Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves

Dep US MarshalIn the 1968 film titled Hang ‘Em High, Clint Eastwood plays the part of fictional Jed Cooper.  Cooper was an innocent man who survives a lynching in the Oklahoma Territory.  The year is 1889 and Jed is driving a small herd of cattle across a river when a posse of nine men surround him and demand that he prove that he’s come by the cattle legally.  Jed shows them his receipt and transfer of ownership.  Only the man who sold him the cattle had stolen them from someone else and then killed him and as far as this posse is concerned, Jed Cooper is a murdering cattle rustler.  They hang him—only he doesn’t die.  It’s an entertaining film, for sure.  In any case, Jed Cooper goes on to become a Deputy US Marshal in Oklahoma and, as it turns out, he’s one bad-ass cop.  It was just entertaining fiction, of course.  But there really was a bad-ass Deputy US Marshal [1] in the Oklahoma Territory who made Clint Eastwood’s character seem like a pussy cat —and he wasn’t white.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas. His owner was a man by the name of William Steele Reeves.  When Bass was around 8-years old, William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas near present day Sherman, Texas (part of the old Peter’s Colony).  Bass may have served Colonel George Reeves, William’s son. George served in the Texas legislature, and at the time of his death from rabies in 1882, served as the Speaker of the Texas House.  In any event, during the Civil War, it appears as if George and Bass had an unhappy encounter resulting in Bass kicking George’s ass.

Bass fled north into the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and lived among the Indians until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Now a free man, Bass Reeves moved to Arkansas where he acquired a plot of land and farmed/ranched near the town of Van Buren.  It was there that he married Nellie Jennie from Texas, with whom he had ten children: five boys and five girls.

Isaac Parker 002

Judge Isaac C. Parker

Meanwhile, in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Isaac C. Parker as a federal judge in the Western District of Arkansas, which included the Indian territory (present-day Oklahoma).  Parker in turn appointed James F. Fagan to serve as United States Marshal and ordered him to hire 200 deputies.  Fagan had heard about Bass Reeves over in Van Buren.  Bass was reputed to be a man who knew the Indian territory and could speak several tribal languages.  Fagan recruited Bass as one of his deputies and that’s how Bass Reeves became the first black federal deputy west of the Mississippi River. Judge Parker was tasked with cleaning up rampant lawlessness in the Indian territories.  His order to Fagan: Bring these outlaws in, dead or alive.

Initially, Bass Reeves was assigned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which also had responsibility for the Indian Territory.  He served in that capacity until 1893 when he transferred to the Eastern District of Texas near Paris.

As a Deputy US Marshal, Reeves worked alongside other legendary lawmen: Heck Thomas, Bud Ledbetter, Chris Madsen, and Bill Tilghman.  Their responsibility was to cover 75,000 miles; at the time, Judge Parker’s court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, was the largest jurisdiction in the United States.  A Deputy Marshal would set off in search of one or more outlaws with a wagon, a cook, and an assistant —more often than not, an Indian.  Reeves was illiterate so, he would ask someone to read him the warrants and he would memorize them. Whenever was asked to produce his warrant, Reeves never failed to select the correct one.


Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves was an imposing, clean-cut figure.  He stood over 6’ tall, dressed in a suit, wore a white shirt and a tie, sported a wide brimmed hat, and he kept his boots polished and clean.  Reeves carried two Colt pistols, butt-forward to facilitate a fast draw.  To top off his appearance, he always rode a white stallion.  The disarming part of this lawman was that he was always soft-spoken, polite, and courteous.

On one occasion, Reeves rode out to serve a warrant on a notorious trio of brothers whose habit included shooting lawmen, robbing stagecoaches, and intimidating their neighbors.  Not long after arriving in town, Reeves calmly approached the Brunter Brothers, handed one of them the arrest warrant, and then in a soft-spoken voice suggested that it would be to everyone’s advantage to come along quietly.  Unhappily for the Brunter family, all three went for their guns.  Reeves was quicker; two of the boys were shot at point blank range. He disarmed the third boy and beat him unconscious with the boy’s own weapon.  Reeves delivered the remaining brother to the Parker courthouse.

Reeves was clever and courageous in his pursuit of outlaws.  He once pursued two such men in the Red River Valley near the Texas border.  Gathering a posse, Reeves established a camp site some 28 miles from where the two desperados were thought to be hiding. After reconnoitering the local area, Reeves disguised himself as a tramp (hiding his weapons and badge under his clothing) and set off on foot.  When he arrived at the hideout, the home of one of the outlaw’s mother, Reeves was wearing old, worn out shoes, dirty clothes, and carrying a walking cane. His old floppy hat sported three bullet holes.

Arriving at the home, Reeves asked the woman who lived there if he could rest his aching feet.  He was being pursued by a posse, he said, mean men who put three bullet holes in his hat.  He asked her for a bite to eat and some water to drink.  Sitting at the table eating his meal, the woman began to tell him of her two outlaw sons.  She suggested that the three men could form a gang.  Reeves said he’d like to think on it, but needed a rest.  She allowed that he could stay and rest a bit longer. Toward sunset, a whistle sounded from outside.  The woman went out of the house and responded with another whistle.  Before long, two riders came into the yard and after a few long moments, she brought the two riders inside the house.  She introduced her two sons to Reeves.  After discussing their various crimes, Reeves and the two outlaws agreed to team up.

Later, bunking in the same room, Reeves kept a close eye on the outlaws.  As soon as they were asleep, he handcuffed them and, as early morning approached, kicked the boys awake and marched them out the door.  Their mother followed along for three miles cursing Reeves every step of the way.  He walked the two hombres 28 miles back to his camp and within days, Reeves turned them over to the Parker court.  His reward was $5,000.00.

Despite his preference for dressing in nice clothes, Reeves often dressed in disguises, appearing as a cowboy, a farmer, tramp, shootist or outlaw.  He usually departed Fort Smith with a pocket full of warrants, always returning with a wagon load of miscreants, people who stood accused of a wide range of crimes.  After receiving his pay in fees and rewards, Reeves spent time with his family before making another run on Oklahoma outlaws.

Reeves worked for thirty-two years as a Federal peace officer in the Indian Territory and became one of Judge Parker’s most valued deputies.  Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time and although having a few close calls, was never wounded.  In his time, Reeves made 3,000 arrests —fourteen of whom he killed when they made the tragic mistake of resisting arrest.

REEVES 001Among his contemporaries, Bass was one of the toughest.  He was also an honest man and remained true to the law.  He once arrested his own son on a charge of murder.  They boy was convicted, served time in jail, and when released went on to live a law-abiding life.

In 1897, Reeves was placed under the Muskogee Federal Court.  When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, then 68-year-old Bass Reeves became an officer in the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department.  He served for two years as a policeman before succumbing to serious illness.  Bass Reeves passed away in 1910.  We remember him today as one of the great Old West lawmen.


  1. Burton, A. T.  Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.


[1] The office of United States Marshal and Deputy Marshal were created by Judiciary Act of 1789. Marshals were given extensive authority to support federal courts within their judicial districts to carry out the lawful orders of judges, the Congress, or the President of the United States. As part of our systems of checks and balances, owing to their broad authority, US Marshals and Deputies were limited to four-year (renewable) terms, always serving at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

Posted in History | 6 Comments

Bigfoot Wallace

cropped-texas-star.jpgBy the time William Alexander Anderson-Wallace arrived in Texas (c. 1836), he was barely 19-years old.  This may seem a bit young for someone seeking his fortune and adventure in a wild and dangerous place, but it wasn’t young back then.  Frontier youngsters grew up fast in those days, which meant that they developed the skills necessary for their survival early in life.  It was either that, or they didn’t survive.

Wallace was born in 1817 in Lexington, Virginia.  Located in the Shenandoah Valley, a place where native Americans claim is so beautiful that each star in the sky focuses its shining energy toward it.  This may have been the genesis of the valley’s name, for Shenandoah means simply “Clear-eyed daughter of the stars.”  The Virginia colony’s lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, who was a skilled explorer and surveyor, discovered the Shenandoah Valley in 1716.  Within fifteen or so years, the Scots-Irish and German settlers from Pennsylvania began moving into the Valley, establishing themselves along a well-worn Indian path that was called the Great Wagon Road [1].

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Young William Wallace

William was the son of Alexander Wallace and Jane Blair who operated a fruit orchard (or several) outside present-day Lexington.  Wallace was a descendant of famed Scottish nobleman William Wallace; as a Scot, we may presume that the clan instinct was strong within the family.  It may have been that by the time William was coming of age, the Valley was filling up with people or that all the good land had already been taken —but if this was true at all, then it would have been a motivating factor for William’s brother, who left for Texas in 1834-35.  What prompted William to go to Texas was vengeance: William’s brother and a cousin were among the men slaughtered at Goliad.

Wallace was, by the standards applied to his time, a giant of a man. He was around 6’ 2” tall and weighed 240 or so pounds without a lot of body fat.  By the time he arrived in Texas, the Revolution was already concluded. Initially settling in La Grange. While living in La Grange, Wallace was once mistaken as a local Indian thief whom everyone called “big foot.” Neighbors accused Wallace of breaking into and ransacking someone else’s  home, but after finding Wallace’s footprint considerably smaller than the 14-inch imprint of the Indian’s, the case against him was dismissed.  It was after this that everyone began calling him Bigfoot and the nickname stuck.  While in La Grange, Wallace tried his hand at farming, but farming is hard work and it takes skill and patience to become a successful farmer.

Wallace had neither patience nor skill, so in the Spring of 1840 he removed himself to the new town called Austin, although calling it a town may be an exaggeration: A small settlement seems more appropriate.  In 1840, it was common to see buffalo meandering down the main avenue.  But Austin was growing, and people were streaming in to this (then) frontier town. People was the one thing that Wallace was happy to do without.  The continual influx of people prompted him to move further south to San Antonio de Béxar, which in those days was a dangerous place [2].

Of William A. Wallace, it has been said that few people witnessed as many stirring incidents or survived more hardships and perils than the frontiersman everyone called Bigfoot.  At a time when Texas was known for colorful, tough, and often ruthless characters, Bigfoot Wallace fit right in.  History records that Wallace participated in more than his fair-share of early Texas conflicts. In 1840, the Battle of Plum Creek; In 1842, the invasion of Mexican General Adrian Woll, the Somervell Raid, and the Mier Expedition.

On 5 March 1842, General Rafael Vásquez led seven-hundred Mexican soldiers into San Antonio.  Their sudden arrival threw the residents of this frontier town into a panic.  Vásquez’ soon withdrew, however, but in his short time in San Antonio, Vásquez managed to stir the hornets nest.  In the minds of the Texians, it was an insult that must not be tolerated.  Sam Houston, only recently reelected to the presidency, realized that Texas could not afford another war.  But then, a larger force under General Adrian Woll repeated Vásquez’ feat on 11 September. Houston could see no alternative but to authorize retaliatory action.

Brigadier General Somervell was authorized to organize a raid into Mexico. In order to do that, he would have to rely on men who were —a bit rowdy.  Beyond this, Somervell’s force was denied adequate supply for action of any kind, much less a raid into enemy territory.  To solve the supply problem, the rowdies sacked the nearby town of Laredo. Somervell was appalled, arrested those responsible, and ordered all the misbegotten materials returned to their rightful owners.  Most of Somervell’s men understood this decision, but around 200 did not.  They voted to quit the army and return to Texas.

Nevertheless, General Somervell continued his operations but with the passage of time, he too grew dubious about his chances for success. The supply situation had not improved. It was impossible for Somervell to take food from border Mexicans when they too were starving.  Finally, Somervell ordered a retreat back into Texas —a decision that outraged his Texian army, among them Bigfoot Wallace.

Five of Somervell’s eight captains took votes among their men to determine whether to quit the expedition.  Three-hundred men voted to continue south and Somervell be damned. It is likely that the bulk of these men were bent more on plunder than they were achieving satisfaction over General Woll’s insult.  The men elected Colonel William S. Fisher [3] as their new leader.  His men may not have understood that Fisher had visions of creating his own country out of the swath of northern Mexico —delusions of grandeur, perhaps.

Fisher led his men deep into Mexico.  On 24 December, Fisher seized the town of Mier and, taking the Alcalde as a hostage, ordered the townspeople to bring him sufficient stores for 1,200 men. He actually had less than a third of that number, but it didn’t matter.  Rather than bringing him stores, they sent word to the Mexican authorities that Mier was under attack by hombres del Norte.  General Pedro de Ampudiaresponded.  The battle that followed was far costlier for the Mexicans than it was the Texians, but the fact was that Fisher had led his men too far into Mexico and there was no way to extract his men.  He ultimately surrendered his Texians to Ampudia.

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

On 10 February two-hundred-nine Texians arrived under guard at Hacienda del Salado.  Texians began planning their escape almost immediately, but the Mexicans learned of this planning and separated Fisher and his senior staff from the rest of the prisoners and sent them on toward Mexico City.  The next morning, the Texians effected a surprise break, overwhelming their guards and immediately headed back toward the Rio Grande.  The heat of the desert defeated these men, many of them approaching madness.  What saved them from wasting away in the desert was a well-mounted Mexican army. The Texians were chained and marched to Saltillo and placed under the command of General Francisco Mejia. Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered these men executed, but General Mejia refused to participate in a mass murder.

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

Bigfoot Wallace, standing close to the scene of the drawing, decided that the black beans were larger than the white beans.  When it was his turn to draw a bean, he fingered the tokens carefully and chose a white bean.  As a survivor, he and the others would be sentenced to imprisonment at Perote, east of Mexico City.  Many of these men died in captivity from wounds, disease, or starvation.  The last of these men were released on 16 September 1844.  Wallace’s experiences while in prison did nothing to improve his low opinion of Mexicans.  Generally speaking, Texans are pretty good at forgiving those who trespass against them; they are much less adept at forgetting.

After his release from prison, Wallace joined with other Texans in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), serving as a Texas Ranger under Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays.  It did not work out well for any Mexican, whether soldier or civilian, who encountered Bigfoot Wallace during this turbulent period.

In the 1850s, Wallace earned a reputation as a fierce Indian fighter while commanding a company of Texas Rangers.  Everyone knows that the Texas Rangers were expert horsemen, expert shots, and not to be trifled with.  These were men who lived out of the saddle and survived on their skill and wits. They were known to dispense timely and often brutal justice.  In the minds of Texas Rangers, it made no sense having to face a mean son-of-a-bitch twice.  If that was true of white outlaws, it went double for Indians.  Two of the Texas Rangers’ toughest bastards were Creed Taylor and Bigfoot Wallace.

Bigfoot Wallace was a quiet, almost shy fellow in polite company, although he never married.  He didn’t talk much until he had something to say; he kept his own counsel.  In spite of his shy demeanor, years of fighting in desperate situations led him to barbarism when in combat or when riled.  As for his savagery, he no doubt learned this from the Comanche, who taught the Texas Rangers well.

El MuertosOf his savagery, it was Bigfoot Wallace who created the Texas legend of El Muertos —the headless horseman of South Texas.  It is a legend that continues even to this day as parents warn their children to behave if they do not wish to meet the headless horseman.

In 1850, a Mexican bandit known simply as Vidal began rustling cattle all over South Texas.  It wasn’t long before he had a high price on his head —Dead or Alive.  During that summer, Vidal took advantage of a Comanche raid that pulled most of the Rangers northwest to confront them.  In the meantime, sparse settlements were left unprotected.  Vidal, along with three of his men, wasted no time taking advantage of the situation and gathered up a considerable number of horses on the San Antonio River, heading southwest toward Mexico.

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Creed Taylor in later life

What Vidal didn’t know was that, among the stolen herd, were several prized mustangs belonging to Creed Taylor.  Taylor, one of the first to defend settlements against Indian attack had not, on this occasion, gone to confront the Comanche.  Taylor’s ranch lay directly west of San Antonio in the thickest bandit territory, not far from the headwaters of the Nueces River.  The location of Taylor’s ranch made it a prime target for rustlers.  When he discovered that his prized horses were missing, Taylor decided he’d had enough. He quickly called on his long-time friend Bigfoot Wallace and a nearby rancher by the name of Flores and the three resolved to track down Vidal and deal with him permanently.

Both Wallace and Taylor were expert trackers, so it didn’t take them long to discover where Vidal and his men were located.  They waited until the early hours when the bandits were sleeping. Catching them unaware, Taylor and Wallace made quick work of the thieves.  Taylor reckoned that just killing them wasn’t enough on account there were other bandits. Maybe it was time to set an example that would help deter future bandits.  Remember, in those days stealing a horse was a crime equal to murder. No matter how brutal the Texas Rangers were in tracking down and dealing with these bandits, nothing seemed to forestall their thieving behavior.

In a dramatic (if not grizzly) example of frontier justice, Wallace beheaded Vidal and then lashed him firmly into a saddle on the back of a wild mustang.  Tying the bandit’s hands to the pommel and securing the torso to hold him upright, Bigfoot then attached Vidal’s head and sombrero to the saddle with a long strip of rawhide.  The then turned the bucking horse loose to wander the Texas prairie with its ghastly burden on its back.  It wasn’t long before stories began to circulate about the headless horseman seen in remote bandit country.  The apparition seemed to spook almost everyone.  Even today there are people who swear they’ve seen the headless horseman galloping through the mesquite west of San Antonio.

Because of Wallace’s expertise as a tracker, he was frequently called upon to help capture runaway slaves trying to find their way to Mexico.  There was no animus attached to this activity; he was simply paid for returning another man’s property.

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An older Bigfoot Wallace

For several years, Wallace drove a mail hack from San Antonio to El Paso. He was pitted against hostile bands on more than a few occasions.  In one of these, having lost his mules to Indian attack, Wallace walked the rest of the way to El Paso.

During the American Civil War, Wallace helped to guard the frontier against Comanche raiders.  Afterwards, he was content to settle down on a small ranch along the Medina River near Castroville, granted to him by the State of Texas for his many years of service. In his later years, Wallace lived in Frio County in South Texas at a place subsequently named after him and today known as Bigfoot, Texas.  Wallace’s biographer was John Duval, a man who helped to cement Wallace’s reputation as a Texas folk legend.

Mr. Wallace died on 7 January 1899.  He is buried at the State Cemetery in Austin.


  1. Duval, John. The adventures of Bigfoot Wallace: Texas Ranger and Hunter, 1871
  2. Texas Historical Society, The Handbook of Texas


[1] Today, the Great Wagon Road is called the Lee Highway (US 11).

[2] The crime rate in San Antonio today is 7.41 per 1,000 residents.  It has a resident population of 1.5 million people.  This year, there have been 124 murders, 1,279 rapes, 2,303 robberies, 7,083 assaults, 11,632 burglaries, and 6,176 auto thefts. All-in-all, Bigfoot Wallace probably lived in a relatively safe place back then.

[3] Fisher was tall, well-built, and intelligent.  After serving as Secretary of War for one year, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel of frontier cavalry.  Fisher was fearless (and perhaps also foolhardy).  He was present at the Council House Fight that prompted a war with Buffalo Hump.

Posted in History | 4 Comments

The Brite Ranch Raid

CowboyLucas Brite was born in Caldwell County, Texas in 1860. His father passed away when Luke was only 3-years old.  Life was hard in Texas under normal circumstances, harder still when the mainstay of the family died.  As a lad, Luke developed the skills needed to ride the Texas range.  By his 25thyear, he had begun trailing his own stock along with those of his friends.  The cow men led their stock from Caldwell County to a wintering camp on the North Fork of the Concho.  The following spring, they continued on to Presidio County.  As the land around Marfa was already taken, Luke herded his cattle southwest finally settling in the Capote Mountain area of Presidio County in October 1885.

The Capote Mountain area was harsh and unrelenting. It would test the mettle of even the toughest of men.  Owing to drought, Luke ended up losing a quarter of his herd in the first year.  It was a hard year, but there’s not that can be done about it —it was called ranching in Texas.  Luke recounted, “Before me was a new and untried county —an experiment.  I wondered what the future held in store for me, but I fully realized that whether successful or not that I would have to endure my hardships.”

Brite registered his cattle brand in 1904: Cross-Bar. In that year his purebred Hereford operation began when he purchased 300 registered heifers from the Wyoming Hereford Ranch in Cheyenne.  He bought an additional 135 head from William Powell at Channing, Texas.  Sires of outstanding breeds were purchased from the Gudgell Ranch in Kansas and he selected quality bulls from other sources.  To guard against the possibility of in-breeding, he never bought bulls from the same ranch two years in a row.  Cross-Bar cattle were in high demand because of their quality, adaptability, and natural ability to rustle for themselves.  In 1910, Brite began an annual sale of 1,000 bulls —which he maintained for 14 years.

Luke purchased his last bulls from W. H. Curtis in Kentucky and Gudgell & Simpson in Kansas.  He closed his herd in 1914, choosing from that point on to raise his own sires and avoid the pitfalls of inbreeding by carefully selecting bulls and heifers for line-breeding.  He recalled, “As I remember, it was in 1915 that foot and mouth disease broke out in Missouri and Kansas and I was afraid to go there for bulls, as had been my custom. The disease spread so rapidly that I considered it unsafe to ship bulls from any source.  I saved bull calves of my breeding that I kept in a pasture separated from my other cattle.  The result was so gratifying that I continue using bulls from my own herd.”

Brite was a typically tough Texan.  Typical of the West Texas ranches, —Brite’s Ranch was as much a small town as a cattle operation.  It was located in the Big Bend region, between Marfa and the Rio Grande, some fifteen miles east of the river.

Mexican BanditsIt was Christmas morning, 1917.  Except for the ranch foreman, Mr. T. T. Van Neill and his family, and one or two Tejano families, and two or three ranch hands, most of the local people were away. The raid from Mexico began just after dawn.  Foreman Van Neill’s father, Sam, was the only one awake.  He sat at the kitchen table drinking his morning coffee when 45 armed Mexicans galloped into the ranch complex.  Sam immediately realized what was happening.  He ran to awaken his son and quickly equipped himself with a rifle. He took aim at the Mexican he though was in charge and fired.  The man was killed, and the others began returning fire.  By this time, Van was dressed and joined in the fight.  Mrs. Van Neill attempted to alert local authorities, but the raiders had cut the telephone lines.

The skirmish lasted for quite some time before the bandits realized that there was little chance of them getting into the Neill home without significant losses to themselves.  During the fire fight, the raiders captured a pair of ranch hands, one of whom, Jose Sanchez, was sent to the house with a message: if the Van Neill’s continued to resist, everyone at the ranch would die.  Van was initially enraged, promising to fight to the death before surrendering.  Sam shared his son’s view, but Van’s wife convinced her husband that it would be better to give the Mexicans the keys to Luke Brite’s general store to avoid further confrontation [1].  Van finally agreed.

Thus, instead of trying to storm the house, the Mexicans spent their time robbing the general store of clothes, food and money.  While this was going on, others of their number began to gather up all the best horses at the ranch.  Suddenly, an unsuspecting postman by the name of Mickey Welch arrived by wagon at the general store.  He had two Tejano passengers.  The Mexicans shot the two passengers [2] and lynched Welch inside the store.

The stand-off continued.  When Rev. H. M. Bandy and his family arrived at the ranch for Christmas dinner, the bandits still occupied the ranch headquarters building.  They permitted the Bandy’s to reach the Neill home; after a brief prayer, Rev. Bandy took up a rifle to help defend the family home.

Brite Ranch neighbor James L. Cobb heard the shooting and went to investigate.  Realizing the ranch was under attack, he drove 12 miles to telephone Luke Brite in Marfa.  Brite contacted the County Sheriff, who in turn asked for the assistance of Colonel George Langhorne, Commanding the 8th Cavalry.

Candelaria RimMeanwhile, after gathering up reinforcements from among neighboring spreads, Cobb returned to the Brite Ranch.  By the time the posse arrived in automobiles, however, the bandits had fled west through the rough Rimrock country with their stolen horses and newly acquired goods, disappearing over the Candelaria Rim.

Back in Marfa, Colonel Langhorne borrowed horses from nearby ranches and joined the gathering at Brite Ranch.  There were no horses left at the Brite Ranch and no trails were suitable for automobiles.  Initially, the pursuers left the Brite Ranch on foot, hoping to get close enough to the Mexicans to make use of their high-powered rifles but there was no sign of the bandits.

Colonel Langhorne initiated a punitive expedition into Mexico the next day; he intended to capture or kill the raiders and return stolen property to their rightful owners.  Langhorne’s force consisted of two troops of the 8th Cavalry (approximately 200 soldiers) and several men from the Cobb posse.  They crossed the Rio Grande into Chihuahua near the Los Fresno creek.  Colonel Langhorne caught up with 29 raiders in San Bernardino Canyon near Pilares. During the running battle that followed, troopers killed ten Mexicans and recovered some of the stolen property, including a number of horses.  One trooper was wounded.  Some of the recaptured horses had to be put down on account that they had been ridden so hard they were going to die anyway.

Meanwhile, Texans in the Big Bend region were enraged about the raid and the murders of Mickey Welch and his two passengers on Christmas Day.  A vigilante committee was formed to disarm and keep watch on local Tejanos, but Texas Rangers went even further.

At around midnight on 27 January 1918, Captain J. Monroe Fox led his Company B and a troop from the 8thCavalry to Porvenir, Texas.  They silently surrounded the village, which was located on the Rio Grande just across the border, adjacent to a small Mexican village on the other side.  Captain Fox may have suspected that Porvenir and the small Mexican village served as a portal for banditry in this region of the West Texas landscape.

Fox ordered a search of the town for evidence of connections to Mexican bandits.  This is where the account becomes murky.  Supposedly, while soldiers made a house to house search, Texas Rangers commenced rounding up “suspected bandits.”  The rangers led these men to a nearby hill and promptly executed them [3].

Between 1910-1919, life along the US-Mexican border was chaotic and dangerous.  The Mexican Revolution was raging, large numbers of Mexicans were flooding into Texas to escape the carnage there, Texas ranches were frequently targets of bandit raids from Mexico, and Tejanos mounted campaigns of sedition and treason throughout South Texas.  Wanton murder and other depredations were carried out by Anglos, Mexicans, and Tejanos in equal measure.

With the United States Army fully engaged in Europe during World War I, people living along the border were left unprotected —except for local lawmen, Texas Rangers, and limited border-area Army units. After the Zimmerman Telegram in 1917, President Wilson realized that his southern border could be in great jeopardy. He therefore ordered 200,000 national guardsmen into South Texas.  By the time of the Brite Ranch raid, tensions were already high, and Texas tempers were short.

One-hundred years later, we still do not know what happened at Porvenir, but historians and archeologists are trying to put the pieces together.  The region today is as rugged and mountainous as it ever was, especially on the Mexican side; it is the location of many arroyos and stifling dry heat.  In 1919, our understanding was that the Army had withdrawn from Porvenir when they heard gunshots from the village.  When the soldiers heard the Texas Rangers leaving the village, they returned to Porvenir, finding 15 bodies slumped on the side of an arroyo.  This has remained the official story—but is it true?

The survivors of Porvenir abandoned the village, most fleeing in to Mexico.  Since the 1980s, Glenn Justice has been trying to assemble the facts of the incident. Historian Lonn Taylor said, “As time went along, it was clear that the massacre had certainly taken place.  What was not clear was who had precisely done the killing.  He [Justice] was drawn back to the site of executions over and over again; something didn’t quite jibe.”

Justice interviewed a survivor in 2001.  Juan Floreswas a boy when his father was killed there.  Justice has collected 47 artifacts of the massacre, mostly bullets and shell casings.  “And the curious part of it is that they’re all US Army.”

Former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has been to Porvenir, as well.  He’s making a documentary about the incident.  What interests him isn’t only the history of Porvenir, but the political present as well.  “… the parallels are phenomenal between then and now.  We talk about having a national security issue now, the fear that terrorists may come across the border.  Well, we had a national security issue 100 years ago.  Back then we had gun smuggling into Mexico, today we have gun smuggling into Mexico.”

Glenn Justice reminds us that there were a lot of dirty hands back then and suggests that there are some today who don’t want the Porvenir story told.


The facts are that South and West Texas was once in the center of New Spain.  The people who settled Tejaswere Mexicans; a stroke of the pen in 1848 proclaimed them Americans —but most of these people have never come to grips with the fact that they are no longer Mexicans.  They took sides during the Mexican Revolution and helped bring the conflict into the United States.  Tejanos supported Mexicans rather than siding with Texans during the so-called Bandit Wars.  When the United States entered into World War I, there was a mass southern migration into Mexico to avoid American military service.  Today, Tejanos continue to fly the flag of Mexico outside of their businesses and homes.  Many would argue that this is not how patriotic Americans behave.  Some might observe that with few exception, today’s Tejano is as distant from his Texan neighbor as he has ever been.

Fort at Brite RanchThe story of the Brite Ranch raid wasn’t concocted.  In 1918, Luke Brite constructed a small fort at his ranch, equipping it with a telegraph key, searchlight, machine guns, and long-range rifles.  A Texas Ranger was permanently stationed at the ranch.  His duty was to man an observation post overlooking the old Knight Trail.  Luke Brite was not a paranoid man.  He had worked hard over many years to build up his ranch; the fear he had for the safety of his family and property was real.  The problem in border area Texas with the so-called good neighbor policy, or so it would seem, is that there has been a paucity of good neighbors —true even today.


  1. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas
  2. Keith, N. L.The Brite’s of Capote.  Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1950
  3. Madison, V.The Big Bend Country of Texas.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1955
  4. Investigation of Mexican Affairs: Hearing before a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 66thCongress of the United States, first session pursuant to SR 106, United States Government Printing Office,1920


[1] The Mexican Revolution was a time of scant means of honest livelihood in the rough mountainous country south of the border.  Hard times made thieving, raiding, banditry, and murder an attractive pathway to easy money.  Although Francisco “Pancho” Villa was not among these bandits, they were believed to either be part of Villa’s band or among his supporters.  It was a time when Villa was in dire need of funds and supplies to carry out his revolution in Mexico.  Some later claimed that Villa’s brother-in-law was the leader of the Brite Ranch raid.

[2] One of the passengers remains buried a short distance from the ranch’s current headquarters.

[3] On 4 June 1918, Governor William P. Hobby disbanded Company B and dismissed five rangers for their participation.  The massacre was investigated in 1919, but no one was ever charged for the crime.



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Stagecoach Mary Fields

Mary Fields 001

Mary Fields, public domain

Mary Fields (1832-1914) stood six-feet tall in her stocking feet, weighed 200 pounds, smoked cigars, cursed like a sailor, and would knock out any cowboy that gave her excess amounts of back talk.  She was also the first black woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States, and the second woman to work for the US Postal Service.

Mary was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee.  She was freed when Republican President Abraham Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation. She worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne and when the judge’s wife died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields escorted the family’s five children to live with their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio.

The next year, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade.  Upon learning that Mother Amadeus was ill, Mary Fields hastened to her side and helped nurse her back to health.  After that, Mary Fields remained at St. Peter’s Mission hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, repairing buildings, and eventually becoming a forewoman.

Mother Mary Amadeus Dunne 1884

Mother Mary Amadeus Dunne, 1884

St. Peter’s Mission was not altogether peaceful with Mary Fields about.  Her gruff style and penchant for colorful language raised eyebrows.  Not long after her arrival, someone asked about her journey. She answered that she was ready for a good cigar and a glass of strong whiskey.  Her nature was, for the most part, difficult and she didn’t mind tussling with the nuns over her wages, either.  This was a peculiar behavior in those days because no one expected a Negro to be so sassy.

In 1894, someone made an official complaint about Mary Fields.  Apparently, there was an incident involving a former male employee and Mary’s guns.  The complaint came at an inopportune time because it had a cumulative effect on the Bishop.  He was already out of sorts with Mary about her drinking, smoking, cursing, shooting guns, and wearing men’s clothing, so when she was accused of pointing guns at the former male janitor during an argument, the Bishop made her leave the convent.  Mother Amadeus helped her to establish a restaurant in nearby Cascade.  The problem was that Mary Fields would feed anyone, irrespective of whether they could pay. The restaurant went broke in ten months.

Native Americans referred to Fields as White Crow. She acted in a manner somewhat similar to white women but was black as a crow.  Local whites hardly knew what to think of Mary Fields.  One local Democrat wrote, “She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a Republican and this makes her a low, foul creature.”  It is amazing how little Democrats have changed since the 1880s.

StagecoachIn 1895, Stagecoach Mary was hovering around sixty years of age.  This is when Fields was hired as a mail carrier; she could hitch a team of six horses quicker than anyone.  She became a “star route” carrier, an independent contractor who carried mail using a stagecoach donated by Mother Amadeus.  The position suited Mary Fields to a tee because as a star carrier, her job was to protect the mail from thieves and bandits.

Some said that she actually prayed for someone to try and rob her stage, which she drove with horses and a mule she named Moses.  Stagecoach Mary (sometimes Black Mary) never missed a day, and it was her reliability, and her kindness toward children, that earned her the respect and admiration of locals.  And Mary was tough: If the snowfall was too deep for the horses, Mary Fields strapped on snowshoes, hoisted the bags of mail on her shoulders, and delivered the mail.  She did this sort of thing for eight years, until finally, age caught up with her.

Mary Fields 002When Mary retired from the mail route, the community rallied to support her —even in spite of the occasional dust-ups she had with her neighbors.  Local restaurant owners gave her free meals, and she regularly chatted with saloon customers (so long as they bought her a drink of whiskey).

Mary Fields died of liver failure in 1914.  Her funeral was one of the largest turnouts in Cascade’s history.  Mary was one tough lady, and she didn’t mind having an outsized reputation, either.  Actor Gary Cooper, a native of Montana, remarked of Mary Fields, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath —or a .38.”


  1. G. Garceau-Hagan, Ed. Portraits of Women in the American West.  New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2005
  2. Shirley, G. C. More than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women.  Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2011
  3. Franks, J. A. Mary Fields (Black Mary).  California: Wild Goose Press, 2000
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The Frontier Ladies

Most people think of western migration as something that men did.  While true, we mustn’t forget that women endured the same hardships as the men. We should not ignore the vital roles these migrating women played in the development of early America.  Most women who made the arduous journey to the western territories did so out of necessity.  Most women, although certainly not all, traveled with their husbands or families.

Frontier Wagon 001

Frontier Transportation

Some of the married ladies traveled by themselves at a later time, joining husbands who were already established, and a few of these arrived at their new location only to find that they had been widowed.  Single women made the journey as well, just not in very large numbers, and some of these as “mail order” brides.

Who were these frontier women?  They were wives, mothers, widows of civil war veterans, school teachers, and in a few cases, educated women who were looking to practice their professions as doctors or lawyers —these were vocations that had been denied to them in the reputedly civilized east.  While some women traveled west by ship or train, most walked every step of the way, sharing every hardship with their men —frequently with several children in tow.  These would be the women who survived, which is to say, the women we know about. There are hundreds of others who did not survive, of whom we have little knowledge.  We still find their sun-bleached remains in the high deserts of western America.  Whether they survived this arduous journey, all of these women endured the heat, the freezing cold, torrential storms, choked on dust, suffered shortages of food and water, and lived their every day in fear of hostile Indians.  Tragic accidents, and deadly diseases claimed more than a few.

Westward migration was a grueling journey.  Women-folk often drove the wagons and helped clear the roads of fallen debris.  When their wagons became mired in mud and filth, the ladies pitched in to push these heavy wagons out of the ruts and helped their men repair or replace broken wagon wheels.  When the day’s journey came to an end, it was the women who prepared the meals, washed and mended clothing, and bathed and tucked the youngsters in for the night.  They often led religious services, played musical instruments, or sang religious songs.

The plains wagons were pulled by either oxen or horses; the heavier the load, the more animals were needed–animals that required adequate forage to complete their task.  No matter what or how many animals were used, it was a long, slow, exasperating trip.  The wagons were heavy, the rutted roadways always a challenge, and the animals could only do so much.  For this reason, women and children quite often walked alongside their wagons [1].  Mature ladies, young ladies, children … everyone who was able walked the pathway to the promised land.

Frontier Cabin 001

A frontier homestead

Frontier woman may have initially arrived at her destination thanking God for her safe delivery, but her relief was short lived; her hardships were only just beginning. The frontier held nothing that was familiar to the lives these ladies left behind.  The first lesson, and one that was probably learned very early on, was how to “make do.”  Their first home was very likely the prairie wagon.  Later constructions were often crude, including makeshift tents, log shacks, sodded shanties —all of these with dirt floors.  They lived with the insects, mites, and critters that scamper along the ground: spiders, scorpions, snakes, field rats.  Clothing didn’t last forever, so it fell to the ladies to make new or repair the old.  Back home, there may have been a neighbor close by to offer help or advice.  There were no helpers in the frontier.  The women were on their own.

Between dawn and dusk, women were often found plowing fields, milking cows, raising chickens, or helping a cow give birth.  The frontier woman may have assisted her mate panning for gold or other precious stones.  When the work was done, it was once again time to prepare the meal, clean the home as best as it was possible, launder, and care for the smallest children. Then, and only then, could the frontier women get any rest.

On occasion, and perhaps more often than we imagine, the man of the house would saddle up his horse and ride off to the county seat to take care of business.  He may be gone for a few hours, or a few days.  It always depended on how far he had to travel.  The frontier woman couldn’t take care of this business, of course, because someone had to milk the cows, feed the chickens, or take care of the children —and besides, these women weren’t allowed to conduct business with the government: They weren’t recognized as full citizens.

Now, of course, this situation changed over time … perhaps, too long of a time. There were occasions when the man never came home.  Some of these men were murdered along a desolate road.  Others incurred hostile Indians.  Some fell off their horse and broke their necks.  Others simply rode away and never looked back, leaving his woman to fend for herself.  It was at these times that the frontier woman entered a new phase in her life.  It was not a very kind life.  The further removed from civilized society a woman was, the more difficult her life, and the longer it took for civilization to catch up with her.

Homestead guardIf the children were educated, it was the ladies who educated them.  Homeschooling existed long before public schools.  Eventually, civilization did catch up.  A nearby town, access to formal churches, women’s groups … an opportunity to talk with their own kind.  Women, talking to other women, who in most cases understood the difficulties of the frontier life.

It stands to reason, then, that frontier women were far more independent than the ladies who remained back east.  These western women developed a sense of self, and what they could achieve.  It may even be true that no one —male or female— had more self-confidence than the frontier woman, and this may explain why western states granted suffrage to women far sooner than states back east.  Western women had proved their mettle, and I suppose we could argue that there could not have been a civilized west without the participation, influence, and the firm guiding hand of America’s unshakable women.

Naturally, there were a few of these ladies who eclipsed female behavioral norms in the opposite direction.  There were the prostitutes, dance hall girls, barmaids, and outlaws.  Outlaws? Of course —and two examples of possible interest were nicknamed Cattle Annie and Little Britches.  Only a few have ever heard of them.

Yet, in their own time, in the 1890s, they were two of the west’s most famous female outlaws.  They were not only accomplished cattle thieves but were also associated with the so-called Wild Bunch [2], also known as the Dalton-Doolin Gang —outlaws who operated out of the Indian Territories (Oklahoma).  They robbed banks and stores, held up trains, and shot lawmen.  Some folks called these people the Oklahoma Long Riders because of the long dusters [3] they wore, others referred to them as the Oklahombres.  Cattle Annie and Little Britches were also wanted for selling liquor to Indians and stealing horses.  Both ladies were excellent shots with pistol and rifle.

As an aside, the Wild Bunch came to a violent end: all eleven of these men would die in gun fights with lawmen.  They were men named William (Bill) Dalton, Bill Doolin, William “Tulsa Jack” Blake, Dan “Dynamite Dick” Clifton, Roy Daugherty (a.k.a. Arkansas Tom Jones), George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb (a.k.a. Slaughter Kid), Charley Pierce, William F. (“Little Bill) Raidler, George Waightman, Richard (“Little Dick”) West, and Oliver Yantis.

Cattle Annie 001

Cattle Annie & Little Britches

Cattle Annie and Little Britches weren’t members of the gang in a formal sense —they were simply associating with killers. The efforts of lawmen to capture these desperados were frequently spoiled by females, like Cattle Annie and Little Britches, who warned them in advance that dangerous lawmen were near.

Cattle Annie was born Anna McDoulet to James and Rebekah McDoulet of Lawrence County, Kansas in 1879. Anna was the youngest of three, with a brother named Calvin and a sister, Martha.  Several more children were born to the McDoulet’s after Annie moved away from home.  When Anna was four-years old, the family moved to Coyville, Wilson County, Kansas. As a young teenager, Anna worked as a hotel dishwasher.  Eventually, the family moved to the Otoe Reservation near Skiatook (north of Tulsa), Oklahoma.  The young lady was taken-in by the tales of dime novelists, who often published exaggerated stories of outlaws and gunfighters.

Little Britches was actually a young woman by the name of Jennie Stevens, born in 1879 to Daniel and Lucy Stevenson of Barton County, Missouri.  Daniel was an honest and respectable farmer.  Around 1887, the family moved to the western side of the state, near Seneca, and then again into the Creek Nation in Pawnee County.  At fifteen, Jennie was impressionable, and she too was somewhat taken by the tales of the Doolin-Dalton Gang.  Jennie began dressing in men’s clothing and one night, she ran away to join the gang.  During the night, she lost her horse, and as it turned out, members of the gang found her and returned her to a farm near that of her father’s.  It has been said that her father, not at all pleased with the young lady’s behavior, gave her a thrashing.  Then, humiliated by her friends in school, she ran away again —this time, associating with a horse dealer named Benjamin Midkiff, who she ended up marrying.  It wasn’t long before her new husband realized that she was entertaining men in his absence and he promptly returned her to her home.  At age sixteen, Jennie married again, this time to a fellow by the name of Robert Stephens.  She left him after six months and it was not long after this that she acquired the nickname “Little Britches.”

The two women met at a country dance and formed a friendship and it was at one such dance that Annie’s boyfriend at the time introduced her to George “Red Buck” Waightman.  As soon as Annie discovered that Waightman was a member of the Doolin-Dalton gang, she fell in love with him and both women took up with the gang. The gang told them exciting tales from their previous exploits and within a few months, Cattle Annie and Little Britches began operating on their own.  According to a news account of the time, “… not only did they dare to wear men’s pants in the sanctimonious but scarlet nineties, but rode horses as men rode them, astride, and with heavy forty-fives swinging at their hips.”

It was an adventure living on the wrong side of the law. In 1895, several headlines heralded their exploits from Guthrie (central north) to Coffeyville (on the Kansas border), Oklahoma.  They often confused the law by working during the day and breaking the law a night. One posse met up with Cattle Annie on the trail and asked her if she had seen any strange-looking men in the area. Annie immediately notified the Doolin gang that lawmen were about, and the gang-members disappeared for a few months.

Jennie was arrested in August 1895 by Sheriff Frank Lake, who took her under guard to a restaurant in Pawnee for her supper meal. When she had finished eating, Jennie suddenly jumped up from the table and ran out the back of the restaurant, leaped on a horse, and vanished into the night.  Apparently, she had stolen the horse of deputy marshal Frank Canton. The following night, Cattle Annie and Little Britches were tracked down to a house near Pawnee by famed lawman Bill Tilghman.  The ladies gave flight and there was an exchange of gunfire as the two made their way to a back window to escape.  Cattle Annie was captured by deputy marshal Steve Burke, but Jennie made it to freedom for a little while longer.  Tilghman gave chase and Little Britches fired several shots.  Tilghman returned fire, shooting her horse, and the chase was ended. Jennie fought like a wildcat, but she was finally subdued, and both “ladies” were put in jail.

Authorities charged Annie and Jennie with stealing horses and selling whiskey to the Indians.  Annie received a one-year sentence in the Framingham reformatory for women in Massachusetts, but was paroled a few months later, due to poor health.  She remained in Framingham until she found work as a domestic in Sherborn, Massachusetts, a small town south of Framingham.  A few months later, she went to New York —but until several years later, this is where her trail ends.  Some stories claim that she died from tuberculosis in New York, while other accounts include her marriage to a man named Earl Frost in 1901 (divorced in 1909), and to Whitmore R. Roach in 1910 (until his death in 1947).  Annie Emmaline McDoulet Frost-Roach (Cattle Annie) died at the age of 95 in Oklahoma City and is buried at Rose Hill Park in that city.

As for Jennie, she was held for two months in the Guthrie jail as a material witness to a murder.  She had witnessed a shooting while working as a housekeeper.  Her two-year sentence began in Framingham reformatory in Massachusetts on 11 November 1895, but she was released from confinement on 7 October 1896 for good behavior and returned to her parents in Pawnee County, Oklahoma.  No one knows whatever became of Little Britches.


  1. Holmes, Kenneth. ed. “Diaries of Women”. In Covered Wagon Women, vol. 2, Glendale: Author H. Clark Co., 1983.
  2. Hodgson, Mary A. The Life of a Pioneer Family: A True Account by Mary A. Hodgson. California State Library, Sacramento.
  3. National Park Service. The Overland Migrations: Settlers to Oregon, California, and Utah. Handbook 105. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1984.
  4. Texan Cultures Museum and Archive. Personal letters, Government documents, and Land title records. San Antonio Texas, September 8-10, 2009.
  5. Ward, Robert. Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Simon & Schuster e-book


[1] Trails leading west began at several locations, including San Antonio and Galveston, Texas, Fort Smith, Arkansas, Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.  They were divided into three categories: Southern, Central, and Northern tracks. Within these were several separate trails.  Some examples include, the Northern Trails: Applegate, Bozeman, California, Cherokee-Evans Northern Cherokee, Mormon or North Bank, and Oregon.  In the south, Cook’s Wagon Road, El Camino del Diablo, Fort Smith-Santa Fe, Gila, Lower Road, Old Spanish, and the Santa Fe Trail.

[2] There were two distinct gangs that called themselves “The Wild Bunch.”  The first of these was the Doolin-Dalton gang that operated in Oklahoma in the early to late 1890s.  It was an eleven-member gang with individuals identified in the foregoing paragraphs.  The second gang with that name was comprised of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the two most-famous members.

[3] A duster was a long, loose-fitting long coat intended to keep the dust from clothing worn underneath.


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The Black Hawk War, 1832

Tomahawk 001There are a number of reasons people leave their traditional homes.  We generally refer to these as the push—pull factors of human migration.  Push factors might include weather phenomena, disease, an encroachment by stronger groups, insufficient food, water, or other resources needed to sustain  human life. Pull factors are almost a no-brainer: abundance of food and water, safety, availability of resources, little resistance from other human settlements, or the presence of human groups weaker than themselves.  We also know that whenever groups of people square off against one another, the winner is almost always the group that possesses the more sophisticated technology.  The losers of such contests are either killed off or assimilated by the stronger.

Human migration is a key element in the story of humankind.  In the pursuit of food, hunters discovered new sources of water —finding new places to dwell for a time.  As human beings developed an understanding of agriculture, their tendency of following animal herds diminished over time, particularly when humans learned how to domesticate animals. Still, there is always something that pushes human beings in new directions; if not the quest for richer lands, a longer growing season, or human conflict, then something else.

Two-hundred years ago, Americans migrated westward; today they migrate toward large cities.  Human migration is part of the story of America.  Two-hundred years ago, white settlers moving west gradually pushed native Americans out of their traditional homes.  It set into motion periods of great conflict between these two peoples. Think of it as a long line of falling dominoes.  As white settlers pushed Indians out of one area, those Indians moved further west and fell into conflict with other native tribes.

Massika and Wakusasse

Portrait of Massika and Wakusasse by Karl Bodmer, 1833

The Sauk [1] Indians are an Algonquian-language group that initially developed along the St. Lawrence River, driven there by other tribes —notably the Iroquois.  The Sauk eventually settled in present-day Michigan near the Saginaw Bay, but over time the Huron, armed with firearms provided to them by the French, and seeking to stabilize that area under Huron hegemony, pushed the Sauk further west and south.

In 1730, French-allied Indians attacked a tribe known as the Meskwaki (or Fox) Indians. The marauders killed Hundreds of Fox warriors; women and children were taken captive, and the survivors escaped to take shelter with the Sauk.  The Sauk realized that in their decision to take in Meskwaki survivors that French allied tribes would target them, as well.  It was an act of kindness that prompted the tribe to move even further west into present-day Iowa and Kansas.

Two important Sauk leaders emerged between 1790 and 1830; their names were Keokuk and Black Hawk [2].  Given the numbers of white settlers pushing west, Keokuk concluded that the loss of their traditional lands was inevitable.  His policy was to preserve what land he could for his people and maintain peaceful relations with the whites.  Black Hawk, on the other hand, had earned a reputation as a stubborn yet fierce and courageous fighter in the frequent skirmishes between the Sauk and their principle enemy, the Osage.  By around 1800, Black Hawk had concluded that the real threat to his people were not other native tribes, but rather the rapidly growing numbers of whites streaming into the region.

In 1804, representatives of the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians signed a treaty that ceded to the United States all of their land east of the Mississippi River.  Black Hawk later claimed that the treaty was invalid because at the time he signed the treaty, he was inebriated.  In 1816, however, Black Hawk confirmed the treaty with his own signature and then claimed he did not understand the meaning of the words —that he would one day have to cede his home village of Saukenuk on the Rock River.

Over the next fifteen years, the US Army was busy constructing forts, needed to protect even more settlers.  This activity and its meaning was not lost on Black Hawk.  He knew that settlers would push his people even further west.  He grew angrier with the passage of time.  Finally, when settlers began to occupy the village of Saukenuk in 1831 (later known as Rock Island, Illinois) Black Hawk announced to his people that it was time to prepare for war.

In May 1830, a band of Dakota (Santee Sioux) and Menominee Indians killed fifteen Meskwakis attending a treaty conference at Prairie du Chien.  Meskwakis and Sauks retaliated by killing 26 Menominee, including their women and children. The United States government wanted to discourage further revenge killings but western bands of the Menominees formed an alliance with the Sioux to strike the Sauk and Meskwakis.  As the US Army saw it, this problem had but one solution: arrest the Meskwakis who perpetrated the murder of 26 Menominees [3].

General Edmund P. Gaines [4] commanded the US Army’s Western Department, but as he was ill, he assigned the task of arresting the murdering Indians to Brigadier General Henry Atkinson.  Atkinson was an able administrator, but he had never served in combat.  He set out on April 18, 1830 with 220 soldiers from Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. Completely by chance, Atkinson’s steamboat passed Black Hawk’s canoes as he crossed over into Illinois.

At this point a more technologically advanced human group is about to push out a less advanced society.  It may be true that Black Hawk was provided with intoxicants in 1804, or that he was prompted to sign a document he couldn’t read, but as a practical matter, it didn’t matter.  From the standpoint of white culture, “let the buyer beware,” but this would not be something said or understood by a native American.  On the other hand, Indians handled misunderstandings through warfare.  To them, this was the natural order of things.  It is perfectly understandable that native Americans would apply this same standard to whites.  Black Hawk was going to war to right and wrong.

Black Hawk 001

Black Hawk

In April 1832, Black Hawk led a group of Sauk, Meskwaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Ottawa Indians (collectively known as the British Band [5]) from Iowa across the Mississippi River into Illinois.  Black Hawk may not have had a clear plan of action beyond his intention to reclaim ceded land, but with a total population of only six-thousand or so Sauk and Meskwaki Indians, it is hard to imagine he was seriously thinking about general war. According to some historians, it is rather likely that Black Hawk wanted to recoup his land with minimal bloodshed if possible.  If this supposition is true, then one is forced to conclude that Black Hawk’s did not consider the likely consequences of his actions.

When General Atkinson arrived at Fort Armstrong on 12 April 1832, he learned that Black Hawk and the British Band was already in Illinois —which meant that most of the Indians he intended to arrest were with Black Hawk.  Every snippet of intelligence available to Atkinson led him to conclude that Black Hawk intended to start a war.  With only 220 troops, Atkinson corresponded with Governor Reynolds of Illinois asking for reinforcement of state militia.  Even if Atkinson exaggerated the situation, Reynolds, who wanted a war with the Indians, could not have been more pleased.  Reynolds promptly called for volunteers to assemble at Beardstown by 22 April to begin a thirty-day enlistment.  More than two thousand men volunteered.  They were organized into a brigade of five regiments serving under militia Brigadier General Samuel Whiteside [6].

Meanwhile, Atkinson consulted with Keokuk and a Meskwaki chief named Wapello, who agreed to send emissaries to the British Band [7].  Black Hawk rejected the envoys and advised them to turn back.  Atkinson knew that Black Hawk’s presence in Illinois was in contravention to an agreement he made with the United States government, and that Gov. Reynolds was assembling a large force to dislodge him.  Of course, should anything go awry, it wouldn’t be his fault. Blame would be laid at the feet of General Whiteside.

Native Americans organized themselves in several ways. Generally, however, Indian tribes consisted of several bands and frequently disagreed among themselves about almost everything.  This is the reason why Indians held councils before deciding important matters.  In Indian culture, bands had no obligation to follow the orders of their tribal chief.  It was through council that Black Hawk learned that the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi did not support war.  He regarded the Ho-Chunk as fence sitters: on the one hand, voicing support to the Sauk without taking any actions that might provoke the Americans.  The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk well-remembered their losses to the Americans in the 1827 Winnebago War.  The Ho-Chunk also had ties to the Dakota and Menominee and was well aware that these two groups were eager for a fight with Black Hawk.  The Potawatomis wished to remain neutral; they worried that should any member of their tribe join with Black Hawk the whole would receive punishment.

The Potawatomi declared their neutrality and informed Black Hawk that neither they nor the Ho-Chunk would come to his aid.  Without provisions from these two groups —without allies, or with no chance for reinforcements— Black Hawk understood that he was isolated. Some historians argue that Black Hawk was at this point ready to negotiate with Atkinson to end the crisis, but an ill-fated encounter with Illinois militia pushed outright war to the front burner.

On May 14, 1832, Major Isaiah Stillman and Major David Baily jointly commanded a detachment of 275 militia.  They were encamped near Old Man’s Creek and the confluence of the Rock River.  Stillman and Bailey were unaware of their proximity to the British Band.  Black Hawk’s scouts brought word to him regarding the near-proximity of state militia.  He thereupon sent three emissaries under a flag of parley in order to assure them of the Indian’s peaceful intentions.  There being no trust between most white and red men, the militia were suspicious of the offer of parley, but nevertheless invited the emissaries into camp; during the proceedings, a militia outpost signaled the presence of several Sauk warriors in the surrounding wood.  They appeared to be observing the activities of the soldiers. Suspecting a trap, the soldiers shot at the three envoys, killing one, sending two scampering back to Black Hawk.

Now, among native Americans, firing upon emissaries was an unforgiveable act.  Hostilities having begun, a highly disorganized militia began a pursuit of surrounding Indian scouts.  Black Hawk concealed his force within dense vegetation, and just as the soldiers approached, the Indians ambushed them.  Stillman, believing his militia confronted thousands of Indians ordered a retreat; it was anything but orderly.  Guarding the withdrawal of the militia force to Dixon’s Ferry was Captain John Giles Adams, who ultimately forfeited his life along with those under his command [8].

Observing Indians serving alongside whites in the militia against him must have irritatedBlack Hawk to no end, even though inter-tribal conflict was always part of native American culture.  Tribal warfare was a perpetual contest to determine which tribe should reign supreme in the area of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.  Dominant tribes controlled the hunting grounds.

Tribal bickering had nettled British administrators and military leaders for years; now it was an American problem.  Americans believed that it served no useful purpose to have Indian tribes warring with one another.  Combating tribes made it more difficult for the US to acquire Indian land and move Indian groups further west.  Before Andrew Jackson, the people responsible for mediating tribal disputes were senior military officials or high-ranking civilian commissioners.  Jackson’s election created the “spoils system,” where important posts went to Jackson supporters, whether qualified or not. These Jacksonian Democrats frequently did more harm than good [9].  Historian Lyman Draper opined that there may not have been a Black Hawk War had it not been for the incompetence of President Andrew Jackson.  On the other hand, young braves needed to engage in hostilities in order to advance their social positions within the tribe.

After the battle at Stillman’s Run, Black Hawk intended retribution for the way in which Major Stillman treated his envoys while under a flag of parlay.  After the Battle of Stillman’s Run, President Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass were determined to make an example of Black Hawk.

Black Hawk’s first priority was to move the women, children, and elderly to a place of sanctuary.  He accepted the offer of the Rock River Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) and moved his people to Lake Koshkonong.  With his noncombatants secure, Black Hawk and his British Band initiated a series of raids against White settlements.  The raids distressed Potawatomi Chief Shabonna, who sent riders out to warn the settlers of an impending attack.  The first attack came on 19 May 1832 when Winnebago warriors ambushed six men near Buffalo Grove, Illinois.  Killed was William Durley, whose scalped and mutilated body was discovered by federal Indian Agent Felix St. Vrain [10]. St. Vrain was himself murdered a few days later at Kellogg’s Grove, Illinois.

As previously mentioned, not all Indian bands agreed with tribal policies, which was their right as members of a band or tribe.  Certain Winnebago and Potawatomi warriors wanted nothing whatever to do with Black Hawk’s confused campaign.

Other Indians, however, were able to justify Black Hawk’s crusade based on their own experiences with white settlers.  In the spring of 1832, Potawatomi living near Indian Creek became unsettled when settler William Davis dammed the creek, preventing fish from reaching their village.  Davis ignored their protests and even assaulted a Potawatomi man attempting to dismantle the dam.  The Black Hawk War provided an ideal opportunity to fix the problem of white settlers and dammed-up creeks.

On May 21, fifty Potawatomis and three Sauks from the British Band attacked the Davis settlement, murdering fifteen settlers, including women and children [11].  The marauders also kidnapped two teenaged girls and took them to Black Hawk’s camp; the Winnebago Chief White Crow, who was one of the fence sitters in this conflict, negotiated their release two weeks later.

News of Black Hawk’s successes triggered a panic among white settlers —but they were not alone.  Indians also surged toward the Chicago settlement to avoid being caught up in the bloodshed.  Chicago was soon overpopulated with hungry refugees.  These Indians were accepted into the settlement, fed, nurtured, and protected. Meanwhile, white communities quickly organized militias and began constructing fortifications.  Regular Army and militias continued looking for Black Hawk but could not locate him.  When militias in the field learned of the Indian raids, many of the men returned home to defend their families.  Morale plummeted.  Governor Reynolds was forced to ask his officers to poll the men to see whether the Black Hawk campaign should be continued.  Whiteside, disgusted with the militia’s lack of resolve, cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of disbanding.  The brigade disbanded at Ottawa, Illinois on May 28th.  Three hundred men, including Abraham Lincoln, agreed to remain in the field for twenty more days until the formation of a new militia. When the new organization was formed, Lincoln reenlisted as a private.

Henry Dodge 001

Colonel Henry Dodge

Brigadier General Atkinson organized his new force in June 1832; he called it the Army of the Frontier.  His force now consisted of 630 regular infantry, and 3,196 mounted militia volunteers divided into three brigades.  Commanding the Brigades were Brigadier Generals Alexander Posey, Milton Alexander, and James D. Henry.  Given that many of these men were assigned to guard duty and reconnaissance patrols, only 450 regular troops and 2,100 militia were available for campaigning.  Colonel Henry Dodge, a Michigan territorial militia officer proved to be one of the best commanders in the Black Hawk War. He fielded a battalion of 250 mounted volunteers (at its strongest strength).

Atkinson also set about to recruit new Indian allies; a reversal of previous policy that had been designed to help prevent inter-tribal warfare. Atkinson found that several bands of tribes were in fact eager to go to war against Black Hawk.  By June 6th, Indian Agent Joseph M. Street assembled 225 Indians at Prairie du Chien, including 80 Dakota, 40 Menominees, and several bands of Winnebago.  The Indian units had their own leaders, of course, but Street placed them under the overall command of William Hamilton, the son of Alexander Hamilton, who proved to be an unwise choice.  Young Hamilton was a petulant man who was unsuitable for military service and unqualified to lead any organization.  The Indians soon became frustrated marching around in the sun and never seeing any action, and so they deserted Hamilton and fought the war on their own terms.

Black Hawk War 002

Indian raiders attacked farmers in the field

After hearing that Atkinson was forming a new army in June, Black Hawk began sending out raiding parties westward with the hope of leading the Americans away from his camp at Lake Koshkonong.  The first major assault occurred on 14thJune near present-day South Wayne, Wisconsin. In this engagement, a band of 30 warriors attacked a group of farmers, killing and scalping four.  The attack prompted Colonel Dodge to gather a squadron of 29 mounted volunteers and pursue these Indians.  Dodge cornered eleven warriors two days later: all were killed and scalped. It was the American’s first success, known today as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and as the Battle of Pecatonica River.

On the same day, another skirmish took place at Kellogg’s Grove where militia forces occupied a base in order to intercept war parties.  In the first battle, the militia pursued a British Band raiding party of about thirty warriors.  Three militia and six raiders died in the fighting.  Two days later, a militia force encountered another war party near Yellow Creek; it was a hard fought, hand-to-hand encounter resulting in deaths on both sides.

Black Hawk and around 200 warriors attacked the hastily constructed fort at Apple River on 24 June.  Local settlers, warned of Black Hawk’s approach, took refuge in the fort, which was defended by around 30 militia.  The battle lasted approximately 45 minutes.  The women loaded muskets and molded bullets as the fighting raged. After losing several braves, Black Hawk broke off the siege, looted nearby homes, and disappeared from the field.

The second battle of Kellogg’s Grove occurred on 25 June, when Black Hawk’s party encountered a militia battalion under Major John Dement.  Black Hawk’s force drove the militia into the fort and commenced a two-hour siege. After losing nine warriors, he broke off the engagement and returned to Lake Koshkonong.  Militia loses were five killed.  It was Black Hawk’s last military success in the war.  Since the Indians were low on food, Black Hawk led them back across the Mississippi River.

President Jackson, meanwhile, became very displeased with General Atkinson’s performance.  Jackson ordered Atkinson relieved of his command and replaced him with Major General Winfield Scott.  Scott gathered around 1,000 troops from eastern posts.  But as Scott began to muster his force, a cholera pandemic spread through the eastern United States.  En route to Chicago, many of Scott’s men came down with the disease and died.  Whenever the opportunity presented itself to desert, many of Scott’s men took advantage of it.  When Scott arrived in Chicago, the effective strength of his command was 350 men.

Atkinson, who had learned in early July that Scott would be taking command, hoped to bring the war to a successful conclusion before Scott’s arrival.  It was easier said than done because the British Band eluded him.  Part of Atkinson’s problem was that some of the Indians upon whom he depended for information were telling him lies.  For example, some Ho-Chunk braves, who were sympathetic to the plight of Black Hawk’s people, misled Atkinson into thinking that the British Band was still at Lake Koshkonong.

While many of the Illinois Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk had sought to remain neutral in the war, they later decided to cooperate with the Americans.  Tribal leaders knew that some of their warriors had provided aid and comfort to the British Band and hoped that a highly visible show of support for the Americans would dissuade U.S. officials from punishing the tribes at the end of hostilities.  Wearing white headbands to differentiate themselves from hostile natives, Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi braves served as guides for Atkinson’s army.  While Atkinson’s men were trudging through the swamps behind traitorous guides, and running low on provisions, the British Band had in fact relocated miles to the north.  In any case, serving as guides enabled the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi to demonstrate support for the Americans while avoiding battle.  What these Indians wanted most was to survive, which is perfectly understandable.

In mid-July, Colonel Dodge, upon learning that the British Band was camped near Rock River rapids, set out in pursuit from Fort Winnebago. At this point, owing to death and desertion, the British Band had been reduced to around 600 people.  With the approach of Colonel Dodge’s militia, the Indians headed toward the Mississippi River.  Dodge pursued them, killing Indian stragglers wherever he found them.

Dodge caught up with the British Band on 21 July near present-day Sauk City, Wisconsin.  Black Hawk needed to buy time for his women, children, and the elderly to cross over the Wisconsin River, so he engaged the militia in a rearguard action that became known as the Battle of Wisconsin Heights.  Black Hawk found himself hopelessly outnumbered, with fifty-to-seventy Indians opposing 750 Americans.  It was a lopsided victory for the militia, who lost one man killed. Black Hawk lost 68 warriors, but he achieved his purpose; much of the British Band were able to escape across the river.

Atkinson and his regular force of 400 men joined the volunteers several days later.  This combined force crossed the Wisconsin River on 27 July and resumed their pursuit. The Indians, encumbered by wounded warriors and starving people, moved slowly.  Tracking these Indians was relatively easy; all the Americans had to do is follow the growing number of dead Indians along the trail —the militia had no intention of allowing these Indians to re-cross the Mississippi River.

Steamboat Warrior 001

Steamboat Warrior fires on escaping Indians

A steamboat that had been outfitted with artillery patrolled the Mississippi while Americans and their Indian allies surveilled the river banks. On 1 August, the steamboat Warrior arrived at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, which is where Dakota scouts said the Americans could find Black Hawk.

Given the number of Indian raids on settlements, the Americans were in no mood to accept surrender, so when Black Hawk raised a white flag, he was completely ignored.  Besides, the Americans no longer trusted the word of anyone from Black Hawk’s band.  When the militia was certain that the Indians on land were in fact the British Band, they opened fire.  Twenty-five Indians were killed; the militia suffered one injury.  After Steamship Warrior departed, Black Hawk decided to seek refuge in the north with the Ojibwe Tribe [12].  Only fifty people agreed to accompany him; everyone else was determined to return to their home in Sauk territory.

Black Hawk was already on his way north when he learned that the militia had closed in on the British Band who were trying to cross the Mississippi River.  By this time, the British Band had been reduced to around 500 Indians —of these, only 150 were warriors, all of whom fought a delaying action while women and children frantically tried to complete the river crossing.  Many made it to an island in the center of the river but were dislodged when the steamboat returned.

The engagement ended with a massive victory for the Americans, only 14 of whom were killed in action.  The Indians lost 260-killed, which included 110 who drowned while attempting to cross the river.  Regular soldiers were well-disciplined during the engagement, but the militia took advantage of every opportunity to kill the fleeing Indians. Some historians have described the event of less battle than massacre.

One-hundred-fifty volunteer Dakotas arrived too late to participate in the battle, but they did pursue those of the British Band who made it across the Mississippi into Iowa.  On 9-10 August, they attacked the remnants of their enemy along the Cedar River, killing 68 and taking 22 as prisoners.  A Ho-Chunk band pursued another group, taking around 60 scalps. This was the last engagement of the Black Hawk War.

Discounting militia who perished by disease, 77 white settlers, militiamen, and regular soldiers died during the war.  Between 450-600 Indians lost their lives.

A number of American participants in the Black Hawk War became prominent: There were seven future members of the United States Senate, four future governors of Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, and the Wisconsin Territory.  What Black Hawk accomplished was to convince the Americans that they needed a regular cavalry, which did not then exist.  The only mounted soldiers available to Atkinson were volunteer militia.  After the war, the US Congress authorized the establishment of a Mounted Ranger Battalion and appointed Henry Dodge to command it.  The Mounted Rangers were re-designated 1stUS Cavalry Regiment in 1833.

Black Hawk and his followers made good their escape to the Ojibwe Tribe.  American officials posted a reward of $100.00 and forty horses in exchange for Black Hawk’s capture.  A member of the Ho-Chunk tribe observed Black Hawk near present-day Tomah, Wisconsin and alerted his village chief.  The village council sent a delegation to Black Hawk’s camp and convinced him to surrender to the Americans, which he did on 27 August 1832.  Colonel Zachary Taylor took custody of Black Hawk and ordered him taken by steamboat to Jefferson Barracks (Missouri) in the custody of Lieutenants Jefferson Davis [13] and Robert Anderson [14].  Black Hawk and nineteen other Indian leaders of the British Band were incarcerated at Jefferson Barracks, but most of these natives were released after a few months.  In April 1833, Black Hawk and two others were transferred under guard to Fort Monroe, Virginia.

As a prisoner, Black Hawk had become a celebrity.  Large crowds of Americans gathered to catch a glimpse of him while en route to Fort Monroe.  He was first taken to Washington, where he met President Andrew Jackson.  Black Hawk, Wabokieshiek, and Neapope were treated as celebrities even while imprisoned —being permitted to pose for portraits by noteworthy artists.  After a few weeks, the Indians were released from prison.  Before their departure, senior officers honored them with a lavish dinner party.

The three chieftains were taken on a tour of several large cities on the east coast.  This was a common tactic used by American military officers to demonstrate to their Indian captives that they could not possibly prevail against the United States. It was believed that once Indians observed American strength, they would be discouraged from further hostile behavior. Treating Black Hawk and his companions as visiting royalty, they toured Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

East Coast Americans may have been favorably impressed by Black Hawk, but this was not a view shared by Americans in the west who lost loved-ones to his barbarism.  Nevertheless, the Black Hawk War was the last time Indians in the Northwest resisted US expansion.  The Indians continued to lose their land and their removal continued to be a policy of the US government.


  1. Eby, C. That Disgraceful Affair: The Black Hawk War.  New York: Norton Press, 1973
  2. Hall, J. W. Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War.  Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009
  3. Nichols, R. L. Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path.  Arlington Heights: Harlan Press, 1992
  4. Trask, K. A. Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America.  New York: Holt & Company, 2006


[1] A group of native Americans from the Eastern Woodland culture group who lived in the area of present-day Wisconsin.  Today, the Sauk include three federally recognized tribes, and the people of this tribe are primarily located in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

[2] 1767-1838

[3] The logic of this escapes me.  It did not serve the interests of the US government to interfere in tribal matters.

[4] Edmund Pendleton Gaines (1777-1846) served in the US Army from 1799-1846.

[5] So-called because they fought on the side of the British during the War of 1812

[6] Brigadier General Whiteside (1783-1866) accepted a commission as an Army ranger in 1813 serving at various times in the state militia, and as a member of the state Indian commissions.  Whiteside commissioned as a captain a young volunteer by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

[7] Colonel Zachary Taylor later noted that Atkinson erred in his delay to move on the British Band —before they could do any damage.

[8] In 1903, historian Frank Stevens described Adams as among the most courageous men who ever lived.  Captain Abraham Lincoln participated in the burial of Adams and his men at Stillman’s Run.

[9] A fact that should surprise no one; Democrat Party policy continues to harm the American people today.

[10] Felix St. Vrain was the younger brother of noted fur trader Ceran St. Vrain, children of French aristocrats who came to the United States to escape the French Revolution.

[11] Once more, a reminder that killing women and children was how some Indians fought their wars.  White settlers regarded such behavior as barbaric —as indeed it was— and for the settlers, unforgivable.

[12] Sauk chief Weesheet later criticized Black Hawk for abandoning his people.

[13] President of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865).

[14] Colonel Robert Anderson commanded Fort Sumpter in April 1861.

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Vigilantism: Justice for All

Jim Marshal, from Hopewell Township, New Jersey, was raised on the Round Martin Farm, known in1810 (and today) as Marshal’s Corner.  For whatever reason, Marshall decided to leave home in 1834 to seek his fortune. After spending some time in Indiana and Illinois, he settled in Missouri and began farming along the river of the same name.  In 1844, after contracting malaria (a common disease in that area), and on the advice of his physician, he decided to relocate to the Pacific Coast.  He joined a wagon train destined for the Oregon territory, arriving there in 1845, and then continuing on to Sutter’s Fort, which at the time was an agricultural settlement.  In 1845, California was part of México and John Sutter, the founder of the fort, served as the local alcalde (mayor).  Sutter hired Marshal to work at the sawmill and perform carpentry tasks around the fort.  Sutter also helped Marshall in the purchase of two leagues of land on the north side of Butte Creek (a tributary of the Sacramento River).

The Mexican-American War began in May 1846 and Marshall volunteered for service under Captain John C. Fremont during the so-called Bear Flag Revolt.  When Marshall returned to Sutter’s Fort in 1847, he found that his cattle had either strayed or had been stolen.  With his only source of income gone, Marshall lost his land.  Marshall and Sutter entered into a partnership for the construction of a sawmill.  Marshall would supervise the mill’s construction and operate the mill, and for compensation, would receive a portion of the lumber.  Marshall scouted out potential sites for a mill, eventually deciding on Coloma—some 40 miles upstream from Sutter’s Fort on the American River.  Construction began in late August 1847, his crew mostly consisting of local Indians and veterans of the Mormon Battalion, who were on their way to Salt Lake City, Utah territory.


Jim Marshall, the man who first discovered gold in California

During construction, Marshall realized that the tailrace, the ditch that drained water away from the waterwheel, was too narrow and too shallow for the volume of water needed to operate the saw.  To excavate and enlarge the tailrace, Marshall used the natural force of the river.  To avoid endangering the lives of his workers, this could only be accomplished at night.  It was Marshall’s task to examine the results of the previous night’s excavation.

On the morning of 24 January 1848, Jim Marshall was checking the channel below the mill when he noticed some shiny flecks in the channel bed.  Gold had been discovered in California; Jim Marshall was the man who discovered it.

News of the discovery of gold brought a rush of 300,000 people to California from the eastern portions of the United States and abroad.  Half of this number arrived in California by sea.  The sudden influx of gold into the money supply invigorated the American economy and the rapid rise in population propelled California to statehood.  Most of these 300,000 never struck it rich.  For the wise person, the money to be made was in selling goods and services to miners and prospectors.  The money was made in shipping, retail, warehousing, taverns, hotels, and working for the emerging state government.  In fact, the discovery of gold had a significantly negative impact across the entire spectrum of California society.

  • A precipitous decline in Native populations due to disease, genocide, and starvation.
  • Indians were attacked and pushed off their lands by gold-seekers.
  • Migrating people face substantial hardships on their journey to California; not everyone made it to the west coast at all.
  • The cost of living soared; miners and prospectors who did find gold soon spent it on goods with extravagant costs. In some locations, a steak dinner cost $50.00.
  • Between 1848 and 1850, California was a territory of the United States, which means that it fell under the control of the U. S. military. There was no civil legislature, no civilian governor, and no system of courts for the entire region.
  • In the absence of lawyers, judges, and jails, the gold rush created a level of lawlessness in California that borders on the unbelievable.
  • California residents operated under confusing and evolving rules, many of these a mixture of Mexican cultural rules, American principles, and personal dictates.
  • Inadequate enforcement of federal laws, such as those relating to fugitive slaves, encouraged the arrival of free blacks and escaped slaves.

Beyond Sutter’s Mill, gold was also discovered in northern California.  Discovery of gold nuggets brought thousands more into California, many of these headed toward the Siskiyou Trail.  Mining settlements turned into towns.  Some of these grew and prospered, others not-so-much. Portuguese Flat on the Sacramento River sprang into existence, flourished for a time, and then faded away. One town that continues to exist today was initially called Dry Diggins, so named for the way miners moved dry soil to run water to separate gold from soil.  In 1849, Dry Diggins was renamed Hangtown, owing to the number of men hanged for various offenses against the community, arrested by vigilantes, judged by people’s courts, and executed by whomever the “judge” picked to do the hanging. Today, Hangtown is known as Placerville, California, which is not far from Sutter’s Mill.

In the gold camps, hundreds of men lived and worked side-by-side.  They were highly distrustful men, afraid that a neighbor would steal the gold they had worked hard for.  When a thief was discovered, ad hoc courts were formed, heard the evidence, and solved the matter in a more or less permanent way.  There were no jails, but there were sufficient trees with stout limbs, and plenty of rope.

No one really wanted to have the responsibility for ordering someone hanged, and so the people living in these mining camps and emerging towns were eager for formalize a legal framework: hire lawmen, establish courts, and construct jails.  The influx of people from the eastern United States provided just what was needed: lawyers, men who knew how to handle a gun, and people eager to become municipal or state judges.  Until these people were of sufficient population to make a difference, vigilantes did the heavy lifting.  These were citizens who formed vigilance committees, who sometimes met in secret and ordered the arrest or execution of someone who desperately needed it.

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Some of America’s vigilantes

Vigilantism existed throughout the Old West at various times and places.  In the absence of formalized legal systems, citizens meted out justice. When legal systems proved corrupt or unresponsive to the concerns of local citizens, vigilance committees took the law into their own hands—sometimes even hanging crooked judges and town marshals.

Vigilante justice was intended to have the strongest possible deterrence or unseemly behavior with the least amount of pussyfooting around.  In 1851, James Stuart arrived from Australia to prospect for gold.  He was suspected of several thefts and, in one instance, the killing of a merchant.  The Vigilance Committee, which had been organized by a wealthy businessman, promptly seized Mr. Stuart.  Hundreds of residents poured into the streets demanding justice.  The crowd was more than the local marshal could handle.  Mr. Stuart was marched through the town and then hung.  There was nothing the law could do about it.  No one was even sure who it was that yanked on the rope that broke his neck.

A few weeks later, the same Vigilance Committee ordered an assault upon the town jail, seized two other men, and hanged them.  When the Committee believed that the message had been received, they quietly disbanded. They were back a few years later when the law proved inadequate to the task of providing justice to the committee. In each case, the Vigilantes had the full support of local citizens and press.

Vigilantes were also present in cattle country, where beef was as valuable as gold.  Horse thieves were not tolerated, either.  One American who supported Vigilante Justice was a young rancher who would go on in his life to become President of the United States:

 “As soon as the communities become settled and begin to grow with any rapidity the American instinct for law asserts itself; but in the early stages each individual is obliged to be a law unto himself and to guard his rights with a strong hand.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

In 1863, Bannack was a small, remote community in the Montana territory.  The community had become infested with a gang of road agents who assaulted and robbed gold convoys and stagecoaches, murdered travelers, stole cargo, rustled cattle, and made off with horses.  The folks who lived in Bannack and those in the nearby settlement of Alder Gulch formed a vigilance committee —but then discovered that their own sheriff was the mastermind of these lawless acts.  His name was Henry Plummer, and he wasn’t very well liked because he was an odd character, short-tempered, and a man who, over the years, had shot and killed several men in barroom fights.

Plummer was originally from Maine.  As a businessman, Plummer made a fortune during the California gold rush.  He had also been convicted of murder and was sent to prison at San Quentin.  Winning his court appeal, arguing that he’d killed the man in self-defense, Plummer was released and moved to Montana.  He initially made a good impression on the people there, and they elected him to the post of sheriff.

The Bannack vigilantes acted in broad daylight.  They seized one of the gangsters —a fellow named George Ives— and examined him at an outdoor trial that lasted three days (in the dead of winter).  The trial was attended by residents and local gold miners.  Apparently, Mr. Ives wasn’t a good public speaker because at the end of the trial, Ives was summarily hanged. Then the vigilantes went on to round up the other members of the gang.  In total, the vigilantes hung 20 men, including Sheriff Plummer.

In another Montana community, cattle rustlers were helping themselves to other people’s cows and horses. One of these ranchers was a man named Granville Stuart, one of the territory’s wealthier ranchers.  Mr. Stuart was enraged by the theft of a prize stallion and three dozen of his cattle.  He organized a vigilance committee, hunted down the rustlers, engaged them, and killed them.  The number of outlaws summarily executed at various times and places number between twenty and one-hundred.  In one incident, referred to as the Battle of Bates Point (1884), Stuart’s men set fire to the cabin in which the suspected cattle rustlers were sheltering —and then shot them down as they emerged from the flames.  Mr. Stuart maintained his reputation as one of Montana’s leading pioneer citizens.  He was later appointed US Ambassador to Uruguay and Paraguay.

Given the rampant crimes that exist in some of our modern-day cities, some citizens are wondering —since the legal system does not appear to meet the needs of our communities, and since some law enforcement agencies are corrupt— if it is not time to once more turn to secret vigilance committees.  If the people of southside Chicago organized themselves, and took care of business by depopulating the criminal elements, then that section of the city would be a safer, economically more-vibrant, and a happier place to live.

Something to think about, I suppose.

Marshall Cabin

Jim Marshall’s cabin

A footnote about Jim Marshall, the man who discovered gold in California.  What became of him?  In 1857, Marshall returned to Coloma and found some success in the 1860s with a vineyard he started.  Due to high taxes and increased competition, perhaps also his lack of expertise in growing grapes, his venture ended in failure.  With no other opportunities, Marshall returned to gold prospecting in the hopes of finding success.  He became a partner in a gold mine near Kelsey, California but the mine yielded nothing; Marshall and his partner went bankrupt.

For six years, Marshall lived on a small pension awarded to him by the California State Legislature in recognition of his role in the discovery of gold.  Eventually, however, a penniless Jim Marshall ended his days alone, living in a small isolated woodland cabin.


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They were all dirty

Old West GearAccording to some folks, a fellow of the old west named Dave Rudabaugh was known as Dirty Dave because he had an aversion to bathing.  This could be true, since back in the old west there was a conspicuous scarcity of bath tubs, suggesting that nearly everyone was “dirty” and they probably didn’t smell very good, either.  Still, when everyone smells bad, no one notices.

Dave Rudabaugh was a young lad living in his birth-state of Illinois when his father was killed during the American Civil War.  Circumstances cause the family to move to Ohio, and later to Kansas.  It is hard to imagine how young war-widows survived in those days.  Life was hard; even harder if you happened to be witless.

There is an axiom that says, “crime doesn’t pay.”  It’s a lie. Crime does pay, and if that wasn’t true, then there would never have been so many outlaws (then or now).  In the early 1870s, Rudabaugh found himself in Arkansas riding with a band of outlaws who engaged in robbing and stealing from hard-working folks.  There was no honor in such a profession, but then these were not honorable men.  They were bullies who many times acted like a pack of wolves; they preyed on the innocent, the meek, and people unable to defend themselves.  I expect that old west outlaws had an aversion to hard work —and make no mistake, such activities as farming was very hard work.

It was at this time that Rudabaugh took up with sidekicks Milt Yarberry and Dave Mather.  Mather was called “Mysterious” Dave owing to his aloof demeanor.  In 1870, Mather was working as a common laborer and boarded with a cousin.  Rudabaugh, Yarberry, and Mather were suspected in the death of a local rancher.  They may have “told on themselves” because all three men fled Arkansas for safer pastures. Some say the fugitives migrated to Decatur, Texas, but this may not be true.  Mather went back to Clinton, Connecticut and signed on as part of the ship’s crew, eventually making his way to New Orleans.  Rudabaugh is believed to have gone to South Dakota where he found stagecoach robbing a lucrative line of work.

Dave Rudabaugh

Dave Rudabaugh

In 1876, Rudabaugh joined up with Mike Rourke and Dan Dement to form an outlaw band everyone called “the Trio.”  There is no shortage of old west tales; one of these is that while in South Dakota, Rudabaugh taught Doc Holliday how to use a gun, and Holliday taught Rudabaugh how to play cards.  Doc Holliday may have taught Rudabaugh how to play cards, but he was already adept with side arms before leaving Georgia.

In 1877, Rudabaugh robbed a Sante Fe Railroad construction camp and then headed south. Commissioned as a deputy US marshal, Wyatt Earp was sent to fetch him.  Earp trailed Rudabaugh for 400 miles out toward Fort Griffin, Texas. Rudabaugh arrived at the frontier town, situated on the clear fork of the Brazos River a few days before Earp. When Earp arrived, he went in to the Bee Hive Saloon, which was then owned by John Shanssey, whom Earp had known from a young age.  Shanssey told Earp that Rudabaugh has passed through town earlier that week but didn’t know where he was headed.  He suggested that Earp ask a gambler named Holliday about Rudabaugh; they’d been playing cards together a few days back.  This was the occasion that Earp first met Doc Holliday.  Holliday informed Earp that Rudabaugh was headed back toward Kansas.  Earp telegraphed this information to Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson and Rudabaugh was soon after taken into custody.

If true, then Rudabaugh’s custody was short-lived because in late January 1878, the Trio attempted a train robbery near Kinsley, Kansas.  During the holdup, everything that might have gone wrong did and the outlaws came away empty-handed.  The next day, Sheriff Masterson led a posse (which included John Joshua Webb) and captured Rudabaugh with Ed West.  Rudabaugh made a deal with the county attorney: freedom in exchange for testifying against his friends.

I’ve often mentioned the fact that there was a thin line between being a lawman and an outlaw. This would appear true in the case of Bat Masterson, who after Rudabaugh’s release from the county jail, hired him to join a gang of gunfighters who had been hired by the Atchison, Topeka, and Sante Fe Railway Company during the Railroad Wars.  The Railroad Wars were a series of conflicts between competing railway companies, which were not unusual in the old west.  Most of the time, the fights took place inside a court of law, but there were some violent clashes, mostly in the last quarter of the 19thcentury.

Rudabaugh eventually became a close associate of John Joshua Webb.  After the Railroad War, Rudabaugh and Webb traveled to Los Vegas, New Mexico where they affiliated with the so-called Dodge City Gang—a group of thugs from Dodge City, Kansas, who moved to New Mexico and ended up dominating the political and economic scene (1879-80).  Las Vegas was booming and thought to be the future metropolis in New Mexico.  By this time, the gang included Mysterious Dave Mather and was led by Hyman Neill, whom everyone called Hoodoo Brown.  Brown was a justice of the peace.  Holliday was also in Las Vegas, maintained cordial relations with gang members, but was not a member.

Willaim Bonney 002

Billy the Kid Artist’s rendition

When Webb was arrested for murder in the spring of 1880, Rudabaugh and another member of the Dodge City Gang attempted to break him out of jail.  As with most things in his life, this too was a failure and Rudabaugh shot and killed town deputy Antonio Lino Valdez.  Rudabaugh hightailed it to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where he joined up with Jim Greathouse and William H. Bonney.

On 29 November 1880, Bonney, Rudabaugh, and Billy Wilson ran from a posse led by Deputy Sheriff James Carlyle.  Cornered at the Greathouse ranch, Bonney told Carlyle that they were holding Greathouse as a hostage.  Carlyle fell for this trick and offered to exchange places with Greathouse; Bonney accepted.  Later, when Carlyle attempted to escape, one of the desperados shot him three times, killing him.  When the posse withdrew, Rudabaugh, Bonney, and Wilson escaped.

A few weeks later, still riding with Bonney and accompanied by Wilson, Charlie Bowdre, Tom Pickett, and Tom O’Folliard, the men rode into a trap laid for them at Fort Sumner.  Unknown to the outlaws, a posse led by Pat Garrett was waiting for them.  The lawmen opened fire, killing O’Folliard, but the rest of the gang got away.

At Stinking Springs, near present-day Taiban, New México on 23 December 1880, Pat Garrett’s posse captured Dave Rudabaugh, Billy the Kid, Billy Wilson, and a few others.  They were taken in custody to Las Vegas, but the danger of a lynch mob prompted Garrett to move them to Sante Fe.  In February 1881, while in court, Rudabaugh pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison for several counts of mail robbery.  He was then found guilty of the murder of deputy Valdez and sentenced to death by hanging.

In jail, Rudabaugh was reunited with Webb.  The two men escaped jail, during which time a fellow prisoner named Thomas Duffy died. Rudabaugh fled to Arizona.  Some believe that Rudabaugh had signed on with the Cochise County Cowboys and was present at Iron Springs when Wyatt Earp killed Curly Bill Brocius.  The breakup of the Clanton Gang send Rudabaugh into Mexico, where he worked as a cowboy and a rustler.

Tequila CactusOn 18 February 1886, Rudabaugh was playing cards in Parral, Chihuahua when a dispute erupted. Rudabaugh drew his gun and killed two men, wounded a third, and left the saloon unharmed.  Then, being unable to locate his horse, Dave re-entered the saloon a few minutes later.  This was Rudabaugh’s final mistake because as he entered the saloon, someone standing in the shadows shot him several times.  Rudabaugh was then decapitated with a machete and his head placed on a pole at the outskirts of town.  At the time of his death, Rudabaugh was 31-years old.

Dirty Dave Rudabaugh’s story is interesting.  It proves that you don’t have to be very bright to live an exciting, if somewhat abbreviated life.  Since his head was left on the pole for several weeks, no one attended his funeral.


  1. Weiser, K.“Dirty Dave Rudabaugh: The only man Billy the Kid feared.”  Article, Legends of America online.
  2. Bell, B. B.“Billy the Kid & Pat Garrett vs. A Las Vegas Mob.”  Article, True West Magazine online.
Posted in History | 5 Comments

James Wilkinson: Image of Respectability

Wilkinson J 001James Wilkinson (1757-1825) is one of those characters in American history that one seldom hears about.  At the end of his life, he had achieved prominence as the senior officer of the U. S. Army, a politician, and one of the worst scoundrels in our entire history.

He was born just outside Benedict, Maryland on a farm adjacent to Hunting Creek.  His grandfather was a wealthy landowner who impressed upon his son and heirs that while the size of their property was comparatively small, they nevertheless belonged to a higher social class.  James was also taught that the image of respectability excused the reality of moral betrayal.  James’ father, Joseph Wilkinson, inherited the family property, but had borrowed against it to such an extent that the family was actually debt-poor.  In 1764, the property (known as Stoakley Manor) was broken up and sold.  When Joseph died, his eldest son, also named Joseph, inherited what remained.  James was left with nothing beyond this one piece of fatherly advice: “… if you ever put up with an insult, I will disinherit you.” It may have been good fatherly advice, but it wasn’t anything that James could take to the bank.

James Wilkinson received his early education through a private tutor, funded by his grandmother.  He began his study in the field of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, which was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War.  He married well, however, taking as his bride Ann Biddle who was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family.  Ann was a first cousin of Charles Biddle, an associate of Arron Burr [1].  It was this connection that helped propel Wilkinson into a career as a US Army officer and politician.  James and Ann produced four sons: John (1780-1796), James Biddle (1783-1813), Joseph Biddle (1789-1865), and Walter (b. 1791).  James and Walter also served as officers in the US Army.  After Ann’s death in 1803, James Wilkinson married Celestine Laveau Trudeau, the daughter of Chares Laveau Trudeau [2] in 1810.  With Celestine, he had three additional children: twin daughters and a son named Theodore, who was born in 1819.

Wilkinson’s military service began in 1775 when he joined Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifles. He was commissioned a captain in September and served as an aide to Nathanael Greene during the siege of Boston. Wilkinson participated in the placement of field artillery on the Dorchester Heights in 1776.  Following the British abandonment of Boston, James assumed command of an infantry company in New York.  In this capacity, he was sent to augment the forces besieging Quebec, then under the command of Benedict Arnold.  His arrival coincided with the arrival of British reinforcements under General Burgoyne.  The overwhelming British force caused the collapse of American efforts in Canada.  Wilkinson subsequently became a military aide to Arnold and departed Canada with Arnold on the last boat.  In August 1776, he was assigned to the staff of General Horatio Gates (known in history as Granny Gates), serving as an aide.

In 1777, Gates dispatched Wilkinson to carry messages to Congress reporting his victory at the Battle of Saratoga.  Wilkinson kept Congress waiting for this report while he attended to personal affairs. When he finally did show up, he concocted a story about how instrumental he was in Gates’ victory.  He was so good in his story-telling that Congress brevetted him a brigadier general.  He was twenty years old.

In this capacity, he was assigned as a member of the War Board.  His advancement to flag rank over colonels twenty or thirty years his senior caused an uproar of sorts.  Wilkinson was involved (to some extent) in the Conway Cabal [3], a secret conspiracy to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates in command of the Continental Army.  In any event, General Gates soon tired of Wilkinson and compelled his resignation in March 1778.  Afterward, sympathetic members of congress managed to have Wilkinson appointed clothier-general of the Army, but he soon revealed a lack of aptitude for the position and ended up resigning from that position as well.

In 1783, Wilkinson accepted an appointment as a brigadier general of the Pennsylvania militia and became a member of the state assembly.  A year later, he relocated to Kentucky and began a clandestine effort to separate the territory of Kentucky away from Virginia [4].  His intrigues nearly caused a shooting war.  Then in 1787, Wilkinson managed to convince the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Esteban Rodriguez Miró [5] to grant Kentucky what amounted to a trade monopoly on the Mississippi River, which Spain then controlled.  Unbeknownst to almost everyone at the time, Wilkinson had applied for, was granted, and accepted Spanish citizenship.  He agreed to represent Spanish interests in the western territories and agreed to provide information to Spain about the innerworkings of the Washington establishment, particularly relating to US plans for westward expansion.  Thus, while being paid for his services in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, he was also receiving a hefty stipend from Spain.

If anything, Wilkinson was a clever man —one capable of thinking outside the box.  In 1787, he signed an expatriation declaration and swore allegiance to the King of Spain to satisfy his own commercial needs.  When the scheme was finally revealed, it became known as the “Spanish Conspiracy.”  Wilkinson initiated the arrangement in a rather lengthy communiqué [6] to the Spanish governor concerning the political future of western settlers.  He intended to convince Spanish authorities to recognize Kentuckians as vassals of Spain. It should not surprise anyone, then, that upon his return to Kentucky in 1788, Wilkinson vigorously opposed the new Constitution of the United States.  Kentucky had almost achieved statehood under the Articles of Confederation and there was considerable disappointment within Kentucky when statehood was delayed because of the enactment of the new Constitution.

In the period leading up to Kentucky’s seventh convention regarding its separation from Virginia, Wilkinson campaigned for Kentucky’s union with Spain.  He was a charming man; his charisma got him elected as committee chairman at the convention.  He first argued for Kentucky to seek independence from Virginia, and then for the union of states.  At the time, many Kentuckians believed that joining the United States must be predicated on the US ability to arrange a treaty with Spain governing free navigation of the Mississippi River.

When Wilkinson was unable to gather sufficient support for his position, he approached Miró with a proposal—one favoring Wilkinson above all others.  In exchange for his efforts on behalf of Spain, he asked for a grant of 60,000 acres of land at the junction of the Yazoo River and the Mississippi (near present-day Vicksburg).  The acreage would suit him as a refuge should his supporters be forced to flee from persecution in the United States.  He also asked Miró for a pension of $7,000.00 (roughly $190,000 today) at the same time he requested money from prominent Kentuckians.  By 1788, however, Wilkinson had lost the confidence of Spanish authorities and Governor Miró was officially forbidden from giving any money to support a revolution in Kentucky.  Secretly, however, Wilkinson remained on the Spanish payroll for many years.

In 1791, Wilkinson led a force of Kentucky volunteers against native Americans.  In October of that year, he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and appointed to command the 2ndU. S. Infantry.  In the next year, President George Washington was faced with reorganizing the Continental Army as the Legion of the United States [7].  Washington also had to decide who would lead it.

Washington’s two major candidates for leading the Legion were James Wilkinson and Anthony Wayne [8].  Wayne was chosen to serve as the Senior Officer of the U. S. Army over Wilkinson, primarily due to Wilkinson’s (then) suspected involvement with the Spanish government.  Washington, being aware of Wilkinson’s fragile sense of self, promoted him to brigadier general.  Nevertheless, Wilkinson was intensely jealous of Wayne, and contemptuous, and Wayne reciprocated in kind.

Wilkinson’s pettiness led him to openly criticize Wayne’s leadership.  It was too much for Wayne, who opened an investigation into Wilkinson’s involvement with the government of Spain.  Throughout this period, Wilkinson had renewed his secret Spanish alliance and, on several occasions, notified Governor Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondeletto the intentions of both the US and France relating to western movement and occupation.  When Spanish couriers were intercepted carrying cash payments to Wilkinson, Wayne, with suspicions confirmed, attempted to court-martial Wilkinson for his treachery.  Wayne died before a judicial proceeding could be convened.

Despite Wilkinson’s treachery, he began his first tenure as Senior Officer of the Army, which lasted for about 18 months.  In 1798, the cabinet transferred Wilkinson to the southern frontier and placed him third in ranking in the Army, behind George Washington (who died in 1799) and Alexander Hamilton.  It was Hamilton who tasked Wilkinson with creating a reserve force for US Army in the lower Ohio River Valley.  The purpose of this reserve was a contingency plan to seize the lower Mississippi river and New Orleans from France [9] and its Spanish ally.  The crisis with France ended in 1800, Hamilton left the Army, and Wilkinson continued to plan for this war through 1802.

Wilkinson once more became the Senior Officer of Army in the summer of 1800, serving under President Thomas Jefferson.  At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Wilkinson and Governor William Claiborne officiated at the transfer of the territory in 1803 —at a time when Wilkinson continued to receive a pension from Spain in exchange for information about the US intentions toward territorial expansion.  It was Wilkinson who informed the Spanish about the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In 1804, Wilkinson met with Vice President Aaron Burr and entered into a conspiracy with him.  The original idea was General Wilkinson’s but Burr, whatever his faults, was a man of action.  Making what he thought was a secret arrangement with Wilkinson, the plan called for Wilkinson to resign as Senior Officer of the Army and assist Burr detaching Texas, New Mexico, and perhaps even Mexico itself from New Spain.

In 1805, Burr made a westward trip to gain support, recruit men, and acquiring arms and shipping to carry them down the Mississippi.  By this time, he was no longer serving as Vice President.  Wilkinson, however, had over played his hand and began having difficulty keeping US and Spanish officials from discovering what he was up to.  Should Spain ever reveal his secret dealings, especially the fact that Wilkinson was a citizen of Spain, the result could be a firing squad. Wilkinson realized that he was nearly at the end of his rope.  What he did next was near-brilliance, even if immoral.  He wrote a letter to President Jefferson informing him that he was on the trail of a grand conspiracy.  Jefferson was immediately interested, so Wilkinson next identified the name of the traitor: Aaron Burr.  In the minds of President Jefferson and a large part of the political elite, there could not have been a better candidate for such a charge.  Aaron Burr was already unpopular; making him into an traitorous ogre was relatively easy.

Wilkinson reported to Jefferson that in order to confirm the extent of this traitorous behavior, he would need a large sum of money. Jefferson authorized it without much deliberation.  Cunningly, Wilkinson never accused Burr of conspiring against Texas or New Spain. Filibustering was not treasonous.  He instead charged Burr with conspiring to separate Kentucky and the Louisiana territory from the United States. It was Wilkinson who ordered Burr’s arrest.

General Wilkinson was the sole source of allegations against Burr, and the government’s principal witness.  Whatever else this did —Burr was acquitted on a technicality— it effectively silenced Burr from revealing what Wilkinson was up to.  So, in addition to his dishonesty, Wilkinson was also a clever gambler.  Some historians now claim that all Wilkinson’s plots and counterplots were hatched for only one reason: to alarm Spain.  A worried Spanish government was more likely to pay Wilkinson money for information.

The so-called Burr conspiracy shook the US government. Imagine —a Vice President of the United States who conspired against his own country [10].  Best of all, no one was looking in Wilkinson’s direction.  It was a perfectly executed deception.

General Wilkinson sent edited parts of this story to Madrid, for which the Spanish paid handsomely.  Wilkinson then arranged a meeting with Simón de Herrera, Commandant of the Louisiana frontier.  Herrera had been ordered to patrol the area between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo (a small tributary of the Red River) to protect New Spain’s northern frontier from American encroachment.  Wilkinson proposed that the border situation could be amicably settled.  Herrera agreed to accept a buffer zone between the Sabine River and Arroyo Hondo, which tapered the official US border by seven miles.  Since the arrangement was favorable to Spain, Herrera was happy to accept the so-called Neutral Ground Agreement.  Wilkinson might have been in serious trouble for giving United States territory away, but the clever Wilkinson had read Jefferson correctly: the last thing he wanted was a war with Spain.

General Wilkinson testified at Burr’s trial, but it was essentially Wilkinson’s own doctored evidence against Burr that saved him from being convicted of treason.  Moreover, Wilkinson’s testimony was largely regarded as self-serving —the effect of which made Burr seem to be an inept victim of an overzealous government.  He nearly indicted himself  for misprision of treason [11].  In any case, a much-worried Wilkinson imposed martial law on the city of New Orleans and had several individuals (and their lawyers) arrested and detained until after Burr’s trial.  Detention guaranteed that none of these persons could link Wilkinson to Burr.  One clear-eyed court official opined that he may have never seen a greater villain than General Wilkinson.

It wasn’t long after the end of Burr’s trial that the public became aware of Wilkinson’s likely involvement.  There were two Congressional inquiries into his private affairs.  President James Madison, succeeding Jefferson in 1809, ordered a military court of inquiry in 1811.  Wilkinson was court-martialed but exonerated.  He continued to serve as Senior Officer of the Army until 1812 when Henry Dearborn [12] was promoted to Major General over Wilkinson.

After the outbreak of the War of 1812, Wilkinson was elevated to the post of major general and led the forces that occupied Mobile, in Spanish West Florida.  The operation brought the city of Mobile into the Mississippi Territory.  After Dearborn stepped down from his post as Senior Officer in 1815, Wilkinson was assigned to the St. Lawrence River area of military operations where he led two failed campaigns.  Wilkinson was relieved of his command and appeared before a military inquiry who determined that he was not guilty of malfeasance.  Nevertheless, Wilkinson was discharged from the US Army on 15 June 1815.

iwilkio001p1Wilkinson’s military career was finished, but he was a long way from giving up his sleazy behavior.  While serving as US Envoy to Mexico in 1821, Wilkinson requested a grant of land in the province of Tejas.  He was waiting for a formal reply form the government of Mexico when he passed away, aged 68-years.  Wilkinson was buried in Mexico City —which was entirely fitting.

The full story of Wilkinson’s shenanigans was never revealed until 1854 when Charles Gavarré published Wilkinson’s correspondence with Esteban Miró.  Beyond this, Wilkinson’s activities have confounded historians ever since.  In 1865, then Governor of New York Theodore Roosevelt (himself a historian) pronounced Wilkinson a villain.  Military historian Robert Leckie [13] said of Wilkinson, “…he was a general who never won a war or lost a court-martial.”


  1. Jacobs, J. R.  Tarnished Warrior: Major-General James Wilkinson (New York: MacMillan), 1938.
  2. Weems, J. E.  Men Without Countries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969)


[1] Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was a prominent attorney, politician, and third Vice President of the United States.  He served during the administration of Thomas Jefferson’s first term of office.

[2] Charles Trudeau (also known as Don Carolos Trudeau) was acting mayor of New Orleans and the Surveyor-General of Spanish Louisiana (1780s-1805).

[3] The British Army captured Philadelphia in the Fall of 1777.  At that time, Philadelphia was the seat of the Second Continental Congress, which in light of the British advance, was forced to relocate to backwater Pennsylvania.  Many senior officers and members of congress began to question Washington’s leadership and his management of the war effort.  Gates, on the other hand, was seen as a general who could get things done. Disaffected officers, headed by Brigadier General Thomas Conway, began a series of letters which criticized Washington behind his back.  When the matter was made public, Conway resigned, and Gates issued Washington a public apology.

[4] Kentucky County (also spelled Kentucke) was formed by the Commonwealth of Virginia from the western portions (beyond the Cumberland Mountains) of Fincastle County in 1776. The county was abolished in 1780 when it was divided into Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln counties.  These were collectively known as the Kentucky District of Virginia.  Kentucky was finally admitted to the Union in 1792, it’s fifteenth state.

[5] Spanish military officer and governor of Spanish-American provinces of Louisiana and Florida.  In 1779 during the American Revolution and the Anglo-Spanish War, Miró was a part of the forces commanded by Bernardo de Gálvez in campaigns against the British in West Florida.  Gálvez appointed Miró as acting Governor of Louisiana, which was part of New Spain, in 1782.  He became proprietary governor in late 1785.  Spain had taken over this territory from France after the latter’s defeat in 1763 by Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War.

[6] Encoded with a myriad of symbols, numbers, and letters that was decoded by a reasonably complex English-Spanish cipher code-named “Number 13”.  This was the basis for Wilkinson’s pseudonym, “Agent 13.”

[7] Reorganization of the Continental Army also required an expansion, replacing state militias with professionally trained officers and enlisted men.  Between 1792-1796, the LUS was composed of four sub-legions, each with its own infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  The catalyst for this reorganization/expansion was the defeat of General Arthur St. Clair’s defeat on the Ohio frontier in1791 and the need to assert US sovereignty over the Miami Indian territory in northern Ohio and Indiana.

[8] Wayne (1741-1796) was known for his fiery personality and fearless conduct in battle, which earned him the sobriquet “Mad Anthony.”  He was born in Pennsylvania and was eventually buried there but also served the State of Georgia as a member of the US House of Representatives.

[9] The Quasi-War was an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the USA and France from 1798 to 1800 during the presidency of John Adams.  After the French Monarchy was abolished in September 1792 the United States refused to continue repaying its large debt to France, incurred during the American Revolution.  The US made the argument that its debt was owed to the King of France, not the French Republic that replaced the monarchy. France was understandably outraged but added to this the Jay Treaty between the US and Great Britain.  France authorized privateers to conduct attacks on American shipping, seizing numerous merchant ships, and ultimately leading the U.S. to retaliate.

[10] Burr was not the last high-ranking politician to conspire against his country for personal gain.

[11] A finding of guilty would be imposed upon someone who has knowledge that treason is being committed but does nothing to stop it.

[12] Colonel Dearborn was advanced to Major General and assigned to serve as Senior Officer of the U. S. Army in 1812.  By this time, he had already had a distinguished career as a war fighter, member of congress, US Minister to Portugal, and Secretary of War.

[13] Leckie (1920-2001) was a historian and author who served during World War II with the 1stMarine Division in the Pacific.

Posted in History, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Archive War

Georgian by birth in 1798, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar developed into a well-educated young man, an excellent horseman, an expert in firearms, a credible poet and artist, and the editor of a local newspaper.  Lamar served the governor of Georgia as a secretary and member of his personal household staff.  After marrying in 1826 he moved his wife to Columbus to nurse his wife, who was suffering from consumption.  While in Columbus, Lamar founded the Columbus Enquirer.  When his wife passed away in August 1830, he withdrew from public life until 1834, when he ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress.  It was in this year that his brother Lucius committed suicide.  It was a disheartened man who finally sold his interests in the Enquirer and accompanied his friend James W. Fannin to Texas.  He decided to settle in Texas in 1835.


Mirabeau B. Lamar from the Public Domain

At the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, Lamar enlisted as a private in the Texian militia.  On the eve of the Battle of San Jacinto, Lamar led a force of Texans in the rescue of a detachment of men who had been surrounded by a superior number of Mexican soldiers.  His courageous act drew a salute from the Mexican lines.  One of the men he rescued was Thomas Jefferson Rusk, who would later serve as Texas’ Secretary of War.  Lamar was promoted that day from private to Colonel and placed in charge of cavalry in preparation for battle on the next day.  General Sam Houston wrote a glowing report of Lamar’s courage under fire. Even so, Houston and Lamar were political opposites, a gulf that grew wider with each passing year.

Sam Houston [1] became Texas’ first president, his term of office being two years (three years for subsequent executives).  In 1837, Houston established the capital of Texas in the town named in his honor.  Lamar was elected as Houston’s vice president.  After hunting buffalo in Central Texas in 1837-38, then Vice President Lamar proposed that a new Capital of Texas be established in this region, situated along the bank of the Colorado River, and that it be named in honor of Stephen F. Austin.

Following the Houston presidency, Lamar became the unanimous choice of the predominant Democratic Party. He was inaugurated on 1 December 1838. In stepping down, Houston delivered a three hour “farewell address” that so flummoxed Lamar that he was unable to read his inauguration speech.  It was, instead, delivered by an aide.

Lamar differed considerably from Houston in matters of the treatment of Indians. Houston had lived with the Cherokee for ten years and had developed an affinity for the plight of native Americans. Lamar focused almost exclusively on Indian depredations.  In his first formal address to the Texas Congress, Lamar urged approval for removing all Cherokee and Comanche from their lands in Texas —even if they had to be destroyed in the process.  He also opposed Texas annexation to the United States … two areas in which Sam Houston stood totally opposed.  There were other areas of disagreement, of course —one of these being the location of the capital city of the Republic of Texas.

Acting on Lamar’s proposal in 1839, the Congress of Texas seated a commission to study it and hired Edwin Waller to survey the village of Waterloo as a potential site for the new city. Waller and others concluded that the site was suitable for a capital because was a convenient crossroad for trade and transportation between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Galveston Bay, and the track from Northern Mexico to the Red River.  Waterloo was renamed Austin.

What next occurred was the Texas Archive War.

The fact was that in the early days of Texas Independence, the seat of government was wherever the president was standing at any given moment; the capital of Texas was located at five separate locations between 1836 and 1841 [2].  In those days, it was common to remove the seat of government (and all records) whenever it was believed they were in jeopardy of seizure or destruction.  After all, Austin was situated on the edge of the frontier and near several hostile Indian tribes.  During its early formation, Austin was without easy access to commerce or supply.

Under the Lamar administration (1838-1841), all official records of Texas were relocated from Houston to Austin, the transfer occurring between 26 August and 14 October 1839.  The undertaking required fifty wagons. President Lamar and his cabinet arrived on 17 October.  Over the next several years, Comanche Indians staged several raids [3].  Sam Houston (and his supporters) complained that Austin’s frontier location was too susceptible to attack by hostile Indians and, potentially, Mexico’s army.  Lamar (and his followers) remained undaunted, however, and the capital remained in Austin.  That is, until Sam Houston became president again in 1841.


Sam Houston from the Public Domain

Sam Houston wanted the capital of the Republic permanently situated in Houston.  Congress continued to rebuff his proposals.  After the Congress adjourned in February 1842, Mexico staged two invasions of Texas, both of which went as far as San Antonio.  In the first, in early March, Mexican troops under General Rafael Vásquezassaulted Texas, conducting sorties and an occupying force at Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria. By 5 March, over 1,000 Mexican soldiers were camped inside San Antonio even having the audacity to establish their headquarters in the Alamo.  General Vásquez withdrew his forces after a few days, although Sam Houston may not have known this at the time and betook himself back to the city named in his honor. On March 10, citing the Constitution of Texas as his authority for doing so, Houston ordered the Secretary of War to seize and remove all government archives to Houston. There was one caveat, however: there was to be no bloodshed.

Meanwhile, a committee of vigilance in Austin declared martial law and ordered residents to evacuate the city.  A small number of people ignored the order and remained. Colonel Henry Jones, acting as military commander of Austin, convened a meeting with the remaining citizens to consider Houston’s order.  The majority of the republic believed that Austin was safe; it was only Houston’s somewhat rapid withdrawal that created a sense of anxiety among local residents —and, which, they argued, had significantly devalued Austin real estate.  On 16 March, the committee in Austin resolved that any removal of government records was illegal and would not be permitted.

The vigilance committee organized mounted patrols with orders to search every wagon and seize any discovered government record. Houston’s private secretary suggested to him that the residents of Austin would rather use their rifles to protect the archives than use them against Mexican invaders.  Houston called a special session of Congress, which convened on June 27, 1842.  Congress took no action to move the capital of Texas.

In September 1842, General Adrian Woll led another Mexican expedition into Texas.  With the help of disaffected native Americans, San Antonio once more fell to a superior force of the Mexican Army.  Once again, a Mexican general established his headquarters at the Alamo. Houston convened the Seventh Texas Congress at Washington-on-the-Brazos and in his introductory remarks, Houston demanded that Congress support the removal of archives, over the protests of the “seditious” citizens of Austin.  And, he argued, as to the propriety and necessity of such actions, no reasonable doubt could exist.  On December 9, 1842, Senator Greer [4] (in the Houston camp) proposed a law providing for the safety of the national archive and a vote to suspend the rules of order to allow rapid passage of the bill resulted in a tie.  Senator Burleson [5] (supporting Lamar), who did not particularly care for Houston, cast the deciding vote against the bill.

Senator Greer remained undeterred; the next day he introduced another bill proposing to move the land office.  He left blank the name of the city to which he thought the office should be moved, and this resulted in weeks of debate.  That very day, however, seeking fait accompli [6], Houston privately tasked Colonel Thomas I. Smith and Captain Eli Chandler with moving the nation’s archive to Washington-on-the-Brazos.  Houston wrote:

“The importance of removing the public archives and government stores from their present dangerous situation at the City of Austin to a place of security, is becoming daily more and more imperative.  While they remain where they are, no one knows the hour when they may be utterly destroyed.”

coveredwagonSmith and Chandler were encouraged to raise a small troop, ostensibly to conduct an excursion against Native tribes, and then quickly secure the archives and transport them.  Smith assembled twenty men and three wagons, driving into Austin on the morning of December 30, 1842.  Smith’s troop had nearly finished loading the wagons with papers when Angelina Eberly, the owner of a nearby boarding house, noticed them [7].  Eberly ran to a 6-pound howitzer on Congress Avenue, turned the cannon toward the General Land Office, and fired it.  Some shot did hit the office, but there was no substantial damage, and no one was injured. Smith and his men quickly departed Austin heading northeast, hoping to avoid vigilance patrols.  A steady downpour of rain impeded their progress on the road.  By the end of the day, the convoy had barely progressed 18 miles.  They stopped for the night at Kinney’s Fort near Brushy Creek.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Captain Mark Lewis gathered together a group of men who agreed to assist him in recovering these records. Some of the men had no horses; some of the men had no weaponry, but Lewis’s men did manage to reach Smith’s encampment in the middle of the night.  Because Smith had neglected to post sentries, Lewis arrived undetected. In the morning, these armed and dangerous looking vigilantes took custody of the records and returned them to Austin.

In the aftermath of its investigation of these events, the Texas House of Representatives admonished Houston for trying to circumvent the Congress.  A Senate committee reported that while they did not think the capital should be in Austin, they could think of no legal reason why it should not be the nation’s capital. The issue persisted for some time. In 1843, the Senate voted that the archives should be removed from Austin if there ws not peace with Mexico. The vote was again tied, but this time Burleson cast his deciding vote in favor of the bill.  The Texas House rejected it.

The Senate also issued a resolution encouraging Houston to move the government’s agencies back to Austin.  The legislature and government offices continued to operate from Washington-on-the-Brazos.  In March, former President Lamar received a report that the town of Austin was nearly deserted; most businesses were closed, but the archives were present —and safe.

A convention met in Austin to consider the annexation of Texas to the United States on July 4, 1845.  At this time, all records that had been retained in Washington-on-the-Brazos were transferred to Austin, recreating a single archive.  Despite Sam Houston’s efforts, the city that bears his name would not become the capital of Texas.


  1. Winfrey, D. H., The Texan Archive War of 1842, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, October 1960.
  2. Spaw, P. M., The Texas Senate: Republic to Civil War (1836-1861), College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  3. Fowler, M. and Jack Maguire. The Capitol Story, Statehouse of Texas, Austin: Eakin Press, 1988.
  4. Thrall, H. S., Angelina B. Eberly, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 36, January 1933.


[1] Sam Houston (1793-1863) served in the War of 1812, the Creek War, Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and the Texas Revolution.  He served in the US House of Representatives from Tennessee (1823-1827), 6thgovernor of Tennessee (1827-1829), Representative in the Texas House of Representatives (1839-1841), first and third President of the Republic of Texas (1836-1838, 1841-1844), US Senator from Texas (1846-1859), and the 7thgovernor of Texas (1859-1861).  He was obviously an unskilled worker.

[2] San Felipe de Austin, Washington-on-the-Brazos, Harrisburg, Galveston Island, Velasco, Columbia, Houston and Austin.

[3] The Council House fight occurred on 19 March 1840, the Great Raid beginning on 8 August 1840, and the Battle at Plum Creek on 12 August 1840.

[4] John Alexander Greer (1802-1855) moved to Texas from Kentucky in 1830.  He served as a senator representing San Augustine from 1837 to 1845, served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1845, and in 1847 served as lieutenant governor to the newly admitted state of Texas.  He died while campaigning for the governorship on 4 July 1855.

[5] Edward Burleson (1798-1851) was a soldier and early Texas statesman.  He variously served as a member of town council of San Felipe de Austin, delegate to the founding conventions in Texas, a colonel of infantry during the revolution, commander in chief of the volunteer army, frontier ranger, member of the Congress, and a military commander during the Cherokee War. In 1841, he served as vice president of the Republic.  As a senator, he represented the fifteenth district.  He died of pneumonia on 26 December 1851 while serving as president pro temof the State senate.

[6] Literally, an “accomplished fact”; something that has already happened and is thus unlikely to be reversed; also, a done deal.

[7] The city of Austin erected a statue of Eberly in 2004.

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