Captain Sam Walker

Sam Walker

Sam H. Walker

Samuel Hamilton Walker was the son of Nathan and Elizabeth Walker, the fifth of seven children.  He was born on 24 February 1817 at Toaping Castle, Maryland.  What we know about him is mostly third hand, but this doesn’t detract from what must have been a very colorful life.  At the age of 19-years in 1836, Walker enlisted in the Washington City, Alabama Volunteers during the Creek Indian Campaign.  In the next year, he accepted his discharge and worked as a scout in Florida until 1841.  He migrated to Galveston, Texas in 1842, around 25 years of age, and served under Captain Jesse Billingsley in the defense of San Antonio when General Adrian Woll invaded Texas from Mexico.

On 5 March 1842, General Rafael Vásquez (who was then serving at the pleasure of Adrian Woll), led seven-hundred Mexican soldiers into San Antonio.  Their unexpected arrival threw the residents of this frontier town into a panic.  Vásquez’ withdrew his force after a short time, but the invasion stirred up a Texian hornet’s nest.  In the minds of these Texans, Mexico’s invasion of their homeland was an insult that could not be ignored.

President Sam Houston, recently reelected, knew that Texas could not afford another major conflict with Mexico and tried his best to calm the masses.  Then, on 11 September, a larger force under the direct command of General Woll repeated Vásquez’ feat.  Although Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna signed treaties ceding Texas from Mexican Control in 1836, Mexican forces continued to invade the Republic of Texas in hopes of regaining control of this large territory.  On 17 September 1842, Texans clashed with Mexican troops at Salado Creek, east of San Antonio.  After a couple of successful engagements earlier in the day, an undermanned company of Texas Rangers under the command of Nicholas M. Dawson [1] began to advance on the rear echelon of Woll’s force.  Woll responded to this threat by sending 500 mounted infantry to engage them.  Initially, the 53 Texas Rangers held off the cavalry, but Mexican artillery exacted a terrible toll on the rangers.  The battle ended with 36 dead rangers; fifteen rangers were captured.  History remembers this incident as the Dawson massacre.

Subsequently, Sam Houston could see no alternative but to authorize a retaliatory action.  In November 1842, Houston authorized Brigadier General Alexander Somervell [2] to organize a raid into Mexico.  In order undertake this mission, Somervell was forced to rely on men who were rowdy, somewhat full of themselves, and obnoxious in their deportment toward all Mexicans.  Complicating Somervell’s expedition, his force was inadequately provisioned for any expeditionary action, much less a punitive invasion of Mexico.  To address this scarcity of supplies, the rowdies sacked the nearby town of Laredo.  An appalled General Somervell arrested the men responsible and ordered all misbegotten materials returned to their rightful owners.  Most of Somervell’s men understood his decision, but about 200 of the least disciplined refused to accept it.  They voted to quit the army and return to their homes.

Despite this setback, General Somervell continued his expedition.  In time, however, even he became dubious about his chances for martial success.  The supply situation had not improved, and Somervell found it impossible to take food away from border Mexicans in order to feed his men when they too were starving.

Somervell finally ordered a retreat into Texas —a decision that outraged several key members of the Texian army, among these a young man by the name of Sam Walker.  Of Somervell’s eight captains, five organized a vote among their subordinates to determine whether they should continue the expedition.  Three-hundred of General Somervell’s men voted to continue into Mexico —General Somervell be damned.

It is likely that the bulk of these men were more focused on plunder than achieving satisfaction over General Woll’s “insult.”  These “hardcore” men elected Colonel William S. Fisher [3] as their new leader.  Fisher’s men may not have known at the time that he had visions of creating his own country out of the swath of northern Mexico’s territory.  In any case, Fisher led his men deep into Mexico —among them, Sam Walker.

On 24 December, Fisher seized the town of Mier and, taking the Alcalde as a hostage, ordered the townspeople to bring him stores for 1,200 men.  He had less than a third of that number, but to Fisher, it didn’t matter.  Rather than bringing him stores, however, the people sent a messenger to Mexican authorities, informing them that Mier was under attack by hombres del Norte.  General Pedro de Ampudia responded immediately.  In terms of human life and casualties, the battle that followed was far costlier to the Mexicans than it was the Texians, but the fact was that Fisher had led his men too far into Mexico.  He was in an inhospitable climate, had no allies among the population, and was outnumbered by Ampudia’s forces.  Despite inflicting death and injury to more than 850 Mexicans, Fisher eventually surrendered his 243 men to General Ampudia, who force-marched them to Mexico City via Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Monterrey, and Nuevo Leon.  It was a brutal march and the Mexicans did not treat the Texians very kindly.

General Ampudia was a no-nonsense commander.  Had he known that Fisher was leading an unauthorized army, he no doubt would have had them executed on the spot.  As it was, he thought Fisher was part of an organized, lawful army, and he treated them according to the articles of war.  Unhappily for Fisher and his men, authorities in Mexico City realized that the Mier Expedition was not “authorized” by lawful authority and ordered these men marched to the capital city for trial.  They were no longer considered prisoners of war; they were pirates and bandits.  They would be treated as such.

On 10 February 209 Texians arrived under guard at Hacienda del Salado.  The spirited Texians began planning their escape almost immediately, but their Mexican captors (most of whom could speak English) learned of the plan and quickly separated Fisher and his senior staff from the rest of the prisoners.  Fisher and his officers were marched to Mexico City.  The next morning, the remaining Texians effected a surprise prison break and immediately headed back toward the Rio Grande.  What ultimately defeated them was the heat of the desert.  What saved these men from madness and wasting away in the desert was a well-mounted Mexican army.  The escapees were chained and marched to Saltillo and placed under the command of General Francisco Mejia.  Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered these men executed, but General Mejia refused to take part in a mass murder.

In Mexico City, British and American diplomats protested Santa Anna’s order and he was eventually persuaded to execute one man in ten (decimation), their fate to be decided by the so-called Black Bean lottery.  Back in Salado, Colonel Domingo Huerta prepared a jar filled with 159 white beans, and 17 black beans.  Huerta ordered the officers to choose first; he had placed all the black beans at the top of the jar.  Whoever selected a black bean would be shot the next morning.  Captain William Eastland, the fourth man in line, was the first to choose a black bean.  Sam Walker picked a white bean.

In time, the surviving members of the so-called Mier Expedition were returned to Texas.  Subsequently, Sam Walker joined the Texas Rangers, serving under John Coffee Hays[4] and was eventually commissioned as a Captain of the Texas Rangers.  During the Mexican American War, Walker led his Texas Rangers in support of Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.  On 9 October 1847, Sam Walker led his troops in the Battle of Huamantla in Tiaxcala.  Walker was instantly killed when he was struck by a shotgun round fired from a balcony.  Initially buried not far from where he fell, Walker’s remains were moved to San Antonio in 1856.

Walker-Colt 1847

Walter-Colt Revolver (1847)

Despite his many military successes (and a few setbacks) Sam Walker is best known as the co-inventor of the now-famous Walker Colt Revolver.  Walker traveled to New York to meet with Samuel Colt and proposed to him the concept of a sidearm based on the Patterson revolver [5] adding several enhancements which included the addition of a sixth chamber and round powerful enough to kill either man or horse with a single shot, and a quicker reload capacity.  At the time, Sam Colt was no longer in the firearm business, but the promise of a large order for firearms encouraged Colt to establish a new company.  He hired Eli Whitney, Jr. [6], who was already in the firearms business, to produce these new weapons.  The first prototype was produced in 1847, which almost immediately found favor with Texans and resulted in the demand for 1,000 Colt-Walker Revolvers and propelled Sam Colt into an entirely new firearms business.  In 1855, Sam Colt’s business became the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut [7].

Isn’t history just great?  By the way, in French word for revolver is “le Colt.”  God created men, and Sam Colt made them equal.  Texas forever.


[1] Nicholas Dawson migrated to Texas in 1834, settling in Fayette County.  He was a relative of William M. Eastland.  Dawson enlisted in the Revolutionary Army in 1836 and within a week was elected to the rank of second lieutenant of Company B, Texas Volunteers.  In this capacity, he participated in the Battle of San Jacinto.  By 1840, he served as a captain of volunteers under John H. Moore and participated in the Indian campaign in Mitchell County.  At the time General Woll invaded Texas, he resided in Fayette County.  He organized a small company of fifteen men from that county, soon enlarged to 53 men from Fayette, Gonzalez, and DeWitt counties.

[2] Somervell (1796-1854) was an entrepreneur and military volunteer whose migration to Texas in 1833 landed him in Stephen F. Austin’s second colony.  He joined the march from Gonzalez to Béxar in 1836, his men electing him as a major in the volunteer force.  After participating in the siege of Béxar, Somervell enlisted in the Texas Army on 12 March 1836.  He was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the first regiment on 8 April.  He participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, served briefly as the Texas Secretary of War, served in the Texas Congress.  By 1839, Somervell was commissioned a brigadier general in Fort Bend County.

[3] Fisher was tall, well-built, and intelligent.  After serving as Secretary of War for one year, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel of frontier cavalry.  There is no question that Fisher was fearless; he may have also been foolhardy.  He was present at the Council House Fight that prompted a protracted war with Comanche war chief Buffalo Hump.

[4] Hays served as a Captain of Texas Rangers serving in several conflicts between 1836-1848, including forays against the Comanche Indian and service in the Mexican American War.  His war record was almost without peer.  Jack Hays was among the first to use the Navy Colt Paterson five-shot revolver in any conflict.  It was he that dispatched Sam Walker to meet with Sam Colt in 1845.

[5] The Colt Patterson navy revolver, first introduced in 1837, was a quirky weapon because interchangeability of parts was a relatively new concept.  Both the U. S. Marine Corps and Army reported quality problems with the weapon and production of the weapon ended in 1842.

Sam Colt 001

Sam Colt

[6] Eli Whitney, Jr., (1820-) assumed control of the family armory in 1841.  The Whitney Arms Company manufactured muskets for the government through the American Civil War.  Whitney Arms Company was headquartered at Whitneyville, Connecticut.  His first opportunity to become involved in the manufacture of sidearms occurred in 1847 when Sam Colt received a contract for 1,000 revolvers during the Mexican American War.  Whitney’s venture not only helped Sam Colt get back into the firearms business, it also helped Whitney to begin manufacturing his first unique handguns in 1850.  Colt retained the patent on his revolving mechanism until 1857, after which Whitney began to produce revolvers with the same reliable mechanism.  Source: The Whitney

[7] The key to Sam Colt’s success in firearms manufacturing was the recruitment and employment of German workers.

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The Story of Phantly Bean

Kentuckian by birth in 1825, Phantly Roy Bean, Jr. was the youngest of five children born to Phantly Roy Bean, Sr., and the former Anna Henderson Gore.  Poverty combined with little hope for useful employment near the homestead sent young Roy to New Orleans where he hoped to find a source of income.  What he found in New Orleans was trouble, which prompted him to flee to San Antonio to avoid prosecution.  In San Antonio, Roy joined his brother Samuel Gore Bean (1819-1903). Sam had earlier migrated to Texas through Independence, Missouri where he worked as a teamster and bullwhacker [1].  Sam hauled freight out of Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico.  After the Mexican-American War, Sam freighted from San Antonio –and this is where Roy joined him.

In 1848, the two brothers opened a trading post in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.  It wasn’t long after that when Roy Bean shot and killed a Mexican desperado who, in a state of drunkenness, threatened to kill a gringo.  Roy Bean seemed to be handy for this purpose and Roy ended up shooting the desperado in self-defense.  This isn’t how Mexican authorities saw it, however, so to escape a murder charge, Sam and Roy fled westward to Sonora.  By the spring of 1849, Roy was living in San Diego, California with his older brother, Joshua.  San Diego town had existed as a political entity since July 1770.  Between 1770 and 1838, San Diego operated as a presidio under the command of Mexican military officers.  After San Diego became a pueblo [2] on 1 January 1835, the senior most official was the Alcalde (Spanish for mayor).  Eventually, the population of San Diego waned and it lost its status as a pueblo and fell under the jurisdiction of the city of Los Angeles and was governed by a Juez de Paz [3]. The first mayor of San Diego, California under the laws of the United States was Joshua Bean.

While in San Diego, a randy Roy Bean competed for the attentions of local women, and by all accounts, he was quite successful in this endeavor.  However, a Scotsman by the name of Collins challenged Bean to a marksmanship demonstration with pistols, on horseback.  Collins assigned Bean the responsibility for choosing the targets.  Bean decided they should shoot at one another.  The horseback duel took place on 24 February 1852.  It ended with Collins receiving a gunshot wound to his right arm, and both men being placed under arrest.  San Diego ladies concluded that Roy was very gallant and while awaiting trial, many of these women sent him bouquets of flowers, good wine, and cigars. His final gift was a set knives cleverly encased in tamales, which Roy used to dig through a wall and escape pretrial confinement. After his escape on 17 April 1852, Bean went to San Gabriel where he became a barkeep in his brother’s saloon. After Joshua’s murder [4], Roy inherited the saloon.

Mission Valero 001

Mission San Antonio de Valero, 1854

In 1854, Roy Bean was courting a young woman whose parents did not approve of her fascination with him.  Unknown persons kidnapped the woman and forced her to marry a Mexican military officer.  Outraged, Bean challenged the officer to a duel and killed him without giving much thought to the fact that the Mexican may have friends.  Six of these friends assailed Bean, sat him upon a horse with a noose around his neck and left him to hang.

Fortunately for Bean, the horse was not skittish and did not walk away from the tree; the young widow freed Bean from his predicament, but he did not survive unblemished; the rope left a permanent scar around his neck, and he thereafter complained of chronic stiff neck.  Bean’s near-death experience convinced him to leave California and he returned to New Mexico to live with his brother Sam.  While Roy was in California, Sam became the first sheriff of Doña Ana County, in the territory of New Mexico.  In 1861, Sam and Roy operated a dry goods store and saloon on Main Street in present-day Grant County, New Mexico.  The saloon advertised good liquor and a fine billiards table.  Outside the store sat a field cannon belonging to Roy.  It came in handy when a band of Apache Indians attacked the good citizens of Pinos Altos.

During the American Civil War, the Confederate Army successfully invaded New Mexico, but ended up losing their supply train, forcing them to retreat to San Antonio.  After taking money from Sam’s safe, Bean joined the retreating army and for the remainder of the war, Roy Bean bullwhacked cotton from San Antonio to British ships off the coast of Matamoros, Mexico and then returning with much needed supplies.

Bean made San Antonio his home for twenty years, working variously as a teamster, lumberjack, dairy hand, and the butcher of stolen cattle. On 28 October 1866, Bean married an 18-year-old woman named Virginia Chavez, with whom he had four children. The family lived in a poverty-stricken Mexican barrio everyone called “Beanville” [5] located just west of the San Antonio River.

By the late 1870s, Bean was operating a saloon in Beanville.  He learned that several railroad companies were extending their track westward and that  there were several construction camps opening along the route.  Taking advantage of this opportunity, Bean decided to sell his saloon and capitalize on the demand for whiskey in the middle of nowhere.  A store owner/neighbor was anxious enough to have Bean move away that she bought all of Bean’s possessions for $900.00.  By this time, Virginia Bean had left her husband, so Bean deposited his children with his friends and headed out west.

Jersey Lilly 001

Artist’s rendition of Judge Bean’s courtroom and saloon.

Thus far in this story, there appears very little to recommend Mr. Bean as a role model. Nevertheless, Bean purchased a tent, wholesale supplies, and ten barrels of whiskey.  By the spring of 1882, Bean established a small saloon near a tent city he named Vinegaroon, adjacent to the Pecos River.  More than 8,000 railway men were working a short distance away.25

At this remote location, the nearest court was 200 miles away at Fort Stockton and there were few resources to deal with lawlessness.  On 2 August 1882, Roy Bean received an appointment as Justice of the Peace for Precinct 6, Pecos County [6]. The date of his appointment notwithstanding, Bean heard his first case, Texas v. Joe Bell, on 25 July 1882.  To help him through the arduous task of meting out justice to the good folk in Pecos County, Bean relied exclusively on the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas.  It was the only law book he ever used because he judged all newer editions as superfluous.  He used the newer revisions as kindling.

Roy Bean preferred to simplify Texas law.  He did this by disallowing hung juries and appeals.  Bean selected his jurors from among his best saloon customers.  Whenever he ordered a recess, he expected all customers to buy a drink.  In one case, a railway worker named Patrick O’Rourke allegedly shot and killed a Chinese laborer.  A mob of 200 angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom/saloon; they told Bean rather directly that if he did not release O’Rourke, they intended to lynch “Judge” Bean. After consulting his law library (which consisted of one book), Bean concluded, “… homicide is the killing of a human being.  I can find no law against killing a Chinaman.  Case dismissed.”

In December 1882, railway construction had progressed further west; bean moved his courtroom and saloon 70 miles further west to Strawbridge.  A whiskey merchant already well-established there destroyed Bean’s whiskey supply by adding kerosene.  Thus unable to attract customers, Bean moved to Eagle’s Nest, 20 miles west of the Pecos River. Bean named this new place Langtry.

The original owner of the land, who also ran a saloon, sold 640 acres to the railroad, adding this one caveat: the railroad could not sell or lease any part of that land to Roy Bean.  Patrick O’Rourke, whose case Bean previously dismissed, advised Bean to use the railroad right of way —land not covered by that provision.  Bean thus squatted on land that he had no legal right to use.  He named this establishment The Jersey Lilly in honor of a British Actress whose stage name was Lillie Langtry (born Emile Charlotte Le Breton).  Infatuation is always a bit strange, but in this case, Bean’s subsequent fascination with Lillie Langtry was a bit daft.  He never met the woman, but after  Bean’s death, Miss Langtry visited the Jersey Lilly.

Roy Bean 001

Justice of the Peace Roy Bean, Jr.

As Langtry did not have a jail, Bean imposed fines —sharing nary a one of them with the State of Texas.  In most cases, Bean imposed fines that equated to the exact amount of money found on the accused’s person.  Despite the depictions of him in Hollywood films, Judge Bean only sentenced two men to hang and one of those managed to escape.  The Bean Court always released horse thieves when the accused agreed to return the horses to their rightful owners.  Roy Bean also granted divorces —but had he seriously consulted the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas he might have noted that this power was reserved to Texas district courts.  Judge Bean pocketed $10 for each divorce hearing, charged $5 for weddings, and always ended marriage ceremonies by saying, “… and my God have mercy on your souls.”

Roy Bean won reelection as Justice of the Peace in 1884 but lost in 1886.  In 1887, the commissioner’s court created a new precinct in the county and appointed Bean to serve as that jurisdiction’s justice of the peace.  He continued to win elections until 1896.  After his defeat in that year, Bean refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases “north of the tracks.”

In 1890, Bean received word that railroad developer and land speculator Jay Gould was planning to pass through Langtry on a special train.  Bean flagged the train down with a danger signal; thinking the bridge was out, the engineer stopped the train and Bean invited Gould and his daughter to visit the saloon as his guest.  He entertained them for two hours.  Gould’s sudden and mysterious disappearance caused a panic on the New York Stock Exchange.

My opinion is that the one actor who came closest to accurately portraying Roy Bean was Walter Brennan in the 1940 film, The Westerner.  Bean’s biography seems to suggest that there is a very thin line between a bona fide scoundrel and an officer entrusted with the law.  Bean’s story is nothing if not interesting.

In his later years, Bean spent his time and his money helping the poor in his area; he always made sure that the schoolhouse had firewood in the winter.  On 16 March 1903, after a bout of heavy drinking in San Antonio, Roy Bean passed away in his sleep.  He and his son Sam are interred in Del Rio, Texas.


  1. Davis, J. T. Legendary Texians, Volume II, Austin: Eakin Press, 1985
  2. Sonnichsen, C. L. Roy Bean: The Law West of Pecos.  Mockingbird Books, 1943
  3. Skiles, J. Judge Roy Bean Country.  Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996
  4. Roy Bean Biographical Summary, Texas State Historical Society


[1] A bullwhacker was one who drove teams of oxen pulling heaving wagons.

[2] A pueblo is a nucleated Spanish village; one of the primary settlement patterns associated with Spanish townships.

[3] Justice of the Peace

[4] While serving as Mayor of San Diego, Joshua Bean illegally sold City Hall and pueblo lands to himself and a drinking companion by the name of Cave Couts.  Citizens later reclaimed City Hall through judicial action.  In 1851, Joshua relocated to Los Angeles County were he established a saloon and a store in the city of San Gabriel.  On the night of 7 November 1852, unknown assailants ambushed and killed Joshua on account of his over-familiarity with a local woman.

[5] The use of the word was intended as an ethnic slur directed against people of Mexican or Spanish ancestry.

[6] There are eight levels of judicial courts in Texas; Justice of the Peace Courts are the lowest of these.  The number of JP Courts within a given county depends on the county’s population.  Each county will have at least one JP Court, which under current law is limited to Class C misdemeanor cases, civil matters of less than $10,000 in value, evictions, liens, and foreclosures.

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The Sergeant Major

It is difficult to determine which of these positions has the greatest prestige: a sergeant major of Spanish Marines [1], or a Governor of Texas.  Martín de Alarcón served in both capacities.  He also served as a Knight of the Order of Santiago and was the founder of present-day San Antonio, Texas.

Before arriving in the Indies, Alarcón served Spain in North Africa as a member of the Armada Española.  In 1691, Alarcón was appointed sargento mayor of a company of naval infantry in Guadalajara, which he commanded for some time.  He was later appointed Alcalde (mayor) and capitán guerra (magistrate empowered to supervise military affairs) of Jacona and Zamora, in the province of Michoacán in New Spain.

Alarcon 001

Martin de Alarcon

In 1696, Viceroy Juan de Ortega y Montañez appointed Alarcón as capitán guerra and protector of Indians in the locale of Mazapil.  Subsequent viceroys continued to employ his services as an agent of pacification on the northern frontier of New Spain, especially in the environs of Saltillo (present-day northern Mexico).

Alarcón was appointed to two terms as governor of the Spanish provinces of Coahuila and Texas, the first being in 1705 when there were no Spanish settlements in Texas.  The last of the original Catholic missions in East Texas were abandoned in 1699 and the French had been busy establishing settlements west of the Mississippi River.  Spanish authorities were rightly concerned that the French intended to expand into Texas and in 1707 the Viceroy of New Spain ordered all provincial governors to prevent the entry of foreigners and their goods.

Alarcón proposed to reestablish one of the missions along the Rio Grande, relocating Misión San Bernardo into Texas and placing it along the Frio River.  Nothing came of his recommendation, however. Later that year, he authorized an expedition into Texas to dissuade the Indians from becoming friendly with the encroaching French.  Spanish troops reached only as far as the Colorado River, but spent some time exploring the area around the San Antonio River.

Early in 1716, the Spanish government expressed a greater interest in the territory of Texas and by way of exercising its authority, authorized a second expedition in order to convert the Hasinai people of East Texas to Christianity.  Four missions and a presidio were established and several of the soldiers assigned to the presidio brought their families; it was the first time Spanish women entered Texas.

On December 9, 1716, Viceroy Marqués de Valero reappointed Alarcón in Mexico City as commander of Presidio San Francisco de Coahuila and as governor of the province of Texas.  As chief executive, Alarcón was to resupply Spaniards who had gone to Texas earlier in 1716 under the command of Domingo Ramón.  He was soon informed that the missions were in dire straits, as there was a paucity of provisions needed to sustain them.  The supplies needed would have to come from the nearest Spanish settlement, which was located some 400 miles away at San Juan Bautista.  Alarcón looked first to the headwaters of the San Antonio River, as it was an area the Spanish had mapped in 1707 —and it was already home to a large community of Coahuiltecans.

Alarcon expedition

Artist’s rendition of the Alarcon expedition

Alarcón journeyed to San Juan Bautista, which was to be the shipping point for any attempt to resupply the missions.  Along the way he received a letter from a Padre by the name of Olivares informing him that a Frenchman named Louis Juchereau de St. Denis had established an illegal trade network along the Rio Grande.

Alarcón arrived at Saltillo de Coahuilain June 1717 where he decided to delay several months while evaluating the activities of St. Denis.  Naturally, during the period of Alarcón’s inquiries, St. Denis was imprisoned.  At the conclusion of Alarcón’s inquiries, he was unable to prove conclusively that St. Denis was guilty of anything beyond being French, nor was there any evidence of collusion or negligence by the soldiers of the presidio. Accordingly, Alarcón released St. Denis, who wasted no time returning to Louisiana.  See also: Spanish Texas —Part II; Spanish America.

By the time Governor Alarcón had completed his inquiries of St. Denis, winter made it impractical for him to proceed into Texas.  However, in April 1718 Alarcón crossed the Rio Grande with ten families consisting of 72 Spanish citizens.  His entourage also included 548 horses, 6 barren of mules, and other livestock.  In the next month he assisted Padre Antonio San Buenaventura y Olivares in the founding of Misión San Antonio de Valero, which everyone today should recognize as the Alamo.  One mile further on, Alarcón founded Presidio San Antonio de Béxar [2].  Adjacent to the presidio Alarcón chartered a new municipality, which he named Béxar from which the City of San Antonio emerged.  San Antonio became important to Texas because at that time, it was the only villa in Texas and the colonists that settled there relied on the cohesion it provided to survive the wilderness of early Texas.

With this new settlement established, Alarcón continued further on to re-provision and inspect the East Texas missions.  Not only was he involved in replenishing much needed supplies, he was also tasked to resettle the Indians —which from everything I have ever read about Native Americans, was analogous to herding cats.

During his travels, Alarcón continued to investigate the activities of the French.  On 28 May 1718, Alarcón wrote to Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe and advised him to withdraw all French trading posts from Spanish territory at once.  In response to this correspondence, de la Harpe invited Alarcón to try to remove the French from their “Texas” territory.  A robust series of letters ensued, but Alarcón took no military action to forcibly remove the French —essentially because the governor did not have sufficient forces to press the issue.

Meanwhile, the missionaries were becoming increasingly desperate as they waited the arrival of Alarcón and much-needed supplies.  The padres appointed two members of their order to carry a message to Spanish authorities in Mexico City and not only did they detail their deprivations and the perceived slowness of Alarcón’s response, they also mentioned their fear that France would soon extend their settlements into Texas.

Zuniga 001

Baltasar de Zúñiga

In May 1719, the Alarcón party began its return trip to the Mexican interior.  Between the Brazos River and Colorado River they encountered what he called the Rancheria Grande.  It was an area peopled by several Native groups.  It was Alarcón’s intention to establish a trade relationship with these people, whose leader was named El Cuilón.  Governor Alarcón preferred to refer to him as Juan Rodriguez. Alarcón appointed Rodriguez Chief of the Rancheria and offered him a baton, the symbol of overall commander.  El Cuilón was no doubt suitably impressed.

As Alarcón made his way back to Coahuila, a group of French soldiers took control of the mission San Miguel de los Adeas from its single Spanish defender.  The French soldiers told this unhappy fellow that hundreds more French soldiers were en route. Alarmed about this invasion, area colonists, missionaries, and soldiers fled to San Antonio.  Upon their arrival, the missionaries sent a scathing letter to Baltasar de Zúñiga, 1st Duke of Ariónthe, Viceroy of New Spain, blaming Alarcón for their difficulties and for the French usurpation of Spanish territory.  Alarcón was relieved of his office on December 19, 1719.  We do not know what happened to him afterwards.


  1. Chipman, D. E. Spanish Texas 1519-1821.  Austin: University of Texas Press,1992
  2. Cox, I. J. The Louisiana-Texas Frontier. Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Texas State Historical Association, P. 10, July1906
  3. Weddie, R. S. San Juan Bautista, Mother of Texas Missions, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Texas State Historical Association, P. 71, July 1967
  4. Weber, D. J. The Spanish Frontier in North America.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992


[1] The Spanish Marine Corps (Infanteria de Marina) is responsible to the Spanish armada for conducting amphibious warfare.  This organization was formed in 1537 by Charles I of Spain (also, Charles V Holy Roman Emperor), which makes it the oldest Marine Corps in existence.  Its model was the Companions of the Sea of Naples (Companias Viejas de Mar de Napoles).

[2] The word Béxar (also, Bejar) (universally mispronounced by Texans as Bear —and I think intentionally so) is the name of a town in the Spanish province of Salamanca, which was founded in pre-Roman times.  Bejar became a Moorish fort during the Eleventh Century, and the name was carried to New Philippines and the Province of Tejas in New Spain and now commonly used to refer to the Presidio San Antonio de Béxar, Misión San Antonio de Valero, the Villa de Béxar and after the arrival of the Canary Islanders, the Villa of San Fernando de Béxar.  These were a group of settlements on the San Antonio River often referred to as San Antonio de Béxar the county of Béxar.


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Old Ben

In Texas history, scholars refer to this man as Old Ben Milam.  He wasn’t old at all when he met his fate —just 47 years of age.  Benjamin Rush Milam was born in present-day Frankfort, Kentucky on 20 October 1788.  He was the second youngest child of six born to Moses Milam and Elizabeth Pattie Boyd. Ben had little formal schooling, which was normal in those days.  He was able to achieve early success and self-confidence through his military service affiliation.  At the outset of the War of 1812, he enlisted as a private soldier in the 8thKentucky Regiment, eventually earning a commission as an infantry lieutenant.

Following the war, which ended in 1815, Milam realized that there were trading opportunities among native Americans living along the upper Red River in the Province of Tejas, Mexico.  In 1818, he entered into an arrangement with David G. Burnet [1] to barter goods with the Comanche.  Burnet was then living among the Comanche while recovering from consumption (Tuberculosis).  In New Orleans, around 1819, Milam met Jose Felix Trespalacios [2] and James Long [3], who intended to lead a filibuster [4] to aid Mexico in its war of independence from Spain.  Milam joined the movement and took part in the Long Expedition (alongside Jean Lafitte and James Bowie).  The expedition initially enjoyed some success, such as with the capture of Nacogdoches in the summer of that year, and did help to establish a small independent republic that called itself the Republic of Texas (also known as the Long Republic).  However, the expedition crumbled when Spanish troops vigorously attacked and drove the Americans out of Mexico.  Long reorganized an expeditionary force near Galveston in the following year.  In 1821, Milam withdrew from the expedition to accompany Trespalacios to Veracruz and Mexico City; James Long marched his force to Presidio La Bahia near Goliad.  Both parties encountered a hostile reception and were promptly imprisoned.

James Long was murdered while in prison. Milam, suspecting Trespalacios of arranging the murder, conspired with others to kill Trespalacios.  When friends of Trespalacios discovered the plot, Mexican authorities again imprisoned Milam (and his co-conspirators) in Mexico City where they were held until the fall of 1822.  Joel Poinsett [5], who was then serving the United States as a diplomatic observer in Mexico, arranged for the release of these accused persons.  Except for Milam, all of these men were returned to the United States aboard the warship USS John Adams.

Ben R. Milam

Colonel Benjamin Rush Milam

Milam returned to Mexico in early 1824. Mexico was in the throes of adopting a new republican form of government.  After reconciling with Trespalacios, Milam was granted Mexican citizenship and commissioned as a colonel in the Mexican Army.

In the next year, Colonel Milam and Major General Arthur G. Wavell [6] formed a partnership in a silver mine operation in Nuevo Leon.  Both men obtained empresario grants in Texas.  In 1829, Milam attempted to organize a new mining company in partnership with David G. Burnet, but lacking funds, the enterprise collapsed.  Milam and Wavell’s attempt to establish colonies in Texas also failed; their contracts were cancelled by the Mexican government after they failed to attract new citizens for their colonies [7].

In 1835, Milam traveled to Monclova (the capital of Coahuila y Tejas) to urge the newly seated governor, to send a land commissioner to Texas to provide settlers there with land titles.  Before Milam could leave the city, however, word arrived that President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had suspended the congress and established a centralist dictatorship. It was an alarming bit of news, prompting federalist Governor Agustin Viesca [8] to flee the city with Milam.  In short order, however, centralist forces captured the men and they were imprisoned at Monterrey.  Then, thanks to sympathetic jailers, who provided him with a horse, Milam escaped.  En route back to Texas, Milam encountered a company of Texian soldiers under the command of George Collinsworth [9], from whom Milam learned of the movement in Texas for independence.  Milam joined Collinsworth’s company in the capture of Goliad on 10 October 1835.

Ed Burleson

MajGen Ed Burleson

With Goliad in the hands of the Texians, Milam joined the Texan Army and participated in efforts to expel all Mexican forces from Texas. The primary focus of these efforts was the capture of San Antonio de Béxar, which involved a siege of the headquarters of General Cos at the Alamo.  On 4 December 1835, having completed a scouting mission, Milam learned that most of the army were considering going into winter quarters rather than attacking San Antonio.  General Edward Burleson [10] and his council of officers were reluctant to assault the city, fearing an entanglement that they could not easily undo. When Milam petitioned Burleson for the right to call volunteers to storm the city, Burleson granted the petition, possibly believing that he had little choice in doing so.  Milam’s concern was that by delaying the assault, Texian volunteers would lose interest in continuing the revolution.  Milam sent out his call in his now famous plea, “Who will go with Old Ben Milam into San Antonio?”  Three hundred men stepped up and the assault began almost immediately.

Milam’s plan called for a two-prong attack with forces assembling at a nearby mill at 0300.  General Burleson would hold the balance of the assembled Texian army in reserve.  Captain James C. Neil would initiate artillery fire directed at the Alamo to distract the Mexican soldiers.  Early in the morning of 5 December 1835, Colonel Milam and Colonel Frank W. Johnson led their separate columns into the heavily fortified city.  After heaving fighting, the Texians obtained a foothold inside the city and began an entrenchment their positions.

The attack continued on the morning of 7thDecember with the Texians achieving additional gains.  Milam was standing with Johnson and Henry Karnes near the Veramendi House; Milam was attempting to observe the San Fernando Church tower through a telescope when he was shot by a Mexican sniper, killing him instantly, and causing him to fall into the arms of Samuel Maverick [11].  Johnson named Major Robert Morris to assume command of Milam’s division.

During this assault, the Mexican Army lost more than 400 men, killed, wounded, or deserted.  Texian losses were twenty to thirty killed.  The Siege of Béxar ended on 9 December when General Cos capitulated. As a matter of chivalry, before the Mexicans withdrew from Béxar Burleson provided them with as many supplies as he could spare.  Mexican wounded were permitted to remain in Béxar for medical treatment.  This was not a courtesy returned to the Texians in early March 1836 when General Santa Anna surrounded the Alamo, or when General Urrea talked Colonel Fannin into surrendering his force at Goliad.

Today, Texans remember Old Ben through several structures named in his honor.  Milam’s grave and a statue of him exists at Milam Park in San Antonio; another statue can be found outside the Milam County courthouse in Cameron, Texas.  It is also possible to stay at the Milam Hotel, travel on Milam Street in Houston, and there is also a Milam Building in San Antonio.


  1. Miller, E. L. New Orleans and the Texas Revolution. Texas A&M Press, 2004
  2. Haythornthwaite, P. and Paul Hannon. The Alamo and the War of Texan Independence, 1835-36.  Oxford Press, England, 1986


[1] David Gouverneur Burnet (1788-1870) served as interim president of Texas (1836, 1841), second vice president of the Republic of Texas (1839-1841), and Secretary of State for the State of Texas (1846).

[2] A member of the militia in Chihuahua-turned-revolutionary.  Arrested and charged with treason, he was sentenced to death in 1814, but his sentence was reduced to ten years in prison. Having escaped from prison on two separate occasions, he made his way to New Orleans where he helped recruit Americans to fight for Mexico.

[3] James Long was a former US Army surgeon who served in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.  He afterward settled in Natchez, Mississippi practicing medicine near Port Gibson.  In 1817, he purchased a plantation in Vicksburg. Between 1819-1821, Long was involved in creating and employing an expedition to Mexico to help secure Mexican independence from Spain.  The expedition of mercenaries was unsuccessful.

[4] Also “freebooter” is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a political revolution.

[5] Poinsett was a widely traveled physician and a diplomat, the first American Agent in South America, the first US Minister to Mexico (1825-1829), and Secretary of War under President James Monroe.  He was also a member of the South Carolina legislature, a member of the US House of Representatives, a unionist leader in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, and a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institute).

[6] Arthur Goodall Wavell (1785-1860) was a Scottish-born and well-educated soldier of fortune who began his career with service to the Bengal Lancers in 1805. Ill-health forced him to return home, however, but he later joined the Spanish Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1811.  Between 1811 and 1817, the participated on the side of Spain in the Napoleonic Wars at Cadiz, Barrosa, Tarragona, and Ateca.  In recognition for his distinguished service, he was promoted to full colonel along with the Cross of Distinction, the Military Cross of San Fernando, and the Order of Charles III.  Wavell resigned his commission in 1817, joining with revolutionaries in Chile, where he was promoted to Major General.  While living in Mexico, he met and befriended Stephen F. Austin—later claiming that were it not for his help, Anglo settlers would never have been permitted in Texas.

[7] The real reason these contracts were cancelled involved the Law of 1830, created out of concern by the Mexican government that Texas was in danger of being annexed by the United States and because the Anglo-American population in Texas had exploded over a short period of time.

[8] Viesca (1790-1845) served as governor during a period of some controversy relating to the location of the capital city of Coahuila y Tejas—the question being whether the capital should be located at Saltillo or Monclova.  Viesca ran afoul of General Martin Perfecto de Cos (brother-in-law of Santa Anna), who felt the capital should be located at Saltillo. The state legislature, however, determined that Viesca could move the capital to any location the governor chose, prompting Viesca to select Béxar.  Arriving there, Viesca began to urge Texians to revolt against the Centralist movement.

[9] Collinsworth (1810-1866) was a Mississippi-born farmer, soldier, and politician who, while living in Brazoria, Texas in 1832, participated in the Battle of Velasco. He recruited a company of infantry for service in the Texian Army.

[10] Appointed to command the volunteer army, replacing Stephen F. Austin as major general.

[11] Placed under house arrest by General Cos as a suspected interloper, Maverick kept a journal of events inside the city of San Antonio.  After his release on 1 December, Maverick made his way to Burleson’s camp, urging him to make an immediate attack.  Maverick guided Milam’s division into the city.

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Deadwood Dick

I enjoy researching and writing about the Old West because there is no history quite as colorful or as interesting as that of America’s westward expansion.  Unhappily, very few of our present-day colleges or universities offer courses in American history —the story of how we Americans, as individuals and communities, developed into our present state.  Ignoring our history, or revising it, is no accident, for if it is possible to ignore or reinvent America’s history, then it is also possible to destroy or redefine our national identity and culture.  The reasons for doing this should be self-evident.  History is the story of our past.  It is not good or bad, it just is.  To me, the story is fascinating.

Academic revisionists would have us all believe that white people showed up in America one day from Europe and, because they were freakishly religious, naturally bad, or greedy, intentionally set out to destroy American Indian culture, but the fact is that European settlers tried (quite unsuccessfully) to deal with Indian tribes for nearly four-hundred years.  Eventually, the destruction of Indian culture did become a focus of Spanish and American governments: when these governments realized that the hostiles could not be pacified, and eradication was the only remaining option.  If we modern Americans lament anything at all, it should be that none of these people, Indian or European, were able to discover a pathway to peaceful coexistence. Yet, with that said, we should note that the Neanderthals are no longer with us, either.  In truth, there is no one alive today who participated in the intentional removal or extermination of the Indians, excluding of course the amazingly large percentage of the remaining Indian population that regularly drink themselves to death.

Standing Bear 001

Standing Bear, a Ponca Chieftain

The Ponca Indians are a western tribe of the Sioux language group.  There are two remaining tribes: the Nebraska Ponca, and the Oklahoma Ponca.  They were not always from the plains.  Before the arrival of whites, the Ponca lived in the area just east of the Mississippi River.  Over time, the Iroquois pushed the Ponca westward and to avoid witless banter, we must acknowledge that the Ponca were not themselves benign citizens.  The translation of the word Ponca is “cutthroat.” The term suggests something far beyond being good businessmen.

In 1868, Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brûlé bands of the Lakota Sioux, Yanktonai Dakota, and Arapaho Indians sat down with representatives of the United States government and signed a treaty.  Why any Indian would sign a treaty with the United States after 1624 is baffling, but that is what they did.  The Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed to the Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, and in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, vast reservations for hunting.  To these Sioux Indians, the land was sacred.  For a time, at least, the treaty closed the Powder River country to all white settlements.  The treaty included all the Ponca lands in the so-called Great Sioux Reservation.  Ah, but the Cutthroat Indians did not get along well with the Sioux and a lawsuit forced the United States to round up all Ponca bands and remove them to Nebraska or Oklahoma, where they are today living happily ever after.

Within four years, however, whites began trickling into the Black Hills in direct violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty.  The US government did next to nothing to stop this migration.  This particular story did not end well for white settlers whenever the Sioux found them in near proximity to the Black Hills.  Within eight years of the treaty, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer announced the discovery of gold along French Creek in the Black Hills (near present day Custer, South Dakota).  Ultimately, this story did not end well for Custer, either —but his announcement did have an intended effect: thousands of white people began moving toward the Black Hills.  The discovery of gold has an uncanny effect on people.  Within two years of Custer’s announcement, twelve hundred people were living adjacent to a gulch full of dead trees; they called their small community Deadwood.  The population soon climbed to around 5,000 souls and Deadwood, South Dakota very quickly became one of America’s deadliest cities —somewhat like sections of modern Chicago, only not quite as dangerous.

Dora DuFran 001

Dora DuFran made a good living as a madam in Deadwood, Dakota Territory

Astute businessmen moved into Deadwood.  People looking for gold became consumers of much-needed merchandise: a fortune was made in dry goods, whiskey, and women. Gambling and gunfire followed along behind.  If a prospector wasn’t cut down by an ornery shootist, then he was probably taken by a sexually transmitted disease.  The ladies in Deadwood were right popular —we today remember the names of the madams: Dora DuFran and Mollie Johnson.  Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon was right popular, too —it was where Crooked Nose Jack McCall [1] murdered James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok by shooting him in the back of the head.  Colorado Charlie Utter had Hickok buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.  When Hickok’s paramour Calamity Jane died in 1903, the citizens of Deadwood laid her to rest next to him.

Of course, the citizens of Deadwood were outraged when Jack murdered Hickok, so they held a trial.  The impromptu court was called to order with the prosecution, defense, and a jury made up of local miners and businessmen.  The court was called to order on 3 August in McDaniel’s Theater. McCall claimed that he shot Hickok in retribution for the murder of his brother in Abilene, Kansas.  After two hours of deliberation, McCall was found not guilty and released.  Fearing for his safety, McCall soon departed for the Wyoming Territory.  Lawmen there refused to recognize the Deadwood trial because the town itself was illegal (in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie) and without any jurisdiction.  Accordingly, the federal court in Yankton declared that double jeopardy did not apply in this case and McCall was re-arrested and held for trial.  Three months after finding him guilty of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, McCall joined him in the afterlife.  McCall was about 24-years of age.

1876 was an important year for two additional reasons. In that year, smallpox ravaged the town, causing the death of hundreds of citizens.  It was also the year in which justice came to visit Colonel Custer. But, over time, Deadwood’s economy settled down and the search for gold moved from panning in local streams to deep mining; the city eventually lost its rowdy character and became prosperous.

Deadwood Dick-Beadle & Adams

Beadles Half-Dime Library and Deadwood Dick

For twenty years after 1877, Edward Lytton Wheeler wrote dime novels about a fictional character he called Deadwood Dick.  Deadwood Dick was a fearless frontiersman whose exploits excited the imaginations of young boys.  Was Deadwood Dick a figment of Wheeler’s imagination —or did he pattern his character after a real person?  The fact is that the name became so widely known in its time that it was adopted by several men who resided in that town.  They have an interesting story, as well.

Richard Clarke was born in Yorkshire, England on 15 December 1845.  He migrated to the United States when he was 16 years of age and, motivated by the stories of the discovery of gold, made his way to Illinois where he joined a band of prospectors.  At the very height of the excitement over the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, Clarke made his way to the Dakota territories and was one of the first settlers in the town of Deadwood.  Widely considered a genuine hero of the Old West, folks back then saw him as a fearless frontiersman, prospector, Indian fighter, Pony Express rider, and wilderness guide.  Whether he ever claimed the name Deadwood Dick, or others did it for him, Clarke was said to have been a survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  My guess is, “Good luck with that stretch.”

One citizen of Deadwood described Richard Clarke as “short in stature, longhaired, and long-winded.”  Mr. Clarke seemed to be a man who was looking to promote himself.  Among his many exploits, he sold rusty guns with fabricated histories, sold homemade horsehair Indian scalps, and it was also possible to purchase an autographed picture of Clark —if the price was right.  Richard Clarke died in 1930.

If Richard Clarke was the real Deadwood Dick, others made that claim as well:

  • Gunman/gambler Frank Palmer [2]
  • Negro cowboy Nat Love
  • Actor Dick Brown
  • Stage Driver Dick Bullock
  • Gunman Richard Palmer
Nat Love 001

Artist’s rendition of Nat Love, a black cowboy of the late 1800s.

I have a few reservations about the claims of Nat Love. There are two sources for this information, the first written by Nat Love himself [3].  The second source is ascribed to Henry Louis Gates in his work, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African & African-American Experience.  I question veracity of Gates’ claim because I question his academic and personal integrity. This same Dr. Gates made outlandish claims against a white police officer investigating a burglary in progressin Gates’ own neighborhood. When Gates refused to identify himself, Officer James Crowley properly took him into custody.  The incident gave Barack Obama his first opportunity to claim rampant racism within America’s law enforcement organizations.

People who write books about themselves tend to make exaggerated claims to heighten their fame.  In the case of Nat Love, it is a small matter.  It is of no historical consequence whether Mr. Love ever referred to himself as Deadwood Dick.  It does matter, however, when educators perpetuate such claims on the strength a 1907 autobiography, which also included a memory of Nat’s own birth.  If Mr. Love could recount his own birth, then he had a phenomenal memory, indeed.  The problem is not Nat Love, whom we may forgive.  The problem is dishonest Harvard professors who perpetuate embellishments to satisfy their own political agenda.


  1. Murdoch, The American West: The Invention of a Myth, 2003
  2. Matheson, The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok, 1996


[1] McCall is believed to have originated in Kentucky, born in the early 1850s.  He eventually drifted west and, for a time, worked as a Buffalo hunter.  By 1876, McCall was living in a gold mining camp outside Deadwood under the name Bill Sutherland.  McCall was drunk at the bar at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon on 1 August 1876.  When one of the gamblers dropped out of the game, McCall took his place.  A few hands later, McCall was out of money.  Hickok offered him some money for breakfast and advised him not to play poker again until he could cover his losses.  McCall accepted the money but felt insulted by Hickok’s offer.  Early in the morning of 2 August, McCall walked up behind Hickok and shot him with a .45 caliber revolver.

[2] According to Palmer’s obituary on 30 May 1906, he was Deadwood Dick.  Palmer supposedly migrated to Deadwood at around the age of 17 years and made his living as a gun hand and a gambler.  His fellow gamblers gave him the name Deadwood Dick.  Irwin P. Beadle (New York) popularized Palmer in his half-dime novels.  Source: Pueblo Chieftain.

[3] Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself; a True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the “Wild and Woolly” West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author. Los Angeles, Cal.: s.n., 1907.

Posted in History, Justice | 4 Comments

The Overland Stage

Stagecoach 001

The Overland Stage under attack

Despite Hollywood depictions of the old west stagecoach, the reality of this venture —the overland stage, was considerably different.  The journey was tough, extremely dangerous, and very short lived.

Stagecoach service existed in England in 1300’s, but the first recorded service occurred in the early 1600’s.  A plethora of such services evolved in England, along with several coaching inns established between Liverpool and London.  By the end of the 17thCentury, stage lines ran up and down the three main roads in England, all of them originating in London. The Royal Mail Service was behind many innovations to stage service in England.  Thus, the concept of overland stage lines was transferred to the English colonies in the Americas.

In 1744, crude wagons were used to transport passengers and cargo between New England towns and villages.  This service was later expanded to include service between New York and Philadelphia. By 1766, improved coaches significantly shortened travel times for passengers and mail.  Demand for travel and shipping services inspired the construction of turnpikes and highways throughout the northeastern United States. In 1827, two men in Concord, New Hampshire developed an improved coach—one that incorporated the use of leather straps for suspension, which gave their vehicles a swaying (rather than rocking) motion.

By 1829, Boston, Massachusetts was the hub of stagecoach services—77 in all, expanding to 102 express companies by 1832.  Despite improvement to the design and construction of stagecoaches, travel remained uncomfortable and dangerous.

John Warren Butterfield [1] was born in Berne, New York in 1801.  By 1820, Butterfield was an experienced stage driver, conveying passengers and freight between Albany and Utica, New York. Within a few years, he began to expand stage routes throughout New York State and branched out to include packet and steamboats operating on Lake Ontario, a street railroad in Utica, and local plank-rail systems, such as the Black River Railroad.

Businessmen and government agencies came to recognize in the 1840’s that demand for travel and shipping would expand into the western territories. There were several proposals —foremost among them being the construction of a railroad system across the continent. Everyone realized that a railroad would take many years, America’s terrain would pose difficult challenges, and this meant that a railroad would be very expensive.  In the meantime, American entrepreneurs would have to rely on a proven method for shipping and transportation.  Overland stage transportation already existed; all that was needed was to expand these services into the western territories.

Urgency for western shipping surged after the discovery of gold in California in 1849.  Gold mania not only affected individuals hoping to strike it rich in the California gold fields, it also created a flurry of activity among capitalists seeking to take advantage of the sudden increase in demand for cross-continental shipping.

Henry Wells founded Wells & Company; William G. Fargo was a partner in the Livingston, Fargo & Company.  Both companies operated express services.  John Butterworth appeared as a rival in 1849.  Wells and Fargo realized that their competition with Butterfield was destructive, wasteful, and unnecessary.  In 1850, Wells, Fargo, and Butterfield joined forces to form the American Express Company.  Soon afterwards, American Express decided to expand its interests in California.  Their most powerful competitor at the time was the Adams Express Company, who operated a monopoly of express services in the western states and territories.  While operating the American Express Company, Wells and Fargo launched their name-sake business on 18 March 1852 —organized as a joint-stock company with around $300,000 in assets.  The board of directors of Wells-Fargo Company included nine-prominent businessmen; three of whom also served as officers of the American Express Company: Wells, Fargo, and financier Edwin B. Morgan, who served as Wells-Fargo’s first President.

In the mid-1850s, the US Congress authorized the Postmaster General of the United States to contract mail services from Missouri to California. Members of congress were convinced that an overland stage would help to facilitate the development of the western territories by increasing the population of American citizens.  Accordingly, the Postmaster General solicited bids for an overland mail service on 20 April 1857.  Bidders were asked to propose routes from the Mississippi River westward.

John W. Butterfield, William B. Dinsmore, William G. Fargo, James V. Gardner, Marcus L. Kinyon, Alexander Holland, and Hamilton Spencer (collectively known as Butterfield & Associates) proposed a southern route from St. Louis, Missouri to California.  Altogether, the United States Postal Department received nine bids. Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown, a gentleman from Tennessee, favored the southern (Butterfield) route.  It was called the Oxbow, which extended westward from Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri converged at Little Rock, Arkansas, and proceeded to Preston, Texas (or the best point of crossing the Rio Grande above El Paso, Texas nearest Fort Fillmore) and thence along a new route to Fort Yuma, California, through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging, to San Francisco.

Although the Oxbow Route was 600 miles longer than central and northern routes through Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah … the southern route was, for the most part, free of snow and ice.  Butterfield & Associates received the contract for a semi-weekly mail service.  The contract intended to pay Butterfield $600,000 annually.

Concord Stage 001The Butterfield Overland Stage began its operations in September 1858. The route was divided into eastern and western sectors.  El Paso, Texas was the mid-point between these two expansions, each further divided into shorter legs: five in the east, and four in the west.  The distance between each leg, and the allotted time for completing it, depended on geography and weather conditions.  As an example, the first eastbound leg extended from San Francisco to Los Angeles (462 miles); stagecoach drivers were allowed 80 hours to make this trip.  The second leg allowed 73 hours to complete the journey between Los Angeles and Fort Yuma (272 miles).

The Post Office granted Butterfield & Associates a 6-year contract to operate a twice-weekly mail service.  Butterfield expanded stage operations to include passenger and freight services from St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee, both routes converging at Fort Smith, Arkansas, into and across Texas to Fort Yuma, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.  The distance was 2,795 miles—perhaps the longest route of any system using horse-drawn conveyances.

Stagecoach 002Each Monday and Thursday morning, a stagecoach would leave Tipton and San Francisco on their cross-continent voyage carrying passengers, freight, and up to 12,000 letters.  Butterfield charged passengers a one-way fare of $200 from Memphis/St. Louis to San Francisco.  On shorter routes, passengers paid fifteen cents per mile.  Most stages arrived at their destinations within 22 days, averaging between 5-9 miles per hour.  To complete his task, Butterfield employed 800 people involving 139 relay stations, 2,000 horses, and 250 Concord stagecoaches (pictured above when owned by Wells Fargo). Butterfield’s drivers were tough frontiersmen; no one of less ability could handle such hardships.  Drivers and assistants had to be excellent riflemen. Each team drove a 120-mile round trip route.  Contrary to popular belief, gold and silver were never shipped via the Overland Stage Company.

With limited routes across the United States, stage routes had to be kept open for settlers, miners, and businessmen. Responsibility for guarding the route fell upon the US Army, which mostly involved infantry units in 1857; the US Cavalry never fully developed until the Civil War.  As the war loomed, a demand for faster communications resulted in the creation of the Pony Express Company across the central and northern routes.  In anticipating the Civil War, and owing to its southern route, the US government revoked its contract with Butterfield in March 1860.  Butterfield had incurred significant debt in setting up the Overland Stage; without a government contract, he was unable to pay his creditors.  This is when the Well-Fargo Company stepped in and took control of the Overland Stage Company.  Butterfield’s assets (along with those of the Pony Express) ended up with Wells-Fargo.  The last Butterfield/Oxbow run began on 21 March 1861.

On 2 March 1861, a central route went into effect from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California [2].  They called this new route the Central Overland California Route.  Within the framework of the Confederate States of America, George Henry Giddings continued to operate an overland stage through the Oxbow, albeit with limited success through early 1862.  Of interest, there were at least four distinct civil war battles at or near Butterfield mail posts: Stanwix Station, Picacho Pass, Mesilla, and Pea Ridge.  There were also three clashes involving Apache Indian, Confederate, and Union forces: two at Dragoon Springs, and Apache Pass.  Both sides of the war intended these conflicts to disrupt supply routes.

By 1866 Wells Fargo had gained a monopoly over long distance overland stagecoach routes and mail service, using both the original Butterfield Overland Trail and others.  It was a short-lived monopoly, however.  In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed. Faster and more efficient, railroads supplanted the need for an overland stage route.  Stagecoaches did continue to operate into the 1900s, but these were mostly local routes between western towns and cities.  In Arizona, over 129 stagecoach robberies took place between 1875 and 1903.  The worst of these occurred between Tombstone and Benson, and Phoenix and Prescott.  More than 200 desperados engaged in highway robberies, half of which were never solved. Very few robberies occurred by horsemen chasing down a stagecoach and robbing it.  Most robbers approached the stagecoach on foot at locations where the stagecoach had to slow down across difficult terrain.  Seventy-nine men and one woman were identified as stage robbers. The woman was Pearl Hart [3], who in 1898 pulled one of the last stagecoach robberies of the old west.


  1. Underwood, Butterfield Overland Stage Route, Frontier Trails of the Old West
  2. N. Richardson, Butterfield Overland Mail, The Handbook of Texas
  3. E. Swensen, The Overland Mail and Passenger Service,1911


[1] John Butterfield’s son was Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, United States Army (1831-1901) who after being wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill, wrote the Bugle Call Taps.  Butterfield’s bugle call was modeled on the Scot Tattoo.  Prior to the Civil War, Dan Butterfield worked for his father in the American Express Company.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry at Gaines Mill.  He later served as the Assistant Treasurer of the United States in the Grant Administration.  He later returned to American Express as an executive.

[2] Originally a mining community, Placerville, California was first known as “Hang Town.”

[3] Pearl Hart was born Pearl Taylor in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada in 1871.  Her parents were religious and affluent, but this wild child eloped with a man twice her 16-years.  His abusive behavior caused Hart to return to her home.  Over several years, Hart reconciled with her husband, eventually giving him two children. While living in Chicago, Pearl developed a fascination with the “western outlaw.”  Hart left her husband again and traveled to Trinidad, Colorado. Eventually she drifted to Phoenix, Arizona.  On 30 May 1899 near Cane Springs Canyon, Hart and an accomplice robbed a stagecoach and its passengers of $431.  Pearl Hart served time in the Yuma Territorial Prison until 1902.  She passed away in 1955.

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James Butler Bonham

A country gentleman

In the old American south, in the years before the Civil War, southern gentlemen wielded every facet of economic and political power.  They also created their own standard of gentility and honor; they not only defined southern white manhood but created the standard for southern womanhood as well.  In so doing, they shaped what we know today as southern culture.  To defend what they had created over three-hundred years, it was necessary to defend the system of slavery that sustained it.  Economic survival in the non-industrialized South depended on slavery, for without the wealth created by field slaves, southern aristocrats could not maintain their genteel lifestyles.

Of course, not every wealthy southern gentleman was a slave owner.  Plantation owners were, of course, but there were also bankers, exporter brokers, lawyers, doctors, tradesmen, and shipbuilders.  If these people owned slaves, they were likely employed as domestic servants and generally well-cared-for.  Nevertheless, one could make the argument that these wealthy city men also benefitted from the labors of enslaved people.

Despite the prevalence of southern plantations, most whites living in the south were themselves poor and not much better off than the slaves that worked the plantation fields.  In fact, one might make the argument that the slaves were better off than most poor whites, for at least the slaves knew where their next meal would come from.  Poor whites didn’t own slaves, but psychologically, even on the edge of genteel society, they did identify with southern cultural traditions —including the ideal of southern manhood— and this was why poor whites flocked to join the Confederacy. They were not seeking to preserve slavery; they wanted to defend their homes and preserve southern culture.

James Butler Bonham, Jr., was one of the affluent southern city boys —and in this context, typical among lads of his own socio-economic class.  He was short-tempered, stubborn, a bit arrogant —and not at all disposed to bend his knee to any man.  Bonham was expelled from South Carolina College [1] for leading a protest of the senior class. He was upset about having to attend class in bad weather, and he didn’t like the food served in the cafeteria. The young lads weren’t the only folks to have an arrogant streak: South Carolina College not only expelled Bonham, they also expelled the entire senior class.  No matter, it was a matter of principal —from both perspectives.  In any case, Bonham took up reading the law and became a practicing attorney in Pendleton, South Carolina in 1830 —the third Texas adventurist with connections to Pendleton, also including Thomas J. Rusk and Samuel A. Maverick.

Bonham JB 1835-001

James Butler Bonham, Jr.

Bonham’s parents were James and Sophia Butler Bonham.  He was born at Red Banks (now Saluda) South Carolina on 20 February 1807, a second cousin of Lieutenant Colonel William Barrett Travis [2], who commanded the Texian garrison at the Alamo on 6 March 1836.

Not long after beginning his law career, an enraged Jim Bonham caned a fellow attorney for having made insulting remarks toward Bonham’s female client.  The magistrate, in deciding that he could not allow such behavior among local jurists, ordered Bonham to apologize.  Not only did Jim Bonham refuse to apologize, he threatened to tweak the judge’s nose.  Bonham spent the next 90 days in jail for “contempt of court.”  Apparently, Bonham’s learning curve resembled the letter “S”.

In 1832, family influence helped Bonham obtain a position as aide to South Carolina governor James Hamilton.  The position brought with it a lieutenant colonel commission in the state militia. Bonham concurrently served as a captain of militia artillery in Charleston.  His service to Hamilton coincided with the nullification crisis, which took place between 1832-1833 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  The issue was right of sovereign states to repudiate federal law.  Out of concern for its own economy [3], the South Carolina legislature declared the federal tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional, and therefore, null and void within South Carolina.  Nullification was a contentious issue in those days.

In 1833, Bonham moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he established a law practice.  Word of the unfolding events in Texas reached the American southwest in 1835, communicated in a manner best framed to elicit the sympathies of men who were most disposed to volunteer their aid.  Bonham was one of these sympathetic men, although unlike most, he was well to do and circulated among society’s elite.  He led a rally in support of Texas at the Shakespeare Theater in Mobile, Alabama.  Three days later, citizens of Mobile elected him to carry their resolution of support to General Sam Houston [4].  Within weeks, Bonham organized a volunteer company for service in Texas.  They called themselves The Mobile Grays.

By the end of that year, Bonham was in Texas familiarizing himself with its political and military affairs. On 1 December 1835, Bonham wrote a letter to Sam Houston volunteering his service for Texas and, coincidently, declining all pay, lands, or rations in return.  Bonham did receive a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Texas Cavalry, but was never assigned to a specific unit.  While waiting for a military posting, Bonham established a law practice [5] in Brazoria, a business he advertised in the Telegraph and Texas Register in early January 1836.

Bonham and Sam Houston developed a mutually respectful relationship.  On 11 January 1836, in a letter to Texas provisional governor James W. Robinson [6], Houston recommended Bonham for promotion to the rank of major, stating that “His influence in the army is great —more so than some who would be generals.”

Traveling with James Bowie and a detachment of thirty men, Bonham arrived in Béxar on 19 January 1836. It was an intense period for Texians. Colonel James C. Neill, then commanding 78-man garrison at the Alamo, was furious over the fact that his men lacked munitions, clothing, and adequate pay [7].  He spoke of leaving the Alamo.  Meanwhile, with their ear to the ground, Mexican families were evacuating San Antonio de Béxarin droves.

On 26 January, Colonel Neill recruited Bonham to help outline political resolutions on behalf of his garrison in support of Provisional Governor Henry Smith [8].  When the time came to elect delegates to the Texas Constitutional Convention, representing the men at Béxar, Bonham, a candidate for election, was overwhelmingly defeated.

Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis, who at the time served as Colonel Neill’s deputy commander, assumed command of the Alamo garrison after Neill’s departure to attend to his seriously ill family.  Travis dispatched Bonham to Washington-on-the-Brazos to plea for aid and reinforcement of the garrison.  En route, Bonham rode to Goliad where he learned that Colonel James Fannin was in no position to send any help.  Bonham returned to the Alamo on 3 March.  By then, Santa Anna’s army had surrounded the Alamo with 1,800 regular army troops.  Upon reaching the outskirts of San Antonio, Bonham courageously and cleverly avoided Mexican cavalry pickets.  Arriving at the Alamo, Bonham presented a dispatch from Robert M. Williamson assuring Travis that help was on the way, and encouraging him to hold out at the Alamo.

According to T.R. Fehrenback [9], “At the end [his mission at Washington-on-the-Brazos], the weary Bonham, a lawyer, a Carolinian of exulted family and a friend of Travis, turned his mount around and rode back toward San Antonio. He was told it was useless to throw his life away [by riding back to the Alamo].  He answered back that Buck Travis deserved to know the answer to his appeals, spat upon the ground, and galloped west toward his own immortality.”

James Butler Bonham died at the Alamo on 6 March 1836 [10].    He was a 29-year-old southern gentleman.  Historians believe that he died while manning one of the cannons in the interior of the Alamo chapel.  He did his duty to the end.


  1. Fahrenback, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, Boston: Da Capo Press, 1968
  2. Bonham, M. L. James Butler Bonham: A Consistent Rebel, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 35 (October 1931)
  3. Chariton, W. O. 100 Days in Texas: The Alamo Letters, Plano Texas: Wordware, 1990
  4. Lindley, T. R. James Butler Bonham, Alamo Journal, August 1988
  5. Lord, W. A Time to Stand(New York: Harper, 1968)


[1] Now, the University of South Carolina.

[2] Born in South Carolina, later moved to Alabama at the age of 9 years.

[3] The United States suffered an economic downturn in the 1820s, and South Carolina was particularly affected.  South Carolina politicians argued that the economic decline was a result of federal tariff policy that developed after the War of 1812.  The so-called Tariff of Abominations was actually enacted during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, but the issue quickly shifted to the question whether a state had the right to nullify a federal law.  President Jackson ignored the state’s concerns; Washington politicians were split on this issue, and Vice President Calhoun, a native of South Carolina, became a leader of the Nullification movement.  Eventually, President Jackson threatened South Carolina with military intervention if it refused to comply with federal laws. Nullification, first proposed by Thomas Jefferson, would lead the United States to civil war.

[4] Formerly, the sixth governor of Tennessee, a member of the US House of Representatives from Tennessee’s 7th congressional district, and a US Army first lieutenant with service in the War of 1812.

[5] At this early date, there appeared to be more lawyers in Texas than deer ticks in Minnesota.

[6] Robinson was an Indiana attorney, a partner in law with William Henry Harrison, who after deserting his family in 1828, relocated to Texas in 1833 with a new wife and son, eventually settling in the area of present-day San Jacinto County.  Robinson was elected lieutenant governor at the Consultation of 1835.  When Henry Smith was deposed as governor, the provisional government named Robinson to replace him.  Smith refused to relinquish his office, however, which gave the provisional government two men, each claiming the governorship.  In 1840, Robinson was wounded during the Council House Fight and in 1842, he was taken prisoner by General Adrian Woll.  In 1850, Robinson moved to San Diego, California where he served as district attorney, school commissioner, and a promoter of railroad service in southern California.  He passed away in 1857, but his estate was never settled until 1903.

[7] After the surrender of General Cos at the Alamo, Colonel Frank Johnson and James Grant stripped the garrison of provisions to supply the Matamoros Expedition, leaving Colonel Neill to hold the town with but a hand full of men.  Neill wrote bitter letters to the council condemning these arbitrary measures and called for reinforcement and supply.  Neill departed the Alamo mid-February to attend to his family, leaving William B. Travis in command.

[8] Henry Smith (1788-1851) was the first American governor of Texas.  Smith moved to Texas in 1827, settling in Brazoria where he operated a farm, taught school, and became active in politics.  He was wounded in the Battle of Velasco.  In 1835, he was elected mayor (alcalde) of Brazoria and appointed by the governor of Coahuila y Tejas to serve as the political head of the Tejas Department of the Brazos.  Smith urged independence for Texas.  In November 1835, the General Council of the Texas Consultation elected Smith to serve as provisional governor of Texas.  Smith was no diplomat and his unwillingness to compromise on the issue of Texas Independence worked against him.  In January 1836, the council impeached Smith who, for a time, refused to relinquish his post.

[9] Theodore Reed Fehrenbach, Jr., was a historian, columnist, and former chair of the Texas Historical Commission (1987-1991).

[10] No defender of the Alamo has been more romanticized than James Butler Bonham.  It is often claimed that he was a co-commander at the Alamo, which isn’t true: the only commander at the Alamo was Travis, who agreed to share his command with Bowie for no other reason than to placate Bowie’s men, who in having no confidence in Travis, were threatening to leave the Alamo. Neither was Bonham a colonel in any Texian militia.  His rank was second lieutenant of cavalry, recommended (but not approved) for a commission as a major by Sam Houston.  Travis does refer to Bonham as “Colonel,” but historians suggest that this was only a title of respect owing to his position in the South Carolina militia.  Neither did Bonham bring word from Colonel Fannin that he was not coming to the aid of the Alamo.

Posted in History, Society | 2 Comments

Clay Allison, gunfighter

Allison RC 001

Clay Allison

Robert Clay Allison was the fourth of nine children born to Jeremiah Scotland Allison and Mariah Brown Allison.  Jeremiah was a Presbyterian minister and a subsistence farmer.  Clay may have had a hyperactive disorder, as it appears that he was always restless as a child and had severe mood swings [1] and a quick temper.  Clay helped maintain his father’s farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee until the Civil War broke out.  Clay, then 21-years-old, joined Captain W. H. Jackson’s Confederate artillery on October 15, 1861.  Three months later, the army discharged Allison because he was “… incapable of performing the duties of a soldier.  Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxymals [2] of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal.”  Oddly enough, Clay Allison was back in the army a year later, this time serving with the Ninth Tennessee Cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Allison surrendered with the regiment on May 4, 1865 at Gainesville, Alabama.  Only briefly held as a prisoner of war, Allison was paroled on May 10, 1865.

Clay had always been ill-disciplined and quick tempered, but after the war he returned to his home with a far-more violent personality.  Not long after his return, he is alleged to have killed a corporal from the Third Illinois Cavalry —an event that prompted he and members of his family to move to Texas.  In fairness, the Reconstruction Era corporal may have had a nefarious intent for visiting the Allison homestead.  Nevertheless, while en route to Texas, the Allison family had an encounter with a man named Zachery Colbert, who operated a Red River ferry.  Colbert demanded that the Allison pay double his fee for ferrying the entire family and their goods.  In the end, Colbert was beaten unconscious and the Allison’s stole the ferry, crossed the river, and moved on into Texas.

For some years after 1866, Clay Allison worked as a cowhand along the famed Goodnight-Living trail.  We next hear of Clay Allison while residing in the towns of Cimarron and Elizabethtown, in the New Mexico territory, where he was known as a dangerous and possibly mentally imbalanced man —someone to avoid whenever possible.

In 1870, authorities arrested a man named Charles Kennedy who was charged with the murder of several men and his own daughter.  Convicted of capital crimes, Kennedy awaited execution in the local jail.  Apparently, Clay Allison concluded that justice was moving too slowly.  One night, he incited a drunken mob to storm the jail, seize Kennedy, and hang him.  This they accomplished after assaulting the deputy on duty.  When Kennedy was judged to be dead, Clay hauled down his body and, with a nearby axe, cut off his head —which was then displayed in front of Lambert’s Saloon in Cimarron.

Reportedly, Clay Allison had several friends, but historians mull over whether these men were his friends, or men too afraid to refuse to do his bidding. He also had enemies.  Allison was a scrapper … someone who was quick with his fists, a knife, or his side arm.  Back in the day, the term “fast gun” didn’t mean a quick draw artist; it meant someone who was quick to resort to violent use of a firearm.  This would appear to be a good description of Clay Allison in the 1870s.  What made Allison dangerous was his willingness to fight —and kill— without much forethought.

One deputy sheriff in Colfax County had no fear of Clay Allison.  His name was Mace (for Mason) Bowman, born as Matthew T. Mason in 1844.  During the Civil War, Mason served with the 11th Texas Cavalry and Graham Rangers. Afterwards, he was involved in the Lee-Peacock feud [3], and then disappeared for a time.  He became a Trinidad, New Mexico lawman in 1873, but two years later he was serving as Colfax County New Mexico Deputy Sheriff Mason T. Bowman.  Mace served as a lawman during the Colfax County War [4] (1873-1888).  He was a man skilled in the art of the quick draw and deadly accurate fire. During a series of friendly “quick draw” competitions with Bowman, Clay Allison learned how slow he was on the draw. Allison could never beat Bowman, either at the draw, or in matching Bowman’s ability to hit his target.

Historians tell us that there was only one “unfriendly” encounter between Bowman and Allison.  The event took place in Lambert’s Saloon in Cimarron.  Allison was not someone who could hold his liquor; the more the drank, the more arrogant he became and his confidence as a gunslinger increased with each shot of rye whiskey.  While inebriated, Allison exchanged harsh words with Bowman.  We don’t know what Allison said to Bowman; we only know that Bowman stepped back from the bar and told Clay Allison “Have at it.”  For once, Allison gave this matter some thought and said, “Hell.  No use in us both dying,” and walked out of the saloon.

Littrell M 001

Sheriff Marion Littrell

Marion Littrell also had no fear of Clay Allison.  Littrell worked as foreman of the Maxell Land Grant and Railroad Company before becoming Colfax County Sheriff.  In unholstering his weapon, Littrell was twice as fast as Allison and did best him on at least one occasion.  A third lawman who would take no guff from Clay Allison was Texas Ranger G. W. (Cap) Arrington, who history remembers as one tough hombre.

One of Allison’s enemies revealed himself in early January 1874. Noted gunman Chunk Colbert had every intention of exacting revenge on Clay Allison for the beating of his Uncle Zachery.  By this time, Chunk was a noted gunslinger, reported to have killed seven men in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.  Today, there is no corroboration that Colbert earned this reputation.  The only person killed by Colbert was a fellow named Charles Morris, whom Colbert believed was romantically involved with his wife.

In any case, in some fashion, Colbert and Allison had engaged in a quarter-mile horse race and decided to have dinner together at the Clifton House, a Colfax County Inn.  These men were not friends, and there was a mutual feeling of distrust between them.  Sitting down at the table, Allison unholstered his weapon and set it to the side of the table. Colbert unholstered his pistol and place it in his lap.  While eating, Colbert reached to his lap for his pistol and attempted to draw a bead on Allison.  Colbert’s pistol fired but was diverted from its target when the muzzle bumped against the edge of the table.  Allison had no such difficult and shot Colbert through the head.  Colbert was buried in an unmarked grave behind Clifton House.  Later asked why he had agreed to dine with someone who was trying to kill him, Allison replied, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.” Having killed a man with a reputation for gunslinging, Allison’s notoriety as a gunfighter increased —but in all likelihood, undeservedly so.

On October 30, 1875, Allison led a lynch mob to detain a man named Cruz Vega.  Vega was suspected of killing the Rev. F. J. Tolby, a Methodist circuit preacher.  The mob hanged Vega from a telegraph pole near Cimarron.  Two days later, Vega’s uncle, Francisco Griego, led family members and confronted Clay Allison at the Lambert Inn.  Words were exchanged; Griego went for his pistol; Clay Allison went for his; Uncle Francisco was soon after reunited with his nephew.  Allison was arrested and charged with murder, but after listening to the testimony of witnesses, the shooting was ruled self-defense.

In December 1876, Clay and his brother John rode into Las Animas, Colorado where they stopped at a local saloon.  Bent County Sheriff Charles Faber informed the Allisons of an ordinance prohibiting firearms inside the town limits.  He asked them to surrender their weapons and the Allisons refused.  Sheriff Farber left the saloon, deputized two men, and returned with them to the Saloon.  When the posse stepped inside the saloon, someone shouted, “Look out!”  Farber and his deputies opened fire, hitting John Allison three times (although not seriously enough to kill him).  Clay returned fire and killed Farber.  The Allison brothers were both arrested and charged with manslaughter, but witnesses testified that Farber had started the fight and the charge was dismissed.  It was this gunfight that raised Clay Allison to the level of an Old West legend.

In March 1877, Clay sold his ranch to his brother John and moved to Sedalia, Missouri.  Shortly after that, he went to Hays City, Kansas where he established himself as a cattle broker.  By the time Allison arrived in Dodge City, everyone knew who he was.  One story holds that several cowhands working for Allison complained to him that the local marshal had mistreated them.

Masterson-Earp 001

Bat Masterson, standing Wyatt Earp, sitting

Allison passed the word that he wanted to have a few words with this marshal.  Eventually the word reached the town marshal, a fellow by the name of Wyatt Earp.  Not long afterwards, Earp confronted Allison and his cowboys in the Long Branch Saloon.  Backing Earp up was his friend Bat Masterson.  According to Earp’s biographer, Allison backed down when cattleman Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson, who at the time owned the Long Branch, offered the good advice to Allison and his boys to surrender their weapons. There is another account, however: Charlie Siringo, a cowboy at the time but later a well-known Pinkerton’s Detective, said he witnessed the event.  According to Siringo there was a confrontation at the Long Branch, but it involved Chalk Beeson and McNulty opposing Allison —Earp wasn’t present at the time and he recalled that Masterson was out of town.

Between 1880 and 1883, Clay Allison ranched with his brothers John and Jeremiah in Wheeler County, Texas.  On February 15, 1881, Clay Allison married America Medora “Dora” McCulloch in Mobeetie, Texas.  Allison was 39-years old; Dora was just 18.  In 1883, Allison sold his ranch and moved to Pope’s Wells, purchasing another spread near the Pecos River along the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

Clay Allison died as the result of an accident that occurred on July 3, 1887.  While hauling a wagon load of supplies, a sack of grain was about to fall out of the wagon.  As Clay reach out to grab it, he lost his balance and fell from the wagon.  The horse team pulled the wagon wheel over him, breaking his neck.  Clay Allison —the notorious gunfighter— died by wagon wheel at the age of 46 years.  Dora remarried after three years; she passed away in 1926. Clay and Dora had two daughters: Patti passed away at Fort Worth, Texas in 1971, Pearl passed away in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962.


  1. Texas State Historical Association/Handbook of Texas
  2. S. Peters, Robert Clay Allison: Requiescat in Pace, 2007
  3. Parsons, Clay Allison: Portrait of a Shootist, 1983


[1] This may also explain why he was a loyal Democrat.

[2] Sudden recurrence or intensification of erratic symptoms, such as spasms or seizures.

[3] The Lee-Peacock feud took place in the four-corners area of Texas counties Fannin, Grayson, Collin and Hunt.  It was a four-year extension of the American Civil War that lasted from 1867 to 1871. Historians estimate that more than 50 men lost their lives in this conflict.  When the civil war began, Bob Lee joined the Confederate Army, leaving his wife and three children … and his home, in the care of his father Daniel Lee. Toward the end of the war, Lee learned that Union Sympathizer Lewis Peacock had used his home to set up an organization for the protection of blacks, which Peacock named The Union League. By the time Lee and other ex-Confederate soldiers returned to their homes, northeast Texas was already ablaze in conflict, as most residents deeply resented Reconstruction soldiers intruding into their lives.

[4] A range war between settlers and the new owners of the Maxwell Land and Railway Company.  The war began when the new landowners attempted to remove local settlers from the land they had just purchased.  Locals refused to leave, leading to violence lasting several years.

Posted in History, Justice | 4 Comments

When Saints Became Sinners

Massacre in the Meadow

After the original frontiersmen came the pioneers, men, women, and children who set out for the western frontier in family groups.  In some cases, these family groups included “extended” relations.  Generally, the pioneers agreed to meet at a pre-designated location near their homes or communities. Before the main body embarked on their westward journey, late comers might appear and petition the original group to join their wagon train. The idea was to have enough people form a wagon train, each of whom could defend or support one another over the long and difficult westward trail.

One of these was the Baker-Fancher Party that formed in Arkansas Ozarks in April 1857 —a consolidated effort consisting of several local origin trains.  When formed, the Baker-Fancher Train consisted of around 220 people [1], including children.  Who were these people?  Within the Baker-Fancher Party, most members were prosperous farmers with relatives and/or friends already living in California.  Others were successful cattlemen —generally successful men who had the financial resources to pull up stakes and finance the westward journey. John Twitty Baker formed his train out of Carroll County, Arkansas.  Alexander Fancher, an experienced frontiersman, formed his train from Benton County.  There were four others: Huff (Benton County), Mitchell, Dunlapp, and Prewitt (Marion County), and Poteet-Tackitt-Jones and Cameron-Miller (from Johnson County). Others may have joined the train in Missouri.

Collectively, Baker-Fancher was a well-outfitted train with solid wagons and carriages, a large herd of cattle (nearly 1,000 head), oxen, and numerous horses [2].  Some of these people California-bound farmers, others were driving cattle for profit, and some were hoping to strike it rich in the California gold fields. Their plan was to stop at Salt Lake City, Utah territory for rest and replenishment —which they did in early August 1857.  By this time, the cattle losses reduced the herd to 800 head (which was not unusual over far-distant efforts) and everyone was low on food stores and other supplies.

The timing of their cross-continental passage was unfortunate. Baker-Fancher arrived in Salt Lake City a few months after the beginning of the so-called Utah War (May 1857-July 1858). The Utah War (also known as Buchanan’s Blunder, the Mormon War, and the Mormon Rebellion) was an armed confrontation between Mormon settlers in the Utah territory and the United States military.

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

In the summer of 1847, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also, LDS Church, Mormons, and Mormon Pioneers) began settling in present-day Utah in the summer of 1847.  What pushed these people out of their homes in Illinois and Missouri were religious conflicts within their communities.  One of these conflicts resulted in the lynching of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, Jr.  Subsequent leaders of the church, particularly Brigham Young (shown right), believed that isolation within the Utah territory would allow members of the church to settle in relative safety, and guarantee them the right to practice their religion as they saw fit without interference from people holding different religious beliefs. The Mormons themselves were hardly tolerant of other Christians and denounced Catholics and Protestants in equal measure.  Mormon sermons often accused non-Mormon Christians of having strayed from the true path. This, when added to the Mormon practice of plural marriage, did nothing to foster good relationships with other religious groups.

At the end of the Mexican-American War of 1848, the United States gained control of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Utah. Young and other LDS leaders knew that they were not leaving the political sphere of the United States by settling in Utah, nor were they interested in becoming a nation unto themselves.  They simply wanted to isolate themselves and create settlements around their own brand of theology.

The discovery of gold in California in 1846 acted as a magnet for thousands of easterners to move west; many of these trails passed through the Utah territory.  The California gold rush was a mixed blessing to Mormon settlements.  On the one hand, wagon trains brought opportunities for trade and profit; it also ended the Mormon’s short-lived vision for a utopian society based on religious isolation.

In 1849, Mormon political leaders proposed the incorporation of their territory [3] into the United States as a new state called Deseret.  They most wanted men of their own faith to govern them, rather than the governance of unsympathetic politicians appointed by the Washington establishment.  Mormon leaders wanted a theocratic government.

Plural marriage became a political issue in the United States during the mid-1800’s.  Historians tell us that in 1850, only around one-quarter of all Mormon households practiced polygamy [4] but plural marriage is what most non-Mormons thought of whenever the question of Mormonism came up.  Most Americans rejected polygamy, and for some, it was a hot-button issue.  Polygamy was immoral and against the teachings of Christ.  In 1856, one key plank in the newly formed Republican Party pledged to “prohibit” the twin evils of slavery and polygamy.

The larger issue, however, was the concept of popular sovereignty, a key component of the Compromise of 1850.  Initially, Stephen A. Douglas, a leader of the Democratic Party, was a staunch supporter of the LDS community.  He later denounced Mormonism in order to preserve the notion of popular sovereignty as it related to the issue of slavery.  Douglas was an astute politician and he, along with many other East Coast politicians (James Buchanan among them) expressed alarm by the theocratic dominance of the Utah territory under Brigham Young.  In Utah, more than a few LDS leaders received appointments to territorial and federal posts that in many ways coincided with their ecclesiastical positions, including appointments to the judiciary.  These appointments required confirmation by the territorial legislature, of course, but the legislature itself was largely composed of members of the LDS Church.

Over time, increasing numbers of Washington politicians came to believe that an LDS majority in Utah threatened the idea of American republicanism. It didn’t help allay these fears when James Strang, an LDS rival to Brigham Young, proclaimed himself a king on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan after the main body of the LDS members relocated to Utah.  There was some justification for their concerns: Brigham Young maintained his power in Utah by organizing a paramilitary organization called the Danites. Eastern politicians believed that Young kept the Mormon community in line through armed tyranny.  The evidence for this at the time seemed to be rooted in the fact that a considerable number of non-LDS settlers in Utah didn’t remain there very long.

Non-LDS federal appointees embraced the long-held position that as a federal territory, only the President of the United States (with the advice of the Senate) could appoint territorial governors and federal judges —and do so without any input from the general population.  So much for popular sovereignty, but it was a temporary measure pending successful statehood.  Presidential prerogative was a standard applied to all newly acquired US territories. Apparently, however, federal appointment became an issue within the LDS community —even to the extent of causing Mormons to stand in defiance of federal rulings.

In fear for their own safety and that of their families, some federal appointees abandoned their posts and moved back east —circumstances that fueled the notion of armed tyranny, but whether this was true, Mormon communities were in constant dispute with federal appointees and this fact led the President to conclude that the Mormons were approaching a state of rebellion against the lawful authority of the United States.  One federal judge by the name of William W. Drummond, in his letter of resignation, opined that the power wielded by Brigham Young effectively denuded the rule of law in Utah; that the Mormon leadership ignored the laws of Congress and the US Constitution, and that male Mormons acknowledged no law at all beyond the Mormon priesthood.  A Territorial Chief Justice agreed, offering specific examples where Brigham Young had perverted the judicial system in Utah.  Justice Kinney went so far to request that the president permanently assign an army regiment to the Utah territory.

Dr. John M. Bernhisel, a Mormon, served as Utah’s delegate to the US Congress.  As claims and counter-claims went back and forth between Utah and Washington, he twice suggested (1852 and 1857) that Congress convene an impartial committee to evaluate the actual conditions within the Utah territory.  In 1857, newly elected President James Buchanan was under a great deal of political pressure to do something about conditions in Utah; rather than waiting for a committee report, as suggested by Bernhisel, Buchanan decided to act.  He replaced Brigham Young as territorial governor with Alfred Cumming [5] and ordered 2,500 army troops to Utah.  The Army’s mission was to suppress armed lawlessness within the territory when ordered to do so by the new territorial governor.

Under orders from General Winfield Scott, the US Army dispatched soldiers from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in July 1857.  Ultimately, command of these soldiers fell to Colonel Albert S. Johnson [6].  The Mormons understood that the Army was en route, but they did not have good information about its mission in Utah.  Mormon mail agents in Missouri informed Brigham Young that the US Army was “marching on the Mormons.”  This made the Mormons somewhat apprehensive and led them to begin preparations for the defense of their territory and their rights as citizens.

Whether the Mormons feared annihilation by federal troops is questionable, but what is almost a certainty is that the Mormons believed that they faced renewed persecution for their religious beliefs.  Young, fearing the worst, sent conflicting messages to Mormon communities: prepare for evacuation, stockpile food [7] and livestock, begin the local manufacture of firearms and ammunition.  He recalled LDS missionaries serving outside of the territory and dispatched George A. Smith to supervise the preparation for war among the LDS communities in southern Utah.

Forming an alliance among local Indians was another of Young’s strategies.  In late August 1857, Young met with a delegation of Indians and gave them his permission to take Mormon livestock from Utah into California [8].  He hoped to gain Indian support for an anticipated war with the US Army. Despite these efforts, Indians continued to attack Mormon settlements, including raids near Salt Lake City and along the Salmon River in the Oregon territory.  Subsequently, also in August 1857, Brigham Young activated the so-called Nauvoo Legion, a Mormon militia, which he placed under the command of Daniel H. Wells.  The force consisted of males, aged 16 to 60 years of age.  He ordered Wells to begin a series of skirmishes with approaching Army units to delay their advance.

In late August, Brigham Young declared martial law in the Utah Territory. The written declaration forbade “all armed forces of every description from coming into this Territory under any pretense, whatsoever.”  Important to the Baker-Fancher Party, Young’s order included these instructions: “…no person shall be allowed to pass or repass into, though, or from this territory without a permit from the proper officer.”

These were the circumstance in Utah when the Baker-Fancher Party arrived at Salt Lake City for rest and refit, and, consequently, the Mormons refused all hospitality and ordered Baker-Fancher to move on.  At this juncture, Baker-Fancher departed for the Old Spanish Trail which would take them south and west.  At the same time, Smith (one of the so-called LDS apostles) was traveling in company with Jacob Hamblin (Mormon president of the Santa Clara Indian Mission) and Thales Haskell.  Smith’s mission was to order Mormon settlements to stockpile their grain in the eventuality of a conflict with the US Army.  On their return trip to Salt Lake City, on 25 August, the three men camped at Corn Creek (near present-day Kanosh), not far from the Baker-Fancher party, which by this time, had traveled 165 miles from Salt Lake City.  Hamblin advised the train to continue along the trail and rest their cattle at Mountain Meadows where they would find good pasture and water. Mountain Meadows was not far from his own homestead.  Acting on Hamblin’s advice, the train moved on during the next morning.

Smith, Hamblin, and Haskell continued to Salt Lake City where Hamblin remained for about a week conducting Indian business and searching for a new plural wife.  His Indian business included a meeting with a delegation of Southern Paiute [9] and other LDS Church officials.


Isaac C. Haight

The wagon train continued 125 miles to Mountain Meadows, passing the Mormon communities at Parowan and Cedar City, led by Stake [10] Presidents William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight. Dame and Haight were also the leaders of the regional militia.  The approach of the train prompted the Mormon communities to hold meetings.  On 6 September, the question before the town committees was how they might implement Brigham Young’s martial law order.  A plan for an “Indian attack” was discussed, but not everyone agreed that this was a proper response to Young’s order, that “no person shall be allowed to pass.”  The council resolved to take no action until Haight sent a messenger to Young asking for his advice.  The rider was James Haslam.  The trip to Salt Lake City and return would take six days.  After the council adjourned, Haight sent another rider to John D. Lee [11]; we do not know what was in Haight’s message; only that he sent one.

The Baker-Fancher Party arrived at Mountain Meadow as a somewhat dispirited lot.  They anticipated being able to remain at that location for several days to water and feed their livestock.  The next leg of their journey would take them out of Utah.  On 7 September, Mormon militia attacked the Baker-Fancher train dressed as Paiute Indians.  Baker-Fancher circled their wagons and defended themselves by digging trenches and returning fire.  Seven pioneers died during the initial assault, sixteen more received serious wounds. The attack continued for another five days.  The siege prevented members of the Baker-Fancher train from accessing water or hunting for game food.  Ammunition was soon depleted.

Over these five days, the Mormon militia leadership broke down; fear spread among the militia that some of the Baker-Fancher party had caught sight of the “white man.”  They worried that the wagon train party may have discovered who their attackers were. The militia reconciled their situation by resolving to kill everyone in the party, excepting small children.

LEE JD 002

John D. Lee

On 11 September, John D. Lee [12] and two others approached the wagon train under a flag of truce.  Dr. Lee was a federal Indian agent and a militia officer.  Lee informed the battle-weary Baker-Fancher party that he had negotiated a truce with the Paiute Indians and that the Indians would allow the wagon train to return to Cedar City under the protection of the Mormon militia.  Lee further explained that as part of this negotiation, the emigrants would have to give up their cattle and supplies to the Indians.  Baker-Fancher accepted these terms relinquished their fortification.

Mormon militia separated adult men from their women and children.  One militia man took charge of two pioneer men. Then, at a pre-arranged signal, the militia shot the male emigrants from close range.  During stage two, Mormon militia ambushed the defenseless women and children.  In total, Mormon militia murdered 120 men, women, and children.  In the aftermath of the massacre, Mormons blamed local Indians for the carnage.  Because the youngest children could not later tell what happened, the militia farmed them out for adoption by local Mormon families.  The US Army later reclaimed seventeen children and returned them to their relatives in Arkansas.

According to Mormon historians [13], James Haslam delivered his message to Brigham Young on 11 September.  Young answered that Mormon settlements must not molest the Baker-Fancher Party.  Unhappily, Haslam’s return message arrived two days too late.

Local Mormons reported that Indians stole most of the Baker-Fancher property, but this wasn’t true: Southern Utah Mormons, including Dr. Lee, seized most valuables and cattle from the slain pioneers.  Mormons sold or traded the cattle in Salt Lake City, and personal property was auctioned off to local Cedar City Mormons.

Brigham Young conducted one of the earliest investigations of the massacre. Young interviewed Dr. Lee on 29 September.  The next year, Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asserting that the massacre was the work of native Americans.  The Utah War delayed a federal investigation until 1859.  The primary federal investigators were Jacob Forney and Brevet Major James H. Carleton.  Carleton made a thorough investigation, uncovering forensic evidence that included human remains.  After providing a proper burial of these remains, he interviewed local Mormons and Paiute tribal chiefs.  He concluded that Southern Mormons participated in the massacre.  Carleton forwarded his report to the United States Assistant Adjutant-General; copies of the report went to members of the US Congress. Carleton labeled the killings a “heinous crime” and assigned blame to local and senior church leaders for organizing and carrying out the mass killings.

Jacob Forney, then the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah, retrieved many of the surviving children of the massacred victims.  He concluded that the Paiute did not act alone, and the massacre would not have occurred without the urgings of white settlers.

John H Higbee

John H. Higbee

Federal Judge John Cradlebaugh undertook this case in March 1859; he convened a grand jury in Provo, Utah … but the jury refused to return any indictments.  Mormons refused to hold their brethren accountable.  Undeterred, Cradlebaugh conducted an inspection of the Mountain Meadows region.  A military detachment was necessary to protect him during his investigation.  The judge attempted to arrest Dr. Lee, Isaac Haight, and John Higbee (shown right), but forewarned, these men fled.  Subsequently, Cradlebaugh charged Brigham Young as an instigator to the massacre and therefore, as an accessory before the fact.

Mormon Territorial Probate Court Judge Elias Smith arrested Brigham Young under a territorial warrant.  Historians believe that Smith intended to divert any subsequent trial to a friendly Utah courtroom, but when no federal charges were filed, Smith released Young.

Phillip Klingensmith

Blacksmith Phillip Klingensmith

The American Civil War circumvented any further inquiries, but investigations continued in 1871 when prosecutors obtained an affidavit from militia member Philip Klingensmith —a church bishop and the blacksmith from Cedar City (shown right).  By this time, Klingensmith had left the church and moved to Nevada.  Subsequent to Dr. Lee’s arrest on 7 November 1874, a grand jury issued indictments on the charge of murder, naming Klingensmith, Elliot Wilden, and George Adair, Jr.  The court issued warrants for the arrest of Haight, Higbee, William C. Stewart, and Samuel Jukes —all of whom had gone into hiding.  Klingensmith avoided prosecution by agreeing to testify as a witness to the events of the Mountain Meadows massacre.

John Lee first went to trial on 23 July 1875 in Beaver, Utah.  He appeared before eight Mormons and four non-Mormon jurors.  The trial resulted in a hung jury on 5 August.  A second trial began on 13 September 1876.  The prosecution called seven Mormon witnesses who testified before an all-Mormon jury.  Lee called no witnesses and the jury found him guilty as charged.  At sentencing, the Court permitted Lee to choose the method of his own demise: hanging, firing squad, or beheading.  Lee decided on a firing squad.  Moments before his death, arranged at Mountain Meadows, Lee claimed that he was a scapegoat for others who escaped prosecution.

John D. Lee was the only Mormon convicted of the massacre. Additionally:

  • George A. Smith died in 1875, aged 58 years.
  • Jacob Hamblin died in 1885, aged 67 years.
  • Isaac Haight died in 1886 while living in Arizona.
  • John H. Higbee escaped prosecution.
  • Philip Klingensmith escaped prosecution by turning state’s evidence.
  • Brigham Young died on 29 August 1877. He suffered in death from cholera morbus and inflammation of the bowels, which may have precipitated a ruptured appendix. His pain in the final moments of his life may have been the only justice served as a result of the Mormon massacre at Mountain Meadows.


  1. Bagley, W. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  2. Krakauer, J.  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday, 2003.
  3. Denton, S.  American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows,Alfred A. Knopf., 2003.


[1] The number of participants cited is an estimate because several families split off from the train, while others joined up along the way.  There is no precise number of participants in this wagon train.

[2] In this sense, it was a westward moving cattle drive, as well.

[3] The Utah territory was part of the Compromise of 1850; Brigham Young its first governor.

[4] Mormons removed polygamy from church dogma in 1890, although some people do continue its covert practice.  Whenever discovered, it becomes an instant press item with sensational headlines.  The fact is that most Islamists living in America’s inner cities also practice polygamy but receives no attention at all.

[5] Brigham Young did not know that the president had replaced him as territorial governor until Cumming arrived in Salt Lake City.

[6] Originally from Washington, Kentucky, Albert Sidney Johnson (1803-1862) served as Adjutant General and Secretary of War in the Republic of Texas.  He served as a general officer in three separate armies: Texian Army, US Army, and Confederate States Army.  He served in combat during the Black Hawk War, Texas War of Independence, Mexican-American War, Utah War, and the American Civil War.  Johnson died at the Battle of Shiloh on 6 April 1862.

[7] Stockpiling food continues to be a Mormon tradition.

[8] Mormons established colonies along the California Trail and Old Spanish Trail.

[9] Paiute Indians consisted of three separate groups of native Americans, all of which were related to the Numic group of Uto-Aztecan languages.  These were the Northern Paiute (Northeastern California, Northwestern Nevada, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Idaho), Southern Paiute (Northern Arizona, Southern Nevada, and Southwestern Utah), and Mono people (East-central California).

[10] An intermediate level in the LDS Church organization which consisted of several congregations of around 3,000 members.

[11] John Doyle Lee was born in Illinois in 1812.  When Lee was 3-years old, his mother died, and his alcoholic father became abusive. Relatives removed him from the home and put him to work on their farm.  Lee became a Mormon while still in his twenties.  In 1833, he married Agatha Ann Woolsey, the first of his nineteen wives. Lee was a member of the Mormon militia and had participated in several incidents of violence against non-Mormons. He relocated to the Utah territory in 1848.

[12] Maj. John D. Lee served the Mormon community as a constable, judge, and Indian Agent.  Having conspired in advance with his immediate commander, Isaac C. Haight, Lee led the initial assault, and falsely offered emigrants safe passage prior to their mile-long march to the field where they were massacred.

[13] John Lee told a different story.  Although he initially claimed that Young was unaware of the massacre until after it took place, he later claimed that the massacre occurred “… by the direct command of Brigham Young.”  See also: Life and Confessions of John D. Leeby his attorney, William W. Bishop (1877).

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The Origins of Zorro

Zorro 001Most people in my generation grew up reading about or watching film serials and television programs about western heroes.  We saw these heroes in such programs as The Lone Ranger, Lash Larue, The Cisco Kid, The Durango Kid, Roy Rogers, Gunsmoke, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Tales of Wells Fargo, and many others—including, of course, Zorro the Fox.

To young minds, Diego de la Vega (the real identity of Zorro) was how we ought to judge an actual hero.  The man was roguishly handsome, had a tool chest full of skills and talents that thrilled us.  He was a Robin Hood type outlaw, a man with a hefty price on his head, wanted “dead or alive,” but far too skilled and cunning to allow himself capture by bumbling Mexican soldiers or lawmen (in the time of the story (1769-1820), California was part of Mexico).  Sadly (or not), Zorro existed only in the imagination of his creator, author Johnston McCulley (1883-1958).

McCulley’s first account of Zorro appeared in The Curse of Capistrano (1919).  In the following year, Douglas Fairbanks portrayed Zorro in a film titled The Mark of Zorro.  In total, 15 actors played the role of Zorro.  I do not recall the Douglas Fairbanks portrayal, but I do remember the short-lived television series starring Guy Williams (real name Armando Joseph Catalano (1924-1989)) who was born in New York City, but passed away in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Interesting stuff —made more so by the fact that I’ve discovered that there was an actual character in history that McCulley may have borrowed heavily from in the Zorro stories.  The real-life person was a combination of outlaws, one of whom was named Tiburcio Vásquez(1835-1875).

The Vasquez family arrived in Alta California [1] in the late 1700s as part of the De Anza Expedition [2]Tiburcio’s parents were José Hermenegildo Vásquez and Maria Guadalupe Cantua.  Tiburcio was well-educated, spoke several languages, and was of slight stature, growing to around 5’ 7” tall, and probably weighing around 170 pounds.  Beginning in 1852, Tiburcio fell under the influence of Anastacio Garcia, who was one of California’s more dangerous outlaws [3].  While attending a fandango in Monterey, California, Tiburcio witnessed the shooting of Monterey Constable William Hardmount by Garcia.  Frightened, Tiburcio fled the scene of the shooting, and while he was not involved in the shooting, the fact that witnesses saw him running away fueled the notion that he was a suspect in the crime.  From this time forward, Tiburcio was a wanted man; a man who operated outside the law; an outlaw.

In matters of crime, Monterey, California has hardly changed over the past 170-years.  Crime was out of control in 1850, and it remains so today.  If fighting and shooting people wasn’t enough mayhem in 1850, we can add feuding to the mix. One of these is known as the Belcher-Roach feud.  It began with two friends whose greed led them down the path of self-destruction, taking innocent people with them along the way.  Lewis F. Belcher and William Roach were both fearless in a fight; neither man would back down.  They both defined justice as an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth.

What led to their feud was their affections for the same young (and wealthy) widow.  Belcher arrived in California from New York around the age of 22-years.  Belcher acquired wealth and influence by selling meat to the American Army and Navy.  Sergeant William Roach of Company D —an immigrant from Ireland— arrived with the New York Regiment of Volunteers during the Mexican-American War.  After leaving the Army, Roach successfully ran to become the first sheriff of Monterey County.  Both Belcher and Roach relied on Tiburcio Vásquez and Anastacio Garcia as guns for hire during their murderous dispute.  Assassination and mayhem continued until the State of California executed Garcia in 1875.  Note: Today, Monterey, California is among the most crime-ridden/least safe cities in the entire nation [4].

In 1856, authorities arrested and charged Tiburcio with stealing horses.  After conviction, he received a five-year sentence at San Quinton prison.  His time in jail was productive, however; while incarcerated he planned and participated in four bloody prison-break attempts, which left twenty convicts dead in the prison yard.  After his release from prison, Tiburcio returned to a life of crimes involving burglary, cattle rustling, and highway robberies from one end of California to another.  An 1866 conviction sent him back to prison for robbing a general store in Petaluma, California.

After his second release from prison, Tiburcio organized a gang that included Juan Bautista Soto and Procopio Bustamante.  Standing over 6’ tall and weighing in excess of 200 pounds, Soto presented a terrifying figure.  He had wildly crossed-eyes, was heavily bearded, and his face badly pockmarked. Soto’s short temper made him mean and vicious.  He was also quick on his feet and fast with a gun.  Added to this, Soto hated Anglos.

Bustamante was known by several alias.  Born in Sonora, Mexico, Procopio lost his father during an Indian raid and his uncle Joaquin [5] raised him to adulthood, training him as a vaquero.  In 1862, authorities accused Procopio of murdering a local ranger near Rancho Cucamonga. There being no evidence that he murdered anyone, other than the word of a “witness,” who as it turns out was not even present during the shooting, a judged ordered Procopio released.  Deeply angered by the incident, Procopio delved deeper into outlawry.

The Vásquez gang conducted a string of bandit raids, successfully terrorizing white settlers from one end of California to the other.  In 1870, Santa Cruz lawman Robert Liddell seriously wounded Vásquez during a shootout, but despite his wounds, Vásquez escaped capture and returned to the home of his sister, who hid him and nursed him back to health.  He gained state-wide notoriety in 1873 when he held up Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos (San Benito County).  In the process of robbing the store of $2,200, Vásquez and his gang murdered three innocent bystanders.  The incident so enraged the governor that he placed a bounty of $1,000 on Vásquez’ his head.  San Jose Sheriff John H. Adams led a posse in pursuit of Vásquez into Southern California. Another gunfight ensued, but Vásquez again evaded capture, this time hiding out with his brother Francisco near Lake Elizabeth.

Tiburcio Vasquez 001Despite these depredations, Vásquez remained popular within several Mexican communities, from Santa Rosa to Los Angeles.  There were no shortages of places to hid or people to shield him from the law.  Tiburcio was literate, handsome, and charismatic. He enjoyed dancing, playing the guitar, and fooling about with the ladies —seldom lacking company with the softer side of frontier society.  Much to the thrill of the ladies, Tiburcio was also the writer of poetry.

After several months, Vásquez returned to the San Joaquin Valley where he re-engaged in criminal activity.  After robbing the Jones Store in Fresno County, he and his gang terrorized and sacked the town of Kingston, making off with $2,500 in cash and valuables.  California’s governor increased his bounty to $15,000 and ordered Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse track him down.  Despite this increased attention from the law, Vasquez raids continued with stagecoach robberies and murder.

On 15 April 1874, Vasquez kidnapped a prominent sheep rancher named Alessandro Repetto and held him for ransom.  Authorities organized several posse comitatus, but he always managed to escape. He hid for a time in the home of Yiorgos Caralambo at Rancho La Brea (near present-day Sunset Strip in West Hollywood).  This was a decision that led to his downfall.  While living in Caralambo’s home, Vásquez seduced and impregnated Yiorgos’ niece.  Someone connected to the Caralambo family, outraged by this behavior, notified Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland of the murderer’s whereabouts.  Sheriff Rowland captured Vásquez on 14 May 1874.

While in jail, Vásquez agreed to several press interviews.  He claimed to be an honorable man who simply wanted to return California to Mexican rule.  After several months, he stood trial in San Jose, California, but his pre-trial confinement period made him into a celebrity within Hispanic communities and in the Anglo press.

The Vásquez trial lasted four days; the jury deliberated for just two hours before reaching a guilty verdict.  The presiding judge ordered Tiburcio Vásquez hanged—and it might have been a rapid hanging were it not for the fact that Tiburcio filed an appeal for clemency.  Awaiting a decision, Vásquez entertained scores of visitors in his jail cell, many of these were women, and Señior Vasquez enjoyed his popularity.  He signed autographs, posed for photographs, and sold these from the window in his cell—all proceeds going directly to his attorney, of course.  Ultimately, California governor Romualdo Pacheco denied Vasquez’ request for clemency and on 19 March 1875, Tiburcio Vasquez stepped calmly into the afterlife.  He was 39-years old.

It should surprise no one that Tiburcio Vásquez remains a hero within some California Hispanic communities.  Glorifying a murderer and a thief may have been the intent of Johnson McCulley —but it is not a view that I share.  There is nothing at all romantic or heroic about Tiburcio Vasquez.  If Johnson McCulley based his character Zorro on the life and times of Tiburcio Vasquez, then Zorro can never be a heroic figure.


  1. Yenne, B. The Legend of Zorro.  Mallard Press, 1991
  2. Curtis, S. Zorro Unmasked: The official history.  Hyperion Press, 1998


[1] Also referred to as Upper California, Nueva California, California del Norte, was a province of New Spain from about 1804 (along with the peninsula of Baja California).  Alta California became part of Mexico in 1822, renamed Alta California in 1824, its territory included all present-day California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.  It was mostly a paper territory, however, because neither Spain or Mexico colonized the area beyond the southern and central coastal regions of modern-day California and small areas of Arizona.  There was never any effective control in California above the area of Sonoma.

[2] Juan Bautista de Anza (1736-1788) served as the 55th Governor of the Province of New Mexico (1778-1788).  When the Spanish began colonizing Alta California in 1769, Spanish authorities soon realized that they needed a more direct land route and additional colonies, particularly in the area of present-day San Francisco.  They established additional missions in the Salinas Valley.  The de Anza expedition to Alta California, which began on 8 January 1774.

[3] Apparently, few Mexicans living in California enjoyed the idea of being part of the United States after 1850.  Some of these people moved back to Mexico, others channeled their anger through banditry, and of course, there were people of Mexican heritage that adapted to the new order of politics in California after 1850.

[4] Monterey, California Crime Analytics, Neighborhood Scout Organization.  On a scale of 100 (indicating America’s safest cities), Monterey ranks 6.

[5] Juaquin Murrieta (1829-1853) was a dangerous outlaw who migrated to California in 1849.  During the California Gold Rush Murrieta formed several gangs that engaged in murder, armed robbery, and horse theft.  Johnson McCulley likely incorporated Murrieta, Bustamante, and Vásquez to form the character Zorro.

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