California Indians — Part III

Oppressive California

California government soon became an instrument of Indian oppression.  In Governor John McDougall’s first address to the California legislature, he promised “… a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”  Ignoring the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War, California denied Indians citizenship, voting rights, and the right to give testimony in courts of law.  Despite California’s admission to the Union as a “free state,” the Indians had no right of redress, and therefore, no protection under the laws of the state of California.

California’s legislature quickly enacted a series of laws that legalized Indian slavery and indenture similarly imposed by Mexico before 1850.  There can be no greater heartbreak than the wanton murder of an Indian child’s parents so that he or she could be enslaved.  Once indentured, a child was thus “property” until reaching the age of 30 (males) or 25 (females).  This law was not repealed until President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863.

In 1854, the federal government appointed Edward F. Beale to serve as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California.  With a budget of $250,000 Beale proceeded to create an Indian preserve in the San Joaquin Valley, chosen because its proximity to livestock raiding by Southern California Indians.  Three tribes were relocated on this area’s 50,000 acres of barren land.  Despite the vast allocation of funds in modern dollars, Beale managed to relocate 200 Indians at San Sebastian.  Within ten years, Edward Beale owned title to most of the Indian set-asides.  Beale became the standard for American Indian Agents for well over fifty years.

Throughout the 19th Century, California Indians struggled to survive.  They were starving.  Many crossed over into the white world by finding jobs on white-owned ranches and farms.  Episodes of Indian conflict became fewer because there were almost no Indians left alive in California.  Some historians claim that one explanation for the few that did survive was that the Indians turned to a messianic cult movement that became known as the Ghost Dance of the 1870s.  Somewhat associated with the American missionary movement, adherents of the Ghost Dance became pan-tribal.  The movement promised a return of dead loved ones and family members.  At a time of dwindling Indian populations, of deep depression, the movement offered the disaffected greater hope for the future.  Despite lasting only a few years, the Ghost Dance was fundamental in revitalizing intra-tribal religious integration.

Conflict Renewed

In 1861, the United States went to war — with itself.  With most federal troops relocated eastward to participate in the war of attrition, California Indians went on the warpath, beginning in Northwestern California.  Why the northwestern part of the state?  It was there that deeply paranoid and aggressively over-reactive settlers routinely murdered local Indians, burned their villages, and occupied their lands.  White attempts to disarm the Indians met with fierce resistance.  As early as 1858, federal troops captured members of the Wilkut and Chilula tribes and deported them to the Indian Reservation at Mendocino.  Indian resistance to forced relocation seemed to justify the murder of peaceful, non-threatening Indians by local militia.

Certain members of the Hupa Tribe agreed to assist these militia in hunting down their hostile neighbors, but despite their cooperation and participation in suppressing Indian resistance, they too were rounded up and confined to the Hupa Indian Reservation in 1864.

California and federal officials greatly underestimated the number of surviving California Indians, so that when they made plans to arrest and remove all remaining California Indians to reservations, the Indians overwhelmed them.

There were several causes for the violence that began in the late 1850s.  Indians fortunate enough to have been assigned to reservations in their aboriginal territories were reluctant to share scant advantages with newly arrived (outsider) Indians.  When officials relocated “foreign” Indians to the Round Valley Reservation, violence among them was the result.  Each tribe’s creation story emphasized the sacred nature of its own particular landscape and Indian tradition emphasized territorially; to stray from ancestral lands required one to steal food resources from neighboring tribes.  Whites simply could not fathom the intensity and depth of the Indians’ spiritual attachment to their territories.

In 1859, white settlers attacked and massacred 70 (plus) Achomawi Indians, sixty of whom were women and children.  Known as the Pitt River Massacre, the squatters later justified this mass murder by claiming that they feared the Indians would steal their food.  For their part, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no interest in protecting the Indians or demanding justice on their behalf. 

Modoc and Klamath Indians share a common language and the Modoc Plateau.  Neighboring tribes included Shasta, Rogue River, Northern Paiute, Karuk, and Yurok Indians.  The Modoc homeland was located in the lower Klamath Lake region.  The Modoc’s first European contacts came after the opening of the Applegate Trail; many events of the Modoc War took place along the Applegate.  Beginning in 1847, Modoc warriors frequently attacked white emigrants for encroaching on their territory.  In 1852, such an encroachment resulted in the complete destruction of the offending wagon train; there was only one survivor.  His report of the attack set off a series of revenge killings on both sides. 

In 1864, Klamath and Modoc Indians made a treaty with the United States government.  The treaty required the Indians to cede traditional lands; in return, the U. S. promised an initial lump-sum payment and additional annual payments over fifteen years.  The US also promised to provide a reservation, stipulating that members from other tribes could be placed on the reservation, as well — but agreed to limit the reservation’s population to around 2,000 and no more than three tribes.

The land on the US reservation failed to provide sufficient food for both the Klamath and Modoc people.  Illness and tension between the two tribes escalated.  The Modoc requested a separate reservation, one closer to their ancestral home, but neither the federal or California government’s approved.  As a consequence, a Modoc warrior named Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack)[i] twice led his people off the reservations.  He was twice captured and returned against his will.  In 1872, Captain Jack left the reservation for a third time.  Violence and mass murder was the order of the day surrounding the Modoc War of 1872.  The Modoc finally refused to allow themselves deported to Oregon.

To survive the hardships foisted upon them by outsiders, the Indians had to become innovative and adaptable to change.  Those who accomplished this survived; those who would not, or could not change, perished.  One adaptation was the manner in which they chose their leaders, and this may have been the result of not being able to access their traditional lands, the sacred places revered for so many thousands of years.  Another factor was that under President U. S. Grant, Christian missionaries took over the responsibility for managing Indian reservations[ii].  These were men who were determined to destroy Indian culture through forced assimilation programs — some of which remained in place well into the 20th Century.    Given these circumstances, it should be no surprise that Indian leaders, such as Captain Jack, decided to take matters into his own hands.  In 1870, Captain Jack led a band of 200 Indians away from the reservation and returned to their traditional land at Lost River.  When they arrived, they discovered that a number of white settlers had taken over these lands.  Indian Agent Alfred B. Meacham recommended to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C. that Captain Jack’s Modoc be allowed exclusive reservation land.  Meacham recommended that Jack remain at Clear Lake in Oregon until the Commissioner made his decision — but the settlers in Oregon complained that Modoc were raiding their homesteads.  Of course, the allegations were true.  The Modoc did raid for food (and hunted) to feed their families because the government’s food allotments were insufficient.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.


[i] Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack) (1837-1873) was Chief of the Modoc Tribe in California and Oregon.  He was the first and (to my knowledge) the only Indian ever charged with and executed for “war crimes”.  The federal government executed Captain Jack’s three companions for murder.

[ii] See also, U. S. Grant and the Quaker Peace Policy.

(Continued next week)

Posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War | Leave a comment

California Indians — Part II

The Republic of Mexico

In 1823, the flag of the Republic of Mexico replaced that of Nuevo España.  In all likelihood, none of the California Indians noticed the change.  In Mexico City, however, major changes were underway, not the least of which was the resentment of the Catholic Church’s monopoly of Indian land and unpaid Indian labor.  While it is true that New Spain officials never made any land grants to favored citizens, they did issue grazing permits and concessions to Spanish settlers.  Mexican officials, in realizing that 16% of the entire territory of California was under Church control, decided to correct this problem.  Before 1821, legal title to this land belonged to the Spanish Crown — afterward, it belonged to the Mexican Republic.

The Spanish Crown only intended the Catholic missions to exist for ten years.  After ten years, the developed estates were supposed to be distributed to surviving mission Indians.  The Indians, in turn, were expected to become hardworking, taxpaying citizens.  But that isn’t what happened.  Missionaries continually made excuses about why it was important that the padres retain dominion over the California Indians and their lands.  With the Mexican Constitution of 1824, all Indians became citizens of Mexico; on paper they had the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to hold title to their land.  The stark reality, however, is that nothing changed for the Indians; Mexico continued to treat them as slaves.

Mission Santa Barbara

Between 1824 — 1834, the Republic of Mexico issued land grants to fifty-one citizens.  That is, land grants to people other than the Indians, who remained incarcerated in mission labor camps.  The grants did little more than increase the lust Mexicans had for Indian land.  As the colonial population increased, so too did the hunger for land by their offspring.  The number of voices demanding that missionaries relinquish their monopoly grew louder by the year.  It was past the time to free the Indians, they said.  Their voices, however, were more apparent than their sincerity.  The power of this Californian land-owning class prevailed between 1834-1836 when the Mexican legislature revoked the power of Franciscans to extract labor from the Indians and developed their so-called land reform initiatives.  The land reforms, however, simply redistributed Indian land to the Mexican land-owning class.  Moreover, the secularization process, as it was called, was so restrictive that few surviving Indians could qualify for land eligibility.  The reason for this was that most surviving Indians were from inland areas, rather than the coastal regions where most missions were located.  When finally liberated, California Indians returned to their native homes and territories.

 When the Indians returned to their native lands, what they found was devastation.  The decline of tribal populations had crippled the ability of Indian communities from farming.  Spain’s introduction of new animals (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs) had destroyed native flora, the primary source of Indian diet.  Additionally, imported animals had driven natural wildlife (deer, elk, antelope), upon which the Indians depended for meat.  Our picture, then, is of an Indian broken in body and spirit, returning home to find nothing that would sustain him or his family.  There should be no surprise to learn that these former slaves and fugitives soon turned to guerilla warfare to seize food and protect themselves against Mexican military or paramilitary assaults and slave-hunting raids.  Eventually, a significant number of these groups merged to form new tribal arrangements through which they could reassert their sovereignty, and push back against Mexican ranchers and military outposts.

Operating on the basis of “business as usual,” Mexican authorities authorized an additional 762 land grants before 1847.  When these guerrilla bands learned that they could provide American and Canadian trappers with stolen horses, their raiding activities increased dramatically.  How significant were these raiding activities?  By the mid-1830s, Mexican land holders began abandoning their land grants because Indian stock-raiding parties drove them out of the ranching business.  Famed mill owner Johann A. Sutter even petitioned the Mexican government for protection, and when that failed to materialize, he asked the Mexican government to purchase his mill.

Despite this new Indian organization, whites from Mexico, Canada, and the United States descended upon the Indians, reducing their numbers further between 1833-1848.  When the whites weren’t raiding Indian villages and murdering women and children, they were bringing other gifts.  In 1833, they brought malaria.  One explorer noted, “From the head of the Sacramento River to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin, we did not see more than six or eight live Indians.  We did find large numbers of their skulls and dead bodies under almost every shade tree near the water where uninhabited villages were transformed to graveyards.  The malaria epidemic is believed to have killed 20,000 central valley Indians; 2,000 died in 1837 alone.

Mexican forced labor and violence at the hands of the military and paramilitary slave-hunting parties account for a significant amount of human population decline.  On the eve of the United States’ takeover of California, 310,000 Indians had been reduced to an estimated 150,000 — in only 77 years.  It was a very bad situation, but it would become even worse.

The United States Invades

Fremont Assaults California

To say that Mexico neglected California would be a gross understatement.  It didn’t take long for Indian guerilla bands to overwhelm Mexican officials.  The arrival of U. S. military forces in California in 1846 didn’t have much trouble with the Mexicans, either.  Despite irrational and wholly unjustifiable U. S. Army raids on Sacramento River Indian villages, a majority of California Indians sided with the United States against Mexico and served them as scouts and wranglers.  When Mexican California collapsed in January 1847, a succession of U. S. military governors assumed responsibility for managing Indian affairs.  The first idiotic thing these governors did was appoint Indian-slavers Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Johann A. Sutter as Indian Agents.  Guerilla groups reacted almost immediately by increasing their raids against the white-eyes.  U. S. officials reacted by imposing oppressive restrictions on the free movement of natives.  For instance, the military government required Indians to carry certificates of employment on their person.

Conditions became worse after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.  If the whites seized Indian land in epic proportion before 1849, dispossession and murderous behavior increased ten-fold afterwards.  For example, Indian agent Johann Sutter attempted to negotiate a three-year lease for land surrounding Sutter’s Mill with the Coloma Nisenan Tribe.  The tribal chief did not understand Sutter’s interest in gold and gave him a grave warning: gold was very bad medicine; it belonged to a demon who devoured all who searched for it.  Fortunately, the military governor refused to approve Sutter’s lease arrangement.

By 1850, more than 100,000 gold-seekers descended on California like locusts — an event that overwhelmed the few American officials available to deal with them.  California civilian and military officials faced desertion on an unprecedented scale.  There was no law —or order.  Terror reigned in the dozens of mining camps, and mayhem spilled over into adjacent Indian villages.  One Indian witness observed, “We feared these invaders and as gold excitement advanced, tribal elders moved the village further and further away, each time in more haste.  Indian mothers blackened their children’s faces so that no one would steal them.”  The Indians feared vigilante groups such as the Humboldt Home Guard, who (among others) terrorized them.  Hubert Howe Bancroft noted, “The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability.  It can, however, boast a hundred or two as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers …”

The handiwork of vigilante death squads, combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians between 1849-1851, which amounted to the staggering loss of 2/3 of the California Indian population.  In 1852, the remaining 70,000 Indians teetered on the brink of extinction.  Despite these overwhelming odds, the Indians would not go quietly into the night.  In 1850, one tribal chief by the name of Antonio Garra organized San Diego area Indians to resist an illegal tax imposed upon them by the county sheriff.  Sporadic attacks led by Garra on Mexicans and Americans led to a crackdown on Indian communities.  A rival chief captured Garra and turned him over to the authorities, who promptly hung him.  A year later, several Miwok bands in the mountains resisted miners who attempted to overrun their territory.  One trading post was destroyed and the owner’s twelve Indian wives released back to their families.  In retribution, whites of an organization called the Mariposa Battalion conducted a ruthless campaign against the Yosemite Indians.  Their chief, a man named Tenaya was promptly exiled to an “Indian Farm.”

Raids on Indian villages had but two purposes: gain Indian land and provide political capital for ambitious office-seekers.  Federal and state officials agreed to reimburse these vigilante groups for their expenses.  The story of the California Indian us a story of wanton murder on a scale unequaled in all of the United States’ Indian wars.

And then came the treaties

In 1849, Washington officials dispatched two “special emissaries” to California to report on the nature of Mexico’s recognition of Indian land titles.  Neither official spoke to a single Indian; they eventually produced an ambiguous and wholly inaccurate report that did absolutely nothing for California Indians.  But Washington had to do something about deteriorating conditions in California and settled on the appointment of three officials whose duty it was to make treaties with the Indians.  It must have been a euphemistic expression because what these officials were actually doing was extinguishing Indian land claims while forcing them on to federal/state reservations.

Not long after their arrival in San Francisco in January of 1851, and only then becoming aware of the vast size of California, the commissioners decided to split up and negotiate treaties independently.  By this time, all California Indians were suspicious of the white men who claimed they were looking after the Indian’s interests.  Few Indians were interested in attending any of these meetings.  Those who did attend the meetings were only vaguely aware of the meeting’s purpose.  Part of this problem was the unavailability of Indian language translators.  Those with a rudimentary understanding of the Indian language had to first translate into Spanish, and then to English.  Few Indians understood English — fewer still were interested in what these men had to say.

Despite these crippling drawbacks, the treaty process continued through 5 January 1852.  In all, eighteen treaties were negotiated.  The treaties agreed to set aside certain tracts of land for the signatory tribes and promised the help of farmers, school teachers, and blacksmiths.  The also promised livestock, seeds, agricultural implements, and cloth.  In return, all the California Indians had to do was give up their land and relocate to other areas, where the white men told them to go.  Of the 18 treaties signed, the names of these tribes were unidentifiable — because they didn’t actually exist.  The worst part of this was that while only a small number of Indians were willing to make these treaties, the treaty provisions applied to all California Indian groups, whether they agreed to them or not.

When these treaties became public, the pioneering public was outraged, egged on by local newspapers and local politicians.  What if, for example, these Indian lands contained gold?  What then?  Most American settlers simply wanted the Indian problem to go away — as in removed to another state, but extermination would be okay, too.  On 8 July 1852, in executive session, the U. S. Senate refused to ratify the treaties. While this was going on, Congress created a commission to validate land titles in California.  The law required that the commission inform the Indians that it would be necessary for them to file claims for their land; the commission would then investigate the claims and make recommendations whether or not to accept them.  This was part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.  No one informed the Indians of any of this, of course, so California Indians never filed any claims.  It was a neat trick and its result completely dispossessed California Indians of their ancestral lands.  The only place where any of this could go was toward violence.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.

(Continued next week)

Posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

California Indians — Part I

Part of the problem we have understanding the indigenous people of the present-day United States is the reality that, “Native” Americans weren’t native to the Americas.  It’s more than semantics, but to avoid nitpicking, it might be fair to say that the Indians were “first” to arrive in the Americas.  It was a migration of Stone Age people, which simply means that they relied on stone implements to ensure their survival.  It was a very long migration cycle, perhaps lasting one or two thousand years.  They may have had significant genetic similarities, whether the first or last to arrive in North America, but they were also ethnically and culturally diverse.  They may not have shared a common language, for example.  After their arrival, as they split off and migrated further into North America, ethnic and cultural differences increased even more.

In the United States, such terms as American Indian Tribe, Native American Tribe, Alaskan Native Village, tribal nation, or other similar concept, is any extant or historical clan, tribe, band, nation, or any other group or community that can trace their origins to the First People migration, 20-25,000 years ago.  We often associate them with land or territory that they traditionally inhabited.  Today, the term tribe has become a convenient administrative category of a wide range of First People groups, also known as “Federally recognized Indian tribes” which have specific meanings under United States law.  We should, in all fairness, realize that Indian groupings are much more than that.

Anthropologists and archeologists tell us that the settlement of the Americas began when Paleolithic hunter-gatherer groups entered North America from the North Asian Mammoth steppe across a land bridge we today call Beringia.  Beringia formed between northeastern Siberia and western Alaska at a time when sea levels were low during the glacial maximum period.  As they arrived, their primary concern was food, so they located sources of nourishment and followed these sources over their natural (often seasonal) migration patterns.  In this way, the Asian groups filtered into the continent, spread out in different directions.  Some of these migrated eastward, others south.  Around 14,000 years ago, they began settling in present-day South America — all this time, making adaptations to their environment, an important factor in explaining who they are today.  Perhaps the Asian’s “onward” migrations took place because areas of the western continent region were already occupied by earlier arrivals.

The Californians

Native American Habitations in CA

Scientists believe that Indian cultures in California have existed for 20,000 years.  Over time, the First People of California evolved into 500 ethnic groups of various sizes.  Some of these groups had no more than fifty people — others as many as five-hundred.  What makes the California Indians interesting is that they inhabited similar climatic and ecological zones, and so despite the large number of Indian groups we can identify as uniquely Californian, they have remarkable similarities in their technological evolution — the materials used to create tools, homes, storage containers, for example. Their hunting, trapping, and fishing implements were also similar.  The size of Indian groups was directly related to the availability of fresh water and food sources.  What made them distinct from one another was how they adapted to California’s several environments.

Today, scientists distinguish California Indians by their region of habitation.  How we refer to these people today may have no relevance to who they are, according to their own language — so I see no value in alluding to them by names that may have no relevance to the Indians themselves; suffice to say that the California government classifies them by regions, and this makes perfect sense. We all know who the Plains Indians were even if we can’t memorize dozens of hard-to-pronounce names that they called themselves.

Northwest California Indians inhabited a rainforest environment.  All settlements existed along or near rivers, lagoons, and coastal bays.  Their dugout canoes were ideal for this environment.  They could manufacture such boats because of the magnificent trees that were available to them.  Similarly, redwood and cedar woods were used in the construction of their homes.  Natural phenomena shaped their religious beliefs.  The men who ruled these settlements or villages were the most-wealthy among them: those who claimed the most land or fishing areas, had the most food, and/or possessed the most goods. The notion that Indians never owned the land is pure poppycock.

There are two divisions of the Northeast Indians: those living on the western side of this region lived in mountainous areas.  They relied on acorns and salmon as their chief sources of food.  On the eastern side, the Indians survived in a high desert environment where they relied on grass seeds, tuber berries, rabbit, and deer.  They were independent from one another, but interconnected through trade and intermarriage.  Even before the arrival of Europeans, Indian populations increased or decreased because of disease and virulent illnesses.

Central California is a vast territory with many Indian groupings, from coastal to mountain areas.  Food was plentiful — deer, elk, antelope as examples, large animals that required sophisticated tools to kill them and process them for food.  They tended to live in semi-subterranean roundhouses, which sheltered them comfortably in winter or summer.  Interestingly, many of the Central Californian Indian’s rituals were quite similar — but the villages were fiercely independent and self-governed.  Some of these villages sustained upward of one-thousand people; they were large enough to develop craft specialists, producing goods that could be bartered within the settlement.  Family groups in smaller settlements produced all that was needed to sustain the family group.

Southern California groups were also unique.  It was the place where the northern groups migrated to, where they found a highly disparate landmass and climate.  These Indian groups maintained vibrant trade relationships, bartering sea based resources to animal and faunal resources found further inland.  Villages varied from poor desert communities to sophisticated and well-populated settlements.

The foregoing summary tells us about California Indians before the Spanish arrived.  What the Spanish learned from their late 17th Century experiences in Central and South America they took with them to Alta California.  The Franciscans determined that it would be better to establish their missions as independent entities from Spanish colonial leaders.  It would be the ‘soft side’ of conquest and it began in 1769 with Franciscan Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola.  Serra would be instrumental in establishing twenty-one Catholic missions in California.

What Happened

Bridgeman Art Library

The foregoing term soft conquest of the California Indians was the de facto purpose of Franciscan missions.  They were coercive religious labor camps designed to benefit Spanish colonizers.  The plan was carefully contrived: the military would first intimidate the Indians (the bad guy routine) and when the Spanish settlers introduced domesticated animals, which consumed Indian food sources, which made the Indians dependent on food sources managed by the missions, the Franciscans would, with sympathetic understanding, convince the Indians that they could achieve a better existence in the afterlife as devoted Catholic converts (the good guy routine).  Romantic portraits of the missionary system, as painted by revisionist historians, is pure fiction.

It was a through this well-established pattern of bribes and intimidation (and the Indian’s amazement that Europeans were immune to the diseases that killed off their people in the thousands) that convinced the frightened Indians to seek the protection of Catholic missionaries.  

Spanish authorities allotted ten years to the Franciscans for the conversion of these heathens to Catholicism.  Afterward, the Franciscans were to surrender control of all mission assets (livestock, fields, orchards, and buildings) to Indian control.  Franciscan missionaries ignored this law, which ultimately resulted in the wholesale theft of Indian land and wealth.  Still, the most effective factor in achieving control over the Indians was the introduction of pandemic disease and illness.

For tens of thousands of years, the First People evolved in isolation, without any exposure to the horrific diseases that had plagued Europeans for centuries.  They had their own variation of illnesses, of course, but among the European diseases, none was more virulent or deadly to native populations than smallpox — but syphilis, diphtheria, chickenpox, and measles took their toll as well.

When the Spanish arrived in California, they brought more than disease to the Indians; they brought also unhygienic practices that produced water-borne bacteria.  Indian populations, such as those in the present-day Santa Clara Valley, were devastated — and among the Indians, the children were most susceptible.  Measles alone killed thousands, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara — a consequence of the missionary practice of forcibly separating children from the parents at the age of six years, and forcing these children to live in filthy communicable barracks.  It didn’t help the Indian’s ability to resist these diseases when the missionaries literally worked them to exhaustion.

But the final nail in the Indian’s coffin occurred when native people lost faith in their village or tribal shamans to relieve them of their suffering and they were beset with severe psychological depression.  By the early 1800s, California Indian populations had declined by sixty percent.

The Indians Fight Back

If one wanted to characterize the life of an average California Indian in the year 1800, it would include unrelenting demand for labor, forced separation from their children, never-ending threats of physical coercion, and despair.

At first, Indian resistance took the form of surreptitiously maintaining their traditional religious beliefs.  Outwardly, the Indians became adherents to Catholicism; but they prayed to their traditional deities, and conducted native dances and religious rituals in secret.  And they ran away.  Thousands of the estimated 82,000 converts deserted the missions, but no more than one in every twenty-four actually escaped mission labor camps.

To the Indians, the Franciscan padres were powerful witches; the only way to stop them was through assassination.  In 1801, Indians poisoned three padres (one of them died).  In 1805, one Indian of the Yokut tribe attempted to stone a padre to death.  In 1812, one padre brazenly informed “his Indians” that he intended to punish them with a new instrument of torture.  He was promptly killed.

There were also more than a few armed revolts.  Indians in San Diego organized two major attacks against the missionaries and their military escorts within five weeks of their arrival in 1769.  In 1775, San Diego Indians destroyed Mission San Diego and killed the padre to stop him from sexually assaulting members of their community.  Two missions were destroyed along the Colorado River in 1781, killing four padres in the process and permanently disrupting the Spanish overland route from Mexico into Southern California.

The last great mission Indian revolt occurred in 1824 at Mission Santa Barbara.  Disenchanted Chumash Indians fought a pitched battle against Spanish soldiers, violently overthrew the mission, sacked it, and set it afire.  Around this same time, a number of guerrilla bands developed.  Mounted on horses and utilizing modern weapons, guerrilla bands began raiding mission livestock and assaulting Spanish colonial military forces.

Increasing native hostility was enough to persuade the Mexican Republic to strip the padres of their power over native Americans; afterward, the Spanish mission system throughout Mexico collapsed.  By 1824, around 100,000 (nearly a third) of the California Indian population had died — and yet, despite these circumstances, tribal groups maintained their identities and cohesion.  The missions became a mixture of Indians from different tribes, speaking their own languages, following their own traditions, and ignoring other Indians.  One thing they shared in common was their steadfast refusal to learn the Spanish language, which caused the Spaniards/Mexicans to appoint labor overseers who spoke the native tongue.  These overseers helped the Indians to maintain their distinct cultural identity.  Another factor was that the Indian groups refused to live in mixed-tribal barracks.

(Continued next week)


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.

Posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Little Known Legends

In 1850, Allan Pinkerton met a Chicago attorney by the name of Edward Rucker.  Together, they formed the North-Western Police Agency, later known as Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.  Around 1855, Pinkerton noted an increased demand for private detectives.  Businessmen, large and small, realized that many of their business losses involved employee theft, and so in ever-increasing numbers, they turned to agencies such as Pinkerton’s as a means of reducing their losses, and these clients became the foundation of the Pinkerton Agency’s business success.

The demand for more detectives prompted Pinkerton to run an advertisement in the Chicago newspaper for men interested in private law enforcement.  As it turned out, Pinkerton’s was a phenomenally successful agency, particularly in the period leading up to, during, and after the Civil War [Note 1].In 1856, Mrs. Kate Warne visited the Pinkerton offices in Chicago and announced that she was interested in employment.  Widowed at age 23, Mrs. Warne needed the work and decided that she was qualified for employment — not as a secretary, but as a female detective.

Her interest was highly unusual, but she was brilliant, in control, and eloquent.  Pinkerton later described her as “a slender, brown-haired woman, graceful in her movements, and self-possessed.”  Pinkerton was surprised that she was interested in detective work and told her that it was not his custom to hire women.  Warne argued that women could be “most useful” in discovering secrets that would be impossible for a male agent to uncover.  She argued that a woman could befriend the wives and sweethearts of criminals, and besides that, men like to brag about their accomplishments in front of women.  Mrs. Warne also noted that women are better observers than men.

Pinkerton, impressed by her argument, hired Kate Warne.  She became America’s first female detective.  In 1858, Warne participated in an embezzlement investigation at Adams Express Company.  Warne managed to learn through the primary suspect’s wife that he, one Mr. Maroney, an express agent, misappropriated company funds to the tune of $50,000.00.  Warne’s investigation enabled the return of $39,000.  A jury convicted Maroney and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Allan Pinkerton was so impressed with Warne that in 1860 he placed her in charge of the female bureau of Pinkerton’s and resolved to hire more women — another first in United States history.

In 1861, Allan Pinkerton was hired by the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore (PWB) Railroad to investigate suspected secessionist activities and threats of damage to the railroad in Maryland.  Pinkerton placed agents at various points in Maryland to investigate whether there was a basis for these concerns.  As the investigation proceeded, Pinkerton became aware that the activity in Maryland wasn’t merely a threat against the railroad — it also involved a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, recently elected to the Presidency.  Kate Warner was one of the agents Pinkerton sent to Baltimore to investigate secessionist activities.  It was Kate Warne who uncovered the plot against Lincoln in February 1861.  Working undercover posing as a southern woman visiting Baltimore (complete with a thick Southern accent), she infiltrated several secessionist groups.  In this capacity, Warne discovered many of the details about the assassination plot, including the place of the intended assault.

Lincoln publicized his inaugural train trip … one that would take him from his home in Springfield, Illinois through 70 cities, ending up in Washington, D. C. in time for his inauguration.  At that time, the rail system configuration required that all southbound trains discharge and transfer their passengers in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Northbound station ended on Calvert Street, and the southbound train route began at Camden Street.  The distance between these two stations was about a mile.

This was the area where the assassins planned to strike.  As Mr. Lincoln passed through the depot at Calvert Street to enter his carriage, a row would break out to divert policemen from the depot and leave Lincoln unprotected.  At this point, secessionists would surround Lincoln and shoot him down.  They then planned to escape to Virginia aboard a river steamer.

Pinkerton met with U. S. Representative Norman B. Judd and Mr. Lincoln on 21 February 1861 and revealed to them the information uncovered by his agents.  For his part, Lincoln dismissed the plot’s existence, but if it did exist, he did not believe it deserved any serious concern.  Only when a second source, Frederick W. Seward (the son of Secretary of State-designate William H. Seward), confirmed the plot did Lincoln finally agree that such a plot was feasible. Still, he steadfastly refused to cancel his planned itinerary.  He did, however, agree to take measures to avoid entrapment.

At Harrisburg, Mr. Lincoln gave three speeches and participated in a flag-raising ceremony at Independence Hall.  Afterward, he attended a high profile dinner party in his honor.  During dinner, Lincoln’s secretary (John Nicolay) interrupted the party to excuse Lincoln on the pretense of an important matter.  Lincoln changed into a traveling suit and carried a shawl to change his appearance.  At the station, Kate Warne accompanied Lincoln, Pinkerton, and Ward Lamon [Note 2] aboard the train.

Lincoln’s train proceeded to Philadelphia, where he re-boarded a special train of the PWB to Washington.  During the night of 22-23 February, Kate Warne remained awake during the night, disguising Lincoln and keeping guard.  From this particular event, Allan Pinkerton devised his business slogan, “We Never Sleep.”  Warne was a key factor in moving Abraham Lincoln safely to Washington, under the pretense that Warne was traveling with her “sick brother.”  Lincoln’s train arrived in Baltimore at around 03:30 on 23 February, when Lincoln’s sleeping car was transferred to a Washington bound track.

Believed to be Kate Waren standing next to the tentpole.

Between 1861-65, Kate Warne served Pinkerton and the Union as a spy.  Her ability to penetrate Southern social gatherings and befriending women who had relationships with Confederate men of power enabled her to provide Pinkerton (and Lincoln) with worthwhile military, political, and economic intelligence.  When working undercover with Pinkerton, Warne would often pose as his wife — a ploy used to satisfy polite society’s curiosity. 

According to historians, Kate Warne was instrumental in uncovering a sophisticated Confederate spy ring inside the nation’s capital involving Rose O’Neal Greenhow [Note 3].  Greenhow was a well-known socialite who developed close relationships with highly placed civilian and military officials, including former president James Buchanan, during the period before the Civil War.  Greenhow obtained important information and then passed it along to her Confederate contacts. 

In early 1861, Greenhow helped develop a pro-Southern spy network under Confederate sympathizer, U. S. Army Captain Thomas Jordan [Note 4].  When Jordan left the U. S. Army to accept a Confederate commission, he turned his spy network over to Rose Greenhow, who continued to funnel information to Jordan.  Jordan helped to establish the Confederate Secret Service.

Greenhow managed to develop and nurture several important contacts, including pro-Southern members of congress, senior U. S. Army officials, through which she obtained the battle plans of General Irvin McDowell and passed them to Jordan, who then passed them to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard [Note 5].

At this time, Kate Warne was posing as a Southern sympathizer and established a relationship with Rose Greenhow.  Greenhow was never hesitant to express her support for the Confederacy, nor was she unwilling to use her female charms to obtain information.  Kate’s task was to obtain proof of Greenhow’s treason.

By early August, Greenhow had a feeling that her activities were being monitored and fearing that her network was in jeopardy, along with her concern for the safety of her daughter Leila, sent Leila to live with an older sister in Ohio.  Her youngest daughter, called Little Rose, remained at home with her mother.

In mid-August, Pinkerton believed he had enough evidence against Greenhow to apply for a warrant for her arrest.  With warrant in hand, Pinkerton agents raided Greenhow’s home and began gathering boxes of evidence.  They quite literally dismantled Greenhow’s home and uncovered coded letters, Union battle plans, information about increasing the Union army’s size, diaries of Army units detailing their training programs, and maps of Washington’s defenses.

In addition to a vast range of military information, Pinkerton agents discovered love letters from the abolitionist Republican Senator Henry Wilson from Massachusetts, who gave her information on the number of heavy guns and artillery positions in Washington.  Wilson served on the Congressional Military Affairs Committee [Note 6].  Pinkerton also discovered incriminating material from Union flag officers, indicating their willingness to provide Greenhow with information in exchange for intimacy with Greenhow.

According to one of Pinkerton’s agents, “There was not a distinguished name in America that was not found there (Greenhow’s home).”  Pinkerton concluded that the United States may not have had a more dangerous enemy than Greenhow.  In her memoirs, Rose referred to a female agent named Ellen, who searched her person for documents — discovering several.  Some historians conclude that Ellen was actually Kate Warne.  Warne became Greenhow’s primary guard and interrogator, and there is some evidence suggesting that Greenhow feared Warne (Ellen) and begged authorities not to leave her alone with Warne/Ellen.

Greenhow’s home actually became a holding facility for men and women arrested in connection with his investigation; Little Rose was allowed to stay with her mother in the Greenhow home.  Even while under arrest, though, Rose Greenhow continued to pass Jordan messages [Note 7].  Greenhow was transferred to the Old Federal Prison on 18 January 1862 [Note 8].

Believed to be Kate Warne c. 1867

Warne continued working for Pinkerton as Superintendent of Female Detectives after the Civil War and was instrumental in solving several “high profile” cases.  Among these were the murder of George Gordon, a bank teller, and the theft of $130,000.00 in cash and attempted murder.  In both cases, Warne disguised herself to ferret out the truth.  In the first instance, she uncovered Gordon’s murderer and returned the money to the bank, and in the second, she foiled the plot to murder by poison two potential victims.  So successful was Kate Warne that Pinkerton acknowledged her as one of his five best detectives.

Kate Warne passed away from “congestion of the lungs” on 28 January 1868 and was buried in Chicago, Illinois.  She was 34 or 35 years of age. 


  1. Abbott, K.  Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.  New York: Harper Collins, 2014.
  2. Blackman, A.  Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy.  New York: Random House, 2005.
  3. Enss, C.  Lady Pinkertons.  True West Magazine, 2018.
  4. Fishel, E. C.  The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War.  Boston: Houghton, 1996.
  5. McKay, E. A.  Henry Wilson: Practical Radical, a Portrait of a Politician.  Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1971.
  6. Morn, F.  The Eye that Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
  7. Pinkerton, A.  The Spy of the Rebellion.  G. W. Carleton & Co., 1883. 
  8. Seiple, S.  Lincoln’s Spy Master: Allan Pinkerton, America’s First Private Eye.  New York: Scholastic Press, 2015.
  9. Walsh, R.  The Untold Story of Kate Warne, America’s First Female Private Eye.  Open Road Media, 2018.


[1] As the United States expanded its territories in the west, demand for fast and reliable transportation drove the construction of American railroads.  These, in turn, became targets for train robbers.  After solving a series of train robberies, Pinkerton came into contact with George McClellan, who was then serving as Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad. His lawyer was a man named Abraham Lincoln.  When the Civil War began, Allan Pinkerton served for two years as the Union Intelligence Service head. He headed off a plot uncovered in Baltimore, Maryland, for the assassination of President Lincoln.  So thoroughly had Pinkerton infiltrated the Confederacy, he almost knew what their plans were before the ink had dried.  In 1871, the U. S. Congress funded the creation of the Department of Justice.  The congressional appropriation of $50,000.00 was insufficient to establish an investigation unit, so the DOJ contracted with the Pinkerton Agency to investigate alleged federal crimes.

[2] Ward Hill Lamon (pronounced “lemon”) was Lincoln’s self-appointed bodyguard.  An associate of Lincoln since 1852, Mr.  Lamon was a physically imposing man whose friendship with Lincoln led to frequent disagreements with Pinkerton over the matter of Lincoln’s safety.  For instance, Lamon wanted Lincoln to carry a pistol and a knife on his person as he entered the nation’s capital; Pinkerton would not hear of it.  He argued that it was unacceptable to have a new president assume his duties while armed in fear of his own safety.  In this case, Lincoln agreed with Pinkerton. 

[3] Maria Rosetta O’Neal (1813-1864) was born and raised on a Montgomery County, Maryland plantation.  She was the third of five daughters of John O’Neale and Eliza Henrietta Hamilton.  John was a planter and slaveholder who was murdered by his black valet in 1817.  John’s murder forced his widow and children into poverty.  Rose, as she was called from early childhood and her sister, Ellen, went to live with an aunt in Washington, D. C.  In the 1830s, Rose met Robert Greenhow, Jr., a prominent doctor and a lawyer.  Their courtship was well received in polite society, and they were married in 1825.  Dr. Greenhow died in an accident in 1854.  (Further note: Ellen married Dolly Madison’s nephew, James Madison Cutts, and in 1856, Ellen’s daughter Adele married Stephen A. Douglas, the senator from Illinois).  After Dr. Greenhow’s death, Rose, influenced by Senator John C. Calhoun, became more sympathetic to the Confederate cause.

[4] Thomas Jordan (1819-1895) was a native Virginian who attended the USMA, class of 1840.  Initially assigned to the infantry, Jordan served with distinction in the Mexican-American War.  Upon promotion to captain in 1847, he was transferred to the Quartermaster Corps and served in various Southern garrisons through 1860.  He resigned his Union commission on 22 May 1861 to receive a Confederate commission as a captain, but in June 1861, he was advanced to Lieutenant Colonel.  After the First Battle of Manassas, Jordan was promoted to Colonel, serving as General Beauregard’s chief of staff.  He was advanced to Brigadier General on 14 April 1862.  After the war, he worked as an editor/publisher.  Between 1868-1870, Jordan served as General-in-Chief of the Cuban Liberation Army.  He returned to the United States, settled in New York City, and became a frequent writer of articles about the Civil War.  

[5] Confederate President Jefferson Davis credited Greenhow with helping to ensure a Southern victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

[6] Senator Wilson was never charged with treason or espionage.  Some historians contend that Wilson never passed damaging information to Greenhow, but rather his secretary might have been the culprit — but it is doubtful that his secretary wrote romantic letters to Greenhow.  In any case, Wilson later served as Vice President of the United States under President U. S. Grant.

Maria Rosetta O’Neale Greenhow

[7] Rose Greenhow never went to trial for her treason, proving a double legal standard in the United States at least since 1862.  Union authorities released her (with Little Rose) on the condition that she stay within the Confederacy.  She was escorted to Fort Monroe, turned over to Confederate authorities, and lived in Richmond, Virginia.  She was subsequently used by President Davis as a female courier to Britain and France.  She met with Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and Napoleon III of France.  In 1864, Greenhow became engaged to Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville.  Greenhow’s memoir was written in London, a best-seller throughout England.  While attempting to return to North Carolina aboard a British vessel, the ship ran around near the Cape Fear River.  Fearing capture and imprisonment, Greenhow transferred to a rowboat and headed for shore.  A wave capsized the rowboat, and Rose, carrying on her person $2,000.00 in gold coin, was drowned.  Her body was recovered, and she received military honors at her funeral in Wilmington, North Carolina.

[8] The Old Federal Prison briefly served as the nation’s capitol (1815-1817) and is now the U. S. Supreme Court building site.

Posted in Antebellum Period, Civil War, History, The Ladies | 5 Comments

Charles Edward Travis

I would be surprised if anyone in the United States hasn’t heard of William Barrett “Buck” Travis (1809-1836).  I find his story quite interesting, if short — and perhaps somewhat typical of Americans in the early to the late nineteenth century.  William’s grandfather migrated to the British-American colonies at the age of twelve years, indentured for ten years.  This was how it was done back then — white enslavement, not unlike the use of credit cards in modern times.

William B. Travis sketch believed made by Wyly Martin in Travis’ lifetime. The proposition is not universally supported by modern historians.

From what we know of Buck Travis, he had good parents and a decent upbringing.  When Buck was nine years old, his father, Mark Travis, moved the family to the emerging town of Sparta, Alabama.  Apparently, Buck’s Uncle Alexander had quite an influence in his formative years.  Alexander was a preacher of sorts who had a hand in organizing several community churches in Sparta and Evergreen.  Alexander also helped to found the Sparta Academy, where Buck was first educated in Greek, Latin, history, and mathematics.  In later years, Buck attended the McCurdy Academy in Claiborne, Alabama.  

Travis completed his education at the age of eighteen years and became an assistant teacher.  The position didn’t pay very well, and he only taught for about a year.  While teaching, he met Rosanna Cato, with whom he had a romantic relationship.  But teaching and farming failed to interest Buck, so he moved to Claiborne and began studying the law under the (then) famed attorney James Dellet.  Claiborne was a major settlement in Alabama.  Its position along the Alabama River made the community profitable and interesting; it was where folks migrated to when they didn’t want to spend their lives “farming.”  Farming is hard work — a vocation where you’re constantly at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Miss Cato and Buck married on 26 October 1828.  Rosanna gave birth to a son a year later, named Charles Edward, but there were questions about that.  Tongues do wag in the rural south.  What Buck Travis wanted was to achieve prominent status as an attorney — the way Lawyer Dellet did.  Travis started a newspaper, one he named the Claiborne Herald.   It was a one-man show, and like all new enterprises, the income produced from the Herald was barely adequate to support a wife and child.  I suppose part of the problem was that Buck Travis wasn’t very good as a typesetter.  He wasn’t very well organized, either.

Travis passed his law examination in 1829 and received the necessary licensure to hand out his shingle.  He borrowed $55.00 to open a law office and an additional $90.00 to help keep the Herald going for a year.  This is how Buck Travis entered the world of debt.  Profits from his law practice were nil because there were no long queues of potential clients standing outside his law office.  To make ends meet, Buck and Rosanna took in borders.  To help his wife with her labors, he purchased two slaves.  Maintaining human slaves was expensive, though, particularly when there wasn’t any money.

Buck Travis was seriously indebted.  In those days, $200.00 of debt was a lot.  Buck represented six clients in 1829.  In total, he made $4.00 from his law practice.  By 1831, he owed $834.00.  His creditors, which included Mr. Dellet, filed suit against Travis.  The Claiborne Sheriff ordered his arrest (as a debtor) on 31 March 1831.

Then, Travis began to think about going to Texas.  According to the stories, Texas was a vast territory where people made serious money in land speculation.  The stories were true, of course.  And there was a huge demand for lawyers.  Rosanna was then pregnant with their second child, so Buck decided he’d go to Texas, make a ton of money, pay off his debts, and then Rosanna would join him there.  Only a third of this came to pass.  Buck Travis went to Texas and never returned to pay his debts or collect his wife.

William B. Travis went to Texas and joined thousands of others in his same predicament — people who abandoned their families and obligations back home to “get a new start.”  Travis did get a new start, just not with his wife and two children.  Four years later, Rosanna appeared in San Felipe, Texas, with five or six-year-old Charles in tow.

Rosanna had earlier decided that it was time to get on with her life.  Rosanna had appealed to the Alabama legislature to grant a divorce based on abandonment.  After the divorce was approved, a suitor appeared in the form of Dr. Samuel B. Cloud.  Dr. Cloud was apparently willing to take in Rosanna’s daughter, Isabella, but the boy would have to go and live with his father in Texas.

When Buck Travis served in the Texas Revolution, he left Charles in a neighbor’s care.  Whether William Barrett Travis ever deserved to become a hero of Texas, that’s what happened.  Buck Travis was one of the first men to die at the Alamo on 6 March 1836.  Were it not for the Alamo, Travis’s service in the Texas Army would have been underwhelming.

After Buck’s death, the “good folk” taking care of Charles Edward Travis packed him off to New Orleans, where his mother and Dr. Cloud then resided.  A cholera epidemic swept New Orleans in 1848, killing both Rosanna and Samuel.  Charles went to live with Isabella, who was married to John Grissett, in Brenham, Texas.

Charles Edward Travis

Charles followed in his father’s footsteps and studied the law to become a lawyer.  In 1853, Caldwell and Hays counties elected Charles to represent them in the Texas legislature.  He also served briefly with the Texas Rangers.  Texas Rangers were a funny lot, though.  They strenuously objected to serving alongside someone like Charles, who slandered others, cheated at cards, and absented himself from duty without permission.  Besides, they argued, Charles Travis was a mean fellow with no one respecting or believing anything he said.

Charles’ “court-martial” was a very public affair and one that lasted far too long given the charges against him.  When he was finally adjudged guilty, Charles took his undesirable discharge and returned to his sister’s home in Washington County.

A few years later, in 1860, Buck Travis’ little boy Charles died of consumption and was buried at the Chappell Hill cemetery.  Isabella died in 1868 at the ripe old age of 37 years.  She left behind a son and a daughter.

We don’t know much more than this about Charles Travis.  He did have a daughter, whose name was Ella Travis Hedrick, wife of Cyrus A. Hedrick.  We do not know who Ella’s mother was; we do not know if Charles and Ella’s mother were married.  We think that Ella was born in 1849; she died in 1925.  She had four children: Nannie, Lila, Lizzie, and Tubman.


  1. The Handbook of Texas, online.
  2. Davis, W. C.  Three Roads to the Alamo.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1998.
  3. McDonald, A. P.  William Barrett Travis.  New York: Eakins Press, 1995.
Posted in History, Texas, Texas Rangers | 2 Comments

Old West Vice

The River

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in North America, extending 2,320 miles in length.  Its watershed drains all or part of 32 states (and two Canadian provinces), its drainage basin encompassing 1.1 million square miles.  It runs from Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota to New Orleans.

River systems have always been highways of travel and trade.  What changed over time was the frequency of river travel, the number of people engaging in it, the kind and quantity of goods, the method of propulsion, and the size of river craft.  River transportation increased with increases in European explorers, trappers, traders, and settlers.

Wisconsin History Association

The Boats

At first, settlers tried to imitate the Indian canoe, but while it did accommodate the moving of people, the canoe was unsuitable for cargo or more than a few passengers.  Additionally, the canoes had a short lifespan because of manufacture, mostly fastened logs, deerskin, and birch bark.  Rafts were similarly fashioned.  River travel by canoe or raft was something to avoid during flood seasons or in rapids, and passengers may have found exciting the collision with sub-surface impediments.

Later, as the number of river settlements increased, more sophisticated boats began to appear —many of which mimicked lake or ocean-going craft, albeit with much shallower drafts.  The first craft to depart from the Indian style canoe was the pirogue, introduced by French traders/trappers.  This boat was heavy, hard to control, unreliable, and short-lived, but this basic design led to the batteau.  The batteau was much like the pirogue, only with tapered bow and stern, a wider middle, and made from lighter wood.  The batteau was much easier to handle in rough water.

Some of these boats required a crew of 18 men, most about half that, but smaller versions were suitable for two men.  With an increase in settlements and river travel came the river pirates who operated in gangs and often employed several boats to overtake batteau’s and overwhelm the crew.  River pirates not only hijacked the cargo, they more often than not murdered the entire crew.  Hostile Indians were also a problem; they had an interest in the shipments, of course, but they killed mainly for the fun of it and made no distinction between passengers or crew.

The addition of sails on batteau came in handy when traveling upstream, depending on wind direction, of course. Still, they were particularly useful in the lower Mississippi when winds were prevalent for most of the day.  The next innovation was developing river barges, which were essentially rafts constructed over two pirogues’ hulls, the over deck forming a wide platform for cargo.  River barges going downstream with the current were more challenging to control, particularly given their length (up to 60 feet) and a width of about 20’.  But high demand for riverboats created an industry within river settlements among those skilled in the craft of boat-building, particularly near sawmills.  The lumber trade was particularly profitable for this reason.  In the upper Mississippi, flatboat operations faced seasonal restrictions.  They could float down the river only during high water periods, and upon arrival, they were broken up and sold as lumber scrap.

The years following the Revolutionary War was a period of exceptional growth in the southeastern United States.  Several factors prompted such developments: the Louisiana Purchas (1803), its subsequent exploration by Merriweather Lewis and John Rogers Clark (1803-1806), the invention of the steam engine and its application to river travel, and by the network of southern rivers, which included the Mississippi, Alabama, Apalachicola, and Chattahoochee.  Rivers, river settlements, and riverboats boosted trade and western migration.  John Fitch’s experiment with steam-powered boats was unsuccessful in the late 1780s, but Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston’s steamboat in 1807 proved that such vessels were useful in moving cargo and profitable in moving people.

Most steamboats were paddlewheel boats.  They all shared a standard design: wooden hulls, paddlewheels placed to port and starboard or abaft the stern, coal or woodburning furnaces and boilers, and copper tubes to channel the steam.  While these steamboats shared a typical design, they had different purposes.  For example, tow-boats moved barges, ferries carried people, wagons, livestock, snag-boats cleared the rivers of navigational hazards, packets took goods, mail, passengers, and fuelers resupplied steamboats with wood, coal, or coal oil.  There was also the so-called showboat.

Showboats were floating palaces, with theaters, galleries, ballrooms, and saloons.  They provided isolated river settlements with excitement and entertainment, but showboats were rare compared to other steamboats.  Of all steamboats, packets were the most numerous because they were cargo boats and passenger’s vessels.  Most packets had an upper deck reserved for first-class passengers, although traveling by packet was far from luxurious because of their crowded and somewhat cramped conditions.  The lower deck of packets was reserved for transporting livestock and people who could not afford a first-class ticket.

Steamboats reduced the travel time on America’s rivers, but river travel was still dangerous.  Indian attacks, although infrequent, resulted in the loss of cargo and human life, but an even greater danger was boiler explosions —which were often spectacular[1].  Steamboats thrived until the arrival of railroads.  In 1823, the United States had 23 miles of track; by 1880, there were over 93,000 miles of track. 

The Gamblers

Human beings are risk-takers (i.e., gamblers)[2].  According to archaeologists, gambling in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, Japan, China, and North and South America dates back to around 2,000 years before the common era.  They also claim that weighted dice provides evidence of cheating.  Scientists also say that dice is the oldest gambling implement, often carved from sheep bones and human knucklebones.  More recently (between 500-1500 A.D.), gambling was an accepted pastime in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.  In the 1200s, France outlawed gambling, but it continued to exist unlawfully between 1215-1270.

During the crusades, Christian knights were permitted to gamble, but men of the lower classes received punishments, often whippings, for engaging in similar activities.  One consequence of the crusades was that British knights returned to England with long-legged Arabian horses, bred with sturdy mares to produce racehorses.  From this, betting on horse races became a popular pastime in the British Isles.

Scientists also note that long before the arrival of Europeans in America, native populations were heavy gamblers —which in many cases included betting on the outcome of sports contests.  A modern-day analyst might point to similarities between Indian ishtaboli and football, hockey, soccer, and lacrosse.  Indians would often bet everything they owned on a particular outcome.

Gambling in America took on new forms after the arrival of Europeans.  When people migrate to new lands, they take all they know —including their cultural traditions and social norms.  French settlers were famous for betting on checkers, playing cards and billiards.  British settlements tended to gamble on horse racing, cockfighting, and bull baiting[3].  In 1612, King James I created a lottery to help fund the settlement in Jamestown.  In America, British colonies used lotteries to raise funds to finance the building of towns and roadways.  None of this suggests that all colonists favored or approved of gambling.  Pilgrims and Puritans fled to North America in the 1620s to escape religious prosecution; they generally disapproved of gambling as sinful.

Is gambling sinful, or is it merely a pastime for fools?  British-American aristocrats gambled away all their belongings (estates, banks, and titles) so often that it became a significant problem.  According to C. W. Johnson in The Law of Bills of Exchange, Promissory Notes, Checks, etc. (1839), massive transfers of lands and titles so disrupted the British and Colonial economies that Queen Anne issued a proclamation in 1710 that made large gambling debts “void and of no effect.” In other words, gambling debts could not be collected or legally enforced[4].

Gambling, whether sinful, has psychological implications.  People who gamble compulsively, who risk their fortunes and that of their heirs, are believed to harbor severe character defects.  Famed American golfer Bobby Jones never turned professional because his mother emphasized to him her belief that “true gentlemen” do not golf for money —so he never did.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, a surge of evangelical Christianity swept through England, Scotland, and the North American colonies —a period often referred to as the “Great Awakening.” Gambling was pronounced “sinful” and dangerous to society; it was up to religious leaders to help stamp it out.  In 1774, the Continental Congress sought to encourage frugality, economy, and industry by issuing the “Articles of Association,” which urged colonists “[to] discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of games, cockfighting, exhibitions of shows, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”

Of course, the foregoing was “official policy.”  In reality, colonial officials tolerated gambling as long as it did not upset the social order, even though Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia incorporated Queen Anne’s Statute to prevent gambling from getting out of hand.  In the mid-1800s, after the Third Great Awakening[5], moralists pressured state legislatures to restrict sinful behavior.  State legislatures passed laws that restricted gambling, drinking, and strumpets.  State lawmakers made some exceptions for “respectable gentlemen,” which, given how we define “gentleman,” seems incongruent.  So-called Blue Laws[6] even restricted certain secular activities on the Sabbath.  Such laws never inhibited anyone’s appetite for sinful pleasure; they only drove immoral behavior underground.  Conversely, everyone knew that the city of New Orleans was hell’s gateway and the people living there were proud of it.  In 1823, Louisiana attempted to harness Satan by legalizing several forms of gambling, which was very profitable for gamblers and the state.

On the surface, mainstream society shunned these sinners, but if polite society couldn’t see it, there was no reason to complain.  Many gambling establishments (and their wicked companions) disappeared into side streets, alley-ways, in mostly ethnic minority sections of town, or shantytowns, where polite society never went anyway.  Since there was never any polite society in New Orleans, city residents embraced their wickedness (and still do) and made it part of its tourist industry.

There is a natural association of sinful pursuits.  People tend to gamble more freely (recklessly) while consuming alcohol, so it was (and still is) a practice to offer cheap liquor to gamblers.  And, along with the gambling and the booze came harlots seeking their share of the market.  Gambling houses/saloons and the dancehall girls produced tawdry establishments in the riverbank towns.  In turn, they created unacceptable conditions with men shooting and stabbing one another over card games and strumpets.  Waterfront conditions were intolerable and objectionable to the townspeople.

Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837) focused on social issues and social morality.  It was a time when gambling scandals were so prevalent that Jackson championed an end to most legal gambling in the United States.  Private and public lotteries were prone to fraud and scandal.  Many southern legislators objected to lotteries on moral grounds, and by 1840, banned in the southern states.  By 1862, only two states had legal lotteries: Missouri and Kentucky.  Many, however, were reinstated after the Civil War to raise revenues.

When towns along the Mississippi River began passing ordinances that outlawed gambling and prostitution in the mid-1830s, creative sin merchants decided to move their operations to riverboats, which was incredibly resourceful considering the tens of thousands of miles of water highways upon which no one had jurisdiction.  Despite the public’s clamor for a more righteous society, however, there seemed to be no lack of interest in reading the menu.

The sin peddlers reasoned that given the fact that riverboats were efficient methods for transporting goods and centers for trade, because trade centers attract people with money, and because water travel was often tedious, why not entertain passengers with the wickedness of their own choosing?  Gamblers flocked to the riverboats, some of whom were excellent gamblers, many more who were card sharps and cheats.  The existence of scam artists was well known to everyone, but it never prevented the separation of money from foolish men.  Another motivating factor for moving gambling establishments offshore was that in 1835, the good folks of Mississippi lynched five-card sharks caught in the act of cheating.

Not every river town denounced the sin industries.  Some river towns embraced them.  New Orleans was probably the pièce de résistance from open cities, but there were others: Biloxi, Natchez, and Vicksburg stand out as for their depravities.  Initially, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls were little more than lantern-lit tentage, dirt floors, and a bar consisting of a complete board resting on two or three whiskey barrels.  Brothels were small cots in a wagon bed, and gambling tables were rickety tables, a few chairs, and dirty, dog-eared playing cards.  Eventually, these were replaced by wooden buildings with false fronts to make them seem grander than they were, and brick buildings replaced these with ornate bars, wall mirrors, and chandeliers.  Brothels became elegantly appointed parlor houses professionally managed by experienced tarts, some of whom augmented their “cut of the take” by gambling with their clients.

Over time, with fewer riverboats operating on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Columbia, and Sacramento rivers, enterprising investors began creating “resorts” along the coastal Gulf of Mexico.  These were rather up-scale establishments where wealthy clients (and their ladies) could find entertainment, where they could enjoy mild weather, luxuriate in posh hotels, and enjoy gorgeous gardens.  In such places as these, managers kept the cardsharps away, and the stakes were much higher.  During the day, “gentlemen” and their ladies could participate in lawn bowling, billiards, sailing, and hunting.  After dusk, there was fine dining and dancing.  After escorting his lady back to their room, a gentleman could return to gamble and, perhaps, engage a pricey call girl for some post-gambling relaxation.  In Biloxi, Natchez, and Vicksburg, professional gamblers made a ton of money from vacationing bankers and captains of industry.  There was no limit to the decadence a respectable banker from New York Topeka could pursue —as long as the cost was never an issue.

After civil war reconstruction —when southern society reemerged from the shadows when railroad service made overland travel less dangerous, people abandoned the riverboats. They flocked in droves to Mobile and New Orleans.  Respectable New Orleans businessmen began investing in communities such as Covington, Slidell, and Mandeville.

American gambling surged in the post-Civil War period.  People gambled on everything imaginable, from things that moved —including how fast it could go and how high it could jump— to boxing, flea and frog jumping, bull and bear fighting, dog fights, and rodeo[7] contests.  Leading gamblers included such notable personalities as Bat Masterson, Luke Short, who promoted horse racing and boxing, perhaps the greatest gambler/swindler of them all, George Devol.

George Hildreth Devol (1829-1903) was born in Marietta, Ohio.  At age ten, he ran away from home and became a riverboat cabin boy.  We remember him as a gambling cheat, con artist, and a street fighter who plied his trade on riverboats and railroad lines that traveled between Kansas City and Cheyenne.  He was an associate of Canada Bill Jones, an Englishman who arrived in the United States already an accomplished scam artist.  Jones perfected “Three Card Monte,[8]” from which he made as much as $200,000 in one Kansas City sitting (about a week).  Some claim that Devol made over two million dollars in forty years of gambling along the Mississippi River, a tidy sum for the mid-to-late 1800s.

Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith (1860-1898) was a gambler, con artist, and racketeer who made his money by fleecing the gullible out of their cash from Texas to Alaska —born in Georgia to a wealthy family that met with financial ruin after the American Civil War.  In 1876, the family moved to Round Rock, Texas, for a fresh start and where Jeff began his career as a confidence man.  After Smith’s mother died in 1877, the 17-year-old left home—but not before witnessing the death of Texas outlaw Sam Bass in 1878.  Smith found his way to Fort Worth, where he formed a close-knit gang of shills and thieves to do his bidding.  He quickly gained a reputation as a crime boss.  Smith became known as “Soapy” from his method of swindling people out of their money.  Gang members included such men as Texas Jack Vermillion and “Big Ed” Burns.

Soapy’s forté was the so-called “short game,” where swindles were quick or needed little setup or assistance.  The short game included the shell game, three-card monte, and the “big mitt,” which was their term for a rigged poker game. Smith’s nickname came from the short con where he sold bars of soap.  He wrapped some of these in money (ranging from a single dollar to a crisp $100 bill).  People would buy the soap for a dollar, thinking that they had a realistic opportunity to win the big prize.  Someone always won the $100 purse, but that someone was still one of Smith’s shills.

Part of Smith’s success in running con games and criminal gangs was his ability to make friends with politicians and key officials in the city hall.  In 1887, Smith had his fingers in most illegal activity in Denver, Colorado—including gambling and prostitution.  He made a lot more money than the bribes he paid to city hall officials and corrupt police officers.  Smith met his end in Skagway, Alaska, shot to death by vigilantes.

Gambling wasn’t confined solely to gunslingers and con artists, either.  Several women were prominent gamblers, including Lottie Deno[9], Poker Alice, and Dona Maria Gertrudis Barcelo.

Lottie Deno (Carlotta J. Thompkins) (1844-1934) was famous for her gambling skills and pluck in Texas and New Mexico.  She was born in Kentucky and traveled extensively before migrating to Texas.  Notably, when her well-off family lost their wealth during the Civil War, Lottie learned to gamble out of necessity.  Historians argue about her early life, but there is no question about her gambling skill.  Lottie arrived in San Antonio, Texas, in 1865, initially a house employee at the University Club.

When her lover, Frank Thurmond, fled the city accused of murder, Lottie soon followed, and the pair traveled throughout the western frontier, moving from one gambling house to another in such places as Fort Concho, Jacksboro, San Angelo, Fort Worth, and Fort Griffin.  It was at Fort Griffin that Lottie’s reputation took off, where Lottie helped grizzled buffalo hunter’s part with their hard-earned gold.  It was also where Lottie became associated with John “Doc” Holliday.  In addition to her gambling, she operated saloons and brothels.  After marrying Frank Thurmond, the couple settled in Deming, New Mexico, where they invested in real estate, mine ventures, ranching, streetcar business, and banking.  By the time of her death in 1934, she was a very wealthy woman.

New Mexico Historical Women Organization

Dona Maria Gertrudis Barcelo (1800-1852) was born in Sonora, Mexico—some say from French stock—who moved with her parents from central to northern Mexico, known as the Province of New Mexico.  In 1823, “Tules” married Manuel Sisneros, with whom she had two sons.  Despite her marital status, Tules retained her own name.  In 1825, Tules was fined by Mexican authorities for operating a gambling salon for miners in the Ortiz Mountains.  Eventually relocating to Santa Fe, she opened another gambling saloon.  From this central New Mexico location, her saloon entertained many Americans traveling along the Santa Fe Trail.  Some lauded Tules for being someone who ran a house where open gambling, drinking, and smoking were available to anyone.  Others criticized her and a drunk with loose morals—she was alleged to have had a long-term affair with New Mexico’s governor, Manuel Armijo.  Some claimed that she was physically gorgeous; others said that she was haggish.  One thing everyone agreed on is that she excelled at three-card monte.

Despite tales told about her by others, Tules jealously guarded her name in Santa Fe.  On two occasions, she sued people for slander.  She may not have been too bad, though.  The U.S. Army borrowed money from Tules in 1846 to help pay the salaries of invading troops.  She also exposed a conspiracy aimed at the U.S. Army that, in all likelihood, prevented a massacre of American soldiers.  When Tules passed away on 17 January 1852, she had a massive fortune of $10,000.  Her funeral was elaborate and criticized for being too much fanfare for a whore.  Thinking about Tules and her critics, it makes one wonder who is the worst sort of person.

Riverboat gambling ended when trains replaced the often dangerous steam-powered boats navigating America’s largest rivers.  Old west gambling ended with closing the frontier and the rise of anti-saloon temperance movements in the early 1900s.  Following prohibition, state after state passed legislation outlawing casino gambling; Nevada stood alone bucking federal pressure.  Today, gambling remains with us on cable television, in Nevada, Mississippi, aboard ocean-going passenger liners, in New Jersey, and off the coast of Texas.  Lotteries are back, as well —many tied to raising money to support our failed education system.  We haven’t outgrown prostitution, either (which remains unlawful in most locations), and drinking alcoholic beverages (although regulated in some states) is as popular today as it ever was in the mid-1800s.  Psychologists tell us that gambling and drinking isn’t a problem until humans begin doing these things excessively.  In any case, we know that human beings have yet to outgrow their preferred vices.


  1. Blevins, D. From Angels to Hellcats: Legendary Texas Women, 1836-1880.  Mountain Press, 2007.
  2. Chavez, F. A. Dona Tules: Her Fame and Her Funeral.  El Palacio Press, Vol.
  3. Crump, T. Abraham Lincoln’s World: How Riverboats, Railroads, and Republicans Transformed America.  New York, Continuum Press, 2009.
  4. Devereaux, J. Pistols, Petticoats, and Poker: The Real Lottie Deno, No Lies or Alibis.  High Lonesome Books, 2009.
  5. Twain, M. Life on the Mississippi.  Bantam Books, 1883.


[1] The steamboat General Slocum explosion killed 958 people and injured 175 more.  Between 1811-1851, 21% of river accidents were caused by exploding boilers.  The lifespan of the average steamboat was five years.  Between 1830-1839, 272 steamboats were destroyed after less than three years of service.  Added to this danger was irresponsible captains, who risked their boats and their passengers’ lives by racing one another down the waterways.

[2] According to some psychological studies, risk-taking is a consistent personality trait suggesting that certain individuals will take similar risks across a wide range of situations.  Risk-taking, however, is not confined to gamblers alone.  Farmers take risks every year when they plant their fields in the spring with the expectation of a marketable crop at the end of the growing season.  Modern people take risks every time they get into an automobile or board a plane.  The issue is “acceptable risk,” taken in most cases without much thought of possible consequences.  In seeking to decrease their risk of loss, professional gamblers developed methods of cheating, generally referred to in this post as scams, cons, or swindles.  See also: Personality and Risk-Taking, Bernd Figner, Columbia University, and Elke Weber, Columbia University, 2015.

[3] Bull baiting was a blood sport in which a bull was tethered in a ring or pit into which dogs were thrown.  The dogs were trained to torment the bull, which responded in its defense by goring the dogs.  Spectators would bet on how many dogs the bull would kill.  Great fun, apparently.

[4] Incorporated in English Common Law, this prohibition prevails even today in American law.  Queen Anne, however, was also known for her enjoyment of horse racing (and boxing).

[5] There were “three” great awakenings in US history.  The first between 1720-1770; the second between 1790-1820; the third between 1850-1900.  In the first, a renewal of religious devotion mirrored the broader movements taking place in Germany, England, and Scotland.  In the second, primarily movements initiated by Baptist and Methodist leaders. The third was marked by religious and social activism.

[6] In 1781, Samuel A. Peters’s Connecticut history listed restrictive Sabbath rules in New Haven, printed on blue paper.  The blue color represented “rigidly moral” pronouncements.

[7] American rodeo evolved from a Spanish tradition that dates to the 1500s when vaqueros competed in wrangling events and bullfighting.

[8] Known by several names (3-Card Marney, 3-Card shuffle, Follow the lady, Find the Bee), three-card monte is a con game in which the victim (mark) is tricked into betting a sum of money that they can find the “money card.”  It is a short con in which the outside man pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the inside man while conspiring with the inside man to cheat the mark.  John N. Maskelyne explained the game in his book, Sharps and Flats —the sharps being the cheaters and the flats being cheated.

[9] The character Miss Kitty Russell in the long-running radio and television program Gunsmoke was based on Lottie Deno.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, History, Society, Vice and other entertainments | 6 Comments

The Good, The Bad, and the Incredibly Stupid

The Good

William Halsell migrated to Texas from Alabama somewhere around 1870.  His wife Mary was of Cherokee ancestry.  In Texas, William ended up working for his brother-in-law, Dan Waggoner, on the Triple D Ranch.  With his brother Glenn, William drove a herd from the Triple D up the Chisolm Trail into the Indian Territory.  William turned the herd at the Cimarron River, followed it to the Arkansas River, and then moved up the Verdigris River to Vinita.  This “less traveled” route was later called the Halsell Branch of the Chisolm Trail.

While awaiting the Cherokee’s permission to drive cattle through their land, William made friends with Dennis Bushyhead, who later became a principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.  In 1877, William and his brother Glenn leased land along the Cimarron River and built a ranch five miles northeast of present-day Guthrie.  In 1881, William and Glenn dissolved their partnership and sold their spread for around $340,000.  William capitalized on his wife’s Cherokee lineage and moved his ranching operation into the Cherokee Nation.  William was adopted into the tribe, made Vinita his home, and started up a new ranch along Bird Creek, 8 miles north of Tulsa.  He adopted the “Mash O” brand and increased his herd (and fortune) by purchasing South Texas cattle, driving them to Oklahoma, fattening them in the summer and fall, and then selling them before winter.  In this way, he avoided losing livestock in Oklahoma’s harsh winters and winter droughts.

Eventually, William turned Mash O operations over to his son Ewing while he invested in real estate and started banking partnerships, all of which increased his wealth.

The Bad

One of the young cowmen working on the Halsell ranch was Richard West.  We don’t know much about Dick West.  He may have been born in 1865, and according to legend, when Dick was about 3 or 4 years old, Texas settlers discovered him wandering in the south Texas scrub, adopted him, and raised him as their own.

Richard probably had a typical life in South Texas.  He learned how to sit a horse, drive cattle, and roping.  These were skills that led to his work as a cowhand and trail driver.  He eventually found his way to Oklahoma, where he worked on the Mash O, and from every account, West was a competent, reliable cowman.  Oklahoma was where Dick West met the gunman named Bill Doolin.  In 1892, West joined the Dalton-Doolin Gang, also known as the “Wild Bunch.”

Dick West was riding with Doolin when the gang robbed the bank in Southwest City, Missouri.  The robbery started okay, but as the outlaws mounted their horses, armed citizens converged on the band, blocking their way out of town.  Outlaws were shooting at everyone, in every direction.  Two curious citizens went into the street to find out what was going on, and Dick West shot them.  West was also wounded in the fight.

After assisting Doolin in a train hold-up, West followed the outlaw into New Mexico and resumed a cowman’s life.  Doolin returned to Oklahoma, where lawmen killed him in 1896.  In 1897, West returned to Oklahoma and helped form the Jennings Gang, which might have been the biggest collection of morons in old west history.

Meanwhile, the Four Guardsmen[1], having killed Bill Doolin, began looking for other Doolin gang members.  In Guthrie, an informer told Tilghman and Thomas about a suspicious person living in a dugout nearby.  Tilghman recognized the description of the person’s horse as one belonging to Dick West.  Forming a posse of six, Tilghman began looking for West the next morning, Wednesday, 13 April.  Thomas spotted a man walking through the woods at about the same time as West saw Thomas; West turned around and ran to his horse.  For Dick West, it may as well have been Friday; he didn’t make it to his horse.

Richard West, who stood only 5’1” tall, was generally referred to as “Little Dick” West.  His wild-eyed appearance gave some people the impression that Dick was a few bubbles off plumb: he was unpredictable, dangerous, and very cunning.  Town folks buried West’s smaller-than-normal casket near the remains of Bill Doolin.

The Incredibly Stupid

Alphonso J. Jennings (1863-1961) was an attorney, an outlaw, a movie actor, and a politician.  He and his brothers relocated to Oklahoma from Virginia around 1890.  He initially served as the Canadian County prosecuting attorney from 1892-94 and then joined his brothers, Ed, and John, in a law practice in Woodward.  At the time, Ed and John were engaged in a court case that involved rival attorney Temple Houston[2]. Here’s what happened:

According to a news article in the Woodward News, Ed Jennings questioned the admissibility of a witness’s testimony, which prompted Houston to suggest that Jennings was “grossly ignorant of the law.” Jennings then attempted to slap Houston for his remark, and the two men drew their firearms inside the courtroom.  Court officials stepped in to prevent gunplay, and the judge adjourned the court until the following day.

At around 10 that night, Ed, and John confronted Houston and his friend Jack Love at Garvey’s Saloon.  Gunsmoke followed the exchange of angry words, and Ed Jennings lay dead on the floor, blood flowing from a head wound.  According to the testimony of Walter Younger, an employee of the Woodward News, with Ed lying dead on the floor of the saloon, John Jennings left the saloon and went looking for a gun.  John Jennings subsequently re-entered the saloon and was shot, sustaining a severe wound to his arm that left him crippled for the rest of his life.  Lawmen arrested Houston and Love, charging them with manslaughter, but the court released both men on bail.  Today, there is no record of the trial.  All we know is that a jury acquitted Houston and Love of the charges against them.

After the acquittal of Houston and Love, Al Jennings left Woodward.  For a while, Al Jennings became a drifter, finding occasional work as a ranch hand in the Creek Nation.  Counted among his cowboy friends was a fellow everyone called “Little Dick” West.  West helped Jennings form an outlaw gang.  In the annals of the old west, the Jennings Gang was remarkable for only one thing: they bungled nearly every outlawry attempt.  Gang members included Al Jennings, his crippled-for-life brother, John, Dick West, and Morris and Pat O’Malley; they became the scourge of defenseless general stores.  They tried to rob a post office once, but the fellows inside were armed.  Gang-members then turned their attention to trains.

On 16 August 1897, the Jennings Gang robbed the passenger train a few miles south of Edmond, Oklahoma.  The Edmond robbery would have been a great haul were it not for the fact that in laying dynamite to blow open the Wells-Fargo safe, Little Dick instead managed to blow up the entire train car.  When the debris and dust cleared, the safe was still sitting where it previously stood, locked and unscathed.

Their second attempt was more productive.  Little Dick managed to break into the safe, but they only netted a few hundred dollars.  They robbed one passenger of his bottle of whiskey, and they found a bunch of bananas, too—so the effort wasn’t entirely wasted.  It was after this incident when Dick West left the gang.  He may have reasoned that he could do better on a street corner with a monkey and an accordion.

The gang’s third train robbery was much more profitable —$ 30,000 in cash and the full attention of federal Judge Isaac Parker and his United States Marshals.

Whenever Al Jennings, Esq., wasn’t robbing trains, he was hiding out in the Snake Creek vicinity in the Indian Territory.  On 30 November 1897, deputy U.S. Marshals shot and wounded Al Jennings.  Al managed to escape while recovering from his wounds, but he was recaptured a week later and escorted to Judge Parker’s courtroom.

Judge Isaac Parker probably had a sense of humor, but it was lost on Al Jennings if he did.  Parker sentenced Jennings to life in prison.  With the assistance of John, Al Jennings promptly appealed his conviction to a higher court.  In 1902, an appellate court overturned Jennings’ conviction, and two years after that, President Theodore Roosevelt granted Jennings a pardon[3].

In 1905, Al Jennings was looking for a third (less exciting) career when he sent O. Henry[4] a story he wrote about his life’s adventures.  He titled it, Holding up a Train.  From every account, the story was popular and widely distributed.  His celebrity led Al Jennings to three movie producers named Bill Tilghman, Chris Madsen, and E. D. Nix.  In films and in Jennings’s mind, he was a Robin Hood type character fighting for justice.  He did this, apparently, by robbing Mom & Pop general stores and train passengers.  By 1912, Jennings had convinced himself that he had what it takes to enter the political arena, and if we judge him by our present-day standard, indeed, he did.  Running for governor of Oklahoma, Jennings finished in third place in a six-man race.  Jennings subsequently moved to California, where he continued his movie acting career.  Jennings died in 1961; he was 98 years old.

Al Jennings —the dumbest outlaw in Oklahoma history “made it” in Hollywood.


  1. “Al Jennings, the People’s Choice,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Duan Gauge, Autumn 1968.
  2. Patterson, R. M. Train Robbery: The Birth, Flowering, and Decline of a Notorious Western Enterprise.  Boulder: Johnson Press, 1981.
  3. Scales, J. R., and Denny Goble. Oklahoma Politics: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
  4. Shirley, G.  West of Hell’s Fringe: Crime, Criminals, and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.


[1] Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, Chris Madsen, and Bud Ledbetter.

[2] Temple Houston was a dangerous man to provoke.  From around the age of 13, he worked as a cowhand.  He later worked on a riverboat, but we do not know how he earned a living on the river.  Temple also served as a page in the U. S. Senate, attended Texas A&M University, and studied the law at Baylor College, finishing first in his class.  He was (at the time), the youngest attorney to open a law practice in Texas.  He also served as a district attorney in Texas.  Temple Houston never went anywhere without his hog leg, which he called “Old Betsey.”  Temple Houston stood more than six feet tall, could quote the Bible, and was known as being among the best pistol shots in the entire west.  The Jennings brothers could scarcely have picked a worse man to pick a fight with.  Temple was the son of Sam Houston.

[3] President Theodore Roosevelt granted three (3) pardons while in office.  The first to Sevillano Aquino, a Philippine general sentenced to death in 1902 for anti-American activities, Stephen A. Douglas Puter, convicted of land fraud in 1906, pardoned in exchange for turning state’s evidence, and Al Jennings, whose conviction was overturned on a technicality.

[4] O. Henry was the nom de plume of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), a short story writer known for his surprise endings and witty narration.

Posted in History, Oklahoma, Society | 4 Comments

Ethnic Lawmen in Texas

Most Americans have a misperception about the old west lawmen.  I did too for many years.  It wasn’t our fault, though.  With scant exceptions[1], all liberal Hollywood ever presented to us in the cinema was white lawmen, wearing white hats, carrying white-handled pistols, often riding on a white horse.  The bad guys always wore black, whether they were white guys, brown guys, or an occasional black guy.  Whether Hollywood planned this whole thing, or if it was part of the most fantastic coincidence you’ve ever seen, most of us grew up thinking that the American west belonged to Anglo-Americans.  Well, I suppose it did in some ways, but the reality is that Americans of all skin tones and ethnicities helped to tame the west.  There were never all good races or all bad ethnicities; there were only people, most were good, some were bad, some were strong, some were weak, most were somewhere in the middle, and none of them deserved Hollywood’s racism.

Given the above, whenever people think of the Texas Rangers, they tend to think of white fellows protecting the Texas frontier from hostile Indians, Mexican bandits, and scroungy former rebel sociopaths.  There were white Texas Rangers—and there were also Hispanics and a few American Indians wearing the Cinco Peso.  The truth of this comes from enlistment records of the Texas Rangers on file with the Texas Ranger Historical Center.  Why we never seem to have heard about them, beyond intentionally keeping this information from us, is easily explained —and interesting, as well.

Early Texas was a land of many languages: Spanish, English, French, German, Czech (forgive me if I omitted one), and Indian languages, as well.  Despite the richness of languages, most Texans were illiterate or barely literate.  Caution: don’t confuse illiteracy with stupidness.  None of those old rangers were stupid; they just never learned to read or write.  Of course, the Rangers had some educated men, but most —no matter what their skin color, did not attend school.

Illiterate candidates for the Texas Rangers could not write their names, so when it came time to enlist, they often said their names to people who could write.  They, in turn, wrote down the name they heard or thought they heard.  No matter what they wrote down, the enlistee wouldn’t have known the difference.  Did they hear, for example, REED or REID?  It was even worse with Hispanic names, as most of the men writing the enlistment papers were Anglos.  Most could speak Spanish, but they weren’t literate in Spanish.  A recruiter may have recorded Pedro Gutiérrez-Villalobos as Pedro Villalobos.  Juárez may have become Harris; Luis became Lewis.  In this example, what we know today of the history of Texas Ranger Luis Antonio Martinez-Juárez could be contained within a file marked Lewis Harris.

But even worse than the discombobulation of Spanish names were the Indian names.  There was no written language for most Indian languages, so if an Indian spoke Spanish, the enlistment officer transliterated what he heard of the Spanish language.  Still, how does one record Shot the Dog, Over the Branches, or Many Tongues?  In most cases, the enlistment officer solved this problem by making up Christian sounding names.  If the Apache came from San Carlos, he might have ended up as Big John San Carlos; Many Moons became Buck Moon, or just as easily, a single named ranger, such as Antonio, or Alloverbigness.  One Indian Texas Ranger was named Cat Floating.  Another was twice named, first as Cooshatta and next as Cooshatta Killer.  I have no idea what a Cooshatta is.

However, we know that the Texas Rangers enlisted Hispanic and Indian men because a roster of Hispanic and Indian Texas Rangers dating back to 1835 is several pages long.  As Texas Rangers, these men were least interested in tracking down (insert whatever ethnic slur you wish) and much more focused on tracking down evildoers without getting killed themselves.

In Doug J. Swanson’s recent book Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, he argues that while the Texas Rangers often acted heroically and selflessly, some members of the force were repeatedly guilty of heinous crimes.  Swanson isn’t the only one to criticize.  Monica Martinez’ The Injustice Never Leaves You speaks to ranger violence against Tejanos in Texas.  That there have been injustices and hateful conduct is beyond question.  I only suggest that in the decades written about, two things were also correct.

First, there were some awful bad guys “back in the day,” truly bad-asses who could only have been beaten by men who were as tough, relentless, and dangerous.  Sedition in South Texas was not a myth; innocent people (Anglo and Tejano) died at the hands of murdering Mexicans.  How should the Texas Rangers have reacted?  A heartfelt discussion over afternoon tea, perhaps?  I think not.

Second, between 1865-1965, most Americans harbored racial prejudices; none of it was in any way justified, and none of it was necessarily confined to the American South.  Racism reflected how parents raised their children.  We do, and should, deplore this … but we must not pretend as if we can go back in time and change history.  We can’t.  We shouldn’t.  What we should do is “get better.”  We were making progress until 2007—a signal year in which a majority of white Americans voted for a Negro presidential candidate.  After that, with the elected-presidents reverse racism policies, America lost ground from “getting better.”

I applaud Swanson and Martinez for writing history honestly. Still, it is an illogical proposition to suggest that we rid ourselves of the Texas Rangers today because of events from 55 to 155 years ago.  We have to be better than that.  If we are no better than that, then our Republic is in grave jeopardy.  There are some among us today who wish to see the American Republic fail.  Whomever they are, whether journalists are looking to make a name for themselves, or only good people who are hurting from injustices they never actually experienced themselves, or Hollywood/television producers with a particular agenda, the rest of us should keep a wary eye on them.  No good can come from it.


  1. The Austin Statesmen, “Texas history: New book censures ‘bold and brutal’ Texas Rangers,” Michael Barnes, 31 July 2020.
  2. Texas Ranger Museum, “A Brief History of the Texas Rangers,” Mike Cox, 2018.


[1] In U.S. productions of Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks played a role in 1920, 1926; Robert Livingston played Zorro in 1936; Tyrone Power in 1940; Guy Williams play Zorro in the television series (1958-60) and a film in 1959.  Frank Langella played a role in 1974, George Hamilton, in 1981.  A Hispanic finally got the part (Antonio Banderas) in 1998 and 2005.  Between 1950-56, Duncan Renaldo played the Cisco Kid, a bandit, but a likable “Robin Hood” sort of desperado.  Burt Lancaster played the part of Bob Valdez in the 1971 film.  It was a good film, but I wondered, in 1971, weren’t there any Hispanic actors who could play the part?

Posted in Society, Texas, Texas Rangers | 8 Comments

Cowboys and Presidents

A Cowpoke Named Theodore focused on the impact the western frontier had on the development of Theodore Roosevelt’s personality and subsequent political career.  He became the cowboy he most admired, and the nation admired him because of it.  He left New York in 1884, a broken man, devastated by the death of his mother and wife on the same day.  He returned to New York confident, fearless, and as idealistic as ever.  But Mr. Roosevelt wasn’t the only man to serve as president affected by the American west nor the first to influence the west’s development.

Getty Images

There may not have been an American west had it not been for Thomas Jefferson, the man who doubled the United States’ size with one swipe of the presidential pen.  The official announcement came on 4 July 1803.  The bad news was that the Louisiana Purchase turned into an administrative nightmare for the next several decades.  His “Corps of Discovery” and the Red River Expedition extended both the physical and mythical “American West.”  Jefferson’s father was a surveyor/cartographer on the Virginia frontier, and Thomas grew up romanticizing the western frontier.

Even as a young man, Jefferson seemed committed to asserting (then) British claim to western lands —never mind that at the time they belonged to France and Spain.  To many, it was a bit odd that on the one hand, Jefferson held a life-long reverence for the Indians[1], and on the other hand, in later years, laid the foundation for the destructive reservation system.  When Jefferson claimed dominion in the name of the United States of America over all the land acquired from France, it was under the control of Indian nations, and Jefferson well knew this.  Anthropologist A. F. C. Wallace opined, “Jefferson appears both as the scholarly admirer of Indian character, archeology, and language and as the planter of cultural genocide, the architect of the removal policy and the surveyor of the Trail of Tears.”  Jefferson never saw the west himself; he never ventured further west than Virginia’s the Blue Ridge Mountains, but his contribution to the United States’ westward expansion was unsurpassed by any other.

We may have given credit to Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, but it was a future president, along with Robert Livingston, who negotiated the deal —and did so on the fly, so to speak.  James Monroe’s instruction from Jefferson was simple: negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and Western Florida for up to $10 million.

What Monroe discovered, however, upon his arrival in France, was a nervous French government on the cusp of war with Great Britain.  These circumstances led French ministers to offer their American land for sale—for $15 million.  Monroe had no way to confer with Jefferson, but neither was he one to dawdle when offered the most incredible land deal in the history of the world.  Monroe and Livingston wasted no time clinching the deal.

Some years later, President Monroe announced his 1823 doctrine—a warning to the European powers that the United States would brook no further attempts to colonize the Western Hemisphere.  Monroe may not have considered that the United States had no way to enforce such a warning, nor even that once a European power had nestled itself in a given settlement, the United States had the wherewithal to dislodge them.  Yet, as the United States grew (some say, in leaps and bounds), the Monroe Doctrine became the cornerstone of America’s westward expansion.

President James K. Polk didn’t coin the phrase “Manifest Destiny[2],” but no one is more appropriately associated with it.  One should ask, has any other one-term president achieved so much toward enlarging the United States’ future?  Polk annexed the Oregon territory, which extended America’s land to the Pacific Ocean for the first time.  Equally notable was the treaty between the United States and Mexico (The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), which concluded the Mexican—American War.  The United States picked up an additional 525,000 square miles of land, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  Mexico also gave up all of its claims to Texas and acknowledged the Rio Grande as the United States’ southern border.  Was James K. Polk, “the most aggressively expansionist of all American presidents?”  According to historian H. W. Brands, he was precisely that.

President Polk realized, perhaps more acutely than any other American official at the time, that California offered the United States an expanded economy and access to Asian markets.  On 5 December 1848, Polk announced the discovery of gold in his State of the Union address,[3] which sparked the California Gold Rush.  Afterward, westward expansion tripled.

James K. Polk, the man who won the presidency by a mere 5,000 New York votes, transformed the American presidency —and America.  Had Henry Clay been elected, Texas would have remained an independent Republic, and Oregon would today be part of the British Commonwealth.

The last president to preside over a “North/South” United States was Honest Abe Lincoln.  He was also the first president responsible for creating the so-called cowboy mystique.  While true that the Civil War dominated Lincoln’s life as president and led to his general unwellness, Lincoln never failed to promote the American west.  During the war, he pushed through the Homestead Act (offering160 acres of land to frontier settlers).  Lincoln also established the Department of Agriculture to oversee national land, farming, livestock, and forestry interests.  He protected the Yosemite Valley by signing the Yosemite Land Grant Act.

Beyond the foregoing, perhaps Lincoln’s most significant contribution to the American West was his enthusiastic support of railroads.  His grant to the Union Pacific-Central Pacific Railroad was the largest federal subsidy in history to that time.  He didn’t live to see Alaska’s 1867 purchase, either, but those negotiations ran throughout his presidency.

Noted historians suggest that of all our presidents, Abraham Lincoln did more than any other to shape the American West.  Railroads expanded the economy, encouraged the production of goods and services (especially cattle), and thus, he gave us post-mortem, the American Cowboy.

26th US President

Theodore Roosevelt was changed, in a very significant way, by the American West.  But Theodore changed the west in equal proportion.  Roosevelt not only fell in love with the American West, but he also fell in love with the idea of the American frontier and the men and women who settled it.  Through his writing, he transformed the old west settler into the western cowboy, a soldier hero who epitomized what it was to be strong, courageous, individualistic, and tough.  Some today claim that Roosevelt’s policies and those of presidents who later succeeded him transformed individualistic westerners into socialists.  These were men who happily accepted one free federal benefit after another, from reservoirs and dams to free land upon which to graze their cattle— and all at the taxpayer’s expense.

As a much older man, as president, Roosevelt feared that the west would be irrevocably changed (for the worse) by unchecked development.  He wanted to preserve the west, but he also wanted the United States to benefit from its bounty.  Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service, set aside 150 national forests, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments.  In all, he federally protected 230 million acres of public land.

Historians claim that Theodore’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt (not one of my favorite presidents), removed wild from the expression “Wild West.”  In his mostly failed efforts to bring the United States out of the depression, FDR believed that his best chance of doing that was to regenerate America’s battered spirit.  Noted historian H. W. Brands argued that FDR’s focus on the west was merely an extension of how the American West was created in the first place: the creation of federal territories and possibly the greatest accomplishment of the U.S. federal government.

FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps put 250,000 young men to work in such areas as reforestation, road building, and flood control programs.  His Agricultural Adjustment Act revitalized farming and ranching.  The Public Works Administration constructed electric-generating dams.  All of these were part and parcel of the “socialization” previously mentioned, all of which were heartily supported by the “tough individualist” in the western states.

Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored none of these lessons in his so-called “War on Poverty.”  It is interesting to note that no state has repudiated their favorite son more than the State of Texas disowned Johnson.


  1. Boles, J. B. Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.  New York: Basic Books, 2017.
  2. Brands, H. W. The Zealot and the Emancipator and the struggle for American Freedom.  New York: Doubleday, 2020
  3. Brands, H. W. Traitor to his Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  New York: Doubleday Books, 2008.
  4. Chaffin, T. Met His Every Goal—James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny.  Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014.
  5. Pringle, H. F. Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography.  New York: Harcourt Press, 1931,1956, 1984.
  6. Unger, H. G.  The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.  Perseus/Da Capo Press, 2009.


[1] Jefferson installed a native American hall at Monticello that he filled with Indian artifacts.

[2] New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan did that in 1845 to describe America’s arrogant belief in a providential empire that would stretch from “sea to sea.”

[3] Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states, “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  George Washington delivered the first annual message before a joint session of Congress in 1790.  Thomas Jefferson discontinued the joint address as being too monarchical.  No address was again made until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice.  Historians claim that the Theodore’s written addresses to Congress were so long that it cost a fortune to reprint and distribute them and occupied extraordinary time in reading and acting upon his measures.  The actual term “State of the Union” was never actually used until 1934; before that, it was simply the President’s annual message to Congress.  Harry S. Truman delivered the first televised address in 1947.

Posted in American Frontier, History | 4 Comments

A Cowpoke Named Theodore

Alice Hathaway Roosevelt

On Theodore Roosevelt’s 22nd birthday, he married his socialite sweetheart, Alice Hathaway Lee.  Alice was the daughter of banker George Cabot Lee.  She was a tall woman for the times, standing around 5’6”.  She had wavy golden hair, blue-gray eyes, and people regarded her as strikingly beautiful.  Her nickname was Sunshine because of her always-cheerful disposition.  Roosevelt met Alice at a luncheon gathering in 1878 and was immediately smitten.  He proposed marriage to Alice in 1879; she waited eight months before responding to his proposal.  On the date of their marriage, Alice was 19 years old.

Alice and Theodore had a daughter whom they named Alice Lee Roosevelt, born on 12 February 1884.  Two days later, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt died from a condition called Bright’s Disease, a kidney dysfunction masked by her pregnancy.  Eleven hours before his wife’s death, Roosevelt learned that his mother, Mattie, had died of typhoid fever.  Completely distraught, Theodore left baby Alice in the care of his sister while he grieved.  He resumed parenthood when baby Alice was three-years-old.

At the time, Theodore was a member of the New York State Assembly (1882, 1883, 1884).  An idealistic young man, Roosevelt focused on corporate corruption, which included bribery to secure tax rate reductions of corporate income and judicial collusion.  After Alice’s death, he threw himself into his legislative duties, almost ignoring the world around him.  That he grieved mightily for Alice appears demonstrated by a diary entry: “The light has gone out of my life.”

Theodore visited the Dakota Territory in 1883.  He wanted to hunt buffalo.  He wanted to experience the life of a western pioneer.  For several years, Roosevelt shifted back and forth between his home in New York and the Dakotas.  Locals demonstrated little interest in helping the New York tenderfoot find his way.  Roosevelt’s promise of quick cash convinced 25-year old Joe Ferris, a Canadian, to serve as Theodore’s hunting guide.

The hunting trip was not a pleasant experience.  Roosevelt found the badlands exactly as Brigadier General Alfred Sully[1] described them: “… hell with the fires out; grand, dismal, and majestic.”  Roosevelt and Ferris encountered that terrible weather and a very rough trail.  Through the challenge, Roosevelt displayed raw determination.  Finding buffalo was difficult because, in 1883, buffalo were few and far between.  While visiting with rancher Gregor Lang and using his small cabin as his base camp, Roosevelt became interested in raising cattle of his own.  It seemed like a good investment because, with the extermination of bison on the northern plains, Texas cowboys were relocating large herds of cattle to the lush pastures of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. The Northern Pacific Railroad offered a quick route to eastern markets without long cattle drives, the effect of which reduced the quality of the beef.

Antoine Amédée Marie Vincent Manca de Vallambrosa, also known as the Marquis de Morés, was an entrepreneurial Frenchman and a key player in the North Dakota badlands.  Morés was well known for his grandiose moneymaking schemes and his skill as a rifleman.  The source of Morés’ wealth was his wife, Medora Von Hoffman, the daughter of a wealthy Wall Street banker.  With Von Hoffman’s backing, Morés founded a meatpacking industry on the northern plain —his idea being to manufacture higher quality meat at lower consumer prices.  Morés founded the town Medora, an area of about six square miles along the Little Missouri river bottom.  He named it after his wife —its location intentionally placed near a lawless settlement as an insult to the rude settlers who lived there.  In Medora, Morés built an abattoir, but the investment fizzled when Morés lost interest in it as he continued looking for new investments.  It closed in 1886.  But Morés initial enthusiasm for his scheme impressed Roosevelt and convinced him that cattle offered a sound business opportunity.  Deciding to invest $14,000.00 in a cattle ranch, Roosevelt partnered with Ferris’ brother Sylvane and a man named Bill Merrifield, another Dakota cattleman.  Yes, it was a business investment, but Theodore also wanted to live a western frontiersman’s lifestyle.

Studio Picture c. 1884

Between 1883-1885, Roosevelt shuffled between North Dakota and New York.  He commissioned Ferris and Merrifield to build his Maltese Cross Cabin, but after 1884, he built a ranch named Elkton, 35 miles north of Medora.  Roosevelt learned to ride horseback western style, rope, and hunt.  He earned the respect of authentic cowmen, even though they were not overly impressed with the tenderfoot.  On the other hand, he idolized the American cowboy because they possessed the stern, manly qualities “invaluable to a nation.”  While in the Dakotas, Roosevelt wrote for national magazines describing the frontier; he also published three books: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman: Ranch Life and Hunting, and The Wilderness Hunter.

In 1886, when the ice on the Little Missouri River was beginning to break up, three no-goods cut Roosevelt’s skiff from its mooring at the Elkhorn Ranch and took it downriver.  Roosevelt was determined not to let such men get away with his boat.  It wasn’t much of a boat, but it belonged to Roosevelt (not the men who stole it)—so, there was an issue of pride —not only in refusing to allow anyone to steal from him but also because he was a deputy sheriff sworn to uphold the law.  But to apprehend these men, Roosevelt (with his two ranch hands, men named Sewall and Dow) would have to place themselves at significant risk.  Heavy ice jammed the river and spilled over its banks.  Treacherous currents impeded river crossings, and the weather was viciously cold.  He was also in pursuit of dangerous men, suspected rustlers, horse thieves, and cow killers.

Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

The leader of this small band was a man named Finnigan, a red-haired, unshorn, smelly, and drunk much of the time; people also thought of him as a back shooter.  Finnigan’s cohorts were a half-breed Indian and a crusty old German known for his viciousness in knife fighting.  Finnigan’s reputation didn’t intimidate Roosevelt in the least.  He took with him a camera by which he intended to record Finnigan’s capture on film.

Roosevelt and his men tracked Finnigan for three days, enduring sub-zero weather, inching their way along a winding river and through areas that were perfect ambush sites.  The reward for Roosevelt’s watchfulness came on the third day of his tiring pursuit.  A mid-afternoon, he discovered the stolen boat tied up along the shoreline and noted the wisp of smoke rising in the air from a nearby campfire.  Only one of the men were in camp —the German standing guard while the other two hunted for food.  When Roosevelt and his two men made their presence known, the German fellow gave up without a fight —mostly because his weapons were out of reach when Roosevelt, Sewall, and Dow rushed the camp.

The Roosevelt Posse

Roosevelt and his men waited over an hour for Finnigan and his other man to return to camp.  Their approach was noisy, unhurried, and unsuspecting.  The Roosevelt party readied themselves.  When Finnigan and the half-breed were within twenty yards, Roosevelt stepped out of the brush with his shotgun cocked and aimed.  “Throw up your hand,” he ordered.  The surprised half-breed immediately complied.  Finnigan paused, assessed his situation, and then he too threw down his rifle.  Because there was no rope to bind the men, Roosevelt ordered his captives to remove their boots.  Should they try to escape, he reasoned, they wouldn’t get far without boots.

For another eight, miserably cold days, Roosevelt and his two cowboys transported the three thieves and their loot under guard.  Danger followed the men as they made their way along the Little Missouri; Finnigan and his friends undoubtedly considered their chances for making a break and deserved a watchful eye but added to this were bands of Indians along Roosevelt’s path.  While there was no indication of hostile Indians at this time, one never knew what an Indian would do.  Roosevelt wisely chose to avoid the Indians, if possible.

By the time Roosevelt and his party reached the Diamond C ranch, they decided to split up.  The plan was for Sewall and Dow to proceed downriver, while Roosevelt would march Finnigan and his men overland to the small town of Dickinson.  No one at the Diamond C understood why Roosevelt didn’t just hang the thieves.  Nevertheless, the rancher loaned Roosevelt a wagon to help transport the trussed-up thieves through ankle-deep mud.  All the while, Roosevelt was cold, hungry, and growing very weary.  After thirty-six hours of sleeplessness, Roosevelt reached Dickinson and turned his captives over to the county sheriff.  In total, Roosevelt had journeyed 300 miles.

A few years later, realizing that had anyone else captured him other than Roosevelt, Mike Finnigan would have been strung up from the nearest tree, he wrote to Roosevelt and thanked him for keeping him safe.

While in the Dakotas, Roosevelt was prolific in organizing ranchers to address such problems as over-grazing.  His work led to the establishment of the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association.  He promoted conservation around the Boone and Crockett Club.  His ability to accomplish these things underscored Roosevelt’s stature among his western associates.

But the winter of 1886-86 was particularly severe, and it wiped out nearly everyone’s herd.  Theodore, having lost over half of his $80,000.00 investment, returned to the East to resume his political life.

What we can say with certainty about Theodore Roosevelt, the born with a silver spoon in his mouth New Yorker is that as a child, he was weak and somewhat effeminate, a condition he worked steadily on to improve.  In contrast to his youthful days, he returned to New York from the Dakotas physically and mentally tough.  In this time, he also displayed his fearlessness.  He would not back down from a fight, and he would not quit a difficult task.

It is worth considering Roosevelt’s cowboy life and its impact on what we know today about him and the old American west.  Roosevelt was always a romantic man who perceived the American frontiersmen as exceptionally noble.  They were men toughened by their experiences and their harsh environment.  They were men accustomed to hard work, hardened by their circumstances, never giving up in the face of adversity.  Such attributes were not only how Roosevelt perceived the western cowboy; it was how he saw himself.  Better yet, it was a view of Roosevelt shared by those who knew him in the Dakotas —the cattlemen, his friends, and his neighbors (even though initially regarded as something of a dandy with four eyes).

The initial impressions of Roosevelt (whom the stockmen called Roosenfelder) changed after an incident in Montana in 1885.  Theodore had been out searching for stay cattle.  It was at the end of the day, and Roosevelt was tired and hungry.  While taking a meal at a local saloon, a drunken cowboy derisively ordered Roosevelt, the four-eyed fella, to buy everyone at the bar a round of drinks.  Roosevelt got up from his chair, whipped the cowboy from one end of the saloon to the other, and then returned calmly to his meal.  The cowboy wasn’t aware that Roosevelt was a trained boxer.  Roosevelt later described this cowboy, not as a bad man, only an “objectionable” bully and someone who deserved what he got.  Word of this incident spread quickly, and, according to one account, Theodore went from being “four eyes” to “old four eyes,” and he was afterward “one of them.”

Roosevelt’s several books gave readers a clear picture of the noble cowman, notions later reiterated in the popular press.  Theodore Roosevelt became the cowboy he most admired, and these were traits his eastern friends came to admire most about him.  A careful evaluation of Theodore Roosevelt will reveal no distinction between the old west cowboy and the man Roosevelt became through the rest of his life.  He was direct, fearless, spoke well, and was sure of himself.  In the language of his cowboy associates, “Roosevelt didn’t take backwater from anyone.”  Importantly, Roosevelt became one of the Dakotans, evidenced by the fact that he wasn’t stuck up, and he willingly took on every task usually assigned to a ranch hand.  When moving cattle, Theodore’s time in the saddle equaled that of any cowhand.

Roosevelt c.1883-84

Roosevelt, the cowboy, made his public debut after returning to the east in 1884.  New Yorkers who knew him before his western trip marveled at how much he had changed —physically and psychologically.  In August 1886, when another war with Mexico was possible, the 28-year old Roosevelt offered his services to the Secretary of War and the territorial governor of the Dakota territories.  However, the tensions with Mexico soon abated, and Roosevelt would have to wait another ten years to demonstrate his military competence —which is something he did by recruiting cowboys to serve in his Rough Riders regiment.

In Roosevelt’s campaign for gaining the nomination for mayor of New York City, he became known as the “Cowboy Candidate.”  There may have been no greater enthusiasm for Roosevelt’s campaign than from his Dakota Territory friends.  Cowboy candidate is not merely how the campaign manager billed him during the mayoral campaign; it is how people back east began to see him, as well.  From that point on in his life, Roosevelt achieved a lasting image of a western cowboy and never hesitated to capitalize on it.


  1. Brinkley, D. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.  New York: Harper Collins, 2009.
  2. Hendrix, H. J. Theodore Roosevelt’s Naval Diplomacy: The U.S. Navy and the Birth of the American Century.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014.
  3. McCullough, D. Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child who became Theodore Roosevelt.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981, 2001.
  4. Philips, D. W. The Letters and Lessons of Teddy Roosevelt for his sons: Profiles in fatherhood.  Vision Forum, 2001
  5. Roosevelt, T. R. Hunting Trips of a Ranchman: Sketches of Sport on the Northern Cattle Plains.  Putnam & Sons, 1885.


[1] BrigGen Alfred Sully (1820-1879) was a Union military officer during the Civil War and Indian Wars.  Sully graduated from the USMA in 1841 and, like his father Thomas, was a painter of some repute.  Commanding a brigade during the Battle of Fredericksburg, his superior relieved him from command because Sully failed to suppress a mutiny by New York’s 34th Regiment.  Sully was later found innocent of negligence, as charged but was afterward relegated to serving in the American West.

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