The Sons of Little Dixie

Walker-Colt 1847

Walter-Colt Revolver (1847)

The term Little Dixie refers to a 17 county region of mid-to-upper Missouri along the river of that name.  It was first settled by migrants from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.  Accordingly, antebellum settlement in this area was indistinguishable from that of the upper south, which means that these settlers took with them to Missouri their cultural, social, political, and economic practices —including slavery.  On average, Missouri’s slave population was only about ten percent of the total, but in the Boonslick region, slave populations ranged from between twenty and fifty percent.  The determining factor of slave populations was always dependent upon the kind of farming that took place along the Missouri River —some of which were large plantations that focused on growing cotton.

In 1830, Mr. Henry W. Younger moved from his parent’s home in Harrisonville, Missouri to settle in Westport, 37 miles to the west near present-day Kansas City [1].  There he met and married Miss Busheba Leighton Fristoe, the daughter of a prominent area farmer.  The couple settled on a farm where over time, Henry became successful enough to acquire additional land and engage in business ventures outside of farming.  He and Busheba raised fourteen children, their first arriving in January 1832.  All the children were well-educated.  Life for Henry took a downturn during the so-called Kansas-Missouri Border War (1855-1861).  Most of the people living in the Territory of Kansas supported the abolition of slavery. Missourians, on the other hand, were mostly slaving-owning families.  Henry was himself the owner of a few slaves, but he supported the Union and the abolitionist cause.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (10 Stat. 277) created the territories Kansas and Nebraska.  It was the Congres’s intent to open new lands to development and facilitate the construction of a transcontinental railroad.  Intent aside, the act is most notable for repealing the Missouri Compromise (1820) [2], increasing tension over the issue of slavery, and for contributing to violence in Missouri and Kansas.  Subsequently, Missourians began to bicker with one another over the issue of slavery and possible secession from the Union.  There were two camps: Unionists and Secessionists.  Worse, there evolved a series of political and ideological conflicts over the issue of slavery in the Kansas Territory (formed in 1854), characterized by years of electoral fraud, militant raids, regional feuds, and retaliatory murders throughout both Kansas and Missouri.  The pro-slavery Missourians were referred to as “border ruffians [3],” while the abolitionists in Kansas were called “jayhawkers [4].”  The question was whether Kansas should be admitted as a free state, or a slave state.  Bushwhackers hoped to intimidate Kansans into supporting slavery; Jayhawkers responded by terrorizing pro-slavery elements in Kansas and Missouri.

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Missourians opted to remain in the Union —but that was as far into the war as most people were willing to go.  Most people had no interest in taking a stand in one direction or another, particularly if in doing so, one might get shot or forfeit their property.  So, officially, Missouri remained neutral.  Unofficially, people living in Missouri could not separate themselves from the debate and clearly there were two camps: slavers/secessionists and abolitionists/unionists.  By the end of 1861, guerrilla warfare erupted between pro-Confederate bushwhackers and the more organized Union militia.  Missouri’s governor (along with the state guard) were forced into exile as the Union Army took control of the state.  In early 1862, the Union’s provisional government in Missouri reformed and mobilized the State Militia to fight pro-rebel Missourians [5].  Outrageous carnage occurred on both sides.  Union troops executed or tortured suspected guerillas and those suspected of aiding them.  Sometimes a suspected guerilla was executed out-of-hand.  Bushwhackers returned the favor by conducting house to house raids and executing Unionist farmers.

Cole Younger

Cole Younger

In Missouri, Henry Younger’s land and property became the focus of Jayhawker [6] raids.  One effect of these raids was that they pushed 18-year-old Thomas Coleman (Cole) Younger into the pro-Confederate camp.  Cole Younger joined William Quantrill’s [7] unsanctioned Confederate Partisan Raiders.  When Cole’s younger brother James joined Quantrill in 1864, Cole moved on and joined the regular Confederate Army.  When the war ended, Cole Younger was serving in California.  James Younger, having been wounded, was captured and served out the balance of the war as a Union prisoner.

Frank-Jesse James

The James Brothers

Not far away in the Little Dixie section of Missouri, another family was equally affected by the events of Bleeding Kansas.  Zerelda Samuels was the mother of Frank and Jesse James and an outspoken partisan of the American South.  Frank James also joined Quantrill’s Raiders and he and Cole Younger became good friends.  Jesse James joined Quantrill in 1864 at the age of 16.  In this setting, Jesse James and James Younger were exposed to Archie Clement and “Bloody Bill” Anderson —two of the most feared partisan raiders operating in Kansas and Missouri.

At the end of the Civil War, the Younger and James boys continued to associate with other members of their war time guerrilla band, including the Dalton brothers [8] and Archie Clement.  The anger and bitterness they developed toward the Union and anyone living in Kansas remained profound.  The Missouri Reconstruction Era [9] only made their hostility worse.  Some historians contend that it was likely Clement who turned his guerrilla band into outlaws.  Clement may have influenced the James-Younger gang, but they were all old enough to make decisions for themselves and it does seem clear that their outlaw behavior was influenced by a profound hatred of Yankees and Reconstruction Era carpetbaggers.

Bob Dalton

Bob Dalton

The James, Younger, and Dalton families were related to Martin and Mary Peters Ringo, from Washington, Indiana.  Mary Ringo’s sister was Augusta Peters Inskeep Younger (1823-1910), who married Coleman Purcell Younger (the uncle of Cole Younger) (also the uncle of the Dalton boys).  Mary Ringo’s brother, Benjamin Peters, married Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James, the mother of Frank and Jesse James.  Martin and Mary had four children, the eldest being John Peters Ringo, who was born on 3 May 1850.  At age 6, John accompanied his family to Kearney, Missouri.  The Ringo’s later moved to Gallatin, Missouri where they rented a property from Henry Sheets, the father of Captain John W. Sheets, whom Jesse James shot to death [10] while robbing the Davies County Savings & Loan Association in 1869.

Conastoga Wagon

In 1864, the Ringo family was en route to California and encountered several events that may have had lingering effects on John.  In the first, the family’s Conestoga Wagon rolled over the top of John’s foot, inflicting significant injury.  If John’s foot wasn’t broken, it ought to have been.  Next, there were several acts of violence, including shootings and Indian attacks.  Finally, John’s father accidently killed himself with a shotgun [11].  The family buried Martin Ringo along the trail.

Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo 1875

Mary Ringo took her children on to San Jose, California and while there is not much verifiable information about John between 1864 and 1871, family members reported that teenaged John Ringo was frequently in trouble due to his violent temper and over-indulgence in whiskey.  He ran afoul of the law in California for the indiscriminate discharge of firearms inside the city limits.  A sister reported that John Ringo, who was employed as a farmworker, left San Jose in 1871 as part of a harvesting team (an early form of migrant farm labor).  There is no verifiable record of Johnny Ringo’s activities between 1871 and 1875.  We do know that in 1875, Johnny Ringo was living in Mason County, Texas; it was here that Ringo befriended a former Texas Ranger by the name of Scott Cooley [12].

By the mid 1870s Johnny Ringo was well-established as a short-tempered gunman.  The first record of Johnny Ringo in Tombstone (Cochise County), Arizona was in 1879, riding with Joseph Graves Olney (a.k.a. Joe Hill), a friend from Mason County, Texas.  In December 1881, Louis Hancock was drinking in a Safford salon when Ringo offered to buy him a shot of whiskey.  Hancock refused saying he preferred beer, which caused Ringo to shoot Hancock, wounding him.  And, since his gun was out anyway, he then robbed a poker table of $500 in cash.  Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibbel took Ringo into custody [13] and delivered him to the Tombstone jail pending arraignment.  Ringo is believed to have skipped bail after his failure to appear in court to answer the charges.

Doc Holliday Prescott AZ

“Doc” Holliday

Of greater concern to Ringo, however, was a rumor floating around that he had robbed a stagecoach.  Ringo blamed Wyatt Earp and John “Doc” Holliday for having started this rumor and it wasn’t long before Ringo confronted them in the street.  On January 17, 1882 Ringo and Holliday traded threats and seemed to be heading for a gunfight, but before anyone could “slap leather,” Tombstone Chief of Police James Flynn [14] arrested both men for carrying firearms inside the city limits.  Judge William H. Stilwell [15] fined the men for violating city code and then had Ringo rearrested and charged him for a robbery that occurred in Galeyville.

At the time, John Ringo was affiliated with the Clanton gang (and the loosely organized Cochise/Pima County Cowboys [16]), and this made him part of the feud between the Earps and Clanton’s —a feud that worsened over time.  Over many months in Tombstone, Johnny Ringo was reported to have had several clashes with the famed John Henry “Doc” Holliday, often recreated in popular media [17].  Holliday was a friend of the Earp family; together, they suspected Ringo of having some involvement in the murder of Morgan Earp on 18 March 1882.

There are several instances in the old west where rival lawmen warred with one another.  The story of the Earp’s in Tombstone is one such story.  Virgil Earp was the Tombstone City Marshal, but he also held a commission as a deputy US marshal within the Arizona territory.  Johnny Behan was the elected Cochise County Sheriff.  As sheriff, Behan was the senior-most lawman in the county, so one would assume that all lesser lawmen would obey his orders.  This was not the case with the Earp family who were employed as town marshals —and particularly true after the Cowboys targeted the Earp’s for murder.

Having been appointed as deputy US marshal (replacing the seriously wounded Virgil Earp), Wyatt organized a federal posse to track down and arrest the gunman and back-shooter Frank Stillwell, another suspect in the murder of Morgan Earp.  The posse found Stillwell in Tucson.  According to George Hand, who was called upon to identify Stillwell’s body, “Stillwell was the worst shot up man I ever saw.”

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Behan, who always sided with the cowboys, obtained warrants from a Tucson judge for the arrest of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Behan appointed Johnny Ringo and nineteen additional men (all of them cowboys) as sheriff’s deputies [18] —but Behan’s posse never located the Earp’s.  Meanwhile, Wyatt Earp had embarked upon his now-famous vendetta ride.  By this time in the game, Earp had no intention of arresting the men responsible for the shooting of his two brothers.  He intended to track them down and kill them —which is what he did.

On 14 July 1882, a property owner discovered Johnny Ringo’s body lying up against a tree near Chiricahua Peak.  The man gave testimony that he heard a single shot late in the evening the day before.  Ringo’s feet were wrapped in pieces of his undershirt, possibly to protect his feet from insects or scorpions; his revolver had one round expended and was found hanging by one finger from his hand.  Two weeks later, Ringo’s horse was discovered on the range with Ringo’s boots tied to the saddle.  Some claim that this was a method commonly used to keep scorpions out of boots in the middle of the night, but I do not know many horsemen who would leave their animals saddled throughout the night unless they were on the run.

Ringo’s death was officially ruled a suicide.  If true, then Ringo may have succumbed to a depression that was exacerbated by too much rot-gut whiskey.  On the other hand, the coroner’s report claimed a single bullet entered at an angle into his right temple, exiting the left side of the back of his head—suggesting that Ringo’s death may not have been a suicide after all.  There are several theories surrounding Johnny Ringo’s death:

  • Wyatt Earp’s wife Josephine (1861-1944) claimed that Wyatt and Holliday returned to Arizona for the express purpose of killing Johnny Ringo, and that it was Doc Holliday who killed Ringo. This could be true if Wyatt had pulled the trigger but on 14 July, Doc Holliday was in a Colorado courtroom and Wyatt Earp was not known as a fast gun.
  • Wells Fargo detective Fred Dodge postulates that Ringo’s murderer was a gambler named Michael O’Rourke who was seeking retribution for Ringo’s having attempted to talk others into lynching O’Rourke. There were not many gunfighters that were willing to go up against Johnny Ringo, however.
  • One final theory involves a friend of both Wyatt and Doc. Buckskin Frank Leslie [19] murdered Ringo after he found him passed out under a tree —this, at least, was the death bed assertion of the gunman Billy Claiborne.  The man who shot Claiborne was Frank Leslie, so his testimony is automatically suspect.

The Little Dixie section of Missouri remained a volatile area long after the end of the Civil War.  Its progeny was no less ferocious and their contribution to lawlessness extended far beyond Missouri’s borders and lasted nearly three decades after the war.  Most of these vicious men got their just deserts.  They died as violently as they lived.

Sources:

  1. Burrows, J. John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was.  University of Arizona Press, 1996
  2. Coy, R. E. Little Dixie and the Mystic Land of Poosey.  Joseph, Mo., 1993
  3. Guinn, J. The Last Gunfight: the Real Story of the Shootout at O. K. Corral and How it Changed the American West.  Simon & Schuster, 2011
  4. Hadeler, G. The Mason County Texas Hoo Doo Wars.  Handbook of Texas Online.
  5. Holliday, K. T. Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait.  Norman, OK., University of Oklahoma Press, 2001
  6. Latta, F. Dalton Gang Days: California to Coffeeville.  Bear State Books, 1976
  7. Marshall, H. W. Folk Architecture in Little Dixie: A Regional Culture in Missouri.  Columbia, MO.  University of Missouri Press, 1981
  8. Roberts, G. L. Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend.  Wiley & Sons Publishing, 2006
  9. Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War.  Vintage Books, New York, 2003
  10. Traywick, B. T. Wyatt Earp’s Thirteen Dead Men.  The Tombstone News.

Endnotes:

[1] Kansas City is a 14-county metropolitan area that straddles the border of Missouri and Kansas.

[2] Provided for the admission of Maine to the United States as a free state, along with Missouri as a slave state, thus maintaining a balance between northern and southern members of the United States Senate.  Without the repeal, slavery would have been banned north of the 36°30’ latitude.  Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially set into motion the idea that states could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery based on popular sovereignty.

[3] A term applied to pro-slavery activists and militants from Missouri who engaged in cross-border raids designed to intimidate Kansans into accepting slavery within the state of Kansas.  Border ruffians interfered in territorial elections and attacked free-state settlements.  This activity was the genesis of the phrase “Bleeding Kansas.”  Another term for pro-slavery guerillas was “bushwhacker.”

[4] The word may have originated as early as the Revolutionary War, used to describe individuals who associated themselves with the patriot John Jay.  By 1858, the term Jayhawker was associated with the free-state cause.  Considered at first as a militant anti-slavery group, they eventually turned into bands of thieves and murderers —men who frequently attacked, massacred, or drove pro-slavery families from their land.

[5] The fighting continued until after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

[6] The word may have originated as early as the Revolutionary War, used to describe individuals who associated themselves with the patriot John Jay.  By 1858, the term Jayhawker was associated with the free-state cause.  Considered at first as a militant anti-slavery group, they eventually turned into bands of thieves and murderers —men who frequently attacked, massacred, or drove pro-slavery families from their land.

[7] As a boy, William Quantrill (born in 1837) was known as a particularly cruel individual whose tendencies grew worse as he grew into manhood.  After teaching school in Ohio, Quantrill fled to Kansas in1857 to escape a criminal complaint involving the theft of horses.  Despite growing up in a pro-union household, Quantrill developed an affinity for southern/pro-slavery culture.  During the Kansas-Missouri War, Quantrill earned the reputation as a ruthless bushwhacker and he later took these skills with him into the Confederate Army in 1861.

[8] The Dalton brothers (also known as the Dalton Gang) included Bob, Emmett, Gratton (Grat), and Bill Dalton.

[9] It is difficult to argue with the proposition that Missouri Reconstruction was far worse than the actual Civil War.  Few people living in Missouri in 1861 could have imagined the hardships they would endure during the war and in its aftermath.  Following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Union domination of all southern states and territories continued its cruel treatment of anyone living in the defeated states.  During the war, Union soldiers invaded and stole the personal belongings of Missourians; they dug up graves looking for valuables, they raped wives and sisters, murdered old men and young boys, and they poured oil over fields to keep them from producing crops for many years.  Union soldiers stole every item of food to be found, burned down homes, leaving the people desolate and penniless.  Roving bands of Federal vigilantes visited the homes of former Confederates in the middle of the night and shot them down in cold blood.  The anger of the Youngers was understandable, and in the view of some, justified.

[10] There is reason to believe that Jesse James mistook Sheets for Samuel P. Cox, the man who was responsible for killing James’ friend, “Bloody Bill” Anderson in 1864.

[11] The Ringo’s were traveling in a wagon train.  A few days before, they departed Fort Laramie, Wyoming with full knowledge that incidents involving Indian war parties were on the rise.  It was just such an incident that caused the wagon train to hold up and form a protective barrier.  All the men stood guard the entire night.  It was at around dawn the next morning when the tired Martin Ringo, while standing guard duty, accidently discharged his shotgun, the load of which pierced his eye and exited the top of his head.

[12] See also:  The Hoodoo War.

[13] The Arizona Daily Star, December 14, 1879

[14] Flynn replaced the wounded Virgil Earp as chief of police.

[15] No relation to the gunman Frank Stillwell.

[16] In these days, the term “cowboy” was a euphemism for cattle rustler.  People who worked on ranches were called cow hands.

[17] One of the more entertaining portrayals is in the film Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, Val Kilmer in the role of Doc Holliday, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo.

[18] Behan’s posse included Johnny Behan, Pete Spence, Ike Clanton, Florentino Cruz, Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, Frederick Bode, Pony Diehl, John Barnes, Frank Patterson, Milt Hicks, Bill Hicks, Bill Johnson, Ed Lyle, and Johnny Lyle.

[19] Frank Leslie (1842-1927) may have been a friend of Earp and Holliday, but he did not participate as a member of Earp’s federal posse seeking the murderers of Morgan Earp and shootists of Virgil Earp.  The Earp posse consisted of Wyatt Earp, Warren Earp, James Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMaster, Jack “Turkey Creek” Johnson, Charlie Smith, Dan Tipton, and Texas Jack Vermillion.  Vermillion always claimed that people called him Texas Jack because he was from Virginia.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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