Tombstone Judge

Old Tombstone, Arizona Territory

With three men dead, two wounded, and one slightly injured, one would think that it was one hell of a gunfight.  Well, it was — and it wasn’t.  The fight only lasted around thirty-seconds, but within that short span of time, led was flying everywhere.  The wounded men were lucky, of course, and only wounded or slightly injured because the men shooting at them were hyperventilating at the point of trigger squeeze.  The men who died were likely the result of well-aimed, calmly fired weapons whose shooters had every intention of inflicting death upon their targeted foe.  The dead fellows were Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton.  The wounded men were Virgil and Morgan Earp; John H. “Doc” Holliday received a slight injury when a bullet grazed his holster.

Every story has a beginning and an end; every event in human history has causes and effects.  To learn more about what happened, who was involved, and why, see Cowboys and Carpetbaggers, The Cowboy War, and The Earps.  Following the gunfight at O.K. Corral, additional shootings and murders took place, which only ended after Wyatt Earp’s famed vengeance ride.  And the truth is, beyond the folks living in Tombstone between 1881-1882, hardly anyone ever heard about the confrontation until around 1926, when Wyatt Earp told his story Stuart Lake, who seems to have been a mixture between biographer and a writer of Western Dime Novels.

One fellow involved in the Cowboy Wars, who is often overlooked in the tale, was a jurist who had his own interesting history and a very mysterious end.  His name was Judge Wells Spicer.

Judge Spicer was a New Yorker, born around 1831, the son of William and Seba Spicer, who farmed in the small community of Chemung.  There isn’t much we know about the Spicer family, because I suppose, there wasn’t a lot to know about them.  They were farmers, they had three children, and along with tens of thousands of others in the early to mid-1800s, began a westward migration.  We do know is that the Spicer family relocated to Iowa when Wells was around 9-years-old, and we know that as a young man, Wells studied law and clerked for Judge Samuel A. Bissell.  He was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1853.  In that same year, Spicer and a few associates established the Cedar County Advertiser; Spicer served as its sole publisher and editor for about a year.  In time, once the paper had become financially established, Wells sold it for a nice profit.

As with many young educated men of his time, Wells became interested in local politics.  After failing to win the contest for county prosecutor as a Democrat, Spicer switched his allegiance to the Republican Party and won the race for Cedar County judge in 1856.  He soon after married Abbie Gilbert, and a year later they welcomed a son into their lives, whom they named Earnest.

Twelve years later, Wells and his family lived in Tipton, Colorado.  In 1869, Spicer left his family and traveled to the Utah territory with his former newspaper associate Charles Swetland.  Within the next three years, Wells was admitted to the Utah bar, opened a law practice specializing in mining law, and formed a hotel partnership with Swetland.  When Swetland died in 1871, Abbie rejoined Wells and they resettled in Ophir City.

Spicer continued his mining law practice, of course, did some prospecting, and then established a mine construction/tunneling business.  During this time, he periodically contributed essays to the Salt Lake Daily Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette.  In 1872, Spicer moved his family to Salt Lake City to accept a position as a United States Commissioner of the Territorial Supreme Court.[1]

In 1874, Wells Spicer leased the Rollins Mine, which at the time was defunct.  Spicer persevered and struck a lead and gold vein that revitalized the areas of Beaver and Minersville.  It was through Spicer’s connections in Beaver, Utah, that Wells Spicer became involved in one of the United States’ darkest criminal trials.

The Back Story

John Doyle Lee

John Doyle Lee (1812-1877) was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory.  A friend of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), Lee joined the Mormon Church in 1838 and became the adopted son of Mormon leader Brigham Young.  Lee served as a church missionary in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  John Lee was responsible for converting the former frontiersman William Adams Hickman to Mormonism.  Hickman later served the Mormon church as an enforcer and a leader of Mormon militia charged with exterminating the Timpanogos Indians in Utah.  It was said that Hickman’s militia decapitated as many as fifty Indian braves and displayed their heads from the walls of roofs.

As a member of the Mormon Church, Lee took nineteen wives and, ultimately, sixty-seven children.  As a member of the Mormon Council of Fifty, Lee played a role in establishing Mormon settlements in the Utah Territory and for enforcing Mormon laws within the community.  John Lee also played a role in the siege of the Baker-Fancher  Party and ultimately, the murder of 120 westward-moving migrants.  I previously summarized the horrid events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in When Saints Became Sinners.

Seventeen years later, in November 1874, Sheriff William Stokes of Beaver, Utah, arrested John D. Lee on a warrant issued for his arrest in connection with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  Facing charges of multiple homicide, Lee eventually decided to hire an attorney to represent him in the Utah Territorial Court.  That attorney was Wells W. Spicer.

The Lee Trial

The first “investigation” of the massacre was conducted by Brigham Young, began on 29 September 1857.  In 1858, Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asserting that the massacre was the result of an Indian attack on the Baker-Fancher wagon train.  The Utah War delayed further investigation until 1859, when Jacob Forney and Brevet Major James H. Carleton began federal inquiries.[2]  Carleton’s investigation was thorough, including the collection of forensic evidence and in-depth interviews with local Mormons and Paiute tribal chiefs.  He concluded that individuals from southern Mormon communities participated in the massacre.  Carleton forwarded his report to the United States Assistant Adjutant-General and members of the US Congress.  Forney, who was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Utah, concluded that if the Paiute acted at all, the massacre would not have occurred without the urging of white settlers.

After studying the 16-year old and somewhat lengthy investigative report, Spicer advised Lee, whose roll in the massacre was substantial, to make a full confession and rely on the mercy of the court.  Lee, however, refused because, in doing so, he would have had to implicate influential members of the Church of Latter Day Saints — the men who ordered the Mountain Meadows massacre.

Wells Spicer assembled a legal defense team consisting of  Enos D. Hoge and William W. Bishop.  A witness to the massacre, John McFarlane, was hired to assist the attorneys.  An additional team consisting of George Bates and Jabez Sutherland assembled to represent the interests of the Mormon church.  Lee’s trial began in late July 1875, 18 years after the massacre.

After making their opening statement, the prosecution presented full details of the massacre; it took several days.  When the defense opened, Spicer proposed three possible scenarios — which we may assume he intended to plant the seeds of doubt into the minds of the jury respecting Lee’s involvement in the massacre. 

Spicer’s theories were that (a) hostile Indians massacred members of the Baker-Fancher Party, (b) that members of the Mormon Church committed the murders, and (c) that the massacre was a very unfortunate incident caused by the wagon train’s disregard for Indian land and property.  Having established these possible scenarios, Spicer laid out his predicate that the murders were the result of religious fanaticism.  At no time did Spicer suggest that the murders were intentionally ordered by the Mormon hierarchy.  Since no one from the Mormon Church stepped forward to support Lee, we might assume that the LDS sought to distance themselves from the entire episode.

Lee’s jury consisted of eight Mormons and four “gentiles.”  Unsurprisingly, the eight Mormons voted to acquit Lee.  Without a clear majority in the verdict, the trial judge declared a hung jury.  The first trial received wide coverage in the press.  It seemed that no one was pleased with a hung jury, or the Spicer defense.  The Mormon hierarchy was critical of Spicer because of his contention that the murders were committed by members of the LDS community (which they were), and the non-Mormon press was critical of him because he adopted such unusual strategies.

John D. Lee’s silence during the trial was unrewarded and, ultimately, it worked against him.  Behind the scenes, Mormon elders struck a deal with US prosecutors to populate the second trial with a clear majority of Mormon jurors, who in exchange for bringing in a guilty verdict, US attorneys would drop their contention that Mormon leaders were complicit in the murders.  When the Mormon hierarchy delivered on their part of the bargain, prosecutors dropped all charges against Mormon leaders.

During the second trial, Spicer pointed out that many of the prosecution’s witnesses were also willing participants in the massacre, and that their collective testimonies were inconsistent.  But, as they say, the jury was rigged — John D. Lee was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.  Spicer and Bishop appealed the conviction, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court.  There is no mistaking the fact that Lee was guilty of participating in the massacres, but he was not the only one.  Lee became the scapegoat for the Mormon Church, who clearly ordered the massacre.  After the Supreme Court upheld Lee’s conviction, Spicer requested clemency from Governor George Emory.  Emory denied the petition because of Lee’s reluctance to make a full confession of what happened in 1857.

After the trial, Spicer was reappointed as a US Commissioner and he remained in that position through 1878 when, discouraged by the lack of justice in Utah, and motivated by a silver strike in southeast Arizona, he moved to the small mining town named Tombstone.


Judge Wells W. Spicer

There is no clear record of when Wells Spicer arrived in Tombstone.  We know that he was appointed as a special correspondent for the Arizona Daily Star in January 1880, and according to Jeff Guinn, Spicer entered into a partnership in a tobacco and stationary shop with Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams.  When Charles G. W. French was named Chief Justice of the Arizona Territory by President U. S. Grant, French named Wells Spicer as a justice of the First District Court in June 1880.  Southeast Arizona was silver mining country and Spicer was no stranger to prospecting — in addition to which he opened a law office specializing in mining law and served as the Commissioner of Deeds for Cochise County.

In Tombstone, Wells became involved in another historic incident, commonly referred to as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in October 1881.  After the wounded Morgan and Virgil Earp were taken away by wagon for medical treatment, a badly shaken Sheriff Johnny Behan approached Wyatt and John “Doc” Holliday and announced, “Wyatt, I’m arresting you for murder.”  Wyatt, momentarily stunned, answered, “I won’t be arrested, today” and then angrily accused Behan of misleading Virgil Earp into thinking the Clanton’s and McLaury’s were all unarmed.  Bystanders, who overheard Behan’s announcement, quickly defended Earp.  One citizen allegedly said, “They done just right in killing them, and the people will uphold them.”  Behan decided against making an arrest at that time.

The shoot-out quickly became the talk of the town.  The Tombstone Nugget ran a story noting that “The 26th of October 1881, will always be marked as one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttlecock.”[3]  There were two factions of citizens in Tombstone on that day.  Half of them supporting the Earps, the other half supporting the Cowboys — among whom there were more than a few who wondered why Virgil Earp had deputized the “hot head” Doc Holliday.  During the funeral procession, three hundred supporters lined up to escort the remains of Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury to the Boot Hill Cemetery.

Two days after the shoot-out, County Coroner Henry Matthews opened a formal inquest.  The coroner introduced nine witnesses before his jury, including Behan and Ike Clanton, as well as some “more-or-less” neutral witnesses.  After listening to the conflicting stories and numerous accounts of previous trouble between the feuding parties, Matthews announced his conclusions — which neither condemned nor exonerated the town marshals.  He wrote, “William Clanton, Frank and Thomas McLaury, came to their deaths in the town of Tombstone on October 26, 1881, from the effects of pistol and gunshot wounds inflicted by Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt Earp, and one Holliday, commonly called ‘Doc Holliday’.”

The next day Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday.  Normally, this duty would have fallen to County Sheriff Behan, but Behan seemed content to let Clanton take the initiative, leaving him to testify against the Earps.  The case was scheduled for a preliminary hearing before Justice Spicer.  Spicer’s duty was to determine whether the evidence indicated “sufficient cause” to believe that a crime had been committed, and that the named defendants committed it.  In most cases, preliminary hearings are somewhat perfunctory affairs where defendants concede the inevitability of a full trial and where prosecutors present only enough testimony to meet the legal standard.

The Hearing

That didn’t happen in the so-called Spicer Hearing.  The Earp’s hired Thomas Fitch, a man with substantial credentials and a reputation as a master strategist, as their defense attorney.[4]  Esquire Fitch believed that Judge Spicer, who was a member in good standing of the Tombstone conservative establishment, would be sympathetic to the Earps and present a better hope for their freedom than a jury of randomly selected men.  Spicer’s hearing assumed the appearance of a regular criminal trial, which included thirty witnesses and full examination by attorneys for both sides — and the longest hearing in Arizona history.  It lasted nearly a month.

The prosecution team, on the other hand, was composed to men with different goals.  Lyttleton Price, the lead prosecutor, was appointed by the territorial governor.  In the minds of many townspeople, this made Price a suspected Republican.  Ike Clanton’s personal lawyer was Ben Goodrich.  Goodrich, like Price, understood that there would be a benefit to a “less-radical” prosecution.  William Rowland McLaury, the brother of Frank and Tom, joined the prosecution team.  His entire focus was an all-out attack on the defendants.[5]

At Fitch’s request, testimony in the hearing began behind closed doors on 31 October.  Henry Matthews opened testimony for the prosecution by stating that the dead men were killed by “gunshot or pistol wounds,” adding that Tom McLaury was killed by shotgun rather than by revolver.

The next morning, the prosecution called Billy Allen to the stand.  He told the court that after he informed Frank McLaury that his brother Tom had been hit on the head by Wyatt Earp, Frank appeared shocked and vowed to “get the boys out of town.”  Later, as a witness to the gunfight, Allen testified that he heard one of the Earps say, “You sons of bitches, you have been looking for a fight!”  He attributed Virgil Earp to ordering the Clanton’s and McLaury’s to “Throw up your hands!”  According to Allen, the Earps began firing at about the same time Billy Clanton said, “I ain’t got no arms.”  Fitch, on cross-examination, destroyed Allen’s credibility by bringing to light the young man’s criminal past: indictments for larceny, the use of aliases, etc.

Sheriff Behan testified on the third day.  He heard about the brewing trouble while seated in a barber shop and, as he anticipated disarming and arresting the parties, he told the barber to hurry along.  When he left the barber shop, he went to see Frank McLaury and demanded four times that he turn over his gun.  Frank refused, he said, until the Earp’s were also disarmed.  Behan testified that his effort to disarm Frank was interrupted when he spotted the Earp posse marching down Fremont Street.  According to Behan, he told the Earps that he had been “down there for the purpose of arresting and disarming the Clanton’s and McLaury’s,” and ordered the Earps to stop.  “I’m the Sheriff of the county and am not going to allow any trouble if I can help it.”  Behan also claimed that as the Earps continued down Fremont Street he followed behind, urging them to reconsider.

When the Earp posse arrived at the place where the Cowboys had gathered, Behan testified that he heard Wyatt say, “You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight, and now you can have it.”  Virgil followed, saying, “Throw up your hands.”  The shooting commenced instantly, he said, adding, “I will not say for certain — the first shot being fired at Billy Clanton by Doc Holliday.”

Thomas Fitch, Esq.

Lawyer Fitch’s examination of Behan sought to establish his prejudice against Wyatt Earp owing to their previous competition for the position of country sheriff and the inconsistency of his description of the gunfight.  For example, Fitch questioned how Holliday could have fired the first shot with his nickel plated revolver when, according to most other testimony, he was holding a shotgun in his hand at the beginning of the fight.  Fitch also challenged Behan’s court testimony when compared to his visit with the injured Virgil Earp the night of the gunfight, in which he reportedly told Earp, “You did perfectly right.”

Witness Martha King opined that the shooting was premeditated. In her testimony, she claimed that she heard one of the Earp’s tell Holliday to “Let them have it.”  Witness Wesley Fuller said that the shooting began before the Clanton’s and McLaury’s had a chance to respond to the demand that they disarm.  According to Fuller, Clanton had thrown up his hands and was shouting, “Don’t shoot me!” when the bullets started flying.  Of course, Fuller’s testimony was discredited when Fitch proved that Fuller had earlier told someone that he planned to cinch Holliday.

On 7 November, Judge Spicer surprised everyone by revoking Wyatt Earp’s and Doc Holliday’s bail and ordering them into the county jail.  Will McLaury was overjoyed, of course.  On the following day, Billy Claiborne asserted that the Earps had their weapons drawn before the reached the empty lot behind the O.K. Corral, suggesting premeditation, and he claimed that Morgan Earp shoved his pistol up close to Billy Clanton before shooting him.  Claiborne had no credibility at the trial, particularly after he remained silent when Fitch asked him if he was presently out on bail as a suspect in a killing over in Charleston, Arizona.

Price’s biggest mistake was putting Ike Clanton on the stand.  Here was a man who couldn’t keep track of his own lies.  According to his testimony, Morgan Earp shot his brother while Billy’s hands were in the air.  Then, split seconds later, Ike grabbed Wyatt’s pistol-holding hand and pushed him around the corner — and this allowed Ike to escape the massacre.  He recounted the times when the Earps and Holliday mistreated him.  In essence, the Earps were “out of control.”

Thomas Fitch destroyed Ike Clanton’s testimony.  Was he carrying around a rifle inside Tombstone on the morning of the gunfight?  Yes.  Was he interested in a showdown with the Earps?  Yes.  What then, was the source of Ike Clanton’s anger toward Wyatt Earp?  Was it that he feared Wyatt would reveal the secret deal he had made with Wyatt to turn in the men responsible for the Benton Stage robbery?  Ike claimed that the Earps were behind the robbery and that was why the Earps wanted to kill Billy Clanton and the McLaury’s — to keep them from bringing charges against the Earps.  After Clanton, Price brought four additional witnesses and then rested his case.

The defense opened its case on 16 November.  Wyatt Earp was the first to take the stand.  Fitch took advantage of an Arizona law permitting defendants in preliminary hearings to avoid cross-examination by offering a narrative statement.  Wyatt chose to read an account of events that almost certainly was prepared with the assistance of his attorney.  Earp told the court that the October gunfight began with a feud between the Earps and McLaury’s over the Earp’s attempt to retrieve stolen mules from the McLaury farm.  Wyatt stated that the McLaury’s had been waiting for a chance to get even and, as evidence, recounted several threats he’d received from the McLaury’s.  Wyatt forcefully denied any involvement with the stagecoach robbery and murder, stating that Ike Clanton’s accusation was a tissue of lies from beginning to end.

As to the shootout, Wyatt stated that it happened only because Sheriff Behan had deceived the Earps into believing that he (Behan) had disarmed the Clanton’s and McLaury’s.  It was only when he and the rest of his party came within close range of the men that they realized that the McLaury’s and Billy Clanton had six-shooters “in plain sight.”  He testified that the shooting began when, in response to Virgil’s demand that they disarm, “Billy and Frank reached for their guns.”  Wyatt admitted, along with Billy Clanton, to have fired one of the first two shots and that his shot struck the belly of Frank McLaury, who Earp said, had the reputation of being a good shot.  Wyatt admitted that Tom McLaury might have been unarmed, but nothing happened at the time of the incident that led him to think so.  He offered a compelling account of self-defense — duly sworn lawmen, enforcing the law, and being forced to make a split-second decision to fire before it was too late to save themselves.

Three days later, the hearing reconvened in Virgil Earp’s bedroom in the Cosmopolitan Hotel where he remained while recovering from his gunshot wound.  Virgil’s testimony was less coherent than Wyatt’s.  He told about his efforts to calm down an irate Ike Clanton the night before the shootout.  He said that the next morning, citizens came to warn him that Ike had threatened to kill him on sight, and another man named Sills said that he had overheard the Clanton’s and McLaury’s talking and one of them had said “We will kill them all.”  As to the gathering of the Clanton’s and McLaury’s at the O.K. Corral, Virgil determined to let them be, “ … so long as they stayed in the corral.  But,” he added, “if they came out to the street,” he’d disarm and arrest them.

Virgil said that when the Cowboys moved out to Fremont Street, he and his brothers and Doc Holliday (whom he deputized), made their fateful march toward the O.K. Corral.  Virgil insisted that Frank and Billy “drew their six-shooters and commenced to cock them” as soon as he gave them the order to disarm.  Two shots, one from Billy Clanton and the other (most likely) from Wyatt, went off in quick succession and then the shooting became “general.”  Virgil’s statement was consistent with other defense witness testimony.

Mr. H. F. Sills validated Virgil’s testimony about threats made against the Earps.  Ned Boyle reported that Ike Clanton told him on the morning of the shootout that, “ … as soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open.”  Rezin Campbell testified that he overheard Ike warn Wyatt that, “Fight is my racket, and all I want is four feet of ground.”

Winfield Williams testified that he heard Sheriff Behan tell Virgil that he did the right thing.  Hotel owner Albert Billicke told the court that he saw Tom McLaury leave the butcher shop on Fremont Street with a gun protruding from his pants pocket.  Annie Bourland was a witness to the shooting; she said she never saw any of the Clanton’s or McLaury’s throw up their hands.

Testimony in the hearing ended on 29 November.

The Aftermath of the Hearing

Spicer’s decision was that there would be no criminal trial of the Earps or of Holliday — but his decision was not without sanction.  He also criticized Virgil’s decision to deputize his brothers and Doc Holliday; it was an injudicious and censurable act — although in fairness, Virgil had few options for law enforcement assistance.

In Judge Spicer’s opinion, Ike Clanton was responsible for the gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the deceased men were at fault for failing to heed Behan’s request that they relinquish their firearms.  Regarding Behan’s testimony that McLaury insisted on the disarmament of the Earps, Judge Spicer noted that, “ … is a proposition both monstrous and startling.”  Virgil Earp, as town marshal — and his assistants, had every right and duty to be armed when they approached men whom they believed to be armed, in violation of the city ordinance, and contemplating resistance.  Spicer further opined, that “the tragic result” of the Clanton’s and McLaury’s actions were largely their own fault.  “I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing the homicides.  There being no sufficient cause [to believe the defendants guilty of murder], I order them released.”

Tombstone was a rough town; what made is rough was the people who lived there.  If they weren’t fighting with each other about mining, the squabbled about politics.  At the end of Spicer’s Hearing, they had one more thing to argue about.  The Tombstone Epitaph had nothing but praise for Spicer, the Tombstone Nugget castigated Spicer, writing, “in the eyes of many, Spicer does not stand like Caesar’s wife, ‘not only virtuous but above suspicion’.”  The newspaper Spicer once worked for, the Arizona Daily Star, said that he [Spicer] “was guilty of culpable ignorance of his duty or was afraid to perform the same, or acted improperly in discharging them.”

The Cowboys wasted no time plotting their revenge.  Two weeks after Judge Spicer’s controversial decision, Mayor John Clum was forced to leap out of a stagecoach to escape bandits attempting to assassinate him.  Death threats were sent to several “pro-Earp” men, including Marshall Williams, Tom Fitch, and Wells Spicer.  Spicer’s threat stated, “Sir, if you take my advice, you will take your departure for a more genial clime, as I don’t think this one healthy for you much longer.  As you are liable to get a hole through your coat at any moment.  If such sons of bitches as you are allowed to dispense Justice in this Territory, the sooner you depart from us the better for you and the community at large.  You may make light of this, but it is only a matter of time … you will get it sooner or later so, with those gentle hints I will conclude for the first and last time.”

Two weeks after that, Virgil Earp was ambushed by several men — most likely Ike Clanton, perhaps even Will McLaury, likely also Frank Stillwell (a noted back shooter) — as he walked home from making his late-night patrol through the town.  Two loads of buckshot left his arm immobile for the rest of his life.  Authorities charged Ike Clanton with attempted murder, but of course, several Cowboys testified that Ike couldn’t have tried to murder Virgil because he was with them the entire night.

Spicer reacted angrily to the threat and wrote a reply, published in the Tombstone Epitaph.  He wrote, “I have been reviled and slandered beyond measure, and that every vile epithet that a foul mouth could utter has been spoken of me — that of corruption and bribery.  It is but just to myself that I should hereby assert that neither directly or indirectly was I ever approached in the interest of the defendants, nor have I received any favor of any kind from them or for them.  There is rabble in our city who would like to be thugs if they had courage; would be pleased to be called cowboys, if people gave them that distinction; but as they can be neither, they do the best they can to show how vile they are, and slander, abuse, and threaten everybody they date to.  In conclusion, I will say that I will be here just where they can find me if they want me.”

In March 1882, another act of revenge took the life of Morgan Earp.  Someone fired a bullet fired through the window of a pool hall.   The bullet struck Morgan in his abdomen and then passed through his body and severed his spinal column.  Morgan lived for about another hour.  Before he died, Morgan allegedly said, “I have played my last game of pool, boys.”

Following the Hearing and Wyatt Earp’s Vengeance Ride, Spicer returned to prospecting — at first in Arizona, and later in Sonora, Mexico.  Some accounts suggest that Spicer lost all his money in bad mining investments, subsequently wandered into the Arizona desert, and took his own life.  This is likely true because shortly before his disappearance, Spicer visited a man named Bill Haynes, who later said that while Spicer stayed with him, he’d tried to commit suicide on two occasions.


  1. Bailey, L. R.  A Tale of the Unkilled: The Life, Times, and Writings of Wells Spicer.  Western Press, 1999.
  2. Bagley, W.  Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  3. Lubet, S.  Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp.  Yale University Press, 2004.
  4. Shillingberg, W. B.  Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling, and Mayhem.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.


[1] Congress created US Commissioners of the federal courts in 1793, whose duties involved assisting federal judges in the enforcement of certain laws.  They might serve as magistrates and federal justices of the peace, administrative law judges, or take on clerking responsibilities, such as taking affidavits and depositions, and setting bail.  After 1812, the congress expanded the role of commissioners to include law enforcement duties and preside over deportation hearings.  Most commissioners were lawyers who carried out their judicial duties while maintaining their private law practices.  

[2] See also, A Western Dragoon.

[3] The Nugget was a pro-Democrat/Cowboy newspaper in competition with the Tombstone Epitaph.  The former was as reliable as the present-day New York Times

[4] Thomas Fitch (1838-1923) was born in Manhattan, New York City.  He was employed as a clerk and an editor of the Milwaukee Free Democrat, an editor of the San Francisco Times and Placerville Republican, studied law, practiced law, and served as a member of the California Assembly.  In Nevada, he served as a member of the State Convention, was a nominee for Territorial Delegate to Congress in 1864, a district attorney of Washoe County, a member of the US congress, and a practicing attorney in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.  Some of his more notable clients were Brigham Young (in the Mountain Meadow affair), Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp, and Ed Tewksbury.

[5] Will McLaury (1844-1913) was born in New York but grew up in Iowa.  Before becoming an attorney, Will farmed in the Dakotas, later moving to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.  Will’s wife died in 1881, and he was left with three small children.  Then, his younger brothers were killed in October.  His vitriolic participation in the trial may have done more harm than good and he was bitter about the trial’s result and there were rumors that Will may have had a hand in the shotgun assault on Virgil Earp and the assassination of Morgan Earp.  Will later became a Fort Worth Judge.

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Politicians | 6 Comments

Outlaws & Patriots

Early America and the Quest for Independence


Seldom has there ever been a sense of “we” in Great Britain.  National unity did manifest itself as a result of wars, but this has always been a fickle indicator because people tire of war rather quickly, particularly when they realize its cost regarding taxes and loved ones lost.  If we ignore the temporary unity that comes from national mobilization, there have always been class distinctions in British society: Royals vs. everyone else, wealthy class vs. middle class, better off vs. worse off, industrialists vs. agriculturalists, white-collar vs. blue-collar, and the usual racial or ethnic divisions.  If we remove “royals” from the equation, then we find favorable class comparisons within American society.

Several conditions in Merry Old England explain why so many British people migrated to the American colonies, including escaping poverty, persecution, political turmoil, famine, and disease.  It takes a powerful incentive to push or pull people away from their loved ones, their homes, and everything they knew or cared about in the homeland — which leads us to assume that life in the old country was grim enough for the “push” and that the promise of America was sufficiently significant to make the venture a worthwhile risk.

Yet another incentive to leave the English homeland was the always-present authoritarian boot of the British government resting on the necks of the King’s subjects.  Migration to the colonies was also encouraged by the absence of hope for a brighter future in the land of their birth.[1]

The risks associated with a decision to relocate to the American colonies were never small.  Still, in the minds of many, life in the colonies couldn’t be any worse than it was in the British Isles.  British subjects migrated to the colonies by the tens of thousands.  Between 1620 and 1775, British subjects living in the American colonies increased from around zero to 3.1 million people.[2]

Of course, not every migrant survived the American ordeal.  Not every migrant became successful.  But every settler quickly learned that if they hoped to last or achieve success, it would have to be on their own merits — and that there was never a guarantee of achieving either.  They learned, through their experiences, that while they were free to choose their fate, the cost of doing so was often dear.  Freedom in America was never free.

Every effort to achieve success in the colonies involved land acquisition — even among the indentured, once released.  Property ownership was the engine of the American success story because the land was essential for raising crops, pasturing livestock, building homes and stores, constructing ships for commerce, or tying up fishing boats.

There was no land for the average Englishmen back home, but there was plenty of land for them in North America.  The problem, however, was that other people already possessed that land.  Acquiring land, therefore, meant dispossessing its occupants, which became the primary reason for hostility between Europeans and Indians.  American settlers eventually succeeded in removing the Indians from their ancestral lands, but it was an expensive undertaking in terms of lives lost.

Colonial governments had always placed some restrictions on where migrants could settle.  As streams of migrants flooded into the colonies, they quickly occupied the vast tracts of land nearest the seacoast, and later arriving groups had little choice but to move west to find parcels yet unclaimed.  Just over the Appalachian Mountains, on their western side, millions of acres awaited them.  All they had to do was risk their lives to obtain it.  Despite colonial restrictions on moving across the Appalachia, settlers learned that the farther west they went, the less attention was paid to them by colonial officials.  It was a matter of being out of sight/out of mind.

This, too, was a lesson not wasted on the early Americans.  Since, for the most part, there was no penalty assessed for doing as they pleased, Americans learned that ignoring government regulations was beneficial.  It did not take long for these early Americans to adopt disobedience as a symbol of American freedom — choosing to call it their independent nature, of course — and why should it matter if the Indians were tossed off their land?

It began to matter when the Indians decided they would not go quietly into that good night.

Intensified Conflicts

There were several “French and Indian Wars” in North America, beginning as early as 1609.  However, the Seven Years’ War, which also involved French colonists and their Indian allies, was part of a more significant European conflict.  On one side was a British, Prussia, and Hanoverian alliance against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia, and Spain.  France and Spain were not happy with British meddling in North America.  After all, the French and Spanish were “there” first.  So, as it unfolded, the Seven Years’ War became a conflict of nations striving to achieve commercial and imperial superiority in the New World.

Great Britain’s imperative in 1754 was simple enough: destroy France’s ability to compete.  To achieve this goal, the British focused their efforts on destroying French shipping and the productivity of the French colonies in New France.

In the conflict between Great Britain and France, both of whom maintained North American colonies,  a limited number of French regulars enlisted the assistance of some 5-8,000 of their Algonquin allies to confront between 42-45,000 British soldiers and militia and around 3,000 Iroquois.  The Seven Year’s War raged between 1754-1763.

There is no record of the French and Indian casualties sustained during the Seven Years’ War, but British losses in North America were 3,012 killed in action/died of wounds, and an additional 10,400 deaths from diseases.  These were losses that the British had to replace to exercise their control of the vast territory formerly known as New France.

In 1763, the British government quite reasonably concluded that hostility with native populations might subside if settlers stopped invading Indian lands.  Thus, in that year, a Royal Proclamation forbade any Anglo settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains.  Moreover, British authorities ordered colonists living in the west of the Appalachians to return “back east.”  Most of these settlers complied, of course, but they weren’t happy about it.  In 1764, The Royal Proclamation of 1763 became a popular topic among several of the earliest committees of correspondence.

War Profiteering

While the idea was simple enough, British regulations governing colonial and territorial commerce were complex.  The scheme anticipated that colonies would produce raw materials and ship them to England.  British industries would transform these raw materials into finished goods and sell them to British overseas colonies, territories, and other markets.  In the early 1700s, British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, known as a “free trader,” developed a “hands-off” policy toward the enforcement of commercial regulations.

Walpole appointed a like-minded statesman named Thomas Pelham (Duke of Newcastle) to serve as Secretary of State for the Southern Departments.  Pelham, responsible for managing affairs in the American colonies, was indifferent with respect to trade regulations — which later became known as salutary neglect.[3]  In effect, Pelham not only ignored the bribes paid to tax collectors for looking the other way, but he also disregarded numerous complaints from colonial governors who complained about the rampant lawlessness in the American colonies.

The effect of salutary neglect was an increase in smuggling — and most Americans saw nothing wrong with it.  They wanted the government to keep its hands off the “natural right” of free trade.  As but one example of this widespread smuggling, between 1756-1757, 400 chests of tea were imported into Philadelphia; of those, only sixteen were imported legally.  In 1763, the British government estimated that its losses in revenues due to smuggling exceeded £700,000 — an enormous sum of money back then.  Nor was the preference for inexpensive (smuggled) tea limited to American colonists.  Other estimates claim that English and American smugglers trafficked half the tea imported to England.

Notwithstanding the Seven Years’ War, trading with Great Britain’s enemies had become an American tradition.  During earlier conflicts, American merchants frequented neutral ports in the Caribbean to exchange their provisions for French molasses, bribing customs officials, of course, to obtain false clearance papers.

In Rhode Island, trading with the enemy became an art form.  During the Seven Years’ War, combatants used flags of truce to exchange prisoners.  Smugglers found that they could purchase these flags at reasonable prices from colonial governors.  Ship captains would hire deckhands who could speak French and then used them to pose as prisoners.  Sailing into a belligerent harbor under a flag of truce enabled American/British smugglers to trade with the French West Indies.  One American smuggler recorded in his journal, “French trade is the most profitable business I know of …”

Illegal trade with the enemy continued throughout the war, particularly during its later phase when the French West Indies were desperate for food stores.  American merchants from Newport, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia made a handsome profit from such transactions.  Pennsylvania’s wartime governor, William Denny, actually enriched himself by selling “flags of truce.”  He sold so many flags that by 1760, they were openly traded in New York markets.  This blatant disregard for trade restrictions and British law brought “salutary neglect” to a screeching halt in 1763, but greater customs enforcement failed to solve the problem.  Sympathetic colonial juries routinely acquitted American smugglers, and government informers who ratted on them were too often found lying in alleyways with their throats cut.

In 1763, British Prime Minister George Grenville implemented a campaign to crack down on smuggling.  He detailed eight warships and twelve armed sloops to patrol American waters to arrest smugglers and confiscate their ships and cargo.  Before Grenville’s tenure, British-appointed customs officers remained in England while sending low-paid subordinates to collect taxes in the American colonies.  Grenville ordered these officials to either take up their duties in America or resign.  Many resigned rather than face the smuggling mafia in the colonies.

Post-war Resistance

During the Seven Years’ War, American colonists opened their homes to British troops.  It was called “Quartering Troops.”  Once the war ended, however, these same colonists objected to quartering British soldiers.  The troops, they argued, were no longer required in North America.  While it was true that the Seven Years’ War was officially concluded, disaffected Frenchmen who remained in the British western territories continued to urge Algonquin attacks against British settlements — a problem that reasonably justified the continued presence of the British army; the need for security was significant enough to require the assistance of American volunteer militia.  In this sense, despite the official end of the French & Indian War, hostilities continued.[4]

The general dissatisfaction among the colonists of mandatory quartering of troops led to the first committee of correspondence — a relatively successful effort, as it turned out, to spread the seeds of discontent among colonists who wanted the government to leave them alone — except, of course, when the British army was needed to kill Indians.  Colonial attitudes in this regard offered no favor to the young men wearing red coats who provided security and safety to those very malcontents.

By 1765, senior British officers found it nearly impossible to convince colonial assemblies to pay for the quartering and provisioning of British soldiers.  The unwillingness of colonists to “support the troops” (beyond an occasional bumper sticker) prompted Lieutenant General Thomas Gage to petition Parliament to help resolve this problem.

Parliament responded to General Gage’s plea by passing the Quartering Act of 1765.  Incensed colonists rejected the law, arguing that it violated the Bill of Rights of 1689, which (a) forbade taxation without representation, and (b) prohibited the raising and maintaining of an army without the consent of Parliament.  The former argument was only marginally more substantial than the latter because colonists were represented by colonial assemblies and, in most cases, a Crown-appointed magistrate (governor).  In any case, the quartering of British soldiers in the homes of civilians was a “use tax.”  Their second argument was nonsense because the British military presence in North America was only possible by Parliamentary approval.

In 1766, when 1,500 additional British troops arrived in New York, the New York Assembly and the governor refused to comply with the Quartering Act.  A year later, as a punitive measure, Parliament suspended the governor of New York and the assembly.  By this time, the committees of correspondence had done their work, and every colony except Pennsylvania supported New York’s refusal to quarter troops in private homes, inns, and other business establishments.

Quartering was not the only issue, however.

Great Britain emerged from the Seven Years’ War as the victor — but along with the euphoria of defeating the French on land and sea came the burden of administering the vast expanse of land previously known as New France.  It fell upon military governors and soldiers to establish and maintain British authority over these acquired lands, which was in addition to protecting the western settlements from French instigated Indian attacks.  

Great Britain also emerged from the Seven Years’ War deeply in debt, which necessitated cost-cutting measures and increased taxes.  One of these cost-cutting measures was, as previously mentioned, a requirement that colonists provide room, board, and other provisions to British troops.  Increased taxes on goods and services was the other method of debt reduction.  Since smuggling goods had become an American art form, other means of raising revenues became necessary.

Prime Minister Grenville was serious about curtailing the smuggling operations prevalent in the American colonies, but that was only the beginning.  Customs duties were designed to regulate the flow of trade, not to raise revenue.  In any case, trade regulations cost the British government about four times more than it brought to the treasury, so Grenville set to work on a long list of proposals to raise revenue and curtail smuggling.  Parliament enacted Grenville’s proposals in 1764 — commonly referred to as the Sugar Acts.

Six sections of the Sugar Act dealt with new taxes; forty additional areas were devoted to far-reaching changes to already complicated commercial regulations, including a doubling down on enforcement mechanisms.  Typical of government regulation, the Sugar Act opened the door to racketeering by corrupt officials who lined their pockets by seizing vessels for minor infractions or technical violations.  For example, the owner of a captured ship had to pay the cost of his trial — in advance — or forfeit the vessel and all of its cargo.  Even if acquitted, the owner could not recover his “court costs.”  Customs officials were exempt from lawsuits so long as judges decided that the confiscation was made with “probable cause.”  Worse than this, the vessel owner carried the burden of proving his innocence.  Not surprisingly, the abuses of customs officials became widespread.

The Sugar Act ignited a short fuse in the colonies.  Rhode Island judges and prosecutors routinely found in favor of the defendants in such matters; they were, after all, Rhode Island voters.  In some cases where a judge had no choice but to convict a smuggler and confiscate his ship, he might later sell the vessel back to the owner at a fraction of its value.  Easiest to all concerned, however, was paying bribes to customs officials.

The British had no one to blame but themselves for these deplorable conditions.  Americans had become accustomed to “salutary neglect” and deeply resented Grenville’s efforts to repair the British treasury and pay for maintaining 10,000 troops in the colonies.  American colonists were never intimidated by the government’s efforts to sort out the British treasury.  The number of letters exchanged between the committees of correspondence dramatically increased, and it did not take long for colonial anger to turn violent.

British Parliament was also not intimated.  Following the Sugar Act, Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767.  Again, Parliament was wrestling with its war debt and noted that American colonists enjoyed a higher standard of living than Englishmen back home. More to the point, they paid less than 5% of the taxes paid by people living in England.  Since it was evident that the Americans could afford to pay higher taxes — they damn well should.  On the other hand, Americans saw the Acts as another example of Parliament’s abuse of power.

The Townshend Acts levied duties on British porcelain, glass, lead, paper, and tea.  Charles Townshend anticipated that taxes on tea alone would raise £40,000.  Townshend intended more than raising revenue, however.  He wanted to use the Acts to restructure colonial government.  Townshend revenues, for example, would pay the salaries of colonial officials, including governors and judges, which, from the American point of view, would only ensure the loyalty of judges to the British government.  The Acts’ only real accomplishment was to cause colonists to boycott British-made goods.  Charles Townshend didn’t live to see the effects of his scheme.  He died in September 1767.

The Townshend Acts went into effect on 20 November 1767.  To clarify Parliament’s authority over the colonies, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act of 1767.  Undaunted, John Dickinson (Pennsylvania), Sam Adams, and James Otis (Massachusetts) circulated correspondence urging colonists to boycott British-made goods.  New England merchants agreed not to import British goods for a year.  Resistance to the Townshend Acts led to the British decision to occupy Boston.

More than 2,000 British troops arrived in Boston in 1769 for occupation duty.  At the time, only around 16,000 people lived in Boston, but scuffles between patriot colonists, loyalists, and British troops became increasingly common.  Protest demonstrations evolved into the violent ransacking of stores and threatening merchants and their customers.  The “Boston Massacre” occurred on 5 March 1770.  On that same day, but unrelated to the shooting, Prime Minister Frederick North asked Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts.  All of the Act’s provisions were repealed in April, except the tea tax.

Following the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts of 1774.  Known to the colonists as the “Intolerable Acts,” these measures were intended to punish acts of defiance in Massachusetts.  Parliament stripped Massachusetts of its right of self-governance, which became another critical element of the colony’s declaration of independence.

While four acts related directly to the Tea Party mob, another, which seemed unrelated, was equally contested by the colonists.  The Quebec Act enlarged the boundaries of the Province of Quebec to include the Ohio country and extended reforms generally favorable to French Catholics.  Patriots regarded the Quebec Act as offensive to them because, to enlarge Quebec, Parliament reduced the territory allocated to Massachusetts.  By 1774, the American colonists had had their fill of British meddling.  The First Continental Congress was organized in September 1774.

The Other Side …

Few people realize, appreciate, or even care what the British had to contend with between 1764 and 1815.  It was more than having to address war debt, disharmony in the colonies, rebellion, and the Napoleonic Wars — there were also significant challenges on the home front: industrialization, acts of union, issues of slavery and equality, dealing with seditious movements, and at least two attempts at regicide.


Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born political activist, philosopher, theorist, and revolutionary.  In 1776, he authored Common Sense and The American Crisis (a series of 13 pamphlets between 1776-1783), two of the most influential writings of the American Revolution.  Common Sense presented moral and political arguments for egalitarian society and government.  It also made a persuasive case for independence.  Common Sense was translated into French in 1790.  Additionally, read in Great Britain and Ireland, Paine’s work inspired certain movements inside the United Kingdom that resulted in seditious activities against the British government and society.  On 16 November 1802, Bow Street Runners arrested forty dissidents and their alleged leader, Colonel Edward Despard[5], for attending an illegal meeting of members of the Society of United Irishmen and anti-monarchical/pro-French republicanism.[6] 

Did the British government address these challenges adequately?  Considering what was at stake in the decade preceding the American Revolution, the answer must be “no.”  But given the insufferable arrogance of the British ruling class at the time, decisions are taken by the Parliament and an exceptionally uninformed monarch, there could have been no other solution but armed rebellion in the American colonies.[7]  The same attitude was apparent twenty years later as the British government wrestled with unhappiness at home — demonstrating an unsophisticated overreaction to a small number of unhappy subjects.  Giving credit where due, the British did address the psychotic Napoleon well enough and then made a few quick stops in America to remind Mr. Madison that the United States was not quite ready for prime time.


  1. Ammerman, D.  In the Common Cause American Response to the Coervive Acts of 1774.  New York: Norton Press, 1975
  2. Bailyn, B.  The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.  Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992.
  3. Bailyn, B.  The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America – The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675.  Knopf Publishing, 2012.
  4. Churchill, W.  A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Age of Revolution.   London: Dodd-Meade, 1958.
  5. Ellis, J. J.  His Excellency: George Washington.  New York: First Vintage Books, 2004.
  6. Ferguson, N.  Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.  New York: Basic Books, 2004.
  7. Lloyd, T. O.  The British Empire 1558-1995.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  8. Maier, P. R.  From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776.  London/New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1972.
  9. Richter, D.  Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Past.  Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011


[1] In speaking of “citizens,” I admit to being influenced by my American mindset.  Someone recently reminded me that in the United Kingdom, people aren’t “citizens” as much as they are “subjects” of the Crown.  To clarify, the term British subject has several different meanings depending on the time period.  Before 1949, the term “subject” referred to almost all citizens of the British Empire (including the United Kingdom, dominions, and colonies but excluding protectorates and protected states.  Between 1949 and 1983, the term “subject” was synonymous with Commonwealth Citizen.  It currently refers to people possessing one of six classes of British nationality, largely granted under limited circumstances to those connected with Ireland and British India born before 1949.  The British government considers individuals with Irish or Indian nationalities as either British Nationals or Commonwealth Nationals, but not British citizens.  The term “citizen” suggests “republicanism,” which is the antithesis of a monarchy.

[2] The development of a unique American culture was an evolutionary process that took place over 150 years. Generations that followed the arrival of immigrant parents/grandparents developed much different attitudes about such things as community, national identity, and adherence to colonial rules and regulations.  These subsequent generations were the westward moving populations seeking to find their own way apart from their relations “back east.”   

[3] Salutary neglect was the policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws, particularly trade laws, so long as the British colonies remained loyal to the government and contributed to the economic growth of Great Britain.

[4] The British employed a similar strategy in the years following the American Revolution by stirring up the Indians, supplying them with weapons and munitions, and paying bounties for the scalps of American settlers. 

[5] Executed on 21 February 1803.

[6] The Bow Street Runners were London’s first police force.

[7] It is fitting that readers compare the utter arrogance of the British government (1763-1815) with the superciliousness of the American government in the present day — and decide whether, in the environment of our “superior” form of government, voters have done their due diligence in selecting national leaders.  After careful analysis, Americans may very well conclude that the US government today is far too full of itself; that its general attitude toward “we the people” mirrors the haughtiness of those bad old revolutionary days — and who knows, Americans may even decide that it is time to reassert popular sovereignty over what has become an ineffective, oppressive, and thoroughly corrupt government.  

Posted in American Frontier, British Colonies, Colonial America, Corruption, History, Revolution, Society | 4 Comments

Legends and Such

The story of David Crockett and Mike Fink

Some Background

A few weeks ago, at Fix Bayonets, I posted an account of the 8th Marine Regiment following its activation in 1917.  The regiment formed as a contingency for possible service in France during World War II.  Earlier, however, the United States became aware of the Zimmerman Telegram — a secret communiqué between Imperial Germany and the government of Mexico proposing a military alliance between those two countries.  The Germans no doubt concluded that if Mexico would engage the United States as a German ally, doing so would prevent the United States from joining the war effort as an ally of France and the United Kingdom.  Rather than scheduling the 8th Marines for service in France, the regiment was dispatched to Fort Crockett in Texas in the event Mexico joined Germany in World War I.

In my account — and thinking once again about David Crockett — I noted that the myth surrounding the frontiersman has unnecessarily complicated the facts of his life.  I recall that I had never heard of “Davy” until Walt Disney produced a television series that aired between 1954-55.[1]  In 1954, I was nine years old.  It was the year my step-father purchased the family’s first television set.  We all watched the series.

Disney’s production starred Fess Parker as Crockett, and through this program, Crockett became one of my childhood heroes.  Of course, childhood heroes disappear with time — as did Mr. Parker’s depiction of him.  A few years later, John Wayne produced, directed, and starred in the film The Alamo, which rekindled my interest in “Davy” Crockett.  In 1960, I no longer had any childhood heroes — but I was nevertheless fascinated by Wayne’s account of the Battle of the Alamo.  Like most people back then, I assumed that it was a factual account of Crockett’s last moments.  The apparent source for this account was an African-American slave who worked in the employ of one of General Santa Anna’s officers.

The slave’s name was “Ben.” According to his account, David Crockett’s body was found adjacent to one of the Alamo’s barracks surrounded by “no less than sixteen Mexican corpses.” Ben testified that Crockett’s knife was found buried in one of these dead Mexicans.

In 1975, Texas A&M University Press published the account of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican officer who was present at the Battle of the Alamo.  In Spanish, this account was published as La Rebelión de Texas – Manuscrito Inédito de 1836 por un Ofical de Santa Anna.  The translated version was titled With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution translated and edited by Carmen Perry, a former librarian of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.  Señor Peña’s version of the tale caused quite a controversy because, in this account, Crockett was one of several defenders who the Mexicans captured alive and then executed.  This version of the story appeared in the 2004 film The Alamo, which starred actor Billy Bob Thornton.

I found nothing in Señor Peña’s account or the 2004 film[2]that in any way diminished the story of the Alamo or any of the men who served there, including the depiction of David Crockett.  In the first place, Thornton had a much closer resemblance to the real David Crockett than either Fess Parker or John Wayne. 

Moreover (and I understand this was pure film fiction), Crockett’s last words made me laugh, and I imagined it might have been something the real Crockett said.  While trussed and forced to his knees, Crockett/Thornton was asked if he had anything he wished to say before his execution.  His response was, “You tell the general I’m willing to discuss the terms of surrender.  You tell him; if he’ll order his men to put down their weapons and line up, I’ll take them to Sam Houston, and I’ll try my best to save most of them. That said, Sam’s a mite twitchy, so no promises.”

The Family

In history, the French-Huguenot Crockett family migrated to the British colonies by way of Ireland in the early 1700s. David’s earliest known ancestor was Gabriel Gustave de Crocketagne.  His son, Antoine, was one of King Louis XIV’s household troops.  Antoine later migrated to Ireland, where he changed his name to Crockett. Antoine’s son Joseph relocated to New York.  Joseph was David’s great-great-grandfather.

Over time, the Crockett family made their way from New York to Virginia, North Carolina, and then to Northeast Tennessee, in present-day Hawkins County. David’s father, John, was a frontiersman who fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War, notably at Kings Mountain.  While away serving in the militia, the hostile Indians attacked the homestead.  Brother David and sister Elizabeth were killed, Joseph received severe wounds, and James became a hostage.

John Crockett married Rebecca Hawkins in 1780, and David was born in 1786, named after John’s father.  John and Rebecca struggled to make a living for twelve years.  In 1794, John moved his family to Cove Creek, where he constructed a gristmill in partnership with Thomas Galbraith.  After flooding destroyed that effort, the Crockett family moved again to present-day Jefferson County.  However, luck was not with John Crockett, and he ended up forfeiting his land in bankruptcy in 1795.  Eventually, John opened a saloon along a stage route near Morristown.  The family, still in debt, forced John to indenture David to Jacob Siler, and for a time, David Crockett worked as a cracker moving cattle from Tennessee to Virginia.

David met and fell in love with Polly Finley in 1806.  Their first-born was named John Wesley, who later became a member of the U. S. House of Representatives.  After birthing two additional children, Polly died in 1815.  David later married the widow Elizabeth Patton, who had two children by her first husband.  They produced three other children.

The Indian Wars

In the fifteen years leading up to the War of 1812, much to the chagrin local of tribal groups, the United States had opened the northwestern territories to white settlement.  In Canada, retained and controlled by the United Kingdom, some senior British officers believed that re-initiating the question of American independence might be a worthwhile project.  Having noted the agitation among Indian groups, these British officials supplied the Indians with firearms and encouragement to attack white settlements.  The Red Stick Indians, also known as the Upper Creek Indians, likewise resented white encroachment in present-day Alabama and, heartened by their understanding of events in the northwest territories, also began attacking white settlements in the area around present-day Mobile, Alabama.

Red Stick resentment of the Americans also affected their relationship with other Creek tribal groups, notably the Lower Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw, who had established beneficial trade relationships with the whites and were ready to assimilate into white culture.  Bad feelings within the Creek (also Muscogee) Confederacy festered for several years.  In late August, 750-1,000 Red Stick Indians assaulted the white settlement called Fort Mimms, killing everyone within and around the fort, in total around 265 militia, 252 civilians, with an additional (although unknown) number wounded.

Andrew Jackson began his legal and political career in North Carolina’s western district, which later became the state of Tennessee.  In 1788, Jackson lived in the small frontier town of Nashville, where he served as a lawyer and land speculator.  In 1791, Jackson served as the territorial attorney-general and participated as a member of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention.  He was Tennessee’s only congressional representative in those early days and an affiliate of Thomas Jefferson.  Jackson.  In 1802, Jackson won election as Commander of the Tennessee Militia, serving as “Major General.”

After the attack on Fort Mimms, dealing with the Red Stick Indians was assigned to Jackson, appointed to Major General of the American Army.  His call for volunteers netted David Crockett, who, at age 27-years, served as a scout under the command of Francis Jones mounted rifle company.  Jones, in turn, served under Colonel John Coffee, who commanded the 2nd Regiment of Volunteers.  John Coffee was the cousin through marriage of famed Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays.  In addition to his scouting duties, Crockett was the primary hunter for the game to feed his fellow militiamen, having no preference for killing Indians.

When Jackson switched his attention to British forces operating from Florida, Crockett reenlisted as “third sergeant” with the Tennessee Mounted Rifles under Captain John Cowan. Cowan’s command saw no action in this phase of Jackson’s operations, and Crockett returned home in December 1814.

Tennessee Politics

In 1817, Crockett served as a surveyor for Lawrence County.  In November of that year, county officials appointed him to serve as a Justice of the Peace.  In March 1818, Tennessee militiamen elected him to serve as lieutenant colonel of the 57th Tennessee Regiment.

Throughout this time, Crockett developed several successful businesses; when his county duties became an impediment to these interests, he resigned from the regiment as Justice of the Peace but maintained his position as a land commissioner.  Between 1821-1822, Crockett served in the Tennessee General Assembly.  Shortly after his election, floods destroyed all of Crockett’s businesses.

Most of Crockett’s legislative efforts involved lowering the tax burden on poor settlers/landowners.  In the General Assembly, he opposed Andrew Jackson’s political intrigue, which did nothing to endear him to Tennessee Democrats.  In 1823, Crockett ran against Jackson’s nephew-in-law William E. Butler, defeating him for a seat in the General Assembly representing Carroll, Humphreys, Perry, Henderson, and Madison counties.  When Andrew Jackson ran for the US Senate, Crockett backed incumbent John Williams.  Jackson won.

Although he ran for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives in 1824, he lost to the incumbent, Adam Alexander.  Disheartened, it took encouragement from Memphis mayor Marcus Winchester to convince Crockett to give it another “go.” In a letter published in the Jackson Gazette, Crockett explained why he was opposed to the policies of John Quincy Adams and Congressman Alexander.  Crockett won the seat, serving from 1827-1831.  Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828, which caused Crockett to throw his support behind James K. Polk.  His two terms in Congress were controversial because, among other issues, Crockett believed that the United States Military Academy had become a school for the privileged class.  He also opposed Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.  His stance on Indian Removal cost him his seat in 1831.

On to Texas

Crockett served again in the House between 1833-35.  During this time, Crockett published his autobiography and went on a tour to promote the book.  By 1834, Congressman Crockett knew there would be a revolution in Texas, and he began discussing the possibility of raising a company of volunteers to help the Texians achieve their independence.

Crockett’s daughter Matilda, his youngest child, later recounted the morning he left for Texas on 1 November 1835. “He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by his friends in Philadelphia.  He seemed very confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.”

Crockett’s journey took him to Jackson, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, where his popularity resulted in hundreds of people gathering to hear him speak about Texas.  Arriving in Nacogdoches, a Texas judge swore Crockett and his men in as Texas Volunteers.  In total, 65 men took the oath of allegiance to the Republic of Texas that day.  Each volunteer received the promise of 4,600 acres of land in payment for their services.  On 6 February, Crockett and six others arrived in San Antonio de Béxar — he and his companions joined the garrison at the Alamo on 8 February 1836.

… And Such

Until the Walt Disney production of Davy Crockett, I had also never heard of another mythical character, known variously as either Miche Phinck or Mike Fink.  Mr. Fink lived from around 1775 to 1823.  Beyond the fact that he was born at Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh), there is not much known about Fink’s early years.  He may have served as a scout in his teenage years, and he was known as an exceptional shot with a rifle.  Accustomed to the wild, undisciplined life at a young age, Fink shunned the farmer’s life and took up the oar as a boatman on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

In the television program, Jeff York played the role of Mike Fink.  Then, it seemed to me that Fink was a loudmouth and a bully — and from what we know of Fink, he was precisely that.  Fink stood well over six feet tall and might have been around 180-190 pounds in weight.  As a boatman, he had a well-developed physique, which enabled him to seek out fights with others, and win.

When Mike Fink wasn’t drinking, he was drinking even more.  His drinking frequently involved fist-fights, brawls, or shooting contests — some of which involved placing a cup of whiskey on a man’s head and shooting it off without killing the man.  In such a deadly contest, he was, for the most part, amazingly proficient.  In that moment, before Mike’s own death, however, his aim faltered, and Mink Fink shot through the man’s face who was his friend, a man named Carpenter.  Talbot, who was also a friend of Carpenter, then killed Mike Fink.

David Crockett described Mike Fink as being “half horse and half alligator,” and, according to a relative by the name John Fink, Mike’s restlessness resulted from his unhappiness with encroaching civilization.  There was simply “too much” progress.  At the same time, in business matters, he was a strict disciplinarian and would not tolerate a man who would not or could not carry his own weight.

Fink died in the Rocky Mountains while serving as part of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, one of William Henry Ashley’s 100 fur trappers — his aim, as I said, a tad off.


  1. Alphin, E. M.  Davy Crockett.  Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing, 2003.
  2. Beals, F. L.  Real Adventures with American Pathfinders: Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, Zebulon Pike, Davy Crockett.  Wagner Publishing, 1954.
  3. Blair, W., and Franklin Meine.  Mike Fink: King of the Mississippi Keelboatmen.  New York: Greenwood Press, 1971.
  4. Burke, J. W.  David Crockett, the man behind the myth.  New York: Eakins Press, 1984.
  5. Davis, W. C.  Three Roads to the Alamo: The lives and fortunes of Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis.  New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
  6. Rourke, C.  Davy Crockett.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
  7. Wallis, M.  David Crockett: The Lion of the West.  Norton Publishing, 2011.


[1] In his own day, there were some who referred to Mr. Crockett as “Davy,” but he never liked the informal use of his name.  In his own work, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, published in 1834, he used a formal reference to himself rather than the familiar. 

[2] I give this film five-stars.  Stephen Harrigan’s book The Gates of the Alamo (2000) is an excellent companion to this film.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, History, Indian War, Pioneers, Politicians, Texas | 6 Comments

The Timely End of Pecos Bob

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” —Aristotle


In terms of geologic time, the American west was settled in the blink of an eye, but in terms of the human experience, which involved much suffering, terror, sorrow, and back-breaking work, taming the old west took a very long time.  The people of the nineteenth century were a westward moving people, a trend that began almost from the instant Englishmen first set foot on America’s shore.  There are literally a million stories in the chronicle of America’s westward migration — each story noticeably different from the others, but the Olinger family may be somewhat typical.

In 1850, William and Rebecca Olinger lived in Indiana.  In eight years, they had moved further west three times — from Indiana to Iowa to Kansas.  Thirty-seven-year-old William died in 1861.  Rebecca remarried a man named Joshua Stafford.  They moved from Kansas to Oklahoma to Texas.  In 1875, Joshua and Rebecca were living in New Mexico.  New Mexico was attractive to many people because, as a federal territory, it was never subject to the trauma of post-civil war reconstruction.  Moreover, New Mexico was corrupt and lawless — an opportunity for those who were adept at playing fast and loose with the law.

Robert Ameredith Olinger was one of William and Rebecca’s sons. He may have been born around 1850; we aren’t sure because there were few written records kept of births and deaths in the mid 1800s. Bob’s brother John went into the ranching business in the Seven Rivers area of New Mexico. Whether he was successful in ranching is unknown. What is known is that in New Mexico, small ranchers made a good living by rustling cattle from those with thousands of head of cattle. What is also known is that for whatever reason, Bob grew into a thoroughly despicable person before he was out of his twenties.

Around 1876, Bob was hired to serve the citizens of Seven Rivers as town marshal.  The position may have worked out for Bob had he not consorted with local gangsters — notably, the Seven Rivers Warriors Gang and later, the Murphy-Dolan Gang.  What made Bob an example of prairie trash was his behavior.  He was prolific in drinking whiskey, gambling, and chasing whores.  If that wasn’t bad enough, Bob reached adulthood with a mean disposition, a bully of milder men, and no regard for human life.  As far as we know, Bob never lived in Reeves County, Texas — so we aren’t sure why he began calling himself Pecos Bob.

“Pecos Bob” Olinger

Pecos Bob Olinger became a killer when, during a night of drinking and gambling at the Royal Saloon in Seven Rivers, his friend Juan Chavez wondered if perhaps Bob was, in some small way, cheating at cards.  Bob stood up from the card table, unholstered his sidearm, and pointed the barrel at Señor Chavez’ head.  At the time, Chavez was unarmed, but one of the other gamblers tossed his pistol over to Chavez so that he could defend himself.

Some folks later commented that Juan wasn’t a very bright lad because when the gun smoke cleared, Juan was laying on the floor with a gosh-awful large bullet hole in his throat.  A coupe of the witnesses claimed that after Bob killed Chavez, he looked down to the floor where Juan’s body lay, and said, “All’s well that ends well.”  Whether Bob actually said that is anyone’s guess, but if he did, then Pecos Bob redefined the concept of friendship.

The folks living in the Seven Rivers area of New Mexico may have constituted the runt of the human litter.  A few months later, another gambler named John Hill — who was not a friend of Pecos Bob — made a somewhat similar observation about Bob’s card playing skills.  There was no gun play as before, but Mr. Hill’s body was found lying in an alley with a rather large bullet hole in the middle of his back.  Most folks figured that Mr. Hill met his end courtesy of Pecos Bob, but inasmuch as there were no witnesses, all’s well that ends well.

The Seven River Warriors Gang was mostly composed of small ranchers who felt victimized by famed New Mexico rancher John Chisum.  Chisum’s herd exceeded 100,000 head, and like most Democrats, the New Mexican horde resented anyone’s success, especially if they were registered Republicans.  Gang members included Henry (Hugh), John, and Bob Beckwith, Tom Walker, and Bob and Wallace Olinger.

Bob Beckwith and Wallace Olinger signed on as deputies under Sheriff William Brady in Lincoln County.  Lincoln was 75-or-so miles northwest of Seven Rivers.  There are a few western writers who claim that Pecos Bob was appointed as a Deputy United States Marshal, but I have found no evidence supporting that argument[1].

When the Lincoln County War broke out in February 1878, Pecos Bob was in the middle of it.  Lawrence Murphy went to court alleging that John Tunstall owed him money.  Whether this was one of those midnight court sessions, we don’t know, but when Tunstall learned about the court order, he said it was all balderdash.  He owed no money to Murphy — and he refused to pay.  Murphy went back to court and obtained the court’s authority to confiscate a few head of Tunstall’s horses as payment of the debt.  Tunstall refused to give up any horses.

But Sheriff Brady was a law abiding corrupt official, and upon the urging of Lawrence Murphy, formed a posse to collect the horses.  Brady’s posse included the hired gun named Pecos Bob Olinger.  Ah, but Brady’s posse didn’t go out to the Tunstall Ranch to collect horses — that was only their cover story.  They went to Tunstall’s Ranch to kill Tunstall.  They accomplished their mission on 18 February — John Tunstall was gunned down in cold blood, which was right down Olinger’s alley.  While Bob participated in the murder, he was never charged.  The only two men charged were James Dolan and Billy Matthews.

That Bob Olinger was a low-down back shooter there can be no doubt.  He was also many other things — but “uniquely bright” didn’t appear on his curricula vitae.  His participation in the murder of John Tunstall was a huge mistake because, as it happened, Mr. Tunstall had formed a close friendship with one of his young ranch hands, a fellow who people called by several names: William Bonney, Henry McCarty, William Antrim — and Billy the Kid.  When Tunstall was murdered, Bonney vowed, “… to get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it’s the last thing I do.”

Pecos Bob was a dangerous man, though.  In 1878, there weren’t many local men willing to stand up to Bob, and as a result of this, Bob’s behavior only became worse over time.  He became more unpredictable, more dangerous to innocent folks.  Some folks might even say that Pecos Bob was a psychopath long before anyone knew what that was.

One afternoon, Bob was playing poker with a man named Robert Jones when another gambling dispute arose.  Jones, having heard about Bob’s penchant for shooting people who paid too much attention to the game, wisely avoided a confrontation.  Olinger, however, wasn’t willing to put the matter aside.

A few days went by and Olinger learned that Deputy Pierce Jones had been ordered to serve a warrant on Robert (Bob) Jones.  It was only a minor affair, a misdemeanor.  Pecos Bob tagged along with Deputy Jones.  When Olinger and the deputy arrived at the Jones ranch, Bob Jones was working in the yard.  His children played not far away, and Mrs. Jones was in the kitchen fixing the evening meal.  Offering no resistance, Bob Jones asked the deputy if he could have a moment to explain the warrant to his wife.  Deputy Jones said it would be okay and Bob Jones went to the house.  En route to the kitchen, he passed by his rifle that was leaning against the outside wall of the house; he made no attempt to pick up the weapon.  At the moment Bob Jones passed by the rifle, Pecos Bob pulled out his six-shooter and fired three shots into Bob Jones’ back.  Olinger then leveled his pistol at the deputy and said, “Self-defense, right?”

After returning to town with Bob Jones body lying across his horse, Deputy Jones swore out a complaint against Olinger for murder and a Lincoln County judge issued a warrant for his arrest.  Sheriff George Kimball arrested Olinger and brought him to Lincoln for trial in October 1879 — but since Olinger was a friend of several criminal gangs operating in the area, including Murphy & Company, and since Lawrence Murphy owned all the judges in Lincoln County, the charges against Olinger were dropped.

Setting the Stage

Rutherford B. Hayes ascended to the presidency at a time when the New Mexico Territory was politically corrupt, when outlaw gangs threatened the territory’s economy, and when hostile Apache terrorized the southern settlements.  The territory had become an embarrassment to the federal government — something had to be done.  To sort it all out, President Hayes fired Governor Samuel B. Axtell (a Grant appointee) and selected former Union Army Major General Lewis Wallace to replace Axtell as Territorial Governor of New Mexico.

General Wallace wanted a prestigious position in the federal government, but a territorial governorship wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.  He much preferred a job where he could earn good money in a stress-free environment and have time to write his book.  Besides, Wallace was still smarting from losing two congressional elections.  An ambassadorship would be very nice — a territorial governorship, not so much.

Well, maybe, a governorship would work out in the long-term, providing the political winds didn’t shift and the gods of fortune smiled in Wallace’s direction.  So, Wallace accepted the position and assumed his post in September 1878.

Politically, New Mexico was totally corrupt; some argue that it still is.  But to his credit, Wallace had no interest in joining the Santa Fe Ring — an organization of white collar criminals co-founded by Sam Axtell.  According to the US Secretary of the Interior, Axtell was involved in “more corruption, fraud, mismanagement, plots, and murder” than any other governor in the history of the United States[2].  Lew Wallace wanted to put an end to outlaw violence in New Mexico; his first step in achieving this was to offer amnesty to law breakers who were guilty of lesser crimes.  New Mexico outlaws who were guilty of serious crimes simply laughed.

What Happened

The term “lesser charges” excluded the 19-year-old William Bonney — a young man whose purported photograph depicts a rather foolish-looking fellow.  Now, while it is true that Bonney had killed men, mostly in either self-defense or as a bona fide lawman, he was not the cut throat some historians have made him out to be.  And he certainly wasn’t stupid.  After the Lincoln County War, Bonney knew that it was only a matter of time before a sheriff’s posse ran him down even though, aside from the shooting death of Windy Cahill, a man twice Bonney’s size who was in the process of beating Bonney to a pulp when Bonney shot him, Billy the Kid’s only provable crime was in serving in a legally constituted posse.

From that point on, events and persons involved in them become a bit convoluted.  I’ll try to make it less so.

William Brady, Sheriff of Lincoln County, was the senior law enforcement official in the county, and because he served as sheriff in a federal territory, he also served as a deputy United States marshal — which made all of Brady’s Lincoln County deputies’ federal officers, as well.

Knowing that county judges were corrupt, witnesses to John Tunstall’s murder went to the County Justice of the Peace, Squire John Wilson.  Wilson, having taken the statements of these witnesses, which included that of William Bonney, who witnessed Tunstall’s murder from afar, swore these men in as Constables.  Given the attachment of these men to John Tunstall, deputizing them was probably a bad idea.  That aside, Wilson ordered these deputies to track down and arrest the murderers of John Tunstall[3].  One must remember that the murderers of John Tunstall were members of Sheriff Brady’s “hired gun posse,” which mainly consisted of the Jesse Evans outlaw gang[4].  At this point, there were two sets of “lawmen” each looking to arrest the other.

Wilson’s constables began calling themselves County Regulators.  Deputy US Marshal Robert Widenmann later deputized the Lincoln County Regulators, which technically made them “federal deputies,” as well.  Thus, at various stages of the conflict, there  were “good” US deputies shooting “bad” US deputies.  The regulators became outlaws when Governor Axtell fired Wilson as Justice of the Peace — the effect of which delegitimized his constables and gave gubernatorial support to the illegal activities of Brady, Lawrence Murphy, and James Dolan.  Widenmann, though “suspended from duty” was later reinstated.  His suspension invalidated his deputizations, as well.

In the battle between the corrupt and overpowering Murphy-Dolan faction and the Lincoln County Regulators, the bad guys won the day, and the regulators were on the run from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s hired guns — Murphy, Dolan, and the Jesse Evans Gang.  To William Bonney and his friends, survival meant either coming to an arrangement with Murphy & Company or leaving New Mexico.

Bonney suggested a parley with James Dolan and Jesse Evans.  Dolan agreed to meet with the regulators on 18 February 1879 but did so over the objections of Evans and Bob Olinger.  Pecos Bob didn’t want much from life, but among the things he did want was to kill William Bonney.

Not long after both sides sat down to work out an arrangement, Evans started an argument that disrupted the peace talks.  Once that quieted down, the two sides put together a formal treaty stating that no one on either side would kill, molest, or testify against the other and, if anyone was ever arrested, then the others must aid in their escape.  Both sides signed the document (or placed their “X”) and then went to the cantina to celebrate[5].

While making their rounds, from one saloon to the next, the newly united group came upon Mr. Huston Chapman, an attorney acting against Dolan on behalf of his client, Susan McSween.  James Dolan and pal Billy Campbell wasted no time in threatening the man’s life if he continued working for Mrs. McSween.

Bonney, sensing trouble and wanting no part in it, turned to walk away.  Jesse Evans blocked him, however.  According to witnesses, Evans pulled his gun and made Bonney stand fast.  Campbell and Dolan pulled their guns and shot Chapman dead.  With Chapman lying dead in the street, the outlaws continued their festivities and Bonney — still under threat from Evans, with no choice in the matter, went along.

While seated inside another Cantina, Dolan euphorically bragged about the killing and then, as a second thought, ordered one of his men to go back to where Chapman’s body lay and make it look like the gunplay might have been in self-defense.  Whomever Dolan was speaking to refused to do it; Bonney said he’d do it.  But once outside, Bonney and his Texas friend Tom Folliard went directly to their horses and left town.  Bonney, who had every intention of clearing himself of criminal charges in the murder of Windy Cahill was now connected to another murder — one he had no part in.

When Governor Wallace heard of the Chapman shooting, he signed warrants for the arrest of everyone involved, including William H. Bonney.  I do not know the source of Gov. Wallace’s information, but he ordered military troops and sheriff’s possies to find and arrest those men.  William Bonney succeeded in eluding the lawmen at every turn but — in time — Bonney tired of running from the law.  With some assistance from Squire John Wilson, Bonney wrote a letter to Governor Wallace asking for relief.

On 13 March 1879, Bonney allegedly wrote, “I have heard that you will give one-thousand dollars, which as I can understand it means alive as a witness, but I have indictments against me for things that happened in the late Lincoln County War and am afraid to give up because my enemies would kill me.”  He offered to give himself up if the Governor would drop the charges against him.

Governor Wallace arranged to meet Bonney at the Wilson home on 17 March.  Wallace penned, “Come alone and don’t tell a living soul where you are coming or the object.  If you could trust Jesse Evans, you can trust me.”[6]

Bonney did meet with Wallace and agreed to submit to a “fake arrest” for his own safety from the Dolan Gang.  Bonney also agreed to give testimony against Dolan’s bunch — and Colonel Nathan Dudley for the colonel’s illegal conduct during the Lincoln County War.  Wallace told Bonney that if he stuck to his end of the bargain, he would let Bonney go free.  The two men allegedly shook hands to close the deal and Bonney departed.[7]

On 20 March 1879, Wallace further instructed Bonney (again, in writing), “to remove all suspicion of understanding, I think it better to put the arresting party in charge of Sheriff Kimbrell who shall be instructed to see that no violence is used.”

On 21 March 1879, William H. Bonney and Tom Folliard surrendered to then Lincoln County Sheriff, George Kimbrell.[8]  The sheriff placed them in confinement in the back of Patron’s Store (in Lincoln) and the two men remained in custody there for three months.  During his time in Patron’s make-shift jail, Bonney followed through on his part of the deal and was obedient to the wishes of Gov. Wallace by offering testimony against James Dolan, Colonel Dudley, and other participants of the Lincoln County War.

In time, however, Bonney began to suspect that Governor Wallace had been dishonest with him — that he would never grant him amnesty.  In this thinking, Bonney was prescient.  There are three possible explanations for Wallace’s treachery.  The first is that Apache hostiles were creating havoc in the southern section of New Mexico; something had to be done about that.[9]  The second explanation is that Governor Wallace’s primary interest in New Mexico was his investments in silver mines.  Third, Wallace was writing a book, which took up most of the business day.[10]  Among the least of Wallace’s concerns was (a) the widespread corruption of the New Mexico Territory, (b) the crime perpetrated by several outlaw gangs, and  (c) his agreement with William Bonney.  After Bonney had given his testimony, district attorney, William Rynerson, refused to release him and Lew Wallace washed his hands of the matter.[11]

On 17 June 1879, as his guard at Patron’s Store looked in another direction, Bonney and Folliard walked out of the store, mounted two horses, and rode away.  Bonney’s “escape” began a manhunt that lasted 18 months — through late December 1880 — when Bonney was taken into custody by recently elected Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett.  While being held in Santa Fe, Bonney wrote four letters to Governor Wallace, but by then, Wallace didn’t know who Bonney was.

Following two days of testimony in a Mesilla court in April 1881, William H. Bonney was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady.  His was the only conviction against any of the regulators of Lincoln County.  On 13 April, Bonney was sentenced to hang; his execution was scheduled for 13 May 1881.

Bonney no doubt believed that he was being made the scapegoat for the Lincoln County War.  Remember, at the time of Brady’s death, Bonney was part of a duly appointed posse — and it was Brady’s posse that was responsible for the death of John Tunstall.  While there is little doubt that the Constable’s posse was more interested in revenge than with justice (a subjective conclusion on my part), it was a stretch of the imagination to convict Bonney of first degree murder.

When the showdown occurred between the Regulators and Sheriff Brady (and others) inside Lincoln, Bonney was one of six constable deputies who fired his weapon during the shootout — and yet, he was the only member of the regulator posse indicted, tried, and convicted.  In fact, discounting the court-martial of Colonel Dudley, William Bonney was the only person to stand trial for events occurring during the Lincoln County War.

If it doesn’t yet appear that the deck was stacked against William Bonney, then perhaps this will help clear it up: When deputies loaded Bonney in the wagon for transportation to Lincoln, where the sentence would be carried out, Garrett ordered them to shoot Bonney first if anyone tried to free him along the way.  There would have been no hesitance to shoot Bonney either, since the deputies included gang leader John Kinney, killer Bill Matthews, bully lawman “Pecos Bob” Olinger, and a half-dozen other armed men guarding the wagon on horseback.

During the trip to Lincoln, Bob Olinger taunted Bonney — suggesting that he “make a break” so that Olinger could shoot him — like he shot Bonney’s friend, John Tunstall.  But the trip was uneventful and upon arrival in Lincoln, Bonney was confined on the second level of the courthouse, in a room next to Pat Garrett’s office.  Garrett wasn’t taking any chances, either.  Bonney had already demonstrated his ability to escape from jail, so Garrett posted a 24-hour armed guard on Bonney and kept him shackled and handcuffed at all times.  Garrett even drew a chalk mark across the room and warned Bonney not to cross it, or he’d be shot.

Garrett assigned Bob Olinger and James Bell as Bonney’s constant guard force.  Bell took a liking to Bonney, even despite the fact that Bonney was present when Bell’s friend Jimmy Carlisle was killed.    Olinger, on the other hand, pestered Bonney constantly with caustic remarks, dares, and threats.  For his part, Bonney ignored him.

Within a week after Bonney’s incarceration, Garrett traveled over to White Oaks to collect taxes.  He placed Deputy Olinger in charge of the prisoner.  Before his departure, Garrett warned Olinger to keep an eye on Bonney — he was, after all, a dangerous and desperate man.  Pecos Bob probably rolled his eyes.  The next day, on 28 April 1881, at around 5 p.m., Deputy Olinger delivered Billy’s evening meal to his cell.  Bonney was not allowed to leave his “cell” except to use the outhouse, so meals were brought to him.  Bob then escorted the other prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel dining room to eat.  Deputy Bell stayed behind to guard Bonney.  After Bonney had eaten his meal, he asked Bell to escort him to the privy.

No one knows exactly what happened next.  Either a pistol was hidden in the outhouse by one of Bonney’s friends — or Bonney managed to slip his small hands from the handcuffs and used them against Bell, stunned him, and grabbed Bell’s pistol.  Whatever the circumstances, Bonney ordered Bell to put up his hands.  Bell panicked and started running.  Bonney fired his weapon and Deputy Bell was killed.

Note: This photograph purports to show William Bonney sitting second from left between Richard Brewer (far left) and Fred Waite, with Henry Brown sitting on the far right.  According to The Guardian in 2019, this picture was sold at auction for $1-million.  The photograph does not portray Bonney as the goofy lout shown in the better known (inverted) photograph.  This picture is thought to have been taken sometime in 1877.

At the Wortley, Pecos Bob heard the shot and bolted out the door, ran across the street to a fence, and made his way to the jail house.  At the fence, Bob met up with the gardener, a man named Gottfried Gauss, who informed him that Bell was shot.  Bob turned away to enter the jail house and it was at that moment Olinger heard a voice from above saying, “Hello Bob.”  Looking up, Pecos Bob saw Billy the Kid leaning out of the second story window with a shotgun pointed at him.  Bonney fired both barrels into Olinger’s chest and head and the bully with the badge promptly resigned his position as a deputy sheriff of Lincoln County. 

Bonney went down the stairs, broke the stock of the shotgun and threw the weapon on the ground next to Olinger’s body.  According to witness testimony Bonney yelled, “You damn son-of-a-bitch, you won’t corral me with that thing again!”

William Bonney helped himself to Sheriff Garrett’s armory and proceeded to the stables, where Mr. Gauss was kind enough to help Billy saddle a horse.  Billy promptly left town.  It would have been both wise and prudent had the fluent Spanish-speaking William Bonney gone to Mexico — but no.


  1. Alexander, B.  Bad Company and Burnt Powder: Justice and Injustice in the Old Southwest.  University of North Texas, 2014. 
  2. Bell, B. B.  The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid.  Tri-Star/Boze Productions, 1996.
  3. Burns, W. N.  The Saga of Billy the Kid.  University of New Mexico Press, 1925.
  4. Fulton, M. G.  History of the Lincoln County War: A Classic Account of Billy the Kid.  Robert Mullin, ed., University of Arizona Press, 1997.
  5. Nolan, F.  The West of Billy the Kid.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  6. Weddle, J.  Antrim is my Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid.  Arizona Historical Society, 1993.
  7. Wiser, K.  John Selman — Wicked Lawman and Vicious Outlaw.  Legends of America, November 2019.


[1] It was common practice in the federal Territory of New Mexico for US Marshals to extend deputy commissions to county sheriffs and their deputies.  There is no record of Bob Olinger receiving an appointment as deputy US marshal, but he may have been acting (or bragging about) a pocket commission through Sheriff Brady.  The US Marshal for New Mexico during at this time was John Sherman, a nephew of William Tecumseh Sherman.

[2] Axtell was later appointed to serve as the Territorial Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court.  He resigned in 1882 after learning that President Grover Cleveland was planning to remove him from office for (gasp) corruption.

[3] Lawrence Murphy & James Dolan, owners and proprietors of Murphy & Company were the bosses of Lincoln County.

[4] Sheriff William Brady of Lincoln County, New Mexico, was killed in a gun battle between regulators and the Dolan faction.  William Bonney was present that day, but it may not be possible to have claimed, with all the gunfire, that Bonney’s gun that killed him.

[5] William H. Bonney didn’t drink alcohol; he may have been the only sober one in the group during these festivities.

[6] Wallace’s caution was odd because if Jesse Evans was anything at all, he was untrustworthy.  Perhaps Wallace was suggesting that he, Wallace, was untrustworthy, as well — which ultimately proved to be the case in his agreement with William Bonney, which Justice Wilson witnessed.

[7] Historical writers insist that Wallace had no intention of pardoning Bonney; he only wanted his testimony to convict Dolan for the Chapman murder.  Bonney accepted the arrangement as genuine.

[8] George Kimbrell is believed to have been appointed Sheriff of Lincoln County upon the resignation of Sheriff Peppin, whose heart couldn’t take the excitement of the post-Lincoln County War.  Kimbrell was in turn defeated by Pat Garrett in an election in 1879.  George Kimbrell subsequently served as a probate judge in Lincoln County.  In his younger days, Kimbrell participated in the Pony Express operation and served under the command of Colonel Kit Carson at Stanton.  

[9] Given the fact that the Indians were an army problem, it must have taken Wallace all of two minutes to deal with the Apaches.

[10] Wallace was the author of a book titled Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  The book was first published in 1880 with mild success but later became a profitable silent film in 1925 and an epic film in 1959, which netted close to $150-million in its initial release.

[11] William Rynerson was likely part of the Santa Fe Ring, but definitely a friend and ally of James Dolan.

Posted in American Southwest, Corruption, Gunfights and such, History, New Mexico, Society, Truth | 5 Comments

Frontier Capitalists

. . . and Tough Hombres

Europeans have competed against one another since the end of the Roman Empire, first as tribal entities, and later as nation-states.  It is, perhaps, an element of human nature.  Christopher Columbus’ exploration of 1492 provided the impetus for France and England to investigate the New World, as well.  In 1497, King Henry VII of England commissioned an Italian explorer named Giovanni Caboto, who in English was called John Cabot, to explore the coast of North America.  Cabot found no evidence of mineral riches and England seemed to lose interest in any further investigations.

In 1523, France took its turn exploring North America.  Their motivation was the possibility of finding a shorter route to Cathay (China).  The Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano led that expedition, which led him to explore the present-day Carolina seacoast northward to the bay of present-day New York.  He named it Nouvelle-Angouleme in honor of his patron, King Francis I.  It was this expedition that convinced the French king to establish a colony in the new land.  Verrazano suggested he name the colony Francesca or Nova Gallia.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier established a foothold in the New World in the Graspé Peninsula; it was the first of the French colonial effort, settling 400 in what the French court named New France (present-day Quebec).  From this point on, the French were ambitious explorers.  Fishing fleets harvested the Atlantic coastal area into the St. Lawrence River.  Alliances were made with predominant (First Nation) native Americans.  There may not have been vast mineral resources (gold, silver) such as discovered by Spanish explorers in South and Central America, but French merchants created a demand for furs (beaver) [Note 1].

New France was a huge swath of land that included approximately half the area of present-day Canada, and most of the present-day US States west of Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, extending westward into present-day North Dakota and as far south as Louisiana and East Texas.  Eventually, New France evolved into five colonies: Canada, Hudson Bay, Acadia, Plaisance (Newfoundland), and Louisiana.  French migration was robust; by the mid-1700s, more than 70,000 people lived in present-day Quebec.

French success with fisheries and trade with native Americans gained the attention of the British once again, but beyond this, Protestant England was embroiled in a religious war with Catholic Spain.  Seeking to weaken Spain’s economic and military power, English privateers harassed Spanish shipping.  This led the English to conclude that by establishing colonies on the east coast of North America, they would be in a better position to accomplish their goal.  English explorer Humphrey Gilbert suggested that colonization could also provide a profitable empire.  Walter Raleigh took up this position after Gilbert’s death and sponsored a settlement of five-hundred people at Roanoke Island, which became the first permanent English colony in the Americas.  The colony was a failure however and remains one of the great mysteries of early British America.  The Roanoke Colony simply “disappeared.”  English encroachment of French-American colonies began in earnest after 1607.

Throughout the 1600s, France monopolized the Canadian fur trade.  They accomplished this through several trading posts, but it was a difficult task convincing the French administrator that the expense of doing so was good business sense.  Initially, permission to establish trading posts was refused but undeterred, French explorers/trappers went off into the northwest region anyway.  When they returned to Quebec a year later, laden with quality pelts, the French governor ordered the arrest of the two explorers, men named Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers, and confiscated their furs.

Radisson and Groselliers remained undeterred, however.  They approached a group of English colonial businessmen in Boston asking for their help in financing further exploration of this fur-rich territory.  The Boston group indicated interest but lost it when a speculative voyage failed due to excessive ice in the Hudson Strait.  It was then that Colonel George Cartwright, an English Commissioner in Boston, agreed to help Radisson and Groselliers find financing in England.  The timing could not have been worse for the two Frenchmen, as their arrival in London coincided with the Plague of 1665.  Eventually, they did secure the sponsorship of Prince Rupert [Note 2], and his cousin King Charles II.  Returning to North America, the Frenchmen set sail on two ships, Eaglet and Nonsuch.  Captain William Stannard commanded Eaglet with Radisson on board, which due to poor weather was forced to return to England, and Captain Zachariah Gillam commanded Nonsuch with Groselliers, which proceeded to James Bay.  When Nonsuch returned to England laden with quality furs, sponsors and investors in the Hudson Bay Company became convinced that this was a viable business venture.

Between 1668-1670, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) established six trading posts, most along James Bay, with additional inland posts after 1774.  In the language of the day, these posts were called “factories” because the individual managing them was called a “factor.” 

Thus, frontier exploration and trapping didn’t begin with Donald McKenzie, but he became a key influence in the enterprise.  McKenzie (1783-1851) was a Scottish-Canadian who migrated to Canada from Scotland in 1800.  Two of his brothers were fur traders and worked for the North West Company (NWC) of Montreal [Note 3].  In 1810, McKenzie left the NWC to become a partner in the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) with John Astor [Note 4], a German-American businessman, merchant, real estate mogul, and investor.

Astor sent factors, clerks, and fur trappers to the Pacific Coast by land and sea in the autumn of 1810.  The sea group established a base of operations at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, naming it Fort Astor (later renamed Fort George).  McKenzie led a group of PFC employees (trappers) overland to the Pacific Northwest from St. Louis, Missouri.  Experiencing difficult travels, the group split up while in southern Idaho; McKenzie led his group of twelve men northward.  They discovered and named the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, traveled along the Snake and Columbia rivers, becoming the first “Astorians” to reach Oregon overland in 1812.  Subsequently, Donald McKenzie spent two years exploring and trading for the PFC in Willamette Valley, along the Columbia River, in present-day eastern Washington state, an in northern and central Idaho.

After the establishment of Fort Astor, competition between American and Canadian fur traders became intense.  The Canadians maintained several stations in the interior, mainly at Spokane, Kootanae, and Saleesh.  Astor opened an additional station at Okanogan, which was the first of several PFC trading posts designed to counter Canadian endeavors.  The clever Astor formed a business alliance with the Russian-American Company (RAC) to prevent the NWC from gaining a foothold along the Pacific Coast.

None of the PFC assets were protected during the War of 1812, which forced Astor to sell its assets to its competitor, NWC.  Astor relied on these profits to begin a robust real estate acquisition campaign in New York, which explains his remarkable wealth.  McKenzie was dispatched to carry the PFC sales documents back east, which he accomplished in 1814.  It was during this trip that Donald McKenzie discovered the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, which was later used by thousands of westward-migrating American settlers.

After a short time, McKenzie became reacquainted with the NWC and returned to the Columbia region in 1816.  In 1818, he and former PFC employee Alexander Ross [Note 5] constructed Fort Nez Percés at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers.  McKenzie’s trapping  ventures involved most of present-day southern Idaho; between 1818 and 1821, he made annual expeditions into Oregon, northern Utah, and western Wyoming.  McKenzie was responsible for naming many of the rivers in this area.

When the British forced the merger of NWC and HBC in 1821, McKenzie was appointed governor of the “Red River Colony” [Note 6].  He left the Pacific Northwest and moved to Fort Garry, Manitoba, where he remained for ten years.  In 1834, McKenzie retired and moved to Maryville, New York—residing there for twenty years.  By this time, McKenzie’s reputation was such that he entertained several distinguished early Americans: Daniel Webster, and William Seward among them, both of whom later served as United States Secretary of State.  McKenzie offered advice concerning the international boundaries in Oregon and, some believe, may have been the impetus for the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

McKenzie was but one of thousands of men who traipsed off into the untamed American west.  We know who these men were, but what kind of people were they?  What allowed them to stand up to such things as dangerous carnivores, biting insects, bad weather, freezing temperatures, disease, injury, and hostile Indians?  Their skillset was extraordinary with no small measure of these skills learned from native Americans.  They had to have keen senses, knowledge of herbal remedies, the ability to endure pain while self-treating injuries —from broken bones, wounds, and recovery from attacks by large animals. Still, what made them into fearless explorers, and why would someone undertake such a lifestyle?

According to historian Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), whose works concerning the Yellowstone, the fur trade, and Missouri River steam boating are widely recognized, the average mountain man was no Charlton Heston.  He was, Chittenden tells us, “…gaunt and sparse, browned with exposure, his hair long and unkept, while his general makeup, with the queer dress which he wore, made it difficult to distinguish him from an Indian.  The constant peril of his life and the necessity of unremitting vigilance gave him a kind of piercing look, his head slightly bent forward and his deep eyes peering from under a slouch hat, or whatever head-gear he might possess, as if studying the face of a stranger to learn whether friend or foe.”

Vigilance, then, characterized the mountain man/fur trader.  They were woodsmen, in the true sense of the term, every bit as skilled in fieldcraft as the Indian warrior, whose survival depended on stealth, vigilance, and knowledge of how to survive in a dangerous environment.  This means that these men were highly attuned to nature, to their environment.  They could observe and read the behavior of animals and heed such signals.  George F. Ruxton [Note 7] wrote of this while recording his own explorations in the mid-1800s.  In one tale, at which incident he was a witness, he wrote:

“Our party crossed the south fork, about ten miles from its juncture with the main stream, and then, passing the prairie, struck the north fork a day’s travel time from the other.  At the mouth of an ash-timbered creek, we came upon Indian sign, and as now we were in the vicinity of the vicious Sioux, we moved along with additional caution.  Gonnesville, Old Luke, and La Bonte started up the creek and were carefully examining the banks for ‘sign’ when Gonnesville, who was in front, suddenly paused and looked intently up stream and  held up his hand to signal us to stop.  Luke and La Bonte followed the direction of the trapper’s intent and fixed their gaze.  Gonnesville uttered in an unsuppressed tone an expressive exclamation, “Wagh.”  Luke and La Bonte saw nothing but a wood duck swimming swiftly downstream, followed by her downy progeny.  Gonnesville turned his head and extending his arm twice with forward motion up the creek, whispered “les sauvages,” injuns sure and Sioux at that,” he added.

Luke answered, “Injuns?”  He and La Bonte asked, “Where are they?”  Luke striking the flint of his rifle and opening the pan to examine the priming.  Gonnesville answered, “What brings a duck a-streaking downstream if humans ain’t behind her, and who’s thar in these diggings but Injuns, and the worst kind?  And we’d better push to camp, I’m thinking, if we mean to save our hair.”

‘Sign’ sufficient indeed, it was to all the trappers who, on being apprized of it, instantly drove in their animals and picketed them; and hardly had they done so when a band of Indian made their appearance on the banks of the creek, from whence they galloped to the bluff which overlooked our camp at a distance of 600 yards.  The trappers had formed a small breastwork of their packs, forming a semi-circle in the chord of which was made by the animals standing in a line, side by  side, closely picketed and hobbled.  The Indians presently descended the bluff on foot.

The chief advanced before the rest.  Gonnesville, who spoke the Sioux language, and was well acquainted with the nation, affirmed that they belonged to a band that called themselves Yankataus [Note 8], well known to be the most evil disposed of that treacherous nation.  Divesting himself of all arms, Gonnesville advanced toward the savage.  “Howgh” both men exclaimed as they met, and after a silence of a few moments, the Indian spoke asking, “Why are the long knives hid behind their packs when we approached?  Are you afraid, or are you preparing a dog feast to entertain your friends?  Why are you whites passing through his country, burning my wood, drinking my water, and killing my game.  Have you come now to pay for your mischief and are these mules and horses a present to your red friends?”

Gonnesville answered shortly, “The long knives have bought these horses for ourselves; our hearts are big, but not for the Tankataus.”  Saying this, Gonnesville turned his back and rejoined the group.  The trappers drove the Indians off, killing several, while losing one trapper to Indian fire … and they didn’t lose their horses and mules.

The mountain men were contrary cusses, too.  They exhibited a general dislike of authority —of any kind, but particularly of government officials trying to control them.  If they weren’t libertarians, they were anarchists who were happy to run their own hook.  No doubt some of these men were “wanted” by the law back east.  They held no truck with lawmen of any sort.  They wanted to be left alone to pursue capitalism in their own way.  This was especially true among the so-called “Free Trappers,” men who worked for themselves.

One man such as these was Jedediah Smith who began trapping as a hired employee.  Some claim that Smith was the greatest mountain man and explorer of all time.  He was an adventurer, but he also expected to make money from his ventures.  He sought out the untamed places, untouched by any other.  He was a thoroughly dangerous man, when riled, with a soft spot in his heart for his family.  In 1829, he wrote to his brother, “It is that I may be able to help those who stand in need that I face every danger; it is for this that I traverse the mountains covered with eternal snow.  Let it be the greatest pleasure we can enjoy, the height of our ambition now, when our parents in the decline of life, to smooth the pillow of their age and as much as in us lies, take from them all cause of trouble.

The mountain man’s only interest in international affairs was his penchant for contrariness whenever British-Canadian trappers encroached into American territory.  In this, I suppose we could label him a patriot, or if not that, then someone who jealously guarded territory though of as his own.  None of the American trappers were pleased with the Convention of 1818, which established Oregon as a joint American-British territory.  They opposed it because as its result, the HBC furiously sought to trap as much as they could while the convention remained in effect.  The treaty was renewed in 1827 and the mountain men couldn’t understand why.

The common misconception of the mountain men is that they were stupid, ignorant, savages.  Well, some were.  Most, as it turns out, were well-read, multi-lingual, possessed a fine hand, and curiously scientific.  Many spent their cold, dark winters debating with fellow trappers; not arguing, debating.  Many of these men referred to their trapping experience as the rocky mountain college.  Trapper Joseph Meek [Note 9] could quote Shakespeare.  Some of these men acted as teachers so that their companions could learn; many ended up naming their children after the classicists.  Nearly all were familiar with the Bible and could quote scripture from memory.

Of the thousands of men who pursued the life of a mountain main/trapper, few lived to advanced age.  Many of these were still teenagers when they went into the mountains, few of them lived more than 40 years.  Ed Robinson was one old timer, aged 60 when killed by hostile Indians in Idaho.  Bill Williams [Note 10] was 62 when the Utes sent him under.  Hundreds of these men died at the hands of hostile Indians.  As already stated, the life of a mountain man was dangerous and mostly miserable.  Many died from attacks by Grizzly Bears, which had no fear of man.  Others drowned while crossing rivers, which were often torrents of rapidly moving water, or from snake bite, and some, badly injured, died from exposure or starvation.  Trapping beaver meant that these men had to wade in waist deep water in freezing streams or ponds.  Most of these men suffered from arthritis, even at an early age.  But this was the life they chose for themselves.  The company men were clearly in the business for the money; the free trappers were in it for that, too, but also for the freedom of going where they wanted, when they wanted.  Not everyone was a clinical introvert, but many were.  They had a choice and selected living under a tree to in an emerging city or town, most of which were stinking cesspools.

About half the mountain men were Anglo-Americans; a quarter were French or Anglo-Canadian, the rest were Hispanic, Negro, or half-cast Indian (sons of trappers, mostly).  What we can say, without dispute, is that all of them were damn interesting fellows. 


  1. 1.Chittenden, H. M.  History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West.  New York: Knopf, Inc., 1902.
  2. 2.Cleland, R.  This Reckless Breed of Men.  New York: Knopf, Inc., 1963.
  3. 3.Denig, E.  Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri.  Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961.
  4. 4.Lambert, N. E.  George Frederick Ruxton. Boise: Boise State University Press, 1974.
  5. 5.Ruxton, G. F.  Life in the Far West.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1859.
  6. 6.Favour, A.  Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
  7. 7.Goetzmann, W.  The Mountain Man as Jacksonian Man.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997
  8. 8.Russell, O.  Journal of a Trapper.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955.


[1] Beaver fur was always popular in Europe, but the animal population was becoming depleted there and provided the impetus for harvesting beaver in North America.

[2] Rupert was the third son of Prince Frederick V in Bohemia and Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of James VI of Scotland and England.  He variously served as a soldier, general, privateer, English naval commander, and governor of Hudson Bay.  With an investment interest in North America, Rupert was instrumental in establishing the Hudson Bay Company, which was granted a trade monopoly in the whole of Hudson Bay Watershed, renamed Rupert’s Land. 

[3] The North West Company, founded in 1779, competed with success against the Hudson Bay Company in present-day Western Canada and Northwestern Ontario.  NWC’s competition with both HBC and the Pacific Fur Company (an American company founded by John J. Astor) was fierce in the sense that the companies “went to war” with one another, literally a shooting war, which forced the British government to intercede.  

[4] America’s first multi-millionaire.

[5] Ross (1783-1856) was a Scottish immigrant to Canada responsible for building Fort Okanogan, which he also factored.

[6] The colony included Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada.

[7] Ruxton (1821-1848) was a British soldier, explorer, and travel writer who published papers about his travels to Africa, Canada, Mexico, and the United States.  His early death was caused by epidemic dysentery.

[8] Also, Yankton, a band of the Dakota Sioux, known to be particularly treacherous and untrustworthy.  There was an adage: if you see’em, kill’em.

[9] Born in Virginia, he left his Missouri home while still a teenager to avoid his step-mother.  He joined a trapping party at the age of 19 years and for over ten years had many hair-raising adventures.  He  went hand and claw with a Grizzly, defeated Indians in hand-to-hand combat, served as a trail blazer leading a wagon train to Oregon.  He afterward served as a county sheriff and territorial US marshal. 

[10] Old Bill (William S. Williams) (1787-1849) was fluent in several languages, an able expedition leader, and interpreter.  He lived with the Osage and Ute Indians.  He had two daughters with his Osage wife, whom he sent east for an education and a better life once his wife died.  Bill Williams was the great-grandfather of historian John J. Matthews through his daughter Sarah.  Williams was competent enough in the Osage language to translate the Bible into the Osage language.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Mountain Men, New France, Pioneers | 4 Comments

Black Mountaineers

Occasionally, one learns something by stumbling across information previously unknown.  At other times, one learns by asking questions and then begins a process to find the answers.  That’s the way it was with me in these stories of black mountain men.  As a kid, I used to read stories about Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Fremont —but I never once heard of, or read a story about black pioneers and Indian fighters.  I stumbled across the story of Jim Beckwourth and then, by searching for additional information, I learned about Edward Rose.

Nez Coupe

Rose was born sometime between 1780-88.  As with so many people of his day, there is much we do not know about him.  What we do know is that his father was a white man, his mother was a mixed blood African-Cherokee.  He likely started his adult life on the Mississippi River.  That was a tough line of work, not to mention dangerous, and the river boat men were crude and treacherous fellows.  With that as an early influence, it comes as no surprise that Edward Rose became a robber, a brawler, and likely a murderer.  At some point in time, probably around 1802, Rose began living among the Crow Indians and remained with them long enough to learn their language and adopt their culture.  His scars from fighting earned him the Indian name Nez Coupe, or “Cut Nose.”

In 1807, Rose left the Crow to join the Missouri Fur Company.  He was hired as an interpreter for an expedition to the Bighorn River (Wyoming) under the explorer Manuel Lisa.  After gaining the confidence of Lisa, Rose was sent with George Drouillard [Note 1] to scout, establish relations with local Indians, and publicize Fort Raymond as a trading post.  Rose and Drouillard parted company at some point in the journey and Rose returned to the Crow to set up his winter camp.  While there, he traded Lisa’s goods for favors from the tribe.  When he returned to the Missouri Fur Company in 1808, Lisa confronted Rose about the misuse of his property (trade goods), and this led to a physical altercation.  One story is that it took fifteen men to keep Rose from killing Lisa.  Rose only remained in camp long enough to procure more trade goods and then he went back to the Crow.

If the Indians weren’t killing white settlers, they were killing each other.  During a conflict between the Crow and Hidatsa, Rose was a prominent warrior who, despite being shot three times by the Hidatsa enemy, carried his attack forward and killed five men.  He afterward became known among the Crow as “Five Scalps,” a man whom they revered as a fearless fighter.

In subsequent years, Rose was content to live among trappers or his Crow family.  In 1809, Rose worked for Andrew Henry (Lisa’s partner) at a trading post in present-day North Dakota.  While working for Henry, Rose repeated his behavior of trading good that didn’t belong to him for tribal favors, but there is no record of a confrontation between Henry and Rose.  Part of the reason for this could be that (a) Henry was a smart man, or (b) Rose was no one to trifle with, or a combination of the two.

In 1811, Rose joined the expedition of Wilson Hunt, who was trying to expand the fur trade of John Astor.  Unlike Lisa and Henry, Hunt never trusted Rose beyond tossing distance, his record of desertion and theft clearly established.  One of Hunt’s concerns was that Rose was trying to talk his fellow employees into stealing trade goods.  Rose was certainly capable of conspiring against his employer, and he was certainly not an honest man.  After an unsuccessful trade negotiation with a band of Crow at Crazy Woman Creek, one that had lasted several days, Hunt blamed Rose for the failure.  Hunt offered Rose a half-year’s pay, a horse, three beaver traps, and other goods to leave the expedition.

Edward Rose married an Omaha Indian woman and had two children with her.  But Rose’s problem among the Omaha was his drinking and they soon tired of his obnoxious behavior and sent him away.  Eventually, Rose returned to the Crow where he remained for over a decade.

In 1823, Rose joined the William Ashley expedition to the Rocky Mountains.  The expedition was abandoned after Rose initiated a fight with an Arikara band [Note 2] and Ashley ended up losing fifteen trappers.  At this point, Ashley might have decided to dispense with Rose’s services, but he later included Rose in an expedition with Jedidiah Smith to the establish what became the Bozeman Trail.

Edward Rose died in the winter of 1832-33 while accompanying Hugh Glass and Hilain Menard along the Yellowstone River.  While crossing the frozen river, Rose, Glass, and Menard were attacked by an overwhelming number of Arikara Indians.  All three men were killed —their livers probably consumed by the victors.

Bloody Arm Beckwourth

James P. Beckwourth became “Bloody Arm” because of his skill in knife fighting, although most people called him Jim.  He was born James Pierson Beckwith (later changed to Beckwourth) in Frederick County, Virginia.  His father was Jennings Beckwith, an Irish/English immigrant whose ancestors were minor nobility —who was also his master.  Jim was born into slavery around 1798.  His mother, a Negro slave, had thirteen children with Jennings.  Jim Beckwith was her last child.

In 1809, Jennings moved to Missouri taking with him his enslaved wife and all their mixed-race children.  Jim attended school in St. Louis for several years.  It was about this time that he began to spell his last name Beckwourth.  No one knows why.  Jennings did acknowledge his children and tried to do his best for them.  He wanted Jim to learn a trade, so apprenticed him to a blacksmith.  Jim must have been a typical teenager —one who liked to argue with his elders, thought he knew everything.  It was a behavior that got him fired from his apprenticeship.

Jennings freed Jim from slavery in 1824.  In that same year, Jim joined up with William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  Initially, he worked as a wrangler, perhaps owing to his working knowledge of smithing.  In later years, he earned a good reputation as a trapper, mountaineer, and Indian fighter.  He also had a reputation for telling tall tales, which among the mountain men, is what they did at night while sitting around a camp fire.  In the Marines, we have a different term for this.

“Rendezvous” was an annual gathering of mountain men held at various locations between 1825-40.  Fur trading companies hosted it —a place where trappers could sell their furs and hides, purchase supplies, drink whiskey, and rent a white woman.  The annual locations were pre-announced, usually held in the spring and summer.  It was at one such gathering that a trapper by the name of Caleb Greenwood began telling stories about Jim Beckwourth.  Greenwood claimed that Jim was the child of a Crow Indian chief, who had been kidnapped by Cheyenne warriors and sold to a white family.  It was a story easily believed because the dark-skinned Jim Beckwourth always wore Indian attire.

In the 1850s, Beckwourth claimed to have been captured by the Crow Indians while trapping alone in the borderlands of the Crow, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot nations.  In this account, Jim was mistaken for the lost son of a Crow chief and on this basis, he was adopted into the tribe.  It could be a true account, but there are conflicting theories.  Some historians argue that Beckwourth was planted in a Crow village by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to advance trade with the Crow nation, which is also plausible.  Jim lived among the Crow for more than a decade, taking for his wife the daughter of a tribal chief.  Since plural marriages were common among the Indians, he may also have had several Indian wives.  In time, Beckwourth became a war chief of the dog clan [Note 3].

Jim started a ranch in the Sierra Valley.  It later became the small town of Beckwourth, California.  In 2010, the town had a population of 340.  It was there between 1854-55 that Jim told his life story to Judge Thomas Bonner.  In 1859, Jim made a short visit to St. Louis, but soon returned to the west, settling in the Colorado territory near Denver.  In Colorado, Beckwourth operated a small store and served as a local Indian agent.

In 1864, Jim was hired as a scout in the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment under Colonel John Chivington.  Chivington led a 700-man expeditionary force against the Cheyenne, Apache, and Arapaho in a campaign designed to eliminate Indians deemed hostile to white settlers.  In that year alone, Indians initiated 34 separate assaults against white settlers.  In total, ninety-six whites were killed (men, women, and children), twenty-one received serious wounds, and eight were taken as captives.  Beyond this, the Indians helped themselves to around three-hundred head of cattle.  Cheyenne mounted twelve attacks against wagon trains and stagecoaches, and nine separate ranches were raided by independent war parties.  While Cheyenne Dog Soldiers [Note 4] conduct most of these attacks, American leaders made no distinction between Cheyenne bands.

One can see the problem easily enough: starving, resentful Indians on the one side, and people hoping to survive Indian depredations on the other.  The Indian strategy was to make war in the spring, summer, and fall —and then sue for peace in the winter.  War would recommence in the spring.  This behavior led white leaders to conclude that the Indians were not trustworthy, which was, of course, true.  At a peace conference with territorial governor John Evans (1814-1897) [Note 5], Evans informed the Indians that peace was no longer possible.  Some have suggested that Evans only called the conference to lure Cheyenne leaders into the open where Colonel Chivington could more easily kill them.

Jim Beckwourth led Chivington’s force to Big Sandy Creek [Note 6].  Outraged by Jim’s participation in the Sand Creek massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians refused to trade with him from that time on.

Beckwourth was well into his sixties at the time of Red Cloud’s War (1866-68) but the army hired him as a scout in the area of Fort Laramie and Fort Kearney.  While guiding a military column into Montana, Beckwourth began to complain of severe headaches and suffered numerous nose bleeds.  These were symptoms that today could be associated with any of 80 medical conditions.  Jim returned to a Crow village near Laramie, where he died of natural causes.  He was given a traditional Indian (raised platform) burial.


  1. 1.Bonner, T. D.  The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians (with illustrations), Written from his own dictation.  New York: Harper Bros. (archived) 1856.
  2. 2.Gowans, F. R.  Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A History of the Fur Trade 1825-1840.  Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2005.
  3. 3.Hewett, E. L.  Campfire and Trail.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  4. 4.Moore, S. W.  Sweet Freedom’s Plains: African Americans on the Overland Trails: 1841-1869.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
  5. 5.Sides, H.  Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.  New York: Random House, 2006.
  6. 6.Wilson, E.  Jim Beckwourth —Black Mountain Man, War Chief of the Crow.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.


[1] George Drouillard (1773-1810) was a scout, hunter, and cartographer who participated in the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06).  Blackfeet Indians killed him in 1810 while he was trapping beaver.

[2] The Arikara Indians were a particularly nasty bunch of savages, and if any of the Indian tribes in the Yellowstone area needed a nap, it would have been these guys.  Since around the early 1700s, the Arikara managed to alienate just about every other tribe in the neighborhood.

[3] There are several clans associated with the Crow (also Apsáalooke) Nation, none of which makes any sense to a non-Indian.  According to the Little Big Horn College, there are twelve modern clans (none of which are called Dog).

[4] The dog soldiers were a militaristic band of the Cheyenne developing around 1830.  Few whites survived the violence of dog soldier attacks.

[5] Evans was a physician responsible for several hospitals and medical associations, a railroad promoter, and politician.  Evanston, Illinois, Evanston, Wyoming, Evans, Colorado, and Mount Evans in Colorado are named in his honor.  He was one of the founders of Northwestern University and the University of Denver.  President Lincoln supported Evan’s order in 1864 to shoot on sight any Indian in the Colorado territory —deemed appropriate in the defense of white settlements because most of the U. S. Army was then engaged in the Civil War.

[6] The Sand Creek massacre resulted in the killing of Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers.  Historians know what happened, and when, but estimates of dead (ranging from 70 to 500 people) appears imprecise.  The impact of Chivington’s assault, however, was that many previously peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho joined the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and Indian attacks against white settlements increased.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Cheyenne, History, Indian Territory, Mountain Men, Pioneers | 2 Comments

America’s Bloodiest Range War, 1890 – 1916

Following the establishment of Mission San Fernando Rey de España in 1797, Spanish officials realized that they would require more land for agriculture and livestock.  They looked to the Santa Clarita Valley to establish their estancia.  Using this land necessitated the removal of the Tataviam Tribe; the Indians were removed to the Mission, where they became slave laborers to Franciscan Catholics.  Estancia ed San Francisco Xavier was organized in 1804 at the confluence of the Castaic Creek and Santa Clara River.

Following the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, Mexican officials secularized the missions.  In 1834, Lieutenant Antonio del Valle was given the task of making an inventory of the property of Mission San Fernando.  This land was supposed to be returned to the Tataviam Indians, but Governor Juan Alvarado instead deeded it to his friend, Del Valle on 22 January 1839.

Del Valle and his family occupied the land.  When on his deathbed in 1841, Del Valle wrote a letter to his estranged son Ygnacio appointing him as heir of Estancia San Francisco, which included 48,612 acres of land.  Del Valle’s second wife, Jacoba Feliz, contested the will and the matter was resolved by splitting the land between Ygnacio and his stepmother.

On 2 March 1842, while resting under a tree, Francisco Lopez, the uncle of Antonio’s second wife, discovered flakes of gold just beneath the sod.  Lopez was a mineralogist trained at the University of Mexico, so there may be some question about his having “stumbled” upon the gold.  Lopez’ discovery sparked a gold rush, but on a much smaller scale than the one that occurred in 1849.  In any case, a minor effort what exerted to create a small (but profitable) gold mine on the property.  Ygnacio del Valle destroyed the mine to prevent the United States from gaining access to it during the Mexican-American War. 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which settled the Mexican-American War, endorsed legitimate land titles held by former citizens of Spain and Mexico.  Jacoba Feliz sued for control of Rancho San Francisco and prevailed in the United States Court in 1857.  Ygnacio was awarded the western-most portion of the estancia (14,000 acres), and Feliz (remarried) controlled 21,307 acres.  In her will, Jacoba’s divided her land among her six children, each designated to receive 4,684 acres of land.

In the 1850s and 1860s, California was beset by excessive rains and equally excessive droughts.  The environment challenged the people’s ability to produce food; flooding damaged buildings and made them uninhabitable.  Many ranchers were forced to mortgage their property to sustain them during these natural calamities.  Jacoba mortgaged her land to William Wolfskill [Note 1], who sold a portion of it to Ygnacio in exchange for settling Jacoba’s debt to Wolfskill.

In 1862, Del Valle was forced to sell much of his land to oil speculators.  No oil was found at Rancho San Francisco and the property was eventually purchased by Henry Newhall.  Newhall granted a right of way to the Southern Pacific Railroad and sold them a portion of the land near present-day Newhall, California.  When Newhall died in 1882, his heirs formed the Newhall Land and Farming Company.

Castaic is first mentioned on old boundary maps of Rancho San Francisco, shown as a canyon property leading to Castac Lake, characterized as “wet and briny.”  Early English language publications show the word as Casteque.  The first settlers to occupy Castaic was a family named Cordova.  The spelling of the name was changed to Castaic in 1890 and the Castaic range became the backdrop to the United States’ largest range war. 

W. W. Jenkins

In 1851, 16-year-old William Willoby Jenkins (whom everyone called “Wirt”) traveled with his family from Ohio to a small settlement along the American River.  It was in this frontier environment that William learned how to defend his family’s land claims; he’d become a gunman because he never hesitated to use one defending what he believed was his.  In time, William stumbled into the rough and tumble town called Los Angeles, California, where he earned the additional reputation as a gambler.  At the time, Los Angeles was one of the most violent towns in the United States [Note 2] — seething with racial hatred between Anglo settlers, Mexicans, and native Americans.

Jenkins’ proficiency with the gun prompted Mayor Ygnacio del Valle to recruit Jenkins into the California Rangers, a volunteer vigilante police force that was charged to rid Los Angeles from its violent denizens.  Jenkins was one of several notable gunmen, which included Horace Bell [Note 3] and Cyrus Lyon, who along with brother Sanford, established a stagecoach rest known as Lyon’s Station in San Clarita Valley.  The California Rangers developed a reputation for “shooting first, asking question later.”  It was a workable strategy because within two years, most of the more dangerous characters vacated Los Angeles — either by moving away or being planted by a local undertaker.

In 1856, Jenkins worked as a deputy constable in Los Angeles.  He was sent to repossess a guitar that was in the possession of Señor Antonio Ruiz.  Ruiz gave up the guitar when Jenkins shot him.  Local Mexicans, around 200 of them, thought that Jenkins should be hanged for shooting an un-armed man and the incident evolved into one of Los Angeles’ worst (and first) race riots.  Ultimately, Jenkins was acquitted of murder by an all white jury after deliberating on the merits of the case for five minutes.  Jenkins, upon release from jail, decided it was time to move on. 

The Lazy J

William Jenkins eventually found his way to Rancho San Francisco where a fledgling oil business was taking shape near Pico Canyon.  With Sanford Lyon and Henry Clay Wiley, Jenkins sunk the first oil well in Pico Canyon in 1869.  In 1872, Jenkins laid claim to a large section of land along Castaic Creek.  It was there that he founded a ranch he called The Lazy Z. 

Jenkins married Olive Rhodes from Illinois and they had two daughters.  Jenkins was hard-working and industrious.  Within a few years, he was known for his racehorses; he also made a considerable amount of money raising cats during a severe rat infestation in Ventura County.

By every account, William C. Chormicle (1840-1913), whom everyone referred to as “Old Man Chormicle,” was an uncomplicated man.  As a youth, while traveling from Missouri with his parents, the wagon train was attacked by Indians.  Both his parents and a younger sister were slaughtered, and although he survived, he too was left for dead with an arrow through his neck.  How he managed to survive, or under what circumstances, isn’t known.  What we do know about Chormicle is that he had an unhappy childhood, and that he never went anywhere without his two six-shooters and a rifle.  The rifle was for settling arguments at long range.  

In 1890, Chormicle settled on land adjacent to Castaic Creek — land he had purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad, which amounted to 1,600 acres.  Part of this land was claimed by Jenkins [Note 4].  Chormicle had only just begun to construct his cabin when Jenkins sent three of his ranch hands to muscle Chormicle off the land.  Two of these men, George Walton and Dolores Cook [Note 5], were killed.  Walton was killed instantly when two bullets entered his heart, and Cook died four hours later with two or more bullets in his liver.  Jose Olme escaped on horseback.    

After the shooting, Chormicle and his friend Bill Gardner surrendered to the county sheriff and told him what happened.  Both men, charged with two counts of murder, entered a not guilty plea by  reason of self-defense and claiming the right to protect their property from squatters.

William Chormicle

During the trial, witnesses claimed that William Chormicle and Bill Gardner were up-standing men, neither of whom had any interest in public quarrels.  There were over 100 witnesses lined up to offer what they knew of the shooting of Walton and Cook — none of whom actually saw the shooting take place.  The prosecution had no problem with proving the murder because both men admitted to it.  But it was up to the defense to show that the shootings were justified.  

As the trial progressed, the connection between land issues, violence, and William Jenkins became plainer.  Chormicle and Gardner were represented by lawyers J. L. Murphy and Alex Campbell.  Witness William B. Rose testified that he observed an argument between Jenkins and Chormicle during which Jenkins threatened him.  Chormicle testified that he alone had done the shooting, that Gardner, while present, did none of it.  Another witness, John Powell of Newhall, testified that Dolores Cook had a reputation for disturbing the peace, that he was a loyal friend of Jenkins, and who said that Cook carried a pistol so he could use it on Chormicle.

In Judge Cheney’s instructions to the jury, he said, “If Dolores Cook, George Walton, and Jose Olme went upon Chormicle’s land, he being in possession, with the intent to commit a felony, by dispossessing him of the land by force, and with intent to kill him or do great bodily harm, then you must acquit the defendants.”

The trial, lasting for 18 days in June 1890 was one of California’s longest murder trials up to that time; jury deliberation, however, was about average.  Within twenty minutes, both Chormicle and Gardner were found “not guilty” of murder.  William Jenkins was infuriated.

Over the next thirty years Jenkins and Chormicle remained at each other’s throats over land ownership and land use — from grazing rights, water rights, rights of way, and mining.  It was a feud that resulted in the wholesale destruction of property, between 21-40 men killed by gunfire, arson, or lynching, and one female killed in a cross fire.  

By this time, however, William Jenkins was known as a very dishonest man.  In 1895, having learned that swampland could be purchased cheaply under a special government subsidy program, Jenkins boarded a boat to survey the land between his ranch (presently known as Stonebridge, a housing development) and where Magic Mountain now sits.  But since Castaic didn’t have a swamp, Jenkins mounted a boat on the back of a wagon and had it pulled across the land he was interested in.  Several ranchers, including Chormicle, exposed Jenkins’ fraud and his “grant” was denied.

In 1904, William Chormicle was finally acknowledged as the legal owner of the contested land.  The United States Land Office awarded Chormicle a 1,600 acre grant previously claimed by Jenkins.  One might suppose that this determination and award would have settled the issue once and for all, but it didn’t.  By this time, the Castaic Range War was well known in Washington circles.  In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a young man as a Forest Ranger to go to Los Angeles and Ventura counties and put an end the ongoing bloodshed.  The man he appointed was Robert  Emmet Clark, who remained in Castaic until 1913. 

R. E. Clark

Robert Emmet Clark (1876-1956) was four years old when his parents moved to California from Fair Play, Wisconsin.  As a young man, Bob Clark learned how to manage a six reign stagecoach over treacherous California routes, and it was said that he met a few prominent men while driving a stage.  By 1904, twenty-two men had been killed in the Jenkins-Chormicle feud.  For nine years, the killing stopped, but when Clark left the Forest Service, the feud resumed [Note 6].

In 1913, Jenkins was shot in the chest at his Lazy Z home by a man who worked for Chormicle; Jenkins survived the shooting and the feud continued when Jenkins sent some of his men over to the Gardner home to burn it down.  Gardner, who was single, lived with his parents.  They all perished in the blaze.  Some historians have said that Chormicle arranged for the lynching of David Jenkins, said to have been William Jenkins’ son, in retribution for the Gardner murders.  Others, however, claim that William Jenkins had no sons.  Someone named David Jenkins was lynched, however.  Today, Bouquet Canyon is still known as the Dead Man’s Canyon. 

William Lewis “Billy” Rose was a landowner on the Castaic Range.  Like Chormicle, Jenkins disputed Rose’s legal title to his land; the Rose family, having received numerous threats to their lives, never went anywhere without being well-armed.  On 8 March 1913, Billy Rose confronted Jenkins and accused him of offering large sums of money to have Billy killed.  Jenkins called Rose a squatter with no right to the land.  Both men went for their guns and Jenkins was again shot.  Rose went to trial, arguing self-defense.  Rose’s attorney, Mr. H. H. Appel, argued that the shooting was justifiable “considering the reputation of [Jenkins] as a gunfighter.”

It took the death of Wirt Jenkins to end the 25-year feud.  Jenkins died at the age of 81 on 19 October 1916 from a cerebral embolism.  He had managed to survive seven (7) gunshot wounds.  With his death, peace returned to the Castaic Range.  Old Man Chormicle died on 25 March 1919 from chronic kidney disease.  Much of the fought-over land today lies below the reservoir called Castaic Lake.


  1. Engstrand, I. W.  William Wolfskill, 1798-1866: Frontier Trapper to California Ranchero.  Clark Publishers, 1965.
  2. Pollock, A.  Jenkins-Chormicle Feud Revisited.  Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, 2014
  3. Rasmussen, C.  “Castaic Range War Left Up to 21 Dead,” The Los Angeles Times, 2001.
  4. Gray, P. C.  “The Great Castaic Range War,” The Santa Clara Valley Signal, 2011.


[1] William Wolfskill (1798-1866) was a pioneer, rancher, and agronomist in Los Angeles beginning in the 1830s.  Most of his early wealth came from fur trapping in New Mexico.  He was highly influential in the development of California agriculture, became the state’s largest producer of wine, and in his lifetime, became one of the wealthiest men in California through sheep herding and cultivating citrus.  He is best known for developing the Valencia Orange.

[2] And remains so today.

[3] Horace Bell (1830-1918) was a California Ranger, filibuster, soldier, lawyer, journalist, newspaper publisher, and the author of two notable history books about California.  He was born in Indiana and made his way to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Bell was a founding member of the California Rangers, joined the Walker Filibusters in Nicaragua, fought in the Mexican Army during the reform war, and served as a Union scout during the American Civil War.  Returning to California, he invested in land and focused on ending political corruption in California’s fledgeling government.

[4] The genesis of the land dispute lay in the ambiguity of the law that resulted in overlapping land grants.  According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on 16 March 1890, the Castaic lands were part of more than one million acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties that were granted to two railroad companies in 1866 and 1871, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, and the Southern Pacific Railroad, respectively.  In 1866, after the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad went out of business, Congress rescinded the land grant and the property was restored to the public domain.  It was at this time that Chormicle appeared claiming 1,600 acres of land sold to him by the Southern Pacific and upon which Jenkins claimed ownership.

[5] Dolores Cook was an Indian; whether that had anything to do with Chormicle shooting him is unknown.

[6] Bob Clark is said to have formed several notable friendships, such as with Wyatt Earp, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, and Will Rogers.  Clark later served eleven years as Ventura County Sheriff, with a later appointment as United States Marshal for the Southern District of California, from which he retired in 1948.  After retirement, Clark lived the remainder of his days in Santa Paula, California.  He and his wife had six children, and were the grandparents of twenty-six children.  Robert Emmet Clark, Jr., served in the U. S. Marine Corps during World War II, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1956.  Another of his sons, William, served as a state judge; William’s son went on to serve as Chief of Police in Oxnard, California.    

Posted in California, Gunfights and such, History, Pioneers, Range War | 1 Comment

The Indian Killer

The story of Lewis Wetzel, Frontiersman

Long before the arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, native cultures moved freely through the Appalachian Mountain chain.  All we know about this region is what the historic record tells us.  William Penn, for example, told us in 1682 that in early Pennsylvania, “The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the southern part of France, rarely overcast.”  To many of the people migrating to the deep forests of Pennsylvania, it was a haven, and the more people spoke of it, the more people wanted to go there — for who doesn’t want to live in paradise?

But an idyllic life is seldom found anywhere in the world.  It was true that the new land was blessed with virgin forests, clear springs and brooks, spacious skies, and clover leaf glens — and that all of it taken together was beautiful beyond description.  The land’s coastal regions were lush and fertile, ready for planting and harvesting.  The sea was the source of fish and shell food.  All that was needed to bring forth this bounty was back-breaking work from sun up to sun set, and of tremendous sacrifices in the loss of loved-ones due to disease, injury, and the bloodshed cast upon them by native populations that had pre-dated the new-comers by thousands of years.  Living in isolation and in a constant state of fear, work never quite finished, tragedies suffered, lingering illnesses and wellness never quite achieved — all of it took its toll on the people who came looking for paradise; most of them never found it.

In this setting, something awful takes hold of some people.  Perhaps they were psychologically imbalanced as small children; maybe somewhere along the way, their minds snapped.  Who can explain the Harpe Brothers, much less understand how they got that way?  The Harpe Brothers weren’t alone.  There was also men like Samuel Ross Mason (1732-1803), a revolutionary war veteran, who created a gang of the worst cutthroats one can imagine, a murderer who preyed upon the crews and passengers of canal boats on the Ohio River.  He was an utterly despicable human being.

The fourth child of John and Mary Wetzel grew to such a man — only instead of murdering white settlers, he turned his depravity upon the Indians of the Ohio Valley.  John and Mary named this boy Lewis.  He was born in 1752 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  John Wetzel was of German stock, his wife Mary nee Bonner of Flemish extraction already American by several generations.

After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Wetzel family moved with their children along with several other families across the Allegheny Mountains to “free land” near present-day Wheeling, West Virginia.  Within the forested area along Big Wheeling Creek, John Wetzel carved out a farm some fourteen miles from the Ohio River.

The Big Wheeling Creek Settlement was sited on the edge of King George’s Proclamation Line of 1763 — redrawn in 1768 by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.  It was a neat trick the Iroquois played on the British, granting to them lands belonging to the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware — none of whom had participated in the negotiation.  The trick, for all of its cleverness, meant that the families of the Big Wheeling Creek settlement became frequent targets of Ohio Indian attacks that lasted well over a period of twenty-five years.

In 1765, 13-year-old Lewis and his younger brother Jacob were working in the field with their father and older brother George.  Uncharacteristically, John and George had left their rifles in the cabin when going to the fields.  This was an incomprehensible mistake because no one left their cabin without arms.  When the mistake was realized, John sent the two younger boys back to the cabin to fetch his rifles.

As Lewis exited the cabin, Jacob right behind him, Wyandot Indians laying in wait fired their rifles.  The rifle ball grazed his chest, causing a painful wound with much blood, but not immediately life threatening.  The Indians quickly seized the boys, took their rifles, and ransacked the cabin for what interested them.  Within a few short minutes, the Indians herded the boys into the forest and began moving rapidly away from the kidnapping site.

John and his son George heard the gunfire and suspected what might have happened, but without weapons, there was nothing either of them could do.  They ran to Fort Henry and alerted the authorities of what they suspected.  With militia and rifles loaned to the Wetzel’s, everyone moved as quickly as they could to establish the Indian track — that would tell them which direction to look.  As it was already growing dark, further effort that day was useless.  They would have to begin looking again the next day.

Kidnapping women and children was common among the Indians — which is not to say that all Indian tribes/bands engaged in such activities.  But among those that did, after taking the captives to their villages, Indians would occasionally subject the young boys to tests of strength and stamina.  Tribal members might adopt into their families those youngsters who proved themselves worthy and resilient.  Anthropologists tell us that many Indian tribes believed in the power of transmutation — a notion suggesting that kidnapped and adopted children could somehow take the place of lost relatives.  The younger these kidnapped children were, the greater likelihood that they would become fully assimilated into the tribe.

Conversely, children who did not prove themselves worthy were punished so severely that they ultimately perished.  If they were not beaten to death, they might have been burned alive or skinned alive.  Older children, those nearing manhood, were in the greatest danger of torture and death, but one never knew what the Indians would do.

Lewis had received a painful gunshot wound, but even at his young age, he knew better than to let his discomfort show, because if he or Jacob faltered along the woodland trail, the Indians would likely kill them.  On the third night of their captivity, the Wyandot apparently believed they were far enough away from the kidnapping site that they could relax their night guard.  Still, to make sure the boys didn’t wander off, the Indians took their shoes.  When the only guard fell asleep by the fire, Lewis stealthily led Jacob from the camp.

 Lewis knew enough to stay away from the regular trails — but doing so meant that in order to make good their escape, the boys would have to traverse across rough land where their feet were subjected to bruising stones, broken sticks, and thorny vegetation.  Lewis realized, too, that without shoes or moccasins, he and Jacob wouldn’t get very far.  Instructing Jacob to remain where he was, and keep completely quiet, Lewis returned to the Indian camp.  He not only liberated his and Jacobs shoes, he also reclaimed his fathers rifles, gun powder, and shot.

They boys went through the forest at night putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their Indian captors.  During the day, they concealed themselves in thick undergrowth and slept.  There was nothing to eat; no water to speak of.  But look for the boys is what the Wyandot did, sending out scouting parties in all directions.  On three separate occasions, Indians ventured close to where the boys were hiding.

All the while, Lewis was in great pain.  Eleven-year-old Jacob did what he could for his older brother with cool soil and saliva compresses.  When they reached the Ohio River, the two boys constructed a makeshift raft and crossed over to a mid-stream island.  On this island, they met some boys from the Wheeling settlements who were fishing.  These boys helped Lewis and Jacob to the settlement where they  were fed, doctored, and from where word was send to their parents.

This incident may have been a titular event in Lewis’ life because upon return to his home, he seemed to have changed.  He was unable to speak as clearly as before and he often seemed befuddled or distracted.  But what he did do was undertake a disciplined regimen of fitness, field craft, and weapons proficiency.  He spent every spare moment improving himself.  He learned to read Indian sign, he became highly proficient with the long rifle — even to the point where he could hit a target if he could see the target.  He also became proficient with knife and tomahawk.  He was quick on his feet, agile, and he learned to re-load and prime his rifle while on the run.  Up until this time, however, to anyone’s knowledge, Lewis had never killed anyone.

When Lewis was 14-years old, John Wetzel sent his son to warn neighbors that Indian war parties were in the area.  En route, Lewis met a neighbor by the name of Frazier Forrest, a young man, recently married, probably around 20 years old.  Forrest was returning to his cabin after a day of hunting.  The two men traveled together to the Forrest cabin, but upon arriving, they found the cabin afire and Forrest’s wife missing.  Without hesitation, Lewis began looking for Indian sign.  Finding it, he led the distraught Frazier in an effort to recapture the young Rose Forrest.

The Indian raiders had a head start on Lewis and Frazier, but lost some of that advantage having to stop and make a raft to cross the Ohio.  Lewis realized that the Indians were headed toward the Ohio River and it was his intention to get there first.  It was a good plan, but it didn’t work out that way.  By the time Lewis and Frazier arrived at the Ohio, their prey had already crossed it.  

Once across the river, Lewis and Frazier found the Indian’s raft and began looking for new sign indicating the direction the Indians had taken.  It began to grow dark and Lewis feared they would have to give up looking that day.  They had almost given up looking further when they smelled the burning wood of a nearby campfire.  Further investigation revealed the campsite of the Indians they were looking for.  They could see that Frazier’s wife Rose was tied to a tree.  

While three Indians slept, a fourth kept guard.  Frazier wanted to attack immediately but Lewis counseled him to wait until sunrise, when the Indians would be groggy and less likely to harm Rose.  Calming himself, Frazier waited with Lewis and kept watch all night.  When the guard changed, they saw that one of the “Indians” was actually a white renegade, although renegade might not have been accurate.  He may have been a kidnapped white child adopted into the tribe.  

As dawn began to break, Lewis and Frazier determined to shoot the first two Indians who got to their feet — this is how the white Indian and one other met their fate.  With tomahawks raised and much yelling, Lewis and Frazier charged the Indian camp; the two remaining Indians ran away leaving their rifles behind.  Frazier went to his wife to release and comfort her, while Lewis pursued the two remaining Indians further.

After running some distance, the two fleeing Indians suddenly stopped and noting that only one white man pursued them, raised their tomahawks and launched a counter-attack.    Lewis raised his rifle and shot one of the remaining two.  The last remaining Indian continued his assault.  Lewis ran but reloading his rifle on the fly and when he was ready, he stopped, turned, and killed the remaining raider.

Following several more years of similar adventures, Lewis Wetzel developed a reputation as Indian fighter in the Ohio Valley.  He may have gone looking for confrontations — I really can’t say that he relished the danger of tangling with Indian that out-numbered him, but neither did he shrink from it.  Modern Americans may not understand the psychology of the hunter — of game and men; if Wetzel was not seeking danger, he at lease seemed at ease confronting it.  There were no “metrosexuals” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  There were only survivors and dead people.

Neither did anyone on the frontier give much thought to driving Indians from the land; nor were they perplexed by it.  To the victor go the spoils.  Frontier families didn’t awaken every morning with a plan to attack Indian villages; they awoke wondering if they were going to survive another day.  Not unreasonably, they wanted land so that they could farm, raise livestock, hunt for available food — all of the things relating to human survival — as free men.  But, of course, the sheer weight of migrating families did push the Indians ever further westward and yet the land occupied by white settlers was land approved for settlement by the government — either British or American.  They did what the government allowed them to do, full stop.

Insofar as the utter disregard people had for each other, the Indians gave no thought to murdering entire families; this was the Indian way of taking care of business.  They treated white settlers no differently than they treated encroaching Indians from other tribes.  But unlike today, frontier families didn’t whine about the loss of family members — they mourned, of course, but it was a short period of shedding tears — they buried the dead and then hunted down and killed the marauders.  That’s how white settlers took care of business.

Some whites did engage in attacking Indian villages — and they were quite ruthless in the doing of it.  Killing is a ruthless business — old people, young people, and everyone in between.  The slaughter of innocents didn’t matter to these highly agitated frontiersmen any more than it mattered to the Indians.  On both sides, whatever went around, came around.  Vengeance killing was common between settlers and Indians because a heinous act that went unanswered had the effect of encouraging more of the same.  The Indians understood vengeance, respected it, anticipated it.  And it is true that genuine hatred did exist between Indians and whites — no one from either side has ever forgotten it.  Among some, the hatred took over their lives.  Lewis Wetzel was one who became consumed by it.

As an adult, Wetzel lived as a woodsman.  He had a small cabin but he never settled on the land; he never farmed.  Some historians tell us that Lewis had a speech impediment of sorts, that he was uncomfortable around others, did not form attachments, never courted a woman.  He did frequent taverns, he played a good fiddle, and he participated in local competitions in shooting, fieldcraft, tomahawk and knife throwing; he won far more of these than he lost.  But Lewis Wetzel wasn’t a normal man — and he made everyone nervous, Indian and settler alike.  He was always keeping tabs on the Indians.  He stalked them, attacked them, took their scalps and collected them.  Normal people didn’t do that, not even in the late 1700s.

He must have thought about what he was doing — because he would hunt and provision several “hideouts,” often caves or narrow and deep ravines where he go disappear for weeks on end.  It is supposed that one of these places exists today in Lancaster, Ohio — it is little more than a cliff overhang in a city park, but I’m not certain how anyone knows that it belonged to Wetzel.

Between 1779 and 1788, Wetzel is said to have collected the scalps of 27 Indians, but some rumors had him killing over a hundred of Indians.  This may not make Wetzel into a depraved psychopath, nor does it discount that possibility.  In 1779, Brigadier General Daniel Brodhead was appointed Commander of the Western Department, which included several frontier forts.

It was at this time that the Wyandot, Ringo, Shawnee, and Lenape tribes ended their neutrality in the American Revolution and allied themselves with the British, all members of the Iroquois Confederacy, whom they controlled and directed from  Fort Detroit.  It fell upon Brodhead to deal with these Indians; he, like the British, formed an Indian alliance with the Oneida and directed Indian raids against the British and their allies.  Brodhead often led these expeditions … including the one in 1781 known to history as the Coshocton Expedition.  

In 1781, it is claimed that he killed an Indian in front of witnesses during Daniel Brodhead’s campaign against the Delaware.  Brodhead, with 150 soldiers and 134 militia surprised and burned the Delaware town of Coshocton; this success was blunted by the militia’s deliberate killing of fifteen Delaware warriors after they had surrendered.  This in turn resulted to the Delaware burning nine captured Kentuckians over nine consecutive days.  

The main result of Brodhead’s campaign was to solidify the Delaware’s hostility toward settlers; after Coshocton, the Delaware tribe rivaled that of the Shawnee in their hatred.  Wetzel’s contribution was the murder of a Delaware chief acting as a peace emissary.  The chief had been invited to the American camp under a safe-conduct pass and had just gotten out of his canoe when Wetzel tomahawked him from behind.  The militiamen under Brodhead were so laudatory of Wetzel’s actions that the general chose to do nothing to punish him.  Wetzel’s act was cowardly; Brodhead’s decision not to punish him was despicable.

When he wasn’t participating in expeditions, Wetzel served as a guide leading land speculators into areas they wanted to claim before governments made them available to the general public — or, in other words, before the Indians had been removed from their traditional lands.  Sometimes, these groups of men attracted attention to themselves — unwanted attention by hostiles.  Wetzel, as an individual, was more than capable of taking care of himself in combat, but some of his companions were not as capable, or as lucky.  While traveling with Wetzel in the spring of 1786, John — the brother of future president James Madison — was killed by Indians along the Little Kanawha River (present day West Virginia).

Over time, Lewis Wetzel became even more eccentric — in his behavior and in his appearance.  People began to wonder if Wetzel was sane.  They were probably just being polite — there was no way Wetzel was sane.

After the American Revolution, the United States had almost no army; the Continental Army had been disbanded, and the entire United States Army had just 55 artillerymen at West Point and an additional 25 artillerymen at Fort Pitt.  For defense, the United States relied on state militias that state governors preferred not to serve outside their states.  To enforce the United States claims on the “Old Northwest” territory, Congress had called for a federal regiment of about 700 men.  The cost of this regiment, the First American Regiment, would be proportioned between Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.  Since most of the men came from Pennsylvania, that state was allowed to choose the regimental commander.  Thomas Mifflin, a powerful politician, pushed for his friend Josiah Harmar to command, which he did.

Harmar was known as a strict disciplinarian — with harsh punishments for dirty uniforms or rusty weapons, but of course it was his task to transform farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights into efficient soldiers.  While at Fort Harmar (named for himself), Colonel Harmar hired Lewis Wetzel as his chief scout and hunter.  Ironically, the purpose of Fort Harmar was to protect the Delaware Indians from white settlers.    

In 1788, Josiah Harmar had been working toward a peace treaty with the Seneca.  As before, when Chief Tgunteh approached Fort Harmar, Wetzel murdered him in cold blood — but Tgunteh lived long enough to describe Wetzel to others, which is when Wetzel’s troubles began in earnest.  Colonel Harmar charged him with murder and swore out a warrant for Wetzel’s arrest.  An army patrol captured him not long after while encamped on an island in the Ohio River near Marietta.  He later escaped wearing hand irons but with many friends sharing his sentiments toward the Indians, he was soon rid of them.

Wetzel was captured a second time by a group of regular army troops traveling in civilian clothes.  When they recognized him, they took him into custody and transported him under guard to Fort Washington and confined him in the guardhouse pending trial.  When word leaked out that Wetzel was in custody, 200 frontiersmen gathered outside the fort and demanded his release.  If the army would not release Wetzel, they threatened, these ruffians would go in and get him out by force.  This issue was resolved when Territorial Judge John Symmes released Wetzel on his own recognizance but a trial was never scheduled.

Despite the efforts of people like Wetzel to keep hostility going with the Indians, peace of a sort finally did come to the Ohio country in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville.  The Greenville treaty established a new boundary line between American settlers and the Indian nations that ran northward from the Ohio River.  When Indian attacks abated in the Ohio River area, Wetzel’s star faded and he drifted southwestward to Spanish territory.

As we might expect, Lewis didn’t stay out of trouble in Louisiana.  He spent several years in prison in the 1790s — some say because he became involved with a Spanish officer’s lady, but it is more likely it had something to do with counterfeiting.  We are told that Wetzel joined the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804 as a hunter and scout but lasted only a few months.  Whether he was let go or withdrew is unknown because there is no record of Lewis Wetzel in any of the expedition records.  For now, the story must remain, at best, unconfirmed — but his name does appear in records in Natchez, Mississippi and it was while living with his cousin Philip Sykes that he passed on in 1808, aged 45 years.

In his own day, Lewis Wetzel was a local hero; modernists, with their very different standards and rose-colored glasses, view him as a murdering psychopath — and they could be right about that.  We can disagree with what he did from the comfort of our modern homes, but we should at least recall that were it not for men like Wetzel, who fought the Indian on his own terms, we might not today have our nice modern homes and our manicured gardens.

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Dog Soldiers

Violent conflict didn’t suddenly manifest itself upon native people at the moment Europeans arrived in the Americas.  Native Americans (Indians) have been at war with one another for thousands of years before the white man appeared, and if you happened to have spoken with any modern-day Indians, then you know that tribal groups continue to regard one another with caustic disdain.  When European settlers first arrived, they found a stone-aged people who marveled at their technologies, but beyond using such things as fire sticks on whites and other Indians, they had little interest in modernization until it was forced upon them.

There are presently 574 federally recognized Indian “nations,” which are variously referred to as tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, and villages.  The word “nation” and “tribe” are synonymous.  Indian bands, however, are subsets of tribes.  The words band, clan, and village also have identical meanings.  Anthropologists tell us that it was common among stone age people to limit the size of their social groups, necessary as a tool for being able to house, feed, and/or control the group.  Variously, tribal bands usually consisted of from 40 to 50 people.  Whenever the population grew beyond that, which is to say that whenever the birth rate exceeded the death rate, clan or band members were sent away to form new groups of their own.

The work of Indian men was to hunt for meat and protect the village.  Indians often had polygamous relationships which resulted in relatively high birth rates, but infant mortality rates were also high — which might explain polygamy.  The traditional role of women (also, squaw) was birthing, raising children, cooking, making or mending clothes, gathering firewood, hauling water, and tending to agricultural interests.  There was nothing easy about living in the wilderness, sheltered by little more than leather tents, or having to depend on migrating herds of animals as a food staple.

The leadership within these structures included the so-called chiefs, of which there were often several.  One perhaps, with domestic responsibilities, another to organize and lead hunting parties, and another to lead war parties.  Indian leaders were chosen within a governing council of elders; a head chief presumably led this council.  There were also influential medicine men or women whose wisdom and influence often rivaled those of the tribal or clan chiefs.  Together, Indian leaders supervised activities that achieved the will of the council of elders, maintained traditions, made judicial determinations.

The role of the war chief may seem self-evident, but it is important to note that there was no fixed territory for Indian groupings.  They were stone-age people; they were hunters and gatherers.  Indian tribes followed their migratory sources of food.  They did not respect the claims of other tribes — and if the survival of the tribe depended on taking control of another tribes’ territory — so be it.

There was also no obligation for any male Indian to comply with any ruling of the tribal council or any chief.  The Indian brave was independent-minded; he had no moral obligation to do anything that he didn’t want to do.  A war chief, for example, could not force any brave to join a war party; it was more on the order of young men wanting to join the war party as a demonstration of his manliness and his courage.  On the other hand, if an Indian brave believed that his chief was weak, unwise, or dishonest, he was free to challenge the chief, free to pursue a separate agenda.  The only consequence imposed on an Indian brave who did not wish to participate in various tribal activities was that he (and his women, if he had any) had to leave the band.  Tribal exile was the primary consequence of male independence and it was understood by everyone from a young age. 

Within this (general) structure, American Indians farmed, hunted, and raised their families.  Relatively speaking, native American populations were small — fewer than one person per square mile, overall— but competing tribes would still encounter one another.  It may have been for trade or celebration, or it may have been to right a wrong.  Conflict might involve something as important as establishing territorial dominance, protecting hunting grounds, or the theft of a horse.  Once these conflicts began, no matter what the reason, they could (and often did) last for decades.

Survival of weaker tribes often led to the formation of confederations — doing so was quite often the only way they could defend themselves from dominant/stronger tribes.  There are numerous examples of these coalitions in every Indian region of North America.  The Arikara, for example, joined with the Mandan to confront their common enemy, the Sioux.  In this vein, some Indian bands accepted white settlers as potential allies, while other Indian groups viewed the whiles as interlopers.  Friendliness with whites was another source of conflict among Indian tribes/bands.

The Cheyenne

The Cheyenne nation originally consisted of two tribes: the Suhtai and Tsitsista.    In the early 1600s, Cheyenne people inhabited an area that extended from present-day Minnesota to Colorado.  Suhtai and Tsitsista groups merged in the eighteenth century — possibly to strengthen the Cheyenne against other powerful Indian groups.  But if there is one thing we can say with certainty about the American Indians, it is that they lived in harmony within their natural environments.

The distribution of Indian groups was always governed by the availability of food sources needed to sustain them.  When tribal groups realized that their increased population produced a greater demand for wild game than was available to them, tribal bands split off into smaller groups and found settlement areas where food sources were more readily available — where the balance of nature could be restored.  In the nineteenth century, the Cheyenne once again split into two groups.  Today we refer to the Cheyenne as belonging to either the Northern or Southern Cheyenne tribal groups.

Meanwhile, back east, the arrival of Europeans produced several effects upon Indian populations; the first and greatest of which may have been the disturbance of the natural balance in nature.  Suddenly, there were more human beings hunting for limited numbers of wild game as food sources.  The choices available to native populations in dealing with this sudden influx of European settlers were limited.

There were, at least initially, sincere attempts by some Indian groups to find ways of living peacefully alongside white settlers — but over time, the numbers of European arrivals defeated these efforts.  Simply stated, there evolved too many humans looking for limited numbers of wild animals as sources of food.  Indian options were reduced to only two: they could resist white encroachment (and many did resist), or they could withdraw further west away from white settlements.  Both of these options produced unimaginable hostility: the Indians either fought with Europeans, or they tangled with Indian groups already occupying the western territories.  In either case and on both sides of the issue, it became a quest for survival.

Western migration was never an easy matter for eastern tribes — and no matter how they finally resolved the problem, doing so demanded cultural changes that are always difficult to achieve.  Westward moving tribal groups either gave up their identity to join western tribes and bands, or they maintained their identity by forming mutually beneficial confederations — accommodations through which splintered groups could stand up to larger, more powerful, western Indian tribes.

As an example of the foregoing, the Cheyenne were variously allied with the Lakota Sioux, and at war with them.  After migrating west into the Dakotas, the Cheyenne adopted the horse culture of the Comanche.  Anthropologists believe that it may have been the Cheyenne who introduced horse mobility to the Sioux.  Cheyenne power and dominance pushed out the less-populated Kiowa, a people who ended up allying themselves with the Comanche.  The Cheyenne were themselves forced into westward migration because of the eventual strength of the Sioux.  At one time, the Cheyenne tribe included ten separate bands — all of which regularly fought with neighboring Crow, Blackfeet, Sioux, Kiowa, and ultimately, with the U. S. Army.  The Southern Cheyenne eventually merged with the Southern Arapaho.  Initially, Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho groups were somewhat ambivalent about the arrival of white settlers; the Northern Cheyenne less so.

The Dog Soldiers

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers (also, Dog Men) were one of six military societies.  In the 1830s, the Dog Men evolved into a distinctive warrior band who fiercely resisted the westward expansion of whites into Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming.  This was their territory and they had every intention of defending it.

Before the peace council at Bent’s Fort in 1840, the Algonquian-speaking Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were allied against the Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains Apache.  There were no cultural or linguistic ties between these groups.  In fact, the hostility that existed between these groups was so palpable that someone from the Southern Cheyenne might have observed that the only good Comanche is a dead Comanche.

In 1837, 48 members of the Southern Cheyenne bowstring society [Note 1] were caught trying to steal horses from the Comanche/Kiowa near the Red River.  Stealing horses is what Indians did back then, and it was great fun — unless (or until) they were discovered.  In this case, all 48 warriors were either killed outright by their Comanche/Kiowa enemy, or they were later tortured to death, which was yet another Indian proficiency.

In 1837, Porcupine Bear was chief of the Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldier society.  In response to the Comanche/Kiowa killing of members of his society, he lit the war pipe and drummed up support from other Cheyenne and Arapaho villages for revenge against their enemy.  With his force assembled, Porcupine Bear moved to an encampment adjacent to the South Platte River.  Along the way, his war party encountered a trading group of the American Fur Company operating out of Fort Laramie.  What interested Porcupine Bear most in this encounter was the white man’s firewater.  Later, while encamped, Porcupine Bear engaged in a copious amount of drinking (along with everyone else) and, Indians being fun-loving guys, two of them managed to get into a knife fight.  

Both contestants in this fight were cousins of Porcupine Bear.  When one of the cousins got the better of the other, the brave on the losing side of the evening’s entertainment called for help.  Porcupine Bear intervened, and in the process of helping, killed one of the cousins.  We don’t know which one was killed, of course, but the killing was bad juju among the Cheyenne.  Any brave who murdered or accidentally killed another member of the tribe was stained with blood — and no matter what his station was within the tribe, the murderer was expelled from tribal society.

Porcupine Bear’s punishment was dismissal as a chief within the society of Dog Men.  He and his relatives were thereafter shunned by the Cheyenne.  The second consequence of Porcupine Bear’s drunken behavior was that the Cheyenne high chiefs forbade any expedition against the Kiowa.  However, Porcupine Bear was a prideful man and remained steadfast in his desire for revenge.  Despite being tossed out of the tribe, he reorganized his bowstring group and recruited additional warriors who found no fault in his killing of a miscreant cousin.  It was the Southern Cheyenne’s rejection of Porcupine Bear that led to the transformation of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier.  Henceforth, the society would no longer operate as a loose society of warriors — it instead became a distinct military band within the Cheyenne nation.

Wherever white settlers went, they took with them their advanced technology — which included a superior collection of weapons dangerous to Indian populations.  But no modern weapon was more dangerous to the American Indian, however, than the white man’s diseases: cholera, smallpox, measles, chickenpox, and gonorrhea.  Within roughly twelve months (1848-49), nearly half of the Southern Cheyenne died from infectious diseases passed along to them through their contact with white settlers.

As a consequence of the epidemic, many Southern Cheyenne survivors joined Porcupine Bear’s Dog Men, which transformed the Dog Men society into an influential, powerful, lethal, and dominant Cheyenne band.  In effect, the Dog Soldiers became the hawkish arm of the Cheyenne and it led tribal elders to dispense with their traditional matrilineal social system [Note 2].  No longer did recently married men join their wives’ clans.  Instead, young warriors took their wives into the Dog Soldier camp.  One further development expanded the Dog Soldier’s population even more.  After Colonel John Chivington and the 3rd Colorado Cavalry massacred large numbers of non-combatants of the Wutapai, Hevhaitaniu, Oivimana, and Hisiometranio clans (known as the Sand Creek Massacre), surviving clan members joined the Dog Soldiers in droves.

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers occupied the territory between the Northern and what remained of the Southern Cheyenne groups, an area extending from the headwaters of the Republican and Smokey Hill rivers in southern Nebraska to northern Kansas, and northeast Colorado territories [Note 3].  The Dog Soldiers allied themselves with the Lakota and Brulé Sioux.  In time, the Cheyenne began to intermarry with the Sioux — which in time produced young men with familial ties to both tribes.  Many Dog Soldiers were half-Sioux, including noted leaders Tall Bull and White Horse, both of whom invited the Northern Cheyenne war chief Roman Nose [Note 4] to lead Dog Soldier strikes against white civilian and military settlements.

Cheyenne and Sioux war chiefs repudiated those among them who urged peace with the white-eyes.  They were hawkishly anti-white.  The last thing a white farmer would want to see at sunrise was a war party of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers peering down at him from an overlooking bluff.  No matter what followed would be pleasant for the farmer.  The Dog Soldier was highly aggressive, completely ruthless, and deadly efficient in the art of war.

Among those of us today who cannot imagine what it was like living on the hostile frontier in the mid-late 1800s, Mr. S. P. Elkins’ journal may help fill in the gaps to our understanding about life on the Great Plains:

“Those that were on the frontier had much to endure.  They did not know at what time they were going to be killed by the Indians, so they had to do the best they could.  The ranches had stockades built around the houses and would have portholes cut on all sides of the house so when the Indian attacked them, they could protect themselves and their families.”  [Note 5]

“When a man left his family he didn’t know whether he would find them alive when he returned.  There was a family killed in 1870 in Brown County, I have forgotten the name; the man was in the woods making rails when he heard his family screaming and he started to them.  He saw the house surrounded by Indians.  He had to stand and hear them scream their last screams because he had no arms with him, as he thought of no danger on leaving home.  The whole family was killed, the children’s brains knocked out.”

“The people in those days had something to think of.  There were no neighbors near to lend a helping hand.  Some places where the neighbors were close enough they would have preaching, maybe once a month.  Everybody went armed all the time.  The men wore their pistols the same as their clothes.  They would take their families and go to a meeting, take their guns along and stack them in one corner of the house until after the meeting.  They were glad to see each other and would shake hands when they met, and also when they parted, thinking maybe for the last time.  When a stranger came about, he was welcomed in and made to feel at home, no charges, glad to see anyone.”

“When a man left his family he didn’t know whether he would find them alive when he returned.  There was a family killed in 1870 in Brown County, I have forgotten the name; the man was in the woods making rails when he heard his family screaming and he started to them.  He saw the house surrounded by Indians.  He had to stand and hear them scream their last screams because he had no arms with him, as he thought of no danger on leaving home.  The whole family was killed, the children’s brains knocked out.”

While native Americans didn’t understand the American Civil War, that didn’t prevent them from taking advantage of the withdrawal of Army troops from the western territories.  What the Indians did understand is that white settlers no longer had Army protection.  The Army’s withdrawal from the West was a de facto death warrant for many white settlers.

In time, Cheyenne Dog Soldier bands — being far less tolerant of white encroachments, became estranged from Northern and Southern Cheyenne tribal councils — their militarism providing a substantial counter-weight to the Cheyenne tribal council’s leadership position, which favored finding a common ground with the whites.  It is likely that most US officials did not know who they were dealing with (standard Cheyenne tribal groups, or Dog Soldiers) whenever they attempted to arrange treaties — although, in fairness, history seems to prove the Dog Soldiers’ distrust of American officials was justified.  As principled men, Dog Soldier leaders refused to sign any treaty that limited their hunting grounds or restricted their movements to government reservations.  The campaigns of General Philip Sheridan frustrated these efforts, of course, and after the battle of Beecher’s Island [Note 6], many of the Dog Soldiers retreated south of the Arkansas River.

Between 1866-68, renewed conflicts developed in Wyoming between the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho on one side, and the United States Army on the other.  This series of engagements is remembered today as Red Cloud’s War, the Bozeman War, and the Powder River War — which, while comparatively small engagements, were extremely deadly.  The largest of these was the Fetterman Fight [Note 7].  Fetterman was also the worst US defeat against native Americans (with 81 Americans killed) until the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.   The area of these battles, by tradition and the Treaty of 1851) were Crow Indian lands; the Lakota Sioux seized the territory for their use in violation of an agreement signed by Red Cloud himself [Note 8].

In the summer and fall of 1868, Cheyenne and Arapaho continued their raiding activities between the Arkansas and Platte rivers — which was also the best area for buffalo hunting.  The memory of the Sand Creek massacre [Note 9] was fresh on the Indian’s minds, and the icing on that cake was the westward movement of the railroad, which facilitated the arrival of even more white settlers.  Whether the Indians realized it or not, many Americans back east sympathized with their situation, particularly after it was revealed that Major General Winfield Hancock burned down Cheyenne villages as a strategy to force the Cheyenne into compliance with his policies.

Major General Sheridan replaced Hancock as Commanding General, Department of Missouri.  Sheridan moved against the Cheyenne after repeated Indian raids on farms, ranches, way stations, and travel routes resulted in the deaths of 79 white settlers.  Sheridan concentrated his effort in areas south of the Arkansas River during the winter campaign season, but he also remained active in patrolling the Arkansas River, and the areas between the Republican and Smokey Hill rivers.

Generally, the Cheyenne fought their battles over widely scattered areas with small bands of warriors (usually between 25-50 warriors).  The size of Sheridan’s military force was insufficient to patrol such a large area, which led him to develop a plan to raise a company of fifty frontiersmen for service as scouts against the Cheyenne.  The scouts were assigned “search and destroy” missions; they ostensibly sought out “hostile” bands.  That would have included nearly every Indian group in the region of Wyoming and Colorado.  Major George Alexander Forsyth was appointed to command these frontier scouts, assisted by First Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher [Note 10].

On 10 September 1868, Cheyenne Dog Men attacked a freighter’s train 13-miles east of Fort Wallace.  Forsyth led his company to investigate the incident and determined that the war party consisted of an estimated 25 hostiles.  Forsyth tracked the Indians to a dry fork on the Republican River, arriving on 16 September, and made camp along the South bank of the river.  Unknown to Major Forsyth, his bivouac was approximately 12-15 miles downstream from a large Lakota village, another medium-sized village of Dog Soldiers, and a few lodges of Arapaho.  Also unknown to Forsyth was the fact that the Indians were aware of his presence.

Forsyth was known for having a sixth sense of danger.  Early on 17 September, Forsyth believed something was amiss.  He accordingly reconnoitered his immediate defensive areas and, while doing so, spotted the silhouette of an Indian against the skyline near the place where the Army’s horses were tethered.  Forsyth’s well-aimed shot killed the Indian and spooked his companions, who were attempting to steal the Army’s horses.  Forsyth’s scouts moved quickly to prevent the loss of their animals, suffering only the loss of a few pack mules.  Stealing Forsyth’s horses was part of Chief Roman Nose’s plan to surround and overwhelm the white soldiers. Forsyth’s keen eye foiled the Indian’s surprise attempts.

Seeing no escape from an overwhelming number of hostiles, Forsyth ordered his men to take cover on a sand bar in the middle of the Arikaree River.  The number of hostiles involved in this engagement depends on who is telling the story.  Estimates of the number of hostiles range between two-hundred and a thousand.  Forsyth’s Spencer rifles staggered the Indian’s initial assault and prompted the Sioux and Cheyenne to re-think their plan of attack.  On the first day, the Cheyenne used several strategies for dislodging Forsyth’s scouts, including a direct assault on horseback, a double envelopment, a low crawl through tall grass, sniper fire, and fanatical assaults from all directions.

Chief Roman Nose was fatally wounded in one of these engagements and the number of Indian fatalities was substantial.  At the end of the first day, Forsyth lost Lieutenant Beecher and three others with fifteen soldiers wounded — including Forsyth.  Before dawn on the second day, Forsyth asked for volunteers to go to Fort Wallace for relief — seventy miles distant.  Simpson E. “Jack” Stilwell [Note 11] volunteered to go for help and selected Pierre Trudeau to accompany him.  The two scouts low crawled for three miles to avoid being spotted by the Cheyenne.  After four days, taking cover during daylight hours, Stilwell and Trudeau reached Fort Wallace and requested reinforcements for the Forsyth Expedition.

The relief force departed Fort Wallace in three separate columns.  Lieutenant Colonel Louis H. Carpenter [Note 12] led Troop H and Troop I of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers), with Captain Baldwin serving as second in command.  Major Brisbin led two squadrons of the 2nd Cavalry over a different route. Captain Bankhead departed Fort Wallace with 100 men of the US 5th Infantry, taking the third route.

Carpenter’s force relieved Forsyth on 25 September.  Forsyth had two serious wounds.  The battle site was littered with the rotting carcasses of fifty horses and millions of black, biting flies.  Carpenter immediately implemented good field procedures, erected tents away from the stench for the wounded, assigned burial details, and planned for the withdrawal of Forsyth and his surviving scouts on 27 September.  One officer serving under Carpenter opined that Forsyth’s fight may have been the greatest battle ever fought on the American plain.  The officer making this comment was George Armstrong Custer.  The Cheyenne remembered the battle as ‘The fight when Roman Nose was killed.’  In the larger view of the Plains Indian Wars, the Battle of Beecher’s Island was of minor significance to everyone except those who fought it.

In the spring of 1867, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers returned north to join Red Cloud on the Powder River.  After being attacked by General Eugene Asa Carr (1830-1910) [Note 13], the Dog Soldiers began a series of revenge attacks on settlements in the area of Smokey Hill River, but the Army was stepping up its search and destroy missions and confronted the Cheyenne at every opportunity.  After raiding in Kansas, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers came under attack by Major Frank J. North and his Pawnee Indian Scouts.  Of an estimated 450 Cheyenne in one war party, Major North killed 35 hostiles, including Chief Tall Bull, and took 17 prisoners.  Cheyenne Dog Soldiers never recovered from the loss of Tall Bull, Roman Nose, and Black Kettle and their threat to the Great Plains settlements was permanently diminished [Note 14].

In 1995, Hollywood produced a fictional tale about Cheyenne Dog Soldiers entitled Last of the Dogmen.  The film starred Tom Berenger and Barbara Hershey and native American actor Steve Reevis.  The action takes place in the mountains of Montana near the Idaho/Canadian borders.  While hunting for escaped convicts, Berenger’s character discovers a small band of Cheyenne that had been hiding out in an isolated region of the Northwest since the end of the Indian Wars.  Fiction, as I said —  but entertaining.


  1. Berthrong, D. J.  The Southern Cheyenne.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963
  2. Bourke, J. G.  Mackenzie’s Last Fight with the Cheyenne.  New York: Argonaut Press, 1966.
  3. Dixon, D.  Hero of Beecher Island: The Life and Military Career of George A. Forsyth.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  4. Goodnight, C. And others.  Pioneer Days in the Southwest: From 1850-1879.  1909
  5. Grinnell, G. B.  The Fighting Cheyenne.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. 
  6. Monnett, J. H.  The Battle of Beecher Island and the Indian War of 1867-1869.  Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1994.
  7. Yenne, B.  Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West.  Yardley: Wetholme Publishing, 2005.


[1] There were (and are) seven (7) Cheyenne military societies: Fox, Elk, Shield, Bowstring, Dog, Contrary, and Warrior Women — several of which changed their names as a reflection of shifts in how they viewed themselves.  Cheyenne of the bowstring society also referred to themselves as Owl Men, Wolf Warriors, and Crazy Dogs.  Within the Northern Cheyenne, the Dog Men society merged with the Wolf Warriors.  In all likelihood, these name changes reflected the personalities of social leaders.

[2] A matrilineal social system is a system of kinship in which ancestral descent is traced through maternal, rather than paternal lines.  On the surface, it may appear to be a minor shift, but it is actually quite important because familial influence, marriage, postmarital residence, and rules that prohibit sexual relations between certain categories of kinship, descent, and terms used to label kin are all affected.  Matrilineal societies are often associated with group (polygamous) marriages where men have somewhat ambiguous roles and dual loyalties.  The formation of the Dog Soldiers in Cheyenne culture change this.

[3]  The territory of Kansas (1854-1861) extended from the Missouri border west to the summit of the Rocky Mountains, and from the 37th to the 40th parallel, north.  Much of present-day Colorado was part of the Kansas Territory.

[4]  Not to be confused with Henry Roman Nose, this Indian, also known as Roman Nose (also, Hook Nose) lived from around 1823 to 1868.  In the Cheyenne language, he was known as Woquini.  He was one of the most influential warriors of the Plains Indians War in the 1860s.  Roman Nose thought of himself invulnerable to injury in combat.  He was so fierce, so prominent, that U. S. Military leaders mistook him as the chief of the entire Cheyenne nation.

[5] Mr. Elkins doesn’t waste our time with suggestions about what might happen; he speaks to in terms of WHEN it happens.

[6]  So-named in honor of Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, who was killed during the battle.

[7]  Captain William J. Fetterman (1833-1866) was the son of Lieutenant George Fetterman (West Point Class of 1827).  George resigned his commission a year after the death of his wife in 1835.  William Fetterman joined the Union Army during the Civil War; he was twice brevetted for bravery in combat and advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel of U. S. volunteers.  After the war, Fetterman transferred to the regular army in the grade of captain, U. S. infantry.  Fetterman was everything undesirable in a combat leader.  He was insufferably arrogant, boastful, over-confident, dismissive of the fighting skill of the Indian, and foolishly let his men to their death.  In my opinion, there was little difference between the ineptness displayed by Fetterman and Custer.

[8] Much is written about the propensity of US officials violating treaties and agreements with native Americans — which is altogether true, but in fairness to both sides, the Indians violated as many treaties as did US officials.

[9] The Sand Creek Massacre (also Chivington massacre) occurred on 29 November 1864 when a 700-manned expedition of the Third US Cavalry descended upon a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, killing up to 500 people, two-thirds of whom were women, children, and elderly men.  

[10]  Beecher, Infantry, was a decorated veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg.

[11] “Comanche Jack” Stilwell (1850-1903) was one of Forsyth’s scouts who also served as a lawman and judge in the Old West.  He was the older brother of Frank Stilwell, a member of the Cochise County Cowboys who participated in the assassination of Morgan Earp in Tombstone, Arizona on 18 March 1882.  Stilwell was shot and killed by Wyatt Earp on 20 March 1882.

[12]  Colonel (later Brigadier General) Carpenter (1829-1916) was a Civil War veteran of 14 campaigns while assigned to the 6th U. S. Cavalry.  While in command of the 10th U. S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars, Carpenter was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallant and meritorious conduct.

[13] General Carr was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry and distinctive service at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas on 7 March 1862.  Even though severally wounded, (then) Colonel Carr held his position against an overwhelming enemy force.

[14] As a Cheyenne society, the Dog Men/Soldiers continue to exist today.  Something to think about before deciding not to purchase trinkets from the trading posts in Wyoming and Colorado, offering genuine Indian artifacts made in China :-).  In 2015, the US population of Cheyenne Indians numbers approximately 12,000; 25% of these men and women speak the Cheyenne language.   

Posted in American Indians, Cheyenne, Civil War, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Kansas, Minnesota, Pioneers | 2 Comments

Miss Catherine’s Boys

Some Background

Between 1620 and 1775, nearly two-thirds of all European immigrants to the American colonies arrived under indentures.  An indenture is a legal contract between two parties for either labor or an apprenticeship.  An individual interested in indenturing themselves for the cost of transportation to the Americas would in some cases make such an arrangement through a ship’s captain, who upon arrival in an American port, would sell the contract to someone looking for cheap labor, either in agricultural work, as apprentices, or as domestic servants.

In the British colonies, an immigrant contracted (agreed) to serve a period of specified labor in exchange for the cost of transportation to the colonies.  A period of indenture depended on the costs of transportation, generally ranging between 3 and 7 years.  Although indenture usually involved immigrant men, the number of female indentures increased after 1815.

Human immigration often involves what historians refer to as “push-pull” factors.  Something pushed people out of their homelands (war, famine, disease), and/or something pulled them toward the new land (freedom, economic opportunity/land acquisition).  Indentured servitude was one method immigrants used to pay the cost of transportation to the Americas, particularly during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) when up to 85% of emigrating Irishmen and women went to the United States.

The Challenges of History

In the absence of concrete evidence — the written record, or overwhelming archeological data — then it is impossible to know with certitude what transpired, when it transpired, or the identities of those involved.  Written records by themselves are insufficient, because — as it is often said — whenever a lion writes history, it’s hunter is never the hero.  What written records give us is veracity about events and prominent actors in those events.  If we do not know what transpired in earlier times, it is either because there are no written records of people, places, or events, or because if such records do exist, they remain undiscovered.

It is impossible to complete a history puzzle when pieces are missing.  When pieces are missing, the best any historian can do is offer stipulated or tentative conclusions about  the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of events.  Under such circumstances, a historian may propose one or more possibilities about events, and persons — all of which are inconclusive.

In cases of inferred events and interconnected relationships, all we end up with is a broad brush of something we know did happen, without the capacity for stating unequivocally, this is what we know did happen.  I am looking for Catherine (Divine) (Bonney) McCarty and her offspring.

About Miss Catherine

Catherine was an Irish lady who migrated to the United States from Liverpool, England.  Seventeen-year-old Catherine McCarty arrived in New York on 9 April 1846 aboard the US ship Devonshire [Note 1].  Subsequent census records reflect that she was born in 1829, corroborated by her obituary in 1874 stating that at the time of her death, she was 45-years of age.  The census of 1860 identifies Catherine’s husband as Patrick McCarty [Note 2] and that this couple had two children.  Since there is no record in New York of a marriage between Patrick McCarty, or Michael Patrick Henry McCarty and Catherine (Devine/Bonney), it is plausible to assume that Patrick and Catherine (members of the Roman Catholic Church) were married in Ireland before immigration to the United States.

Ancestry records reflect that Catherine gave birth to three children.  Bridget McCarty was born in 1853 [Note 3]; William Henry [Note 4] was born in 1859; Joseph (no middle name) was born in 1863.

Some accounts of Catherine’s life suggest that Michael Patrick Henry McCarty either died or absented himself from his marriage with Catherine around 1872.  Either situation is plausible, of course, but even without a record of his death it is unlikely that he abandoned his wife and children [Note 5].

I leave it to the reader free to form his or her own conclusion; mine is that Catherine (Divine) (Bonney) (b. 1829) married Michael Patrick Henry McCarty (b. 1830) and that they produced three children: Bridget (1853), William (1859), and Joseph (1863).  Michael Patrick is likely to have passed away between 1864-1867.  As we hear no more about Bridget after 1860, I assume that she passed away some time between 1860-1867.

In 1867, 37-year old Catherine and her sons William and Joseph turned up in Indianapolis, Indiana.  She is said to have resided at 199 N. East Street.

One unhappy fact about early American society is that it has never been kind to the ladies.  Society’s expectation was that young ladies married, they had children, they stayed home to care for them, and they lived happily ever-after.  But in 1870 the median life expectancy for men and women was between 40-45 years.  Women always faced the possibility of losing their husbands (through death or abandonment), who earned the money to buy food and pay the rent.  On such occasions, the ladies had few options available to them.

In 1867, if a young widow could find a man of means who was willing to take in her children, then she might remarry, but there were not many men of means in the mid-1800s, and fewer still who were willing to saddle themselves with someone else’s children.  To make ends meet, a widow might find domestic work and struggle in raising her children as a single parent [Note 6].  A widow might also drop her children off at an orphanage and be done with them.  Without children, a widow’s future prospects improved — or she migrated toward one of the unseemly vocations of the time. 

Catherine kept her children.  For whatever reason, she moved them to the mid-west, where she met William Henry Harrison Antrim (1842-1922) [Note 7].  Mr. Antrim was a day laborer and a gambler.  At the time, William Henry would have been about 8 or 9 years old, and Joseph around 4 or 5.  After taking up with Mr. Antrim, who called himself Billy, Catherine began referring to her son Billy by his middle name, Henry.

In 1870, Catherine, William, and the boys relocated to Wichita, Kansas — which tends to support the proposition that William was a gambler.  Because Wichita was a rough and dangerous town and not at all suitable for raising two young boys, Catherine and William moved again a short time later to Colorado where, apparently, Catherine became aware of her illness, diagnosed as consumption.  On medical advice, the family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where they were married in 1873.  In search of an even dryer climate, they moved again — this time to Silver City, where William Antrim engaged in prospecting and Catherine supported the family once more by doing laundry and  baking bread and pies.

Some sources describe Catherine as a jolly Irishwoman who always maintained a bright outlook on life.  According to Ash Upson [Note 8], Catherine Antrim was courteous, kind, and benevolent.  William Antrim called her Kathleen.  She was of medium height, held a straight posture, and had a graceful form.  She had light blue eyes, luxuriant bolden hair, but was no real beauty — simply a handsome woman well-known for her charity and good heart.  She was most of all, Upson said, a real lady.  Her sons were “normal boys,” no more of a problem than most.

After Catherine’s death, her neighbors remembered her with fondness.  They described her as having an outgoing personality and a love for dancing, which she passed along to her eldest son William Henry.  Catherine maintained an orderly home and, when compared to other families in and around Silver City, many of whom lived in tents and mining camps outside of town, the Antrim residence was a real home to Catherine and her children.

In her final days, Catherine was bed-ridden.  When Mr. Antrim wasn’t out prospecting, he was gambling in local saloons.  Antrim’s detachment from the family and his inability to produce a worthwhile income required that Catherine double her efforts.  Eventually, with the stress of keeping the family’s finance in order, her illness began taking its toll.  As she grew weaker, a neighbor and friend named Clara Truesdell, a trained nurse and the mother of one of William Henry’s friends, helped to care for Catherine and watch over the children.  Antrim was steadfast in his failure to support his wife or the boys.  Concerned about what would happen to her sons when she passed on — as she knew she soon would — Clara gave comfort by promising to look after the two boys.  For his part, William Henry sat with his dying mother in the evenings, for hours at a time, and did what he could to comfort her.  After four months of worsening sickness, Catherine (Devine) (Bonney) McCarty Antrim passed away on 16 September 1874.  William Henry was 15 years old — Joe was 11.

No one could find William Antrim to notify him about the death of his wife.  Clara Truesdell prepared Catherine’s body for internment.  Neighbor David Abraham made her a coffin; David’s son dug her grave, and the people who knew her best attended her funeral service at the Antrim cabin.  Still, William Antrim was no where to be found.

When Antrim did finally appear, it was only long enough to sell the cabin, place the boys in the care of guardians, and leave town.  When Catherine died, Clara became William Henry’s guardian of sorts — as William (once more calling himself Billy) found work at Sara Brown’s boarding house.  Before leaving town, Antrim placed Joseph with Mr. John Dryer, the owner of the Orleans Club.  Joe worked for his keep as an errand boy.  The ironic part of this story is that before William Antrim gave up his favorite of the two boys to John Dryer, Joe had begun calling himself Joseph Antrim.

William Henry McCarty/William H. Bonney

Our information about what it was like inside the Antrim household is at best sketchy.  We know Catherine earned money by washing clothes and baking and selling pies, and it is likely she did these things until she was no longer able — when she became very ill — and when she did, it was Billy who took care of her.

At age 12, Billy had sandy blond hair, clear blue eyes, a light complexion, and a baby face.  He was of average size, lanky, and had unusually small hands.  Although his mother and step-father called him Henry, he preferred the name Billy, which is also what his friends called him.

After moving to Silver City, Billy became the target of bullies in school.  This is what bullies do — they pick on the new kids.  While Billy was a gangly lad, he was also feisty and never backed down from a school-yard fight.  If he couldn’t best a bully, he would always find a way to even the score.  Billy could read and write, displayed an interest in art and music, and he was known for his politeness when around adults.  Of her two sons, Catherine showed a preference for Billy.  Antrim favored Joe and had little use for Billy — and the feeling was mutual.  It was a situation that may have contributed to Billy and Joe’s estrangement.

The boy who grew up to become the outlaw Billy the Kid was, by every account, a normal young man whose life was shaped and then twisted by the tragedy of his mother’s death.  In the face of such adversity, Billy had few options.

Henry’s first brush with the law (that we know about) was when he was caught stealing food — a pound of butter, which he then tried to sell.  No one knows why Henry took the butter.  It didn’t make any sense; he was a polite young man.  But then few adults understand why youngsters do foolish things.  Did he need the money?  Could Billy have found a job around town?  Was he acting out the pain and the anger associated with his mother’s loss?  We can’t know the answers to these questions.  We do not know what he could do to earn money, or if even anyone was in the market for a scruffy-looking kid.  All teenagers are scruffy-looking.  Two things are needed to learn a worthy trade: the desire to learn, and a willingness of someone to teach.  Neither of these were present in the case of William Henry McCarty.

Billy escaped serious trouble for stealing butter because of the efforts of Clara Truesdell; boys will be boys, after all, and she promised the town marshal she’d have a talk with Billy.  I’m sure she did — but a short time later he was caught stealing clothes and a pistol from a Chinese laundry — a far more serious offense.  Maybe Billy needed the clothes — and it may have been why he stole the butter. The pistol was simply a bonus discovery taken advantage of — but whatever the circumstances, Billy was arrested and placed in jail “pending trial.”  Still, there remained some sympathy for the lad in Silver City.  The sheriff only intended to keep Billy locked up for a few days — as an object lesson.  But before the lesson could be learned, young, rash Billy McCarty made things worse by breaking out of jail.

The thing was, Billy didn’t enjoy being locked up in small places — and he certainly wasn’t aware of the marshal’s intention to release him with another warning.  Early on, Billy discovered that he had at least one unique skill: he had the knack for getting out of tight places.  When Billy escaped from jail, he fled to Arizona.  The jail break — along with the theft, made him a fugitive from justice — and not just a fugitive, a federal fugitive.  New Mexico was a federal territory.  A “wanted poster” in 1875 offered a reward for the arrest of William Wright, also known as Billy the Kid.  No one was quite sure where the name Wright came from.

In 1876, Billy went to work for famed New Mexico rancher Henry Hooker [Note 9] — who would also play a role in a future dust up referred to in history as Wyatt Earp’s vengeance ride.  It was at the Sierra Bonita Ranch that Billy met a 27-year old ex-soldier named John R. Mackie.  Mackie taught the boy ten years his younger how to steal horses from the Army at Fort Grant.

Working at Fort Grant was a blacksmith by the name of Frank Cahill.  Folks called him “Windy,” perhaps because by working with bellows, he created wind.  Or perhaps he was just rude, crude, and socially unacceptable — and if that, he was also muscular, ill-tempered, and a bully.  For whatever reason, Cahill took a disliking for Billy and harassed him at every opportunity — often, it is said, humiliating him in front of his friends.  In 1877, Billy was working at the H. F. Smith Hay Camp.  After being paid, Henry bought a new set of clothes and a revolver. 

On 18 August, Billy entered Atkins’ Cantina in Fort Grant.  Cahill was known to frequent the cantina, so we aren’t sure why McCarty went there — unless he wanted to gamble or have a confrontation with Cahill.  Whatever the reason, Cahill initiated a fight by walking over to Billy, mussing up his hair, and calling him a pimp.  Billy responded by calling into question Cahill’s parentage.  Cahill jumped on Billy, threw him to the floor, pinned him, and began slapping him in the face.  While this was going on, Billy struggled to unholster his pistol and when he did, shot Cahill in the stomach.  Cahill didn’t survive the gut shot.  It was William H. McCarty’s first shooting and it scared him.  He ran out of the saloon and made good his escape on a stolen horse — which, much to the surprise of the horse’s owner, John Murphy, Billy later returned.

One might question why McCarty was charged with murder.  He was certainly in a position of having to defend himself against a much larger man — who possibly outweighed Billy by a hundred pounds — and it was Cahill, after all, who initiated the assault.  The answer to the question may be that local folks liked Cahill, or that Billy was known as a horse thief, a man who escaped confinement, and was now a cold-blooded killer — or possibly all of those things.  It was after this unhappy scrape with Frank Cahill that William Henry McCarty began calling himself William H. Bonney.

After killing Cahill, William Bonney joined a band of cattle rustlers associated with the Seven Rivers Warriors gang.  There was plenty of work because the vast herds of John Chisum in Lincoln County were ripe for the picking.  The Seven Rivers Warriors Gang was one of several such outlaw gangs loosely affiliated with the Kinney Gang [Note 10], including the Jesse Evans Gang (referred to as simply “The Boys.”).  Among these men, primarily because of his youth, William Bonney became known as simply “The Kid.”  At the time, the Jesse Evans Gang was one of the more dangerous groups of outlaws in New Mexico, its leader being only 23-years old and an utterly ruthless murderer. 

For an account of William Bonney’s next and final adventures, see Lincoln County War.

Joseph McCarty-Antrim 

The information available about Joseph, called Josie as a child, is quite sparse and leaves us with many unanswered questions, and yet if what we know is only partially true, it does help us to discover who the man was.  There are suggestions that Joseph and William Henry had different fathers, but the only basis for this assertion is that the two boys look dissimilar.  To begin with, we aren’t sure this picture is actually William and Joseph.  We don’t know what Michael Patrick Henry McCarty looked like, so to argue that these two men (a) were Joseph and William, or (b) that they look sufficiently dissimilar to call into question their mother’s fidelity to her husband … well, it just isn’t very scientific, or fair.  And in any case, I fail to see how physical appearances by themselves support such a conclusion.

According to Upson, after Billy escaped jail in Silver City and hightailed it to Arizona, eleven-year-old Joe went to work at the New Orleans Club.  He ran errands, cleaned out spittoons, served liquor, and had little in the way of adult supervision.  The young boy began to gamble, drink whiskey, and when he could afford it, spent time in local opium dens.  When the town experienced a breakout of smallpox, Joe Antrim and his friend Chauncey Truesdell were sent to work on Charley Nicolla’s nearby ranch along Mimbres creek.  Chauncey later said that one day, while he and Joe worked milking cows, they spotted three men riding toward them and it looked to them as if the riders were Indians.  Joe grabbed a nearby rifle and aimed in on the approaching men.  One of these men was his brother, Billy.

According to Upson, Chauncey reported that at that time Billy was still youthful looking but he had matured; he was no longer carefree — he was tougher, well-heeled, and proficient with firearm and horses.  Chauncey said that Billy spent the night with he and Joe, and then left the next morning.  It was the last time Chauncey or Joe ever saw Billy McCarty.

Eventually, Joseph moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where he spent his time gambling and drinking.  When he learned of Billy’s death at the hands of Pat Garrett, Joe vowed to kill Garrett.   Joe finally met up with Pat Garrett in August 1882 at the Armijo House.  They spoke together for two hours, shook hands, and parted company.  Apparently, Joe was satisfied about what Garrett  had to say about Billy’s death and the matter was closed.

Between 1882 and 1885, Joe moved back and forth between Trinidad and Silver City, Las Vegas, and Tombstone.  Eventually, Joe ended up in Denver where he spent the remainder of his life — friendless and alone.  Joseph McCarty Antrim had become exactly like his step-father, William Antrim.  When Joe died on 25 November 1930, aged 66 years, there was no one to claim his body, so the county made his remains available to the Colorado Medical School.  Thus ended the line of Catherine and Michael Patrick Henry McCarty.


  1. Alexander, B.  Bad Company and Burnt Powder: Justice and Injustice in the Old Southwest.  University of North Texas, 2014. 
  2. Bell, B. B.  The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid.  Tri-Star/Boze Productions, 1996.
  3. Fulton, M. G.  History of the Lincoln County War: A Classic Account of Billy the Kid.  Robert Mullin, ed., University of Arizona Press, 1997.
  4. Nolan, F.  The West of Billy the Kid.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  5. Weddle, J.  Antrim is my Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid.  Arizona Historical Society, 1993.
  6. Wiser, K.  John Selman — Wicked Lawman and Vicious Outlaw.  Legends of America, November 2019.


[1] Record of ship arrivals, port of New York, 9 April 1846, Palmer’s List of Merchant Vessels 1800-1900, OOCities.Org online.

[2] In 1860, census takers simply wrote down the information provided by the adult who responded to survey questions.  They did not (and still do not) ask respondents for proof of their identity.  Patrick McCarty is the name her husband went by, but there is also a belief that his full name was Michael Patrick Henry McCarty.   

[3] There is no record of Bridget McCarty after 1860.

[4] As a child, William Henry was called Billy.

[5] There are two men identified as Michael Patrick Henry McCarty associated with Catherine.  The first of these men was born in 1812.  This man would have been 60 years old in 1872, which exceeds the average life span of males in the United States by 20 years.  The second man was born in 1830 — in 1872, he would have been 42 years old, which placed him at the age limit of average mortality for males living in the United States.

[6] While single-parent homes continue to challenge modern societies, in 1870 there were no publicly funded social programs to stabilize families, either financially or emotionally and the ladies had to either sink or swim on their own merit.

[7] Antrim was born on 1 December 1842 in Huntsville, Indiana.  Antrim was a day-laborer with few prospects in Indianapolis, but Catherine was industrious.  She supported the family by doing laundry, baking bread and pies, and taking in borders.

[8] Ash Upson was co-author with Pat Garret in the book titled The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. 

[9] Henry Clay Hooker (1828-1907) was a prominent, wealthy, and influential rancher who formed the first and largest American ranch in Arizona Territory.  He made his money by supplying cattle to the US Army and various Indian agencies.  His spread was known as the Sierra bonita Ranch.

[10] We frequently come across stories of thoroughly bad men in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, but it is entirely possible that all of these accounts pale in comparison to the corruption and lawlessness of the New Mexico Territory.  The Kinney Gang was organized and controlled by John Kinney, who after leaving army service in 1873 settled in New Mexico and established an outlaw gang responsible for horse stealing, cattle rustling, robberies, and the murder of innocent civilians/settlers.  This, in-and-of-itself is unexceptional in certain parts of the old  west.  What made the Kinney Gang exceptional is that it became part of the Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators that amassed a fortune through political corruption, fraudulent land deals, cattle rustling, and murder throughout the New Mexico Territory which included Stephen Benton Elkins, Samuel B. Axtell, Thomas Benton Catron, and others, who figured prominently in the Lincoln County War and Colfax County War.  Kinney, on behalf of the Santa Fe ring controlled the Jesse Evans Gang and the John Selman Gang.

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