A Tale of Southwest Texas

Texas was always — and remains today — a place best suited to Texans.  You can visit Texas, of course, and many people do enjoy a family holiday along San Antonio’s River Walk and visiting the Alamo (which looks nothing like it did in 1836), but until one lives in Texas, it is impossible to identify with Texas culture.  It was always the land, the climate and weather patterns, and the dangers associated with wilderness living that shaped Texas culture, and this is as true today as it was in 1820.  Texas, of course, is a vast land divided into regions that extend from the piney woods of the swampy east, across wide pasture lands, and across arid deserts.  Texas travel in the 1800s wasn’t impossible, of course … nothing is impossible for Texans, but it was time consuming and very difficult.

In modern times, it is possible to travel from San Antonio to Austin in a little more than an hour (depending on traffic (which gets steadily worse with each passing year).  The distance is around 67 miles.  In 1820, though, it was the difficulty of travel and the ever-present danger of hostile Indians that limited human settlements in Mexico’s northern territories.

In 1820, there were three modes of travel in Texas: walking, horseback, or riding inside Conestoga wagons.  The wagons were too heavy for horses, so two to four oxen were used.  Oxen were slow as they struggled to negotiate rough, rocky, and at some places impassable terrain features.  Winters were frigid, typical summer weather ranged from wet and humid to arid and searing.  More than a few people drowned as they were caught in the flash floods of deep arroyos and while crossing raging rivers, and the dust storms made people choke on thick Texas dust.  Not everyone that “set off” on a journey in Texas arrived at their destinations; there were probably a hundred reasons why some folks just “disappeared.”  Danger was always just “up ahead.”

In 1860, the American people were amazed by the accomplishments of rugged, dare-devil Pony Express riders.  These were stalwart young men who rode out of St. Joseph, Missouri carrying mail pouches to Sacramento, California — a distance of around 1,700 miles.  Express riders moved the mail 75-miles per day — but in order to achieve this feat, they changed horses every ten or so miles.  The early Texans didn’t have the luxury of changing horses; they were lucky to have a single horse, or a mule, and oxen weren’t known for speed.

Colonists from the United States began arriving in Texas in the 1820s to establish Anglo settlements.  The process of Texas colonization involved several empresarios, each responsible for settling 300 to 400 families from the United States. Each colony had a central settlement that was usually established near a source of water.  Land grants (also, homesteads) took on a more or less circular pattern around the settlements and many of these were also near rivers, creeks, or streams.  Two of the earliest colonies established in present-day Victoria (founded by Martin de León in 1824), and Gonzalez (founded by Green DeWitt in 1825).  The distance from Victoria to San Antonio is around 115 miles and around 75 miles between Gonzalez and San Antonio.  It would take an ox-drawn wagon ten to twelve days to travel from Victoria to San Antonio … an expanse characterized by rugged terrain where water for animal and human consumption was always a concern.

El Paso, Texas is in the extreme southwest region of Texas.  Its location has been settled by humans for a few thousand years.  The Spanish established a settlement there in 1598.  For two hundred years, El Paso was little more than a collection of Hispanic communities and in no way similar to modern El Paso.  It wasn’t until 1848 that anyone gave much thought to a roadway to facilitate trade between San Antonio and El Paso.  The country was not only rough, but the climate ranged from frigid to hell on earth, and of concern to travelers, it cut through the Comancheria.  That fact alone discouraged white exploration.  But in 1848, San Antonio businessmen hired famed Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays to find a suitable route.

Captain Hays’ expedition of Texas Rangers took four months, and in that time, they managed to travel as far as Presidio — a distance of around 450 miles — before running out of food and water.  The Hays expedition was a bust.  A year later, gold seekers began arriving by ship along the Texas Gulf Coast and then traveling overland to San Antonio in their effort to find a land route across South Texas to California.

In a short time, San Antonio was teeming with prospectors; local businessmen began clamoring for a road to El Paso.  Eventually, Major General William J. Worth ordered First Lieutenant William H. C. Whiting and Second Lieutenant William Farrar Smith to find a suitable overland route to El Paso.  Worth ordered the expedition to follow Captain Hays’ trail to Presidio and then continue up the Rio Grande to El Paso.  Such is the burden of lieutenants (then and now).

The Whiting expedition made the journey to El Paso, but Whiting was dissatisfied with the route taken, so on his return trip, the party took a different route.  From El Paso, Whiting led his men down the Rio Grande for a hundred miles, and then headed east toward the Pecos River.  They followed the Pecos River to the Devil’s River, and back to the Rio Grande, and then eastward to San Antonio.  Well, it was an expedition of discovery, after all … and Whiting was a lieutenant.

During Whiting’s absence from San Antonio, General Worth died from Cholera.  His replacement was Brigadier General William S. Harney.  Harney ordered Lieutenant Smith to accompany Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston on another survey expedition to El Paso.  Johnston’s command included one company of the 1st Infantry Regiment, six companies of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, and a train of California-bound immigrants.  Initially, this route became known as the as the Military Road — later, as the San Antonio-El Paso Road.

Men can live far longer without food than they can without water.  There’s almost nowhere one should go in Texas without water — not even if traveling in modern conveyances.  The San Antonio-El Paso Road was judged important enough to make it work.  In 1850, a supply train formed in Uvalde, 85 miles due west of San Antonio.  When the train departed Fort Inge, it consisted of 340 wagons, 4,000 animals, 450 civilians, and 175 soldiers.  Note: In 1850, there was no US Cavalry, so those soldiers, as infantry, marched the entire way. 

To safeguard cargo, mail, and travelers from Indians and bandits along the Military Road, the US Army constructed a series of fortifications.  From east to west, these included forts named Inge, Clark, Lancaster, Stockton, Davis, Quitman, and Bliss.[1]

Fort Stockton was established in the area known as Comanche Springs.  It was characterized by a few scattered Indian villages, first discovered by white men in 1849.  In Lieutenant Whiting’s journal, he described Comanche Springs as being “near” the Comanche Trail leading toward Chihuahua, Mexico.  What made Comanche Springs ideal was its proximity to water.  This was the site chosen for Camp Stockton, established in 1859.  Camp Stockton’s mission was the protection of travelers along the Military Road, Comanche Trail, and the San Antonio-Chihuahua freight wagon road.  Camp Stockton never provided much in the way of protection, however.  Infantry (foot) patrols would not have extended much beyond a ten mile radius of the camp, and no one thought foot patrols were very effective against horse-mounted Comanche.

Camp Stockton was named in honor of First Lieutenant Edward Dorsey Stockton of the US First Infantry, who died in San Antonio, Texas in 1857.  Soldiers assigned to the 1st and 8th Infantry Regiment completed the initial construction of Camp Stockton — garrisoned by Company H, 1st US Infantry.  When the American Civil War broke out, US troops were withdrawn from West Texas and dispatched back east. Abandoned, the camp deteriorated and remained dilapidated until 1867 when Colonel Edward Hatch of the 9th US Cavalry[2] reestablished it as Fort Stockton.  The new facility, intending to house four companies of the 9th Cavalry, was much larger than the original — in total, 960 acres, 35 buildings, including one of the first, a guard house.  Most of the buildings were constructed of adobe.

In 1875, the 9th Cavalry was ordered to proceed to New Mexico.  Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s 10th US Cavalry assumed responsibility for the Military Road.  Between 1867-1886, 87% of the soldiers assigned to Fort Stockton were Buffalo Soldiers — noted for their courage under fire and their tenacity in combat.  It was also during this time that Fort Stockton hired civilians to work as freighters, laborers, farmers, stockmen, and merchants.

In time, entrepreneurs from San Antonio evaluated the water source and thought that the area was suitable for a town.  They purchased large tracts of land for agricultural development.  One of these men was Peter Gallagher, who purchased 160 acres for a townsite.  He named this town Saint Gaul.  Gallagher build two stores at Comanche Springs and purchased additional property along Comanche Creek.  By 1870, 450 people lived around Comanche Springs/St. Gaul — mostly people who migrated there from San Antonio.

In 1871, with the organization of Pecos County, St. Gaul became the county seat.  Within four years, the population increased to around 1,100 souls.  If there was one thing the citizens of St. Gaul could not abide, it was the name of their town.  In 1881, the town’s name was changed to Fort Stockton.  With the conclusion of the Indian Wars in 1886, Fort Stockton was closed and abandoned.  Naturally, closure of the fort had a negative impact on the town’s economy.

Violence was never a stranger to Texas.  If the Indians weren’t killing Mexicans, they were killing Texans.  Texans returned the favor. When Texans and Mexicans ran out of Indians, they started killing each other. Neither was there ever a shortage of well-heeled ornery fellows just looking for a fight with other Texans.

One of these cantankerous fellows was Andrew J. Royal (1855-1894).  A.J. was still a young man when he left his home in Alabama and headed west where he first settled in Fort Worth and found work on the railroad.  In 1879, living in Coryell County, A.J. married Naomi Christmas.  Eventually, the Royal’s would raise one son and six daughters. 

After a few years, AJ moved his brood to Junction, Texas where he established a saloon and a ranch just outside town.  After being indicted for murder (there is no information about a subsequent trial), Royal moved his family to Pecos County, settling there in 1889.  Royal started another ranch outside Fort Stockton, and he opened another saloon he named the Gray Mule.

Royal was more than ornery — he was a bully.  During an argument with one of his saloon employees, Royal unholstered his weapon and shot the man dead, which one must admit is one way of resolving labor disputes.  Since Royal was never charged with murder, one wonder about the “other side” of the story.  The truly amazing thing, though, was that shortly after the shooting, the citizens of Pecos County elected A. J. Royal as their sheriff.  To some, Royal was a no-nonsense West Texas lawman but to others, he was a very dangerous, and a very abusive man.  Some say that he punished minor offenses by horse-whipping the accused — and if the fellow happened to be just passing through, after the whipping he warned the miscreant to “go on and git,” and “don’t come back.”  This is not how modern people define community policing, but AJ was apparently opposed to wasting taxpayer funds with costly trials. 

The longer Royal served as sheriff, the more abusive he became — even to the extent of threatening key businessmen in Fort Stockton.  He even threatened the County Judge and County Clerk, Mr. O. W. Williams, and Mr. W. P. Matthews  — neither of whom supported Royal’s reelection.  AJ was a simple man.  Either you supported him, or you were against him.

In early August 1894, while sitting at a card table drinking whiskey in his own saloon, Royal scribbled a note addressed to brothers Frank and James Rooney, two unsupportive local merchants.  To AJ, the note amounted to a fair warning that he intended to “wipe them out.”  Royal knew at the time that both men were at Koehler’s store, across the street, so that’s where he sent his messenger.  Royal later denied he sent any such note, but the messenger ratted him out.

Later in the day, Royal went to Koehler’s Store looking for the Rooney’s.  James Rooney spotted Royal entering his store with weapon in hand and hammer cocked.  Employing extremely good judgment, James withdrew to a small closet in the back of the store.  When Royal found no one inside, he turned to leave.  James Rooney then displayed less than good judgment when he came out of the closet armed with a shotgun.  Royal and Rooney both fired their weapons, but neither man was hit.

By the time the gun smoke cleared, both men had left Koehler’s Store.  Rooney high-tailed it back to his own place and Royal went to summon his deputies.  Soon after, Sheriff Royal surrounded Koehler’s store and threatened to burn it down if the Rooney brothers didn’t present themselves.  Frank and James Rooney and W. P. Matthews surrendered to the Sheriff, who promptly marched them to the Justice of the Peace for arraignment.  Realizing that they were in grave danger, all three men told the JP that they wanted to appear before the Grand Jury of the County Court.  He granted their request and released them pending formal arraignment.

A month later, the three men faced the grand jury, which, as it turned out, was mostly comprised of Sheriff Royal’s personal friends.  After deliberating through the consumption of a bottle of free whiskey, courtesy of the Gray Mule Saloon, the grand jury issued indictments against the Rooney brothers, Matthews, and several of their anti-Royal friends.  There were no formal charges filed against anyone, only indictments — which was a bit strange even for Pecos County.

Everyone indicted was soon arrested.  The justice of the peace, known as an avid supporter of AJ Royal, denied bail.  That’s when County Judge O. W. Williams stepped in and ordered the men released.[3]  The situation was a “range war” in the making, so Judge Williams wasted no time asking for the assistance of Texas Rangers.

Ranger Sergeant Carl Kirchner of Company D, soon arrived in Fort Stockton with five men.  After listening to William’s chronicle of events, Kirchner drew aside the indicted men and strongly suggested, “If I was you, I’d arm myself.”  Judge Walter Gillis of the 41st Texas Judicial District Court thought that Sergeant Kirchner had offered good advice.  It was at this point that AJ Royal became concerned about his prospects for reelection.

The way AJ looked at it, what he needed to secure reelection was the support of the Mexican community — essentially, the same people he’d been abusing with some regularity since arriving in Fort Stockton.  To gain the support of local Hispanics, Royal “released” a prisoner named Victor Ochoa, apparently with the expectation that Ochoa would encourage local Mexicans to help reelect Royal.

Victor may not have been the brightest of the Ochoa clan, but neither was he stupid.  When Sergeant Kirchner learned the details of Ochoa’s “release” from jail, he promptly arrested Sheriff Royal along with deputies Barney Riggs, J. P. Meadows, and Camilio Terrazas.  Rangers also filed charges against Royal for unlawful assault.

Enraged, AJ filed charges against Judge Williams, the Livingston Brothers, and Shipton Parke for smuggling stolen horses.  Sergeant Kirchner arrested them too, but come election day, Sheriff Royal was out of a job.

After the county court adjourned in the afternoon of 21 November 1894, Sheriff Royal (whose term of office expired at the end of December) was puttering around inside the court house when two blasts from a shotgun rang out.  Someone — no one knew who — had shot Sheriff Royal, who was mortally wounded.

When Judge Williams went to investigate the shots, he found a number of townsmen standing in the doorway of the Sheriff’s office calmly observing AJ Royal as he bled out.  A few of the men may have been taking bets on how long it would take.  Everyone heard the shot, but no one could say for sure who did the shooting.  Some people thought that the shooter was the fellow who drew the shortest straw — but no one knew for certain who that might be.[4]

One of A. J. Royal’s deputies was a fellow named Barney Riggs.  We’ll hear about Barney next week.


  1. Pecos County Historical Commission.  Pecos County History (two volumes), Canyon Texas: Staked Plains, 1984.
  2. Happle, M. A.  Andrew Jackson Royal.  Permian Historical Annual No. 24, 199984.
  3. Williams, C. W.  Texas’ Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861-1895.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982.


[1] We have visited Fort Stockton and Fort Davis, which is not far from Alpine.  Neither of these posts were fortified in the way Hollywood depicted them in films.  There were no wooden fortifications.  The reason for this, according to a park ranger, was that there was no suitable wood in Texas.  Instead, the camp was surrounded by a series of fighting trenches.  Behind both Stockton and Davis are hills that overlook the camp.  We wondered if any attacks ever came from those hills.  In the dark, Indians would be inside the camp before anyone knew it, which is not where I would want to fight a Comanche or Apache.

[2] Buffalo Soldiers.

[3] In Texas, county judges exercise “original jurisdiction” and serve as courts of record and exclusive authority over Class A and Class B misdemeanors, act as supervisory authority over civil cases, and preside over the county court.  These are elected officials who serve four year terms in office.  County judges act as the appellate authority over justices of the peace.

[4] Sheriff Royal’s desk is now housed in the Annie Riggs Museum; Royal’s bloodstain can still be observed in one of the drawers.  The Gray Mule Saloon is now a coffee shop and art gallery.  Koehler’s Store was later converted to a bank, but now serves as a community center.  Annie Riggs Museum has a framed newspaper headline of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  When my wife and I commented to the curator that we remembered that day, she said, “Wow, you must be old.” 

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, History, Indian Territory, Justice, Society, Texas, Texas Rangers | 2 Comments

Cowboys in Neckties

Some background

The United States is a nation of immigrants.  Between 1580 and 1775, the population of Europeans went from zero to around 3.5 million.  They arrived in waves, of course, and the attitudes toward new arrivals vacillated between enthusiastic welcome and dark exclusion.  European settlements began to dot the Eastern seaboard in the early 1600s.  The Spanish settled Florida, the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York, and the Swedes in Delaware.  Some of these people came for religious reasons, others were drawn to the prospect of a new beginning, and some to escape poverty, landlessness, and authoritarianism.  The first arrivals laid claim to the best property nearest the seacoast; later arrivals claimed the western lands.  By the mid-1700s, much of the Eastern seaboard lands had been taken, which meant that later arrivals were forced further west, beyond the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and eventually, to its western slopes.

Western Frontier

Immigrants arriving in waves is a good analogy; there was a continuous influx of humanity, which forced the new Americans westward, always westward.  In this sense, the American frontier may have been more of a necessity than an inspiration.  Still, either way, it was a challenge to a people whose courage matched their determination.

I do not believe most of us can imagine the difficulty of the challenges facing the westward migrants. Severe injury and death were always “just around the corner.”  There were no doctors of any merit in those early days, so people who were seriously injured probably died from those injuries.  Disease was another major killer, along with drowning in the numerous streams, creeks, and rivers — particularly during seasonal floods.  Predatory animals posed a genuine concern, but they were of less concern to the Europeans than predacious Indians.

The frontiersmen moved westward in spurts; some of the settlers made a westward leap more than once.  Of course, the settlements were necessary for survival and unknown to the migrants, stepping stones toward the future.  The barely adequate settlements transitioned into villages, and then towns, and then cities and the ever-westward moving people became the seeds from which America flowered.  

In bits and pieces, the frontier shrank until finally, it disappeared completely.  Before then, just outside the villages and towns, within a few hundred meters, the wilderness resumed.  Today’s old west towns were once part of that American frontier — all of them at one time vibrant and alive with a wide variety of human beings.  Some of these people remained behind as the westward trek continued for others.  They put down their roots … at least for a time.  One of the oldest settlements (dating to 1775) was Tucson, Arizona, a major US city that flourishes.  A few miles away, to the southeast, there is another old town.  It isn’t as old as Tucson, of course, but it still exists — but only as a tourist trap.  They call it Tombstone (established in 1879).  Tres Alamos was a thriving town in 1875; it became one of many ghost towns in fourteen years.

Life was unbelievably difficult for many men and women who became the westward pioneers.  I am sure that the frontier men and women always did their best to raise their children, but there were occasions when their best simply wasn’t good enough.  Frontier families were always under a lot of stress.  Approaching their breaking point, angry fathers and mothers became disinterested in their children.  In some cases, the children were “just another place at the table.”  Daughters were “married off” at an early age.  Boys as young as twelve left home to find their way in the world.  In the mid-1800s, boys weren’t runaways — they were people looking for work.

Impact of the Civil War

Two million soldiers fought for the Union; 750,000 fought for the Confederacy.  Most of the men who fought, regardless of which uniform they wore, were farmers.  The average civil war soldier was in his early twenties.  If there was only one accomplishment of the American Civil War, it produced men capable of remorseless killing — a true statement no matter which side the soldier served.  When these young men returned to their homes, they found one of two things: destroyed homesteads or unemployment.  If things were wrong in the northern states, it was doubly so in the south.  Within the former Confederate states, reconstruction was nowhere more difficult than in Texas.

Whether they left home at an early age or returned home to destroyed communities, many of these boys emerged from their circumstances as troubled persons.  Most of them were entirely too susceptible to the harmful influences of their peers.  In almost every case, troubled young men turned into dangerous young men.

John Heath’s Master Plan

One such lad was a fellow named John Wesley Heath.  We don’t know much about his early years.  Some historians claim that he was born in Ohio in 1844; others say he was born in Texas in 1855, but according to “Find-A-Grave,” he was born in 1851 in Bowie County, Texas.  Either way, while living with his parents in Terrell, Texas, the teenaged John was implicated in two serious incidents: cattle rustling, and the other was armed robbery, although no one was ever charged.  It is uncertain whether the incident was related to a family enterprise.  When John was 20-years old, he married Jenny Ferrell, but their marriage is about all historians know about Miss Jenny.

Cochise County, Arizona, was a wild and dangerous place in the 1880s, and for several reasons.  The discovery of silver in Cochise Country drew thousands of prospectors and miners looking for that vein of ore that would make them rich.  To accommodate these men when they weren’t inside the mines, and to help them decide where to spend their money, dozens of saloons provided all the usual entertainments: rotgut whiskey, gambling tables, and painted ladies.  Such amusements were available around the clock.  The County was also rife with corrupt politicians, lawmen, and judges.  Opposing outlaw groups fought one another in the streets, and more than a few merchants were willing to do anything for a fast buck.

And then there was a loose collection of misfits and cowhands who individually and collectively posed a real danger to the innocent town folk.  They called themselves The Cowboys, easily identified by the red sash they wore around their waists.  They were dangerous men whose names were John Ringo, Billy Brocius, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury — to name a few.

Of all the criminal elements in Cochise County (the drunks, gamblers, cheats, and gunmen), the Cowboys were the worst of the lot — dangerous men who were bullies, thieves, and terrorists.  They operated with impunity in Southeast Arizona, aided and abetted by county lawmen.  They also made frequent raids into Mexico where they rustled cattle and horses, raped, pillaged local rancheros, and set fire to ranchos and graneros — warnings to the owners of Mexican haciendas not to resist their decadent behaviors.  The stolen cattle were often sold to butchers in Benson, Bisbee, Charleston, Douglas, and Tombstone, who made a good living by offering stolen meat to their town folk, which the townies were happy to buy at reduced prices.

John Heath (Pictured right) c.1880

John Heath was living in Bisbee, Cochise County, Arizona, in 1880, where briefly employed as a deputy sheriff.  The pay for this kind of work was relatively low, and the deputy’s duties mind-numbingly dull.  Low income and idle hands too often led old west lawmen, like John, to find other ways to line his pockets — in many cases, money earned by breaking the laws they were sworn to uphold.

Eventually, John Heath gave up his position as a deputy to open up a Bisbee saloon.  By every account, Heath made a good living in the entertainment industry.  The Cowboys were his frequent customers.  Of course, while John made good money, there was never enough, so John Heath sat down and thought about increasing his bottom line.  Assisting John were his good friends, fellows named James “Tex” Howard, “Big Dan” Dowd, Omer “Red” Sample, Billy DeLaney, and Dan “York” Kelly.

Since there was no bank in Bisbee, the Copper Queen Mine owners contracted with the Goldwater & Castaneda Mercantile Store to receive and store their payroll until dispensed to their employees. Typically, the monthly payroll money amounted to around $7,000.00, arriving in Bisbee one or two days in advance of the company’s scheduled “payday,” the tenth of each month.

Heath’s associates rode into Bisbee on the evening of 8 December 1883 and tethered their horses to the hitching rail outside the company’s smelter at the end of Main Street.  Tex Howard led two of the men into the store while two others remained outside.  Unlike the other boys, Tex had left his kerchief at home that day, so of the three, Tex was the only man the store clerk and customers could later identify.  Tex entered the store brandishing his pistol.  “I’ll be taking the mine payroll,” he announced.

The one snag in Heath’s plan, which came as a surprise to Tex Howard, was that the payroll was late to arrive.  Howard, who was known for his somewhat grumpy disposition, was not happy to hear this news.  He raised enough of a fuss that the two outside men quickly put on their face masks and ran inside.

Tex Howard forced the store owner to open his safe, which contained around $800 and a gold watch.  It was far less money than Howard expected and, since his mood hadn’t changed significantly, he decided to rob everyone inside the store, as well.  The two backup cowboys went back outside to “keep watch.”

Thanks to Howard’s cussing and shouting, the town folk were aware that something was going on inside the G & C store.  As local assayer, Mr.  J. C. Tappenier left the Bon Ton Saloon, which was next door to the mercantile store, one of the cowboys ordered him back inside.  Tappenier, who may have had a few too many drinks, belligerently answered, “I will not go back inside.”  One of the lookouts, armed with a rifle, shot Mr. Tappenier dead.

At that moment, Cochise County Deputy Sheriff D. T. Smith was having dinner with his wife at the Bisbee House, a local restaurant (which no doubt served stolen beef steaks).  Hearing the report of a rifle nearby, Deputy Smith rushed outside.  He saw Tappenier laying in front of the saloon and a cowboy standing not far away with a rifle.  Smith identified himself as a lawman and demanded to know what was going on.  The cowboy responded by shooting Smith, as well.

Mrs. Annie Roberts and her husband owned the Bisbee House restaurant.  Although with child, Annie waited tables.  She, too, heard the two rifle shots and went to the door to see what was going on.  The cowboy saw her in the doorway and shot her, as well.  The bullet killed her baby and severed her spine.  Local teamster John Nolly was, at that moment, standing next to his wagon when the cowboy shot him in the chest.  Both Nolly and Mrs. Roberts died later that evening.

With a bag full of loot, Tex Howard and his affiliates ran from the store and headed for their horses outside the smelter, shooting at everyone they saw.  Sheriff’s deputy Billy Daniels ran out of a saloon and emptied his pistol at the fleeing robbers but failed to hit anyone.  Tex and his four cohorts rode to a place known locally as Soldier’s Hole, and this is where they divided up their loot before going their separate ways.

Serving Old West Justice

Within a few minutes, Deputy Daniels dispatched riders to Tombstone to notify Cochise County Sheriff Jerome Ward of what had happened and then formed two posse groups to pursue the murderers.  Daniels deputized saloon owner John Heath, his friend, gambler Henry Frost, and a third man named Nathan Waite to lead the first posse.  At daybreak on 9 December, Daniels led the second posse, which soon overtook Heath’s group.  Heath informed Daniels that it appeared to him that the horsemen had split up.  Three horse tracks headed east, he said, and there was a sign that two horsemen had headed south toward Tombstone.  Daniels was skeptical but told Heath to take his men and follow the southward track.  Both groups lost the trail.  Heath and his men, with their horses exhausted, spent that night in Tombstone; Daniels and his posse returned to Bisbee in the evening.

On 10 December, Heath, Frost, and Waite met with under-sheriff Wallace in Tombstone and then returned to Bisbee.  The next day, Sheriff Ward arrested Heath and Waite as suspected accomplices in the robbery.  Ward released Waite after a few hours of interrogation but retained Heath in custody.  The basis for Heath’s arrest was that Deputy Daniels believed Heath misled him about the horse tracks going off in different directions.

Meanwhile, the Copper Queen Mine owners offered a $2,000.00 reward for the capture and conviction of the thieving, murdering cowboys.  It would not be easy to pinpoint all the robbers since 80% were wearing masks to conceal their identity.  Tex Howard, however, was rather quickly identified as one of the five desperados. It didn’t take Daniels long to identify the other four, however.  Tex Howard was a known associate of Heath and both Heath and Howard seen in the company of Dowd, Sample, DeLaney, and Kelly over at the nearby Buckles Ranch.

The first of the five outlaws arrested was York Kelly, taken into custody at Deming, New Mexico.  Tex Howard and Red Sample made the mistake of returning to their hangout in Clifton.  While in Clifton, Howard and Sample visited with their pal Walt Bush, who tended bar at a local saloon.  After a few drinks, Howard and Sample spoke of what they’d done, and Bush notified the town marshal.  Within a few days, lawmen arrested both men and placed them in jail.  Dowd and DeLaney made their escape to Sonora, Mexico.

Deputy Daniels rode to Sonora, working on a hunch where he soon determined that a gringo matching Dowd’s description was over in Los Corralitos, just outside Sonora — where Daniels arrested him.  A few days later, Daniels and Deputy Bob Hatch arrested DeLaney in the small Mexican town of Minas Prietas.  DeLaney was vacationing in a Mexican jail cell on account of getting into a fight with another fellow at a local cantina.  Given the reward, Mexican officials were happy to release DeLaney into Daniel’s and Hatch’s custody.

The Trial

William Herring

On 6 February, a county grand jury delivered indictments against Howard, Dowd, Sample, DeLaney, and Kelly.  The accused hired attorneys James Southard, Thomas Drum, F. V. Price, William Herring,[1] and Colonel Stanford to represent them.  Their trial began on 17 February 1884, and the evidence against the defendants was overwhelmingly conclusive.  Local town folk recognized four of the five either during the robbery or as they ran from the mercantile store.  The trial lasted for three days, after which the jury deliberated for about an hour before delivering their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder.  Upon hearing the jury’s verdict, Kelly reportedly remarked, “Well, boys, hemp seems to be trumps.”

Defense attorneys immediately moved for a new trial, but Judge Daniel Pinney denied the motion and proceeded to sentence.  All five men would hang.

John Heath requested a separate trial, which convened on 12 February.  William Herring represented him.  The prosecution was unable to produce a single witness who could tie Heath to the robbery. Herring offered the proposition that while his client undoubtedly knew the other defendants, there was no evidence that Heath had conspired with them to commit the robbery.  County Attorney Marcus Smith was resourceful, however.  Smith located a prisoner who could testify against Heath.  Sergeant L. D. Lawrence, assigned to the Third Cavalry Regiment, had been indicted for killing two men during a saloon brawl in Wilcox.  Jailers had placed Heath and the other defendants in Lawrence’s cell while awaiting trial.

Sergeant Lawrence offered courtroom testimony that he had overheard Heath and the others talking about the robbery and then moaning about how the plan had failed.  Herring questioned Lawrence about whether he had made a deal with Attorney Smith for a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony.  Lawrence swore that he had not made any deals with Smith.[2]  In any case, Lawrence’s testimony was enough to secure a guilty verdict for second-degree murder.  Judge Pinney sentenced Heath to life in the Arizona Territorial Prison.

Post-Trial Vigilance Committee

It is definitely true that some men in the world do not, and never did, have a sense of humor.  The menfolk of Cochise County were among them, and they were not happy with Judge Pinney’s sentence.  On 21 February 1884, a large mob of armed men gathered in and around the saloons of Tombstone, Arizona, not far from where John Heath awaited his sentence.  There were several “committees” that, over some space of time, were reduced to one committee of seven elected men.  Their task was to enter the Tombstone courthouse, retrieve John Heath from his cell so that they could adequately consider an appeal of his sentence.

Heath Lynched

The County Jailer assumed that the loud knock at his door was from a Chinese cook scheduled to bring breakfast to the jailhouse.  When the jailer answered the knock, seven burly men forced themselves inside, pointing their guns at the sheriff and jailers.  The Committee of Seven convinced Sheriff Ward to release John Heath into their care.  No — they didn’t want those other five men; they’d only come for Heath.  Sheriff Ward put up a struggle to prevent Heath’s release, but it was to no avail.

With John Heath firmly in tow, the committee marched from the county jail/courthouse over to the intersection of First and Toughnut Street, stopping at the first telegraph pole encountered.  As one man climbed the telegraph pole and rigged it with a rope, Heath said to the men, “Boys, you are hanging an innocent man, and you will find this out before those other men are hung.  I have but one favor to ask: that you will not mutilate my body by shooting it after I am hung.”

Once the committee agreed not to mutilate his body, John Heath stopped struggling and allowed the men to place a blindfold over his eyes.  After placing the noose around his neck, the vigilance committee then began hauling his body up the telegraph pole where the gathered men could watch him strangle to death.  When it was certain that John Heath was dead, someone put a sign on the telegraph pole that read, in part: “John Heath was hanged to this pole by the citizens of Cochise County at 8:00 a.m. on 22 February 1884, Washington’s Birthday.  Advance, Arizona.”

Tombstone medical doctor and coroner George E. Goodfellow, apparently a man with a good sense of humor, listed the cause of death as “self-inflicted emphysema of the lungs.”  

Thus endeth the story of John Wesley Heath. As for the other boys — Heath’s playmates — they came to an end as well.  The town undertaker buried their remains in the Tombstone “Boot Hill” cemetery.  The execution of Howard, Dowd, Sample, DeLaney and Kelly was Tombstone’s first legal hanging — and the second, third, fourth, and fifth.  As brutal as the hangings might sound, none of these men ever again robbed or murdered anyone.


[1] William Herring was the father of Sarah Herring Sorin, Arizona’s first female attorney.  Some accounts identify Herring as a member of the Cochise County Vigilance Committee.  This would be very interesting,  if true.

[2] At Lawrence’s trial, he was represented by an attorney associated with Smith’s private law firm.  Appearing before Judge Pinney, Lawrence was convicted of manslaughter and served two years in the Arizona Territorial prison.

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, Civil War, Colonial America, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Texas | 4 Comments

The Hillbilly Wars


The term “red neck” originated from the red bandanas worn around the necks of laborers to absorb the sweat from working in the hot sun.  There’s nothing wrong with honest work, of course, but people who regard themselves as better than everyone else like to use such terms to describe “lower-class” white men.  They also use such terms as “cracker,” generally applied to working class Texans, Georgians, and Floridians.  Originally, “cracker” was the term used to describe Florida and Georgia cowboys who cracked whips above the heads of cattle to herd them from one pasture to another.  Other terms include “hillbilly” for those living in Appalachia.

More recently, America’s so-called social elite have demonstrated a penchant for lumping all these honest, hard-working folks together as “simple people who prefer their bibles and guns.”  This term originated with former President Barack Obama, who isn’t one-hundred percent sure who his father was, so he invented a few scenarios to explain his lineage while seizing a presidential latitude in labeling others. 

Word associations are interesting things.  Mention the words Kentucky Hillbilly to most people, and they immediately think of feuding mountain folk.  Who hasn’t heard of the Hatfield-McCoy feud?  It has been the subject of stories and songs handed down for well over one-hundred years and fictionally recounted in Hollywood films and television series.

Early Kentucky

The original territory of Virginia was never quite as large as the Roman Empire, but it may have seemed that way to those who began their westward migration along the Wilderness Road.  At one time, Virginia consisted of portions of present-day Illinois, Southern Indiana, and Kentucky.

James Harrod founded the first European settlement in Kentucky in 1774 at the present-day site of Harrodsburg.  On 31 December 1776, an act of the Virginia General Assembly created the county of Kentucky from what was then termed the Ken-tuck-ee Territory.  The county seat was established at Oldtown (also, Harrod’s Town).  Additional counties were established after 1780, but each of these were centrally governed as Virginia’s District of Kentucky.  Between 1784 and 1792, people living in Kentucky held ten constitutional conventions, each one ending with a petition addressed to the either the Virginia General Assembly or the Confederation Congress for separation from Virginia and statehood.  One petition that had finally received the assent of the Virginia General Assembly was unfortunately introduced at about the same time the United States was attempting to secure ratification of the new Constitution, which delayed consideration for Kentucky statehood.

On 18 December 1789, Virginia once more gave its consent for Kentucky statehood; the US Congress gave its approval on 4 February 1791, and Kentucky became the fifteenth state of the Union on 1 June 1792.  Virginian Isaac Shelby became Kentucky’s first Governor.

Ranked as the United States’ 37th largest state in total area, a significant portion of the state is located in Appalachia, also known as the Cumberland Plateau.  It is into this region that many of Kentucky’s earliest migrants settled.  If any part of early America could be called a wilderness, Appalachia is that place.  It is rugged, isolated, and in the 1770s, a thoroughly dangerous place for white settlers.  According to one government report in 1790, Kentucky Indians killed fifteen-hundred settlers between 1783 and 1789.  Hostilities increased dramatically as hundreds of settlers made their westward journey over the Wilderness Road.

Generally, the term Appalachia refers to a geographical area that extends from the southern tier of New York to northern Alabama and Georgia.  The mountain region, however, stretches from Belle Isle, Canada to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama and includes the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey mountains.  Whenever we think of this region, we are likely to imagine a self-sufficient pioneer with a full beard, long scraggly hair, dressed in buckskin clothing, wearing a coonskin hat, and carrying a long rifle.  What we know of Daniel Boone fits this image, but he was but one of thousands who pioneered early America’s western frontier.


Appalachia is a vast area that is defined geographically and culturally.  As a region of the United States, the Appalachian Mountains separated early western settlements from well-established eastern civilizations.  The high mountains, craggy ridges, and deep valleys not only separated early settlers from their “eastern betters,” they also had the effect of isolating Appalachian settlements from one another.  The people who settled this region were tough hombres; it was either that, or they were soon dead — noting that not all of the sturdiest of folks survived, either.

Once known as the “back country,” settlers developed their own unique culture.  They were independent, stubborn to a fault, prone to violence, and steadfast in their desire to be left alone to pursue life as they saw fit.  Used to the hard life with few amenities, they were fighters who recognized native populations as “the enemy.”  They were the sort of people who never hesitated helping George Rogers Clark eradicate the British and their Indian allies during the Revolutionary War.  They were also the kind of people who participated in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Between 1790 and 1810, deep animosities developed that pitted mountain folk and yeoman farmers against the wealthy low-landers.  It was, after all, the people from the low lands who controlled the legislature, who had the power to impose what seemed to the mountain folk as arbitrary taxes, which they steadfastly ignored.  There could not be a greater difference in these two groups.  The low-landers expected to make money from the land; mountain folk simply wanted to live on it — and be left alone to find their own way.

Before 1861, the primary industry in eastern Kentucky came from the production of salt.  After 1865, the quest for land literally exploded as timber companies, miners, and railroads worked their way into Appalachia.  Lumber operations and mines demanded far more labor than was available, so thousands of new immigrants to the United States found their way into eastern Kentucky.  The railroads not only offered job opportunities to migrants, but they also helped to transport them into the emerging west.

None of the foregoing activities made the mountain folk very happy, of course, but then, it would be difficult to describe the mountaineers as a cheerful lot.  They were more obstinate and quarrelsome than almost everyone else — which over time prompted outsiders to label them as “simple folks.”

About those feuds

There are some historians and sociologists who blame the Civil War for the Kentucky feuds, and while this may be partly true, it doesn’t explain hostilities that were ongoing long before the Civil War.  Nor can we make the argument that the feuds were carry-overs from the old country.  I rather think that it was a different time, when men were honor-bound to seek justice by their own hand rather than within a fledgling and largely ineffective legal system in the emerging United States.  Mountain folk lived according to rules handed down to them through many generations.

The early frontier Americans living in the western sections of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas were extremely poor people who worked hard to put simple meals on their family’s table — and about all they had to call their own was their land and their sense of family honor.  Since most business arrangements were sealed with a handshake, violating such protocols were likely to result in violent behavior.  If a man was found to be a liar, a thief, or a coward, frontier society shunned him.  To question a man’s honesty, to cast aspersions on his character or that of any member of his family was an invitation to swift retribution.  A life taken demanded Old Testament reprisals and no man was respected who would not stand up for himself or his family.

Between 1820 and 1932, deadly feuds erupted in the hills of Eastern Kentucky and spread like a wild fire.  They were so bad that local government became ineffective and the enforcement of laws all but impossible.  Governors were called upon to send state troops to protect lives and allow jurisdictional courts to do their work.  A border dispute between Kentucky and West Virginia nearly erupted in a state war.  The challenge for historians is separating fact from fiction, but for almost everyone else, it’s pure entertainment — including an American rendition of the Romeo-Juliet relationship that developed between the Hatfield and McCoy families.  In any case, while the eastern press and social highbrows described this particular feud as having taken the lives of one-hundred men, the number of men killed was closer to about a dozen.[1]  In addition to those losses, nine of the Hatfield’s were imprisoned, seven of them for life, and one Hatfield was executed.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud lasted from 1863 to 1891, but there were other feuds that never received the interest of the press (selective journalism always rules in the newspaper business), and several of these were much worse.  Many — but not all, were part of the aftermath of the American Civil War, which, when one thinks about it for a while, wasn’t very civil.

The Hill-Evans Feud began around 1824 and ended with the shooting death of Hezekiah Evans in 1862.  According to historian Sandra Norris, bad feelings developed between two medical doctors — one, Dr. Hezekiah Evans, and the other Dr. Oliver P. Hill — we simply aren’t sure why bad feelings developed.  There are several accounts of the feud, written by individuals with family connections to the combatants, but a reasonable person must question the accuracy of subjectively written family histories.

The Tobacco Barn fight of 1854 began with the Hill family.  The Hills were in the process of relocating the family of John Brown from Nina to Scotts Fork in Garrard County.  Later in the day, the Hill group returned from William Teaters’ tavern where they spent the afternoon drinking Kentucky whisky.  On the way back to wherever they started from, they passed by the Evans Tobacco Barn, and they thought it would be fun to shoot into the barn.  The problem was that John Sellars, James Alverson (John’s uncle), Sam Sellars (John’s brother), and William Chrisman were working inside the barn at the time.

In the opening salvo, a bullet struck William Chrisman in the abdomen.  Alverson received a bullet wound to his wrist.  Both Chrisman and Alverson were unarmed.  John Sellars returned fire and killed Russ and Fred Hill.  Sellars then ran down Isaiah Hill and killed him, too.  Isaiah’s son Samuel shot Sellars six times, and to make sure he was dead, John Brown ran over to his body and thrust a knife into his chest.

After dispatching Sellars, William Hill assaulted the wounded Chrisman and finished him off by shooting him at close range.  William then returned to Sellars’ remains and mutilated them.  Despite the depravity of the assault, no one was ever stood trial for the Tobacco Barn murders.

The Cattle War

Brothers James and Hugh White settled in Manchester, Kentucky between 1802-1804.  They purchased the Collins/Outlaw Salt Works and started up a successful mercantile store.  The Whites had been involved in the manufacture of salt in Virginia, having moved there from Pennsylvania.  After the Kentucky legislature created Clay County, they appointed Hugh White to serve as a circuit judge.  James and Hugh, along with salt man John Amis, donated ten acres of land for the new county seat, which they named Greenville (later, Manchester).  The Kentucky legislature later appointed Hugh White to serve as a brigadier general of state militia (1810).  Hugh White built his home along Goose Creek on the East Fork.  These facts illustrate the prominence of the White family in early Kentucky.  

John Amis was born on 5 April 1773 in Bladen, North Carolina.  In 1792, he married Katherine Bolling, from Rogersville, Tennessee.  Amis served as a volunteer soldier during the Indian removal campaigns, eventually achieving the rank of captain.  In 1806, Amis was living along the Kentucky River’s Middle Fork.  He owned a quarter share in the Goose Creek Salt Works, with John White retaining control over 75% of the salt works.

While hunting for elk on his property, in an area where his cattle were wintering, Amis discovered some cattle from North Fork farms grazing on his land.  Irate, Amis proceeded to stab twenty or so head of cattle and drive them into the water where they eventually died.  It was not a very prudent course of action, but I did mention that John was in a foul mood that day.

One of the cattle owners was William Strong.  Upon learning about the destruction of his property, William sent a letter to Judge Hugh White of the newly created Clay County Court asking for lawmen to deal with the problem.  Judge White’s reply was brief: “You have got yourself into trouble, get out of it if you can, for I will not come to your assistance or send a single man.”

With no interest from the government in helping to settle this matter, North Fork cattlemen decided to take matters into their own hands.  Strong organized twelve men from the Stacey, Davidson, Lewis, Bolling, Eversole, Callahan, Cornett, Lewis, and Begley clans, who along with Joel Elkins, went to the Amis homestead to address the matter.

John Amis wasn’t at home when the men arrived, but they informed his wife “Kate” that they intended to make good on their losses.  The Strong group then proceeded to shoot Amis’ horse, set his hay barn on fire, and helped themselves to twenty head of Amis’ cattle.  Then, as a further demonstration of their indignation, Peter Stacey smacked Kate in the face with the butt of his rifle as the men were leaving the Amis property.

If Peter and his friends were angry, it was nothing compared to Kate Amis’ rage.  She called for one of her Negro men to follow the assailants, gave him a rifle, and instructed to shoot the bastards if he got a chance.  Along the way back to North Fork, Peter Stacey became aware that someone was following the Strong Posse.  At a turn in the road, Stacey concealed himself alongside the road and as the slave came in sight, shot him dead.

When John Amis returned home, he and his brother-in-law John Gilbert, organized a company of thirty men to go to North Fork and put things right.  Since no one in Appalachia can keep a secret, William Callahan learned that Amis was leading a party to North Fork.  Strong recalled his men and set them in at the mouth of the Lick Branch, where they concealed themselves.  As Amis’ party began to cross the river, the Strong group opened fire, killing a couple of horses and wounding two of Amis’ men.  In the melee that followed, John Gilbert was captured.  Some of Strong’s men wanted to kill Gilbert, but Strong would not allow it on account of the fact that he was a preacher.

Eventually, Amis and Strong agreed to end the fighting and settle the matter in court.  On the first day of the trial, 15 August 1807, Joel Elkins entered the court room while Amis was giving testimony and shot him dead.  In addition to being affiliated with William Strong, Joel Elkins was an employee of the Goose Creek Salt Works.  When Amis was killed, Hugh White paid Kate for her husband’s share of the Goose Creek Salt Works.

Baker/Garrard-White/Howard Feud

The Cattle War of Clay County set into motion the blood feud that eventually involved the Baker and Garrard families against the White and Howard families.  It was one of the deadliest and longest-lasting feuds in United States History.

The salt works industry began in earnest after Colonel Daniel Garrard[2] migrated to Goose Creek in 1806 and established the Buffalo Lick Salt Works.  Competition among the owners and operators of the salt works companies evolved into differences in local and state politics, which was, more often than not, contentious, angry, and vindictive.  Because of the Cattle War, Manchester, Kentucky was already a lively town — by which I mean to suggest volatile.  Amateur historians in Kentucky claim that the state legislature created Clay County because the region was already a disaster in the making and it was believed that a strong county government would be necessary to control the animosity that existed among the town’s founding members.

Abner Baker, Jr., was the son of Captain Abner Baker.  Baker Sr. was a long-term resident of Clay County with service as a captain of the militia and clerk of the county court.  Baker Jr., was the youngest of several siblings, noted from a young age as having a good intellect, and was always popular among his peers.  After a few years’ service in the United States Navy, around 1834, Baker Jr., returned home to serve as Clerk of the Clay County Court and Clerk of the Judicial Circuit Court.  In 1836, he decided to pursue medical training and received his physician’s certification in 1839 … the year in which Dr. Abner Baker, Jr., began to display bizarre, unexplained, and unprovoked violent behavior.  Beyond threatening students at the medical college, he seemed to have developed paranoia.  For example, he would awaken during the night and search his home with lit candles looking for intruders — even in closets and cupboards.

Abner practiced medicine in Knoxville, Tennessee but eventually returned to Manchester.  Soon after, Dr. Baker married Miss Susan White, the daughter of James White.  According to more than a few observers, “It was with his marriage and connection to the White family that he established a relationship with people whose associates, character and disposition were the antitheses of his own manner of life.”  Dr. Baker’s father formed the opinion that in his son’s decision to marry Susan White, he must “clearly be deranged.”   

Dr. Baker married Susan White in 1844 — at a time when most people in Manchester believed that Dr. Baker was a few bubbles off plumb.  He in fact did behave erratically, displayed a bad temper, and his paranoia was ever-present.  Not long after their marriage, Baker began making accusations against Susan, calling her promiscuous, alleging that Daniel Bates, the husband of Susan’s sister, had carried out an  illicit affair with Susan, and that Bates conspired with her to kill him.  During one of his incoherent confrontations, Dr. Baker took out his pistol and mortally wounded Bates.  While Daniel Bates lay on his death bed, he directed his son to take revenge on Baker and see that he was either prosecuted or killed.

Afterward, Baker surrendered to the Garrard family, who escorted him to the justice of the peace.  Witnesses from both sides testified that they believed Baker was insane at the time of the shooting.  His custody was transferred to both of his brothers, both of whom were physicians.  Abner was quickly sent to Cuba for “recovery.”  Meanwhile, the Bates family persuaded the commonwealth attorney to seek an indictment of murder, which was rendered, and Governor William Owsley offered a reward for the arrest and return of Dr. Baker for trial.  Abner’s brothers knew none of this, so that when Abner was brought back from Cuba, he was arrested and held for trial.

The trial began in early July 1845, and it was nothing if not salacious.  That Baker shot Bates was never in question.  The White family claimed that Baker’s marriage to Susan was contrived so that he could access their family’s wealth.  Some witnesses claimed he was clearly crazy; others testified that he was as sane as anyone.  Witnesses for Baker claimed that Daniel Bates had threatened Baker with his life.  A team of alienists claimed that Baker was, in fact, mentally disturbed.  After a short deliberation, the jury found Baker guilty of murder.  The Bates-White families gathered more than two-hundred armed men to surround the jail to ensure that Baker-Garrard sympathizers did not try to break Dr. Baker out of jail.  On 3 October 1845, the State of Kentucky hanged Dr. Abner Baker.

The implications of the Baker trial were significant.  The Baker-Garrard families and their allies claimed that if Governor Owsley allowed the sentence carried out, then he would be guilty of murdering an insane man.  They also claimed that Bates/White/Howard conspired with Governor Owsley to deny Baker a stay of execution so that he could be examined by a lunacy board.  Whether true, Owsley did refuse to pardon Baker.

In 1849, William Baker, the son of Sarah and Boston B. Baker, was accused of murdering Frank Prewitt, a local shoe-maker.  William went to trial in Manchester with the support of the Garrard family, who hired big name lawyers from outside Kentucky.  For all that effort, William was sent to the gallows on 15 January 1850.  Before his execution, the serene William asked those gathered to watch him die not to forget Job Allen, Adonriam Baker, and Robert Hays for giving false testimony against him.  He also said, “And remember, James White has too much money for a man like me to live.”  Five years later, on her deathbed, Matilda Prewitt, Frank’s wife, admitted to killing her husband.

In 1856, the Garrard family backed Mr. John Bowling for the office of county jailer, and he won the election.  But six months later, Bowling was found shot to death.  The evidence in this case pointed to Edward White.  White was taken into custody, went to trial, and a jury composed mostly of members of the White Clan found him not guilty.

The Civil War and Beyond

During the Civil War, foragers from both sides interrupted life in Manchester.  The Confederates were interested in the salt, and the Union was interested in keeping it away from them.  To achieve that, the Union Army destroyed Clay County’s salt works in 1862 and did so even though one of the Union’s more celebrated generals owned the Union Salt Works, Brigadier General T. T. Garrard, a grandson of former Governor James Garrard.

Theophilus Garrard recruited men from Manchester in 1861 to organize the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment (later renamed the 7th Kentucky Volunteers) and led them in battles outside of Kentucky.  While these men served away from home, the Confederate Army gained the upper hand in Clay County, adding disorder to the usual chaos.  Resentments developed toward the Confederates, of course, but also long-term anger directed toward the White-Howard families, who some claimed supported the Confederate cause.

In 1866, the Clay County Judge was Beverly White.  The Commissioner of Schools was John E. White.  Will White served as the County Clerk.  John G. White served as the County Sheriff.  One afternoon, an argument erupted between Jack Hacker, Dale Lyttle, and Sheriff White.  Hacker and Lyttle were angry because of Sheriff White’s bullying.  Will and Daugh White soon joined the argument on the side of John.  Someone pulled out a pistol and when the smoke cleared, Jack and Dale lay dead on the floor.  Sheriff White, County Clerk White, and Daugh White surrendered to the County Judge Beverly White, who released all three men before sundown.  The Baker-Garrard clans were furious because Dale Lyttle was a family member.  Tom Baker, reputed to be the best rifle shot in Clay County, had married Dale’s sister, Emily.

Some citizens had tired of the White family’s control over the Clay County government.  Granville Philpot, who was part of the Baker-Garrard faction, was able to win election to the state assembly in 1896.  Whether he accomplished this fete through popular election or popular intimidation is unclear.  T. T. Garrard called the clan together for a strategy session and discussions about how to “take back” the county offices.  The meeting included the patriarchs of the Baker, Webb, McCollum, and Philpot clans.

But Bev White had no intention of giving up his office.  He also called a meeting, attended by the Howard, Hall, Benge, and Griffin families.  The Griffin family had its own feud going on with the Philpot family.  In the county elections that followed, Judge White won re-election, Jim Howard became sheriff, and George Baker, Tom Baker’s father, was elected as County Attorney.  The White-Howard faction managed to retain control of the courthouse.

Judge White scheduled another clan meeting for the afternoon of 7 August 1897.  That morning, deputy sheriff George Hall and former revenue officer Holland Campbell met Charles Wooten on the road near Manchester.  Wooten was riding with John and Anse Baker.  Hall assumed that Wooten and Baker were traveling en route to the courthouse to disrupt Judge White’s meeting.  Shooting erupted when one of the men pulled a gun.  In this melee, Anse Baker received a gunshot wound and his horse was killed.  The following night, unidentified men set fire to George Hall’s home and Holland Campbell’s store in Pin Hook.

Soon after, Sheriff Howard named Anse and Tom Baker as suspects in the arson and had them arrested.  Tom swore that he was miles away from the Pin Hook area and had witnesses to back his story.  T. T. Garrard bailed Tom and Anse Baker out of jail.  A trial was held in February 1898 and both men were acquitted of the charges.  Judge White, who was unhappy about the acquittal, started an argument with John Baker, and this devolved into a fistfight that worked its way out of the courthouse into the street.  The Bakers mounted their horses and headed out for Crane Creek.

According to the journal of T. T. Garrard, in April 1898, Bal Howard had suffered a financial collapse which forced him to sell his timberland property.  At the time, Garrard’s son James was serving as the auditor’s agent and the state placed a bid on the Howard property.  The problem was that the Baker family laid claim to some of the timber.  Jim Howard indicated that he could solve the problem by killing James Garrard.[3]  Tom Baker rode his horse over to the river one morning where Bal Howard was working on a raft and suggested that the matter could be solved easily enough if Bal Howard simply paid him the money owed — a sum of about $15.00.  Howard claimed that he didn’t owe Baker any money.  The fight started when someone in the Howard group pulled out a weapon.  Tom Baker threw an auger (hand drill) at Bal Howard, missed, and then clubbed him with his sidearm.  Israel Howard fired his weapon at Tom, which inflicted a flesh wound.  Corbin Howard and Jesse Barrett jumped in to defuse the situation, but tempers were already flaring.  Tom then departed from the scene of the incident without further injuries.

Later, after hearing about this incident, Jim Howard went to see George Baker (Tom’s father) to propose a truce and the two men reached an agreement and shook hands on it.  No one on Crane Creek knew about this agreement, however, so the next day, as members of the Baker and Howard families were on opposite sides of the river preparing logs for transportation downstream, gunfire erupted from the Baker side of the river.  Burch Stores was shot in the head, Wilson Howard fell mortally wounded, and Bal Howard was shot in the chest while astride his horse and was able to escape further injury.  Before succumbing to his wounds, Wilson Howard identified the shooters as Charlie Wooten, Jesse Barrett, and Wiley Baker.

Although badly wounded, Bal Howard escaped the fight, along with the Shackleford brothers and John Lewis.  When Jim Howard had learned of this shooting, he was furious because of his earlier agreement with George Baker to stop the fighting.  Jim Howard mounted his horse and went looking for George.  Finding him on the road to Manchester, Howard ordered Baker to dismount.  As George slid off his horse, Jim Howard fired his rifle, the bullet at close range went through Baker’s horse and struck him in the abdomen.  George died the next day.[4]

Jim Howard rode over to Burning Springs and surrendered to sheriff’s deputy Will White.  Howard spent the night with the White family and the next morning Will took him to Judge Brown, who released Howard without bail with orders to return to his home on Crane Creek.  To ensure Howard’s safety, Judge Brown assigned forty deputized men to guard the Howard home while awaiting the initial hearing.  Brown’s plan didn’t prevent snipers from shooting into the Howard home, however, so Brown ordered Howard escorted to Harlan County for safekeeping at the home of Barry Howard.

Meanwhile, the situation in Manchester was getting worse.  The Garrard family demanded the immediate trial of Jim Howard for killing George Baker, and the White-Howard factions demanded the trial of Tom Baker for the river killings.  George Baker had fifteen sons; Tom Baker had 13 sons.  The threat was ever-present, but of course, not every Garrard-Baker/Howard-White man was involved.

When the Howard family attempted to bury their dead, concealed snipers began shooting at them in the cemetery.  None of George Baker’s sons appeared at his funeral — probably on account of the fact that they were all over at the cemetery trying to shoot the Howard family.  No one knows for certain who the shooters were, though.

Sometime later, while engaged in his tax collection duties, sheriff’s deputy Will White came upon Tom Baker and Jim Helton near the mouth of Jim’s Branch.  It was where Will White met his end as the recipient of one of Tom’s bullets.  George and Lucretia Goforth heard the shots and hurried down the road to see what was going on.  They found Will White laying along the side of the trail and as Lucretia tried to aid Will, he told her that Tom Baker had killed him.

Will White was not a popular man in Clay County.  Beyond the fact that he was a tax collector, he was also a mean-tempered drunk and a bully — but he was one of the White’s and people remembered when he jumped on old Tish Philpot and beat him up.  It wasn’t long before more than a hundred men were walking around inside Manchester with their rifles in hand.  On 24 June 1898, a sniper shot and killed John Howard.  On 1 July, Tom Baker was acquitted for the river murders; witnesses testified he was nowhere near the river on that day.  Two days later, Gilbert Garrard (T. T. Garrard’s son) and his wife were fired upon while on the way to church.  The couple soon moved to Pineville to get out of the way, but not without incident.  Both of the men he hired as armed guards were killed in a second assassination attempt.

On 8 July, T. T. Garrard, bailed John Baker out of jail over in Barbourville.  Wagging tongues thought it was so that John could help kill members of the Howard clan.  Both John Baker and Jesse Barrett were acquitted of murder charges in Clark County.

Tom Baker didn’t fare quite as well in the murder trial of Will White.  A jury found Baker guilty as charged and the judge sentenced him to life in prison.  Baker’s lawyers immediately appealed the conviction, and it was overturned.  After Baker’s release, he was re-arrested pending a second trial.  T. T. Garrard arranged for bail and Baker was released.  The Court Clerk set Baker’s second trial for June 1899.[5]

On 20 July 1898, law officers Felix Davidson and Daugh White detained John Baker and Frank Clark as they were en route to meet with T. T. Garrard.  A coroner later reported that John had been shot 32 times, and Frank eleven times.

A final “battle” occurred in 1901 when the two clans fought a hellacious gunfight in front of the Manchester court house.  When everyone ran out of bullets, the two sides signed a peace treaty, and the Clay County War came to an end … almost.  The last murder relating to the Baker-White feud occurred in 1932.  In total, 150 men died in hostilities that lasted more than 90 years.


  1. House, C.  Clay County: Highlights of the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Online publication, Clay Families Organization.
  2. Logan, S.  The Strange Case of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr.  Kentucky Historic Institute Organization, 2019.
  3. Tabler, D.  Appalachian History: John Amis and the Kenturcky River’s South Fork.  Online Publication, history network.


[1] If the feuds seem worse than they actually were, there is no one to blame more than the press, who embellished events for the purpose of selling newspapers.  Journalism was never a respected profession — and still isn’t.

[2] Daniel Garrard was the older brother (by thirteen years) of James Garrard, who served two terms as Kentucky’s second governor.

[3] The logic of this escapes me.

[4] Clay County Sheriff Jim Howard was arrested and convicted of Baker’s murder.  One persistent rumor was that Jim Howard was offered a pardon in the Baker murder if he would also assassinate Governor William Goebel.  The only evidence that Jim White accepted the offer is that Governor Goebel was assassinated, and Jim Howard eventually received a governor’s pardon.

[5] On the order of Governor Will Bradley, a company of state militia (with a Gatling gun), went to Manchester where Baker’s second trial was to be held.  Baker was placed inside a guard-tent just outside the courthouse where he was surrounded by a squad of soldiers.  A hundred yards or so from this tent, at the foot of a wooded outcrop, stood the unoccupied “official residence” of the County Sheriff.  A sniper hidden inside the house shot and killed Tom Baker and then made good his escape.  Shortly after Baker’s death, four members of the Griffin family, also aligned with the White-Howard faction, ambushed “Big John” Philpots and his cousin, severely wounding the former and killing the latter.  Despite his wounds, John fought them from behind a log and killed all four assailants.

Posted in Civil War, Corruption, Feuds & Rivalries, Gunfights and such, History, Politicians, Society | 5 Comments

The Lee-Peacock Feud


On 2 April 1866, the American Civil War had been officially ended for just shy of a year.  At best, however, the war was only almost over — but not quite.  On that date, the Thirty-ninth Congress of the United States declared, “… there is no longer any armed resistance of misguided citizens, or others, to the authority of the United States in any, or in all the States mentioned — excepting only the state of Texas … the people of said states, except Texas, are well and loyally disposed.”

Texans were not misguided citizens. When Texans put their heart and soul into an effort that they feel is important to who they are, as Texans, they tend to dig in their heels.  What the United States Congress failed to recognize in 1866 was that Texans were hard-headed, rugged, and they didn’t know how to quit the fight.  They may lose the fight, and they may one day admit to having lost the fight, but they aren’t likely to give up who they are or what they believe.  In the psychology of many Texans, “The fight is over when I say it’s over.”

Robert E. Lee (and other senior commanders) may have surrendered their armies to the Union, signifying the end to civil war — but in Texas, the war wasn’t over and it wouldn’t be over until well into the twentieth century.

Four Corners Texas

The Lee-Peacock feud took place in the four-corners area of Texas, where Fannin, Grayson, Collins, and Hunt counties join together.  Four Corners is one location in Texas where the Civil War continued — for another five years.[1]  The casualties weren’t as significant as they were at Gettysburg, of course, but given the relatively small human populations of Texas counties back then, 50 deaths were a lot.

Robert J. Lee (whom everyone called Bob) was Arkansas born.  He migrated to Texas with his family in the 1830s, settling in what would become Hunt County.  The land wasn’t much, but it was fertile, and the Lees were experienced farmers.  They transformed shrub thickets into productive land, but Texas was a hard land and people had to learn how to “make do.” Bob Lee learned how to make do from his father.

Lee was 27-years old when the Civil War broke out.  By then, Bob was married and had three children.  Leaving his family in the care of his father, Lee joined the Confederate cause, enlisting for service in the 9th Texas Cavalry.  He fought in the Trans-Mississippi and Tennessee campaigns.  When Bob returned home in 1865, thinking that the war was over, he wore the uniform of a cavalry officer, and folks began calling him Captain Lee.  What Lee discovered after returning home, however, was that the enemy lived a few miles down the road.

Bob Lee learned that a fellow named Lewis Peacock had set up an organization he called the Union League.  The league actively worked for the protection of blacks and pro-Union Texans.  Peacock set up the Union League in Pilot Grove, Texas … seven miles from the Lee homestead.[2]  Given the tragedies of war, the loss of friends, the suffering and deprivations experienced over four long years, Lee could not accept that while he was off fighting for Texas, one of his neighbors was working against the things he believed.

Lewis Peacock was born in North Carolina in 1824.  After living in Georgia for a spell, he migrated to Texas and settled in Grayson County.  Peacock had no stomach for the rebels or their cause, but he wisely kept his opinions to himself and somehow avoided Confederate conscription.  Peacock spent the war farming and running a smithy.  There was a creek everyone called Deserter’s Creek on his property because many Confederate deserters and draft-dodgers camped there during the war.  In most instances, the deserters were on their way back home, and the draft-dodgers were hiding from draft agents.

At the end of the war, Peacock no longer withheld his pro-Union attitudes.  He joined the Republican Party, supported radical reconstruction, gave aid to the Freedman’s Bureau, and supported Yankee carpetbaggers.  Living in Texas in 1866 made Peacock a political minority.  It was a dangerous undertaking because Texans were in no mood for the tyranny of Northern reconstruction.

In 1868, Bob Lee sent a letter to the editor of the Bonham News.  He told the story of a gang of men dressed in blue uniforms who accosted him in the middle of the night in 1866.  These men “arrested” Bob Lee, informed him that they would take him under guard to Sherman, Texas, for war crimes prosecution.  Lee identified these men as Lewis Peacock, Israel Boren, and James Maddison.  Lee stated that rather than taking him to Sherman, they held him for ransom along Choctaw Creek. Lee’s ransom was a mule, a saddle, a bridle, twenty dollars in gold, and the promise to pay $2,000 … payable on demand, and they ordered Lee to leave the county “forever.”

Once the Unionists released Lee, he refused to pay the “bond.” Instead, Lee filed a civil suit against Peacock in Fannin County, and county authorities arrested Peacock and others.  There is no record of such a lawsuit or an arrest in Fannin County, but this wasn’t unusual for Texas in the mid-1800s.  Some historians suggest that while the lawsuit probably was filed, Union carpetbaggers prevented it from going to trial.  This, too, is plausible, especially given the court-packing scheme set into motion by agents of Texas reconstruction.  Lending support to Lee’s story is a news item appearing in The Galveston News, reporting a jailbreak in Fannin during which Union sympathizers forcibly released several arrested men.

Captain Lee gathered around him many men who believed, as he did, that Yankees had no business sticking their nose into the affairs of Texans.  Most of these men were as tough as Bob Lee and every bit as resourceful — men such as brothers Simpson, Charlie, and William Dixon (from Dixon’s Mound), their half-brother Dick Johnson, and Bill Penn from Kentucky Town, Texas.[3]

In 1867, while visiting Pilot Grove, Bob Lee met Jim Maddox, one of Peacock’s men who kidnapped Lee the year before.  Lee called him out to settle the matter, but Maddox refused.  Later in the day, according to the Lee faction account, Maddox walked up behind Lee and shot him in the head.  The Peacock faction disputed this.  They claimed that Maddox bested Lee in a fair fight. Lee’s friends carried him to the home of Dr. William H. Pierce, who cared for Lee until he was well enough to return home.

On 24 February, one of Peacock’s men, a fellow named Hugh Hudson, went to Dr. Pierce’s home demanding that he release Lee to his custody.  Pierce informed Hudson that Lee was no longer at his home.  Hudson, who didn’t believe Pierce, shot, and killed him in front of his house.

Within a month, two men went to Lee’s house and attempted to kill him.  Lee escaped the assassination attempt.  A few hours later, Lee’s brother arrived, and the two men tracked the assassins to Farmersville.  Lee killed one man and wounded his accomplice.  According to The McKinney Enquirer, the dead man’s identity was unknown, but historians claim that the fellow was very likely Hugh Hudson.

In the spring of 1868, Elijah Clark, a long-time friend of the Dixons, called on Hester Anne Dixon, who may have been William’s eldest daughter.  Given that Clark was a member of the Peacock Group, Hester Anne wanted nothing to do with him.  Angry, Clark stormed out of the house and encountered young Billy Dixon, Hester Anne’s sixteen-year-old brother.  Clark drew his pistol and shot at Billy.  This aggressive act produced two immediate problems.  The first problem was that Clark missed his target; the second problem is that Billy didn’t miss when he returned fire.

Lewis Peacock used his position as a Unionist to influence efforts to arrest “rebel trouble-makers.” A month after Billy Dixon shot and killed Clark in self-defense, while Billy and Charlie were in the process of moving a load of cotton to Jefferson, federal cavalry surrounded their wagon.  The posse’s official report stated that the trouble-maker Billy Dixon was shot dead while trying to escape lawful arrest.

A few weeks later, Peacock led federal cavalry into Pilot Grove to arrest more Lee faction trouble-makers.  A gunfight broke out, but amazingly, no one was hurt, and the wanted man managed to escape. Peacock’s Army soon captured Lee and others of his men and transported them to Sherman, where officials released them due to a lack of credible witnesses to Lee’s trouble-making.

On 15 May 1868, two of the Dixon clan ambushed Peacock.  He was shot and wounded but escaped death.  While recovering from his wounds, Peacock sent an appeal to state and federal officials asking more troops in the four corners area.  Within a month, the conflict intensified.

One of the gathering places for unionists was the Nance Farm.  Lee and his men assaulted the unionists at the farm; when the gun smoke cleared, Dow Nance and John Baldock lay dead, and Dan Sanders was grievously wounded.  Peacock sought a federal warrant for Lee’s arrest, which sent Lee into hiding.  Federal authorities offered a bounty of $1,000.00 for Lee’s capture.  Within a few weeks, several bounty hunters showed up in Pilot Grove looking for Lee.  It might have been a scene from the Clint Eastwood film, The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Much like Eastwood’s film, Lee’s bounty hunters were inept.  The four men laid in wait near Lee’s house, waiting for Lee to pass; when he did, they followed him at a distance to his property and then left as if to return to Pilot Grove.  Meanwhile, Lee circled behind them.  When Lee’s wife Melinda and Dr. Pierce’s widow, Dorinda, heard several shots, they rushed to see what happened.  The bounty hunters had, in fact, tangled with Bob Lee.  Three of the bounty hunters died, one survivor escaped with serious wounds.

With Peacock’s urging, the government’s $1,000 bounty for Lee was extended to every member of his followers.  It was then that Bob Lee decided he’d had enough, and he decided to take his family to Mexico.  One account suggests that Bob Lee was on his way to Mexico when, on 25 June 1869, soldiers of the US 6th Infantry, under the command of Captain Charles Campbell, ambushed Lee.  He fell from his horse with six bullets in his body.  Serving as a scout for Campbell was Peacock’s man, Henry Boren.

After Lee’s murder, his followers scattered for their safety, but the feud was far from over.  Peacock insisted that the Army apprehend or kill the other men, as well.  Charlie, Simpson, and Bob Dixon fought it out with soldiers in Limestone County in 1870.  Simpson died at the scene, but Charlie and Bob escaped.

Peacock and his men tracked down Charlie Dixon, his father Jack, and his half-brother Dick Johnson at Black Jack Grove (near present-day Cumby).  Peacock’s men killed Charlie and wounded Dick Johnson.  Johnson escaped and headed to West Texas.  Bob Dixon was later killed, but the particulars of that episode are lost in time.

Dick Johnson later returned and met up with Joe Parker.  The two men made plans to take care of Lewis Peacock.  Late in the evening of 14 July 1871, Johnson, Parker, and a third man surrounded the Peacock home.  Early the following day, when Lewis Peacock came out of his house to fetch firewood, all three men opened fire, dropping Peacock into the woodpile.  Some reports contend that he laid where he fell for a full day because everyone in the house was afraid to leave the safety of their cabin.

Dick Johnson didn’t waste any time relocating to Missouri.  A federal posse caught up with Joe Parker near Mount Pleasant in October 1871.  Parker confessed to killing Peacock.  We aren’t sure how authorities settled their affair with Parker, but we do know that in 1874, Joe Parker was shot and killed by a Sheriff’s Posse from Collin County when he resisted arrest on an unrelated matter.  There is no record of the identity of the third man who participated in Peacock’s assassination, but according to one popular story, the third man was likely John Wesley Hardin — and, if true, it wouldn’t have been Mr. Hardin’s only feud.  He also figured prominently in the Sutton-Taylor Feud (1868-1877) where another fifty or so men died.


  1.  Southerland, E.  Blood for Blood Without Remorse: The Lee-Peacock Feud.  Online.
  2. Hunt, D. “A Texas Feud from the 1800s.” The Pilot Grove Herald Democrat, 16 October 2013.
  3. Sherrell, W. W.  The Lee-Peacock Feud.  Leonard Press, 1980.
  4. Sonnichsen, C. L. I’ll Die Before I Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas.  New York: Harper, 1951.
  5. Douglas, C. L.  Famous Texas Feuds.  Dallas: Turner, 1936.


[1] The Lee-Peacock feud continues today, only now it’s fought with words. Descendants of both factions continue to argue about what actually transpired in the post-Civil War period.  

[2] Pilot Grove, Texas was initially founded on the Bonham-McKinney Stage Line, along the property line of J. R. Dumas’s ranch.  Until 1858 Pilot Grove was known as Lick Skillet.  

[3] Kentucky Town, Texas was situated 18 miles from Sherman in eastern Grayson County.  The area became a settlement area in 1837 but did not develop until around 1849.  Most of the people settling their originated in Kentucky, hence, its name.  The town was laid out by Dr. Josiah L. Heiston. During the Civil War, Kentucky Town was frequented by William Quantrill and his Confederate guerillas.  The town began to dry up when the Texas and Pacific Railway established a stop three miles east and Whitewright Texas became the local center of activity.  

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Civil War, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Society, Texas | 4 Comments

Tombstone Judge

Old Tombstone, Arizona Territory

With three men dead, two wounded, and one slightly injured, one would think that it was one hell of a gunfight.  Well, it was — and it wasn’t.  The fight only lasted around thirty-seconds, but within that short span of time, led was flying everywhere.  The wounded men were lucky, of course, and only wounded or slightly injured because the men shooting at them were hyperventilating at the point of trigger squeeze.  The men who died were likely the result of well-aimed, calmly fired weapons whose shooters had every intention of inflicting death upon their targeted foe.  The dead fellows were Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton.  The wounded men were Virgil and Morgan Earp; John H. “Doc” Holliday received a slight injury when a bullet grazed his holster.

Every story has a beginning and an end; every event in human history has causes and effects.  To learn more about what happened, who was involved, and why, see Cowboys and Carpetbaggers, The Cowboy War, and The Earps.  Following the gunfight at O.K. Corral, additional shootings and murders took place, which only ended after Wyatt Earp’s famed vengeance ride.  And the truth is, beyond the folks living in Tombstone between 1881-1882, hardly anyone ever heard about the confrontation until around 1926, when Wyatt Earp told his story Stuart Lake, who seems to have been a mixture between biographer and a writer of Western Dime Novels.

One fellow involved in the Cowboy Wars, who is often overlooked in the tale, was a jurist who had his own interesting history and a very mysterious end.  His name was Judge Wells Spicer.

Judge Spicer was a New Yorker, born around 1831, the son of William and Seba Spicer, who farmed in the small community of Chemung.  There isn’t much we know about the Spicer family, because I suppose, there wasn’t a lot to know about them.  They were farmers, they had three children, and along with tens of thousands of others in the early to mid-1800s, began a westward migration.  We do know is that the Spicer family relocated to Iowa when Wells was around 9-years-old, and we know that as a young man, Wells studied law and clerked for Judge Samuel A. Bissell.  He was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1853.  In that same year, Spicer and a few associates established the Cedar County Advertiser; Spicer served as its sole publisher and editor for about a year.  In time, once the paper had become financially established, Wells sold it for a nice profit.

As with many young educated men of his time, Wells became interested in local politics.  After failing to win the contest for county prosecutor as a Democrat, Spicer switched his allegiance to the Republican Party and won the race for Cedar County judge in 1856.  He soon after married Abbie Gilbert, and a year later they welcomed a son into their lives, whom they named Earnest.

Twelve years later, Wells and his family lived in Tipton, Colorado.  In 1869, Spicer left his family and traveled to the Utah territory with his former newspaper associate Charles Swetland.  Within the next three years, Wells was admitted to the Utah bar, opened a law practice specializing in mining law, and formed a hotel partnership with Swetland.  When Swetland died in 1871, Abbie rejoined Wells and they resettled in Ophir City.

Spicer continued his mining law practice, of course, did some prospecting, and then established a mine construction/tunneling business.  During this time, he periodically contributed essays to the Salt Lake Daily Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette.  In 1872, Spicer moved his family to Salt Lake City to accept a position as a United States Commissioner of the Territorial Supreme Court.[1]

In 1874, Wells Spicer leased the Rollins Mine, which at the time was defunct.  Spicer persevered and struck a lead and gold vein that revitalized the areas of Beaver and Minersville.  It was through Spicer’s connections in Beaver, Utah, that Wells Spicer became involved in one of the United States’ darkest criminal trials.

The Back Story

John Doyle Lee

John Doyle Lee (1812-1877) was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory.  A friend of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), Lee joined the Mormon Church in 1838 and became the adopted son of Mormon leader Brigham Young.  Lee served as a church missionary in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  John Lee was responsible for converting the former frontiersman William Adams Hickman to Mormonism.  Hickman later served the Mormon church as an enforcer and a leader of Mormon militia charged with exterminating the Timpanogos Indians in Utah.  It was said that Hickman’s militia decapitated as many as fifty Indian braves and displayed their heads from the walls of roofs.

As a member of the Mormon Church, Lee took nineteen wives and, ultimately, sixty-seven children.  As a member of the Mormon Council of Fifty, Lee played a role in establishing Mormon settlements in the Utah Territory and for enforcing Mormon laws within the community.  John Lee also played a role in the siege of the Baker-Fancher  Party and ultimately, the murder of 120 westward-moving migrants.  I previously summarized the horrid events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in When Saints Became Sinners.

Seventeen years later, in November 1874, Sheriff William Stokes of Beaver, Utah, arrested John D. Lee on a warrant issued for his arrest in connection with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  Facing charges of multiple homicide, Lee eventually decided to hire an attorney to represent him in the Utah Territorial Court.  That attorney was Wells W. Spicer.

The Lee Trial

The first “investigation” of the massacre was conducted by Brigham Young, began on 29 September 1857.  In 1858, Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asserting that the massacre was the result of an Indian attack on the Baker-Fancher wagon train.  The Utah War delayed further investigation until 1859, when Jacob Forney and Brevet Major James H. Carleton began federal inquiries.[2]  Carleton’s investigation was thorough, including the collection of forensic evidence and in-depth interviews with local Mormons and Paiute tribal chiefs.  He concluded that individuals from southern Mormon communities participated in the massacre.  Carleton forwarded his report to the United States Assistant Adjutant-General and members of the US Congress.  Forney, who was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Utah, concluded that if the Paiute acted at all, the massacre would not have occurred without the urging of white settlers.

After studying the 16-year old and somewhat lengthy investigative report, Spicer advised Lee, whose roll in the massacre was substantial, to make a full confession and rely on the mercy of the court.  Lee, however, refused because, in doing so, he would have had to implicate influential members of the Church of Latter Day Saints — the men who ordered the Mountain Meadows massacre.

Wells Spicer assembled a legal defense team consisting of  Enos D. Hoge and William W. Bishop.  A witness to the massacre, John McFarlane, was hired to assist the attorneys.  An additional team consisting of George Bates and Jabez Sutherland assembled to represent the interests of the Mormon church.  Lee’s trial began in late July 1875, 18 years after the massacre.

After making their opening statement, the prosecution presented full details of the massacre; it took several days.  When the defense opened, Spicer proposed three possible scenarios — which we may assume he intended to plant the seeds of doubt into the minds of the jury respecting Lee’s involvement in the massacre. 

Spicer’s theories were that (a) hostile Indians massacred members of the Baker-Fancher Party, (b) that members of the Mormon Church committed the murders, and (c) that the massacre was a very unfortunate incident caused by the wagon train’s disregard for Indian land and property.  Having established these possible scenarios, Spicer laid out his predicate that the murders were the result of religious fanaticism.  At no time did Spicer suggest that the murders were intentionally ordered by the Mormon hierarchy.  Since no one from the Mormon Church stepped forward to support Lee, we might assume that the LDS sought to distance themselves from the entire episode.

Lee’s jury consisted of eight Mormons and four “gentiles.”  Unsurprisingly, the eight Mormons voted to acquit Lee.  Without a clear majority in the verdict, the trial judge declared a hung jury.  The first trial received wide coverage in the press.  It seemed that no one was pleased with a hung jury, or the Spicer defense.  The Mormon hierarchy was critical of Spicer because of his contention that the murders were committed by members of the LDS community (which they were), and the non-Mormon press was critical of him because he adopted such unusual strategies.

John D. Lee’s silence during the trial was unrewarded and, ultimately, it worked against him.  Behind the scenes, Mormon elders struck a deal with US prosecutors to populate the second trial with a clear majority of Mormon jurors, who in exchange for bringing in a guilty verdict, US attorneys would drop their contention that Mormon leaders were complicit in the murders.  When the Mormon hierarchy delivered on their part of the bargain, prosecutors dropped all charges against Mormon leaders.

During the second trial, Spicer pointed out that many of the prosecution’s witnesses were also willing participants in the massacre, and that their collective testimonies were inconsistent.  But, as they say, the jury was rigged — John D. Lee was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.  Spicer and Bishop appealed the conviction, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court.  There is no mistaking the fact that Lee was guilty of participating in the massacres, but he was not the only one.  Lee became the scapegoat for the Mormon Church, who clearly ordered the massacre.  After the Supreme Court upheld Lee’s conviction, Spicer requested clemency from Governor George Emory.  Emory denied the petition because of Lee’s reluctance to make a full confession of what happened in 1857.

After the trial, Spicer was reappointed as a US Commissioner and he remained in that position through 1878 when, discouraged by the lack of justice in Utah, and motivated by a silver strike in southeast Arizona, he moved to the small mining town named Tombstone.


Judge Wells W. Spicer

There is no clear record of when Wells Spicer arrived in Tombstone.  We know that he was appointed as a special correspondent for the Arizona Daily Star in January 1880, and according to Jeff Guinn, Spicer entered into a partnership in a tobacco and stationary shop with Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams.  When Charles G. W. French was named Chief Justice of the Arizona Territory by President U. S. Grant, French named Wells Spicer as a justice of the First District Court in June 1880.  Southeast Arizona was silver mining country and Spicer was no stranger to prospecting — in addition to which he opened a law office specializing in mining law and served as the Commissioner of Deeds for Cochise County.

In Tombstone, Wells became involved in another historic incident, commonly referred to as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in October 1881.  After the wounded Morgan and Virgil Earp were taken away by wagon for medical treatment, a badly shaken Sheriff Johnny Behan approached Wyatt and John “Doc” Holliday and announced, “Wyatt, I’m arresting you for murder.”  Wyatt, momentarily stunned, answered, “I won’t be arrested, today” and then angrily accused Behan of misleading Virgil Earp into thinking the Clanton’s and McLaury’s were all unarmed.  Bystanders, who overheard Behan’s announcement, quickly defended Earp.  One citizen allegedly said, “They done just right in killing them, and the people will uphold them.”  Behan decided against making an arrest at that time.

The shoot-out quickly became the talk of the town.  The Tombstone Nugget ran a story noting that “The 26th of October 1881, will always be marked as one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttlecock.”[3]  There were two factions of citizens in Tombstone on that day.  Half of them supporting the Earps, the other half supporting the Cowboys — among whom there were more than a few who wondered why Virgil Earp had deputized the “hot head” Doc Holliday.  During the funeral procession, three hundred supporters lined up to escort the remains of Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury to the Boot Hill Cemetery.

Two days after the shoot-out, County Coroner Henry Matthews opened a formal inquest.  The coroner introduced nine witnesses before his jury, including Behan and Ike Clanton, as well as some “more-or-less” neutral witnesses.  After listening to the conflicting stories and numerous accounts of previous trouble between the feuding parties, Matthews announced his conclusions — which neither condemned nor exonerated the town marshals.  He wrote, “William Clanton, Frank and Thomas McLaury, came to their deaths in the town of Tombstone on October 26, 1881, from the effects of pistol and gunshot wounds inflicted by Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp, and one Holliday, commonly called ‘Doc Holliday’.”

The next day Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday.  Normally, this duty would have fallen to County Sheriff Behan, but Behan seemed content to let Clanton take the initiative, leaving him to testify against the Earps.  The case was scheduled for a preliminary hearing before Justice Spicer.  Spicer’s duty was to determine whether the evidence indicated “sufficient cause” to believe that a crime had been committed, and that the named defendants committed it.  In most cases, preliminary hearings are somewhat perfunctory affairs where defendants concede the inevitability of a full trial and where prosecutors present only enough testimony to meet the legal standard.

The Hearing

That didn’t happen in the so-called Spicer Hearing.  The Earp’s hired Thomas Fitch, a man with substantial credentials and a reputation as a master strategist, as their defense attorney.[4]  Esquire Fitch believed that Judge Spicer, who was a member in good standing of the Tombstone conservative establishment, would be sympathetic to the Earps and present a better hope for their freedom than a jury of randomly selected men.  Spicer’s hearing assumed the appearance of a regular criminal trial, which included thirty witnesses and full examination by attorneys for both sides — and the longest hearing in Arizona history.  It lasted nearly a month.

The prosecution team, on the other hand, was composed to men with different goals.  Lyttleton Price, the lead prosecutor, was appointed by the territorial governor.  In the minds of many townspeople, this made Price a suspected Republican.  Ike Clanton’s personal lawyer was Ben Goodrich.  Goodrich, like Price, understood that there would be a benefit to a “less-radical” prosecution.  William Rowland McLaury, the brother of Frank and Tom, joined the prosecution team.  His entire focus was an all-out attack on the defendants.[5]

At Fitch’s request, testimony in the hearing began behind closed doors on 31 October.  Henry Matthews opened testimony for the prosecution by stating that the dead men were killed by “gunshot or pistol wounds,” adding that Tom McLaury was killed by shotgun rather than by revolver.

The next morning, the prosecution called Billy Allen to the stand.  He told the court that after he informed Frank McLaury that his brother Tom had been hit on the head by Wyatt Earp, Frank appeared shocked and vowed to “get the boys out of town.”  Later, as a witness to the gunfight, Allen testified that he heard one of the Earps say, “You sons of bitches, you have been looking for a fight!”  He attributed Virgil Earp to ordering the Clanton’s and McLaury’s to “Throw up your hands!”  According to Allen, the Earps began firing at about the same time Billy Clanton said, “I ain’t got no arms.”  Fitch, on cross-examination, destroyed Allen’s credibility by bringing to light the young man’s criminal past: indictments for larceny, the use of aliases, etc.

Sheriff Behan testified on the third day.  He heard about the brewing trouble while seated in a barber shop and, as he anticipated disarming and arresting the parties, he told the barber to hurry along.  When he left the barber shop, he went to see Frank McLaury and demanded four times that he turn over his gun.  Frank refused, he said, until the Earp’s were also disarmed.  Behan testified that his effort to disarm Frank was interrupted when he spotted the Earp posse marching down Fremont Street.  According to Behan, he told the Earps that he had been “down there for the purpose of arresting and disarming the Clanton’s and McLaury’s,” and ordered the Earps to stop.  “I’m the Sheriff of the county and am not going to allow any trouble if I can help it.”  Behan also claimed that as the Earps continued down Fremont Street he followed behind, urging them to reconsider.

When the Earp posse arrived at the place where the Cowboys had gathered, Behan testified that he heard Wyatt say, “You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight, and now you can have it.”  Virgil followed, saying, “Throw up your hands.”  The shooting commenced instantly, he said, adding, “I will not say for certain — the first shot being fired at Billy Clanton by Doc Holliday.”

Thomas Fitch, Esq.

Lawyer Fitch’s examination of Behan sought to establish his prejudice against Wyatt Earp owing to their previous competition for the position of country sheriff and the inconsistency of his description of the gunfight.  For example, Fitch questioned how Holliday could have fired the first shot with his nickel plated revolver when, according to most other testimony, he was holding a shotgun in his hand at the beginning of the fight.  Fitch also challenged Behan’s court testimony when compared to his visit with the injured Virgil Earp the night of the gunfight, in which he reportedly told Earp, “You did perfectly right.”

Witness Martha King opined that the shooting was premeditated. In her testimony, she claimed that she heard one of the Earp’s tell Holliday to “Let them have it.”  Witness Wesley Fuller said that the shooting began before the Clanton’s and McLaury’s had a chance to respond to the demand that they disarm.  According to Fuller, Clanton had thrown up his hands and was shouting, “Don’t shoot me!” when the bullets started flying.  Of course, Fuller’s testimony was discredited when Fitch proved that Fuller had earlier told someone that he planned to cinch Holliday.

On 7 November, Judge Spicer surprised everyone by revoking Wyatt Earp’s and Doc Holliday’s bail and ordering them into the county jail.  Will McLaury was overjoyed, of course.  On the following day, Billy Claiborne asserted that the Earps had their weapons drawn before the reached the empty lot behind the O.K. Corral, suggesting premeditation, and he claimed that Morgan Earp shoved his pistol up close to Billy Clanton before shooting him.  Claiborne had no credibility at the trial, particularly after he remained silent when Fitch asked him if he was presently out on bail as a suspect in a killing over in Charleston, Arizona.

Price’s biggest mistake was putting Ike Clanton on the stand.  Here was a man who couldn’t keep track of his own lies.  According to his testimony, Morgan Earp shot his brother while Billy’s hands were in the air.  Then, split seconds later, Ike grabbed Wyatt’s pistol-holding hand and pushed him around the corner — and this allowed Ike to escape the massacre.  He recounted the times when the Earps and Holliday mistreated him.  In essence, the Earps were “out of control.”

Thomas Fitch destroyed Ike Clanton’s testimony.  Was he carrying around a rifle inside Tombstone on the morning of the gunfight?  Yes.  Was he interested in a showdown with the Earps?  Yes.  What then, was the source of Ike Clanton’s anger toward Wyatt Earp?  Was it that he feared Wyatt would reveal the secret deal he had made with Wyatt to turn in the men responsible for the Benton Stage robbery?  Ike claimed that the Earps were behind the robbery and that was why the Earps wanted to kill Billy Clanton and the McLaury’s — to keep them from bringing charges against the Earps.  After Clanton, Price brought four additional witnesses and then rested his case.

The defense opened its case on 16 November.  Wyatt Earp was the first to take the stand.  Fitch took advantage of an Arizona law permitting defendants in preliminary hearings to avoid cross-examination by offering a narrative statement.  Wyatt chose to read an account of events that almost certainly was prepared with the assistance of his attorney.  Earp told the court that the October gunfight began with a feud between the Earps and McLaury’s over the Earp’s attempt to retrieve stolen mules from the McLaury farm.  Wyatt stated that the McLaury’s had been waiting for a chance to get even and, as evidence, recounted several threats he’d received from the McLaury’s.  Wyatt forcefully denied any involvement with the stagecoach robbery and murder, stating that Ike Clanton’s accusation was a tissue of lies from beginning to end.

As to the shootout, Wyatt stated that it happened only because Sheriff Behan had deceived the Earps into believing that he (Behan) had disarmed the Clanton’s and McLaury’s.  It was only when he and the rest of his party came within close range of the men that they realized that the McLaury’s and Billy Clanton had six-shooters “in plain sight.”  He testified that the shooting began when, in response to Virgil’s demand that they disarm, “Billy and Frank reached for their guns.”  Wyatt admitted, along with Billy Clanton, to have fired one of the first two shots and that his shot struck the belly of Frank McLaury, who Earp said, had the reputation of being a good shot.  Wyatt admitted that Tom McLaury might have been unarmed, but nothing happened at the time of the incident that led him to think so.  He offered a compelling account of self-defense — duly sworn lawmen, enforcing the law, and being forced to make a split-second decision to fire before it was too late to save themselves.

Three days later, the hearing reconvened in Virgil Earp’s bedroom in the Cosmopolitan Hotel where he remained while recovering from his gunshot wound.  Virgil’s testimony was less coherent than Wyatt’s.  He told about his efforts to calm down an irate Ike Clanton the night before the shootout.  He said that the next morning, citizens came to warn him that Ike had threatened to kill him on sight, and another man named Sills said that he had overheard the Clanton’s and McLaury’s talking and one of them had said “We will kill them all.”  As to the gathering of the Clanton’s and McLaury’s at the O.K. Corral, Virgil determined to let them be, “ … so long as they stayed in the corral.  But,” he added, “if they came out to the street,” he’d disarm and arrest them.

Virgil said that when the Cowboys moved out to Fremont Street, he and his brothers and Doc Holliday (whom he deputized), made their fateful march toward the O.K. Corral.  Virgil insisted that Frank and Billy “drew their six-shooters and commenced to cock them” as soon as he gave them the order to disarm.  Two shots, one from Billy Clanton and the other (most likely) from Wyatt, went off in quick succession and then the shooting became “general.”  Virgil’s statement was consistent with other defense witness testimony.

Mr. H. F. Sills validated Virgil’s testimony about threats made against the Earps.  Ned Boyle reported that Ike Clanton told him on the morning of the shootout that, “ … as soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open.”  Rezin Campbell testified that he overheard Ike warn Wyatt that, “Fight is my racket, and all I want is four feet of ground.”

Winfield Williams testified that he heard Sheriff Behan tell Virgil that he did the right thing.  Hotel owner Albert Billicke told the court that he saw Tom McLaury leave the butcher shop on Fremont Street with a gun protruding from his pants pocket.  Annie Bourland was a witness to the shooting; she said she never saw any of the Clanton’s or McLaury’s throw up their hands.

Testimony in the hearing ended on 29 November.

The Aftermath of the Hearing

Spicer’s decision was that there would be no criminal trial of the Earps or of Holliday — but his decision was not without sanction.  He also criticized Virgil’s decision to deputize his brothers and Doc Holliday; it was an injudicious and censurable act — although in fairness, Virgil had few options for law enforcement assistance.

In Judge Spicer’s opinion, Ike Clanton was responsible for the gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the deceased men were at fault for failing to heed Behan’s request that they relinquish their firearms.  Regarding Behan’s testimony that McLaury insisted on the disarmament of the Earps, Judge Spicer noted that, “ … is a proposition both monstrous and startling.”  Virgil Earp, as town marshal — and his assistants, had every right and duty to be armed when they approached men whom they believed to be armed, in violation of the city ordinance, and contemplating resistance.  Spicer further opined, that “the tragic result” of the Clanton’s and McLaury’s actions were largely their own fault.  “I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing the homicides.  There being no sufficient cause [to believe the defendants guilty of murder], I order them released.”

Tombstone was a rough town; what made is rough was the people who lived there.  If they weren’t fighting with each other about mining, the squabbled about politics.  At the end of Spicer’s Hearing, they had one more thing to argue about.  The Tombstone Epitaph had nothing but praise for Spicer, the Tombstone Nugget castigated Spicer, writing, “in the eyes of many, Spicer does not stand like Caesar’s wife, ‘not only virtuous but above suspicion’.”  The newspaper Spicer once worked for, the Arizona Daily Star, said that he [Spicer] “was guilty of culpable ignorance of his duty or was afraid to perform the same, or acted improperly in discharging them.”

The Cowboys wasted no time plotting their revenge.  Two weeks after Judge Spicer’s controversial decision, Mayor John Clum was forced to leap out of a stagecoach to escape bandits attempting to assassinate him.  Death threats were sent to several “pro-Earp” men, including Marshall Williams, Tom Fitch, and Wells Spicer.  Spicer’s threat stated, “Sir, if you take my advice, you will take your departure for a more genial clime, as I don’t think this one healthy for you much longer.  As you are liable to get a hole through your coat at any moment.  If such sons of bitches as you are allowed to dispense Justice in this Territory, the sooner you depart from us the better for you and the community at large.  You may make light of this, but it is only a matter of time … you will get it sooner or later so, with those gentle hints I will conclude for the first and last time.”

Two weeks after that, Virgil Earp was ambushed by several men — most likely Ike Clanton, perhaps even Will McLaury, likely also Frank Stillwell (a noted back shooter) — as he walked home from making his late-night patrol through the town.  Two loads of buckshot left his arm immobile for the rest of his life.  Authorities charged Ike Clanton with attempted murder, but of course, several Cowboys testified that Ike couldn’t have tried to murder Virgil because he was with them the entire night.

Spicer reacted angrily to the threat and wrote a reply, published in the Tombstone Epitaph.  He wrote, “I have been reviled and slandered beyond measure, and that every vile epithet that a foul mouth could utter has been spoken of me — that of corruption and bribery.  It is but just to myself that I should hereby assert that neither directly or indirectly was I ever approached in the interest of the defendants, nor have I received any favor of any kind from them or for them.  There is rabble in our city who would like to be thugs if they had courage; would be pleased to be called cowboys, if people gave them that distinction; but as they can be neither, they do the best they can to show how vile they are, and slander, abuse, and threaten everybody they date to.  In conclusion, I will say that I will be here just where they can find me if they want me.”

In March 1882, another act of revenge took the life of Morgan Earp.  Someone fired a bullet fired through the window of a pool hall.   The bullet struck Morgan in his abdomen and then passed through his body and severed his spinal column.  Morgan lived for about another hour.  Before he died, Morgan allegedly said, “I have played my last game of pool, boys.”

Following the Hearing and Wyatt Earp’s Vengeance Ride, Spicer returned to prospecting — at first in Arizona, and later in Sonora, Mexico.  Some accounts suggest that Spicer lost all his money in bad mining investments, subsequently wandered into the Arizona desert, and took his own life.  This is likely true because shortly before his disappearance, Spicer visited a man named Bill Haynes, who later said that while Spicer stayed with him, he’d tried to commit suicide on two occasions.


  1. Bailey, L. R.  A Tale of the Unkilled: The Life, Times, and Writings of Wells Spicer.  Western Press, 1999.
  2. Bagley, W.  Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  3. Lubet, S.  Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp.  Yale University Press, 2004.
  4. Shillingberg, W. B.  Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling, and Mayhem.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.


[1] Congress created US Commissioners of the federal courts in 1793, whose duties involved assisting federal judges in the enforcement of certain laws.  They might serve as magistrates and federal justices of the peace, administrative law judges, or take on clerking responsibilities, such as taking affidavits and depositions, and setting bail.  After 1812, the congress expanded the role of commissioners to include law enforcement duties and preside over deportation hearings.  Most commissioners were lawyers who carried out their judicial duties while maintaining their private law practices.  

[2] See also, A Western Dragoon.

[3] The Nugget was a pro-Democrat/Cowboy newspaper in competition with the Tombstone Epitaph.  The former was as reliable as the present-day New York Times

[4] Thomas Fitch (1838-1923) was born in Manhattan, New York City.  He was employed as a clerk and an editor of the Milwaukee Free Democrat, an editor of the San Francisco Times and Placerville Republican, studied law, practiced law, and served as a member of the California Assembly.  In Nevada, he served as a member of the State Convention, was a nominee for Territorial Delegate to Congress in 1864, a district attorney of Washoe County, a member of the US congress, and a practicing attorney in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.  Some of his more notable clients were Brigham Young (in the Mountain Meadow affair), Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp, and Ed Tewksbury.

[5] Will McLaury (1844-1913) was born in New York but grew up in Iowa.  Before becoming an attorney, Will farmed in the Dakotas, later moving to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.  Will’s wife died in 1881, and he was left with three small children.  Then, his younger brothers were killed in October.  His vitriolic participation in the trial may have done more harm than good and he was bitter about the trial’s result and there were rumors that Will may have had a hand in the shotgun assault on Virgil Earp and the assassination of Morgan Earp.  Will later became a Fort Worth Judge.

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Politicians | 6 Comments

Outlaws & Patriots

Early America and the Quest for Independence


Seldom has there ever been a sense of “we” in Great Britain.  National unity did manifest itself as a result of wars, but this has always been a fickle indicator because people tire of war rather quickly, particularly when they realize its cost regarding taxes and loved ones lost.  If we ignore the temporary unity that comes from national mobilization, there have always been class distinctions in British society: Royals vs. everyone else, wealthy class vs. middle class, better off vs. worse off, industrialists vs. agriculturalists, white-collar vs. blue-collar, and the usual racial or ethnic divisions.  If we remove “royals” from the equation, then we find favorable class comparisons within American society.

Several conditions in Merry Old England explain why so many British people migrated to the American colonies, including escaping poverty, persecution, political turmoil, famine, and disease.  It takes a powerful incentive to push or pull people away from their loved ones, their homes, and everything they knew or cared about in the homeland — which leads us to assume that life in the old country was grim enough for the “push” and that the promise of America was sufficiently significant to make the venture a worthwhile risk.

Yet another incentive to leave the English homeland was the always-present authoritarian boot of the British government resting on the necks of the King’s subjects.  Migration to the colonies was also encouraged by the absence of hope for a brighter future in the land of their birth.[1]

The risks associated with a decision to relocate to the American colonies were never small.  Still, in the minds of many, life in the colonies couldn’t be any worse than it was in the British Isles.  British subjects migrated to the colonies by the tens of thousands.  Between 1620 and 1775, British subjects living in the American colonies increased from around zero to 3.1 million people.[2]

Of course, not every migrant survived the American ordeal.  Not every migrant became successful.  But every settler quickly learned that if they hoped to last or achieve success, it would have to be on their own merits — and that there was never a guarantee of achieving either.  They learned, through their experiences, that while they were free to choose their fate, the cost of doing so was often dear.  Freedom in America was never free.

Every effort to achieve success in the colonies involved land acquisition — even among the indentured, once released.  Property ownership was the engine of the American success story because the land was essential for raising crops, pasturing livestock, building homes and stores, constructing ships for commerce, or tying up fishing boats.

There was no land for the average Englishmen back home, but there was plenty of land for them in North America.  The problem, however, was that other people already possessed that land.  Acquiring land, therefore, meant dispossessing its occupants, which became the primary reason for hostility between Europeans and Indians.  American settlers eventually succeeded in removing the Indians from their ancestral lands, but it was an expensive undertaking in terms of lives lost.

Colonial governments had always placed some restrictions on where migrants could settle.  As streams of migrants flooded into the colonies, they quickly occupied the vast tracts of land nearest the seacoast, and later arriving groups had little choice but to move west to find parcels yet unclaimed.  Just over the Appalachian Mountains, on their western side, millions of acres awaited them.  All they had to do was risk their lives to obtain it.  Despite colonial restrictions on moving across the Appalachia, settlers learned that the farther west they went, the less attention was paid to them by colonial officials.  It was a matter of being out of sight/out of mind.

This, too, was a lesson not wasted on the early Americans.  Since, for the most part, there was no penalty assessed for doing as they pleased, Americans learned that ignoring government regulations was beneficial.  It did not take long for these early Americans to adopt disobedience as a symbol of American freedom — choosing to call it their independent nature, of course — and why should it matter if the Indians were tossed off their land?

It began to matter when the Indians decided they would not go quietly into that good night.

Intensified Conflicts

There were several “French and Indian Wars” in North America, beginning as early as 1609.  However, the Seven Years’ War, which also involved French colonists and their Indian allies, was part of a more significant European conflict.  On one side was a British, Prussia, and Hanoverian alliance against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia, and Spain.  France and Spain were not happy with British meddling in North America.  After all, the French and Spanish were “there” first.  So, as it unfolded, the Seven Years’ War became a conflict of nations striving to achieve commercial and imperial superiority in the New World.

Great Britain’s imperative in 1754 was simple enough: destroy France’s ability to compete.  To achieve this goal, the British focused their efforts on destroying French shipping and the productivity of the French colonies in New France.

In the conflict between Great Britain and France, both of whom maintained North American colonies,  a limited number of French regulars enlisted the assistance of some 5-8,000 of their Algonquin allies to confront between 42-45,000 British soldiers and militia and around 3,000 Iroquois.  The Seven Year’s War raged between 1754-1763.

There is no record of the French and Indian casualties sustained during the Seven Years’ War, but British losses in North America were 3,012 killed in action/died of wounds, and an additional 10,400 deaths from diseases.  These were losses that the British had to replace to exercise their control of the vast territory formerly known as New France.

In 1763, the British government quite reasonably concluded that hostility with native populations might subside if settlers stopped invading Indian lands.  Thus, in that year, a Royal Proclamation forbade any Anglo settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Moreover, British authorities ordered colonists living in the west of the Appalachians to return “back east.”  Most of these settlers complied, of course, but they weren’t happy about it.  In 1764, The Royal Proclamation of 1763 became a popular topic among several of the earliest committees of correspondence.

War Profiteering

While the idea was simple enough, British regulations governing colonial and territorial commerce were complex.  The scheme anticipated that colonies would produce raw materials and ship them to England.  British industries would transform these raw materials into finished goods and sell them to British overseas colonies, territories, and other markets.  In the early 1700s, British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, known as a “free trader,” developed a “hands-off” policy toward the enforcement of commercial regulations.

Walpole appointed a like-minded statesman named Thomas Pelham (Duke of Newcastle) to serve as Secretary of State for the Southern Departments.  Pelham, responsible for managing affairs in the American colonies, was indifferent with respect to trade regulations — which later became known as salutary neglect.[3]  In effect, Pelham not only ignored the bribes paid to tax collectors for looking the other way, but he also disregarded numerous complaints from colonial governors who complained about the rampant lawlessness in the American colonies.

The effect of salutary neglect was an increase in smuggling — and most Americans saw nothing wrong with it.  They wanted the government to keep its hands off the “natural right” of free trade.  As but one example of this widespread smuggling, between 1756-1757, 400 chests of tea were imported into Philadelphia; of those, only sixteen were imported legally.  In 1763, the British government estimated that its losses in revenues due to smuggling exceeded £700,000 — an enormous sum of money back then.  Nor was the preference for inexpensive (smuggled) tea limited to American colonists.  Other estimates claim that English and American smugglers trafficked half the tea imported to England.

Notwithstanding the Seven Years’ War, trading with Great Britain’s enemies had become an American tradition.  During earlier conflicts, American merchants frequented neutral ports in the Caribbean to exchange their provisions for French molasses, bribing customs officials, of course, to obtain false clearance papers.

In Rhode Island, trading with the enemy became an art form.  During the Seven Years’ War, combatants used flags of truce to exchange prisoners.  Smugglers found that they could purchase these flags at reasonable prices from colonial governors.  Ship captains would hire deckhands who could speak French and then used them to pose as prisoners.  Sailing into a belligerent harbor under a flag of truce enabled American/British smugglers to trade with the French West Indies.  One American smuggler recorded in his journal, “French trade is the most profitable business I know of …”

Illegal trade with the enemy continued throughout the war, particularly during its later phase when the French West Indies were desperate for food stores.  American merchants from Newport, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia made a handsome profit from such transactions.  Pennsylvania’s wartime governor, William Denny, actually enriched himself by selling “flags of truce.”  He sold so many flags that by 1760, they were openly traded in New York markets.  This blatant disregard for trade restrictions and British law brought “salutary neglect” to a screeching halt in 1763, but greater customs enforcement failed to solve the problem.  Sympathetic colonial juries routinely acquitted American smugglers, and government informers who ratted on them were too often found lying in alleyways with their throats cut.

In 1763, British Prime Minister George Grenville implemented a campaign to crack down on smuggling.  He detailed eight warships and twelve armed sloops to patrol American waters to arrest smugglers and confiscate their ships and cargo.  Before Grenville’s tenure, British-appointed customs officers remained in England while sending low-paid subordinates to collect taxes in the American colonies.  Grenville ordered these officials to either take up their duties in America or resign.  Many resigned rather than face the smuggling mafia in the colonies.

Post-war Resistance

During the Seven Years’ War, American colonists opened their homes to British troops.  It was called “Quartering Troops.”  Once the war ended, however, these same colonists objected to quartering British soldiers.  The troops, they argued, were no longer required in North America.  While it was true that the Seven Years’ War was officially concluded, disaffected Frenchmen who remained in the British western territories continued to urge Algonquin attacks against British settlements — a problem that reasonably justified the continued presence of the British army; the need for security was significant enough to require the assistance of American volunteer militia.  In this sense, despite the official end of the French & Indian War, hostilities continued.[4]

The general dissatisfaction among the colonists of mandatory quartering of troops led to the first committee of correspondence — a relatively successful effort, as it turned out, to spread the seeds of discontent among colonists who wanted the government to leave them alone — except, of course, when the British army was needed to kill Indians.  Colonial attitudes in this regard offered no favor to the young men wearing red coats who provided security and safety to those very malcontents.

By 1765, senior British officers found it nearly impossible to convince colonial assemblies to pay for the quartering and provisioning of British soldiers.  The unwillingness of colonists to “support the troops” (beyond an occasional bumper sticker) prompted Lieutenant General Thomas Gage to petition Parliament to help resolve this problem.

Parliament responded to General Gage’s plea by passing the Quartering Act of 1765.  Incensed colonists rejected the law, arguing that it violated the Bill of Rights of 1689, which (a) forbade taxation without representation, and (b) prohibited the raising and maintaining of an army without the consent of Parliament.  The former argument was only marginally more substantial than the latter because colonists were represented by colonial assemblies and, in most cases, a Crown-appointed magistrate (governor).  In any case, the quartering of British soldiers in the homes of civilians was a “use tax.”  Their second argument was nonsense because the British military presence in North America was only possible by Parliamentary approval.

In 1766, when 1,500 additional British troops arrived in New York, the New York Assembly and the governor refused to comply with the Quartering Act.  A year later, as a punitive measure, Parliament suspended the governor of New York and the assembly.  By this time, the committees of correspondence had done their work, and every colony except Pennsylvania supported New York’s refusal to quarter troops in private homes, inns, and other business establishments.

Quartering was not the only issue, however.

Great Britain emerged from the Seven Years’ War as the victor — but along with the euphoria of defeating the French on land and sea came the burden of administering the vast expanse of land previously known as New France.  It fell upon military governors and soldiers to establish and maintain British authority over these acquired lands, which was in addition to protecting the western settlements from French instigated Indian attacks.  

Great Britain also emerged from the Seven Years’ War deeply in debt, which necessitated cost-cutting measures and increased taxes.  One of these cost-cutting measures was, as previously mentioned, a requirement that colonists provide room, board, and other provisions to British troops.  Increased taxes on goods and services was the other method of debt reduction.  Since smuggling goods had become an American art form, other means of raising revenues became necessary.

Prime Minister Grenville was serious about curtailing the smuggling operations prevalent in the American colonies, but that was only the beginning.  Customs duties were designed to regulate the flow of trade, not to raise revenue.  In any case, trade regulations cost the British government about four times more than it brought to the treasury, so Grenville set to work on a long list of proposals to raise revenue and curtail smuggling.  Parliament enacted Grenville’s proposals in 1764 — commonly referred to as the Sugar Acts.

Six sections of the Sugar Act dealt with new taxes; forty additional areas were devoted to far-reaching changes to already complicated commercial regulations, including a doubling down on enforcement mechanisms.  Typical of government regulation, the Sugar Act opened the door to racketeering by corrupt officials who lined their pockets by seizing vessels for minor infractions or technical violations.  For example, the owner of a captured ship had to pay the cost of his trial — in advance — or forfeit the vessel and all of its cargo.  Even if acquitted, the owner could not recover his “court costs.”  Customs officials were exempt from lawsuits so long as judges decided that the confiscation was made with “probable cause.”  Worse than this, the vessel owner carried the burden of proving his innocence.  Not surprisingly, the abuses of customs officials became widespread.

The Sugar Act ignited a short fuse in the colonies.  Rhode Island judges and prosecutors routinely found in favor of the defendants in such matters; they were, after all, Rhode Island voters.  In some cases where a judge had no choice but to convict a smuggler and confiscate his ship, he might later sell the vessel back to the owner at a fraction of its value.  Easiest to all concerned, however, was paying bribes to customs officials.

The British had no one to blame but themselves for these deplorable conditions.  Americans had become accustomed to “salutary neglect” and deeply resented Grenville’s efforts to repair the British treasury and pay for maintaining 10,000 troops in the colonies.  American colonists were never intimidated by the government’s efforts to sort out the British treasury.  The number of letters exchanged between the committees of correspondence dramatically increased, and it did not take long for colonial anger to turn violent.

British Parliament was also not intimated.  Following the Sugar Act, Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767.  Again, Parliament was wrestling with its war debt and noted that American colonists enjoyed a higher standard of living than Englishmen back home. More to the point, they paid less than 5% of the taxes paid by people living in England.  Since it was evident that the Americans could afford to pay higher taxes — they damn well should.  On the other hand, Americans saw the Acts as another example of Parliament’s abuse of power.

The Townshend Acts levied duties on British porcelain, glass, lead, paper, and tea.  Charles Townshend anticipated that taxes on tea alone would raise £40,000.  Townshend intended more than raising revenue, however.  He wanted to use the Acts to restructure colonial government.  Townshend revenues, for example, would pay the salaries of colonial officials, including governors and judges, which, from the American point of view, would only ensure the loyalty of judges to the British government.  The Acts’ only real accomplishment was to cause colonists to boycott British-made goods.  Charles Townshend didn’t live to see the effects of his scheme.  He died in September 1767.

The Townshend Acts went into effect on 20 November 1767.  To clarify Parliament’s authority over the colonies, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act of 1767.  Undaunted, John Dickinson (Pennsylvania), Sam Adams, and James Otis (Massachusetts) circulated correspondence urging colonists to boycott British-made goods.  New England merchants agreed not to import British goods for a year.  Resistance to the Townshend Acts led to the British decision to occupy Boston.

More than 2,000 British troops arrived in Boston in 1769 for occupation duty.  At the time, only around 16,000 people lived in Boston, but scuffles between patriot colonists, loyalists, and British troops became increasingly common.  Protest demonstrations evolved into the violent ransacking of stores and threatening merchants and their customers.  The “Boston Massacre” occurred on 5 March 1770.  On that same day, but unrelated to the shooting, Prime Minister Frederick North asked Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts.  All of the Act’s provisions were repealed in April, except the tea tax.

Following the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts of 1774.  Known to the colonists as the “Intolerable Acts,” these measures were intended to punish acts of defiance in Massachusetts.  Parliament stripped Massachusetts of its right of self-governance, which became another critical element of the colony’s declaration of independence.

While four acts related directly to the Tea Party mob, another, which seemed unrelated, was equally contested by the colonists.  The Quebec Act enlarged the boundaries of the Province of Quebec to include the Ohio country and extended reforms generally favorable to French Catholics.  Patriots regarded the Quebec Act as offensive to them because, to enlarge Quebec, Parliament reduced the territory allocated to Massachusetts.  By 1774, the American colonists had had their fill of British meddling.  The First Continental Congress was organized in September 1774.

The Other Side …

Few people realize, appreciate, or even care what the British had to contend with between 1764 and 1815.  It was more than having to address war debt, disharmony in the colonies, rebellion, and the Napoleonic Wars — there were also significant challenges on the home front: industrialization, acts of union, issues of slavery and equality, dealing with seditious movements, and at least two attempts at regicide.


Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born political activist, philosopher, theorist, and revolutionary.  In 1776, he authored Common Sense and The American Crisis (a series of 13 pamphlets between 1776-1783), two of the most influential writings of the American Revolution.  Common Sense presented moral and political arguments for egalitarian society and government.  It also made a persuasive case for independence.  Common Sense was translated into French in 1790.  Additionally, read in Great Britain and Ireland, Paine’s work inspired certain movements inside the United Kingdom that resulted in seditious activities against the British government and society.  On 16 November 1802, Bow Street Runners arrested forty dissidents and their alleged leader, Colonel Edward Despard[5], for attending an illegal meeting of members of the Society of United Irishmen and anti-monarchical/pro-French republicanism.[6] 

Did the British government address these challenges adequately?  Considering what was at stake in the decade preceding the American Revolution, the answer must be “no.”  But given the insufferable arrogance of the British ruling class at the time, decisions are taken by the Parliament and an exceptionally uninformed monarch, there could have been no other solution but armed rebellion in the American colonies.[7]  The same attitude was apparent twenty years later as the British government wrestled with unhappiness at home — demonstrating an unsophisticated overreaction to a small number of unhappy subjects.  Giving credit where due, the British did address the psychotic Napoleon well enough and then made a few quick stops in America to remind Mr. Madison that the United States was not quite ready for prime time.


  1. Ammerman, D.  In the Common Cause American Response to the Coervive Acts of 1774.  New York: Norton Press, 1975
  2. Bailyn, B.  The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.  Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992.
  3. Bailyn, B.  The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America – The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675.  Knopf Publishing, 2012.
  4. Churchill, W.  A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Age of Revolution.   London: Dodd-Meade, 1958.
  5. Ellis, J. J.  His Excellency: George Washington.  New York: First Vintage Books, 2004.
  6. Ferguson, N.  Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  New York: Basic Books, 2004.
  7. Lloyd, T. O.  The British Empire 1558-1995.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  8. Maier, P. R.  From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776.  London/New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1972.
  9. Richter, D.  Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Past.  Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011


[1] In speaking of “citizens,” I admit to being influenced by my American mindset.  Someone recently reminded me that in the United Kingdom, people aren’t “citizens” as much as they are “subjects” of the Crown.  To clarify, the term British subject has several different meanings depending on the time period.  Before 1949, the term “subject” referred to almost all citizens of the British Empire (including the United Kingdom, dominions, and colonies but excluding protectorates and protected states.  Between 1949 and 1983, the term “subject” was synonymous with Commonwealth Citizen.  It currently refers to people possessing one of six classes of British nationality, largely granted under limited circumstances to those connected with Ireland and British India born before 1949.  The British government considers individuals with Irish or Indian nationalities as either British Nationals or Commonwealth Nationals, but not British citizens.  The term “citizen” suggests “republicanism,” which is the antithesis of a monarchy.

[2] The development of a unique American culture was an evolutionary process that took place over 150 years. Generations that followed the arrival of immigrant parents/grandparents developed much different attitudes about such things as community, national identity, and adherence to colonial rules and regulations.  These subsequent generations were the westward moving populations seeking to find their own way apart from their relations “back east.”   

[3] Salutary neglect was the policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws, particularly trade laws, so long as the British colonies remained loyal to the government and contributed to the economic growth of Great Britain.

[4] The British employed a similar strategy in the years following the American Revolution by stirring up the Indians, supplying them with weapons and munitions, and paying bounties for the scalps of American settlers. 

[5] Executed on 21 February 1803.

[6] The Bow Street Runners were London’s first police force.

[7] It is fitting that readers compare the utter arrogance of the British government (1763-1815) with the superciliousness of the American government in the present day — and decide whether, in the environment of our “superior” form of government, voters have done their due diligence in selecting national leaders.  After careful analysis, Americans may very well conclude that the US government today is far too full of itself; that its general attitude toward “we the people” mirrors the haughtiness of those bad old revolutionary days — and who knows, Americans may even decide that it is time to reassert popular sovereignty over what has become an ineffective, oppressive, and thoroughly corrupt government.  

Posted in American Frontier, British Colonies, Colonial America, Corruption, History, Revolution, Society | 4 Comments

Legends and Such

The story of David Crockett and Mike Fink

Some Background

A few weeks ago, at Fix Bayonets, I posted an account of the 8th Marine Regiment following its activation in 1917.  The regiment formed as a contingency for possible service in France during World War II.  Earlier, however, the United States became aware of the Zimmerman Telegram — a secret communiqué between Imperial Germany and the government of Mexico proposing a military alliance between those two countries.  The Germans no doubt concluded that if Mexico would engage the United States as a German ally, doing so would prevent the United States from joining the war effort as an ally of France and the United Kingdom.  Rather than scheduling the 8th Marines for service in France, the regiment was dispatched to Fort Crockett in Texas in the event Mexico joined Germany in World War I.

In my account — and thinking once again about David Crockett — I noted that the myth surrounding the frontiersman has unnecessarily complicated the facts of his life.  I recall that I had never heard of “Davy” until Walt Disney produced a television series that aired between 1954-55.[1]  In 1954, I was nine years old.  It was the year my step-father purchased the family’s first television set.  We all watched the series.

Disney’s production starred Fess Parker as Crockett, and through this program, Crockett became one of my childhood heroes.  Of course, childhood heroes disappear with time — as did Mr. Parker’s depiction of him.  A few years later, John Wayne produced, directed, and starred in the film The Alamo, which rekindled my interest in “Davy” Crockett.  In 1960, I no longer had any childhood heroes — but I was nevertheless fascinated by Wayne’s account of the Battle of the Alamo.  Like most people back then, I assumed that it was a factual account of Crockett’s last moments.  The apparent source for this account was an African-American slave who worked in the employ of one of General Santa Anna’s officers.

The slave’s name was “Ben.” According to his account, David Crockett’s body was found adjacent to one of the Alamo’s barracks surrounded by “no less than sixteen Mexican corpses.” Ben testified that Crockett’s knife was found buried in one of these dead Mexicans.

In 1975, Texas A&M University Press published the account of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican officer who was present at the Battle of the Alamo.  In Spanish, this account was published as La Rebelión de Texas – Manuscrito Inédito de 1836 por un Ofical de Santa Anna.  The translated version was titled With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution translated and edited by Carmen Perry, a former librarian of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.  Señor Peña’s version of the tale caused quite a controversy because, in this account, Crockett was one of several defenders who the Mexicans captured alive and then executed.  This version of the story appeared in the 2004 film The Alamo, which starred actor Billy Bob Thornton.

I found nothing in Señor Peña’s account or the 2004 film[2]that in any way diminished the story of the Alamo or any of the men who served there, including the depiction of David Crockett.  In the first place, Thornton had a much closer resemblance to the real David Crockett than either Fess Parker or John Wayne. 

Moreover (and I understand this was pure film fiction), Crockett’s last words made me laugh, and I imagined it might have been something the real Crockett said.  While trussed and forced to his knees, Crockett/Thornton was asked if he had anything he wished to say before his execution.  His response was, “You tell the general I’m willing to discuss the terms of surrender.  You tell him; if he’ll order his men to put down their weapons and line up, I’ll take them to Sam Houston, and I’ll try my best to save most of them. That said, Sam’s a mite twitchy, so no promises.”

The Family

In history, the French-Huguenot Crockett family migrated to the British colonies by way of Ireland in the early 1700s. David’s earliest known ancestor was Gabriel Gustave de Crocketagne.  His son, Antoine, was one of King Louis XIV’s household troops.  Antoine later migrated to Ireland, where he changed his name to Crockett. Antoine’s son Joseph relocated to New York.  Joseph was David’s great-great-grandfather.

Over time, the Crockett family made their way from New York to Virginia, North Carolina, and then to Northeast Tennessee, in present-day Hawkins County. David’s father, John, was a frontiersman who fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War, notably at Kings Mountain.  While away serving in the militia, the hostile Indians attacked the homestead.  Brother David and sister Elizabeth were killed, Joseph received severe wounds, and James became a hostage.

John Crockett married Rebecca Hawkins in 1780, and David was born in 1786, named after John’s father.  John and Rebecca struggled to make a living for twelve years.  In 1794, John moved his family to Cove Creek, where he constructed a gristmill in partnership with Thomas Galbraith.  After flooding destroyed that effort, the Crockett family moved again to present-day Jefferson County.  However, luck was not with John Crockett, and he ended up forfeiting his land in bankruptcy in 1795.  Eventually, John opened a saloon along a stage route near Morristown.  The family, still in debt, forced John to indenture David to Jacob Siler, and for a time, David Crockett worked as a cracker moving cattle from Tennessee to Virginia.

David met and fell in love with Polly Finley in 1806.  Their first-born was named John Wesley, who later became a member of the U. S. House of Representatives.  After birthing two additional children, Polly died in 1815.  David later married the widow Elizabeth Patton, who had two children by her first husband.  They produced three other children.

The Indian Wars

In the fifteen years leading up to the War of 1812, much to the chagrin local of tribal groups, the United States had opened the northwestern territories to white settlement.  In Canada, retained and controlled by the United Kingdom, some senior British officers believed that re-initiating the question of American independence might be a worthwhile project.  Having noted the agitation among Indian groups, these British officials supplied the Indians with firearms and encouragement to attack white settlements.  The Red Stick Indians, also known as the Upper Creek Indians, likewise resented white encroachment in present-day Alabama and, heartened by their understanding of events in the northwest territories, also began attacking white settlements in the area around present-day Mobile, Alabama.

Red Stick resentment of the Americans also affected their relationship with other Creek tribal groups, notably the Lower Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw, who had established beneficial trade relationships with the whites and were ready to assimilate into white culture.  Bad feelings within the Creek (also Muscogee) Confederacy festered for several years.  In late August, 750-1,000 Red Stick Indians assaulted the white settlement called Fort Mimms, killing everyone within and around the fort, in total around 265 militia, 252 civilians, with an additional (although unknown) number wounded.

Andrew Jackson began his legal and political career in North Carolina’s western district, which later became the state of Tennessee.  In 1788, Jackson lived in the small frontier town of Nashville, where he served as a lawyer and land speculator.  In 1791, Jackson served as the territorial attorney-general and participated as a member of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention.  He was Tennessee’s only congressional representative in those early days and an affiliate of Thomas Jefferson.  Jackson.  In 1802, Jackson won election as Commander of the Tennessee Militia, serving as “Major General.”

After the attack on Fort Mimms, dealing with the Red Stick Indians was assigned to Jackson, appointed to Major General of the American Army.  His call for volunteers netted David Crockett, who, at age 27-years, served as a scout under the command of Francis Jones mounted rifle company.  Jones, in turn, served under Colonel John Coffee, who commanded the 2nd Regiment of Volunteers.  John Coffee was the cousin through marriage of famed Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays.  In addition to his scouting duties, Crockett was the primary hunter for the game to feed his fellow militiamen, having no preference for killing Indians.

When Jackson switched his attention to British forces operating from Florida, Crockett reenlisted as “third sergeant” with the Tennessee Mounted Rifles under Captain John Cowan. Cowan’s command saw no action in this phase of Jackson’s operations, and Crockett returned home in December 1814.

Tennessee Politics

In 1817, Crockett served as a surveyor for Lawrence County.  In November of that year, county officials appointed him to serve as a Justice of the Peace.  In March 1818, Tennessee militiamen elected him to serve as lieutenant colonel of the 57th Tennessee Regiment.

Throughout this time, Crockett developed several successful businesses; when his county duties became an impediment to these interests, he resigned from the regiment as Justice of the Peace but maintained his position as a land commissioner.  Between 1821-1822, Crockett served in the Tennessee General Assembly.  Shortly after his election, floods destroyed all of Crockett’s businesses.

Most of Crockett’s legislative efforts involved lowering the tax burden on poor settlers/landowners.  In the General Assembly, he opposed Andrew Jackson’s political intrigue, which did nothing to endear him to Tennessee Democrats.  In 1823, Crockett ran against Jackson’s nephew-in-law William E. Butler, defeating him for a seat in the General Assembly representing Carroll, Humphreys, Perry, Henderson, and Madison counties.  When Andrew Jackson ran for the US Senate, Crockett backed incumbent John Williams.  Jackson won.

Although he ran for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives in 1824, he lost to the incumbent, Adam Alexander.  Disheartened, it took encouragement from Memphis mayor Marcus Winchester to convince Crockett to give it another “go.” In a letter published in the Jackson Gazette, Crockett explained why he was opposed to the policies of John Quincy Adams and Congressman Alexander.  Crockett won the seat, serving from 1827-1831.  Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828, which caused Crockett to throw his support behind James K. Polk.  His two terms in Congress were controversial because, among other issues, Crockett believed that the United States Military Academy had become a school for the privileged class.  He also opposed Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.  His stance on Indian Removal cost him his seat in 1831.

On to Texas

Crockett served again in the House between 1833-35.  During this time, Crockett published his autobiography and went on a tour to promote the book.  By 1834, Congressman Crockett knew there would be a revolution in Texas, and he began discussing the possibility of raising a company of volunteers to help the Texians achieve their independence.

Crockett’s daughter Matilda, his youngest child, later recounted the morning he left for Texas on 1 November 1835. “He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by his friends in Philadelphia.  He seemed very confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.”

Crockett’s journey took him to Jackson, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, where his popularity resulted in hundreds of people gathering to hear him speak about Texas.  Arriving in Nacogdoches, a Texas judge swore Crockett and his men in as Texas Volunteers.  In total, 65 men took the oath of allegiance to the Republic of Texas that day.  Each volunteer received the promise of 4,600 acres of land in payment for their services.  On 6 February, Crockett and six others arrived in San Antonio de Béxar — he and his companions joined the garrison at the Alamo on 8 February 1836.

… And Such

Until the Walt Disney production of Davy Crockett, I had also never heard of another mythical character, known variously as either Miche Phinck or Mike Fink.  Mr. Fink lived from around 1775 to 1823.  Beyond the fact that he was born at Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh), there is not much known about Fink’s early years.  He may have served as a scout in his teenage years, and he was known as an exceptional shot with a rifle.  Accustomed to the wild, undisciplined life at a young age, Fink shunned the farmer’s life and took up the oar as a boatman on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

In the television program, Jeff York played the role of Mike Fink.  Then, it seemed to me that Fink was a loudmouth and a bully — and from what we know of Fink, he was precisely that.  Fink stood well over six feet tall and might have been around 180-190 pounds in weight.  As a boatman, he had a well-developed physique, which enabled him to seek out fights with others, and win.

When Mike Fink wasn’t drinking, he was drinking even more.  His drinking frequently involved fist-fights, brawls, or shooting contests — some of which involved placing a cup of whiskey on a man’s head and shooting it off without killing the man.  In such a deadly contest, he was, for the most part, amazingly proficient.  In that moment, before Mike’s own death, however, his aim faltered, and Mink Fink shot through the man’s face who was his friend, a man named Carpenter.  Talbot, who was also a friend of Carpenter, then killed Mike Fink.

David Crockett described Mike Fink as being “half horse and half alligator,” and, according to a relative by the name John Fink, Mike’s restlessness resulted from his unhappiness with encroaching civilization.  There was simply “too much” progress.  At the same time, in business matters, he was a strict disciplinarian and would not tolerate a man who would not or could not carry his own weight.

Fink died in the Rocky Mountains while serving as part of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, one of William Henry Ashley’s 100 fur trappers — his aim, as I said, a tad off.


  1. Alphin, E. M.  Davy Crockett.  Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing, 2003.
  2. Beals, F. L.  Real Adventures with American Pathfinders: Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, Zebulon Pike, Davy Crockett.  Wagner Publishing, 1954.
  3. Blair, W., and Franklin Meine.  Mike Fink: King of the Mississippi Keelboatmen.  New York: Greenwood Press, 1971.
  4. Burke, J. W.  David Crockett, the man behind the myth.  New York: Eakins Press, 1984.
  5. Davis, W. C.  Three Roads to the Alamo: The lives and fortunes of Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis.  New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
  6. Rourke, C.  Davy Crockett.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
  7. Wallis, M.  David Crockett: The Lion of the West.  Norton Publishing, 2011.


[1] In his own day, there were some who referred to Mr. Crockett as “Davy,” but he never liked the informal use of his name.  In his own work, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, published in 1834, he used a formal reference to himself rather than the familiar. 

[2] I give this film five-stars.  Stephen Harrigan’s book The Gates of the Alamo (2000) is an excellent companion to this film.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, History, Indian War, Pioneers, Politicians, Texas | 6 Comments

The Timely End of Pecos Bob

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” —Aristotle


In terms of geologic time, the American west was settled in the blink of an eye, but in terms of the human experience, which involved much suffering, terror, sorrow, and back-breaking work, taming the old west took a very long time.  The people of the nineteenth century were a westward moving people, a trend that began almost from the instant Englishmen first set foot on America’s shore.  There are literally a million stories in the chronicle of America’s westward migration — each story noticeably different from the others, but the Olinger family may be somewhat typical.

In 1850, William and Rebecca Olinger lived in Indiana.  In eight years, they had moved further west three times — from Indiana to Iowa to Kansas.  Thirty-seven-year-old William died in 1861.  Rebecca remarried a man named Joshua Stafford.  They moved from Kansas to Oklahoma to Texas.  In 1875, Joshua and Rebecca were living in New Mexico.  New Mexico was attractive to many people because, as a federal territory, it was never subject to the trauma of post-civil war reconstruction.  Moreover, New Mexico was corrupt and lawless — an opportunity for those who were adept at playing fast and loose with the law.

Robert Ameredith Olinger was one of William and Rebecca’s sons. He may have been born around 1850; we aren’t sure because there were few written records kept of births and deaths in the mid 1800s. Bob’s brother John went into the ranching business in the Seven Rivers area of New Mexico. Whether he was successful in ranching is unknown. What is known is that in New Mexico, small ranchers made a good living by rustling cattle from those with thousands of head of cattle. What is also known is that for whatever reason, Bob grew into a thoroughly despicable person before he was out of his twenties.

Around 1876, Bob was hired to serve the citizens of Seven Rivers as town marshal.  The position may have worked out for Bob had he not consorted with local gangsters — notably, the Seven Rivers Warriors Gang and later, the Murphy-Dolan Gang.  What made Bob an example of prairie trash was his behavior.  He was prolific in drinking whiskey, gambling, and chasing whores.  If that wasn’t bad enough, Bob reached adulthood with a mean disposition, a bully of milder men, and no regard for human life.  As far as we know, Bob never lived in Reeves County, Texas — so we aren’t sure why he began calling himself Pecos Bob.

“Pecos Bob” Olinger

Pecos Bob Olinger became a killer when, during a night of drinking and gambling at the Royal Saloon in Seven Rivers, his friend Juan Chavez wondered if perhaps Bob was, in some small way, cheating at cards.  Bob stood up from the card table, unholstered his sidearm, and pointed the barrel at Señor Chavez’ head.  At the time, Chavez was unarmed, but one of the other gamblers tossed his pistol over to Chavez so that he could defend himself.

Some folks later commented that Juan wasn’t a very bright lad because when the gun smoke cleared, Juan was laying on the floor with a gosh-awful large bullet hole in his throat.  A coupe of the witnesses claimed that after Bob killed Chavez, he looked down to the floor where Juan’s body lay, and said, “All’s well that ends well.”  Whether Bob actually said that is anyone’s guess, but if he did, then Pecos Bob redefined the concept of friendship.

The folks living in the Seven Rivers area of New Mexico may have constituted the runt of the human litter.  A few months later, another gambler named John Hill — who was not a friend of Pecos Bob — made a somewhat similar observation about Bob’s card playing skills.  There was no gun play as before, but Mr. Hill’s body was found lying in an alley with a rather large bullet hole in the middle of his back.  Most folks figured that Mr. Hill met his end courtesy of Pecos Bob, but inasmuch as there were no witnesses, all’s well that ends well.

The Seven River Warriors Gang was mostly composed of small ranchers who felt victimized by famed New Mexico rancher John Chisum.  Chisum’s herd exceeded 100,000 head, and like most Democrats, the New Mexican horde resented anyone’s success, especially if they were registered Republicans.  Gang members included Henry (Hugh), John, and Bob Beckwith, Tom Walker, and Bob and Wallace Olinger.

Bob Beckwith and Wallace Olinger signed on as deputies under Sheriff William Brady in Lincoln County.  Lincoln was 75-or-so miles northwest of Seven Rivers.  There are a few western writers who claim that Pecos Bob was appointed as a Deputy United States Marshal, but I have found no evidence supporting that argument[1].

When the Lincoln County War broke out in February 1878, Pecos Bob was in the middle of it.  Lawrence Murphy went to court alleging that John Tunstall owed him money.  Whether this was one of those midnight court sessions, we don’t know, but when Tunstall learned about the court order, he said it was all balderdash.  He owed no money to Murphy — and he refused to pay.  Murphy went back to court and obtained the court’s authority to confiscate a few head of Tunstall’s horses as payment of the debt.  Tunstall refused to give up any horses.

But Sheriff Brady was a law abiding corrupt official, and upon the urging of Lawrence Murphy, formed a posse to collect the horses.  Brady’s posse included the hired gun named Pecos Bob Olinger.  Ah, but Brady’s posse didn’t go out to the Tunstall Ranch to collect horses — that was only their cover story.  They went to Tunstall’s Ranch to kill Tunstall.  They accomplished their mission on 18 February — John Tunstall was gunned down in cold blood, which was right down Olinger’s alley.  While Bob participated in the murder, he was never charged.  The only two men charged were James Dolan and Billy Matthews.

That Bob Olinger was a low-down back shooter there can be no doubt.  He was also many other things — but “uniquely bright” didn’t appear on his curricula vitae.  His participation in the murder of John Tunstall was a huge mistake because, as it happened, Mr. Tunstall had formed a close friendship with one of his young ranch hands, a fellow who people called by several names: William Bonney, Henry McCarty, William Antrim — and Billy the Kid.  When Tunstall was murdered, Bonney vowed, “… to get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it’s the last thing I do.”

Pecos Bob was a dangerous man, though.  In 1878, there weren’t many local men willing to stand up to Bob, and as a result of this, Bob’s behavior only became worse over time.  He became more unpredictable, more dangerous to innocent folks.  Some folks might even say that Pecos Bob was a psychopath long before anyone knew what that was.

One afternoon, Bob was playing poker with a man named Robert Jones when another gambling dispute arose.  Jones, having heard about Bob’s penchant for shooting people who paid too much attention to the game, wisely avoided a confrontation.  Olinger, however, wasn’t willing to put the matter aside.

A few days went by and Olinger learned that Deputy Pierce Jones had been ordered to serve a warrant on Robert (Bob) Jones.  It was only a minor affair, a misdemeanor.  Pecos Bob tagged along with Deputy Jones.  When Olinger and the deputy arrived at the Jones ranch, Bob Jones was working in the yard.  His children played not far away, and Mrs. Jones was in the kitchen fixing the evening meal.  Offering no resistance, Bob Jones asked the deputy if he could have a moment to explain the warrant to his wife.  Deputy Jones said it would be okay and Bob Jones went to the house.  En route to the kitchen, he passed by his rifle that was leaning against the outside wall of the house; he made no attempt to pick up the weapon.  At the moment Bob Jones passed by the rifle, Pecos Bob pulled out his six-shooter and fired three shots into Bob Jones’ back.  Olinger then leveled his pistol at the deputy and said, “Self-defense, right?”

After returning to town with Bob Jones body lying across his horse, Deputy Jones swore out a complaint against Olinger for murder and a Lincoln County judge issued a warrant for his arrest.  Sheriff George Kimball arrested Olinger and brought him to Lincoln for trial in October 1879 — but since Olinger was a friend of several criminal gangs operating in the area, including Murphy & Company, and since Lawrence Murphy owned all the judges in Lincoln County, the charges against Olinger were dropped.

Setting the Stage

Rutherford B. Hayes ascended to the presidency at a time when the New Mexico Territory was politically corrupt, when outlaw gangs threatened the territory’s economy, and when hostile Apache terrorized the southern settlements.  The territory had become an embarrassment to the federal government — something had to be done.  To sort it all out, President Hayes fired Governor Samuel B. Axtell (a Grant appointee) and selected former Union Army Major General Lewis Wallace to replace Axtell as Territorial Governor of New Mexico.

General Wallace wanted a prestigious position in the federal government, but a territorial governorship wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.  He much preferred a job where he could earn good money in a stress-free environment and have time to write his book.  Besides, Wallace was still smarting from losing two congressional elections.  An ambassadorship would be very nice — a territorial governorship, not so much.

Well, maybe, a governorship would work out in the long-term, providing the political winds didn’t shift and the gods of fortune smiled in Wallace’s direction.  So, Wallace accepted the position and assumed his post in September 1878.

Politically, New Mexico was totally corrupt; some argue that it still is.  But to his credit, Wallace had no interest in joining the Santa Fe Ring — an organization of white collar criminals co-founded by Sam Axtell.  According to the US Secretary of the Interior, Axtell was involved in “more corruption, fraud, mismanagement, plots, and murder” than any other governor in the history of the United States[2].  Lew Wallace wanted to put an end to outlaw violence in New Mexico; his first step in achieving this was to offer amnesty to law breakers who were guilty of lesser crimes.  New Mexico outlaws who were guilty of serious crimes simply laughed.

What Happened

The term “lesser charges” excluded the 19-year-old William Bonney — a young man whose purported photograph depicts a rather foolish-looking fellow.  Now, while it is true that Bonney had killed men, mostly in either self-defense or as a bona fide lawman, he was not the cut throat some historians have made him out to be.  And he certainly wasn’t stupid.  After the Lincoln County War, Bonney knew that it was only a matter of time before a sheriff’s posse ran him down even though, aside from the shooting death of Windy Cahill, a man twice Bonney’s size who was in the process of beating Bonney to a pulp when Bonney shot him, Billy the Kid’s only provable crime was in serving in a legally constituted posse.

From that point on, events and persons involved in them become a bit convoluted.  I’ll try to make it less so.

William Brady, Sheriff of Lincoln County, was the senior law enforcement official in the county, and because he served as sheriff in a federal territory, he also served as a deputy United States marshal — which made all of Brady’s Lincoln County deputies’ federal officers, as well.

Knowing that county judges were corrupt, witnesses to John Tunstall’s murder went to the County Justice of the Peace, Squire John Wilson.  Wilson, having taken the statements of these witnesses, which included that of William Bonney, who witnessed Tunstall’s murder from afar, swore these men in as Constables.  Given the attachment of these men to John Tunstall, deputizing them was probably a bad idea.  That aside, Wilson ordered these deputies to track down and arrest the murderers of John Tunstall[3].  One must remember that the murderers of John Tunstall were members of Sheriff Brady’s “hired gun posse,” which mainly consisted of the Jesse Evans outlaw gang[4].  At this point, there were two sets of “lawmen” each looking to arrest the other.

Wilson’s constables began calling themselves County Regulators.  Deputy US Marshal Robert Widenmann later deputized the Lincoln County Regulators, which technically made them “federal deputies,” as well.  Thus, at various stages of the conflict, there  were “good” US deputies shooting “bad” US deputies.  The regulators became outlaws when Governor Axtell fired Wilson as Justice of the Peace — the effect of which delegitimized his constables and gave gubernatorial support to the illegal activities of Brady, Lawrence Murphy, and James Dolan.  Widenmann, though “suspended from duty” was later reinstated.  His suspension invalidated his deputizations, as well.

In the battle between the corrupt and overpowering Murphy-Dolan faction and the Lincoln County Regulators, the bad guys won the day, and the regulators were on the run from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s hired guns — Murphy, Dolan, and the Jesse Evans Gang.  To William Bonney and his friends, survival meant either coming to an arrangement with Murphy & Company or leaving New Mexico.

Bonney suggested a parley with James Dolan and Jesse Evans.  Dolan agreed to meet with the regulators on 18 February 1879 but did so over the objections of Evans and Bob Olinger.  Pecos Bob didn’t want much from life, but among the things he did want was to kill William Bonney.

Not long after both sides sat down to work out an arrangement, Evans started an argument that disrupted the peace talks.  Once that quieted down, the two sides put together a formal treaty stating that no one on either side would kill, molest, or testify against the other and, if anyone was ever arrested, then the others must aid in their escape.  Both sides signed the document (or placed their “X”) and then went to the cantina to celebrate[5].

While making their rounds, from one saloon to the next, the newly united group came upon Mr. Huston Chapman, an attorney acting against Dolan on behalf of his client, Susan McSween.  James Dolan and pal Billy Campbell wasted no time in threatening the man’s life if he continued working for Mrs. McSween.

Bonney, sensing trouble and wanting no part in it, turned to walk away.  Jesse Evans blocked him, however.  According to witnesses, Evans pulled his gun and made Bonney stand fast.  Campbell and Dolan pulled their guns and shot Chapman dead.  With Chapman lying dead in the street, the outlaws continued their festivities and Bonney — still under threat from Evans, with no choice in the matter, went along.

While seated inside another Cantina, Dolan euphorically bragged about the killing and then, as a second thought, ordered one of his men to go back to where Chapman’s body lay and make it look like the gunplay might have been in self-defense.  Whomever Dolan was speaking to refused to do it; Bonney said he’d do it.  But once outside, Bonney and his Texas friend Tom Folliard went directly to their horses and left town.  Bonney, who had every intention of clearing himself of criminal charges in the murder of Windy Cahill was now connected to another murder — one he had no part in.

When Governor Wallace heard of the Chapman shooting, he signed warrants for the arrest of everyone involved, including William H. Bonney.  I do not know the source of Gov. Wallace’s information, but he ordered military troops and sheriff’s possies to find and arrest those men.  William Bonney succeeded in eluding the lawmen at every turn but — in time — Bonney tired of running from the law.  With some assistance from Squire John Wilson, Bonney wrote a letter to Governor Wallace asking for relief.

On 13 March 1879, Bonney allegedly wrote, “I have heard that you will give one-thousand dollars, which as I can understand it means alive as a witness, but I have indictments against me for things that happened in the late Lincoln County War and am afraid to give up because my enemies would kill me.”  He offered to give himself up if the Governor would drop the charges against him.

Governor Wallace arranged to meet Bonney at the Wilson home on 17 March.  Wallace penned, “Come alone and don’t tell a living soul where you are coming or the object.  If you could trust Jesse Evans, you can trust me.”[6]

Bonney did meet with Wallace and agreed to submit to a “fake arrest” for his own safety from the Dolan Gang.  Bonney also agreed to give testimony against Dolan’s bunch — and Colonel Nathan Dudley for the colonel’s illegal conduct during the Lincoln County War.  Wallace told Bonney that if he stuck to his end of the bargain, he would let Bonney go free.  The two men allegedly shook hands to close the deal and Bonney departed.[7]

On 20 March 1879, Wallace further instructed Bonney (again, in writing), “to remove all suspicion of understanding, I think it better to put the arresting party in charge of Sheriff Kimbrell who shall be instructed to see that no violence is used.”

On 21 March 1879, William H. Bonney and Tom Folliard surrendered to then Lincoln County Sheriff, George Kimbrell.[8]  The sheriff placed them in confinement in the back of Patron’s Store (in Lincoln) and the two men remained in custody there for three months.  During his time in Patron’s make-shift jail, Bonney followed through on his part of the deal and was obedient to the wishes of Gov. Wallace by offering testimony against James Dolan, Colonel Dudley, and other participants of the Lincoln County War.

In time, however, Bonney began to suspect that Governor Wallace had been dishonest with him — that he would never grant him amnesty.  In this thinking, Bonney was prescient.  There are three possible explanations for Wallace’s treachery.  The first is that Apache hostiles were creating havoc in the southern section of New Mexico; something had to be done about that.[9]  The second explanation is that Governor Wallace’s primary interest in New Mexico was his investments in silver mines.  Third, Wallace was writing a book, which took up most of the business day.[10]  Among the least of Wallace’s concerns was (a) the widespread corruption of the New Mexico Territory, (b) the crime perpetrated by several outlaw gangs, and  (c) his agreement with William Bonney.  After Bonney had given his testimony, district attorney, William Rynerson, refused to release him and Lew Wallace washed his hands of the matter.[11]

On 17 June 1879, as his guard at Patron’s Store looked in another direction, Bonney and Folliard walked out of the store, mounted two horses, and rode away.  Bonney’s “escape” began a manhunt that lasted 18 months — through late December 1880 — when Bonney was taken into custody by recently elected Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett.  While being held in Santa Fe, Bonney wrote four letters to Governor Wallace, but by then, Wallace didn’t know who Bonney was.

Following two days of testimony in a Mesilla court in April 1881, William H. Bonney was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady.  His was the only conviction against any of the regulators of Lincoln County.  On 13 April, Bonney was sentenced to hang; his execution was scheduled for 13 May 1881.

Bonney no doubt believed that he was being made the scapegoat for the Lincoln County War.  Remember, at the time of Brady’s death, Bonney was part of a duly appointed posse — and it was Brady’s posse that was responsible for the death of John Tunstall.  While there is little doubt that the Constable’s posse was more interested in revenge than with justice (a subjective conclusion on my part), it was a stretch of the imagination to convict Bonney of first degree murder.

When the showdown occurred between the Regulators and Sheriff Brady (and others) inside Lincoln, Bonney was one of six constable deputies who fired his weapon during the shootout — and yet, he was the only member of the regulator posse indicted, tried, and convicted.  In fact, discounting the court-martial of Colonel Dudley, William Bonney was the only person to stand trial for events occurring during the Lincoln County War.

If it doesn’t yet appear that the deck was stacked against William Bonney, then perhaps this will help clear it up: When deputies loaded Bonney in the wagon for transportation to Lincoln, where the sentence would be carried out, Garrett ordered them to shoot Bonney first if anyone tried to free him along the way.  There would have been no hesitance to shoot Bonney either, since the deputies included gang leader John Kinney, killer Bill Matthews, bully lawman “Pecos Bob” Olinger, and a half-dozen other armed men guarding the wagon on horseback.

During the trip to Lincoln, Bob Olinger taunted Bonney — suggesting that he “make a break” so that Olinger could shoot him — like he shot Bonney’s friend, John Tunstall.  But the trip was uneventful and upon arrival in Lincoln, Bonney was confined on the second level of the courthouse, in a room next to Pat Garrett’s office.  Garrett wasn’t taking any chances, either.  Bonney had already demonstrated his ability to escape from jail, so Garrett posted a 24-hour armed guard on Bonney and kept him shackled and handcuffed at all times.  Garrett even drew a chalk mark across the room and warned Bonney not to cross it, or he’d be shot.

Garrett assigned Bob Olinger and James Bell as Bonney’s constant guard force.  Bell took a liking to Bonney, even despite the fact that Bonney was present when Bell’s friend Jimmy Carlisle was killed.    Olinger, on the other hand, pestered Bonney constantly with caustic remarks, dares, and threats.  For his part, Bonney ignored him.

Within a week after Bonney’s incarceration, Garrett traveled over to White Oaks to collect taxes.  He placed Deputy Olinger in charge of the prisoner.  Before his departure, Garrett warned Olinger to keep an eye on Bonney — he was, after all, a dangerous and desperate man.  Pecos Bob probably rolled his eyes.  The next day, on 28 April 1881, at around 5 p.m., Deputy Olinger delivered Billy’s evening meal to his cell.  Bonney was not allowed to leave his “cell” except to use the outhouse, so meals were brought to him.  Bob then escorted the other prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel dining room to eat.  Deputy Bell stayed behind to guard Bonney.  After Bonney had eaten his meal, he asked Bell to escort him to the privy.

No one knows exactly what happened next.  Either a pistol was hidden in the outhouse by one of Bonney’s friends — or Bonney managed to slip his small hands from the handcuffs and used them against Bell, stunned him, and grabbed Bell’s pistol.  Whatever the circumstances, Bonney ordered Bell to put up his hands.  Bell panicked and started running.  Bonney fired his weapon and Deputy Bell was killed.

Note: This photograph purports to show William Bonney sitting second from left between Richard Brewer (far left) and Fred Waite, with Henry Brown sitting on the far right.  According to The Guardian in 2019, this picture was sold at auction for $1-million.  The photograph does not portray Bonney as the goofy lout shown in the better known (inverted) photograph.  This picture is thought to have been taken sometime in 1877.

At the Wortley, Pecos Bob heard the shot and bolted out the door, ran across the street to a fence, and made his way to the jail house.  At the fence, Bob met up with the gardener, a man named Gottfried Gauss, who informed him that Bell was shot.  Bob turned away to enter the jail house and it was at that moment Olinger heard a voice from above saying, “Hello Bob.”  Looking up, Pecos Bob saw Billy the Kid leaning out of the second story window with a shotgun pointed at him.  Bonney fired both barrels into Olinger’s chest and head and the bully with the badge promptly resigned his position as a deputy sheriff of Lincoln County. 

Bonney went down the stairs, broke the stock of the shotgun and threw the weapon on the ground next to Olinger’s body.  According to witness testimony Bonney yelled, “You damn son-of-a-bitch, you won’t corral me with that thing again!”

William Bonney helped himself to Sheriff Garrett’s armory and proceeded to the stables, where Mr. Gauss was kind enough to help Billy saddle a horse.  Billy promptly left town.  It would have been both wise and prudent had the fluent Spanish-speaking William Bonney gone to Mexico — but no.


  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. Burns, W. N.  The Saga of Billy the Kid.  University of New Mexico Press, 1925.
  4. Fulton, M. G.  History of the Lincoln County War: A Classic Account of Billy the Kid.  Robert Mullin, ed., University of Arizona Press, 1997.
  5. Nolan, F.  The West of Billy the Kid.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  6. Weddle, J.  Antrim is my Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid.  Arizona Historical Society, 1993.
  7. Wiser, K.  John Selman — Wicked Lawman and Vicious Outlaw.  Legends of America, November 2019.


[1] It was common practice in the federal Territory of New Mexico for US Marshals to extend deputy commissions to county sheriffs and their deputies.  There is no record of Bob Olinger receiving an appointment as deputy US marshal, but he may have been acting (or bragging about) a pocket commission through Sheriff Brady.  The US Marshal for New Mexico during at this time was John Sherman, a nephew of William Tecumseh Sherman.

[2] Axtell was later appointed to serve as the Territorial Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court.  He resigned in 1882 after learning that President Grover Cleveland was planning to remove him from office for (gasp) corruption.

[3] Lawrence Murphy & James Dolan, owners and proprietors of Murphy & Company were the bosses of Lincoln County.

[4] Sheriff William Brady of Lincoln County, New Mexico, was killed in a gun battle between regulators and the Dolan faction.  William Bonney was present that day, but it may not be possible to have claimed, with all the gunfire, that Bonney’s gun that killed him.

[5] William H. Bonney didn’t drink alcohol; he may have been the only sober one in the group during these festivities.

[6] Wallace’s caution was odd because if Jesse Evans was anything at all, he was untrustworthy.  Perhaps Wallace was suggesting that he, Wallace, was untrustworthy, as well — which ultimately proved to be the case in his agreement with William Bonney, which Justice Wilson witnessed.

[7] Historical writers insist that Wallace had no intention of pardoning Bonney; he only wanted his testimony to convict Dolan for the Chapman murder.  Bonney accepted the arrangement as genuine.

[8] George Kimbrell is believed to have been appointed Sheriff of Lincoln County upon the resignation of Sheriff Peppin, whose heart couldn’t take the excitement of the post-Lincoln County War.  Kimbrell was in turn defeated by Pat Garrett in an election in 1879.  George Kimbrell subsequently served as a probate judge in Lincoln County.  In his younger days, Kimbrell participated in the Pony Express operation and served under the command of Colonel Kit Carson at Stanton.  

[9] Given the fact that the Indians were an army problem, it must have taken Wallace all of two minutes to deal with the Apaches.

[10] Wallace was the author of a book titled Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  The book was first published in 1880 with mild success but later became a profitable silent film in 1925 and an epic film in 1959, which netted close to $150-million in its initial release.

[11] William Rynerson was likely part of the Santa Fe Ring, but definitely a friend and ally of James Dolan.

Posted in American Southwest, Corruption, Gunfights and such, History, New Mexico, Society, Truth | 5 Comments

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 | 4 Comments

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