Frontier Capitalists

. . . and Tough Hombres

Europeans have competed against one another since the end of the Roman Empire, first as tribal entities, and later as nation-states.  It is, perhaps, an element of human nature.  Christopher Columbus’ exploration of 1492 provided the impetus for France and England to investigate the New World, as well.  In 1497, King Henry VII of England commissioned an Italian explorer named Giovanni Caboto, who in English was called John Cabot, to explore the coast of North America.  Cabot found no evidence of mineral riches and England seemed to lose interest in any further investigations.

In 1523, France took its turn exploring North America.  Their motivation was the possibility of finding a shorter route to Cathay (China).  The Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano led that expedition, which led him to explore the present-day Carolina seacoast northward to the bay of present-day New York.  He named it Nouvelle-Angouleme in honor of his patron, King Francis I.  It was this expedition that convinced the French king to establish a colony in the new land.  Verrazano suggested he name the colony Francesca or Nova Gallia.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier established a foothold in the New World in the Graspé Peninsula; it was the first of the French colonial effort, settling 400 in what the French court named New France (present-day Quebec).  From this point on, the French were ambitious explorers.  Fishing fleets harvested the Atlantic coastal area into the St. Lawrence River.  Alliances were made with predominant (First Nation) native Americans.  There may not have been vast mineral resources (gold, silver) such as discovered by Spanish explorers in South and Central America, but French merchants created a demand for furs (beaver) [Note 1].

New France was a huge swath of land that included approximately half the area of present-day Canada, and most of the present-day US States west of Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, extending westward into present-day North Dakota and as far south as Louisiana and East Texas.  Eventually, New France evolved into five colonies: Canada, Hudson Bay, Acadia, Plaisance (Newfoundland), and Louisiana.  French migration was robust; by the mid-1700s, more than 70,000 people lived in present-day Quebec.

French success with fisheries and trade with native Americans gained the attention of the British once again, but beyond this, Protestant England was embroiled in a religious war with Catholic Spain.  Seeking to weaken Spain’s economic and military power, English privateers harassed Spanish shipping.  This led the English to conclude that by establishing colonies on the east coast of North America, they would be in a better position to accomplish their goal.  English explorer Humphrey Gilbert suggested that colonization could also provide a profitable empire.  Walter Raleigh took up this position after Gilbert’s death and sponsored a settlement of five-hundred people at Roanoke Island, which became the first permanent English colony in the Americas.  The colony was a failure however and remains one of the great mysteries of early British America.  The Roanoke Colony simply “disappeared.”  English encroachment of French-American colonies began in earnest after 1607.

Throughout the 1600s, France monopolized the Canadian fur trade.  They accomplished this through several trading posts, but it was a difficult task convincing the French administrator that the expense of doing so was good business sense.  Initially, permission to establish trading posts was refused but undeterred, French explorers/trappers went off into the northwest region anyway.  When they returned to Quebec a year later, laden with quality pelts, the French governor ordered the arrest of the two explorers, men named Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers, and confiscated their furs.

Radisson and Groselliers remained undeterred, however.  They approached a group of English colonial businessmen in Boston asking for their help in financing further exploration of this fur-rich territory.  The Boston group indicated interest but lost it when a speculative voyage failed due to excessive ice in the Hudson Strait.  It was then that Colonel George Cartwright, an English Commissioner in Boston, agreed to help Radisson and Groselliers find financing in England.  The timing could not have been worse for the two Frenchmen, as their arrival in London coincided with the Plague of 1665.  Eventually, they did secure the sponsorship of Prince Rupert [Note 2], and his cousin King Charles II.  Returning to North America, the Frenchmen set sail on two ships, Eaglet and Nonsuch.  Captain William Stannard commanded Eaglet with Radisson on board, which due to poor weather was forced to return to England, and Captain Zachariah Gillam commanded Nonsuch with Groselliers, which proceeded to James Bay.  When Nonsuch returned to England laden with quality furs, sponsors and investors in the Hudson Bay Company became convinced that this was a viable business venture.

Between 1668-1670, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) established six trading posts, most along James Bay, with additional inland posts after 1774.  In the language of the day, these posts were called “factories” because the individual managing them was called a “factor.” 

Thus, frontier exploration and trapping didn’t begin with Donald McKenzie, but he became a key influence in the enterprise.  McKenzie (1783-1851) was a Scottish-Canadian who migrated to Canada from Scotland in 1800.  Two of his brothers were fur traders and worked for the North West Company (NWC) of Montreal [Note 3].  In 1810, McKenzie left the NWC to become a partner in the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) with John Astor [Note 4], a German-American businessman, merchant, real estate mogul, and investor.

Astor sent factors, clerks, and fur trappers to the Pacific Coast by land and sea in the autumn of 1810.  The sea group established a base of operations at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, naming it Fort Astor (later renamed Fort George).  McKenzie led a group of PFC employees (trappers) overland to the Pacific Northwest from St. Louis, Missouri.  Experiencing difficult travels, the group split up while in southern Idaho; McKenzie led his group of twelve men northward.  They discovered and named the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, traveled along the Snake and Columbia rivers, becoming the first “Astorians” to reach Oregon overland in 1812.  Subsequently, Donald McKenzie spent two years exploring and trading for the PFC in Willamette Valley, along the Columbia River, in present-day eastern Washington state, an in northern and central Idaho.

After the establishment of Fort Astor, competition between American and Canadian fur traders became intense.  The Canadians maintained several stations in the interior, mainly at Spokane, Kootanae, and Saleesh.  Astor opened an additional station at Okanogan, which was the first of several PFC trading posts designed to counter Canadian endeavors.  The clever Astor formed a business alliance with the Russian-American Company (RAC) to prevent the NWC from gaining a foothold along the Pacific Coast.

None of the PFC assets were protected during the War of 1812, which forced Astor to sell its assets to its competitor, NWC.  Astor relied on these profits to begin a robust real estate acquisition campaign in New York, which explains his remarkable wealth.  McKenzie was dispatched to carry the PFC sales documents back east, which he accomplished in 1814.  It was during this trip that Donald McKenzie discovered the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, which was later used by thousands of westward-migrating American settlers.

After a short time, McKenzie became reacquainted with the NWC and returned to the Columbia region in 1816.  In 1818, he and former PFC employee Alexander Ross [Note 5] constructed Fort Nez Percés at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers.  McKenzie’s trapping  ventures involved most of present-day southern Idaho; between 1818 and 1821, he made annual expeditions into Oregon, northern Utah, and western Wyoming.  McKenzie was responsible for naming many of the rivers in this area.

When the British forced the merger of NWC and HBC in 1821, McKenzie was appointed governor of the “Red River Colony” [Note 6].  He left the Pacific Northwest and moved to Fort Garry, Manitoba, where he remained for ten years.  In 1834, McKenzie retired and moved to Maryville, New York—residing there for twenty years.  By this time, McKenzie’s reputation was such that he entertained several distinguished early Americans: Daniel Webster, and William Seward among them, both of whom later served as United States Secretary of State.  McKenzie offered advice concerning the international boundaries in Oregon and, some believe, may have been the impetus for the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

McKenzie was but one of thousands of men who traipsed off into the untamed American west.  We know who these men were, but what kind of people were they?  What allowed them to stand up to such things as dangerous carnivores, biting insects, bad weather, freezing temperatures, disease, injury, and hostile Indians?  Their skillset was extraordinary with no small measure of these skills learned from native Americans.  They had to have keen senses, knowledge of herbal remedies, the ability to endure pain while self-treating injuries —from broken bones, wounds, and recovery from attacks by large animals. Still, what made them into fearless explorers, and why would someone undertake such a lifestyle?

According to historian Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), whose works concerning the Yellowstone, the fur trade, and Missouri River steam boating are widely recognized, the average mountain man was no Charlton Heston.  He was, Chittenden tells us, “…gaunt and sparse, browned with exposure, his hair long and unkept, while his general makeup, with the queer dress which he wore, made it difficult to distinguish him from an Indian.  The constant peril of his life and the necessity of unremitting vigilance gave him a kind of piercing look, his head slightly bent forward and his deep eyes peering from under a slouch hat, or whatever head-gear he might possess, as if studying the face of a stranger to learn whether friend or foe.”

Vigilance, then, characterized the mountain man/fur trader.  They were woodsmen, in the true sense of the term, every bit as skilled in fieldcraft as the Indian warrior, whose survival depended on stealth, vigilance, and knowledge of how to survive in a dangerous environment.  This means that these men were highly attuned to nature, to their environment.  They could observe and read the behavior of animals and heed such signals.  George F. Ruxton [Note 7] wrote of this while recording his own explorations in the mid-1800s.  In one tale, at which incident he was a witness, he wrote:

“Our party crossed the south fork, about ten miles from its juncture with the main stream, and then, passing the prairie, struck the north fork a day’s travel time from the other.  At the mouth of an ash-timbered creek, we came upon Indian sign, and as now we were in the vicinity of the vicious Sioux, we moved along with additional caution.  Gonnesville, Old Luke, and La Bonte started up the creek and were carefully examining the banks for ‘sign’ when Gonnesville, who was in front, suddenly paused and looked intently up stream and  held up his hand to signal us to stop.  Luke and La Bonte followed the direction of the trapper’s intent and fixed their gaze.  Gonnesville uttered in an unsuppressed tone an expressive exclamation, “Wagh.”  Luke and La Bonte saw nothing but a wood duck swimming swiftly downstream, followed by her downy progeny.  Gonnesville turned his head and extending his arm twice with forward motion up the creek, whispered “les sauvages,” injuns sure and Sioux at that,” he added.

Luke answered, “Injuns?”  He and La Bonte asked, “Where are they?”  Luke striking the flint of his rifle and opening the pan to examine the priming.  Gonnesville answered, “What brings a duck a-streaking downstream if humans ain’t behind her, and who’s thar in these diggings but Injuns, and the worst kind?  And we’d better push to camp, I’m thinking, if we mean to save our hair.”

‘Sign’ sufficient indeed, it was to all the trappers who, on being apprized of it, instantly drove in their animals and picketed them; and hardly had they done so when a band of Indian made their appearance on the banks of the creek, from whence they galloped to the bluff which overlooked our camp at a distance of 600 yards.  The trappers had formed a small breastwork of their packs, forming a semi-circle in the chord of which was made by the animals standing in a line, side by  side, closely picketed and hobbled.  The Indians presently descended the bluff on foot.

The chief advanced before the rest.  Gonnesville, who spoke the Sioux language, and was well acquainted with the nation, affirmed that they belonged to a band that called themselves Yankataus [Note 8], well known to be the most evil disposed of that treacherous nation.  Divesting himself of all arms, Gonnesville advanced toward the savage.  “Howgh” both men exclaimed as they met, and after a silence of a few moments, the Indian spoke asking, “Why are the long knives hid behind their packs when we approached?  Are you afraid, or are you preparing a dog feast to entertain your friends?  Why are you whites passing through his country, burning my wood, drinking my water, and killing my game.  Have you come now to pay for your mischief and are these mules and horses a present to your red friends?”

Gonnesville answered shortly, “The long knives have bought these horses for ourselves; our hearts are big, but not for the Tankataus.”  Saying this, Gonnesville turned his back and rejoined the group.  The trappers drove the Indians off, killing several, while losing one trapper to Indian fire … and they didn’t lose their horses and mules.

The mountain men were contrary cusses, too.  They exhibited a general dislike of authority —of any kind, but particularly of government officials trying to control them.  If they weren’t libertarians, they were anarchists who were happy to run their own hook.  No doubt some of these men were “wanted” by the law back east.  They held no truck with lawmen of any sort.  They wanted to be left alone to pursue capitalism in their own way.  This was especially true among the so-called “Free Trappers,” men who worked for themselves.

One man such as these was Jedediah Smith who began trapping as a hired employee.  Some claim that Smith was the greatest mountain man and explorer of all time.  He was an adventurer, but he also expected to make money from his ventures.  He sought out the untamed places, untouched by any other.  He was a thoroughly dangerous man, when riled, with a soft spot in his heart for his family.  In 1829, he wrote to his brother, “It is that I may be able to help those who stand in need that I face every danger; it is for this that I traverse the mountains covered with eternal snow.  Let it be the greatest pleasure we can enjoy, the height of our ambition now, when our parents in the decline of life, to smooth the pillow of their age and as much as in us lies, take from them all cause of trouble.

The mountain man’s only interest in international affairs was his penchant for contrariness whenever British-Canadian trappers encroached into American territory.  In this, I suppose we could label him a patriot, or if not that, then someone who jealously guarded territory though of as his own.  None of the American trappers were pleased with the Convention of 1818, which established Oregon as a joint American-British territory.  They opposed it because as its result, the HBC furiously sought to trap as much as they could while the convention remained in effect.  The treaty was renewed in 1827 and the mountain men couldn’t understand why.

The common misconception of the mountain men is that they were stupid, ignorant, savages.  Well, some were.  Most, as it turns out, were well-read, multi-lingual, possessed a fine hand, and curiously scientific.  Many spent their cold, dark winters debating with fellow trappers; not arguing, debating.  Many of these men referred to their trapping experience as the rocky mountain college.  Trapper Joseph Meek [Note 9] could quote Shakespeare.  Some of these men acted as teachers so that their companions could learn; many ended up naming their children after the classicists.  Nearly all were familiar with the Bible and could quote scripture from memory.

Of the thousands of men who pursued the life of a mountain main/trapper, few lived to advanced age.  Many of these were still teenagers when they went into the mountains, few of them lived more than 40 years.  Ed Robinson was one old timer, aged 60 when killed by hostile Indians in Idaho.  Bill Williams [Note 10] was 62 when the Utes sent him under.  Hundreds of these men died at the hands of hostile Indians.  As already stated, the life of a mountain man was dangerous and mostly miserable.  Many died from attacks by Grizzly Bears, which had no fear of man.  Others drowned while crossing rivers, which were often torrents of rapidly moving water, or from snake bite, and some, badly injured, died from exposure or starvation.  Trapping beaver meant that these men had to wade in waist deep water in freezing streams or ponds.  Most of these men suffered from arthritis, even at an early age.  But this was the life they chose for themselves.  The company men were clearly in the business for the money; the free trappers were in it for that, too, but also for the freedom of going where they wanted, when they wanted.  Not everyone was a clinical introvert, but many were.  They had a choice and selected living under a tree to in an emerging city or town, most of which were stinking cesspools.

About half the mountain men were Anglo-Americans; a quarter were French or Anglo-Canadian, the rest were Hispanic, Negro, or half-cast Indian (sons of trappers, mostly).  What we can say, without dispute, is that all of them were damn interesting fellows. 


  1. 1.Chittenden, H. M.  History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West.  New York: Knopf, Inc., 1902.
  2. 2.Cleland, R.  This Reckless Breed of Men.  New York: Knopf, Inc., 1963.
  3. 3.Denig, E.  Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri.  Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961.
  4. 4.Lambert, N. E.  George Frederick Ruxton. Boise: Boise State University Press, 1974.
  5. 5.Ruxton, G. F.  Life in the Far West.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1859.
  6. 6.Favour, A.  Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
  7. 7.Goetzmann, W.  The Mountain Man as Jacksonian Man.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997
  8. 8.Russell, O.  Journal of a Trapper.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955.


[1] Beaver fur was always popular in Europe, but the animal population was becoming depleted there and provided the impetus for harvesting beaver in North America.

[2] Rupert was the third son of Prince Frederick V in Bohemia and Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of James VI of Scotland and England.  He variously served as a soldier, general, privateer, English naval commander, and governor of Hudson Bay.  With an investment interest in North America, Rupert was instrumental in establishing the Hudson Bay Company, which was granted a trade monopoly in the whole of Hudson Bay Watershed, renamed Rupert’s Land. 

[3] The North West Company, founded in 1779, competed with success against the Hudson Bay Company in present-day Western Canada and Northwestern Ontario.  NWC’s competition with both HBC and the Pacific Fur Company (an American company founded by John J. Astor) was fierce in the sense that the companies “went to war” with one another, literally a shooting war, which forced the British government to intercede.  

[4] America’s first multi-millionaire.

[5] Ross (1783-1856) was a Scottish immigrant to Canada responsible for building Fort Okanogan, which he also factored.

[6] The colony included Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada.

[7] Ruxton (1821-1848) was a British soldier, explorer, and travel writer who published papers about his travels to Africa, Canada, Mexico, and the United States.  His early death was caused by epidemic dysentery.

[8] Also, Yankton, a band of the Dakota Sioux, known to be particularly treacherous and untrustworthy.  There was an adage: if you see’em, kill’em.

[9] Born in Virginia, he left his Missouri home while still a teenager to avoid his step-mother.  He joined a trapping party at the age of 19 years and for over ten years had many hair-raising adventures.  He  went hand and claw with a Grizzly, defeated Indians in hand-to-hand combat, served as a trail blazer leading a wagon train to Oregon.  He afterward served as a county sheriff and territorial US marshal. 

[10] Old Bill (William S. Williams) (1787-1849) was fluent in several languages, an able expedition leader, and interpreter.  He lived with the Osage and Ute Indians.  He had two daughters with his Osage wife, whom he sent east for an education and a better life once his wife died.  Bill Williams was the great-grandfather of historian John J. Matthews through his daughter Sarah.  Williams was competent enough in the Osage language to translate the Bible into the Osage language.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Mountain Men, New France, Pioneers | 1 Comment

Black Mountaineers

Occasionally, one learns something by stumbling across information previously unknown.  At other times, one learns by asking questions and then begins a process to find the answers.  That’s the way it was with me in these stories of black mountain men.  As a kid, I used to read stories about Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Fremont —but I never once heard of, or read a story about black pioneers and Indian fighters.  I stumbled across the story of Jim Beckwourth and then, by searching for additional information, I learned about Edward Rose.

Nez Coupe

Rose was born sometime between 1780-88.  As with so many people of his day, there is much we do not know about him.  What we do know is that his father was a white man, his mother was a mixed blood African-Cherokee.  He likely started his adult life on the Mississippi River.  That was a tough line of work, not to mention dangerous, and the river boat men were crude and treacherous fellows.  With that as an early influence, it comes as no surprise that Edward Rose became a robber, a brawler, and likely a murderer.  At some point in time, probably around 1802, Rose began living among the Crow Indians and remained with them long enough to learn their language and adopt their culture.  His scars from fighting earned him the Indian name Nez Coupe, or “Cut Nose.”

In 1807, Rose left the Crow to join the Missouri Fur Company.  He was hired as an interpreter for an expedition to the Bighorn River (Wyoming) under the explorer Manuel Lisa.  After gaining the confidence of Lisa, Rose was sent with George Drouillard [Note 1] to scout, establish relations with local Indians, and publicize Fort Raymond as a trading post.  Rose and Drouillard parted company at some point in the journey and Rose returned to the Crow to set up his winter camp.  While there, he traded Lisa’s goods for favors from the tribe.  When he returned to the Missouri Fur Company in 1808, Lisa confronted Rose about the misuse of his property (trade goods), and this led to a physical altercation.  One story is that it took fifteen men to keep Rose from killing Lisa.  Rose only remained in camp long enough to procure more trade goods and then he went back to the Crow.

If the Indians weren’t killing white settlers, they were killing each other.  During a conflict between the Crow and Hidatsa, Rose was a prominent warrior who, despite being shot three times by the Hidatsa enemy, carried his attack forward and killed five men.  He afterward became known among the Crow as “Five Scalps,” a man whom they revered as a fearless fighter.

In subsequent years, Rose was content to live among trappers or his Crow family.  In 1809, Rose worked for Andrew Henry (Lisa’s partner) at a trading post in present-day North Dakota.  While working for Henry, Rose repeated his behavior of trading good that didn’t belong to him for tribal favors, but there is no record of a confrontation between Henry and Rose.  Part of the reason for this could be that (a) Henry was a smart man, or (b) Rose was no one to trifle with, or a combination of the two.

In 1811, Rose joined the expedition of Wilson Hunt, who was trying to expand the fur trade of John Astor.  Unlike Lisa and Henry, Hunt never trusted Rose beyond tossing distance, his record of desertion and theft clearly established.  One of Hunt’s concerns was that Rose was trying to talk his fellow employees into stealing trade goods.  Rose was certainly capable of conspiring against his employer, and he was certainly not an honest man.  After an unsuccessful trade negotiation with a band of Crow at Crazy Woman Creek, one that had lasted several days, Hunt blamed Rose for the failure.  Hunt offered Rose a half-year’s pay, a horse, three beaver traps, and other goods to leave the expedition.

Edward Rose married an Omaha Indian woman and had two children with her.  But Rose’s problem among the Omaha was his drinking and they soon tired of his obnoxious behavior and sent him away.  Eventually, Rose returned to the Crow where he remained for over a decade.

In 1823, Rose joined the William Ashley expedition to the Rocky Mountains.  The expedition was abandoned after Rose initiated a fight with an Arikara band [Note 2] and Ashley ended up losing fifteen trappers.  At this point, Ashley might have decided to dispense with Rose’s services, but he later included Rose in an expedition with Jedidiah Smith to the establish what became the Bozeman Trail.

Edward Rose died in the winter of 1832-33 while accompanying Hugh Glass and Hilain Menard along the Yellowstone River.  While crossing the frozen river, Rose, Glass, and Menard were attacked by an overwhelming number of Arikara Indians.  All three men were killed —their livers probably consumed by the victors.

Bloody Arm Beckwourth

James P. Beckwourth became “Bloody Arm” because of his skill in knife fighting, although most people called him Jim.  He was born James Pierson Beckwith (later changed to Beckwourth) in Frederick County, Virginia.  His father was Jennings Beckwith, an Irish/English immigrant whose ancestors were minor nobility —who was also his master.  Jim was born into slavery around 1798.  His mother, a Negro slave, had thirteen children with Jennings.  Jim Beckwith was her last child.

In 1809, Jennings moved to Missouri taking with him his enslaved wife and all their mixed-race children.  Jim attended school in St. Louis for several years.  It was about this time that he began to spell his last name Beckwourth.  No one knows why.  Jennings did acknowledge his children and tried to do his best for them.  He wanted Jim to learn a trade, so apprenticed him to a blacksmith.  Jim must have been a typical teenager —one who liked to argue with his elders, thought he knew everything.  It was a behavior that got him fired from his apprenticeship.

Jennings freed Jim from slavery in 1824.  In that same year, Jim joined up with William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  Initially, he worked as a wrangler, perhaps owing to his working knowledge of smithing.  In later years, he earned a good reputation as a trapper, mountaineer, and Indian fighter.  He also had a reputation for telling tall tales, which among the mountain men, is what they did at night while sitting around a camp fire.  In the Marines, we have a different term for this.

“Rendezvous” was an annual gathering of mountain men held at various locations between 1825-40.  Fur trading companies hosted it —a place where trappers could sell their furs and hides, purchase supplies, drink whiskey, and rent a white woman.  The annual locations were pre-announced, usually held in the spring and summer.  It was at one such gathering that a trapper by the name of Caleb Greenwood began telling stories about Jim Beckwourth.  Greenwood claimed that Jim was the child of a Crow Indian chief, who had been kidnapped by Cheyenne warriors and sold to a white family.  It was a story easily believed because the dark-skinned Jim Beckwourth always wore Indian attire.

In the 1850s, Beckwourth claimed to have been captured by the Crow Indians while trapping alone in the borderlands of the Crow, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot nations.  In this account, Jim was mistaken for the lost son of a Crow chief and on this basis, he was adopted into the tribe.  It could be a true account, but there are conflicting theories.  Some historians argue that Beckwourth was planted in a Crow village by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to advance trade with the Crow nation, which is also plausible.  Jim lived among the Crow for more than a decade, taking for his wife the daughter of a tribal chief.  Since plural marriages were common among the Indians, he may also have had several Indian wives.  In time, Beckwourth became a war chief of the dog clan [Note 3].

Jim started a ranch in the Sierra Valley.  It later became the small town of Beckwourth, California.  In 2010, the town had a population of 340.  It was there between 1854-55 that Jim told his life story to Judge Thomas Bonner.  In 1859, Jim made a short visit to St. Louis, but soon returned to the west, settling in the Colorado territory near Denver.  In Colorado, Beckwourth operated a small store and served as a local Indian agent.

In 1864, Jim was hired as a scout in the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment under Colonel John Chivington.  Chivington led a 700-man expeditionary force against the Cheyenne, Apache, and Arapaho in a campaign designed to eliminate Indians deemed hostile to white settlers.  In that year alone, Indians initiated 34 separate assaults against white settlers.  In total, ninety-six whites were killed (men, women, and children), twenty-one received serious wounds, and eight were taken as captives.  Beyond this, the Indians helped themselves to around three-hundred head of cattle.  Cheyenne mounted twelve attacks against wagon trains and stagecoaches, and nine separate ranches were raided by independent war parties.  While Cheyenne Dog Soldiers [Note 4] conduct most of these attacks, American leaders made no distinction between Cheyenne bands.

One can see the problem easily enough: starving, resentful Indians on the one side, and people hoping to survive Indian depredations on the other.  The Indian strategy was to make war in the spring, summer, and fall —and then sue for peace in the winter.  War would recommence in the spring.  This behavior led white leaders to conclude that the Indians were not trustworthy, which was, of course, true.  At a peace conference with territorial governor John Evans (1814-1897) [Note 5], Evans informed the Indians that peace was no longer possible.  Some have suggested that Evans only called the conference to lure Cheyenne leaders into the open where Colonel Chivington could more easily kill them.

Jim Beckwourth led Chivington’s force to Big Sandy Creek [Note 6].  Outraged by Jim’s participation in the Sand Creek massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians refused to trade with him from that time on.

Beckwourth was well into his sixties at the time of Red Cloud’s War (1866-68) but the army hired him as a scout in the area of Fort Laramie and Fort Kearney.  While guiding a military column into Montana, Beckwourth began to complain of severe headaches and suffered numerous nose bleeds.  These were symptoms that today could be associated with any of 80 medical conditions.  Jim returned to a Crow village near Laramie, where he died of natural causes.  He was given a traditional Indian (raised platform) burial.


  1. 1.Bonner, T. D.  The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians (with illustrations), Written from his own dictation.  New York: Harper Bros. (archived) 1856.
  2. 2.Gowans, F. R.  Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A History of the Fur Trade 1825-1840.  Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2005.
  3. 3.Hewett, E. L.  Campfire and Trail.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  4. 4.Moore, S. W.  Sweet Freedom’s Plains: African Americans on the Overland Trails: 1841-1869.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
  5. 5.Sides, H.  Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.  New York: Random House, 2006.
  6. 6.Wilson, E.  Jim Beckwourth —Black Mountain Man, War Chief of the Crow.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.


[1] George Drouillard (1773-1810) was a scout, hunter, and cartographer who participated in the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06).  Blackfeet Indians killed him in 1810 while he was trapping beaver.

[2] The Arikara Indians were a particularly nasty bunch of savages, and if any of the Indian tribes in the Yellowstone area needed a nap, it would have been these guys.  Since around the early 1700s, the Arikara managed to alienate just about every other tribe in the neighborhood.

[3] There are several clans associated with the Crow (also Apsáalooke) Nation, none of which makes any sense to a non-Indian.  According to the Little Big Horn College, there are twelve modern clans (none of which are called Dog).

[4] The dog soldiers were a militaristic band of the Cheyenne developing around 1830.  Few whites survived the violence of dog soldier attacks.

[5] Evans was a physician responsible for several hospitals and medical associations, a railroad promoter, and politician.  Evanston, Illinois, Evanston, Wyoming, Evans, Colorado, and Mount Evans in Colorado are named in his honor.  He was one of the founders of Northwestern University and the University of Denver.  President Lincoln supported Evan’s order in 1864 to shoot on sight any Indian in the Colorado territory —deemed appropriate in the defense of white settlements because most of the U. S. Army was then engaged in the Civil War.

[6] The Sand Creek massacre resulted in the killing of Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers.  Historians know what happened, and when, but estimates of dead (ranging from 70 to 500 people) appears imprecise.  The impact of Chivington’s assault, however, was that many previously peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho joined the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and Indian attacks against white settlements increased.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Cheyenne, History, Indian Territory, Mountain Men, Pioneers | 2 Comments

America’s Bloodiest Range War, 1890 – 1916

Following the establishment of Mission San Fernando Rey de España in 1797, Spanish officials realized that they would require more land for agriculture and livestock.  They looked to the Santa Clarita Valley to establish their estancia.  Using this land necessitated the removal of the Tataviam Tribe; the Indians were removed to the Mission, where they became slave laborers to Franciscan Catholics.  Estancia ed San Francisco Xavier was organized in 1804 at the confluence of the Castaic Creek and Santa Clara River.

Following the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, Mexican officials secularized the missions.  In 1834, Lieutenant Antonio del Valle was given the task of making an inventory of the property of Mission San Fernando.  This land was supposed to be returned to the Tataviam Indians, but Governor Juan Alvarado instead deeded it to his friend, Del Valle on 22 January 1839.

Del Valle and his family occupied the land.  When on his deathbed in 1841, Del Valle wrote a letter to his estranged son Ygnacio appointing him as heir of Estancia San Francisco, which included 48,612 acres of land.  Del Valle’s second wife, Jacoba Feliz, contested the will and the matter was resolved by splitting the land between Ygnacio and his stepmother.

On 2 March 1842, while resting under a tree, Francisco Lopez, the uncle of Antonio’s second wife, discovered flakes of gold just beneath the sod.  Lopez was a mineralogist trained at the University of Mexico, so there may be some question about his having “stumbled” upon the gold.  Lopez’ discovery sparked a gold rush, but on a much smaller scale than the one that occurred in 1849.  In any case, a minor effort what exerted to create a small (but profitable) gold mine on the property.  Ygnacio del Valle destroyed the mine to prevent the United States from gaining access to it during the Mexican-American War. 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which settled the Mexican-American War, endorsed legitimate land titles held by former citizens of Spain and Mexico.  Jacoba Feliz sued for control of Rancho San Francisco and prevailed in the United States Court in 1857.  Ygnacio was awarded the western-most portion of the estancia (14,000 acres), and Feliz (remarried) controlled 21,307 acres.  In her will, Jacoba’s divided her land among her six children, each designated to receive 4,684 acres of land.

In the 1850s and 1860s, California was beset by excessive rains and equally excessive droughts.  The environment challenged the people’s ability to produce food; flooding damaged buildings and made them uninhabitable.  Many ranchers were forced to mortgage their property to sustain them during these natural calamities.  Jacoba mortgaged her land to William Wolfskill [Note 1], who sold a portion of it to Ygnacio in exchange for settling Jacoba’s debt to Wolfskill.

In 1862, Del Valle was forced to sell much of his land to oil speculators.  No oil was found at Rancho San Francisco and the property was eventually purchased by Henry Newhall.  Newhall granted a right of way to the Southern Pacific Railroad and sold them a portion of the land near present-day Newhall, California.  When Newhall died in 1882, his heirs formed the Newhall Land and Farming Company.

Castaic is first mentioned on old boundary maps of Rancho San Francisco, shown as a canyon property leading to Castac Lake, characterized as “wet and briny.”  Early English language publications show the word as Casteque.  The first settlers to occupy Castaic was a family named Cordova.  The spelling of the name was changed to Castaic in 1890 and the Castaic range became the backdrop to the United States’ largest range war. 

W. W. Jenkins

In 1851, 16-year-old William Willoby Jenkins (whom everyone called “Wirt”) traveled with his family from Ohio to a small settlement along the American River.  It was in this frontier environment that William learned how to defend his family’s land claims; he’d become a gunman because he never hesitated to use one defending what he believed was his.  In time, William stumbled into the rough and tumble town called Los Angeles, California, where he earned the additional reputation as a gambler.  At the time, Los Angeles was one of the most violent towns in the United States [Note 2] — seething with racial hatred between Anglo settlers, Mexicans, and native Americans.

Jenkins’ proficiency with the gun prompted Mayor Ygnacio del Valle to recruit Jenkins into the California Rangers, a volunteer vigilante police force that was charged to rid Los Angeles from its violent denizens.  Jenkins was one of several notable gunmen, which included Horace Bell [Note 3] and Cyrus Lyon, who along with brother Sanford, established a stagecoach rest known as Lyon’s Station in San Clarita Valley.  The California Rangers developed a reputation for “shooting first, asking question later.”  It was a workable strategy because within two years, most of the more dangerous characters vacated Los Angeles — either by moving away or being planted by a local undertaker.

In 1856, Jenkins worked as a deputy constable in Los Angeles.  He was sent to repossess a guitar that was in the possession of Señor Antonio Ruiz.  Ruiz gave up the guitar when Jenkins shot him.  Local Mexicans, around 200 of them, thought that Jenkins should be hanged for shooting an un-armed man and the incident evolved into one of Los Angeles’ worst (and first) race riots.  Ultimately, Jenkins was acquitted of murder by an all white jury after deliberating on the merits of the case for five minutes.  Jenkins, upon release from jail, decided it was time to move on. 

The Lazy J

William Jenkins eventually found his way to Rancho San Francisco where a fledgling oil business was taking shape near Pico Canyon.  With Sanford Lyon and Henry Clay Wiley, Jenkins sunk the first oil well in Pico Canyon in 1869.  In 1872, Jenkins laid claim to a large section of land along Castaic Creek.  It was there that he founded a ranch he called The Lazy Z. 

Jenkins married Olive Rhodes from Illinois and they had two daughters.  Jenkins was hard-working and industrious.  Within a few years, he was known for his racehorses; he also made a considerable amount of money raising cats during a severe rat infestation in Ventura County.

By every account, William C. Chormicle (1840-1913), whom everyone referred to as “Old Man Chormicle,” was an uncomplicated man.  As a youth, while traveling from Missouri with his parents, the wagon train was attacked by Indians.  Both his parents and a younger sister were slaughtered, and although he survived, he too was left for dead with an arrow through his neck.  How he managed to survive, or under what circumstances, isn’t known.  What we do know about Chormicle is that he had an unhappy childhood, and that he never went anywhere without his two six-shooters and a rifle.  The rifle was for settling arguments at long range.  

In 1890, Chormicle settled on land adjacent to Castaic Creek — land he had purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which amounted to 1,600 acres.  Part of this land was claimed by Jenkins [Note 4].  Chormicle had only just begun to construct his cabin when Jenkins sent three of his ranch hands to muscle Chormicle off the land.  Two of these men, George Walton and Dolores Cook [Note 5], were killed.  Walton was killed instantly when two bullets entered his heart, and Cook died four hours later with two or more bullets in his liver.  Jose Olme escaped on horseback.    

After the shooting, Chormicle and his friend Bill Gardner surrendered to the county sheriff and told him what happened.  Both men, charged with two counts of murder, entered a not guilty plea by  reason of self-defense and claiming the right to protect their property from squatters.

William Chormicle

During the trial, witnesses claimed that William Chormicle and Bill Gardner were up-standing men, neither of whom had any interest in public quarrels.  There were over 100 witnesses lined up to offer what they knew of the shooting of Walton and Cook — none of whom actually saw the shooting take place.  The prosecution had no problem with proving the murder because both men admitted to it.  But it was up to the defense to show that the shootings were justified.  

As the trial progressed, the connection between land issues, violence, and William Jenkins became plainer.  Chormicle and Gardner were represented by lawyers J. L. Murphy and Alex Campbell.  Witness William B. Rose testified that he observed an argument between Jenkins and Chormicle during which Jenkins threatened him.  Chormicle testified that he alone had done the shooting, that Gardner, while present, did none of it.  Another witness, John Powell of Newhall, testified that Dolores Cook had a reputation for disturbing the peace, that he was a loyal friend of Jenkins, and who said that Cook carried a pistol so he could use it on Chormicle.

In Judge Cheney’s instructions to the jury, he said, “If Dolores Cook, George Walton, and Jose Olme went upon Chormicle’s land, he being in possession, with the intent to commit a felony, by dispossessing him of the land by force, and with intent to kill him or do great bodily harm, then you must acquit the defendants.”

The trial, lasting for 18 days in June 1890 was one of California’s longest murder trials up to that time; jury deliberation, however, was about average.  Within twenty minutes, both Chormicle and Gardner were found “not guilty” of murder.  William Jenkins was infuriated.

Over the next thirty years Jenkins and Chormicle remained at each other’s throats over land ownership and land use — from grazing rights, water rights, rights of way, and mining.  It was a feud that resulted in the wholesale destruction of property, between 21-40 men killed by gunfire, arson, or lynching, and one female killed in a cross fire.  

By this time, however, William Jenkins was known as a very dishonest man.  In 1895, having learned that swampland could be purchased cheaply under a special government subsidy program, Jenkins boarded a boat to survey the land between his ranch (presently known as Stonebridge, a housing development) and where Magic Mountain now sits.  But since Castaic didn’t have a swamp, Jenkins mounted a boat on the back of a wagon and had it pulled across the land he was interested in.  Several ranchers, including Chormicle, exposed Jenkins’ fraud and his “grant” was denied.

In 1904, William Chormicle was finally acknowledged as the legal owner of the contested land.  The United States Land Office awarded Chormicle a 1,600 acre grant previously claimed by Jenkins.  One might suppose that this determination and award would have settled the issue once and for all, but it didn’t.  By this time, the Castaic Range War was well known in Washington circles.  In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a young man as a Forest Ranger to go to Los Angeles and Ventura counties and put an end the ongoing bloodshed.  The man he appointed was Robert  Emmet Clark, who remained in Castaic until 1913. 

R. E. Clark

Robert Emmet Clark (1876-1956) was four years old when his parents moved to California from Fair Play, Wisconsin.  As a young man, Bob Clark learned how to manage a six reign stagecoach over treacherous California routes, and it was said that he met a few prominent men while driving a stage.  By 1904, twenty-two men had been killed in the Jenkins-Chormicle feud.  For nine years, the killing stopped, but when Clark left the Forest Service, the feud resumed [Note 6].

In 1913, Jenkins was shot in the chest at his Lazy Z home by a man who worked for Chormicle; Jenkins survived the shooting and the feud continued when Jenkins sent some of his men over to the Gardner home to burn it down.  Gardner, who was single, lived with his parents.  They all perished in the blaze.  Some historians have said that Chormicle arranged for the lynching of David Jenkins, said to have been William Jenkins’ son, in retribution for the Gardner murders.  Others, however, claim that William Jenkins had no sons.  Someone named David Jenkins was lynched, however.  Today, Bouquet Canyon is still known as the Dead Man’s Canyon. 

William Lewis “Billy” Rose was a landowner on the Castaic Range.  Like Chormicle, Jenkins disputed Rose’s legal title to his land; the Rose family, having received numerous threats to their lives, never went anywhere without being well-armed.  On 8 March 1913, Billy Rose confronted Jenkins and accused him of offering large sums of money to have Billy killed.  Jenkins called Rose a squatter with no right to the land.  Both men went for their guns and Jenkins was again shot.  Rose went to trial, arguing self-defense.  Rose’s attorney, Mr. H. H. Appel, argued that the shooting was justifiable “considering the reputation of [Jenkins] as a gunfighter.”

It took the death of Wirt Jenkins to end the 25-year feud.  Jenkins died at the age of 81 on 19 October 1916 from a cerebral embolism.  He had managed to survive seven (7) gunshot wounds.  With his death, peace returned to the Castaic Range.  Old Man Chormicle died on 25 March 1919 from chronic kidney disease.  Much of the fought-over land today lies below the reservoir called Castaic Lake.


  1. Engstrand, I. W.  William Wolfskill, 1798-1866: Frontier Trapper to California Ranchero.  Clark Publishers, 1965.
  2. Pollock, A.  Jenkins-Chormicle Feud Revisited.  Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, 2014
  3. Rasmussen, C.  “Castaic Range War Left Up to 21 Dead,” The Los Angeles Times, 2001.
  4. Gray, P. C.  “The Great Castaic Range War,” The Santa Clara Valley Signal, 2011.


[1] William Wolfskill (1798-1866) was a pioneer, rancher, and agronomist in Los Angeles beginning in the 1830s.  Most of his early wealth came from fur trapping in New Mexico.  He was highly influential in the development of California agriculture, became the state’s largest producer of wine, and in his lifetime, became one of the wealthiest men in California through sheep herding and cultivating citrus.  He is best known for developing the Valencia Orange.

[2] And remains so today.

[3] Horace Bell (1830-1918) was a California Ranger, filibuster, soldier, lawyer, journalist, newspaper publisher, and the author of two notable history books about California.  He was born in Indiana and made his way to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Bell was a founding member of the California Rangers, joined the Walker Filibusters in Nicaragua, fought in the Mexican Army during the reform war, and served as a Union scout during the American Civil War.  Returning to California, he invested in land and focused on ending political corruption in California’s fledgeling government.

[4] The genesis of the land dispute lay in the ambiguity of the law that resulted in overlapping land grants.  According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on 16 March 1890, the Castaic lands were part of more than one million acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties that were granted to two railroad companies in 1866 and 1871, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, and the Southern Pacific Railroad, respectively.  In 1866, after the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad went out of business, Congress rescinded the land grant and the property was restored to the public domain.  It was at this time that Chormicle appeared claiming 1,600 acres of land sold to him by the Southern Pacific and upon which Jenkins claimed ownership.

[5] Dolores Cook was an Indian; whether that had anything to do with Chormicle shooting him is unknown.

[6] Bob Clark is said to have formed several notable friendships, such as with Wyatt Earp, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, and Will Rogers.  Clark later served eleven years as Ventura County Sheriff, with a later appointment as United States Marshal for the Southern District of California, from which he retired in 1948.  After retirement, Clark lived the remainder of his days in Santa Paula, California.  He and his wife had six children, and were the grandparents of twenty-six children.  Robert Emmet Clark, Jr., served in the U. S. Marine Corps during World War II, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1956.  Another of his sons, William, served as a state judge; William’s son went on to serve as Chief of Police in Oxnard, California.    

Posted in California, Gunfights and such, History, Pioneers, Range War | 1 Comment

The Indian Killer

The story of Lewis Wetzel, Frontiersman

Long before the arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, native cultures moved freely through the Appalachian Mountain chain.  All we know about this region is what the historic record tells us.  William Penn, for example, told us in 1682 that in early Pennsylvania, “The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the southern part of France, rarely overcast.”  To many of the people migrating to the deep forests of Pennsylvania, it was a haven, and the more people spoke of it, the more people wanted to go there — for who doesn’t want to live in paradise?

But an idyllic life is seldom found anywhere in the world.  It was true that the new land was blessed with virgin forests, clear springs and brooks, spacious skies, and clover leaf glens — and that all of it taken together was beautiful beyond description.  The land’s coastal regions were lush and fertile, ready for planting and harvesting.  The sea was the source of fish and shell food.  All that was needed to bring forth this bounty was back-breaking work from sun up to sun set, and of tremendous sacrifices in the loss of loved-ones due to disease, injury, and the bloodshed cast upon them by native populations that had pre-dated the new-comers by thousands of years.  Living in isolation and in a constant state of fear, work never quite finished, tragedies suffered, lingering illnesses and wellness never quite achieved — all of it took its toll on the people who came looking for paradise; most of them never found it.

In this setting, something awful takes hold of some people.  Perhaps they were psychologically imbalanced as small children; maybe somewhere along the way, their minds snapped.  Who can explain the Harpe Brothers, much less understand how they got that way?  The Harpe Brothers weren’t alone.  There was also men like Samuel Ross Mason (1732-1803), a revolutionary war veteran, who created a gang of the worst cutthroats one can imagine, a murderer who preyed upon the crews and passengers of canal boats on the Ohio River.  He was an utterly despicable human being.

The fourth child of John and Mary Wetzel grew to such a man — only instead of murdering white settlers, he turned his depravity upon the Indians of the Ohio Valley.  John and Mary named this boy Lewis.  He was born in 1752 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  John Wetzel was of German stock, his wife Mary nee Bonner of Flemish extraction already American by several generations.

After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Wetzel family moved with their children along with several other families across the Allegheny Mountains to “free land” near present-day Wheeling, West Virginia.  Within the forested area along Big Wheeling Creek, John Wetzel carved out a farm some fourteen miles from the Ohio River.

The Big Wheeling Creek Settlement was sited on the edge of King George’s Proclamation Line of 1763 — redrawn in 1768 by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.  It was a neat trick the Iroquois played on the British, granting to them lands belonging to the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware — none of whom had participated in the negotiation.  The trick, for all of its cleverness, meant that the families of the Big Wheeling Creek settlement became frequent targets of Ohio Indian attacks that lasted well over a period of twenty-five years.

In 1765, 13-year-old Lewis and his younger brother Jacob were working in the field with their father and older brother George.  Uncharacteristically, John and George had left their rifles in the cabin when going to the fields.  This was an incomprehensible mistake because no one left their cabin without arms.  When the mistake was realized, John sent the two younger boys back to the cabin to fetch his rifles.

As Lewis exited the cabin, Jacob right behind him, Wyandot Indians laying in wait fired their rifles.  The rifle ball grazed his chest, causing a painful wound with much blood, but not immediately life threatening.  The Indians quickly seized the boys, took their rifles, and ransacked the cabin for what interested them.  Within a few short minutes, the Indians herded the boys into the forest and began moving rapidly away from the kidnapping site.

John and his son George heard the gunfire and suspected what might have happened, but without weapons, there was nothing either of them could do.  They ran to Fort Henry and alerted the authorities of what they suspected.  With militia and rifles loaned to the Wetzel’s, everyone moved as quickly as they could to establish the Indian track — that would tell them which direction to look.  As it was already growing dark, further effort that day was useless.  They would have to begin looking again the next day.

Kidnapping women and children was common among the Indians — which is not to say that all Indian tribes/bands engaged in such activities.  But among those that did, after taking the captives to their villages, Indians would occasionally subject the young boys to tests of strength and stamina.  Tribal members might adopt into their families those youngsters who proved themselves worthy and resilient.  Anthropologists tell us that many Indian tribes believed in the power of transmutation — a notion suggesting that kidnapped and adopted children could somehow take the place of lost relatives.  The younger these kidnapped children were, the greater likelihood that they would become fully assimilated into the tribe.

Conversely, children who did not prove themselves worthy were punished so severely that they ultimately perished.  If they were not beaten to death, they might have been burned alive or skinned alive.  Older children, those nearing manhood, were in the greatest danger of torture and death, but one never knew what the Indians would do.

Lewis had received a painful gunshot wound, but even at his young age, he knew better than to let his discomfort show, because if he or Jacob faltered along the woodland trail, the Indians would likely kill them.  On the third night of their captivity, the Wyandot apparently believed they were far enough away from the kidnapping site that they could relax their night guard.  Still, to make sure the boys didn’t wander off, the Indians took their shoes.  When the only guard fell asleep by the fire, Lewis stealthily led Jacob from the camp.

 Lewis knew enough to stay away from the regular trails — but doing so meant that in order to make good their escape, the boys would have to traverse across rough land where their feet were subjected to bruising stones, broken sticks, and thorny vegetation.  Lewis realized, too, that without shoes or moccasins, he and Jacob wouldn’t get very far.  Instructing Jacob to remain where he was, and keep completely quiet, Lewis returned to the Indian camp.  He not only liberated his and Jacobs shoes, he also reclaimed his fathers rifles, gun powder, and shot.

They boys went through the forest at night putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their Indian captors.  During the day, they concealed themselves in thick undergrowth and slept.  There was nothing to eat; no water to speak of.  But look for the boys is what the Wyandot did, sending out scouting parties in all directions.  On three separate occasions, Indians ventured close to where the boys were hiding.

All the while, Lewis was in great pain.  Eleven-year-old Jacob did what he could for his older brother with cool soil and saliva compresses.  When they reached the Ohio River, the two boys constructed a makeshift raft and crossed over to a mid-stream island.  On this island, they met some boys from the Wheeling settlements who were fishing.  These boys helped Lewis and Jacob to the settlement where they  were fed, doctored, and from where word was send to their parents.

This incident may have been a titular event in Lewis’ life because upon return to his home, he seemed to have changed.  He was unable to speak as clearly as before and he often seemed befuddled or distracted.  But what he did do was undertake a disciplined regimen of fitness, field craft, and weapons proficiency.  He spent every spare moment improving himself.  He learned to read Indian sign, he became highly proficient with the long rifle — even to the point where he could hit a target if he could see the target.  He also became proficient with knife and tomahawk.  He was quick on his feet, agile, and he learned to re-load and prime his rifle while on the run.  Up until this time, however, to anyone’s knowledge, Lewis had never killed anyone.

When Lewis was 14-years old, John Wetzel sent his son to warn neighbors that Indian war parties were in the area.  En route, Lewis met a neighbor by the name of Frazier Forrest, a young man, recently married, probably around 20 years old.  Forrest was returning to his cabin after a day of hunting.  The two men traveled together to the Forrest cabin, but upon arriving, they found the cabin afire and Forrest’s wife missing.  Without hesitation, Lewis began looking for Indian sign.  Finding it, he led the distraught Frazier in an effort to recapture the young Rose Forrest.

The Indian raiders had a head start on Lewis and Frazier, but lost some of that advantage having to stop and make a raft to cross the Ohio.  Lewis realized that the Indians were headed toward the Ohio River and it was his intention to get there first.  It was a good plan, but it didn’t work out that way.  By the time Lewis and Frazier arrived at the Ohio, their prey had already crossed it.  

Once across the river, Lewis and Frazier found the Indian’s raft and began looking for new sign indicating the direction the Indians had taken.  It began to grow dark and Lewis feared they would have to give up looking that day.  They had almost given up looking further when they smelled the burning wood of a nearby campfire.  Further investigation revealed the campsite of the Indians they were looking for.  They could see that Frazier’s wife Rose was tied to a tree.  

While three Indians slept, a fourth kept guard.  Frazier wanted to attack immediately but Lewis counseled him to wait until sunrise, when the Indians would be groggy and less likely to harm Rose.  Calming himself, Frazier waited with Lewis and kept watch all night.  When the guard changed, they saw that one of the “Indians” was actually a white renegade, although renegade might not have been accurate.  He may have been a kidnapped white child adopted into the tribe.  

As dawn began to break, Lewis and Frazier determined to shoot the first two Indians who got to their feet — this is how the white Indian and one other met their fate.  With tomahawks raised and much yelling, Lewis and Frazier charged the Indian camp; the two remaining Indians ran away leaving their rifles behind.  Frazier went to his wife to release and comfort her, while Lewis pursued the two remaining Indians further.

After running some distance, the two fleeing Indians suddenly stopped and noting that only one white man pursued them, raised their tomahawks and launched a counter-attack.    Lewis raised his rifle and shot one of the remaining two.  The last remaining Indian continued his assault.  Lewis ran but reloading his rifle on the fly and when he was ready, he stopped, turned, and killed the remaining raider.

Following several more years of similar adventures, Lewis Wetzel developed a reputation as Indian fighter in the Ohio Valley.  He may have gone looking for confrontations — I really can’t say that he relished the danger of tangling with Indian that out-numbered him, but neither did he shrink from it.  Modern Americans may not understand the psychology of the hunter — of game and men; if Wetzel was not seeking danger, he at lease seemed at ease confronting it.  There were no “metrosexuals” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  There were only survivors and dead people.

Neither did anyone on the frontier give much thought to driving Indians from the land; nor were they perplexed by it.  To the victor go the spoils.  Frontier families didn’t awaken every morning with a plan to attack Indian villages; they awoke wondering if they were going to survive another day.  Not unreasonably, they wanted land so that they could farm, raise livestock, hunt for available food — all of the things relating to human survival — as free men.  But, of course, the sheer weight of migrating families did push the Indians ever further westward and yet the land occupied by white settlers was land approved for settlement by the government — either British or American.  They did what the government allowed them to do, full stop.

Insofar as the utter disregard people had for each other, the Indians gave no thought to murdering entire families; this was the Indian way of taking care of business.  They treated white settlers no differently than they treated encroaching Indians from other tribes.  But unlike today, frontier families didn’t whine about the loss of family members — they mourned, of course, but it was a short period of shedding tears — they buried the dead and then hunted down and killed the marauders.  That’s how white settlers took care of business.

Some whites did engage in attacking Indian villages — and they were quite ruthless in the doing of it.  Killing is a ruthless business — old people, young people, and everyone in between.  The slaughter of innocents didn’t matter to these highly agitated frontiersmen any more than it mattered to the Indians.  On both sides, whatever went around, came around.  Vengeance killing was common between settlers and Indians because a heinous act that went unanswered had the effect of encouraging more of the same.  The Indians understood vengeance, respected it, anticipated it.  And it is true that genuine hatred did exist between Indians and whites — no one from either side has ever forgotten it.  Among some, the hatred took over their lives.  Lewis Wetzel was one who became consumed by it.

As an adult, Wetzel lived as a woodsman.  He had a small cabin but he never settled on the land; he never farmed.  Some historians tell us that Lewis had a speech impediment of sorts, that he was uncomfortable around others, did not form attachments, never courted a woman.  He did frequent taverns, he played a good fiddle, and he participated in local competitions in shooting, fieldcraft, tomahawk and knife throwing; he won far more of these than he lost.  But Lewis Wetzel wasn’t a normal man — and he made everyone nervous, Indian and settler alike.  He was always keeping tabs on the Indians.  He stalked them, attacked them, took their scalps and collected them.  Normal people didn’t do that, not even in the late 1700s.

He must have thought about what he was doing — because he would hunt and provision several “hideouts,” often caves or narrow and deep ravines where he go disappear for weeks on end.  It is supposed that one of these places exists today in Lancaster, Ohio — it is little more than a cliff overhang in a city park, but I’m not certain how anyone knows that it belonged to Wetzel.

Between 1779 and 1788, Wetzel is said to have collected the scalps of 27 Indians, but some rumors had him killing over a hundred of Indians.  This may not make Wetzel into a depraved psychopath, nor does it discount that possibility.  In 1779, Brigadier General Daniel Brodhead was appointed Commander of the Western Department, which included several frontier forts.

It was at this time that the Wyandot, Ringo, Shawnee, and Lenape tribes ended their neutrality in the American Revolution and allied themselves with the British, all members of the Iroquois Confederacy, whom they controlled and directed from  Fort Detroit.  It fell upon Brodhead to deal with these Indians; he, like the British, formed an Indian alliance with the Oneida and directed Indian raids against the British and their allies.  Brodhead often led these expeditions … including the one in 1781 known to history as the Coshocton Expedition.  

In 1781, it is claimed that he killed an Indian in front of witnesses during Daniel Brodhead’s campaign against the Delaware.  Brodhead, with 150 soldiers and 134 militia surprised and burned the Delaware town of Coshocton; this success was blunted by the militia’s deliberate killing of fifteen Delaware warriors after they had surrendered.  This in turn resulted to the Delaware burning nine captured Kentuckians over nine consecutive days.  

The main result of Brodhead’s campaign was to solidify the Delaware’s hostility toward settlers; after Coshocton, the Delaware tribe rivaled that of the Shawnee in their hatred.  Wetzel’s contribution was the murder of a Delaware chief acting as a peace emissary.  The chief had been invited to the American camp under a safe-conduct pass and had just gotten out of his canoe when Wetzel tomahawked him from behind.  The militiamen under Brodhead were so laudatory of Wetzel’s actions that the general chose to do nothing to punish him.  Wetzel’s act was cowardly; Brodhead’s decision not to punish him was despicable.

When he wasn’t participating in expeditions, Wetzel served as a guide leading land speculators into areas they wanted to claim before governments made them available to the general public — or, in other words, before the Indians had been removed from their traditional lands.  Sometimes, these groups of men attracted attention to themselves — unwanted attention by hostiles.  Wetzel, as an individual, was more than capable of taking care of himself in combat, but some of his companions were not as capable, or as lucky.  While traveling with Wetzel in the spring of 1786, John — the brother of future president James Madison — was killed by Indians along the Little Kanawha River (present day West Virginia).

Over time, Lewis Wetzel became even more eccentric — in his behavior and in his appearance.  People began to wonder if Wetzel was sane.  They were probably just being polite — there was no way Wetzel was sane.

After the American Revolution, the United States had almost no army; the Continental Army had been disbanded, and the entire United States Army had just 55 artillerymen at West Point and an additional 25 artillerymen at Fort Pitt.  For defense, the United States relied on state militias that state governors preferred not to serve outside their states.  To enforce the United States claims on the “Old Northwest” territory, Congress had called for a federal regiment of about 700 men.  The cost of this regiment, the First American Regiment, would be proportioned between Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.  Since most of the men came from Pennsylvania, that state was allowed to choose the regimental commander.  Thomas Mifflin, a powerful politician, pushed for his friend Josiah Harmar to command, which he did.

Harmar was known as a strict disciplinarian — with harsh punishments for dirty uniforms or rusty weapons, but of course it was his task to transform farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights into efficient soldiers.  While at Fort Harmar (named for himself), Colonel Harmar hired Lewis Wetzel as his chief scout and hunter.  Ironically, the purpose of Fort Harmar was to protect the Delaware Indians from white settlers.    

In 1788, Josiah Harmar had been working toward a peace treaty with the Seneca.  As before, when Chief Tgunteh approached Fort Harmar, Wetzel murdered him in cold blood — but Tgunteh lived long enough to describe Wetzel to others, which is when Wetzel’s troubles began in earnest.  Colonel Harmar charged him with murder and swore out a warrant for Wetzel’s arrest.  An army patrol captured him not long after while encamped on an island in the Ohio River near Marietta.  He later escaped wearing hand irons but with many friends sharing his sentiments toward the Indians, he was soon rid of them.

Wetzel was captured a second time by a group of regular army troops traveling in civilian clothes.  When they recognized him, they took him into custody and transported him under guard to Fort Washington and confined him in the guardhouse pending trial.  When word leaked out that Wetzel was in custody, 200 frontiersmen gathered outside the fort and demanded his release.  If the army would not release Wetzel, they threatened, these ruffians would go in and get him out by force.  This issue was resolved when Territorial Judge John Symmes released Wetzel on his own recognizance but a trial was never scheduled.

Despite the efforts of people like Wetzel to keep hostility going with the Indians, peace of a sort finally did come to the Ohio country in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville.  The Greenville treaty established a new boundary line between American settlers and the Indian nations that ran northward from the Ohio River.  When Indian attacks abated in the Ohio River area, Wetzel’s star faded and he drifted southwestward to Spanish territory.

As we might expect, Lewis didn’t stay out of trouble in Louisiana.  He spent several years in prison in the 1790s — some say because he became involved with a Spanish officer’s lady, but it is more likely it had something to do with counterfeiting.  We are told that Wetzel joined the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804 as a hunter and scout but lasted only a few months.  Whether he was let go or withdrew is unknown because there is no record of Lewis Wetzel in any of the expedition records.  For now, the story must remain, at best, unconfirmed — but his name does appear in records in Natchez, Mississippi and it was while living with his cousin Philip Sykes that he passed on in 1808, aged 45 years.

In his own day, Lewis Wetzel was a local hero; modernists, with their very different standards and rose-colored glasses, view him as a murdering psychopath — and they could be right about that.  We can disagree with what he did from the comfort of our modern homes, but we should at least recall that were it not for men like Wetzel, who fought the Indian on his own terms, we might not today have our nice modern homes and our manicured gardens.

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Dog Soldiers

Violent conflict didn’t suddenly manifest itself upon native people at the moment Europeans arrived in the Americas.  Native Americans (Indians) have been at war with one another for thousands of years before the white man appeared, and if you happened to have spoken with any modern-day Indians, then you know that tribal groups continue to regard one another with caustic disdain.  When European settlers first arrived, they found a stone-aged people who marveled at their technologies, but beyond using such things as fire sticks on whites and other Indians, they had little interest in modernization until it was forced upon them.

There are presently 574 federally recognized Indian “nations,” which are variously referred to as tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, and villages.  The word “nation” and “tribe” are synonymous.  Indian bands, however, are subsets of tribes.  The words band, clan, and village also have identical meanings.  Anthropologists tell us that it was common among stone age people to limit the size of their social groups, necessary as a tool for being able to house, feed, and/or control the group.  Variously, tribal bands usually consisted of from 40 to 50 people.  Whenever the population grew beyond that, which is to say that whenever the birth rate exceeded the death rate, clan or band members were sent away to form new groups of their own.

The work of Indian men was to hunt for meat and protect the village.  Indians often had polygamous relationships which resulted in relatively high birth rates, but infant mortality rates were also high — which might explain polygamy.  The traditional role of women (also, squaw) was birthing, raising children, cooking, making or mending clothes, gathering firewood, hauling water, and tending to agricultural interests.  There was nothing easy about living in the wilderness, sheltered by little more than leather tents, or having to depend on migrating herds of animals as a food staple.

The leadership within these structures included the so-called chiefs, of which there were often several.  One perhaps, with domestic responsibilities, another to organize and lead hunting parties, and another to lead war parties.  Indian leaders were chosen within a governing council of elders; a head chief presumably led this council.  There were also influential medicine men or women whose wisdom and influence often rivaled those of the tribal or clan chiefs.  Together, Indian leaders supervised activities that achieved the will of the council of elders, maintained traditions, made judicial determinations.

The role of the war chief may seem self-evident, but it is important to note that there was no fixed territory for Indian groupings.  They were stone-age people; they were hunters and gatherers.  Indian tribes followed their migratory sources of food.  They did not respect the claims of other tribes — and if the survival of the tribe depended on taking control of another tribes’ territory — so be it.

There was also no obligation for any male Indian to comply with any ruling of the tribal council or any chief.  The Indian brave was independent-minded; he had no moral obligation to do anything that he didn’t want to do.  A war chief, for example, could not force any brave to join a war party; it was more on the order of young men wanting to join the war party as a demonstration of his manliness and his courage.  On the other hand, if an Indian brave believed that his chief was weak, unwise, or dishonest, he was free to challenge the chief, free to pursue a separate agenda.  The only consequence imposed on an Indian brave who did not wish to participate in various tribal activities was that he (and his women, if he had any) had to leave the band.  Tribal exile was the primary consequence of male independence and it was understood by everyone from a young age. 

Within this (general) structure, American Indians farmed, hunted, and raised their families.  Relatively speaking, native American populations were small — fewer than one person per square mile, overall— but competing tribes would still encounter one another.  It may have been for trade or celebration, or it may have been to right a wrong.  Conflict might involve something as important as establishing territorial dominance, protecting hunting grounds, or the theft of a horse.  Once these conflicts began, no matter what the reason, they could (and often did) last for decades.

Survival of weaker tribes often led to the formation of confederations — doing so was quite often the only way they could defend themselves from dominant/stronger tribes.  There are numerous examples of these coalitions in every Indian region of North America.  The Arikara, for example, joined with the Mandan to confront their common enemy, the Sioux.  In this vein, some Indian bands accepted white settlers as potential allies, while other Indian groups viewed the whiles as interlopers.  Friendliness with whites was another source of conflict among Indian tribes/bands.

The Cheyenne

The Cheyenne nation originally consisted of two tribes: the Suhtai and Tsitsista.    In the early 1600s, Cheyenne people inhabited an area that extended from present-day Minnesota to Colorado.  Suhtai and Tsitsista groups merged in the eighteenth century — possibly to strengthen the Cheyenne against other powerful Indian groups.  But if there is one thing we can say with certainty about the American Indians, it is that they lived in harmony within their natural environments.

The distribution of Indian groups was always governed by the availability of food sources needed to sustain them.  When tribal groups realized that their increased population produced a greater demand for wild game than was available to them, tribal bands split off into smaller groups and found settlement areas where food sources were more readily available — where the balance of nature could be restored.  In the nineteenth century, the Cheyenne once again split into two groups.  Today we refer to the Cheyenne as belonging to either the Northern or Southern Cheyenne tribal groups.

Meanwhile, back east, the arrival of Europeans produced several effects upon Indian populations; the first and greatest of which may have been the disturbance of the natural balance in nature.  Suddenly, there were more human beings hunting for limited numbers of wild game as food sources.  The choices available to native populations in dealing with this sudden influx of European settlers were limited.

There were, at least initially, sincere attempts by some Indian groups to find ways of living peacefully alongside white settlers — but over time, the numbers of European arrivals defeated these efforts.  Simply stated, there evolved too many humans looking for limited numbers of wild animals as sources of food.  Indian options were reduced to only two: they could resist white encroachment (and many did resist), or they could withdraw further west away from white settlements.  Both of these options produced unimaginable hostility: the Indians either fought with Europeans, or they tangled with Indian groups already occupying the western territories.  In either case and on both sides of the issue, it became a quest for survival.

Western migration was never an easy matter for eastern tribes — and no matter how they finally resolved the problem, doing so demanded cultural changes that are always difficult to achieve.  Westward moving tribal groups either gave up their identity to join western tribes and bands, or they maintained their identity by forming mutually beneficial confederations — accommodations through which splintered groups could stand up to larger, more powerful, western Indian tribes.

As an example of the foregoing, the Cheyenne were variously allied with the Lakota Sioux, and at war with them.  After migrating west into the Dakotas, the Cheyenne adopted the horse culture of the Comanche.  Anthropologists believe that it may have been the Cheyenne who introduced horse mobility to the Sioux.  Cheyenne power and dominance pushed out the less-populated Kiowa, a people who ended up allying themselves with the Comanche.  The Cheyenne were themselves forced into westward migration because of the eventual strength of the Sioux.  At one time, the Cheyenne tribe included ten separate bands — all of which regularly fought with neighboring Crow, Blackfeet, Sioux, Kiowa, and ultimately, with the U. S. Army.  The Southern Cheyenne eventually merged with the Southern Arapaho.  Initially, Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho groups were somewhat ambivalent about the arrival of white settlers; the Northern Cheyenne less so.

The Dog Soldiers

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers (also, Dog Men) were one of six military societies.  In the 1830s, the Dog Men evolved into a distinctive warrior band who fiercely resisted the westward expansion of whites into Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming.  This was their territory and they had every intention of defending it.

Before the peace council at Bent’s Fort in 1840, the Algonquian-speaking Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were allied against the Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains Apache.  There were no cultural or linguistic ties between these groups.  In fact, the hostility that existed between these groups was so palpable that someone from the Southern Cheyenne might have observed that the only good Comanche is a dead Comanche.

In 1837, 48 members of the Southern Cheyenne bowstring society [Note 1] were caught trying to steal horses from the Comanche/Kiowa near the Red River.  Stealing horses is what Indians did back then, and it was great fun — unless (or until) they were discovered.  In this case, all 48 warriors were either killed outright by their Comanche/Kiowa enemy, or they were later tortured to death, which was yet another Indian proficiency.

In 1837, Porcupine Bear was chief of the Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldier society.  In response to the Comanche/Kiowa killing of members of his society, he lit the war pipe and drummed up support from other Cheyenne and Arapaho villages for revenge against their enemy.  With his force assembled, Porcupine Bear moved to an encampment adjacent to the South Platte River.  Along the way, his war party encountered a trading group of the American Fur Company operating out of Fort Laramie.  What interested Porcupine Bear most in this encounter was the white man’s firewater.  Later, while encamped, Porcupine Bear engaged in a copious amount of drinking (along with everyone else) and, Indians being fun-loving guys, two of them managed to get into a knife fight.  

Both contestants in this fight were cousins of Porcupine Bear.  When one of the cousins got the better of the other, the brave on the losing side of the evening’s entertainment called for help.  Porcupine Bear intervened, and in the process of helping, killed one of the cousins.  We don’t know which one was killed, of course, but the killing was bad juju among the Cheyenne.  Any brave who murdered or accidentally killed another member of the tribe was stained with blood — and no matter what his station was within the tribe, the murderer was expelled from tribal society.

Porcupine Bear’s punishment was dismissal as a chief within the society of Dog Men.  He and his relatives were thereafter shunned by the Cheyenne.  The second consequence of Porcupine Bear’s drunken behavior was that the Cheyenne high chiefs forbade any expedition against the Kiowa.  However, Porcupine Bear was a prideful man and remained steadfast in his desire for revenge.  Despite being tossed out of the tribe, he reorganized his bowstring group and recruited additional warriors who found no fault in his killing of a miscreant cousin.  It was the Southern Cheyenne’s rejection of Porcupine Bear that led to the transformation of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier.  Henceforth, the society would no longer operate as a loose society of warriors — it instead became a distinct military band within the Cheyenne nation.

Wherever white settlers went, they took with them their advanced technology — which included a superior collection of weapons dangerous to Indian populations.  But no modern weapon was more dangerous to the American Indian, however, than the white man’s diseases: cholera, smallpox, measles, chickenpox, and gonorrhea.  Within roughly twelve months (1848-49), nearly half of the Southern Cheyenne died from infectious diseases passed along to them through their contact with white settlers.

As a consequence of the epidemic, many Southern Cheyenne survivors joined Porcupine Bear’s Dog Men, which transformed the Dog Men society into an influential, powerful, lethal, and dominant Cheyenne band.  In effect, the Dog Soldiers became the hawkish arm of the Cheyenne and it led tribal elders to dispense with their traditional matrilineal social system [Note 2].  No longer did recently married men join their wives’ clans.  Instead, young warriors took their wives into the Dog Soldier camp.  One further development expanded the Dog Soldier’s population even more.  After Colonel John Chivington and the 3rd Colorado Cavalry massacred large numbers of non-combatants of the Wutapai, Hevhaitaniu, Oivimana, and Hisiometranio clans (known as the Sand Creek Massacre), surviving clan members joined the Dog Soldiers in droves.

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers occupied the territory between the Northern and what remained of the Southern Cheyenne groups, an area extending from the headwaters of the Republican and Smokey Hill rivers in southern Nebraska to northern Kansas, and northeast Colorado territories [Note 3].  The Dog Soldiers allied themselves with the Lakota and Brulé Sioux.  In time, the Cheyenne began to intermarry with the Sioux — which in time produced young men with familial ties to both tribes.  Many Dog Soldiers were half-Sioux, including noted leaders Tall Bull and White Horse, both of whom invited the Northern Cheyenne war chief Roman Nose [Note 4] to lead Dog Soldier strikes against white civilian and military settlements.

Cheyenne and Sioux war chiefs repudiated those among them who urged peace with the white-eyes.  They were hawkishly anti-white.  The last thing a white farmer would want to see at sunrise was a war party of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers peering down at him from an overlooking bluff.  No matter what followed would be pleasant for the farmer.  The Dog Soldier was highly aggressive, completely ruthless, and deadly efficient in the art of war.

Among those of us today who cannot imagine what it was like living on the hostile frontier in the mid-late 1800s, Mr. S. P. Elkins’ journal may help fill in the gaps to our understanding about life on the Great Plains:

“Those that were on the frontier had much to endure.  They did not know at what time they were going to be killed by the Indians, so they had to do the best they could.  The ranches had stockades built around the houses and would have portholes cut on all sides of the house so when the Indian attacked them, they could protect themselves and their families.”  [Note 5]

“When a man left his family he didn’t know whether he would find them alive when he returned.  There was a family killed in 1870 in Brown County, I have forgotten the name; the man was in the woods making rails when he heard his family screaming and he started to them.  He saw the house surrounded by Indians.  He had to stand and hear them scream their last screams because he had no arms with him, as he thought of no danger on leaving home.  The whole family was killed, the children’s brains knocked out.”

“The people in those days had something to think of.  There were no neighbors near to lend a helping hand.  Some places where the neighbors were close enough they would have preaching, maybe once a month.  Everybody went armed all the time.  The men wore their pistols the same as their clothes.  They would take their families and go to a meeting, take their guns along and stack them in one corner of the house until after the meeting.  They were glad to see each other and would shake hands when they met, and also when they parted, thinking maybe for the last time.  When a stranger came about, he was welcomed in and made to feel at home, no charges, glad to see anyone.”

“When a man left his family he didn’t know whether he would find them alive when he returned.  There was a family killed in 1870 in Brown County, I have forgotten the name; the man was in the woods making rails when he heard his family screaming and he started to them.  He saw the house surrounded by Indians.  He had to stand and hear them scream their last screams because he had no arms with him, as he thought of no danger on leaving home.  The whole family was killed, the children’s brains knocked out.”

While native Americans didn’t understand the American Civil War, that didn’t prevent them from taking advantage of the withdrawal of Army troops from the western territories.  What the Indians did understand is that white settlers no longer had Army protection.  The Army’s withdrawal from the West was a de facto death warrant for many white settlers.

In time, Cheyenne Dog Soldier bands — being far less tolerant of white encroachments, became estranged from Northern and Southern Cheyenne tribal councils — their militarism providing a substantial counter-weight to the Cheyenne tribal council’s leadership position, which favored finding a common ground with the whites.  It is likely that most US officials did not know who they were dealing with (standard Cheyenne tribal groups, or Dog Soldiers) whenever they attempted to arrange treaties — although, in fairness, history seems to prove the Dog Soldiers’ distrust of American officials was justified.  As principled men, Dog Soldier leaders refused to sign any treaty that limited their hunting grounds or restricted their movements to government reservations.  The campaigns of General Philip Sheridan frustrated these efforts, of course, and after the battle of Beecher’s Island [Note 6], many of the Dog Soldiers retreated south of the Arkansas River.

Between 1866-68, renewed conflicts developed in Wyoming between the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho on one side, and the United States Army on the other.  This series of engagements is remembered today as Red Cloud’s War, the Bozeman War, and the Powder River War — which, while comparatively small engagements, were extremely deadly.  The largest of these was the Fetterman Fight [Note 7].  Fetterman was also the worst US defeat against native Americans (with 81 Americans killed) until the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.   The area of these battles, by tradition and the Treaty of 1851) were Crow Indian lands; the Lakota Sioux seized the territory for their use in violation of an agreement signed by Red Cloud himself [Note 8].

In the summer and fall of 1868, Cheyenne and Arapaho continued their raiding activities between the Arkansas and Platte rivers — which was also the best area for buffalo hunting.  The memory of the Sand Creek massacre [Note 9] was fresh on the Indian’s minds, and the icing on that cake was the westward movement of the railroad, which facilitated the arrival of even more white settlers.  Whether the Indians realized it or not, many Americans back east sympathized with their situation, particularly after it was revealed that Major General Winfield Hancock burned down Cheyenne villages as a strategy to force the Cheyenne into compliance with his policies.

Major General Sheridan replaced Hancock as Commanding General, Department of Missouri.  Sheridan moved against the Cheyenne after repeated Indian raids on farms, ranches, way stations, and travel routes resulted in the deaths of 79 white settlers.  Sheridan concentrated his effort in areas south of the Arkansas River during the winter campaign season, but he also remained active in patrolling the Arkansas River, and the areas between the Republican and Smokey Hill rivers.

Generally, the Cheyenne fought their battles over widely scattered areas with small bands of warriors (usually between 25-50 warriors).  The size of Sheridan’s military force was insufficient to patrol such a large area, which led him to develop a plan to raise a company of fifty frontiersmen for service as scouts against the Cheyenne.  The scouts were assigned “search and destroy” missions; they ostensibly sought out “hostile” bands.  That would have included nearly every Indian group in the region of Wyoming and Colorado.  Major George Alexander Forsyth was appointed to command these frontier scouts, assisted by First Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher [Note 10].

On 10 September 1868, Cheyenne Dog Men attacked a freighter’s train 13-miles east of Fort Wallace.  Forsyth led his company to investigate the incident and determined that the war party consisted of an estimated 25 hostiles.  Forsyth tracked the Indians to a dry fork on the Republican River, arriving on 16 September, and made camp along the South bank of the river.  Unknown to Major Forsyth, his bivouac was approximately 12-15 miles downstream from a large Lakota village, another medium-sized village of Dog Soldiers, and a few lodges of Arapaho.  Also unknown to Forsyth was the fact that the Indians were aware of his presence.

Forsyth was known for having a sixth sense of danger.  Early on 17 September, Forsyth believed something was amiss.  He accordingly reconnoitered his immediate defensive areas and, while doing so, spotted the silhouette of an Indian against the skyline near the place where the Army’s horses were tethered.  Forsyth’s well-aimed shot killed the Indian and spooked his companions, who were attempting to steal the Army’s horses.  Forsyth’s scouts moved quickly to prevent the loss of their animals, suffering only the loss of a few pack mules.  Stealing Forsyth’s horses was part of Chief Roman Nose’s plan to surround and overwhelm the white soldiers. Forsyth’s keen eye foiled the Indian’s surprise attempts.

Seeing no escape from an overwhelming number of hostiles, Forsyth ordered his men to take cover on a sand bar in the middle of the Arikaree River.  The number of hostiles involved in this engagement depends on who is telling the story.  Estimates of the number of hostiles range between two-hundred and a thousand.  Forsyth’s Spencer rifles staggered the Indian’s initial assault and prompted the Sioux and Cheyenne to re-think their plan of attack.  On the first day, the Cheyenne used several strategies for dislodging Forsyth’s scouts, including a direct assault on horseback, a double envelopment, a low crawl through tall grass, sniper fire, and fanatical assaults from all directions.

Chief Roman Nose was fatally wounded in one of these engagements and the number of Indian fatalities was substantial.  At the end of the first day, Forsyth lost Lieutenant Beecher and three others with fifteen soldiers wounded — including Forsyth.  Before dawn on the second day, Forsyth asked for volunteers to go to Fort Wallace for relief — seventy miles distant.  Simpson E. “Jack” Stilwell [Note 11] volunteered to go for help and selected Pierre Trudeau to accompany him.  The two scouts low crawled for three miles to avoid being spotted by the Cheyenne.  After four days, taking cover during daylight hours, Stilwell and Trudeau reached Fort Wallace and requested reinforcements for the Forsyth Expedition.

The relief force departed Fort Wallace in three separate columns.  Lieutenant Colonel Louis H. Carpenter [Note 12] led Troop H and Troop I of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers), with Captain Baldwin serving as second in command.  Major Brisbin led two squadrons of the 2nd Cavalry over a different route. Captain Bankhead departed Fort Wallace with 100 men of the US 5th Infantry, taking the third route.

Carpenter’s force relieved Forsyth on 25 September.  Forsyth had two serious wounds.  The battle site was littered with the rotting carcasses of fifty horses and millions of black, biting flies.  Carpenter immediately implemented good field procedures, erected tents away from the stench for the wounded, assigned burial details, and planned for the withdrawal of Forsyth and his surviving scouts on 27 September.  One officer serving under Carpenter opined that Forsyth’s fight may have been the greatest battle ever fought on the American plain.  The officer making this comment was George Armstrong Custer.  The Cheyenne remembered the battle as ‘The fight when Roman Nose was killed.’  In the larger view of the Plains Indian Wars, the Battle of Beecher’s Island was of minor significance to everyone except those who fought it.

In the spring of 1867, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers returned north to join Red Cloud on the Powder River.  After being attacked by General Eugene Asa Carr (1830-1910) [Note 13], the Dog Soldiers began a series of revenge attacks on settlements in the area of Smokey Hill River, but the Army was stepping up its search and destroy missions and confronted the Cheyenne at every opportunity.  After raiding in Kansas, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers came under attack by Major Frank J. North and his Pawnee Indian Scouts.  Of an estimated 450 Cheyenne in one war party, Major North killed 35 hostiles, including Chief Tall Bull, and took 17 prisoners.  Cheyenne Dog Soldiers never recovered from the loss of Tall Bull, Roman Nose, and Black Kettle and their threat to the Great Plains settlements was permanently diminished [Note 14].

In 1995, Hollywood produced a fictional tale about Cheyenne Dog Soldiers entitled Last of the Dogmen.  The film starred Tom Berenger and Barbara Hershey and native American actor Steve Reevis.  The action takes place in the mountains of Montana near the Idaho/Canadian borders.  While hunting for escaped convicts, Berenger’s character discovers a small band of Cheyenne that had been hiding out in an isolated region of the Northwest since the end of the Indian Wars.  Fiction, as I said —  but entertaining.


  1. Berthrong, D. J.  The Southern Cheyenne.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963
  2. Bourke, J. G.  Mackenzie’s Last Fight with the Cheyenne.  New York: Argonaut Press, 1966.
  3. Dixon, D.  Hero of Beecher Island: The Life and Military Career of George A. Forsyth.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  4. Goodnight, C. And others.  Pioneer Days in the Southwest: From 1850-1879.  1909
  5. Grinnell, G. B.  The Fighting Cheyenne.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. 
  6. Monnett, J. H.  The Battle of Beecher Island and the Indian War of 1867-1869.  Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1994.
  7. Yenne, B.  Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West.  Yardley: Wetholme Publishing, 2005.


[1] There were (and are) seven (7) Cheyenne military societies: Fox, Elk, Shield, Bowstring, Dog, Contrary, and Warrior Women — several of which changed their names as a reflection of shifts in how they viewed themselves.  Cheyenne of the bowstring society also referred to themselves as Owl Men, Wolf Warriors, and Crazy Dogs.  Within the Northern Cheyenne, the Dog Men society merged with the Wolf Warriors.  In all likelihood, these name changes reflected the personalities of social leaders.

[2] A matrilineal social system is a system of kinship in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal, rather than paternal lines.  On the surface, it may appear to be a minor shift, but it is actually quite important because familial influence, marriage, postmarital residence, and rules that prohibit sexual relations between certain categories of kinship, descent, and terms used to label kin are all affected.  Matrilineal societies are often associated with group (polygamous) marriages where men have somewhat ambiguous roles and dual loyalties.  The formation of the Dog Soldiers in Cheyenne culture change this.

[3]  The territory of Kansas (1854-1861) extended from the Missouri border west to the summit of the Rocky Mountains, and from the 37th to the 40th parallel, north.  Much of present-day Colorado was part of the Kansas Territory.

[4]  Not to be confused with Henry Roman Nose, this Indian, also known as Roman Nose (also, Hook Nose) lived from around 1823 to 1868.  In the Cheyenne language, he was known as Woquini.  He was one of the most influential warriors of the Plains Indians War in the 1860s.  Roman Nose thought of himself invulnerable to injury in combat.  He was so fierce, so prominent, that U. S. Military leaders mistook him as the chief of the entire Cheyenne nation.

[5] Mr. Elkins doesn’t waste our time with suggestions about what might happen; he speaks to in terms of WHEN it happens.

[6]  So-named in honor of Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, who was killed during the battle.

[7]  Captain William J. Fetterman (1833-1866) was the son of Lieutenant George Fetterman (West Point Class of 1827).  George resigned his commission a year after the death of his wife in 1835.  William Fetterman joined the Union Army during the Civil War; he was twice brevetted for bravery in combat and advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel of U. S. volunteers.  After the war, Fetterman transferred to the regular army in the grade of captain, U. S. infantry.  Fetterman was everything undesirable in a combat leader.  He was insufferably arrogant, boastful, over-confident, dismissive of the fighting skill of the Indian, and foolishly let his men to their death.  In my opinion, there was little difference between the ineptness displayed by Fetterman and Custer.

[8] Much is written about the propensity of US officials violating treaties and agreements with native Americans — which is altogether true, but in fairness to both sides, the Indians violated as many treaties as did US officials.

[9] The Sand Creek Massacre (also Chivington massacre) occurred on 29 November 1864 when a 700-manned expedition of the Third US Cavalry descended upon a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, killing up to 500 people, two-thirds of whom were women, children, and elderly men.  

[10]  Beecher, Infantry, was a decorated veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg.

[11] “Comanche Jack” Stilwell (1850-1903) was one of Forsyth’s scouts who also served as a lawman and judge in the Old West.  He was the older brother of Frank Stilwell, a member of the Cochise County Cowboys who participated in the assassination of Morgan Earp in Tombstone, Arizona on 18 March 1882.  Stilwell was shot and killed by Wyatt Earp on 20 March 1882.

[12]  Colonel (later Brigadier General) Carpenter (1829-1916) was a Civil War veteran of 14 campaigns while assigned to the 6th U. S. Cavalry.  While in command of the 10th U. S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars, Carpenter was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallant and meritorious conduct.

[13] General Carr was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry and distinctive service at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas on 7 March 1862.  Even though severally wounded, (then) Colonel Carr held his position against an overwhelming enemy force.

[14] As a Cheyenne society, the Dog Men/Soldiers continue to exist today.  Something to think about before deciding not to purchase trinkets from the trading posts in Wyoming and Colorado, offering genuine Indian artifacts made in China :-).  In 2015, the US population of Cheyenne Indians numbers approximately 12,000; 25% of these men and women speak the Cheyenne language.   

Posted in American Indians, Cheyenne, Civil War, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Kansas, Minnesota, Pioneers | 2 Comments

Miss Catherine’s Boys

Some Background

Between 1620 and 1775, nearly two-thirds of all European immigrants to the American colonies arrived under indentures.  An indenture is a legal contract between two parties for either labor or an apprenticeship.  An individual interested in indenturing themselves for the cost of transportation to the Americas would in some cases make such an arrangement through a ship’s captain, who upon arrival in an American port, would sell the contract to someone looking for cheap labor, either in agricultural work, as apprentices, or as domestic servants.

In the British colonies, an immigrant contracted (agreed) to serve a period of specified labor in exchange for the cost of transportation to the colonies.  A period of indenture depended on the costs of transportation, generally ranging between 3 and 7 years.  Although indenture usually involved immigrant men, the number of female indentures increased after 1815.

Human immigration often involves what historians refer to as “push-pull” factors.  Something pushed people out of their homelands (war, famine, disease), and/or something pulled them toward the new land (freedom, economic opportunity/land acquisition).  Indentured servitude was one method immigrants used to pay the cost of transportation to the Americas, particularly during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) when up to 85% of emigrating Irishmen and women went to the United States.

The Challenges of History

In the absence of concrete evidence — the written record, or overwhelming archeological data — then it is impossible to know with certitude what transpired, when it transpired, or the identities of those involved.  Written records by themselves are insufficient, because — as it is often said — whenever a lion writes history, it’s hunter is never the hero.  What written records give us is veracity about events and prominent actors in those events.  If we do not know what transpired in earlier times, it is either because there are no written records of people, places, or events, or because if such records do exist, they remain undiscovered.

It is impossible to complete a history puzzle when pieces are missing.  When pieces are missing, the best any historian can do is offer stipulated or tentative conclusions about  the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of events.  Under such circumstances, a historian may propose one or more possibilities about events, and persons — all of which are inconclusive.

In cases of inferred events and interconnected relationships, all we end up with is a broad brush of something we know did happen, without the capacity for stating unequivocally, this is what we know did happen.  I am looking for Catherine (Divine) (Bonney) McCarty and her offspring.

About Miss Catherine

Catherine was an Irish lady who migrated to the United States from Liverpool, England.  Seventeen-year-old Catherine McCarty arrived in New York on 9 April 1846 aboard the US ship Devonshire [Note 1].  Subsequent census records reflect that she was born in 1829, corroborated by her obituary in 1874 stating that at the time of her death, she was 45-years of age.  The census of 1860 identifies Catherine’s husband as Patrick McCarty [Note 2] and that this couple had two children.  Since there is no record in New York of a marriage between Patrick McCarty, or Michael Patrick Henry McCarty and Catherine (Devine/Bonney), it is plausible to assume that Patrick and Catherine (members of the Roman Catholic Church) were married in Ireland before immigration to the United States.

Ancestry records reflect that Catherine gave birth to three children.  Bridget McCarty was born in 1853 [Note 3]; William Henry [Note 4] was born in 1859; Joseph (no middle name) was born in 1863.

Some accounts of Catherine’s life suggest that Michael Patrick Henry McCarty either died or absented himself from his marriage with Catherine around 1872.  Either situation is plausible, of course, but even without a record of his death it is unlikely that he abandoned his wife and children [Note 5].

I leave it to the reader free to form his or her own conclusion; mine is that Catherine (Divine) (Bonney) (b. 1829) married Michael Patrick Henry McCarty (b. 1830) and that they produced three children: Bridget (1853), William (1859), and Joseph (1863).  Michael Patrick is likely to have passed away between 1864-1867.  As we hear no more about Bridget after 1860, I assume that she passed away some time between 1860-1867.

In 1867, 37-year old Catherine and her sons William and Joseph turned up in Indianapolis, Indiana.  She is said to have resided at 199 N. East Street.

One unhappy fact about early American society is that it has never been kind to the ladies.  Society’s expectation was that young ladies married, they had children, they stayed home to care for them, and they lived happily ever-after.  But in 1870 the median life expectancy for men and women was between 40-45 years.  Women always faced the possibility of losing their husbands (through death or abandonment), who earned the money to buy food and pay the rent.  On such occasions, the ladies had few options available to them.

In 1867, if a young widow could find a man of means who was willing to take in her children, then she might remarry, but there were not many men of means in the mid-1800s, and fewer still who were willing to saddle themselves with someone else’s children.  To make ends meet, a widow might find domestic work and struggle in raising her children as a single parent [Note 6].  A widow might also drop her children off at an orphanage and be done with them.  Without children, a widow’s future prospects improved — or she migrated toward one of the unseemly vocations of the time. 

Catherine kept her children.  For whatever reason, she moved them to the mid-west, where she met William Henry Harrison Antrim (1842-1922) [Note 7].  Mr. Antrim was a day laborer and a gambler.  At the time, William Henry would have been about 8 or 9 years old, and Joseph around 4 or 5.  After taking up with Mr. Antrim, who called himself Billy, Catherine began referring to her son Billy by his middle name, Henry.

In 1870, Catherine, William, and the boys relocated to Wichita, Kansas — which tends to support the proposition that William was a gambler.  Because Wichita was a rough and dangerous town and not at all suitable for raising two young boys, Catherine and William moved again a short time later to Colorado where, apparently, Catherine became aware of her illness, diagnosed as consumption.  On medical advice, the family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where they were married in 1873.  In search of an even dryer climate, they moved again — this time to Silver City, where William Antrim engaged in prospecting and Catherine supported the family once more by doing laundry and  baking bread and pies.

Some sources describe Catherine as a jolly Irishwoman who always maintained a bright outlook on life.  According to Ash Upson [Note 8], Catherine Antrim was courteous, kind, and benevolent.  William Antrim called her Kathleen.  She was of medium height, held a straight posture, and had a graceful form.  She had light blue eyes, luxuriant bolden hair, but was no real beauty — simply a handsome woman well-known for her charity and good heart.  She was most of all, Upson said, a real lady.  Her sons were “normal boys,” no more of a problem than most.

After Catherine’s death, her neighbors remembered her with fondness.  They described her as having an outgoing personality and a love for dancing, which she passed along to her eldest son William Henry.  Catherine maintained an orderly home and, when compared to other families in and around Silver City, many of whom lived in tents and mining camps outside of town, the Antrim residence was a real home to Catherine and her children.

In her final days, Catherine was bed-ridden.  When Mr. Antrim wasn’t out prospecting, he was gambling in local saloons.  Antrim’s detachment from the family and his inability to produce a worthwhile income required that Catherine double her efforts.  Eventually, with the stress of keeping the family’s finance in order, her illness began taking its toll.  As she grew weaker, a neighbor and friend named Clara Truesdell, a trained nurse and the mother of one of William Henry’s friends, helped to care for Catherine and watch over the children.  Antrim was steadfast in his failure to support his wife or the boys.  Concerned about what would happen to her sons when she passed on — as she knew she soon would — Clara gave comfort by promising to look after the two boys.  For his part, William Henry sat with his dying mother in the evenings, for hours at a time, and did what he could to comfort her.  After four months of worsening sickness, Catherine (Devine) (Bonney) McCarty Antrim passed away on 16 September 1874.  William Henry was 15 years old — Joe was 11.

No one could find William Antrim to notify him about the death of his wife.  Clara Truesdell prepared Catherine’s body for internment.  Neighbor David Abraham made her a coffin; David’s son dug her grave, and the people who knew her best attended her funeral service at the Antrim cabin.  Still, William Antrim was no where to be found.

When Antrim did finally appear, it was only long enough to sell the cabin, place the boys in the care of guardians, and leave town.  When Catherine died, Clara became William Henry’s guardian of sorts — as William (once more calling himself Billy) found work at Sara Brown’s boarding house.  Before leaving town, Antrim placed Joseph with Mr. John Dryer, the owner of the Orleans Club.  Joe worked for his keep as an errand boy.  The ironic part of this story is that before William Antrim gave up his favorite of the two boys to John Dryer, Joe had begun calling himself Joseph Antrim.

William Henry McCarty/William H. Bonney

Our information about what it was like inside the Antrim household is at best sketchy.  We know Catherine earned money by washing clothes and baking and selling pies, and it is likely she did these things until she was no longer able — when she became very ill — and when she did, it was Billy who took care of her.

At age 12, Billy had sandy blond hair, clear blue eyes, a light complexion, and a baby face.  He was of average size, lanky, and had unusually small hands.  Although his mother and step-father called him Henry, he preferred the name Billy, which is also what his friends called him.

After moving to Silver City, Billy became the target of bullies in school.  This is what bullies do — they pick on the new kids.  While Billy was a gangly lad, he was also feisty and never backed down from a school-yard fight.  If he couldn’t best a bully, he would always find a way to even the score.  Billy could read and write, displayed an interest in art and music, and he was known for his politeness when around adults.  Of her two sons, Catherine showed a preference for Billy.  Antrim favored Joe and had little use for Billy — and the feeling was mutual.  It was a situation that may have contributed to Billy and Joe’s estrangement.

The boy who grew up to become the outlaw Billy the Kid was, by every account, a normal young man whose life was shaped and then twisted by the tragedy of his mother’s death.  In the face of such adversity, Billy had few options.

Henry’s first brush with the law (that we know about) was when he was caught stealing food — a pound of butter, which he then tried to sell.  No one knows why Henry took the butter.  It didn’t make any sense; he was a polite young man.  But then few adults understand why youngsters do foolish things.  Did he need the money?  Could Billy have found a job around town?  Was he acting out the pain and the anger associated with his mother’s loss?  We can’t know the answers to these questions.  We do not know what he could do to earn money, or if even anyone was in the market for a scruffy-looking kid.  All teenagers are scruffy-looking.  Two things are needed to learn a worthy trade: the desire to learn, and a willingness of someone to teach.  Neither of these were present in the case of William Henry McCarty.

Billy escaped serious trouble for stealing butter because of the efforts of Clara Truesdell; boys will be boys, after all, and she promised the town marshal she’d have a talk with Billy.  I’m sure she did — but a short time later he was caught stealing clothes and a pistol from a Chinese laundry — a far more serious offense.  Maybe Billy needed the clothes — and it may have been why he stole the butter. The pistol was simply a bonus discovery taken advantage of — but whatever the circumstances, Billy was arrested and placed in jail “pending trial.”  Still, there remained some sympathy for the lad in Silver City.  The sheriff only intended to keep Billy locked up for a few days — as an object lesson.  But before the lesson could be learned, young, rash Billy McCarty made things worse by breaking out of jail.

The thing was, Billy didn’t enjoy being locked up in small places — and he certainly wasn’t aware of the marshal’s intention to release him with another warning.  Early on, Billy discovered that he had at least one unique skill: he had the knack for getting out of tight places.  When Billy escaped from jail, he fled to Arizona.  The jail break — along with the theft, made him a fugitive from justice — and not just a fugitive, a federal fugitive.  New Mexico was a federal territory.  A “wanted poster” in 1875 offered a reward for the arrest of William Wright, also known as Billy the Kid.  No one was quite sure where the name Wright came from.

In 1876, Billy went to work for famed New Mexico rancher Henry Hooker [Note 9] — who would also play a role in a future dust up referred to in history as Wyatt Earp’s vengeance ride.  It was at the Sierra Bonita Ranch that Billy met a 27-year old ex-soldier named John R. Mackie.  Mackie taught the boy ten years his younger how to steal horses from the Army at Fort Grant.

Working at Fort Grant was a blacksmith by the name of Frank Cahill.  Folks called him “Windy,” perhaps because by working with bellows, he created wind.  Or perhaps he was just rude, crude, and socially unacceptable — and if that, he was also muscular, ill-tempered, and a bully.  For whatever reason, Cahill took a disliking for Billy and harassed him at every opportunity — often, it is said, humiliating him in front of his friends.  In 1877, Billy was working at the H. F. Smith Hay Camp.  After being paid, Henry bought a new set of clothes and a revolver. 

On 18 August, Billy entered Atkins’ Cantina in Fort Grant.  Cahill was known to frequent the cantina, so we aren’t sure why McCarty went there — unless he wanted to gamble or have a confrontation with Cahill.  Whatever the reason, Cahill initiated a fight by walking over to Billy, mussing up his hair, and calling him a pimp.  Billy responded by calling into question Cahill’s parentage.  Cahill jumped on Billy, threw him to the floor, pinned him, and began slapping him in the face.  While this was going on, Billy struggled to unholster his pistol and when he did, shot Cahill in the stomach.  Cahill didn’t survive the gut shot.  It was William H. McCarty’s first shooting and it scared him.  He ran out of the saloon and made good his escape on a stolen horse — which, much to the surprise of the horse’s owner, John Murphy, Billy later returned.

One might question why McCarty was charged with murder.  He was certainly in a position of having to defend himself against a much larger man — who possibly outweighed Billy by a hundred pounds — and it was Cahill, after all, who initiated the assault.  The answer to the question may be that local folks liked Cahill, or that Billy was known as a horse thief, a man who escaped confinement, and was now a cold-blooded killer — or possibly all of those things.  It was after this unhappy scrape with Frank Cahill that William Henry McCarty began calling himself William H. Bonney.

After killing Cahill, William Bonney joined a band of cattle rustlers associated with the Seven Rivers Warriors gang.  There was plenty of work because the vast herds of John Chisum in Lincoln County were ripe for the picking.  The Seven Rivers Warriors Gang was one of several such outlaw gangs loosely affiliated with the Kinney Gang [Note 10], including the Jesse Evans Gang (referred to as simply “The Boys.”).  Among these men, primarily because of his youth, William Bonney became known as simply “The Kid.”  At the time, the Jesse Evans Gang was one of the more dangerous groups of outlaws in New Mexico, its leader being only 23-years old and an utterly ruthless murderer. 

For an account of William Bonney’s next and final adventures, see Lincoln County War.

Joseph McCarty-Antrim 

The information available about Joseph, called Josie as a child, is quite sparse and leaves us with many unanswered questions, and yet if what we know is only partially true, it does help us to discover who the man was.  There are suggestions that Joseph and William Henry had different fathers, but the only basis for this assertion is that the two boys look dissimilar.  To begin with, we aren’t sure this picture is actually William and Joseph.  We don’t know what Michael Patrick Henry McCarty looked like, so to argue that these two men (a) were Joseph and William, or (b) that they look sufficiently dissimilar to call into question their mother’s fidelity to her husband … well, it just isn’t very scientific, or fair.  And in any case, I fail to see how physical appearances by themselves support such a conclusion.

According to Upson, after Billy escaped jail in Silver City and hightailed it to Arizona, eleven-year-old Joe went to work at the New Orleans Club.  He ran errands, cleaned out spittoons, served liquor, and had little in the way of adult supervision.  The young boy began to gamble, drink whiskey, and when he could afford it, spent time in local opium dens.  When the town experienced a breakout of smallpox, Joe Antrim and his friend Chauncey Truesdell were sent to work on Charley Nicolla’s nearby ranch along Mimbres creek.  Chauncey later said that one day, while he and Joe worked milking cows, they spotted three men riding toward them and it looked to them as if the riders were Indians.  Joe grabbed a nearby rifle and aimed in on the approaching men.  One of these men was his brother, Billy.

According to Upson, Chauncey reported that at that time Billy was still youthful looking but he had matured; he was no longer carefree — he was tougher, well-heeled, and proficient with firearm and horses.  Chauncey said that Billy spent the night with he and Joe, and then left the next morning.  It was the last time Chauncey or Joe ever saw Billy McCarty.

Eventually, Joseph moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where he spent his time gambling and drinking.  When he learned of Billy’s death at the hands of Pat Garrett, Joe vowed to kill Garrett.   Joe finally met up with Pat Garrett in August 1882 at the Armijo House.  They spoke together for two hours, shook hands, and parted company.  Apparently, Joe was satisfied about what Garrett  had to say about Billy’s death and the matter was closed.

Between 1882 and 1885, Joe moved back and forth between Trinidad and Silver City, Las Vegas, and Tombstone.  Eventually, Joe ended up in Denver where he spent the remainder of his life — friendless and alone.  Joseph McCarty Antrim had become exactly like his step-father, William Antrim.  When Joe died on 25 November 1930, aged 66 years, there was no one to claim his body, so the county made his remains available to the Colorado Medical School.  Thus ended the line of Catherine and Michael Patrick Henry McCarty.


  1. Alexander, B.  Bad Company and Burnt Powder: Justice and Injustice in the Old Southwest.  University of North Texas, 2014. 
  2. Bell, B. B.  The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid.  Tri-Star/Boze Productions, 1996.
  3. Fulton, M. G.  History of the Lincoln County War: A Classic Account of Billy the Kid.  Robert Mullin, ed., University of Arizona Press, 1997.
  4. Nolan, F.  The West of Billy the Kid.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  5. Weddle, J.  Antrim is my Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid.  Arizona Historical Society, 1993.
  6. Wiser, K.  John Selman — Wicked Lawman and Vicious Outlaw.  Legends of America, November 2019.


[1] Record of ship arrivals, port of New York, 9 April 1846, Palmer’s List of Merchant Vessels 1800-1900, OOCities.Org online.

[2] In 1860, census takers simply wrote down the information provided by the adult who responded to survey questions.  They did not (and still do not) ask respondents for proof of their identity.  Patrick McCarty is the name her husband went by, but there is also a belief that his full name was Michael Patrick Henry McCarty.   

[3] There is no record of Bridget McCarty after 1860.

[4] As a child, William Henry was called Billy.

[5] There are two men identified as Michael Patrick Henry McCarty associated with Catherine.  The first of these men was born in 1812.  This man would have been 60 years old in 1872, which exceeds the average life span of males in the United States by 20 years.  The second man was born in 1830 — in 1872, he would have been 42 years old, which placed him at the age limit of average mortality for males living in the United States.

[6] While single-parent homes continue to challenge modern societies, in 1870 there were no publicly funded social programs to stabilize families, either financially or emotionally and the ladies had to either sink or swim on their own merit.

[7] Antrim was born on 1 December 1842 in Huntsville, Indiana.  Antrim was a day-laborer with few prospects in Indianapolis, but Catherine was industrious.  She supported the family by doing laundry, baking bread and pies, and taking in borders.

[8] Ash Upson was co-author with Pat Garret in the book titled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. 

[9] Henry Clay Hooker (1828-1907) was a prominent, wealthy, and influential rancher who formed the first and largest American ranch in Arizona Territory.  He made his money by supplying cattle to the US Army and various Indian agencies.  His spread was known as the Sierra bonita Ranch.

[10] We frequently come across stories of thoroughly bad men in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, but it is entirely possible that all of these accounts pale in comparison to the corruption and lawlessness of the New Mexico Territory.  The Kinney Gang was organized and controlled by John Kinney, who after leaving army service in 1873 settled in New Mexico and established an outlaw gang responsible for horse stealing, cattle rustling, robberies, and the murder of innocent civilians/settlers.  This, in-and-of-itself is unexceptional in certain parts of the old  west.  What made the Kinney Gang exceptional is that it became part of the Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators that amassed a fortune through political corruption, fraudulent land deals, cattle rustling, and murder throughout the New Mexico Territory which included Stephen Benton Elkins, Samuel B. Axtell, Thomas Benton Catron, and others, who figured prominently in the Lincoln County War and Colfax County War.  Kinney, on behalf of the Santa Fe ring controlled the Jesse Evans Gang and the John Selman Gang.

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Lincoln County War

A story about America’s most corrupt state.

Between 1845 and 1850, a devastating fungus destroyed Ireland’s potato crop.  During these years, over a million Irishmen died from starvation and related diseases; twice that number immigrated to other lands, around 500,000 went to the United States where they accounted for half of all immigrants in the 1840s.  Although the potato blight receded in 1850, the effects of the famine continued to spur Irish immigration to the United States well into the twentieth century.  Between 1850 and 1855, another 250,000 Irish  entered the United States where many re-united with their families.

One of these immigrants was Lawrence Gustav Murphy, born sometime in 1831.  Like many single male immigrants, Murphy struggled to find worthwhile employment which led him to enlist in the U. S. Army in 1851 where he remained for ten years.  After his discharge in 1861, Murphy journeyed to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  When the Civil War broke out, he reenlisted in the Union Army and served for the duration of the war, mustering out in 1866 at Fort Stanton.  

After Murphy’s discharge, he joined the Grand Army of the Republic [Note 1].   A “networking” opportunity, Murphy established and maintained relationships with well-connected GAR members, which led him to Emil Fritz, with whom he went into business.  Murphy’s GAR contacts opened the door to military contracts supplying beef, vegetables, and other materials to Apache reservations.  The military contacts were good, but (apparently) insufficient, which led Murphy and Fritz to land fraud schemes selling land to they didn’t own to westward migrants.

Eventually, Murphy and Fritz moved their operations to Lincoln County, New Mexico and, in 1869, established L. G. Murphy & Company — a general store and bank.  Murphy and Fritz began referring to their business operation as “The House” [Note 2].  As an enterprise, The House did quite well.  The business model included the purchase of beef from cattle rustlers, which lowered operating costs, and in Lincoln County, Murphy & Company had no competition.  Murphy and Fritz could get away with charging outlandish prices for their goods and services.  In 1873, Murphy and Fritz hired another Irishman named James Dolan to help manage their monopoly.

When Emil Fritz died in 1874, James Dolan became Murphy’s business partner.  Murphy, knowing that Fritz had a life insurance policy, claimed that Fritz owed the company a considerable sum of money.  Murphy submitted his claim to the executors of Fritz’ estate.  The lawyer these executors hired to file the insurance claim was attorney Alexander McSween [Note 3].  Once the insurance policy claim had been paid, however, McSween refused to release the money to the executors because he believed Murphy and these executors were attempting to defraud the Fritz Estate.  In his refusal to release the life insurance money, McSween became an enemy of Murphy & Company.

Meanwhile, county ranchers and farmers, having tired of Murphy’s monopoly, formed their own mercantile operation — one headed by a newly arrived local rancher named John Tunstall and his attorney, Alexander McSween.

In 1878, Murphy filed suit against McSween for unlawfully withholding the money from Fritz’ estate.  The judge in this case (who may have been part of the Santa Fe Ring) ordered seizure of all McSween’s assets, but mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) included property that belonged to Tunstall.  Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed — but not before County Sheriff Brady [Note 4] sent deputies to execute the court’s order.

The predominant belief among Lincoln County’s ranchers unaffiliated with Murphy was that Sheriff Brady was on the payroll of L. G. Murphy & Company.  This was likely true.

John Tunstall

John Henry Tunstall (1853-1878) was an Englishman from an upper-middle-class family.  His father was a British businessman with interests in Canada.  Nineteen-year-old John emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia in 1872 to work at one of his father’s stores.  With available investment capital, Tunstall began looking for ways to acquire a ranch  suitable for raising cattle.  While visiting Santa Fe, Tunstall met Alexander McSween who dissuaded him from purchasing land in California because land in New Mexico was cheaper and more abundant for cattle ranching.  McSween told Tunstall that Lincoln County offered the potential for large profits because the county was in the midst of rapid settlement of people from back east.  As his exemplar, he told Tunstall about famed rancher John Chisum, whose herd exceeded 100,000 head of cattle.  It was from this early meeting that Tunstall and McSween formed a business partnership, whose efforts John Chisum supported.

Tunstall purchased land along the Rio Feliz, some thirty miles due south of Lincoln, New Mexico.  But Tunstall, with some experience in business, became appalled by Murphy & Company’s price gouging.  To counter The House, Tunstall and McSween opened a mercantile store and a bank in Lincoln.

The House, which then included Lawrence Murphy, James Dolan, and John H. Riley — Irishmen with similar backgrounds — not only felt challenged by Tunstall-McSween business interests, they also felt threatened politically.  Murphy fancied himself as the Lincoln County Boss; he owned the law, and he was affiliated with Tom Catron’s Santa Fe Ring.

While Tunstall was profit motivated, his business operation offered goods and services at reasonable prices.  Local citizens began to abandon Murphy & Company.  In letters back to England, John Tunstall indicated that he intended to challenge Murphy politically and unseat him.  Tunstall may not have realized that he was challenging far more than Murphy-Dolan.

Murphy & Dolan began to slide into bankruptcy — and if Murphy & Dolan was losing money, so too was Tom Catron.  Murphy & Dolan at first tried to challenge Tunstall & McSween in court; when that didn’t work, Murphy tried to goad Tunstall into a gunfight.  Eventually, Murphy ordered Sheriff Brady to hire gunmen affiliated with the Jesse Evans Gang [Note 5].

John Tunstall didn’t resort to hiring gun slingers, but he did ask for the support of John Chisum and a dozen or so local ranchers and cowboys who knew that Murphy-Dolan were behind cattle rustling in Lincoln County.  Tunstall was in great personal danger; he may have realized it, but seemed nonchalant about the prospects of being assassinated.  His friends, on the other hand, surrounded Tunstall whenever he left this ranch for any reason, to protect him from the possibility of a suicide while on the trail.  As it happens, one of Tunstall’s ranch hands was a 19-year old baby-faced fellow by the name of William Bonney (also known as Henry McCarty, William Henry Antrim, and El Chivato) [Note 6]. 

On 18 February 1878, Tunstall, Bonney, Richard Brewer, John Middleton, Henry Brown, Robert Widenmann, and Fred Waite were driving horses from Tunstall’s ranch into Lincoln.  Also on that day, a posse formed by Sheriff Brady had gone to Tunstall’s ranch to serve him with a court-ordered lien on his cattle — it was part of the lawsuit filed against Tunstall’s partner, Alexander McSween.

When these deputies arrived at the Tunstall ranch and discovered that he was not there,   several of the posse members (who rode under Jesse Evans, including William Morton, Frank Baker, Tom Hill, and Dolly Graham), broke away from the main posse and went in search of Tunstall.  Since Tunstall’s horses were not part of the court-ordered lien, there was no reason for the deputies to track Tunstall down — but that’s what Evans did.  

Artist’s rendition, the murder of John Tunstall

Jesse Evans and his men caught up with Tunstall a few miles outside Lincoln.  Bonney, who was riding drag, was the first to spot the Evans group and fired a shot into the air to give warning.  Evans, who may have thought that Bonney was shooting at them, began to shoot at Bonney.  Tunstall’s ranch hands heard the firing and rode to the top of a hill to observe what was going on.  Tunstall remained with the horses.  Unprotected, Evans and his men soon surrounded Tunstall and murdered him“execution style.”  Evans attempted to arrange Tunstall’s body so that it looked as if he attempted to resist arrest.  It was an incredible effort given that Tunstall was shot through the back of his head [Note 7].  John Tunstall’s murder ignited the Lincoln County War.

William Bonney, Artist’s rendition

William Bonney, who had become friends with Tunstall, was  devastated by the murder.  He, along with ten other men, went to the Lincoln Justice of the Peace, “Squire” John Wilson, and  filed a complaint alleging the murder of Tunstall by Jesse Evans and others.  Wilson accepted the complaint and swore them all in as “special constables” to arrest John Tunstall’s killers.  The constabulary posse, legally formed and led by Richard “Dick” Brewer.  Brewer was a well-respected landowner who had also served as Tunstall’s ranch foreman.  

Calling themselves “regulators,” [Note 8] Wilson’s constables organized themselves to bring in Evans, Morton, Hill, and Baker — but in fairness, it is likely that their motive had more to do with revenge for Tunstall’s murder.  The regulators included Brewer, Bonney, Frank McNab, Jim French, John Middleton, George and Frank Coe, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Charlie Bowdrie, Tom O’Folliard, Fred Waite (an Indian), and Henry Newton Brown.   

Following their appointment as deputies, Constable Martinez almost immediately began looking for Evans, Morton, Baker, Hill, and Graham.  On 20 February, Martinez, Brewer, and Bonney proceeded to the Sheriff’s office to serve their warrants.  Sheriff Brady promptly arrested  them in defiance of their status as lawful deputies.  Three days later, Deputy United States Marshall John Widenmann led a detachment of soldiers against Brady’s jailhouse, captured the deputies, and released Martinez, Brewer, and Bonney.   

After gaining release, Widenmann deputized the regulators and they continued their search for the men named in their warrants.  Regulators discovered Buck Morton, Dick Lloyd, and Frank Baker near Rio Peñasco.  Morton conditionally surrendered after a five-mile running gunfight.  The condition was that he and Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Baker would be returned alive to Lincoln.  Frank Baker had no part in the murder of John Tunstall, so Brewer gave Morton his assurance of safety.  Other regulators objected, however, insisting on a vengeance killing.  One of the regulators, William McCloskey, a friend of Morton, resisted the idea by vowing to protect the prisoners. 

On 9 March 1878, the third day of their journey back to Lincoln, the regulators killed McCloskey, Mortan, and Baker near Blackwater Creek — claiming that Morton killed McCloskey and then tried to escape with Baker, which gave the regulators no other choice but to kill the two escaping prisoners.  It was an extraordinary story because no one believed Morton would kill his only friend in the group of regulators.  Moreover, the bodies of Morton and Baker bore eleven bullet wounds — and unless some of these wounds were self-inflicted, there was one bullet wound for each constable.

On that same day, Tunstall’s other two killers, Jesse Evans and Tom Hill, were shot while trying to rob a drover near Tularosa.  Hill died from gunshot wounds, But Evans survived his wounds.  While undergoing medical treatment, Deputy US Marshal Widenmann arrested Evans for stealing livestock from an Indian reservation. 

Sheriff Brady telegraphed the Attorney General (Tom Catron) and asked for assistance to end the “anarchy” in Lincoln County.  Catron referred the matter to Governor Samuel Axtell, who decreed that Squire John Wilson had been illegally appointed as Justice of the Peace, which effectively nullified Wilson’s authority as Justice of the Peace and, at the same time, invalidated the actions of Wilson’s constables.  Governor Axtell also called upon US Marshal John Sherman of the Territory of New Mexico to revoke Widenmann commission — which he did, but Widenmann was reappointed 21 days later.

On 1 April 1878, regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown, and William Bonney readied themselves in the corral behind Tunstall’s store.  In a few more moments, they would assault Brady and his deputies on Lincoln’s main street.  Deputy George Hindman would succumb to his gunshot wounds; Brady was shot by a dozen bullets.  Bonney and French broke cover during the gunfight — some say to retrieve Bonney’s rifle, which Brady had confiscated from his prior arrest.  A surviving deputy, Billy Matthews, wounded Bonney and French.  French’s wound was severe and he was incapacitated for some time at Sam Corbet’s place.  Deputy US Marshal Widenmann was also in the corral that morning, but it is not known whether he participated in the ambush.  

Three days later, the regulators rode southwest from Lincoln to Blazer’s Mill, a trading post and saw mill that supplied beef to the Mescalero Apache.  En route, they came upon Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts, who was named on their arrest warrants as one of John Tunstall’s murderers.  In the exchange of gunfire regulator Dick Brewer was killed; Middleton, Scurlock, Coe, and Bonney were wounded.  Roberts didn’t survive his wounds.

After Brewer’s death, the regulators elected Frank McNab as their captain.  On 29 April, Sheriff George Peppin [Note 9] led a posse that included several members of the Jesse Evans Gang and the so-called Seven Rivers Warriors [Note 10].  Peppin engaged Frank McNab, Ab Saunders, and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz ranch.  McNab was killed, Saunders was wounded, and Coe was captured.  The next day, Seven Rivers Gang members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson, and John Galvin were shot to death in Lincoln; it was never conclusively proven that the regulators had anything to do with these murders and the matter is complicated because at the time, an intra-gang feud was well underway.  Frank Coe escaped from jail, supposedly with the assistance of Wallace Olinger, who Coe claimed gave him a pistol.

The day following McNab’s death, the regulators assumed defensive positions in town and spent the day trading shots with Murphy men and, according to some, several members of the US Cavalry Troop.  George Coe shot and wounded Dutch Charlie Kruling, but by firing their weapons at US soldiers, the regulators gained a new enemy — and one they could have easily done without.

On 15 May, regulators tracked down and captured Evans gang-member Manuel Segovia, whom the regulators believed killed McNab.  After Señor Segovia was dispatched into the afterlife, a Texan named Tom O’Folliard joined the regulators; he and William Bonney became good friends.

During the afternoon of 15 July, a confrontation between the Tunstall-McSween and Murphy-Dolan factions broke out inside Lincoln town; the regulators found themselves surrounded at two separate locations: the McSween home and Ellis’ Store.  Twenty Mexican regulators, led by Josefita Chavez, were also in town.  The men inside Ellis’ Store include Scurlock, Bowdre, Middleton, and Frank Coe.  At the McSween house were Alex McSween, his wife Susan, Bonney, Brown, French, O’Folliard, Jose Chavez, George Coe, and a dozen vaqueros.

Known as the Battle of Lincoln, opposing factions exchanged shots and insults for three days.  Tom Cullens was killed by a stray bullet at the McSween house.  Fernando Herrera, who was Doc Scurlock’s father-in-law, shot and killed Murphy-Dolan’s gunman Charlie Crawford [Note 11].  At five-hundred yards, it was a darn good shot.  At about the same time, Henry Brown, George Coe, and Joe Smith left the McSween house and went to Tunstall’s store where, finding two of Murphy-Dolan’s men, chased them into an outhouse.  With concentrated rifle fire, the regulators forced the men into the bottom to avoid being killed. 

Nathan Dudley

The Battle of Lincoln ended when Colonel Nathan Dudley [Note 12] led a cavalry troop and field guns into town and forced the regulators to withdraw — all except for the men in McSween’s house, who were left to their fate.  Late in the afternoon of 19 July, Murphy-Dolan’s men set the house on fire as a means to flush the critters out.  Susan McSween and the other women and their children were given safe passage while the men inside tried to fight the fire.  By 9 p.m., Bonney and French, decided to blaze their way out of  the house, followed by O’Folliard and Chavez.  Harvey Morris, McSween’s law partner, was killed.  When troopers advanced to take the escaped men into custody, a close-quarters gunfight broke out.  Alexander McSween and Bob Beckwith were killed.  Three Mexican regulators made good their escape and joined Bonney, French, O’Folliard and Chavez as they melted into the night.  

The Lincoln County War accomplished nothing beyond sending a few men to meet their maker.  New Mexico continued to suffer under corrupt government — and, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican (article by Steve Terrell, 11 August 2018) — New Mexico continues to hold the national title for corrupt government.  After Susan McSween hired an attorney by the name of Huston Chapman to pursue charges against James Dolan, Dolan (accompanied by Jesse Evans and Billy Campbell) murdered Chapman in cold blood and at point-blank range exactly one year from the date of Tunstall’s murder. William Bonney was also present at the shooting, but took no part in it. Dolan later went to trial for Chapman’s murder but was acquitted by a jury mostly composed of friends of Murphy and Dolan.

Lawrence Gustav Murphy died from cancer on 10 October 1878, 47-years old.  James Dolan, Irish immigrant, veteran of the Union Army, Republican political Boss and racketeer, businessman, gunman, thief, murderer, arsonist, and alcoholic, died at his ranch on 6 February 1898, 49-years of age.  At the time of his death, Dolan owned all of John Tunstall’s former lands.


  1. Caffey, D. L.  Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Power and Privilege in Territorial New Mexico.  University of New Mexico Press, 2014.
  2. Caldwell, C. R.  Dead Right: The Lincoln County War.  Caldwell Publishing, 2008.
  3. Chamberlain, K. P.  In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War.  University of New Mexico Press, 2013.
  4. Duran, T.  Francisco Chavez, Thomas B. Catron, and Organized Political Violence in Santa Fe in the 1890s.  New Mexico Historical Review, 1984.
  5. Jacobsen, J. K.  An Excess of Law in Lincoln County: Thomas Catron, Samuel Axtell, and the Lincoln County War.  New Mexico Historical Review, 1993.


[1] The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, Union Navy, U. S. Marines, and the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War.  It was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois, grew to include several hundred posts, and was dissolved in 1956 at the death of its last member.

[2] Murphy and Fritz’ Lincoln County operation was part of a larger structure of corrupt officials known as the Santa Fe Ring.  At the top of this organization was Thomas Catron, the Territorial Attorney General (later, United States Attorney for the New Mexico Territory).  Catron’s expertise was land law and he used his knowledge to acquire more than three million acres of New Mexico land by denying the claims of families who had been granted land under the auspices of New Spain or the Republic of Mexico — land that had been acknowledged as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican/American War.  Among Catron’s cronies in the Santa Fe Ring were Samuel Axtell, the discredited and impeached former Territorial Governor, and Warren Bristol, a territorial judge formerly suspected as being complicit in the assassination of Territorial Chief Justice John P. Slough.  Murphy and his new partner James Dolan had borrowed money from Catron to begin their Lincoln County operations, so Catron had financial interests in the unfolding events in Lincoln and may have been calling the shots from behind the scenes.

[3] Alexander McSween (-1878) was a Scot who was born and raised in Canada, possibly in Nova Scotia, who migrated to the United States to attend law school in St. Louis, Missouri.  He married Susan Hummer in 1873 and subsequently moved with her to Lincoln County, New Mexico where he began working for L. G. Murphy & Company.  

[4] Brady was also an Irish-Catholic who migrated to the United States during the potato famine, served several years in the U. S. Army with service in Texas, as was discharged in 1861 while holding the rank of sergeant.  When the Civil War broke out, Brady joined the New Mexico Volunteers as a first lieutenant.  He fought against the Confederates at Glorieta Pass.  He afterward served as a recruiting officer in Polvadera, New Mexico, as the Commanding Officer at Fort Staunton, and led successful campaigns against Navajo and Apache hostiles.  At the end of the war he served as a brevet Major.  After the war, Brady settled his family at Rio Bonito, four miles east of Lincoln.  He was first elected as Sheriff in 1869 and served in the New Mexico Territorial Legislature.  As part of the Santa Fe Ring, Brady aligned himself with Murphy & Company against John Tunstall.

[5] The Jesse Evans gang included twenty gunmen who rustled cattle, robbed and pillaged small ranches and Indian reservations, and murdered small ranchers in New Mexico between 1876-1880.  In 1877, Sheriff Brady hired the Evans gang and deputized them to help stamp out the so-called Tunstall-McSween faction in Lincoln County.  The Evans Gang was one of several affiliated outlaw organizations operating in New Mexico — an extension of the so-called Santa Fe Ring.  For a sketch of the other two outlaw gangs, see Notes 13 and 14.  

[6] The story of Henry McCarty, while a sad tale, may have been a common one in the post-Civil War period.  He was the son of Patrick and Catherine McCarty, an Irish-Catholic couple.  Henry was born in New York City.  After Patrick died, Catherine moved her two sons to Indianapolis, where she met William Henry Harrison Antrim.  Catherine and her sons moved with Antrim to Wichita, Kansas in 1870.  Catherine and Henry married in 1873 in Santa Fe, later moving to Silver City, New Mexico.  It was then that Henry and Joseph began using Antrim’s name.  In 1874, Catherine died from consumption and William Antrim abandoned her sons.  Henry was fifteen when his mother died and he went to work for Sara Brown, who gave him room and board.  His first violation of law was stealing food but ten days later he and George Schaefer robbed a Chinese laundry, stealing clothes and two pistols.  Henry McCarty was arrested and jailed pending trial, but he managed to escape, and he became a “fugitive from the law.”

[7] A special investigator commissioned by the United States Secretary of the Interior, a man named Frank Warner Angel, later determined that Tunstall was murdered in cold blood by Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill.  Witnesses to the murder, although from a distance, included Dick Brewer and William Bonney.

[8] The men who formed the regulators were well-known to each other, had worked together or associated with one another for several years, and most either worked as ranch hands or owned small ranches in Lincoln County.  History remembers William Bonney as one of these men, primarily because of the notoriety attached to his moniker “Billy the Kid,” but Bonney wasn’t the driving force behind the regulators.  Others of the group, including Ab Saunders, Charlie Bowdre, Doc Scurlock, Grand and George Coe, had all been involved in hunting down and killing cattle rustlers.  The two forces at work were the legally formed Sheriff’s posse under Brady, who murdered Tunstall, and the legally formed special constables under Justice Wilson — which leads us to the Lincoln County War.

[9] George Peppin was present during the Brady shootout but was not wounded.  John Copeland was appointed County Sheriff after Brady’s death, but was dismissed shortly afterward when he refused to support Murphy-Dolan.  Peppin, noted for his weak demeanor, was easily manipulated by Murphy.  On Murphy’s orders, Peppin organized an armed campaign against the regulators.

[10] The Seven Rivers Warriors was a gang led by Henry M. “Hugh” Beckwith.  It formed in opposition to John Chisum’s (and others) large cattle holdings; they aligned themselves with the Murphy-Dolan faction because the county sheriff was in Murphy’s pocket and Murphy/Brady made money from the gang’s cattle rustling activities.  In addition to Hugh Beckwith, brothers John and Bob were also gang-members.  Bob Beckwith and Wallace Olinger served as deputies under Brady; Wallace’s brother Bob Olinger served as a Deputy US Marshal.  The Seven Rivers Warriors frequently rode with the Jesse Evans Gang.

[11] At the time of the Lincoln County War, Lawrence G. Murphy was suffering from cancer.  He turned L. G. Murphy & Company over to James Dolan, who renamed it James Dolan & Company.  Subsequently, the gunmen became known as Dolan’s men.

[12] Nathan Augustus Monroe Dudley (1825-1910) began his military career before the American Civil War.  When war broke out, Dudley served as a captain in command of a company of the 10th US Infantry.  During the war he served as aide to Major General Nathan P. Banks, commander of the XIX Corps.  In January 1865, President Lincoln nominated Dudley for advancement to brevet Brigadier General, and his advancement was confirmed by the Senate the following month.  After the war, he reverted to his pre-war permanent rank and resumed his duties with the 3rd US Cavalry.  In time, Dudley served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 9th Cavalry, and Colonel commanding the 1st Cavalry.  Dudley’s part in the Lincoln County War was at least controversial, but at worst despicable and incompetent — no doubt his ineptness brought on by his frequent drunkenness.  As commander at Fort Stanton, Dudley received orders not to interfere in civilian matters, but he disobeyed those orders and threw his command behind the Dolan faction.  In 1879, Susan McSween filed charges against Dudley for his part in the destruction of her home and the death of her husband.  Dudley was acquitted at a subsequent court-martial.

[13] The leader of the Kinney Gang was John Kinney (1847-1919), another army veteran who, in 1873 settled in Dona Ana County, New Mexico.  Kinney’s gang was responsible for acts of robbery and cattle rustling.  Jesse Evans was one of his earliest gang members, along with Pony Diehl whose name was later associated with events in Tombstone, Arizona.  Once Evans had broken away from the gang to form his own, Kinney hired the Evans Gang to help him in the El Paso Salt War.  Kinney was arrested in 1883 for cattle rustling and sentenced to prison.  After his release in 1886, he did not return to crime.  He served in the Army during the Spanish/American War and ran a successful mine in Arizona before retiring.

[14] “The Rustlers” was a gang run by John Henry Selman (1839-1896).  Selman was one of those men who worked on both sides of the law — sheriff or town marshal followed by wanted posters for murder and mayhem.  Many of the Rustlers were former members of the Brady/Peppin posse and the Jesse Evans Gang.  They robbed stores, looted homes, murdered innocent farmers and their families, raped the women, and used children for target practice.  True scum.  But Selman was on the “inside” of New Mexican politics and no charges were ever filed against him or any of his men.  John Selman was the man who murdered John Wesley Hardin in an El Paso saloon.  

Posted in American Indians, American Southwest, Civil War, Corruption, Gunfights and such, History, New Mexico | 2 Comments

Uncle Jim

An account of lawman James Franklin Roberts

One may recall from The Pleasant Valley War that the long-running feud (lasting nearly fifteen years) was anything but pleasant for the folks in Gila County, Arizona.  Right in the middle of this dangerous melee was a man named James Franklin Roberts, whom everyone called “Uncle Jim.”

Roberts would not fit in well with modern society, but he was a man of his times — just what was needed to rid Arizona of thoroughly bad men, most of whom would sooner shoot you as look at you.  And he did this by ruthlessly pursuing bad guys, and then saving the taxpayers the cost of a trial by shooting them (well, some of them) dead. 

James Franklin Roberts

Jim Roberts (1859-1934), although born in Missouri, became one of the earliest Anglos to settle the Arizona Territory.  Some say that his exploits rivaled those of either Virgil or Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.  As with the Earps, not much was known about Uncle Jim Roberts until recently.

In 1887, Roberts raised horses on his ranch near Tonto Creek.  When one of his prized stallions turned up missing, an initial investigation suggested that the animal was liberated by one of the Grahams from over in Pleasant Valley.  Jim Roberts rode over to the Graham ranch and confronted them about the missing horse.  All Jim received in exchange for his trouble was disrespectful laughter.  The incident caused Roberts to side with the Tewksbury clan during the Pleasant Valley War.  According to some, Jim Roberts became “the most dangerous gun” in the entire feud owing to the fact that Roberts ended up killing two of the Graham’s and three of their “hired guns.”

Not long after this confrontation, lawmen arrested Roberts and charged him with murder [Note 1]; Roberts was set free because no one would (or could) testify against him.  Eventually, Roberts sold his ranch and moved to Congress, Arizona — a gold mining center and the location of the Congress Mine [Note 2].  In 1889, Sheriff “Bucky” O’Neill [Note 3] hired Roberts as a deputy and charged him with “cleaning up Congress.”

In 1892, Roberts was elected to serve as a constable in Jerome, Arizona — a copper mining town that, with around 3,000 miners working several mines, was known as a wild and dangerous place.  According to legend, Uncle Jim was unhesitant in pursuing bad men — but he was always fair in his dealings with suspected criminals.  For example, when anyone challenged Roberts with a sidearm, Roberts always gave his opponent the first shot.  Well, not every old west gunman was proficient with his sidearm.  Roberts didn’t have that problem — the man was deadly with a pistol — and while the miscreant was always offered the first shot, he never got a second.

In 1894, a shooting erupted in a Jerome saloon when two men apparently disagreed with the faro dealer about the fairness of the game.  Uncle Jim killed one of the men who resisted arrest; the second man, having reconsidered his options threw up his hands.  Later that year, Roberts was slashed by a knife while attempting to arrest a drunk, but the man was subdued; Roberts’ wound was minor.  Then, after a brawl involving two Mexicans — during which one of them was killed, Roberts tracked the victor to Mingus Mountain, eleven miles south west of Jerome.  Finding the man in an abandoned cabin, Roberts called for the man to surrender.  Full of anger, ruffled pride, and maybe a bad hangover, the Mexican refused.  Gunshots were exchanged.  The Mexican’s hangover went away once Roberts shot him in the head.     

In May 1897, James F. Parker [Note 4], Cornelia Sorata, and former Prescott constable Louis C. Miller broke out of the Yavapai County Jail; in the process, Parker shot and mortally wounded assistant district attorney E. L. Norris.  Parker made his escape on the back of one of Sheriff George Ruffner’s prized horses from a livery across the street from the jail.  Wounded during the escape, Lou Miller eventually returned to his family home in Jerome where Uncle Jim re-arrested him without incident.  Cornelia Sorata (a Mexican charged with attempted murder) was killed during the jailbreak.

Roberts didn’t fit the Hollywood image of an old west lawman.  He didn’t ride the brilliant stallion, nor wear a ten-gallon hat.  He dressed in regular clothes, wore street shoes rather than boots, carried his gun in his trousers pocket, and rode a mule.  It was his calm demeanor that caused folks to begin referring to Roberts as Uncle Jim.  He didn’t speak loudly, just directly … but in matters of law, his deadly stare and quiet tone was enough to give bad hombres a bleak premonition for their immediate future.  The thing about Roberts was that whenever he went in search for a criminal, that fellow’s days were numbered if he resisted arrest.

In one instance, Roberts and his deputy set off in pursuit of three men who, during a card game, ended up killing a fourth man.  Who knows why?  Roberts and his posse of one found the men who had already decided they didn’t want to be arrested, much less appear in court.  Roberts’ deputy was a young, inexperienced lawman who at the moment of the confrontation came down with a severe case of the shakes.  Realizing that he would not be able to rely on his deputy, Uncle Jim reconciled himself with the idea he’d have to take on all three.  He brought these men back to town draped across the backs of their horses.

In 1902, two criminals shot at killed Deputy Charles J. Hawkins and then fled the scene.  Roberts tracked the men to Camp Verde.  When he returned to Jerome, both men were slung over his mule.  It was another closed case.

When Willard Forrester and Earl Nelson arrived in Clarkdale on 20 June 1928, they intended to rob the Arizona State Bank.  The bank was flush with cash from a mine payroll shipment scheduled for the next day.  Forrester and Nelson were part of what remained of the Kimes/Terrill Gang in Oklahoma [Note 5].  The next afternoon, Forrester and Nelson parked their stolen car in front of the bank and went inside.  After herding the manager, tellers, and several patrons into the vault, Forrester and Nelson helped themselves to around $50,000.00.  As the robbers sped off, the bank manager ran to his  desk, took out a shotgun, and fired after the vehicle.

Jim Roberts, who was on foot patrol, heard the shot and ran to the corner of a street intersection — arriving there just as the getaway vehicle drove by.  It might have gone well for Forrester and Nelson had they not irritated Roberts by shooting at him as they drove past.  Roberts, who was just then a bit put off, took out his revolver, took a two-handed stance, and fired at the speeding vehicle.  Willard, who was driving, was shot through the head and the vehicle crashed into a utility pole.  As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, Earl exited the vehicle and fled on foot.  Uncle Jim, who was then 68 years old, chased after Nelson and placed him in custody.

James Franklin Roberts passed away on 8 January 1934 of natural causes.  While making a regular foot patrol in Clarkdale, he suffered a heart attack and died.  He was laid to rest at the Valley View Cemetery in Clarkdale. 


  1. Koch, M.  The Kimes Gang.  Author-House Bloomington, 2005.
  2. Stanley, J.  Arizona Explained: James Parker, Outlaw.  The Republic, 2014. 
  3. Wagoner, J. J.  Arizona Territory 1863-1912: A Political History.  University of Arizona Press, 1970.


[1] Everyone surviving an old west gunfight stood in the dock to answer murder allegations.  Coroners’ inquests or preliminary judicial proceedings usually determined whether the charges would stand for trial. 

[2] Gold was discovered in 1884, but the town’s real growth may have come from the Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix Railroad that passed within three miles of the mine.  The town remained prosperous until the mid-1930s, but little remains of the original townsite today.  Congress, Arizona today is a bedroom community just outside Wickenburg.

[3] William Owen O’Neill (1860-1898) was an Arizona lawman, newspaper editor, miner, politician, and gambler — nicknamed “Bucky” because in gambling, he frequently “bucked the tiger” … played against the odds … in card games.  O’Neill’s father was an immigrant from Ireland around 1850 who settled in Pennsylvania.  O’Neill migrated to Arizona c. 1879, arriving, it is said, on the back of a burro.  Bucky O’Neill was killed during the Spanish/American War while serving as a captain in the Rough Rider’s Regiment.

[4] The story of James Fleming Parker is not unusual in the late 1800s.  He had a tough life, with his mother passing away when he was ten years old and his father committing suicide four years later.  On his own at a young age, he never developed much respect for the law and found himself in jail more than a few times for such things as burglary and borrowing cattle without a permit.  He was particularly upset when an Atlantic & Pacific train killed a couple of his ponies who had wandered onto the tracks and then refused to pay his claim for damages.  So James decided to rob one of their trains, which as it turned out, didn’t work to his advantage.  Still, the people of Yavapai County had some sympathy for Parker up until he killed Norris.  Parker was hanged on 3 June 1898.

[5] The Kimes/Terrill Gang was led by Matthew Kimes and Ray Terrill who were active in robbing banks in prohibition Oklahoma.  All of their robberies were high-profile cases, including the murder of lawmen, to which was added their frequent escapes from jails and prisons.  Gang members reputedly swore a blood-oath to free each other from jail should they ever be captured, or die in the attempt.  To the extent that Roberts knew about this blood-oath is unknown to us.  By 1927, the gang leaders were either in prison or dead, but members of the gang continued to threaten law and order wherever they went.

Posted in American Frontier, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Oklahoma | 7 Comments

Move, Shoot, Communicate

US Mail and the Pony Express

All civilizations share certain characteristics, which include large population centers where economic transactions take place, architecture that house social institutions (government offices, court rooms, religious centers),  where craftsman and artisans produce their masterpieces.  Civilizations also have well-defined divisions of labor and a system of writing and record keeping.  

Human civilizations began to form between 4,000-3,000 BC; it was a gradual process that was only possible when human societies stabilized, when the put down roots, made their farms productive, domesticated animals, and organized their homesteads and villages to guard against foreign depredations.  In time, small villages became towns, and the towns became sophisticated population centers where trade occurred between farmers and villagers, townsmen and passerby’s.  Craftsman produced wondrous things that people soon realized they could use to improve their lives.  There were wheelwrights, blacksmiths, potters, weavers, tanners, and oil merchants — all gainfully employed and able to barter for grain, meat, milk.

Human civilization, as a process, began rather simply and developed into a complex arrangement of societies and institutions, each one a bit different because of culture and folkways.  Some towns, particularly those along well traveled trade routes, grew into well-fortified cities where hundreds of people lived and plied their trade.  The city-states were where one could find the king or the prince, their advisors, administrators, tax collectors, priests, the libraries, and from which the aristocracy communicated with other city states.  One mark of an advanced civilization is its ability to establish and maintain a reliable postal service.  No nation did this better than ancient Rome, which established such a high standard in postal communications no country came close to rivaling it until the middle of the nineteenth century. 

Samuel Adams

Beginning in 1764, a year after the end of the French & Indian Wars, the city of Boston established the first Committee of Correspondence.  Its purpose was to encourage opposition to Great  Britain’s imposition of customs regulations and the homeland’s denial of the right of colonies to establish their own monetary system.  New York followed suit in 1765 in order to keep the other colonies informed for its resistance to the Stamp Act.  In 1773, Virginia’s House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee of correspondence to facilitate inter-colonial communications.  These efforts resulted in the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

In 1772, a new Boston Committee of Correspondence was organized — this time to communicate with Massachusetts towns — an expansion of the opposition’s efforts to keep citizens informed events that affected them directly.  One example of these was the announcement that Massachusetts’s colonial governor and the colony’s judges would no longer be accountable to the legislature.  They would, instead, answer directly to the Crown.  It was after this that more than half of the colony’s towns also formed committees of correspondence. 

Benjamin Franklin

As one might imagine, committees of correspondence exchange letters and notes.  The method of exchange is over the post roads and/or the sea packets.  It would have been possible for individuals to exchange letters through messengers, but it would not have been possible to do this in great volume through personal messengers.  It would not have been possible without the efforts of our old friend, Benjamin Franklin.  In 1737, Mr. Franklin served as Philadelphia’s first postmaster.  In 1753, he became deputy postmaster for British North America and shepherded many much-needed reforms to the American colonial postal system.

Among his many accomplishments in the area of postal affairs, Franklin developed a system of fast-sailing packet ships for transmitting mail to and from Great Britain.  While we may credit Mr. Franklin for his clever intelligence, he was a learned man known to have consulted with antiquity for its history and accomplishments [Note 1].

Benjamin Franklin no doubt read about and understood the postal mechanisms employed long before the Eighteenth Century when the institutions of vast empires were created and held together by rapid and reliable communications.  Among these, perhaps, the Egyptians, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, and most certainly the Roman curses publicus, which in its own time was the most sophisticated of all the ancient communications systems — and in fact remained “the” example, with nothing to rival it until well into the Nineteenth Century  The Romans established mail drops, sorting stations, relay points, and en route protection.

Were it not for this system of rapid communications, none of Rome’s complex military and administrative systems could not have assured the Republic, much less the Empire — and were it not for Benjamin Franklin’s understanding of the importance of rapid communications, we may never have had an American Revolution.

But by the time of the birth of this new nation, people were already communicating with one another through the mail, from seacoast villages westward into the Appalachian settlements.  Families who could write often did, and exchanged letters to keep in touch with family members.    Many of these “letters home” inspired others to embark on westward journeys.

The westward expansion of the Americans simply meant a distention of postal services, strengthening the nation through sacks of letters, packages, business documents, financial instruments and newspapers as cargo on wagons, ships, and riverboats.  The postal service was also a key factor in expanding military control over vast western territories.  The widespread circulation of newspapers accomplished a coordination of state and territorial politicians and helped establish a spirit of nationalism — a sense of belonging to the great American institutions.

The United States Postal Department was created in 1792, as permitted by the Constitution, which empowered the Congress to establish post offices and post roads.  Federal law guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence and offered low-cost access to information.  Postmaster General Gideon Granger developed a “hub and spoke” system mail service, with the city of Washington as the hub and chief sorting center, and spokes (postal roads) going off in many directions.  By 1869, there were 27,000 post offices in the United States.  With the arrival of sophisticated rail systems came the development of Railway Post Offices, where mail was sorted en route in specialized railway cars.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 acted as a magnet to thousands of prospectors, investors, businessmen, and bankers and California went from territory to state within two years.  Close to 400,000 people lived in California by 1860 and there was a demand for a faster method of getting the mail to and from America’s western-most state.  The demand became even greater as war loomed on America’s horizon.  What was needed as a fast mail route to the Pacific Coast, and the men who devised such a system included William Russell [Note 2], Alexander Majors [Note 3], and William Waddell [Note 4].

Russell, Majors, and Waddell were already in the freighting and drayage business [Note 5] when they created the Pony Express Company.  At the peak of operations, Pony Express employed 6,000 men, owned 75,000 oxen, thousands of wagons and warehouses, a sawmill, a meatpacking plant, a bank, and an insurance company. 

By using horses rather than stagecoaches, Pony Express intended to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.  They envisioned the delivery of letters within ten days, which many at the time argued was impossible.  The initial price of Pony Express mailings was $5.00 per ½ ounce, but the price fell to $2.50 and then $1.00 by July 1861.  It was the intent of Pony Express to obtain a government contract — which was never offered.

It took Russell, Majors, and Waddell two months to organize the Pony Express, which they did with 80 riders, 184 way stations, 400 horses, and several hundred support personnel.  Essentially, the way stations were set up about ten miles apart along the Pony Express route.  At each stop, the rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch and personal sidearms with him.

The mail sack or pouch could hold twenty pounds of mail and twenty pounds of additional material.  It took the form of a saddle bag, but was thrown over the saddle and sat upon by the rider.  Because of the weight of the mail pouch, no rider was hired who weighed more than 125 pounds.  Riders were changed every 75-100 miles; they rode day or night, in sun or storm.  The average horse stood 14-hands high (58 inches) and weighed around 900 pounds.

Pony Express riders were paid $100.00 monthly, which is good money when compared to a regular horseman who earned between $0.43 to $1.00 a day. 

The route of the Pony Express extended some 1,900 miles, from St. Joseph, Missouri roughly following the Oregon and California trails to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and then the Mormon Trail (also, Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah, the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada, and then over the Sierra into Sacramento, California.  The route was divided into five sections.  To maintain a rigid schedule, Pony Express established 157 relay stations located from 5 to 25 miles apart (depending on terrain).  At swing stations, riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones; home stations provided room and board for riders in between runs.  Riders averaged 75 miles per day.  In total, there were 190 stations en route, many located inside military forts, but most were either new structures or refurbished from already existing buildings and grounds.

The first westbound Pony Express trip commenced from St. Joseph on 3 April 1860, arriving in Sacramento on 14 April.  The first eastbound Pony Express trip departed Sacramento on 3 April and arrived in St. Joseph on 14 April.  At St. Joseph, the Pony Express mails were placed in the US Mail for delivery further eastward.

In May and June 1860, and Indian uprising among the Paiute tribe disrupted the Pony Express mail service, the one and only instance when the mail did not go through.  During this incident, the station located on the Carson River (near present-day Lake Lahontan) was attacked.  Five men were killed and Indians took the horses and set fire to the station.  Pony Express riders were a particular target for Paiute war parties.  In total, seven stations were burned, and 16 employees lost their lives, 150 horses were stolen or driven off, and the cost to the Pony Express Company was around $75,000 in livestock and real estate. 

Lightweight, but tough

Riding for Pony Express was difficult work; the men used as riders had to be lightweight but tough.  One Pony Express advertisement is said to have read: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen.  Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.  Orphans preferred.”  Writer Mark Twain described the Pony Express rider as, “Usually a little bit of a man.”  Despite their youth and size, the Pony Express Rider became a sort of Western hero.  One of these young riders was a man named William Frederick Cody, who most people remember as Buffalo Bill Cody [Note 6].

Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam is remembered as one of the more brave and most resourceful of the Pony Express riders.  He was born in England in 1840.  After working to construct way stations, Haslam was given the mail run from Lake Tahoe to Buckland’s station near Fort Churchill.  His greatest ride was 120 miles in 8 hours/20 minutes while wounded by an arrow into his jaw.  For all his brave accomplishments, though, Haslam died of a stroke while in deep poverty.  Bill Cody, a friend for many years, paid for Haslam’s tombstone.

Jack Keetley was one of the few riders who lasted as long as the Pony Express company, about 19 months.  Billy Tate, a 14-year old, didn’t last quite as long.  He carried the mail in Nevada near Ruby Valley.  During the Indian uprising, Billy was chased by a band of Paiute on horseback and was forced into the hills, where, behind rocks, he killed seven of his pursuers before being killed by the Indians.  When his body was discovered, it was riddled with arrows — but as a demonstration of respect, the Indians did not scalp him.

During its brief operations, the Pony Express delivered around 35,000 letters.  At the beginning, however, Alexander Majors publicly stated that Pony Express was “just a precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railroad.  Today, the National Pony Express Association is a national nonprofit, volunteer-led organization designed to preserve the original Pony Express trail in partnership with the National Park Service. 


  1. Chapman, A.  The Pony Express: the record of a romantic adventure in business.  Putnam & Sons, 1932.
  2. Fike, R. E. & J. W. Headley.  The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective.  Bureau of Land Management, 1979.
  3. Gallagher, W.  How the Post Office Created America: A History.  Penguin Books, 2017.
  4. Gavin, A. M.  Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America.  Prologue Magazine, 2009.
  5. Leonard, D.  Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service.  Grove Press, 2016.
  6. Rich, W. E.  The History of the United States Post Office to 1829.  Harvard University Press, 1924.
  7. Settle, R. W.  Saddles and Spurs.  University of Nebraska Press, 1955.
  8. Visscher, W. L.  A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express: Or, Blazing the Westward Way.  Rand McNally, 1908.


[1]  Our founding fathers not only researched and studied antiquity, they did so by reading it, understanding it, and translating it to American English from Greek and Latin.  

[2]  William Hepburn Russell (1812-1872) was born in Vermont but moved west to Missouri with his family in the 1820s.  In 1837, Russel helped to organize the Lexington First Addition company with William Waddell.  In 1844, using borrowed money, Russell and James Bullard established a partnership to open a general store.  E. C. McCarty soon joined the enterprise and the firm expanded into shipping goods to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Afterward, Russell became a partner with Waddell, Ramsey & Company.  In 1850, with James Brown and John Jones, Russell entered the military freighting business.  When Brown died in 1850, Waddell took his place and by 1854, Russell, Jones, and Waddell had a well-established military freighting business into New Mexico.

[3]  Alexander Majors (1814-1900) was originally from Kentucky.  In 1848, he was a freight hauler on the overland trail to New Mexico and established a  new time record of 92 days for a 1,564 mile journey round trip.  Eventually, Majors employed 4,000 men and by 1853 he held contracts to haul supplies for the U. S. Army.  He also had a hand in establishing the Kansas City stockyards, which became the national center for shipping beef to east and west coast merchants.  Joining with Russell and Waddell in 1854, Majors assumed responsibility for shipping operations, Waddell ran the office, and Russell used his political connections to gain government contracts.

[4]  William Bradford Waddell (1807-1872) was born in Fauquier County, Virginia and over several years made his way to Kentucky, Illinois, and then St. Louis, Missouri where he clerked for a dry goods store.  In 1837, he joined with Russell in establishing the Lexington First Addition Company, the Lexington Fire and Marine Insurance Company, and the Lexington Female Collegiate Institute.  In 1853, Waddell and Russell formed the wholesale trading firm for hauling freight to Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Union, New Mexico.  Alexander Majors joined this firm in 1855 and was able to secure a contract with the War Department to resupply military forts west of the Missouri River.

[5]  This term originally meant “to transport by sideless cart” … or dray.  Such carts were used to move goods short distances, limited by the capability of the dray horse.  Drayage typically took place at ports, spreading to canal and rail terminals.  We know drayage today as “delivery truck.”

[6]  W. F. Cody (1846-1917) was born in the Iowa Territory, lived for several years in Canada, and settled in the Kansas Territory.  Cody began working after his father died and he was eleven-years old.  At the age of 15, he rode for Pony Express.  Later, during the Indian Wars, Cody served in the Army as a scout.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1872. 

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Old West Communications | 2 Comments

Flying Hay

On 10 November 1827, one-hundred-fifty Indians confronted eighteen Texians in what is presently Wise County, Texas.  Despite being significantly outnumbered, Lieutenant A. B. Benthuysen and his men defeated the Indians, inflicting fifty casualties upon them while suffering ten casualties among his men.  It was called the Battle of the Knobs.  After this demonstration of superior fire power and Texian stubbornness, the Indians withdrew further west and their decision opened Wise County to white settlement. 

Wise County was officially established in 1856, named in honor of Virginia congressman Henry A. Wise, who supported the annexation of Texas by the United States.  There were a few slaveholders in Wise County, but not many — and opinions were mixed about the Civil War.  People favoring the Union were persecuted by secessionists.  A few unionists were lynched, but it could have been worse.  In nearby Cooke County, forty-one men were lynched and two additional men were “shot while trying to escape” by Confederate soldiers.

The seat of Wise County is Decatur.  Fifteen miles south is another Texas town — Aurora.  It isn’t a very large town, as towns in Texas go.  It only occupies an area of about four square miles.  There are less than 900 people living in Aurora.  Besides the incident with Indians in 1827, there is but one additional “claim to fame.”  It is that, according to some, the good citizens of Aurora, Texas witnessed the crash of an extraterrestrial vehicle — in 1897.  

Whether or not true, the “incident” received the attention of the Dallas Morning News.  And, like the incident that occurred in Roswell, New Mexico fifty years later, the alien pilot was killed and interred in a local cemetery.  A tombstone was placed on the alien’s grave, but it has since been removed to help prevent the theft of the pilot’s remains — people like to collect things.  Before burial, a U. S. Army Signal Corps officer inspected the body and proclaimed it was “not of this world.”  The good news is that the alien was given a Christian burial.  The bad news is that the cemetery refused to allow any further examination of the alien’s remains.  So, there. 

In an interesting discussion of this incident in 2011, writer David Moye made a few interesting observations about the Aurora incident.  The first is that two reasonably well-educated individuals give credence to the claim that there have been more than a hundred “UFO” sightings between 1840 and 1900.  Noe Torres is a librarian in South Texas; John LeMay is a archivist in Roswell, New Mexico.

John LeMay, commenting on the Dallas Morning News article, points to the fact that the newspaper referred to the alien remains in Aurora as a “Martian.”  LeMay says this is understandable because, at the time, most people believed that if there was life in outer space, Mars would be the most likely place for it.

Mr. Torres claims that not only were there hundreds of sightings between 1840 and 1900, but they were reported in the Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, New York Times, and San Francisco Call.  But most interesting to Torres and LeMay is the manner in which these sightings were described.  Before air travel, before helium balloons, people had no frame of reference to aeronautical craft.  So what people reported seeing was flying serpents, metallic balloons, and a huge bale of hay on fire going through the air.  LeMay concludes that the descriptions may sound silly, but they also give the sightings credibility.  How else should a simple farmer describe a spaceship?

One final notation, which is also interesting.  Newspaper journalists in the 19th Century reported what witnesses told them — and did so without trying to make the witness seem as if he (or she) was three bubbles off plumb.  The witnesses were given respect and some appreciation for reporting what they saw — what they did not understand.

Cowboys and Aliens?  Perhaps the story is true, but maybe not.  It is a curious story though.

Posted in American Southwest, History, Texas, Very Strange | Tagged | 4 Comments