The Devil in John Marshall


There was nothing easy in the process of creating a new country called the United States, but if we endeavor to understand that process, then it becomes more likely that we will better understand how we’ve arrived at our current state of affairs.  The nation didn’t begin as a collection of states, of course.  They were colonies, each one independently established as a business model and sent off to make money for the British Crown.  By the time these colonists realized their general unhappiness with the mother country — and became resolute enough to do something about it, they had become entrenched in their “independent-mindedness” and would require a somewhat lengthy adjustment process to begin to work as a team.

With only an occasional willingness to work as a team, some may argue that the United States has never been “united” about much of anything.  We evolved from small “regional” societies into something more significant (from settlements to territories to states), and we have remained somewhat regionalized ever since. We may share certain similarities, but we have different attitudes toward various things. We may speak the same language, but our speech has a heavy dialect reflecting where we live. 

So, as we begin to look at how we evolved into a nation, we must give some time and spend some effort trying to understand why American colonists developed different attitudes about such things as citizens’ rights and guarantees.  As we set about this task, understand that words — and their purposes, are essential.  For example, most of the founders of the United States believed that natural rights are inherent in all people by virtue of their humanity and that certain of these rights are inalienable — which means that they cannot be surrendered to the government under any circumstances.  Except that we know this isn’t true.  Early American officials denied some people their inalienable rights —  which made a lie out of some of the words used to form that new country — inalienable being one of those words.

The effort to create a new country began with ending the old one.  For that to happen, the colonists had to openly declare their independence, which they accomplished through their Declaration of Independence — an instrument never modified as to the reasons or justification for rebellion.  I should add armed rebellion.

Once these rebels had declared their independence, it was necessary that they compound their treason by setting up an entirely new government.  The Americans achieved this in increments.  The Continental Congress first operated as a body of delegates to “consider” what they should do (if anything) about laws imposed upon them by the British Parliament.  The work of these delegates began as “committees of correspondence.”  Their first meeting involved twelve of the thirteen colonies between 5 September and 26 October 1774.  It was called the First Continental Congress.  The Second Continental Congress convened on 10 May 1775 and remained “in session” until 1 March 1781.  On that date, it became known as the Congress of the Confederation.

Under the Second Continental Congress, most of the work was done to establish a workable new government for the “United States.”  The instrument to achieve this was the Articles of Confederation, which was wholly inadequate for the operation of a centralized authority by the time ratified.  All thirteen states ratified the document by 1781, but it gave very little power to the central government.  The Confederation Congress could make decisions, but each one required the unanimous consent of each state legislature.  As an example of the inadequateness of the Articles of Confederation — the Confederated Congress could print money, but it was worthless.  Possessing only worthless money, how did the government pay its debts?  It didn’t.

On 21 February 1787, the Confederation Congress called a convention of state delegates in Philadelphia to propose revisions to the Articles of Confederation.  It was not the purpose of this convention to propose new laws — only to offer minor alterations to improve the effectiveness of the central government.  What was needed was a delegation to render the federal constitution “adequate” to preserve the Union.  Not good; not great — just adequate.

Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention took place between 25 May and 17 September 1787.  Someone lied about how no one intended to pass new laws.  What the delegation actually did was propose an entirely new constitution.  The lie was necessary; otherwise, many delegates would not have agreed to attend the meeting.  Attendees offered several broad outlines: the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan.  Progress was slow until July when the so-called Connecticut Compromise resolved enough of the bickering to move forward on the proposal.  More modifications and changes followed over the next several weeks.  Thirty-nine of 55 delegates signed the instrument on 17 September.

The transition from the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution wasn’t easy.  The debates were contentious, and the push for ratification brought on a seemingly endless barrage of documents, articles, and pamphlets that both supported and opposed ratification.  The opposing sides called themselves Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  Federalists supported the Constitution and urged its ratification; Anti-Federalists refused to agree to ratification without incorporating a bill of rights.

The Bill of Rights 

After ratification, the courts held that the Bill of Rights extended only to the federal government’s actions and placed no limitations on the authority of any state or local government.  The people’s protection under the law only applied to federal law.  None of the Bill of Rights applied to American citizens beyond federal law until these protections were “incorporated” into state constitutions and bills of rights.  Each state is sovereign, remember.

After the Civil War, beginning in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment declared the abolition of slavery.  The incorporation of this amendment gave rise to the incorporation of other amendments, too. 

Before the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and the development of the incorporation doctrine, in 1833, the Supreme Court held in Barron v. Baltimore that the Bill of rights applied only to the federal — but not any state government.  Even years after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that the First and Second Amendments did not apply to state governments.[1]  In the 1920s, a series of supreme court decisions interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to “incorporate” most portions of the Bill of Rights (for the first time) as enforceable against the state governments.[2]

With a reminder about the importance of words, recall that in the American experience, the Declaration of Independence was never once “revised.”  However, the Constitution of the United States has undergone 27 modifications — beginning with the first ten amendments, commonly referred to as the United States Bill of Rights.  The reason for the Constitution was to strengthen the power and authority of the United States government; the Bill of Rights was intended to constrain that power.  In this sense, the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are uniquely similar to one another.

And just to make sure that everyone was on the same sheet of music, the founding fathers constructed the Tenth Amendment.

The Tenth Amendment

Among some Americans, the Tenth Amendment is their favorite — and if you listen to their argument, it is because they believe the Tenth Amendment saves the United States and its people from a bully of a federal government.  It does NO such thing.

Passed by Congress in 1789 and ratified in 1791, the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was the last of the group of amendments known collectively as the Bill of Rights.  The Tenth Amendment is brief and to the point.  Here’s what it says: 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.

In one short sentence, the foundational law of the United States grants to state governments all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution.  One would think that such clarity would become the final word.  It wasn’t.

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, congress intended the Tenth Amendment to confirm the understanding of the people (at the time the Constitution was adopted) that powers NOT granted to the United States were reserved to the States or to the people.  It added nothing to the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights as originally ratified.[3]

The Tenth Amendment states a truism: that nothing which was retained by the states was surrendered to the federal government.  There is nothing in the history of its adoption to suggest that the amendment was anything more than a (simple) clarification of the relationship between the central government and several states as that relationship existed before the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights — or that its purpose was other than to “allay fears” that the new national government might seek to exercise powers not granted to it, or that the states might not be able to fully exercise their reserved powers.[4]

We can attest to the truth of the preceding information — that the Tenth Amendment was never conceived as a yardstick for measuring federal powers because both Houses of Congress refused to insert the word “expressly” before the word “delegated.”[5]  James Madison himself confirmed the matter during the debate while the proposed amendment was pending as Alexander Hamilton proposed the establishment of a national bank.

In the minds of these early founders, if a(n) (enumerated) power was not given to Congress, then Congress could not exercise it.[6]  EXCEPT that members of congress are nearly all lawyers, and they use words for a living, and they are in league with the United States Supreme Court.  One further admonition about words: the Constitution of the United States means what the Supreme Court says that it means.  What you and I think doesn’t matter.

Case Law

Shortly after the inauguration of George Washington as our first president in 1789, his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a plan to create a national bank.  The idea was controversial from the start.  Thomas Jefferson, at the time serving as Secretary of State, feared that having a central bank to regulate American currency would infringe on states’ rights.  Jefferson noted that the Constitution did not give Congress any power to create corporations — which is how banks are organized.

Congress, however, decided to give Hamilton’s idea a try and created the First Bank of the United States with a 20-year charter.  Subsequently, Congress allowed the charter to lapse in 1811.  A year later, the United States encountered significant economic problems relating to the War of 1812, which prompted Congress to create the Second Bank of the United States in 1816.

Some states went so far as to pass laws to try and undermine the national bank’s operations.  Other states, like Maryland, decided to impose a tax on the federal bank.  In 1818, Maryland’s state legislature passed a $15,000 annual tax on any bank operating within the state that was not charted by the state government.  The only bank that fit that description was The Second Bank of the United States.

Mr. James W. McCulloch, manager of the national bank’s Baltimore office, refused to pay the tax — so the matter went to court.  In court, the state of Maryland argued that because the Constitution was “silent on the subject of banks,” the federal government was not authorized to create one.  But when the federal government appealed the case, the Supreme Court disagreed.

The Argument: Enumerated vs. Implied Powers

In Constitutional Law, experts speak of government power in terms of what is specifically outlined in the Constitution (enumerated) and what isn’t (implied).  As an example of enumerated powers, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution permits the federal government to: 

  • Collect taxes
  • Regulate foreign and domestic commerce
  • Coin money
  • Declare war
  • Support the army and navy
  • Establish lower federal courts

But Congress can do many other things — which are the “implied” powers.  Congress can do this because of the so-called necessary and proper clause.  In other words, there may not be an enumerated power for Congress to do a certain thing, but for Congress to perform its enumerated powers, other acts of Congress may be “necessary and proper.”  Such necessary and proper powers are “implied,” which the Supreme Court has held to be lawful.

This case involved McCulloch v. Maryland (17 U.S. 316 (1819)).  Since McCulloch, Congress has used the “necessary and proper” clause to pass laws in many different areas.  The Supreme Court upheld these implied actions in such areas as:

  • Gun control laws
  • Federal minimum wage
  • Income taxes
  • Military draft
  • Regulation of alcohol and narcotics
  • Protecting disabled individuals
  • Immigration

Some argue this goes against the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which states that “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.”

But, in deciding McCulloch, the Supreme Court had to answer two questions: (1) Did Congress have the power to establish a national bank, and (2) Did Maryland’s law taxing the bank unconstitutionally interfere with Congress’s power?  The court’s decision was unanimous. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted that the Constitution grants Congress the power to make “all laws necessary and proper” for carrying out the capabilities outlined in Article I, Section 8.  

John Marshall was a proponent of strong centralized government power, and he defined the word “necessary” to mean anything appropriate and legitimate.  This ruling gave Congress broad authority to carry out its constitutional duty, so long as its actions were logically tied to one of its enumerated powers.

The Constitution said nothing about the federal government establishing a bank, but because establishing a bank would help the Congress to carry out its other duties, such as collecting taxes and maintaining an armed force, then establishing a bank was “necessary and proper” — and implied.  Chief Justice Marshall went one step further: he concluded that Article VI establishes the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land,” which means that states have no power to interfere with federal law.  Maryland’s tax on the national bank was, therefore, unconstitutional.

The Impact of McCulloch v. Maryland

This case had a profound effect on cases involving state vs. federal power.  The doctrine of implied powers created by the court became a powerful tool for the federal government to become the bully it has become.  In particular, McCulloch established, once and for all, that when state and federal laws are in conflict, the federal law always wins. McCulloch also paved the way for what some call the “administrative state” (also, deep state, swamp, etc.), a form of government that employs an extensive professional class to oversee government, the economy, and society — essentially, the federal regulators who oversee many aspects of American life, including environmental agencies and labor regulators.  Without the McCulloch decision, many federal agencies and their onerous (business-busting) regulations might not exist.  And, without McCulloch, the land of the free and home of the brave might actually still belong to the American people.


[1] U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876).

[2] On 26 June 2008, the Supreme Court issued a decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, holding 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected to service in a militia and protects the right to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense.  In McDonald v. City of Chicago, 2010, the Supreme Court found that the right of an individual to keep and bear arms is protected under the Second Amendment and is incorporated by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[3] U.S. v. Sprague, 282 U.S. 716, 733 (1931)

[4] U.S. v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 124 (1941)

[5] Annals of Congress, 767 – 68 (1791).  Note that an annal of congress, which forms part of the Debates and Proceedings of Congress covers the 1st Congress through the 18th Congress of the United States (1789 – 1824).

[6] 2 Annals of Congress 1897 (1791).

Posted in Bill of Rights, British Colonies, Colonial America, Corruption, Founding Fathers, History, Justice, The Constitution | 10 Comments

A Black Speck

A black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves.  … Another instant and man and horse burst past our excited faces and go winging away like the belated fragment of a storm.  —Mark Twain (Roughing it, 1872)

Roughing It was a semi-autobiographical book written by Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain, written between 1870-and 71 and published in 1872.  The book follows a young Samuel Clemens through the Wild West during the period 1861 – 1867, and in it, he offers us a flavor of the excitement of the Pony Express.  The very name calls up thrilling images of horse and rider racing through hostile territories and across treacherous terrain — even though the Pony Express lasted for less than two years (from April 1860 to October 1861).  Plus, the Pony Express was only one of several private express companies carrying mail.

Much of what we think we know about the Pony Express (and the American West) began in the so-called wild-west shows and dime novels in the late 1800s.  Yet, despite their end, America’s Pony Express riders continue dodging highwaymen and hostiles, winging their way across the vast American west — they live on in our imaginations.

In 1860, a relay system of horsemen began carrying mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.  The central route extended 1,966 miles and involved 165 stations roughly separated by ten or twelve miles where the riders exchanged their horses.  The express riders were capable of riding like the wind for as many as 75 to 100 miles in a single day.

It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was necessary — because the problem was, at the beginning of the American Civil War, the United States was on the verge of losing control over the transfer of mail, cargo, and gold from California.  Pony Express gave the Union control over cargo and mail carried between East and West outside the borders of the Southern states.

Pony Express riders made the 1,966-mile journey in around ten days (in the summer) or between 12 and 16 days (in the winter).  Who do we credit for this idea?  William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell.  Who shall we credit for making it happen?  Men like Nick Wilson.

Some Tales are Taller than other Tales

The old west is full of tall tales — some credible, others not so much.  More than a few of these tales concern the Pony Express.  They rode day and night, rain, or shine, regardless of the known presence of hostile Indians and well-heeled road agents. 

Elijah Nicholas Wilson was born in 1842 — part of a pioneer family living in the American West.  When he was around 12-years old, he left home and went to live with a Shoshone Indian chief named Washakie.  He stayed with the Indians for four years.  When Pony Express solicited riders, 18-year-old Nick Wilson was hired on.  He knew how to break horses, and he had sand.  It was dangerous work.  Nick Wilson said he got used to it after a while.

After driving horses to Antelope Station (Nevada), working under Superintendent Howard Eagan, Wilson stopped at the Spring Valley Station.  He encountered two orphaned boys who the station manager had abandoned.  The two boys were running the station by themselves, and they invited Wilson to stay for supper.  After Nick let his horse out to graze, he noticed the horses going towards a patch of Cedar or pinion pine trees — he suspected that Indians were driving the horses away.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson sprinted towards the horses with Guns blazing, trying his best to reach them before the Indians stole them away.  He fired three times at the men and missed.  One of the raiders shot an arrow at Wilson, the flint-tipped arrow striking him two inches above his left eye.  As the raiders rode off with the horses, the two boys reached Wilson and tried to yank the arrow from his forehead, but it wouldn’t give.  They broke off the shaft, leaving the flint tip buried in Wilson’s forehead.  The boys rolled him under the trees, thinking he was as good as dead.

As Wilson lay unconscious, the boys ran for help at the next station.  They returned the next day with men to help with Wilson’s burial, only to find him still alive.  They carried Nick back to the station and called for a doctor from Ruby Valley, 60 miles away, to treat the wounded and still unconscious express rider.  Although the doctor could dig out the arrowhead, he didn’t think the outlook was good.  He instructed the station boys to apply wet cloths to Wilson’s head, and then he left.

Six days into this treatment, Superintendent Egan happened by the station and saw Wilson unconscious but still alive.  He sent for the doctor to come again from Ruby Valley and give further treatment. Wilson was unconscious for eighteen days.  Once he awoke, he quickly recovered and returned to riding the dangerous express line.

Afterward, Wilson always wore his hat low over his forehead to cover his scar.  The head injury plagued him with headaches for the rest of his life.  The scrape with death didn’t slow him down, though.  He continued to ride for the Pony Express until it shut down in October 1861.  Wilson went on to live a full life as a western pioneer and earned the reputation of a true old west storyteller.  Hollywood producers incorporated Nick Wilson’s storyline into the film Wind River.

Williams Station Massacre

Williams Station wasn’t much — a saloon, general store, and stagecoach station sitting on the Carson River.  On 6 May 1860, a war party led by mixed-race Bannock Indians assaulted the station, killing five Americans and setting fire to the station.  A militia was quickly formed from volunteers in Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City, and Genoa to apprehend the marauders.  The volunteer force consisted of about 105 men, led by Major William Ormsby.  The militia was a gaggle of undisciplined morons with an over-abundance of crap for brains.  None of these men realized how poorly armed they were — because they were all full of whiskey.  There were two pitched battles in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake (present-day Nevada), resulting in the deaths of 79 whites and 25 Indians.  Perspective: of the 105 white militia members, 79 died. 

Remembered as the Pyramid Lake War (and Paiute War), the conflict forced Pony Express to suspend operations between Carson Valley and Salt Lake City through the end of June 1860.  The COC & PP  rebuilt the destroyed stations and posted up to five guards at each one along this portion of the route. The Pony Express recommenced service at the end of June, even though hostilities between the Paiute and settlers didn’t cease until August.

Despite the nearly two-month disruption to service, Pony Express continued between Salt Lake City and St. Joseph.  Unhappily, as the company spent $75,000 to reopen the route to California, the Salt Lake to St. Joseph route produced little income — placing Pony Express near financial collapse.  Indian raids continued throughout the system.

The Pony Express Gunman

He was born Joseph Alfred Slade in 1831 at Carlyle, Illinois, the son of politician Charles Slade.  He served in the U.S. Army occupational force in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the Mexican-American War.  After his father’s death, his mother married Union Major General Elias Dennis.

Jack Slade

After the war, Slade worked along the Overland Trail as a freighter and wagon master.  He married in 1857, afterward earning his living as a stagecoach driver in Texas.  He may have worked for the Butterfield Stage, but by 1859 he worked for Hockaday & Company, who sold out to Jones—Russell & Company, and then for the Central Overland, California & Pike’s Peak (COC & PP) Express Company (parent owners of the Pony Express).  Jones—Russell transferred Slade to the Pony Express company in 1860 and made him one of their superintendents.  Slade’s duty required him to keep order among the riders and schedule cross-country express mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco, California.

Jack Slade took his work seriously.  He was quiet, somewhat broody, and if you weren’t accustomed to calling him Jack, you called him “sir.”  The point was, Jack Slade was a gunslinger — and everyone knew it.  Well, everyone except a fellow named Andrew McFerrin.  McFerrin was holding up one of Slade’s freight trains.  When Slade told him to get a move on, Andrew decided to broach the subject of wages, taking the hardball approach.  That was when Slade slapped leather and shot McFerrin dead.  This incident did two things for Slade.  First, it made him an effective superintendent, and second, it earned him his reputation as a gunman.

Jack Slade suspected that one of his station masters in Colorado, a man named Jules Beni, was as corrupt as Maxine Waters (although she wasn’t even alive back then).  Slade decided to ride over and discuss it with him.  En route, Jules ambushed Slade, shot him, and left him for dead.  This is what happens when employees fail to demonstrate attention to detail.  Slade wasn’t dead.  In August 1861, Jules Beni ended up with around 40 bullet holes in his body when Slade’s friends caught up with him.

Despite Jack Slade’s reputation as a dedicated company man, he (like so many others out west) developed a drinking problem.  Jones—Russell fired him for drunkenness in 1862.

Slade’s exploits spawned numerous legends, many of them complete bull tacos.  His image, as captured by Mark Twain in Roughing It, as a vicious killer (Twain claiming 26 victims) was greatly exaggerated.  English writer George Orwell criticized Twain, claiming that his writing encouraged old west violence — but that may also be a stretch of the imagination.

Passing the Time

But all good things must come to an end, as did Jack Slade on 20 July 1864.  Virginia City, Montana, was a wild and wooly place in the 1860s — and with a high population of road agents, crooked sheriffs, and things that go bump in the night, the good citizens of Virginia City just weren’t in the mood for shenanigans.  That’s why, when Jack Slade got all fired up with alcohol one night, vigilantes strung him up for “disturbing the peace.”  This we know for sure: Jack Slade never did that again.  His friends planted him over in Salt Lake City.

End of the Pony Express

Once the Civil War broke out, Pony Express was the fastest way to transmit information from the seat of power in Washington to western states and territories.  Meanwhile, efforts to establish a telegraph line to California were well underway.  Still, a telegraph line could not replace mail service, so even though the telegraph system reached San Francisco by August 1861, the demand for mail service steadily increased.  When government subsidies stopped, Pony Express went out of business, and COC & PP came to mean “Clean out of cash and poor pay.”


  1. Driggs, H. R. “A Flint-Headed Arrow.” In The Pony Express Goes Through; an American Saga Told by Its Heroes, 70–78. New York, New York: Lippincott, 1963.
  2. Wilson, E. N., and H. R. Driggs. The White Indian Boy: The Story of Uncle Nick among the Shoshones. Salt Lake City, Utah: Paragon Press, 1991.
  3. Rottenberg, D.  Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, the West’s Most Elusive Legend.  Westholme Publishing, 2008
  4. Smithsonian National Postal Museum, online.

Kaplan, J.  Mr. Clemens, and Mark Twain: A Biography.  Simon & Schuster Publishing, 1966

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, California, Civil War, Colorado, Gunfights and such, History, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Pony Express | 1 Comment

Hell’s Fury

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

—William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697)[1]

Between 1960-63, the ABC Television Network hosted an entertaining crime drama called The Naked City.  The star of this show was actor Paul Burke.  The show always ended with this narration: “There are over 4 million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”  There were at least that many stories in the old west, too, and never any shortages of human tragedy.

In 1830, just outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there lived a young man who was born into a financially comfortable family, whose father was locally influential and known as a man of honor.  These traits were passed along to his son, whose name may have been Henry Vereau — but we cannot be sure.  Henry fell in love with Anna Baldwin (if that was her name), the daughter of a New York clergyman visiting her sister in Baton Rouge.

Anna was not a beautiful woman, per se, but visually attractive and well proportioned.  Henry and Anna met and fell in love, and in time he asked Anna to become his wife.  She accepted his proposal, and they agreed to marry when Henry returned home following a business trip to Kentucky.  He anticipated an absence of about two months.

While absent, Henry dutifully wrote to Anna to keep her informed of the progress of his business affairs and to reaffirm his devotion to her, of course.  But then the letters stopped arriving — a fact that Anna found very disturbing.  He may have been injured, or worse, killed — or possibly had changed his mind about marriage.  There being no letters from her betrothed and carrying his child, Anna experienced much agony and disappointment.  After another month, she began to listen to the propositions of the overseer of a nearby plantation, and with no word at all from Henry Vereau, Anna married this other man.

Sadly, her new husband proved to be a drunkard and abusive.  But Anna’s story gets worse because Henry reappeared no more than two weeks after her marriage to the skunk.  His business trip had been extended, but he continued writing to her with no account for why she did not receive any of his letters.  Henry did not respond well to the news that she had married someone else — and he soon traveled to France.

Their child, whom Anna named Elsa Jane, born under dubious circumstances, is the main character of this story.  It was not unusual for girls to marry at an early age in 1842.  Elsa Jane married at the age of twelve years.  She had two children by the time she was fifteen.  Her husband, Mr. Forest, was a riverboat pilot, murdered in cold blood by one of his crew — a man whose name was Jamison.

Forest had left her penniless. It was an awful tragedy for a young girl, much less a young mother. With little choice in the matter, Elsa left her children with the Sisters of Charity in St. Louis, Missouri, and set off searching for work — and, amazingly enough, her husband’s killer.  Jamison went to trial and was convicted of murder — but was later released on a technicality.  We don’t know what the technicality was, of course, but it isn’t that important for this story.  What is essential is that Elsa reasoned that to earn a good living and provide for her children, she would have to change her circumstances.

Of course, women back then had limited opportunities for employment outside the home, and Elsa’s case was complicated by the fact that this poorly-educated 16-year-old girl was determined to track down her husband’s murderer and give him a slice of justice.  So, rather than taking a position as a domestic servant ironing other people’s linen, Elsa enlisted the assistance of a trusted male friend who agreed to keep her secret, find her clothes suitable for a young man, and teach her how to take on a more masculine persona.

With her hair cut short, Elsa Jane began calling herself “Charlie” and entered the world of men as their equal.  She quickly passed herself off as a young man with a somewhat husky voice. 

Elsa’s first job was as a cabin boy on a steamer along the St. Louis-New Orleans route.  She was paid $35.00 per month ($1,290.08 today).  Elsa visited her children every chance she could — along with the man who befriended her in her time of need. Not once, as she went about her business, did Elsa lose sight of her task: earn money to care for her two children and find the man who murdered her husband.  

After working on the river for four years, in 1854, Charlie took a job as a railroad brakeman for higher wages.  By this time, Charlie dropped all of her feminine traits with one exasperating “but.”  Not long after joining the railroad, her superior, the train conductor, began to suspect her gender.  She quickly packed her bags and boarded a steamer for Detroit.  In her own words —

“I buried my sex in my heart and roughened the surface so I would not be discovered.”

There is but one source for information about Elsa Jane Forest Guerin — Mountain Charley or the Adventures of Mrs. E. J. Guerin, who was thirteen years in male attire: An Autobiography Comprising a Period of Thirteen Years Life in The States, California, and Pike’s Peak, Dubuque Publishing, 1861.  The reader can download Guerin’s book here.

On average, Charlie changed jobs about every six months — more often whenever people began to eye her suspiciously.  Even with that, she enjoyed the freedom she had as a male.  She could come and go as she liked.  In her own words —

“I could go where I chose, do many things which, while innocent in themselves, were debarred by propriety from association with the female sex. The change from cumbersome, unhealthy attire of woman to the more convenient, healthy habiliments of a man was in itself almost sufficient to compensate for its unwomanly character.”

Charlie returned to St. Louis to spend time with her children whenever possible.  But playing the role of a man was Elsa’s cover, not her mission.  Under her quiet demeanor was a hunter, always looking for a murderer.  She was always hoping Jamison would show up at a street corner.  One night, after five years of looking for him, he did.  There was a moment in the initial meeting where Charlie could have quickly assassinated him, but she reasoned that such an act would be cowardly.  Instead, she faced Jamison just outside a gambling hall in St. Louis.  She called him out, he went for his gun, and she went for hers.  His bullet hit her in the leg; she shot him in the arm, and he escaped.

The incident drew attention to herself, and she sought refuge with a sympathetic woman who listened to her story and kept Charlie hidden until she was well enough to travel.  A company of men heading for the goldfields of Sacramento came through town, and Charlie jumped at the chance to leave the area and continue with her journey as a male adventurer, no one being the wiser and Charlie more determined than ever.

When Charlie reached Sacramento, she took on a job in a saloon — and supplemented her work by buying and selling mules.  It was a lucrative venture, earning Charlie $2,500.00.  Later, the young woman earned an additional $30,000 selling furs and leading supply wagons into Colorado.

In Denver, in the spring of 1860, after purchasing The Mountain Boy’s Saloon, Charlie became known as “Mountain Charley.”  While operating the saloon, she also opened a bakery.  Soon after, Charlie was riding horseback a few miles outside Denver when she happened to spot Jamison again.  By this time, Mountain Charley had improved her marksmanship skills.  Elsa Jane wrote —

“I emptied my revolver upon him as he lay and should have done the same with its mate had not two hunters at that moment come upon the ground and prevented any further consummation of my designs….”

This time her aim was true, but once again, Mr. Jamison proved himself a stout-hearted fellow, and although Elsa/Charley filled his sorry ass with hot lead, he did not die.  Charlie learned that she needed a bigger caliber smoke wagon, and Mr. Jamison, who was never-the-less seriously wounded, traveled to New Orleans to recover.  New Orleans was never a healthy place to live — not even now.  Within a year, Yellow Fever killed the murdering rat, Mr. Jamison.

After returning to Denver, Charlie fell in love with her barkeeper, Mr. H. L. Guerin, who had been aware of Charlie’s past from the onset of their business relationship.  Charlie finally revealed her true identity, and she and Mr. Guerin married and opened a boarding house in Denver, and engaged in a mining effort of unspecified interests.


According to the American Civil War forum, Elsa Jane Forest Guerin traveled to Iowa and joined the Union Army, enlisting as Private Charles Hatfield.  She served in the army for two years under Colonel Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the 1st Iowa Regiment.  Charlie served Curtis as a spy, was wounded in an undisclosed engagement, and eventually received a commission to first lieutenant.  Ms. Guerin does not mention any involvement during the Civil War, so the claim that she served as an officer while impersonating Charles Hatfield cannot be substantiated.  What makes this account unlikely is that she relocated her children to a boarding school in Georgia during the Civil War.  Why would she do that if she served the army of Yankee aggression?


[1] William Congreve was a popular and successful English playwright of Restoration theatre, whose plays are still somewhat popular.  Some of his lines are mistaken for Shakespeare, such as, ‘Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,’ ‘tis better to be left than never to have been loved,’ ‘You must not kiss and tell’ and ‘married in haste, we repent at leisure.’

Posted in American Frontier, Civil War, Goldrush, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Missouri, Society, The Ladies | 8 Comments

Mister Montana

Last week —

… we examined the outlaw sheriff operating in and around Virginia City-Bannack, in the Idaho/Montana Territory.  This week, we will look at a man who some would argue was as bad as the outlaw sheriff, only better connected.  His name was Granville Stuart, younger brother of James Stuart, the sons of Robert and Nancy Stuart of Harrison County, Virginia.  Ultimately, history remembers Granville as a pioneer, gold prospector, businessman, civic leader, vigilante, author, cattleman, and diplomat — a man who played a prominent role in the development of Montana.[1]

Granville Stuart was born on 27 August 1834 in Harrison County, Virginia (later, West Virginia).  After a brief stay in Illinois in 1834, the Stuart family moved to Muscatine County, Iowa, where young Granville and his brother James learned to hunt, explore, and develop fieldcraft skills.

In 1849, Granville’s father Robert made his way to the California gold fields — one of the thousands of 49’ers who made the hazardous journey only to find disappointment.  By 1853, Robert had tired of prospecting and returned to Iowa, leaving his two sons behind in California to make their own life.

The boys remained in California prospecting for gold but had no luck.  Still hoping to strike it rich, they moved from Sacramento to Yreka in 1854 and the Klamath River Valley in 1855.  In response to the Klamath Indian uprising in 1856, the Stuart brothers enlisted as scouts in the California Mounted Rifles, briefly participating in the Rogue River wars.  After a career of some 30 days, the boys returned to the goldfields in Yreka.  In 1857, James and Granville decided to return to their family in Iowa.

Heading eastward, the boys traveled with nine others until Granville became ill.  The boys suspended their journey at that time, and James took care of Granville.  By the time he recovered, it was too late in the year to continue their journey over the Rockies.  Unable to winter in southern Idaho or seek shelter in Salt Lake City because of the U.S. and Mormon War, they wintered with a friend named Jake Meek in the Beaverhead Valley (near Dillon, Montana).  During that winter, the brothers met and worked with a French-Canadian fur trader named Richard Grant (an employee of the Hudson Bay Company).  Richard was the father of John Grant, proprietor of the Grant Ranch, and a founder of Deer Lodge, Montana.

Young Granville

For the next three years, James and Granville traded cattle, horses, and other goods between the Big Hole Valley, Beaverhead, Deer Lodge Valley, and Fort Bridger (in southern Wyoming).  In the fall of 1860, the Stuarts moved to Deer Lodge Valley and established a camp on Gold Creek — a productive goldfield with good access to supplies at Fort Benton.

By 1862, prospectors congregating along Gold Creek began calling their community the “American Fork.”[2]  At the other end of the valley, Johnny Grant called his growing community “Cottonwood.”  With the discovery of gold in Alder Gulch in the summer of 1863, most of the valley inhabitants moved south toward Virginia City — including the Stuarts.  But wanting to retain a Stuart presence in the Deer Lodge Valley, James joined with Johnny Grant and organized a townsite survey company on Cottonwood Creek.  The town established there was later named Deer Lodge, Montana.

In 1863, gold strikes at Grasshopper Creek were drawing in hundreds of prospectors.  Trying to take maximum advantage of the boom, James and Granville relocated to Bannack, where Granville opened a butcher shop.[3]  In Bannack, the Stuarts made essential connections among the early pioneers and settlers of territorial Montana, several of whom became important business partners.  It was also in Bannack that Granville got his first exposure to vigilantism.

Granville and his brother James were partners in most things since they were teenagers and were rarely apart until January 1871, when James left Deer Lodge to operate a trading business at the government trading post on the Milk River near Fort Browning.  James left his wife and three sons in the care of Granville and Awbonnie.  In June 1873, the government closed Fort Browning and transferred James to Fort Peck.  By this time, James was seriously ill with liver disease, and he passed away on 26 September 1873.  Granville had his brother buried at Deer Lodge.

Throughout his life, Granville Stuart served in various public offices, including town council president, school district trustee, legislative representative, militia officer, state land agent, head librarian, and founding member of the Society of Montana Pioneers.  He was also a prolific writer, keeping copious notes and journals and copies of correspondence — primary records that make good history.

In 1879, Granville Stuart worked as a bookkeeper at his old friend Samuel T. Hauser’s First National Bank in Helena, Montana.  Stuart and Hauser had known each other since 1862 when they were together in the goldfields.  Stuart, aware of the burgeoning cattle business on the open range, encouraged Hauser to invest.  Hauser put together a deal with Helena banker Andrew J. Davis creating the DHS Cattle Company (DHS for Davis, Hauser, Stuart).  Granville Stuart was a minor partner with an investment of $20,000 (which he borrowed from Hauser).  Hauser and Davis appointed Stuart to serve as general manager.

In the spring and summer of 1879, Stuart bought cattle from Beaverhead Valley in Montana and from Oregon with plans to site them on 800 acres of the Judith Ranger (near Lewiston).  DHS Ranch was located in an area surrounded by an open range near Fort Maginnis (for protection from hostile Indians) and a ready market for Cattle.  The disadvantage of ranching near an army fort was that the army claimed all hay land surrounding the fort, including that of the DHS Ranch.  A legal dispute when on for several years before the military finally relinquished its claim to the hay land.  In any case, by April 1880, Stuart had acquired approximately 9400 head of cattle at the cost of $141,327.


The nature of vigilance committees, which is to say, lacking any system of checks against abusive power, was that their members and activities were secretive.  Consequently, the best defense against abusive vigilante organizations was to publicize the names of their members.  In 1835, when the Vigilance Committee of Nashville, Tennessee, whipped Rev. Amos Dresser for his pro-abolitionist publications (which he denied), the American anti-Slavery Society published the names of all 62 members of the committee.  Some of these men were purported to be elders of the Presbyterian Church.

In Montana, vigilance activities started as small secret groups in Virginia City but given the amount of lawlessness in Montana around 1850, vigilante activities spread quickly.  Since they were secret organizations, there is not a lot of information available to us today, but we do know that several higher-ups in the organizations were prominent Montana citizens — including Granville and James Stuart (founders of the so-called Stuart Stranglers[4]), Wilbur Sanders (1st U.S. Senator from Montana (1890)), Sidney Edgerton (first Governor of Montana Territory (1864)), Cattleman Nelson Story (famous for his 1866 cattle drive from Texas to Bozeman and prominent Bozeman merchant), John Bozeman (founder of Bozeman, Montana (1864) and the Bozeman Trail), Nathaniel P. Langford (first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park), and Thomas Dimsdale, publisher of the Montana Post.

Granville Stuart 1900s

The secret nature of Montana vigilante organizations also makes it difficult to know when execution was carried out by vigilantes or another individual or motivated group.  After the George Ives trial, vigilantes apprehended, tried, and executed several criminals.  Notable among those hanged was Henry Plummer, the sheriff of Bannack, suspected by more than a few citizens of being the ringleader of Virginia City Road Agents.  Montana Vigilantes relied heavily on the testimony of criminal suspects to target and apprehend other criminal suspects.  Montana criminals were never hesitant in giving testimony against other criminals — if they thought doing so would save their hides.[5]

In 1884, horse thieves and cattle rustlers were prevalent on the open range — pushing ranchers to demand the support of stock growers associations.  They turned to influential men who had a stake in the cattle and horse-raising industry.  One of these men, as indicated above, was Granville Stuart.  With the tacit approval of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Vigilante organizations took steps to capture and execute rustlers and thieves.  Some sources claim that Stuart (and others) may have killed up to twenty rustlers; others claim the number of executed men exceeded 75 rustlers and squatters.  There is no evidence to support the claim.  Granville Stuart became president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association in 1885.

The Home Fires

Granville was 27 years old when he married a 12-year-old Shoshone girl named Awbonnie Tookanka (there are various spellings and pronunciations of this person’s name) on 15 April 1862.  Awbonnie and Granville remained married until her death in 1888 — she was 41 years old.  The couple made a good life on the DHS Ranch, but in 1886 – 1887, a financial crisis developed over the issue of grazing on the open range.  Severe drought, over-grazing, and a particularly severe winter were the problem’s root causes.  By early spring of 1887, DHS had lost 60% of their 40,000 head of cattle.  What remained of the herd was in bad health.  DHS never recovered from the predicament.  Granville left the ranch in 1890; when the spread finally sold five years later, Granville still owed Hauser’s bank $3,500.

On 8 January 1890, Granville married twenty-six-year-old Allis Belle Brown, his children’s former school teacher at the DHS ranch.  Belle didn’t mind being paid to teach Stuart’s mixed-race children, but she had no desire to raise them as her own.  Granville gave up his children with Awbonnie to the St. Ignatius Mission School through her urging.[6]  Granville and Allis never had any children of their own.  Allis Belle Stuart died in Hamilton, Montana, in 1947.

Stuart’s long friendship with Samuel Hauser helped open doors for Stuart with the administration of Grover Cleveland.  Shortly after the beginning of Cleveland’s second term in 1893, Hauser helped secure an ambassadorial appointment for Stuart in Uruguay and Paraguay.  Stuart was standing next to Juan Idiarte Borda, the President of Uruguay when he was assassinated in Montevideo.

The later years

When Granville returned to Montana from South America, he found his opportunities somewhat limited.  With a change in the administration in Washington, opportunities for a federal position were impossible.  Despite his years of effort, Granville was far from wealthy and remained indebted to Hauser.  Granville and Belle settled in Butte, Montana.  In 1905, he became head of the public library — a post he retained until 1914.

To make ends meet (financially), Granville and Belle operated a rooming house in Butte. Granville began compiling the writings later published as Forty Years on the Frontier during this period.[7]  Between 1915 – and 1917, the state of Montana participated in the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, California.  The primary benefactor of the Montana exhibit was William Clark, who insisted that “Mr. Montana” head the delegation, which he did for the first year.  In 1917, Granville and Belle moved to Missoula.  In failing health, his last public appearance was in September 1918 during the Montana Pioneers Society meeting.  On 2 October 1918, Granville Stuart suffered heart failure in his home and died.  He was laid to rest beside his brother James in Deer Lodge.


  1. Kennedy, M. S.  Montana Gold.  Magazine of Western History, 1964.
  2. Milner, C. A.  As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart.  Oxford University Press, 2008
  3. Spence, C. C.  Territorial Politics and Government in Montana, 1864-69.  Illinois State University Press, 1975.


[1] Even today, state historians refer to Granville Stuart as “Mr. Montana,” because his journals and writings have provided Montana and western historians unique insights into life in the Northern Rockies after the 1850s.

[2] Not to be confused with American Fork, Utah, settled by Mormons in 1850.

[3] In the goldfields, shopkeepers became wealthier than the miners and prospectors.  A steak dinner in 1863 cost $50.00.  Today, that would be $1,149.89 … an inflation rate of around 25%.

[4] William “Flopp’in Bill” Cantrell captained the strangler’s missions. Throughout their short existence, their membership during chases would fluctuate between 17 and 40 men, depending on the location of the thieves and the day of the week.

[5] For an excellent film about vigilantes and range detectives, see The Missouri Breaks with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.

[6] American Indian mission schools provided a basic western education, often run by Christian organizations, and funded by the U.S. government.  Children were routinely stripped of their Indian culture and immersed in the European-American culture.  Children were treated harshly by their “Christian” teachers and administrators. 

[7] Not published until 1925.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Goldrush, Gunfights and such, History, Idaho, Indian Territory, Montana, Outlaws, Pioneers, Politicians, Range War, Society | 4 Comments

Outlaw Sheriff

William Henry Handy Plumer was born in Addison, Maine in 1832.  He was the youngest of six children born to Jeremiah and Elizabeth Plumer.  Jeremiah died when William was still a teenager.  Henry left home in 1851, at age 19, and headed for the goldfields in California — where he began calling himself Henry Plummer (adding an extra “m”). 

By every indication, Henry was an enterprising young man.  Within two years, Henry owned a mine, a bakery, and a small cattle ranch in Nevada City, California.  In 1856, the citizens of Nevada City elected Plummer as their sheriff and city manager.  His supporters urged him to run for state representative as a Democrat, but the party was divided and without their full support, he lost in the primaries.

In 1857, in his capacity as town marshal, Henry Plummer was protecting Mrs. Lucy Vedder from her abusive husband John when he shot and killed John Vedder.  Plummer claimed that he shot Vedder in self-defense, but he was convicted of second-degree murder.  On appeal of the conviction, he won a new trial.  Convicted a second time, he was sentenced to ten years in the San Quentin State Prison.  In 1859, the citizens of Nevada City appealed to the governor for a pardon on Plummer’s behalf.  Because Plummer was then suffering from tuberculosis, the governor granted the pardon, and Plummer was released from prison.  Plummer returned to Nevada City.  In 1861, Plummer attempted to execute a citizen’s arrest of William Riley, an escapee from San Quentin.  Riley resisted arrest and was killed.  Local police accepted that the killing was justified, and Plummer was allowed to leave California.

At first, Plummer traveled to the goldfields in the Washington Territory.  He became involved in a dispute that resulted in gunplay, and again Plummer killed his adversary.  Plummer decided to return to Maine.  On the way back east, waiting for a steamboat at Fort Benton, Montana (on the Missouri River), James Vail approached Plummer, asking him to volunteer to help protect Vail’s family from Indian attacks at the mission he was attempted to establish at Sun River.  Since there was no passage available on the boat at the time, Plummer accepted the position, along with Jack Cleveland — a horse dealer who had known Plummer in California.

While at the mission, both Plummer and Cleveland developed emotional ties with Mr. Vail’s attractive sister-in-law, Miss Electa Bryan.  Plummer asked her to marry him, and she agreed.  As gold had recently been discovered in nearby Bannack, Montana, Plummer decided to go there to try to earn enough money to support him and his intended wife.  Cleveland, angry, followed Plummer to Bannack.  In January 1863, the angry Jack Cleveland forced Plummer into a gunfight and was killed.  The altercation took place in a crowded saloon where numerous witnesses confirmed that Plummer shot Cleveland in self-defense.  In May 1863, the 31-year-old Plummer was overwhelmingly elected sheriff of Bannack, Montana.

Between October and December 1863, the number of armed robberies and murders in the vicinity of Alder Gulch increased significantly; citizens of Virginia City grew increasingly suspicious of Henry Plummer and his associates, whom they began calling the “Plummer Gang.”

As examples of the Plummer Gang’s alleged crimes:

  • Lloyd Magruder was a Lewiston, Idaho merchant doing business in Virginia City.  With $12,000 in gold from the sale of goods in Virginia City, Magruder hired several men to protect him during his journey home.  These men included Chris Lowrie, Doc Howard, Jem Romaine, William Page, Charlie Allen, Robert Chalmers, Horace Chalmers, and William Phillips.  On 13 October 1863, while en route to Idaho, Lowrie murdered Magruder and Howard, Romaine, and Page killed Allen, the Chalmers’ brothers, and Phillips.
  • On 26 October, road agents Frank Parish and George Ives held up the Peabody-Caldwell Stagecoach between Rattlesnake Ranch and Bannack.  Bill Bunton, the owner of the Rattlesnake Ranch, was complicit in the robbery.  Parish, Ives, and Bunton took $2,800 in gold from the passengers and threatened them with death if they ever talked about the robbery.
  • On 13 November 1863, Wilbur Sanders[1] and Sidney Edgerton[2] hired teenager Henry Tilden to locate and corral several horses they owned.  While in the performance of this task, three armed men confronted Tilden and relieved him of the animals near a location known as Horse Prairie.  If Tilden didn’t want to get hurt, he’d better keep his mouth shut.  Henry Tilden told Hattie Sanders what happened and gave a statement to Judge Edgerton that he recognized one of the men as Henry Plummer.  At first, Edgerton dismissed Tilden’s statement about Plummer.  No one was prepared to believe that the sheriff was involved in such activities.  As time went on, however, suspicion of Plummer increased.
  • On 22 November 1863, George Ives robbed the Oliver stagecoach between Virginia City and Bannack.  Assisting Ives were Whiskey Bill Graves and Bob Zachary.  It was a low-yield robbery, netting the thieves with less than $1,000 in gold and treasury notes.  Passenger and victim Leroy Southmayd gave testimony to sheriff Plummer identifying the robbers.  Later, in Virginia City, members of the Plummer Gang visited Mr. Southmayd, but he was able to avoid injury or death.
  • In that same month, Conrad Kohrs traveled to Bannack with $5,000 in gold to purchase cattle.  Kohrs was worried about the safety of himself and his men and communicated this concern to Sheriff Plummer, who reassured him.  While his group was camped overnight, his associates discovered road agents George Ives and “Dutch John” Wagner, armed with shotguns, surveying the Kohrs camp.  A day or two later, Kohrs was riding horseback to Deer Lodge when Ives and Wagner gave chase. As Kohrs’s horse proved faster, Kohrs evaded confrontation and reached the safety of Deer Lodge.
  • In early December 1863, Milton S. Moody organized a three-wagon freight caravan from Virginia City to Salt Lake City.  John Bozeman, one of the passengers, was carrying $80,000 in gold and $1,500 in Treasury notes (cash).  While camped at Blacktail Deer Creek, Dutch Wagner and Steve Marshland entered the camp intending to rob the caravan.  What they discovered were armed men who had little interest in allowing that to happen.  Wagner and Marshland then pretended to be searching for lost horses.  Two days later, Wagner and Marshland made their move as the caravan crossed the Continental Divide at Rock Creek.  The Moody group shot and wounded both criminals and thwarted their second robbery attempt.
  • On 8 December, George Ives and Aleck Carter waylaid Anton Holter, who was moving oxen to Virginia City.  A highly agitated Ives tried to kill Holter when he learned that his victim had no cash or gold on his person.  Holter was able to escape uninjured into the brush and later gave testimony that he’d recognized Carter as one of the holdup men.

More than a few residents suspected that Plummer’s road agent gang was responsible for numerous robberies, attempted robberies, murders, and attempted murders in and around Alder Gulch in October–December 1863.  Because there were no regular courts in the Idaho Territory at the time, a miner’s court convened in Virginia City between 19-21 December to consider the case of George Ives, named as a suspect in the murder of Nicholas Tiebolt, a young Dutch immigrant.  It was an outdoor trial led by jurist Wilbur Sanders.  At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Mr. George Ives guilty.  George was a pragmatic man who believed that “coming clean” would lighten his sentence; thinking that, he shared with the court the names of men who were regular members of the Plummer Gang.  After singing like a canary, the miner’s court-ordered Mr. Ives hung, which was promptly carried out.  Since the execution took place almost immediately, Mr. Ives did not appeal his sentence.

Two days later, the leading citizens of Virginia City and Bannack formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch.  The committee included five residents of Virginia City, led by Wilbur Sanders, and a posse of several more men led by Captain James Williams.  For the next two and a half months, Williams and his posse were busy rounding up members of the Plummer Gang.  During this time, vigilantes arrested, tried, convicted, and executed twenty or so “alleged” gangsters.  They were mostly “alleged” criminals because, true to form, the criminals ratted on one another once taken into custody: Carter, Graves, Bunton, Wagner, George Brown, Erastus “Red” Yeager (the loudest canary of all), and of course, Henry Plummer, his two deputies, Buck Stinson, and Ned Ray, and his pal George Lane (known as Clubfoot George).

Mock Trial, 1993

On 7 May 1993, the Twin Bridges Public School District conducted a mock trial of Henry Plummer, held in the Virginia City, Montana courthouse.  The jury was split on the verdict, which led Judge Barbara Brook to declare a mistrial.  Half the people walked away thinking that justice was done; the other half thinking that vigilantes violated Mr. Plummer’s rights.  What no one considered, apparently, was that when these accused men were executed, murder, robbery, cattle rustling, and horse stealing dropped to zero in the Virginia City-Bannack area.


  1. Dimsdale, T. J.  The Vigilantes of Montana: Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains.  State Publishing, 1915.
  2. Langford, N. P.  Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies.  Merrill Publishing, 1980.
  3. Mather, R. E., and D. E. Boswell.  Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer.  University of Utah Press, 1987.


[1] Later, a U.S. Senator from Montana.

[2] Previously, U.S. Congressman, Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory Court, and later, first Territorial Governor of Montana.

Posted in American Frontier, California, Corruption, Goldrush, Gunfights and such, History, Idaho, Montana, Outlaws, Society | 7 Comments

Old West Shootouts

My parents encouraged reading, and I attended schools where there was always a well-stocked library of the things I was interested in — explorers, adventurers, and frontiersmen.  They were primarily biographies of such men as William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, and others. 

Of course, the stories were for young people, so the one thing that stood out about the biographies (although not evident to a fifth-grade reader) was that they were all full of fluff.  The writers told the story of a young Washington, who cut down his father’s cherry tree and then later, for no apparent reason, threw a dollar across the Potomac.  They wrote about young Ben Franklin, who authored Poor Richard’s Almanac — and the rough-cut John Fremont, who saved California.  Missing from these stories was that when Washington was a young man, there weren’t any “dollars” in the American colonies, Franklin plagiarized Shakespeare, or Fremont would have sold his sister into slavery for political advantage.

There were two types of stories about early America: the sanitized version and the unmitigated truth.  The truth is that some of the actual characters in America’s history were less than exemplary people. They were often profane, intemperate, untrustworthy, and dangerous. Some men wore the badges of law enforcement officers while robbing banks in nearby towns.

In the formative years of the United States, the truth about society is that almost everyone had their freedom — and little else.  Young men faced a short lifespan of back-breaking labor; their women suffered through a short life of pain and deprivation.  In 1790, 36% of American households contained seven or more people.  A century later, 23% had seven or more persons.  The large size of American families was partly so that the children could eventually assist their fathers and mothers in running the farm.  The larger the acreage, the more people needed to work it.

The period between 1750 and 1950 was difficult for young people.  Muscle-sore and work-weary parents guided their offspring through their daily routine: awaken, milk and feed the livestock, breakfast, repair or replace fencing, break for a noon meal, bale, repair, haul, supper, read a few passages from the Bible, and go to bed.  This sort of activity went on week after week, month after month, year after year — and by the time the “children” reached ten or 12-years-old, they were ready to strike out on their own.  All kids develop romantic notions about living an adventurous life away from home — and besides, life couldn’t be more challenging than what they were used to — could it?

Many of these youngsters (mostly the boys) would follow a different path from their angry, broken-down fathers and mothers.  They would follow an easier path — or so they imagined. Some could find work mucking out stalls at a livery, emptying spittoons in a saloon, working for a blacksmith, or ranching — reminiscent of their life on the old man’s farm.  In surprisingly large numbers, others turned to robbery, gambling, and drinking rotgut whiskey. Many of these kids simply “disappeared” from the face of the earth. Life in rural America was bad, but life in America’s growing cities was even worse.  The average lifespan was 38-40 for both males and females.  In 1950, only 13% of the population lived to age 65.

We should conclude that children didn’t have much of a childhood in the mid-1800s — a condition that lasted through the end of World War II.  The period between 1850 and 1950 was remarkable for its violence and human suffering.

Levi Richardson was one of those lads.  Born in 1851, he lived barely 28 years.  He was born in Wisconsin, left the home fires at an early age, found work as a buffalo hunter, and eventually found his way to Ford County, Kansas — which ultimately became the location of one of the west’s more dangerous towns: Dodge City.  In Dodge City, Levi Richardson was known as a fast gun and a perilous mankiller.  According to the rumor of the day, Levi would just as soon shoot an Indian as look at them, and he was reputed to have sent more than a few Indians to the happy hunting ground in the sky.

No one is quite sure why Levi had a reputation as a gunfighter.  Besides the one gunfight in which he was killed, no one can remember any other “more successful” shootouts.  Maybe he was all mouth.  He arrived in Dodge City around 1874 — at about the same time the Indian Wars were in full swing.  By the time Levi was 23 years old, he was a drifter, a boozer, a gambler, and a loudmouth.  Not many people liked Levi Richardson, but Levi didn’t seem to mind.  Levi did have one friend, though: a town marshal named Masterson, but then, not many people were fond of Bat Masterson, either.

Deputy town marshal Wyatt Earp knew Richardson but didn’t think much of him.  Levi proved he was smarter than some by keeping a low profile around another gambler, a fellow named John Holiday.  Most folks called John “Doc.”  Another fellow Levi got along with was a gambler named Frank Loving.

Frank Loving was a few years younger than Levi — born in 1860.  He was from Missouri but moved with his family to Texas after the Civil War.  Frank’s father was killed in 1870, and it was shortly after this that young Loving left home to become a gambler.  A ten-year-old gambler is hard to imagine.  My guess is that he started off working in saloons and eased into the gambling racket.  Loving also ended up in Ford County, Kansas, where he spent most of his time at the famed Long Branch Saloon, then owned by Charlie Bassett.  Bassett later became the Ford County Sheriff and, alternately, Dodge City Town Marshal.

By every account, Levi Richardson, and Frank Loving, who some people called Cockeye Frank, got along well enough — until 1879.  Frank Loving, a married man, concluded that Levi was making a play for his wife, Mattie.  At first, Loving addressed his concerns verbally, which in time escalated to a fistfight in the street outside the Long Branch.  When the fight was finally over (people get tired of swinging fists after a while), Levi told Frank (who was unarmed at the time), “The next time I see you, I’ll blow your guts out, you cockeyed son of a bitch.”

On 5 April 1879, Richardson decided he’d had enough of Cockeyed Frank.  He stepped inside the Long Branch Saloon with one thought in his pea-sized head: blowing Frank’s guts out.  But Loving wasn’t in the saloon, so Levi decided to wait.  Frank finally showed up for work at around 9 a.m., seating himself near a potbellied stove at the end of a long table.  Levi joined him at the table, and they spoke in low tones.  Richardson suddenly stood up and, in a louder voice, said, “You wouldn’t fight anything, you damn son of a bitch.”  Frank answered, “Well then, try me and see.”

Levi went for his gun, clearing leather, and Frank did the same.  The two men fired eleven shots from a distance of about two feet.  One of Levi’s five shots grazed Frank’s hand.  Frank fired six shots, hitting Levi in the chest, side, and arm.  Deputy Marshal William Duffy entered the saloon as Frank fired his last bullet and disarmed Levi as he fell to the floor.  Town Marshal Bassett arrived next and arrested Loving, which was standard procedure back then.  Levi, lying on the floor, bled out and died.  Officials ruled the shooting self-defense two days later, promptly releasing Frank Loving from custody.  Since Levi had his boots on at the instant of his death, well — you know.

No one else was hit by errant bullets inside the Saloon — but it was, after all, just a little past nine in the morning.  Locals couldn’t imagine what happened to Levi’s other four bullets.  There were several gunfights in the Long Branch Saloon, but the Loving-Richardson shootout was the more famous among them.  A short time later, 19-year old Frank Loving left his wife and children to pursue full-time employment as a gambler over in Trinidad, Colorado.

Frank Loving and John Allen had a lot in common.  They were both professional gamblers, they were both loudmouths, and they had known each other since their good old Dodge City days.  Early in the evening of 14 April 1882, Loving and Allen got into an argument.  Loving suggested that they step into the street and settle the matter.  Mutual friends prevented any gunplay that day, and both men went their separate ways.  Frank Loving stewed in his juices overnight, apparently deciding that the matter was unresolved.

The next morning, Frank Loving entered the Imperial Saloon, where Allen worked, with a gun in his hand.  When Allen noticed the handgun, he stood up, drew his pistol, and fired at Loving.  And missed.  Loving returned fire — and missed.  Saloon patrons scattered left and right.  In the melee, someone knocked the gun out of Loving’s hand.  Using a patron as cover, Allen shot at Loving two more times, missing both times.

Frank Loving recovered his pistol and emptied it at Allen, who was by then quickly finding his way toward the back door of the Imperial into the alley.  None of Loving’s bullets hit Allen.  Allen quickly took refuge in Hammond’s Hardware Store, two doors down from the Imperial.  Loving pursued Allen into the alley but could not find him.  Meanwhile, while serving as a deputy town marshal, James Masterson (Bat Masterson’s younger brother) located Loving and disarmed him.  Having done so, Masterson searched for Allen, who seemed to have disappeared.

Sometime later, Masterson returned to the Imperial and learned that Loving had re-armed himself with two revolvers and was out looking for Allen.  By then, Loving had entered the hardware store to buy ammunition for the guns — and this is where Allen stepped up behind Loving and shot him.  After Masterson and Town Marshal Lou Kreeger discovered Loving, who was badly wounded, they arrested Allen.

Frank Loving died from his gunshot wound on 21 April.  Allen went to trial in September 1882, charged with Loving’s murder.  Allen successfully argued that he acted in self-defense and won an acquittal.  Since Loving died with his boots on — well, you know.  John Allen moved back to Dodge City, where he became a preacher.  It didn’t pay as much as gambling, but it was safer.    

Posted in American Frontier, Colorado, Gunfights and such, History, Indian War, Kansas, Kansas Law Dogs, Society | 8 Comments

Old Paint

Following the French and Indian War (1754-63), the British colony of Virginia extended from the Atlantic seaboard to the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.  Few British subjects traveled beyond the Appalachian Mountains until the early 1770s.  The area of present-day Kentucky once formed the far-western region of the U.S. state of Virginia.  With the permission of the Virginia legislature, Kentucky County formed as a new state — the first state west of the Appalachian — admitted to the Union by Congress in 1792.

Most of us today remember reading about the exploits of frontiersman Daniel Boone — but we often overlook or fail to recall that he was also the first of thousands of westward migrating pioneers to follow the now-famous Wilderness Road.  In 1802, Missouri (sitting west of Kentucky, across the Mississippi River) was Spanish territory.  Americans who relocated to Missouri did so only with the permission of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and only on the condition that they become subjects of the Spanish Crown.  That changed in 1803 when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, which essentially doubled the size of the United States with a few signatures and some cash.

Mathew Caldwell was born in Kentucky on 8 March 1798 and grew up there until he was 20-years of age.  In 1818, Caldwell accompanied his parents into Missouri, where Indian hostilities were frequent events. In Missouri, Mathew met and married his first wife, Martha.  In 1831, Mathew and Martha and (we believe) three young children migrated to Texas.

Upon arriving in Texas, Mathew settled his family in the DeWitt Colony, located south-southwest of the Austin Colony in East Texas.  In June 1831,  Mathew Caldwell received title to a parcel of land near the Zumwalt Settlement (southwest of present-day Hallettsville).  He acquired the Water Street residence of James Hinds in Gonzalez.  The Caldwell home was just down the street from the hat factory of George Kimball and Almeron Dickinson

In the 1830s, Mexico struggled with the complexities of establishing a new Republic, but there was no consensus about its form.  Thoughtful men wanted to form a federalist republic with semi-autonomous states or provinces, much like in the United States.  Other men imagined a strong centralized power.  The debate heated up as many Texians, citizens of Mexico, preferred federalism (less government, as outlined in the Constitution of 1824) to the authoritarianism of a centralist regime.[1]

When hostilities broke out between Texians and Mexico’s centralist authority, Mathew Caldwell was one of the leading men of the Texian community in Gonzalez and well acquainted with the other early Texians: Edward Burleson, Benjamin McCullough, John Henry Moore, and Jack Coffee Hays.  In late September 1835, Caldwell began actively recruiting Texians for a possible confrontation with Mexican troops, which is what happened on 2 October.  History remembers this fight as the Battle of Gonzalez.  As a participant in the Battle of Gonzalez, Mathew served as a scout and mediator in the matter of the now-famous cannon, which the Texians had borrowed from the Mexican army and refused to return. 

 Mathew’s call for volunteers took him from Gonzalez to Mina (around 100 miles one way).  From this effort, Mathew Caldwell became locally known as the “Paul Revere of Texas.”  Subsequently, from approximately 10 October to early December 1835, Caldwell accompanied the volunteer Texas army to San Antonio de Béxar, where they placed a siege over the Mexican garrison at the Alamo.  There is a hint that Mexican gunfire wounded Caldwell during the operation.

On 3 November 1835, Texian delegates established the provisional government of Texas.  Caldwell’s initial task was to administer and provision the volunteer army at the Alamo.  Events in Texas began to move quickly as Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna became more determined to put down the Texian rebellion, and the Texians became equally committed to achieving their independence.

On 1 February 1836, the citizens of Gonzalez elected Mathew Caldwell and John Fisher as their delegates to the Texas Independence Convention, held at Washington on the Brazos.  Both men signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.  Subsequently, Texas’ provisional government appointed Caldwell to a Committee of Three to “assess the strength of the enemy on the frontier and the condition of the Texian Army.”  Along with Byrd Lockhart and William Matthews, Caldwell formed a volunteer ranger company with twenty-three men.  Twelve Gonzalez men entered the Alamo as a relief force, reporting to Lieutenant Colonel William Travis on 2 March.  All of these men perished at the Alamo.

After the Texas Revolution in 1837, the citizens of Gonzalez County elected the 39-year old Caldwell as their sheriff.  Since Mexican troops had destroyed the town of Gonzalez, and because Comanche hostiles quickly reclaimed the area of Gonzalez, Caldwell and 29 rangers established a new village they named Walnut Branch in the northwest section of the County.  The fortification these men constructed provided some protection for the Texians filtering back into Gonzalez from the so-called “runaway scrape.”[2]

Caldwell remarried Hannah Morrison in Washington County on 17 May 1837.  As a respected Ranger and community leader, he helped keep the peace in town and the prairies.  In early 1838, hecklers tried to prevent Reverend Zachariah Morell and other ministers from preaching the gospel.  Caldwell boldly stood up to them and announced there would be no harassment of men of God.  No one dared use any violence on the preachers.

In October 1838, Comanche attacked the town and kidnapped two young women and some children.  While Caldwell’s rangers quickly mobilized and pursued these Indians, they could not catch up with them.  If this wasn’t enough, rumors began to circulate about a new Mexican army’s plan to assault San Antonio.  Indians on the one hand, Mexicans on the other.  Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar appointed Caldwell as a captain of Gonzalez Rangers to defend the immediate frontier.  Two months later, Lamar commissioned Caldwell to command a company in the First Regiment of Texas Infantry.  On 29 March 1839, Caldwell’s company, serving under General Edward Burleson, helped defeat the treasonous rebellion of Vincente Córdova of Nacogdoches.

In December 1838, several children of the Lockhart and Putman families were kidnapped by Comanche Indians while gathering pecans on the Guadalupe River south of Gonzales.  Mathew Caldwell, Ben and Henry McCullough, and other residents pursued these Indians but soon faced a bitter winter “norther” that left ice and snow on the ground.  Eventually, the winter weather defeated their efforts.  The Lockhart children would not fare well during their captivity.

The Third Congress of the Republic of Texas passed an act on 15 January 1839, which called for raising a fifty-six-man ranging company for Gonzales County.  Texas law required that the President appoint all ranger captains; the citizens of Gonzalez demanded that President Lamar appoint Caldwell to that post, which he did.

Captain Caldwell mustered his ranger company on 16 March 1839.  One of these men was Henry McCullough, already well-known as a courageous Indian fighter.  Curiously, one week later, President Lamar further appointed Caldwell to serve as a captain in the First Regiment of Texas Infantry.  Since the regiment had its lawful complement of officers, Colonel Lysander Wells informed Caldwell that there was no place for him.  Lamar’s confusing appointment prompted Judge James W. Robinson to correspond with the President urging that he rescind Caldwell’s appointment, stating, “I hope he [Caldwell] can yet be provided for, as I do think him the best Capt. of Spies in Texas, even superior in many respects to the old veteran Deaf Smith.”

“Old Paint” Caldwell would join the army in due time, but he proceeded to fulfill his obligation to command the Rangers first.  His Gonzales Rangers protected the area between San Antonio and Gonzales during the next three months.  They established their main camp about fourteen miles above Gonzales on the Guadalupe River near present Luling (present-day Caldwell County).  A large force of Austin-area Rangers and volunteers under Colonel Edward Burleson fought a battle with Vicente Cordova’s Mexican and Indian rebels on Mill Creek on 29 March 1839.

Captain Caldwell’s Rangers were on scouting missions and thus missed the main battle.  However, five of his men were attacked by Cordova’s fleeing force the following day on the Guadalupe River.  “Guns were fired and two of the Gonzales Rangers wounded,” wrote Captain Caldwell.  Two of his men, relieved of their horses, hurried back to Seguin on foot to spread the word of their skirmish.  “Old Paint” Caldwell and his Gonzales Rangers thus began a dogged pursuit of Cordova’s rebels, who were fleeing toward Mexico.  Caldwell crossed the Guadalupe River (where New Braunfels now stands) and pursued them north of San Antonio.  Colonel Henry Karnes and other volunteers joined Caldwell’s chase until signs showed that the rebels had out-distanced them.  Although unsuccessful in catching the treasonous Cordova, his men did help drive the danger from the country.

Caldwell’s 1839 Ranger company helped protect surveyors working between Gonzales and Austin.  His company disbanded on 16 June.  Caldwell then became involved with recruiting for the First Regiment of Infantry.  Records of the regiment reflect that on 29 August 1839, Mathew Caldwell served as one of the fifteen infantry captains.  By December 1839, Captain Caldwell commanded a small, mounted scouting party reporting to Colonel Burleson.

On Christmas Day, Caldwell’s scouts encountered a band of hostile Cherokees about 100 miles northwest of Austin.  Caldwell’s scouts killed six Indians during a brief fight, including two Cherokee chiefs.  The only Texian loss was John Lynch.  Caldwell’s scouts pursued the Indians for several more days without further battle, and the expedition returned to Austin in January 1840.

Nevertheless, Comanche, Kiowa, Cherokee, and Wichita Indians continued to plague the Texians by raiding settlements, killing colonists, kidnapping women and children, and stealing horses and cattle.  Under these circumstances, Texians were both surprised and suspicious of the motivations of a delegation of Comanche war chiefs who one day appeared in San Antonio seeking a truce with the whites.

On 10 January 1840, three Comanche emissaries surprised everyone in San Antonio by walking into the city and announcing that they wanted to arrange peace with the whites.  These emissaries met with Colonel Henry W. Karnes, who had served during the Texas War of Independence as Sam Houston’s spymaster.  Karnes was 28 years old.

The emissaries released one white boy to Karnes — a measure of good faith.  He was the Webster lad kidnapped in 1838.  The Indians informed Karnes that they would return in 23 days to negotiate peace with the Texians.  Karnes listened to what they had to say and agreed to meet again at the prescribed time, but he also admonished these men that no lasting peace would be possible until the Comanche returned their white captives.  Karnes estimated that the Comanche held 13-16 white prisoners.

Karnes promptly notified Secretary War, 37-year old Albert Sidney Johnson, of the impending negotiation.  Johnson ordered Karnes to detain the Indians once they arrived and retain them in custody until the Comanche returned all white people to their families.

On 19 March, the powerful Eastern Comanche Chief Muguara (also: Mukwooru) (translation, Spirit Talker) led 65 people into San Antonio, including 12 other chiefs, several women, children, and warriors.  The Indians were dressed in their finest clothing to present their best appearance.  Chief Muguara wanted most Texian recognition of the Comancheria as the Indian’s dominion.[3]

The Comanche brought along a captive female, 16-year old Matilda Lockhart, taken in 1838.[4]  Matilda had suffered the abuses of several Comanche men.  Mary Maverick, the wife of Sam Maverick, cared for Matilda once Muguara turned her over.  Maverick testified that the Indians burned off Matilda’s nose in addition to other disgusting abuses.  The girl was an absolute mess.

Chief Muguara was upset because the Texians did not offer him guns and ammunition for Miss Lockhart; he needed provisions to continue raiding.  Karnes wasn’t buying it, and he was none too happy about the condition of Matilda Lockhart.

Colonel Hugh McLeod questioned Matilda about what she knew of the thirteen kidnapped whites that Muguara promised to trade for provisions — as part of the peace negotiations.  Matilda informed the Texians that she knew of the existence of Mrs. Dolly Wester, her children, Booker and Patsy, Thomas Pierce, a child named Lyons, and the three remaining Putnam children.

When it was clear that Muguara was stalling, Karnes and McLeod suspected the Comanche of negotiating in bad faith.  Karnes had made it clear that the Comanche must release all abducted whites before the council meeting.  The Comanche, however, had a different view.  Comanche, who held those captives, had never agreed to anything of the sort — and especially not to meet with Texians.

When the Indian delegation failed to produce the expected number of captives, Texians escorted its members to the jailhouse, retaining them there until the meeting began at the Council House.  The Council House was a one-story stone building adjoining the jail at Main Plaza and Calabosa (Market) Street.[5]  Karnes was armed with the knowledge of Matilda Lockhart’s testimony that she had seen 15 other white captives at the Comanche’s main camp a few days earlier.  She reported that the Indians wanted to see how high a price they could get for their hostages.  The Indian plan was to bring in the remaining captives one or two at a time to maximize their value.

The Texians demanded to know where the other captives were.  Chief Muguara, the Comanche spokesman, informed the Texians that various bands held the other prisoners.  He informed Karnes that he was confident that the other captives would be released in time, in exchange for a significant amount of supplies, of course — including rifles, ammunition, and blankets.

Chief Muguara was undoubtedly fluent in Spanish but less so in English.  When he finished speaking his terms in Spanish, which was translated into English, he finally spoke in English, saying to the Texians, “Now how do you like that answer?”  Neither Karnes nor any other leading Texian liked it at all.  Texian militia, summoned to enter the Council House, stationed themselves at intervals along the walls.  When the Comanche could not or would not promise to return the remaining captives forthwith, Karnes announced that the Texians would hold these chiefs as hostages until the Comanche returned all remaining white prisoners.

The interpreter hesitated before relaying this message.  He warned Karnes that the Comanche would attempt to escape by fighting if he delivered this message.  Karnes ordered him to relay the message.  When the interpreter had given the notice, he quickly left the room.  As soon as the Comanche understood the Texian’s words, they arose and began attacking the militia and fighting their way out of the Council House.

At the time, Captain Caldwell was in San Antonio as a guest at the home of Samuel Maverick.  He was aware of the testimony of Matilda Lockhart and attended the negotiations in the Council House.  He walked over to the meeting unarmed, but he soon found himself in trouble when, soon after his arrival, the talks suddenly turned violent.

One of the Indian leaders attacked a Texian sentinel, and the fight quickly became general.  Caldwell wrestled a rifle away from one Indian, killed him with it, and then used the butt end of the gun to club another Comanche to death.

In the gunfire and dense smoke that permeated the packed Council House, “Old Paint” was shot through the right leg by rifle fire, possibly from another Texian.  The fighting spilled out into the streets of San Antonio.  The Texian soldiers pursued and killed all the Indian chiefs, sparing only a few women and children — best described as those not actively engaged in the fight.

Although painfully wounded, Caldwell moved outside the courthouse and continued to fight.  His “borrowed” rifle now shattered, he resorted to the only other weapon available — decorative rocks.  That night, Caldwell returned to the Maverick home with some assistance walking.  In her memoirs, Mary A. Maverick wrote, “Dr. Weideman came and cut off his boot and found the bullet had gone entirely through the leg and lodged in the boot, where it was discovered.”[6]  Caldwell’s wound, though not life-threatening, was very painful.  The resilient Captain recovered rapidly and, in a few days, walked about with only the aid of a stick.

Mathew Caldwell’s next Indian encounter came in August 1840 when the Comanche war chief Buffalo Hump led 1,000 Indians against the coastal towns of Victoria and Linnville, killing settlers, taking prisoners, looting, and destroying homes, and stealing hundreds of horses, cattle, and mules.  Known to history as the Great Raid of 1840, Buffalo Hump sought retribution for the Council House Fight.

To meet this emergency, various volunteer forces of Texian settlers took up pursuit of the Comanches as they retreated northward.  Among these forces was a mounted company under Captain Caldwell.  Other volunteer units gathered at Plum Creek near the Gonzales and Austin Roads.  Scout Henry McCullough brought word during the early morning hours of 12 August that a massive force of Comanches was approaching.  Captain Caldwell made a stirring speech to the combined Texian forces, insisting that they must attack before the Indians could reach the protection of the nearby hills.  “If we can’t whip ’em, we can try.”  Although favored by many to take command of the forces present, Caldwell instead relinquished overall leadership to the senior officer present, Major General Felix Huston, even though Huston had no previous experience as an Indian fighter.

During the Battle of Plum Creek, the Comanches lost more than eighty killed.  The Texans suffered only one man killed and seven wounded.  Several Comanche women and children were taken prisoner, and the Texians recovered a large number of stolen goods, mules, and horses.

Once the battle had begun to swing in favor of the Texans, Caldwell and Ben McCullough urged the inexperienced Huston to order an offensive charge.  Felix Huston would write in his report that Captain Caldwell commanded the left-wing of the Texian line and executed the charge “in gallant style.”

In 1841, Caldwell served as an infantry company commander during the ill-fated Santa Fe Expedition.  The entire operation was a fiasco from the start, but it only became worse with time.  Mexican forces captured Caldwell and his men, disarmed them, and force-marched them across the Sonora desert in chains to Mexico City — an ordeal lasting several months.  En route, one of Caldwell’s men died from exhaustion, and several others were shot when they refused to walk any further.  Caldwell arrived in Mexico City in April 1842.  When finally released later in the summer, Caldwell returned to San Antonio.

In September 1842, Caldwell assumed command of a force of 200 volunteers defending San Antonio against the invasion of Mexican General Adrian Woll.  Promoted to colonel, Caldwell found himself surrounded by a superior number of Mexican soldiers at Salado Creek on 17 September.  Caldwell wrote in his plea for reinforcements, “The enemy are around me on every side, but I fear them not.  I can whip them on any ground — Huzza!  Huzza for Texas!”  He signed as Mathew Caldwell, Colonel Commanding.

On 18 September, Caldwell sent Captain Jack Hays with a company of mounted rifles to entice Woll’s cavalry to pursue them into the Salado Creek, where Caldwell’s men were ready to ambush them.  One of Caldwell’s soldiers was a man named Nathan Boone Burkett.  In his recount of the fight, written in 1895, Burkett reported that, in preparing for this battle, Caldwell stepped in front of his men and gave them advice and encouragement, telling them that “if everyone makes a sure shot, we will whip the hell out of them before they know it.”

Although vastly outnumbered, the Caldwell’s 200 Texians put up a stiff fight and caused the Mexican cavalry to withdraw in haste with sixty men lying dead on the field.  It wasn’t long before General Woll’s defeated army retreated across the Rio Grande into Mexico.  Some Texas leaders criticized Caldwell for not pursuing and capturing all of Woll’s soldiers — but then, of course, they weren’t at Salado Creek, so their criticism held little credibility among the Texians who were.

In 1842, Mathew Caldwell was 44 years old.  People referred to him as “Old Paint” because his hair and whiskers were spotted with white patches, like the coloring on a horse.  Although young according to modern standards, Caldwell was an old man in 1842.  Suffering from the effects of his long march across Mexico and the illnesses imposed upon him from malnutrition, Mathew Caldwell retired to his home in Gonzalez.  He died at home on 28 December 1842 and was buried with full military honors.   A historical monument now marks his grave in the Gonzalez Cemetery.


  1. Caldwell, C.  Texas Lawmen, 1835-1899: The Good and the Bad.  History Press, 2011.
  2. Groneman, B.  Alamo Defenders: A Genealogy, the People, and their Words.  Eakin Press, 1990.
  3. Hardin, S. L.  Texas Iliad — A Military History of the Texas Revolution.  University of Texas Press, 1994.
  4. Marks, P. M.  Turn Your Eyes Toward Texas: Pioneers Sam and Mary Maverick.  Texas A&M University Press, 1989.
  5. Maverick, M. A.  Memoirs of Mary A. Maverick.  Alamo Printing, 1921 (available online).


[1] Several accounts of the Battle of Gonzalez and the Texas Revolution are available inside Old West Tales, including The Texas Highsmith Family, Jim Bowie: The Man Behind the Legend, El Sordo, The Dickinson’s of the Alamo, Sam Maverick, and John Coffee Hays. 

[2] Residents on the Gulf Coast and at San Antonio de Béxar began evacuating in January upon learning of the Mexican army’s troop movements into their area, an event that was ultimately replayed across Texas. During early skirmishes, some Texian soldiers surrendered, believing that they would become prisoners of war — but Santa Anna demanded their executions. The news of the Battle of the Alamo and the Goliad massacre instilled fear in the population and resulted in the mass exodus of the civilian population of Gonzales, where the opening battle of the Texian revolution had begun and where, only days before the fall of the Alamo, they had sent a militia to reinforce the defenders at the mission.

[3] Three Comanche chiefs did not attend: Buffalo Hump, Yellow Wolf, and Santa Anna — the fiercest war chiefs.

[4] I believe it is likely that Matilda was related to Byrd Lockhart, Sr., but I have not been able to confirm this.

[5] All Indian tribes had their own cultural traditions, but one that appears consistent across several Indian cultures involved protocols for holding council meetings.  Men might raise their voices and storm out of the meeting, but under no circumstance would Indians who attended council in peace resort to violence while in council.  To do so was a supreme affront to “civilized” behavior. 

[6] The tale of Dr. Weideman, as told by Mary Maverick, is bizarre.  A German in the employ of the Russian Tsar as a naturalist was sent to Texas to study and report on anything and everything, vegetable, and animal.  He seized upon the opportunity of several dead Comanche to collect their remains and reduced them further to skeletal remains for shipment back to Russia — one male, one female.  According to Maverick, this was only the tip of the iceberg.  After reducing these remains to skeletons, he emptied the water used to boil the bodies into the city drinking water reservoir, which caused no small amount of anger among the residents.  Maverick wrote that Weideman was arrested, fined, and released.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Comanche, History, Mexican Border War, Mexican Revolution, Missouri, New Mexico, Pioneers, Politicians, Revolution, Texas, Texas Rangers, Very Strange | 5 Comments

Spirits in Mooney Basin

In 1929, English author Montague James offered five key features of ghost stories:  They offer the pretense of truth, a “pleasing” sense of terror, they avoid bloodshed and sex, they avoid trying to explain the mechanism, and they offer a setting common to almost everyone.

Anthropologists tell us that stories of ghosts, or if you prefer, spirits originated among early civilizations as misty, airy, or barely tangible human shapes — the persons within the person.  Where did these early people come up with such notions?  The scientists imagine from the white mist exhaled as breath in colder climates.  The remarkable thing about ghost stories is that they exist in all cultures, and they continue to exist as part of the human story-telling nature.

Mooney Basin, Nevada

I related one such tale in the story of Texas Ranger and frontiersman Big Foot Wallace in 2019.  In my story about the American Frontier, I touched briefly on the plight of the Donner Party in 1846.  It isn’t a very pleasant story — but it is true.  And terrible — and not the only incident of that kind.  One recalls that the Donner Party crossed the Ruby Mountains via the Overland Pass.  They became stranded in deep blizzards, ran out of food, and turned into cannibals.  The only reason we know about the Donner Party is that there were survivors who later told their stories. 

But, behind the Donner Party was another led by a man named Armbruster Pike.  The Pike train experienced the same blizzard.  They too became snowed-in and isolated but not in the Ruby Mountains.  No, they were stuck inside the Mooney Basin.

Like the Donner’s, the Pikes eventually consumed all their food stores, and in desperation, turned to cannibalization.  Those are the facts.  What isn’t known is whether Armbruster was murdered for his remains or dismembered while still alive so that others could consume his legs, but one story continues to exist about an apparition “believed to be” Armbruster Pike in search of his legs in and around Mooney Basin.  People who report seeing Mr. Pike (or what’s left of him) describe him as being a hunchback-looking creature with long, unkempt white hair and a scraggly beard.  Of course, it helps to have two ghost towns in the area, which adds a peculiar flavor to the tale.

The Mooney Basin sits within the Bald Mountain area of Nevada — a mining area since the early 1800s.  Numerous tales exist about miners who simply disappeared.  One miner’s body was found without his head.  Of course, there are numerous possibilities for such a thing (Indians, bears, or people looking for their legs).  Okay, go ahead a laugh.  One tale took place in 1957 when a stockman was looking for some cattle that had wandered off into the Mooney Basin area.  This fellow claimed to have discovered a hunchbacked man with long white hair and in need of a shave eating one of the dead cows.  When this scraggly person was discovered, he was covered in blood and was consuming the animal raw.  And of course, he had no legs.  There are a lot of unanswered questions about this, of course.

Still, the strange happenings in Mooney Basin continue.  In the 1980s, modern-day miners continued to report “unexplained events” along Alligator Ridge.  What kind of strange events?  I’m glad you asked.  Large vehicles suddenly started up by themselves, and late at night, a lone figure floating in the distance.  Floating, on account of the fact that he has no legs.  In 1989, while hauling a truckload of ore along Alligator Ridge, a vehicle operator was killed when his truck went out of control and rolled off the ridge — near where Armbruster Pike was allegedly consumed.  Now, of course, no one knows if there is any connection between inattentive truck drivers and legless men, but that’s how ghost stories go and are most effective when told to eight-year-olds around a campfire at night.

On the other hand, in the late 1990s, with the mines nearly worked out, archaeologists discovered human remains in the area of the horseshoe pit.  Local Indians claimed that the body was from an ancient burial site, but to play it safe, the local sheriff sent the remains to a pathologist, whose report concluded that the specimen did not come from an ancient time.  The remains were estimated to have been buried in the 1950s.  So, the Indians didn’t get the remains — but I’m not sure who did.

Now everyone knows what fun-loving fellows’ miners are, right? For many years, one good joke to play on new miners (who’ve never heard about Armbruster Pike) was first, to tell the story with individually crafted embellishments, and then later, dress up as an apparition to scare the hell out of them. Those poor saps then become eye-witnesses to weirdness.

Of course, whoever dresses up as an apparition and prowls around in the middle of the night trying to scare folks could get shot, which might then introduce a completely new ghost story.

One quiet night in the area of the horseshoe, a miner was camping alone with only his two Alsatians for company.  Late at night, the two dogs began growling, their hair stood up, and they charged off into the woods.  The camper had no idea what was happening, but he wasn’t leaving the firelight for no amount of money.  Forty or so minutes later, the dogs returned, but they remained agitated for the rest of the night, which allowed no rest for their master.  At daylight, the camper went off into the woods following the tracks of his dogs left in the snow.  He never found any other tracks except those of his dogs. 

Apparently, spirits don’t leave tracks.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Ghoulies & Beasties, History, Nevada, Pioneers, Very Strange | 7 Comments

The Ringtail Panther

Martin Van Buren Palmer (later, Parmer) (1778-1850) was born in Charlotte County, Virginia.  In 1798, he moved to Tennessee, settling in Dickson County where he superintended the Montgomery-Bell Iron Works.  During the War of 1812, Parmer served as a commissioned officer in the Tennessee State Militia.

Note:  Originally, the Missouri Territory was known as the Louisiana Territory.  Congress renamed it because they wanted to avoid confusion with the new state of Louisiana, admitted to the United States on 30 April 1812.  The Missouri Territory was massive, taking up the entire center section of the present-day United States.  There was, of course, no shortage of stout-hearted men to tame the territory, but they’d have to do that over the dead bodies of the Indians who already lived there.  After Missouri became a state, the remaining portions of the territory (Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, parts of Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico) became unorganized territories of the United States.

In 1816, Martin Parmer moved on to Missouri.  Four years later, citizens elected him to a two-year term in the Missouri General Assembly.  While serving in this capacity, Martin became a delegate to the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1821.  Three years later, Parmer represented Clay County in the Missouri State Senate (1824-25) and was selected to serve as a colonel in the Missouri State militia where, after 1821, he led four companies of infantry against hostile Indians.

In this “unorganized” territory, Martin Parmer became known as the “ring-tail panther.”  Parmer began calling himself the Ringtail Panther in Missouri.  There is no animal so named to the best of my knowledge; however, a cat-sized carnivore resembling a small fox with a long raccoon-like tail, called Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) found in the southern portion of the United States and northern Mexico.  I cannot say whether this is the creature favored by Martin Parmer.  But in any case, that’s what people called Martin Parmer, and judging from his portrait, no one with common sense would dispute the claim.  When Missouri became a state, Martin served as a representative in the first general assembly.  He was later elected a state senator to the third general assembly and appointed an Indian agent by the famed explorer William Rogers Clark.  Major General James R. Slack of Indiana described Martin Parmer as shown in the text box below:

In 1825, Martin traveled to Texas as part of Haden Edward’s colony.  It was said by those who knew him in Missouri that Martin Parmer took French leave and moved to Nacogdoches, Texas.  French leave suggests someone who quits his post.  Parmer’s Texas migration took him to Mound Prairie (Cherokee County).  It has only been four short years before when Mexico won its independence from Spain and established a new nation consisting of several states.

The area known as Mexican Texas became part of the border state Coahuila y Tejas.  To assist in governing such a large area, the state organization included several smaller departments.  Texas was known as the Department of Béxar, consisting of several municipalities governed by an alcalde (mayor).  A large portion of East Texas (from the Sabine River to the Trinity River and from the Gulf Coast to the Red River) became part of the municipality of Nacogdoches.

Most people living in Nacogdoches were Spanish-speaking families who had occupied their land for several generations.  After 1821, many Americans illegally migrated to Nacogdoches during the Mexican War of Independence.  More than a few of these people were adventurers who had accompanied filibusters — whom Mexican officials regarded as pirates.

As the government of Mexico worked to establish control over its border with the United States, Mexican officials established a series of laws governing colonization and immigration in Texas.  Under federal law, each state could develop its own immigration rules.  On 24 March 1825, Coahuila y Tejas granted land to impresarios, each of whom would recruit settlers for their own colony.  For every 100 families an impresario settled in Texas, he would receive 23,000 acres of land to cultivate and settle.[1]

Among these impresarios was Haden Edwards, a very wealthy American land speculator known for having a quick temper and rude deportment toward others.  The government of Mexico authorized Edwards to establish 800 families in East Texas.  The contractual language required Edwards to recognize all pre-existing Spanish and Mexican land titles in his grant area, raise a militia to protect the settlers, and submit all land deeds to a state commissioner for certification.  The Edwards grant included land from the Navasota River to a point twenty leagues west of the Sabine River and twenty additional leagues north of the Gulf of Mexico to fifteen leagues north of Nacogdoches.  Note: one league in Mexico/Texas was 4,428.4 acres or roughly 3 square miles.  To the north and west of this colony were several Native tribes.  The southern boundary of the Edwards colony abutted that of Stephen F. Austin, whom Edwards detested.

Shortly after Edwards arrived in Texas, he initiated an illegal process of validating existing land claims, within which he demanded that residents provide proof of land ownership or forfeit their land at auction.  The plain truth was that Edwards didn’t like Mexicans, and he wanted their land.  However, few of the English-speaking residents had valid titles to the land, many of whom were duped by fraudulent land speculators.

Nacogdoches Alcalde Luis Procela and clerk of court José Antonio Sepulveda anticipated a problem with the new impresario, so they validated Spanish and Mexican land titles.  Edwards accused these two officials of forging deeds (ostensibly because they were Mexicans), further angered residents.  By December 1825, Edwards had successfully recruited fifty families, and — pursuant to his duty as an impresario, he organized a militia.

As it was a long-held tradition that militias elected their own company-grade officers, the men elected Sepulveda as their captain.  Edwards would not have it; he nullified the vote and named himself militia commander.  Edwards also called for elections to name a new mayor.  The two nominees were Chichester Chaplin (Martin Parmer’s son-in-law) and Samuel Norris, an early resident of Nacogdoches.  To no one’s surprise, Chaplin won the election.

Chaplin’s victory led many residents to allege vote stacking, and they appealed the election results to Juan Antonio Saucedo, the political chief of the Department of Béxar.  Saucedo overturned the election and proclaimed Norris the winner.  Edwards refused to recognize Norris as alcalde but soon left Nacogdoches for another settler recruiting campaign — leaving his brother, Benjamin, in charge of the colony.  Benjamin, however, wasn’t very good at maintaining stability.  A vigilante group formed from among the earlier settlers, and they began harassing the new immigrants.  Benjamin Edwards whined to state authorities, who soon tired of the drama and canceled the Edwards contract.  More than that, Mexican officials ordered the Edwards brothers to leave Mexico.  Mexican officials undoubtedly believed rumors that Haden had returned to the United States to raise an army.  Despite the deportation order, the Edwards brothers continued their land schemes in Nacogdoches.

Alcalde Norris evicted immigrants in October and November because they illegally settled land belonging to existing settlers.   On this occasion, Colonel Martin Parmer of the Texian militia led a force of men into Nacogdoches and arrested every official and had them court-martialed.  With Parmer sitting as the tribunal, each official was found guilty of — it is supposed — treasonous offenses and sentenced to death.  Parmer commuted the sentences on the condition that the guilty leave Texas and never return.  Following the trial, Parmer appointed Joseph Durst as Alcalde in Nacogdoches.  Parmer led the Fredonian Rebellion for one month, declaring the area around Nacogdoches the independent Republic of Fredonia with himself as its president.  The Republic lasted one month — from 21 December 1826 to 23 January 1827.  Its collapse sent Parmer scrambling ahead of the arrival of the Mexican Army into Louisiana, where he wisely remained until 1831.

The Bowie Connection

After recovering from the infamous sandbar fight in 1828, Jim Bowie decided to take his bubbling personality to Texas.  The Constitution of 1824 banned any religion other than Roman Catholic and gave preferences to faithful citizens.  Bowie liked what he saw in Texas and decided to stay.  To do that, Bowie had to convert to the Catholic faith.  With San Antonio mayor Juan Martin Veramendi, Bowie was baptized in late April of that year.  For the next 18 months, Bowie traveled through Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi but spent most of his time in New Orleans, where he specialized in human vice.  In 1829, he became engaged to Miss Cecilia Wells of Alexandria, Louisiana.  Unfortunately, Miss Wells passed away two weeks before their scheduled marriage ceremony.

In 1830, Bowie returned to Texas to receive his allotment of land from Stephen F. Austin.  Bowie’s letter of introduction, attesting to his good character and standing as a citizen of the United States, failed to mention that he was involved in land fraud schemes, but of course, there was no internet back then, so it would have been difficult for Austin to verify any such letter.  Having taken his oath of allegiance to the Republic of Mexico, Austin commissioned Bowie as a Colonel of the Texas Rangers.

Jim Bowie was fluent in the Spanish language, which offered him ready access to Mexican society in San Antonio.  He used this access to establish business and personal relationships with Mayor Veramendi — including his engagement to the beautiful 19-year old Maria Ursula Veramendi, Juan Martin’s daughter, whom he married in 1831.

According to Frank Johnson, a leader of the Texas Revolution, when Jim Bowie returned to Texas, he had with him Martin Parmer, whom Johnson acknowledged as “prominent in the Fredonian Affair.”  Parmer’s reputation preceded him to San Antonio, which caused no minor difficulty for Bowie.  Bowie was popular within Mexican society — Parmer far less so.[2]

Parmer had no use for Mexicans, nor they for him, and it was not long before certain individuals asked Mayor Veramendi to arrest Parmer, which Juan Martin felt obligated to do.  The arrest warrant was issued and delivered to deputy sheriff Captain Francis Adams, a friend of Martin Parmer.  While pretending to search Parmer, Adams warned him to skedaddle.  Frank Johnson’s entire point in telling this story was to highlight that there were no good feelings between Mexicans and Texians with only a few exceptions (such as Jim Bowie).[3]

Five years later, as things began to heat up between Mexican citizens supporting the Constitution of 1824 and those who supported the centralist regime of Antonio López de Santa Anna, Parmer served as a delegate from the District of Tenaha to the Consultation at San Felipe.  As part of the Consultation, Parmer submitted Henry Smith’s name to serve as governor of Texas.  Ultimately, Smith was chosen to serve as governor of Texas, the first U.S.-born individual to serve in such a capacity.

In March 1836, Parmer served as a delegate from San Augustine to the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos.  Parmer seconded Sam Houston’s suggestion that the Texians adopt the Texas Declaration of Independence.  The Convention unanimously approved the declaration; Martin Parmer was one of the signers and served as the committee chairman appointed to draft the Texas Constitution.  According to Charles B. Stewart, who knew Parmer personally, he was a man without any fear whatsoever, had the knack of telling amusing stories, and had nothing but disdain for any Mexican.  Stephen Blount described Parmer as a man of nervous temperament, stubbornness, and impatience with unnecessary delays.  Blount described him as having the best impulses: honesty, bravery, courage, and a man who could tell a good tale.

In 1839, Martin Parmer became the Chief Justice of Jasper County — where he remained until he died in 1850.  In 1876, the Texas Legislature named a county in his honor.  On the 100th anniversary of the War of Texas Independence, Texas officials relocated Parmer’s remains to the Texas State Cemetery, where he was reinterred thirty feet from Stephen F. Austin — the man who vigorously opposed Parmer’s first attempt to declare Texian Independence.


  1. Davis, W. C.  Three Roads to the Alamo.  Harper Collins, 1998.
  2. Dixon, S. H.  The Men Who Made Texas Free: The Signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.  Texas History Company, 1924.
  3. Parmer, T.  Fifty-Five Years Ago in the Wilderness.  Dallas Commercial Books, 1874 (Note: Tom Parmer was Martin’s son).
  4. History of Texas Online: Martin Parmer.


[1] This is not a drawing or representation of Martin Parmer; rather, it is a representation of how a Missourian frontiersman would dress in the 1820s.  Visual provided by George Catlin from A History of Missouri published in 1908.

[2] The picture shown at the right is of Martin Parmer (The Ringtail Panther) is an original work based on preliminary sketches by Charles Berkeley Normann in 1936.  The painting is on display in the Star of the Republic Museum, Washington, Texas.

[3] A generalization by Johnson, or perhaps reflective of his own personal biases.  In point of fact, 25 Mexicans died with their Anglo brothers inside the Alamo on 6 March 1836.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Justice, Missouri, Pioneers, Politicians, Revolution, Society, Texas, Texas Rangers | 6 Comments

Olive Oatman Fairchild


Joseph Smith Jr. (1805 – 1844) was an American religious leader and founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saints movement.  Smith was born in Vermont, but by 1817, he had moved with his family to Western New York, which was the site of fundamental religious revivalism during the so-called Second Great Awakening. His book, the Book of Mormon, attracted thousands of followers and established a religion that exists today with millions of adherents.

Smith claimed to have experienced a series of visions, including those which he said involved the presence of God and Jesus Christ, and another three years later in which an angel directed him to the location of a buried book of golden plates, an inscribed Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization.  An English translation of this work was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.  In that same year, Smith organized the Church of Christ — referring to it as a restoration of the earlier Christian church.  The people affiliated with this church were called “Latter-Day Saints” and “Mormons.”

In 1831, Smith and his followers moved west, planning to establish a commune.  They first gathered in Kirtland, Ohio, and founded an outpost in Independence, Missouri.  During this period, Smith sent out missionaries, published revelations, and supervised the construction of the Kirtland Temple.  Violent skirmishes with non-Mormon citizens resulted in the Mormon Extermination Order.[1]  Smith and his followers relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois, becoming a spiritual and political leader.  When normal society criticized Smith and his Mormons for their polygamy, Smith ordered local printing presses destroyed.  Joseph Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois.

For roughly six months after Smith’s death, several people competed to assume Smith’s role as leader of the Mormon movement — including Brigham Young, James Strang, and Sidney Rigdon.  Most Mormons voted to follow Young, but several smaller groups emerged, creating permanent schisms in the movement.

Hazen Aldrich, an ordained priest within the Mormon Church, joined the group led by James Strang but was excommunicated from the church because of alleged acts of incest.  Aldrich then formed with another group known as Whitmerites.  When that sect died out, Aldrich joined James C. Brewster to create another group called Brewsterites.  Aldrich became president of this group in 1849.  In August 1850, James Brewster led 85 of his followers (including Hazen Aldrich’s pregnant daughter, Betsey Aldrich Wilder) from Independence, Missouri, to the Southwest territories.  Inadequate preparation for such a journey and a lack of adequate resupply points along the trail led to disagreements among these religious pilgrims.

One of the dissenting families of the Brewsterite group was the Oatman’s, who decided to split off from the main group near the old town of Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.  The Oatman family, led by Royce Oatman, moved south toward Socorro and Tucson in southern Arizona.  When the Oatman party reached Maricopa Wells, local citizens warned them not to proceed.  The trail was barren and dangerous, and the Indians inhabiting the country were extremely hostile toward whites.  Several families traveling with the Oatmans decided to split off and remain in Maricopa Wells, leaving the Oatman family to proceed independently.  Around 90 or so miles from Yuma (present-day Arizona), the Indians attacked.  It was a bloody massacre.

The Oatman’s

Olive Oatman Fairchild

Olive Ann Oatman (1837-1903) was born in Illinois.  After the Yavapai murdered her family, she and her sister Mary Ann were enslaved and held for one year before being traded to the Mohave people (indigenous to the area of the Colorado River in Arizona).  The Indians in this region always suffered from a lack of food.  Mary Ann starved to death within a year of her captivity; Olive remained a captive of the Mohave Indians for another four years.

Olive’s memoirs and speeches fueled books, plays, films, and poetry. The story of the massacre was retold many times and gained more drama with each telling. We understand, and to anyone daring to suggest that Miss Oatman went out of her way to criticize her captors, let us for a moment take a good look at her face.  There was not a day that went by during the rest of her life where she was not reminded of her ordeal — and let us acknowledge that it was no great honor to become the first American white woman to have her face tattooed by American Indians.

There is much about that ordeal that Olive never shared with anyone, but here’s what we do know.  After arriving at the Yavapai village, the girls (age 14 and 7) were treated threateningly, and Olive later said that she was sure she and Mary Ann would be killed.  The Yavapai women enslaved them, sent out for food, to lug water, and collect firewood.  When the girls failed to please the tribal women, the squaws beat them severely with sticks.

Olive said that other Indians visited the village to trade; they were Mohave Indians.  Topeka, the daughter of the Mohave chief Espaniole, saw that the Yavapai mistreated the white girls, and she wanted to make a trade for the girls.  Initially, the Yavapai refused to consider trading the white girls, but eventually, they relented and made the trade for horses, vegetables, and some blankets.  When the transaction was made, the Mohave took Olive and Mary Ann to Needles, California (along the Colorado River).  Olive became very close to Topeka and her mother, Aespaneo, and spoke kindly of them throughout her life.

Aespaneo arranged for Olive and Mary Ann to have a plot of land to farm.  From this, we presume that Olive was fully adopted into the Mohave tribe — which explains Olive’s tribal name, “Oach,” and her nickname (and I’ll have to let your imagination take over from here): Spantsa, which means unquenchable lust.  Another indication of Olive’s assimilation into the Mohave tribe is that when a group of whites visited the Mohave village, Olive made no attempt to contact them for help in leaving the tribe.

However, one inconsistency in Olive’s accounting is that she claimed that her facial tattoos marked her as an enslaved woman.  Anthropologists discount this story, however.  They claim that the tribal members were tattooed as a part of a life-after-death belief — such that they would reach the land of the dead unmolested and that such steps would not have been taken on behalf of a slave.  Additionally, anthropologists point to the evenness of Olive’s tattoo … claiming that the tattoo does not in any way suggest that Olive resisted having the marking.

In the 1860s, Olive Oatman spoke of Mary Ann having developed a death wish to join her mother and father in the other world.  Mary Ann died from starvation while living with the Mohave (c. 1855-56) when Mary Ann would have been 10 or 11 years old.  Not realizing that her brother Lorenzo was still alive, Olive regarded the Mohave as her only family after Mary Ann died.

Olive was 19-years old when an Indian messenger arrived at the Mohave village from Fort Yuma.  White authorities understood that the Mohave tribe held a captive white woman, and the post commander requested that they return this woman to white society.  Initially, the Mohave denied the presence of any white girl in the village.  The Indian messenger, whose name was Francisco, warned the Mohave about lying to the white soldiers, and this prompted the Mohave to enter into a negotiation with Francisco on behalf of the Commanding Officer at Fort Yuma.

Free at Last

Eventually, the Mohave accepted the trade and escorted Olive to Fort Yuma, a twenty-day journey.  Before arriving at the fort, Olive was dressed as a white woman to cover her exposed breasts.  Olive reunited with her childhood friend, Susan Thompson, Inside the fort.  Susan later stated that she believed Olive arrived at Fort Yuma grieving because she had to give up her husband and two male children in returning to white society.  Olive, however, denied that she had ever been married or sexually active.  Her nickname, however, suggests a different story.

Within a few days of her arrival at Fort Yuma, Olive learned that her brother Lorenzo was alive.  The story made headlines from coast to coast.  This popularity led a preacher named Royal B. Stratton to seek Olive and Lorenzo out to tell their story in a book titled Life Among the Indians.  The book sold some 30,000 copies — a best seller for that time.  Stratton used the book’s proceeds to pay the tuition for Olive and Lorenzo to attend the University of the Pacific in 1857.  They also accompanied Stratton on an across-country book tour, and through this, Olive became a curiosity, and her lectures made her one of America’s first female public speakers.

In November 1865, Olive Oatman married Major John B. Fairchild (1830-1907), a cattleman.  Fairchild had lost his brother to an Indian attack during a cattle drive in Arizona in 1854 when Olive lived with the Mohave.  After their marriage, John and Olive moved to Sherman, Texas.  John prospered by creating and managing the City Bank of Sherman; the couple lived quietly in a large Victorian house in the nicest neighborhood of the city.  John and Olive never had a child, but they did adopt a little girl whom they named Mary Elizabeth (nicknamed Mamie).[2]

Lorenzo Oatman died on 8 October 1901; Olive followed him in death on 20 March 1903, dead of a heart attack at the age of 65.  She was buried at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman.  In 1915, a mining town was named after the Oatman family in Arizona, but after the gold strike ran out, residents abandoned the town.  Additional Oatman properties include Oatman Mountain, Oatman Flats, and Olive City, Arizona (a steamboat stop on the Colorado River).  The Butterfield Overland Stage made a stop at Oatman Flats Station from 1858 to 1861.


  1. Abanes, R.  One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church.  Thunders Mouth Press, 2003.
  2. McGinty, B.  The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
  3. Quinn, D. M.  Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.  Signature Books, 1994.


[1] Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order following the Battle of Crooked River between Mormons and Missouri State Militia, ordering that either all Mormons be exterminated or driven from the State of Missouri because they made war upon the citizens of Missouri. 

[2] Mary Elizabeth Fairchild Laing (1873-1938) died in Detroit, Michigan. 

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, California, History, Indenture & Slavery, Massacres, Mormons, New Mexico, Pioneers, Religion, Texas, The Ladies, Yavapai | 7 Comments