The Oklahoma Badlands

Oklahoma State Flag

J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964) was quite a character.  We remember him as an American folklorist, a scholar, and a writer.  He was a liberal who spoke critically about Texas State politics and mechanization, which he believed harmed the American spirit.  He may have been a technophobe.  He had no patience with braggart Texans, religious prejudice, or restraints on human liberty.  He may also have been a libertarian.  He was a complex man.

Dobie was born in Live Oak, Texas to attentive parents.  For whatever reason, at the age of 16 Dobie moved into his grandparent’s house in Alice, Texas —a small town in Jim Wells County, Texas.  Wells County was (and likely still is) one of the most politically corrupt counties in the state of Texas.  Upon graduation from high school, Dobie attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

After college, he worked briefly as a newspaper reporter (San Antonio and Galveston) but discovered a calling to teach.  His first teaching assignment was in Alpine, Texas.  As a native Texan, he had few things good to say about Oklahoma, which seems to contradict his alleged “dislike” for braggarts.  In 1930, he wrote, “The only genuinely interesting men that Oklahoma ever produced have been Indians and outlaws.”  He may have been recalling his time in Oklahoma when he headed the English Department at Oklahoma A&M.

Dobie was right, though.  Oklahoma was a bad land and a magnet for bad people.

Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words —Okla and Humma— which means “red people.”  Today, we credit Allen Wright [Note 1], Chief of the Choctaw Nation for the name Oklahoma in 1866, even though not officially conferred until 1890 —after the territory opened to white settlements.   Wright envisioned a state mainly populated and controlled by Indians.  

Following the American Civil War, the Indian Territory became a haven for outlaws (murderers, rapists, highwaymen, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, bank robbers, and train robbers).  There were no “white man’s courts” in the Indian Territory then, but there was one court of competent jurisdiction.  It was the United States Court for the Western District of Arkansas located at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Federal statue created the court in 1871.  President Ulysses S. Grant nominated William Story  [Note 2] to serve as presiding judge; the U. S. Senate confirmed the appointment on 3 March 1871.  In 1874, Congress investigated Judge Story owing to large undocumented expenditures and for allegations of judicial misconduct which related to granting bail to convicted murderers while they awaited sentencing.  A short time after the Congress publicized its damning findings, Story resigned and moved to Colorado.   As his replacement, President Grant nominated Isaac Parker.  Parker assumed his office in 1875.

Between 1861-68, Parker served as a minor Democrat politician and member of a militia home guard.  He broke with the Democratic Party in 1864 over the issue of slavery and switched his political party affiliation to Republican.  See also: The Hanging Judge for a summary of Judge Parker’s story.  Very soon after assuming office, the 38-year old judge hired 200 Deputy U. S. Marshals to bring law and order to the Indian Territory and many of these were black because the Indians, the primary source of information regarding the location of outlaws, distrusted white lawmen.  Among Judge Parker’s black deputies were Bass Reeves (the first black Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi), Rufus Cannon [Note 3], Ike Rogers, and Grant Johnson.

The concept of an Indian Agent first appeared in the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1793.  The Act required land sales by or from Indians to be federally licensed and bonded.  Of note, it authorized the President of the United States to appoint temporary agents to reside among the Indians as guides toward assimilation.  Over time, congress removed the word “temporary.”

In 1879, the President appointed a minor politician by the name of John Tufts [Note 4] to serve as Indian Agent to the Union Agency in the Indian Territory.  It was Tufts idea to create the United States Indian Police, and it may have been his and Judge Parker’s idea to commission several of these lawmen as deputy US marshals.  There were too many white men going into the Indian Territory to escape the law in the states and then preying on territorial citizens.  Tufts also thought it would be a good idea to resolve the question of US citizenship within the Indian Territory.

How bad was the Oklahoma Territory?  In his 21 years sitting on the federal bench, Isaac Parker heard 13,000 complaints.  Of those, a federal jury found 156 defendants guilty of capital crimes for which they received the death penalty.  Of those, 77 convicts went to the gallows.  Taking thoroughly bad men into custody and then transporting them to Fort Smith to stand trial was costly for Judge Parker and his deputies, as well.  Sixty of his deputies lost their lives in the pursuit of outlaws [Note 5].  Oklahoma and Indian territory outlaws were a blight on society, and it was up to dedicated lawmen to turn the situation around.  Included among the miserable sods was Crawford Goolsby (Cherokee Bill), the Rufus Buck Gang (Rufus Buck, Lewis and Lucky Davis, Maoma July, and Sam Simpson), Belle and Henry Starr, Bill Doolin’s gang, and Al Jennings.

The Jennings story is interesting.  Alphonso Jennings migrated to Oklahoma from Virginia.  Between 1892-95, he served as the prosecuting attorney in Canadian County.  He afterward moved to Woodward, where he practiced law with his brothers Ed and John.  In a shootout with rival attorney Temple Houston (the son of Sam Houston), Ed lost his life and John received a significant gunshot wound.  Al gave up the practice of law and became a ranch hand on a spread in Creek County.

While wrangling livestock, Al formed the so-called “Jennings Gang.”   Gang members were mostly a collection of ranch-hand misfits, very likely mental midgets.  Gang members included men such as Frank Jennings, “Little Dick” West [Note 6], and Morris and Pat O’Malley.  Jennings and his gang made several attempts to rob trains, general stores, and once, even a post office —but none of these efforts produced much in the way of illicit income.  What Jennings managed to do was capture the attention of federal marshals.           

Despite the fact of his law studies, Al Jennings was not a particularly bright man.  The reader can find Jennings’ story here.  After his release from prison, Jennings became a pulp writer, recounting stories about his own adventures as a low-down and not very bright crook.

Writing fairy tales led to his interests in film making, which put him in contact with movie producer Bill Tilghman, E.D. Nix, and Chris Madsen.  In 1911, Jennings began looking for a job where outlaw activity is legal, which led him to politics.  After losing his bid for Oklahoma County attorney in 1912, he then set his sights on the governorship in 1914.  He lost that election, as well.  There was little left for Al Jennings to do except to re-engage the film industry.  He moved to Hollywood, California where he played bit parts in western films.  Jennings died in 1961.

Oklahoma was bad enough between 1850-1890, but after the discovery of oil in the 1920s, it became even worse.  Liquid gold drew in the same kinds of low-life people drawn to California in 1849 and boom towns sprang up across Oklahoma.  State authorities asked Bill Tilghman, a retired Deputy US Marshal, to investigate ten unsolved murders in Cromwell, Seminole County.  Ultimately, a drunken federal prohibition agent killed Tilghman —which prompted Oklahoma governor Martin Trapp to establish a state crime bureau.  Within the space of five years, state agents killed eleven bank robbers and had numerous other gunfights with desperados.

The 1930s became a decade of reckoning.  In 1933, George “Machine gun” Kelly kidnapped Charles F. Urschel, a wealthy Oklahoma oilman.  Urschel’s release followed payment of Kelly’s demand for ransom.  Lawmen tracked Kelly down (along with accomplish Harvey Bailey), and an Oklahoma court ultimately convicted Kelly and Bailey of the crime.  In 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met their end by Texas lawmen in Louisiana; they had murdered an Oklahoma lawman.  In that same year, “Pretty Boy” Floyd met his end in Ohio —his body buried in Sallisaw, Oklahoma.  In Florida, “Ma Barker” and her son Fred died in a gun battle with police—their bodies buried in Welch, Oklahoma.

Between the end of the American Civil War and 1940, nearly 200 Oklahoma outlaws either discovered the American judicial system or a lawman’s bullet.  Most of these men were white, twenty-five percent were black, and twenty were native Americans.  In a general sense, Oklahoma’s outlaw problem ended in the 1940s but according to national crime statistics (2018), there were 18,380 reported crimes of violence — one of the most dangerous states in the American Midwest and of all the states, the second highest imprisonment rate, 8th highest poverty rate, and in terms of national ranking in matters of crime, the 12th most dangerous state in the United States.

____________

Sources:

  1. 1.Patterson, R. M.  Train Robbery: The Birth, Flowering, and Decline of a Notorious Western Enterprise.  Boulder: Johnson Press, 1981.
  2. 2. Patterson, R. M.  Historical Atlas of the Outlaw West.  Boulder: Johnson Press, 1985.
  3. 3. Scales, J. R.  Oklahoma Politics: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
  4. 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, 1978.
  5. 5. Shirley, G.  Temple Houston: Lawyer with a Gun.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Endnotes:

[1] Allen Wright (1826-1885) was the principal chief of the Choctaw Republic from 1866 to 1870.  He was also a Presbyterian minister, and served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

 [2] Story later served as the 7th lieutenant governor of Colorado.  

 [3]Rufus was a mixed blood Cherokee-African American who worked out of the federal court at Fort Smith and later, Guthrie, Oklahoma.  He was every bit as efficient as tracking down criminals as Reeves, but not as well known.  Among his more famous arrests, Captain John Willie for the murder of a federal marshal, the arrest and shooting of Bill Doolin, Henry Starr, Scott Bruner, and Bob and Bill Christian for the shooting death of Oklahoma City Police Chief Milt Jones.  Cannon died in Oklahoma City in 1950; he was 103 years old.

[4] John Quincy Adams Tufts (1840-1902).  

[5] Make no mistake—these lawmen were tough, devoted, and dangerous.  They may not have been someone you’d want to meet your Mom, but their business was tracking down known killers and taking them into custody.  If they weren’t meaner than their prey, they were soon dead.  More than a few outlaws ended up shot to death while resisting arrest.

[6] Richard “Little Dick” West (1860-1898) was a member of the Doolin Gang from around 1892 to 1896 when Deputy U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas drilled him with a .44 caliber bullet.  West helped Al Jennings form the Jennings Gang.  When West realized that he was a moron following other morons, West left the Jennings Gang and went to live in Guthrie, Oklahoma, which is where Thomas found him.  

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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8 Responses to The Oklahoma Badlands

  1. kidme37 says:

    No surprise “Okis” have a reputation. I certainly have no good thoguhts about Oklahoma. I’ve driven through it 3 times driving across the US and it rained constantly from one border to the next. It seems its rest stops are little more than outhouses. Least the one we stopped at once headed East to West. Once driving West to East we were at a rest stop just into New Mexico and a couple came in hauling a small trailer and parked nearby. As we were talking a trucker wandered over and noticing the couple had CB radio told them they probably shold turn it off when they get to Oklahoma as they’d probably never heard language like they’d hear over the CB in that state. Okis. Yep. last state I’d ever consider moving to.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    Any essay that begins, “J. Frank Dobie,” is bound to be good and this one certainly was. Well done.
    I knew Oklahoma had a history of lawlessness, but I never realized it full extent. I’ve never been there. I may put “Visit Oklahoma” on my bucket list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So, I had a girlfriend from Oklahoma. She and her sister seemed like good people.
    But do you ever really know someone? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Herein lies our problem, Ed; we cannot see into other people’s hearts. As for the girlfriend, if her name was Rose, then you probably escaped much heartbreak — and she would have been a few years older than you, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. bunkerville says:

    Could it be worse than Nevada? We were rving through…..enough said.. Good tale,

    Liked by 1 person

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