eastern end of the pass.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass was joined on 26 March.  At that time, Major Pyron commanded the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, four companies of the 5th Texas, nine companies of the 4th Texas, five companies of the 7th Texas, and five field cannon.  Opposing Pyron was Colonel John P. Slough, USA who commanded the 1st Colorado Infantry and elements of the 1st and 3rd US Cavalry Regiments, five companies of the 5th US Infantry, two independent companies, and a handful of New Mexico militia augmented by two artillery batteries.

Union forces overwhelmed Pyron’s picket of fifty men on the western edge of the pass and quickly advanced on the rebel main body.  Well-aimed artillery forced the Yankees back.  Major John M. Chivington, USA was able to flank Pyron’s force, delivering devastating fire into the Confederate force and Pyron was forced to withdraw.  Fighting stopped on 27 March while both sides waited for reinforcements.

By the next day, the Confederate force has grown to 1,100 men and five cannon.  Lieutenant Colonel William Read Scurry assumed overall command.  Thinking that the Union forces would launch another assault, and assuming that Colonel Green would soon arrive at the Union rear, Scurry ordered a static defense.  Colonel Slough also received reinforcements, bringing his strength to around 1,300 men.

Battle of Glorieta Pass

Battle of Glorieta Pass 1862

Union and Confederate forces clashed at Apache Canyon and the trail near Pigeon’s Ranch.  By 3:00 pm, it looked as if the rebel forces were winning the battle since union troops were forced to withdraw to Kozlowski’s Ranch, where they established a defensive perimeter.  Next to arrive on the scene was Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Chaves, commanding the 2nd New Mexico Infantry and volunteer militia.  Chaves’ scouts had located the rebel supply train at Johnson’s Ranch and urged a union assault which ultimately destroyed 80 supply wagons, ran off 500 horses, and took a number of rebel quartermasters as prisoners.  Scurry, no longer able to sustain his assault, was forced to withdraw.  Glorieta Pass was transformed from a likely Confederate victory into a resounding defeat.  The battle became the turning point of the war for control of the New Mexico Territory.  In terms of casualties, both sides experienced around 50 killed, with 80 wounded, although the rebel forces gave up a larger number of prisoners.

In the final analysis, a Confederate stronghold in the American southwest was impractical from a purely logistical point of view, but notwithstanding Scurry’s withdrawal, the Union directed the California Column eastward through New Mexico in the summer of 1862 and these additional forces would have jeopardized any rebel presence in the southern territory. 

Post War Violence

Radicals 001What we know for certain about the impact of the American Civil War is that it set the United States (and its people) on a new course.  Post-war reconstruction created confusion among ordinary people both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Always present in these early post-war days was the Northern middle-class philosophy that a little humiliation was good for the southern soul.  Politically, there were two forces at work in the post-war period: Republican moderates (conservatives) and Republican Radicals.  The former championed for an easy transition back to union; the latter, under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens, demanded such extraordinary punishments that it led General Nathan Bedford Forrest to participate in the creation of the Klu Klux Klan.

Reconstruction accomplished these five things: (1) It dismantled American democracy and abolished governments within the southern states; (2) It divided the American south into five military districts, over which Union military officers had absolute authority.  (3) It required southern states to rewrite their constitutions to reflect Negro suffrage; (4) it ordered southern states to establish new elections that included the Negro vote; and (5) It ordered southern states to approve the Fourteenth Amendment, which then as well as now was clearly in violation of the U. S. Constitution.  Nevertheless, the demand was upheld by the pro-North Supreme Court of the United Stats.

The Civil War ennobled no one, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln.  What it did do was bring inevitable changes to American society.  The South was utterly destroyed, of course, while the North gained in wealth, population, and power.  War manufacturing exploded industrial production, made agriculture productive, and drew to the United States an unprecedented number of immigrants, who quite rapidly replaced the numbers of Union war dead.

Until 1861, the Industrial north had been held in check by the agricultural south.  With this check removed, the industrial states consolidated their gains.  Political power moved steadily toward the federal capital; economic power was centralized in New York through wartime congressional acts.  Businesses and enterprises were rapidly formed that soon transcended the economic power of state governments.  Old America, with large farming accomplished on a small scale, its tiny mercantile and professional elite was submerged by a flood of money and roaring steam.  The new industrialists needed but a few things from government: money obtained from the people to finance the railroads; tariffs to protect investments; centralized control of money, continued immigration to hold native workers in check, and a hard-money policy.

Millions of northern workers suffered from the effects of this new political-industrial-financial machine.  In many respects, people living in the North suffered far worse than those in the South because they had more to lose.  Hard money policy destroyed small farmers by depressing the debtor class, but it did stabilize northern industrialists.  

This disparate distribution of wealth and opportunity led northern cities toward conditions found in London in the early 1800s.  People lived in squalor; jobs went to immigrants, who would work for less money; unemployed men turned to alcoholism and crime.  In the North, an unprincipled, amoral ruling class had the same effect on civil war veterans as did the radicals who controlled the South: people were shoved out of their homes and communities and sent packing into the western wilderness.  Angry dispirited men from north and south made their way to the American west.  Some of these men were extraordinarily dangerous; some of these plagued the good citizens of New Mexico.

The list of old west desperadoes is long, and many of these men came from post-war northern states.  John Hicks Adams, from Illinois; Charlie Anderson, from Indiana; Billy Wilson, from Ohio; Sam Bass, from Indiana; Tulsa Jack Blake, from Kansas; Curly Bill Brocius, from Indiana; Butch Cassidy (Robert L. Parker), from Utah; and Long Hair Jim Courtright, from Illinois —to name a few.  In New Mexico today lay the remains of Thomas E. Ketchum, known as Black Jack and his brother Sam —both from Texas.  Sam was shot and killed by New Mexico lawmen; Black Jack surrendered and was hanged [Note 6].

A frequent reader recently observed that the line between the good and bad in the American southwest was often blurred.  It’s true.  Some of these gunmen worked both sides of the law.  In Frisco (now Reserve), New Mexico, a group of Texas cowboys had been maliciously attacking Mexican communities.  In one incident, they castrated a local resident for no other reason than he was a “Mexican.”  Local Hispanics lived in a state of perpetual fear.

Elfego Baca

Lawman Elfego Baca

Now enters Elfego Baca (1865-1945), who was variously a gunman, sheriff, US Marshal, lawyer, and politician.  Baca was born in Socorro, New Mexico.  At the age of 19, Elfego became the sheriff of Socorro [Note 7].

In 1884, Baca arrested a drunk cowboy named Charlie McCarty in Middle San Francisco (called Frisco) and took him to jail for disorderly behavior.  In an attempt to spring their friend, the cowboys assaulted the jail.  Gunfire followed threats and Baca returned fire.  One of his bullets killed the horse of John Slaughter’s foreman.  The horse fell on the cowboy and killed him.  Another cowboy was shot in the knee, but Baca kept his prisoner.

While the cowboy assault was taking place, Justice of the Peace Ted White ordered Baca to release McCarty.  When Baca refused, White deputized a local rancher by the name of Bert Hearne and ordered him to go to the jail, release McCarty, and arrest Baca for murder.

Deputy Hearne duly presented himself at the jail house and ordered Baca to surrender.  Baca refused.  Hearne broke down the door and shots were exchanged [Note 8].  Hearne, shot in the stomach, soon died, and the standoff with the cowboys continued.

Baca soon found himself resisting between 50-60 armed and highly agitated cowhands.  Later evidence suggested that the cowboys fired 4,000 rounds into the jail house.  If true, then Baca was a fortunate man because none of the bullets found their mark.  Conversely, Baca’s bullets did find twelve cowboys, four of whom were killed with eight more wounded.  After about 36 hours, the battle ended when a local lady persuaded Baca to surrender.  Ultimately, Baca was acquitted of murder when he submitted as evidence the door to the jail, which had 400 bullet holes.

Elfego Baca was subsequently elected as county sheriff.  He is one of those lawmen with a mixed reputation.  While serving as a US envoy to Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, he was accused of aiding in the escape of General Jose Ines Salazar, but he was acquitted.  It was said that Baca drank too much whiskey, talked too much of himself, and had a weakness for wild women.  At no time in his long career did he hesitate to shoot people he felt needed shooting.  Yet, in serving arrest warrants, Baca never dispatched deputies to make arrests.  He instead sent accused persons a letter, which read: “I have a warrant for your arrest.  Please come in by (date) and give yourself up.  If you don’t, I’ll know you intend to resist arrest and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come for you.  Most of the accused turned themselves in [Note 9].

Buckshot Roberts

Buckshot Roberts

Andrew L. Roberts (a.k.a. Buckshot Roberts) was another civil war veteran and who was forced to make a living as a buffalo hunter.  Some claim that Roberts hunted with the famed Buffalo Bill Cody and that he served as a Texas Ranger under the name Bill Williams.  He earned his nickname due to a serious wound inflicted on him by use of a shotgun.  The wound restricted the movement of his right arm and this required that he develop a somewhat unorthodox shooting style.  Roberts was a man who kept his own council, rarely spoke of his past, and was known as one of those fellows who a prudent man would never intentionally rile.

When the Lincoln County War broke out, Roberts worked for James Dolan and this put him at odds with the so-called Regulators, who aligned themselves with John Tunstall and Alexander McSween.  Roberts wanted nothing to do with the Lincoln County War and made plans to sell his ranch and move away.  On 4 April 1878, Roberts rode to the local trading place, called Blazer’s Mills, looking for the arrival of his payment for his ranch.  Instead of a check, Roberts found the entire Regulator gang eating a meal in an adjacent building.

Frank Coe, a member of the Regulators and a gunman of some repute, approached Roberts and spoke to him about surrendering his weapon to the Regulators —for his own safety.  Roberts, believing that he would be assassinated out of hand, refused to give up his weapons.  Regulator Dick Brewer sent a few of his men to the trading post to arrest Roberts.  Roberts saw the armed men approaching and took up his Winchester repeating rifle.  Charlie Bowdre drew his weapon and he and Roberts fired at the same time.  Roberts was hit in the stomach, but retreated to the doorway of Blazer’s Mills while firing at the Regulators.  His bullets hit John Middleton, Doc Scurlock, William Bonney, and George Coe (Frank’s brother).

Barricading himself inside Blazer’s Mills, Roberts ignored his wound and the Regulator’s gunshots.  Since none of the Regulators wanted to approach the trading post, they called out for Roberts to surrender.  Roberts declined, and this prompted Dick Brewer to go to the side of the building where he could get a clear shot.  Brewer fired into the building but missed Roberts.  Roberts returned fire and didn’t miss.  Demoralized, the Regulators left town but sent a doctor to see to Roberts, who died the next day.  He and Brewer were buried near Blazer’s Mills.

Among the men opposing Roberts that day were Henry McCarty (also known as William Bonney and Billy the Kid), who was also nicked by one of Roberts’ bullets.  Charlie Bowdre was later killed by lawman Pat Garrett, who also killed Billy the Kid [Note 10].  Pat Garrett (1850-1908) was a lawman, barman, customs agent, and sheriff/politician.  He was killed (possibly motivated by local politics) by Jesse Wayne Brazel, who was acquitted of the murder after a one-day trial.

In researching information for this post, I was amused by the fact that New Mexico historians revel in their outlaw/gunslinging past.  It wasn’t that long ago that New Mexicans preferred to string these criminals up.  After the outlaw cowboys came the depression-era outlaws, many of whom frequented New Mexico during their crime sprees.  I suspect that the differences in the attitudes between the 1870s-1930s and now is the commercial value of long-dead hombres.

Sources:

  1. Brands, H. W.  Dreams of El Dorado.  New York: Hachette Books, 2019
  2. Sanchez, J. P.  New Mexico: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013
  3. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Da Capo Press, 1968, 2000.

Endnotes:

6.  Ketchum’s execution began as a hanging but ended up as a decapitation.

7.  Some academics argue that Baca was a self-appointed sheriff, and this may be a fact.  It is also true that something had to be done about these cowboys and apparently, Baca was the man to do it.

8.  Deputy Hearne may have been the dumbest lawman in the history of New Mexico.

9.  Elfego Baca was the first Hispanic person in popular American culture to earn the status of hero.  In the 1950s, Walt Disney Studios released a ten-part television series titled The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, which starred Robert Loggia in the role of Baca.  A feature film entitled Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law was released in 1962.

10.  Henry McCarty is buried in a cemetery at Fort Sumner, but the exact site is unknown because a flood moved the gravestones from their original placement.

 

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