Old West Vice

The River

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

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

Wisconsin History Association

The Boats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gamblers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Mexico Historical Women Organization

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good, The Bad, and the Incredibly Stupid

The Good

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incredibly Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Posted in History, Oklahoma, Society | 4 Comments

Ethnic Lawmen in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Posted in Society, Texas, Texas Rangers | 8 Comments

Cowboys and Presidents

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

Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26th US President

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Posted in American Frontier, History | 4 Comments

A Cowpoke Named Theodore

Alice Hathaway Roosevelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studio Picture c. 1884

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

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

Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

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

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

The Roosevelt Posse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roosevelt c.1883-84

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

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


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


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

Posted in American Frontier, History | 1 Comment

The Dakota war


One of the problems with public education is that curricula, teachers, and teaching materials oversimplify history.  We may certainly understand why this is so at the elementary level, but not as children progress into secondary schools.  Another possible explanation for oversimplification is that what most students know of history, they glean exclusively from their teacher’s lectures.  Few high school students today read and comprehend at “grade level.” Children who cannot read (or understand) have no interest in it[1].  There is no “love of reading” in our society today.  Social media toys have replaced books, and video games have replaced night time reading.  Parents today are themselves poor models, for reading.  Additionally, state curriculum and teaching materials simplify history to such an extent that its relevance is no longer self-evident.

There is far more to history than black and white, good, or evil, or winners and losers.  What students should gather from the past is that (a) some good people exercise poor judgment, (b) some thoroughly unpleasant actors occasionally surprise us by doing good things, and (c) that to perceive such things, a reader of history must always keep an open mind —not to excuse unacceptable past behavior, but rather to understand the circumstances under which unpleasant events happened in the first place —and that, there are consequences.  Finally, history students must learn (d) that two people can observe the same event, and come away with two completely different perspectives of what happened and why. 

Treaties with the Dakotas

In 1851, the United States government and Dakota leaders negotiated two treaties.  The first was the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux on 23 July, and the second was the Treaty of Mendota on 5 August.  Afterward, the Dakota Indians confined themselves to a reservation area twenty miles wide and 120-miles long adjacent to the upper Minnesota River.  Article III of each treaty specified the size of the reservation.  The United States government guaranteed that the Dakota Indians would never receive promised compensation when the U.S. Senate deleted Article III (without any effort to renegotiate either treaty).  Ultimately, corrupt Indian agents siphoned off much of the promised payment or applied it to Dakota’s debts with white traders[2].

After Minnesota achieved statehood on 11 May 1858, representatives of several Dakota bands, led by Little Crow[3], traveled to Washington, D.C., to insist that the “great white fathers” fulfill their treaty obligations.  Little Crow, as a primary spokesperson, was a simple, uneducated man.  Skillful government lawyers fooled and out-maneuvered him into giving up half of their meager allotment along the Minnesota River and the Indian’s rights to the quarry at Pipestone.  It was thus that Little Crow lost credibility with his people and ended up “disgraced.”

White settlers divided the northern half of the Dakota reservation into two townships.  Logging and agriculture on these plots of land gradually eliminated surrounding forests and prairies —the effect of which was a significant disruption of the tribe’s seasonal activities: hunting, fishing, and farming.  With an increasing number of white settlers hunting for game to feed their families, white hunters dramatically reduced the availability of wild game (bison, elk, deer, and bear), which equated to a decrease in the availability of meat in southern and western Minnesota.  It also harmed the tribe’s ability to sell or trade fur for other goods.  Beyond this, the land “granted” to the Dakota was unsuitable for agriculture.  Within a short time, the Dakota people expressed extreme displeasure over their land loss, the lack of promised compensation, broken treaties, food shortages, and white encroachments. 

Prelude to War

On 4 August 1862, representatives of the northern Santee Sioux met at the Upper Sioux Agency in the northwestern part of the reservation and successfully negotiated their right to obtain food.  However, when two other Dakota bands made the same attempt with the Lower Sioux Agency on 15 August, requesting much-needed supplies, Indian Agent (and state Senator) Thomas Galbraith[4] rejected the Indian’s request.  When the Sioux argued that their people were starving, Andrew Myrick (as a representative of white traders) reportedly told them to eat grass or their own dung —he didn’t care which.  There is another version of this story, but it is hardly an improvement.

On 16 August, treaty payments arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and promptly taken the next day to Fort Ridgely.  But on that day, four young Dakota braves were hunting near Acton Township.  When white settlers discovered that one of the Indians was stealing eggs from their henhouse, and tried to capture him, the Dakota brave ended up killing five whites.  Later in the day, the Dakotas convened a war council, and Chief Little Crow reluctantly agreed to a plan designed to drive out the white settlements.  Not every Sioux band agreed to this course of action; four-thousand members of the northern tribes refused any participation.

The Dakota Offensive

On 18 August, Little Crow led a war party that attacked the Redwood Agency, and Andrew Myrick was one of the first killed in the assault.  When state militia later discovered Myrick’s body, his mouth was full of grass.  The war party destroyed all settlement buildings, which gave the settlers time to escape across the river at Redwood Ferry.  State authorities sent militia Company B to quell the uprising, but Little Crow soon defeated them.  Captain John Marsh and twenty-four troopers lost their lives.  Throughout the day, Little Crow’s war party attacked and killed white settlers at Milton, Leavenworth, and Sacred Heart —nearly wiping out all whites in the area.

Confident with their initial successes, Little Crow continued his offensive with assaults on New Ulm, Minnesota, on 19 and 23 August.  Little Crow decided not to attack heavily armed Fort Ridgely but did attack the adjacent town, again killing many whites.  Initially, the settlers at New Ulm successfully defended their village, but eventually, the Dakota breached the town’s defenses and burned it to the ground.

On 20 and 22 August, the Dakota attacked Fort Ridgeley.  They could not breach the fort’s defenses, but they successfully ambushed and destroyed a relief party sent to reinforce New Ulm.  It was a creative strategy to attack the fort because, in doing so, Little Crow prevented militia from supporting local settlements.  State milia initiated a series of counter-attacks but met with defeat at the Battle of Birch Coulee on 2 September 1862.  In this confrontation, two Dakota warriors died, while the state militia lost thirteen killed and 47 wounded.

Further north, Dakota warriors attacked stagecoach rest areas and river crossings adjacent to Red River Trails, a well-used trade route between Fort Garry (Canada) and St. Paul.  Indians made additional attacks against Fort Abercrombie between late-August and late-September, but white defenders repelled each assault.  Meanwhile, the Dakota War had the effect of stopping all steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River.  Mail carriers, stage drivers, and military couriers died while attempting to reach outlying settlements.

In a letter written to former Minnesota governor Henry H. Sibley[5] on 7 September 1862, Little Crow (apparently with some help) said, “… for the reason we have commenced this war, I will tell you it is on account of Major Galbrait[sic] we made a treaty with the government a big for what little we do get and then cant[sic] get it til[sic] our children was dieing[sic] with hunger.” What the Chief’s letter lacked in grammatical correctness, it made up for in its eloquence.

Army Reinforcements

Due to the Civil War demands, Abraham Lincoln was slow to respond to the Minnesotan’s pleas for help.  It wasn’t until 6 September when Lincoln directed General Pope to squash the Indian uprising.  Pope took command of six Minnesota infantry militia regiments (3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th, and 10th), augmented by mounted dragoons, light artillery, Iowa rangers, and elements of the 5th and 6th Iowa State Militia.

After the arrival of Pope’s forces, large scale fighting took place at the Battle of Wood Lake on 23 September.  After brief fighting along a skirmish line, the Dakota withdrew into a ravine where the militia charged and killed many braves.  In Iowa, meanwhile, citizens became alarmed by Little Crow’s aggressive assaults.  State officials embarked on a fort construction project that extended from Sioux City to Iowa Lake.  Iowans clearly remembered the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857.  No sooner had the Dakota war party devastated Redwood Ferry, Iowa officials called up their militia and distributed them along the frontier.  There were no Indian attacks in Iowa, however.

 Dakota Surrender and Trials

 Most of the Dakota warriors surrendered shortly after the Battle of Wood Lake near Camp Release on 26 September 1862.  Camp Release was so-named because it was at this site where the Dakota released 269 of their captives to (then) Colonel Shelby.  The prisoners included 162 mixed-blood persons who were likely the offspring of Dakota women who had lived among white frontiersmen.  One-hundred-seven captives were white women and children.  The militia arrested and confined Dakota warriors before Colonel Shelby arrived to supervise the surrender.  The militia detained the Dakota warriors until court-martialed in November.  Of the 498 trials, 300 men received capital sentences (death).  President Lincoln commuted all such punishments except for 38, who the militia put to death.

Little Crow withdrew into Canada in September 1862 and remained there for several months before returning to Minnesota.  On 3 July 1863, while Little Crow and his teenage son picked berries near the farm of Nathan Lamson, Lamson, upon discovering Indians on his property, shot at them.  Little Crow died from his wounds, but his son escaped.  Lamson turned Little Crow’s body over to state authorities for a bounty.  State officials increased Lamson’s reward when they realized that the dead Indian was Little Crow.  Later arrested, little Crow’s son received a death sentence for his role in the uprising, but President Lincoln commuted the sentence to a term in prison.  Little Crow’s head went on display in St. Paul, Minnesota, until 1971[6].

There was nothing proper about the conduct of the military tribunals.  First, military officers who participated in the battles also presided over the tribunals, which made them emotionally subjective.  Trial officers largely ignored military law procedures.  Some of the trials lasted for less than five minutes; on one day, 42 Indians appeared before the tribunal and received a death sentence.  The Indians had no legal representation because the tribunals were military commissions.  The tribunals did not convict the Indians for murder, but rather for committing warfare against the United States.  President Lincoln conducted a formal review of each trial; no appellate court ever saw the tribunal’s records of proceedings.  The Dakota trials were the only instance in history where Indians stood before a tribunal for their uprising.

The Dakota Indians were not without a few allies, however.  One of these was an Episcopal bishop of Minnesota named Henry Whipple.  Whipple was a reformer of U.S. Indian policy.  When he learned of these death sentences, he published an open letter condemning the white response to the uprising and correctly concluding that the problem was not so much with the Indians as with Indian policy and abuses by Indian agents.  Whipple also traveled to Washington to ask Lincoln for leniency.  General Pope and U.S. Senator Morton S. Wilkinson warned Lincoln that Minnesota’s people were in no mood for leniency.  As predicted, white Minnesotans loudly protested Lincoln’s final determination until offered “compensation,” which they happily accepted.

The Executions

On 26 December 1862, at Mankato, Minnesota, the Army executed, by hanging, 38 Dakota braves[7].  It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.  The hanging was a public performance on a single scaffold platform.  Once a medical officer pronounced the Indians dead, white soldiers shoved them into a large trench in the riverbank sand.  Later, medical doctors asked for the human remains of these Indians so that they could teach medical students about the human body.


On the surface (and, perhaps, even below it), the Dakota War may seem to illustrate the ugliness of frontier settlers toward the Sioux Indians in Minnesota.  Rational men, particularly those directly affected by the conflict, might agree that the Indians got what they deserved.  But in evaluating what happened, with the advantage of hindsight, intelligent men must also consider the opposite (Indian) point of view.  For instance, we might ask ourselves, in placing ourselves in the shoes of those Indian braves, how would we react to starving wives and children and broken treaties?  We don’t know why an Indian would kill five men for a few eggs, but neither do we know the event’s circumstances.  Did the settlers corner the Indian?  Was the brave threatened?  Was he scared?  Was he fighting in self-defense?

From the “white man’s” perspective, what happened in 1862 had life-changing consequences.  In Brown County, Indians killed 122 settlers, including fifty in Milford Town.  New Ulm gave up 30 settlers.  These were not merely random numbers or statistics; they were fathers, husbands, brothers, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, grandparents.  How does anyone remain objective when they’ve had to give up a loved one?

In 1987, the State of Minnesota declared a year of reconciliation with the Dakota Sioux.  People remembered that in 1962, Minnesotans had parades and celebrations of the war one-hundred years earlier.  Twenty-five years later, people living in Minnesota began to consider how the war impacted the Dakota Indians, particularly those who never lifted a hand against the white settlers.  State historical societies are attempting to present the history of the Dakota War in another light.  There were plenty of wrongs committed on both sides, and the lingering hate over 125 years did nothing to repair any of the damage or assuage anyone’s sense of outrage.  Do good people let their neighbors starve, even if they have a different color of skin, a different language, or another religious foundation?

What are our children learning in school?  They are told that America’s history proves that white society is a plague upon the earth.  There are plenty of classroom discussions about Indian conflicts, but few can approach the debate from an objective/rational perspective.  There are plenty of opportunities for American society to advance, but not until good men are willing to sit down and learn from the tragic past.  Today, the poorest group of people in the entire country are the American Indians.  What about that, America?  We may not have participated in the Indian Wars; we never knew anyone in our family who died from a tomahawk or warclub, yet today we’ve long-removed the American Indian from plain sight.  Hiding American Indians is not a mistake—it’s by design.  What is the right thing to do?  Ignore the past, or learn from it?  More importantly, assuming we’ve learned something from the past, shouldn’t good people also act on it?


  1. Anderson, G., and Alan Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862.  Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.
  2. Beck, P. N. Soldier, Settler, and Sioux: Fort Ridgeley and the Minnesota River Valley, 1853-1867.  South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, 2000.
  3. Beck, P. N. Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
  4. Berg, S. W. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.  New York: Pantheon Press, 2012.
  5. Haymond, J. A. The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History.  Jefferson: McFarland Press, 2016.
  6. Schultz, D.  Over The Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.


[1] Most entering high school freshmen read/comprehend at the fifth-grade level.  All high school texts require 8th-grade level vocabulary and comprehension.

[2] None of the American Indians were capitalists; they had a limited understanding of debt.  After 1860, due to the United States’ involvement in the civil war, the federal government did not have sufficient monetary resources to make good on promised compensation to the Dakota people.

[3]  Little Crow (also, Thaóyate Dúta) (1810-1863) was a chief of the Mdewakanton band.  Little Crow was one of the Indian negotiators in 1851.

[4] Likely, Thomas Galbraith was temperamentally the last person who should ever serve as an Indian Agent.  His rude treatment of the Dakota led directly to Sioux hostilities.  During these negotiations, both he and Andrew Myrick made derogatory comments about the Dakota—insults that the Indians could not let pass.

[5] Governor Sibley served from 1858-1860.  He served as a general officer of volunteers in the Union army during the civil war (1862-1866).  During the Dakota War, he served as a brigadier general of Minnesota volunteers.  Henry Hastings Sibley was a distant cousin of Confederate officer Henry Hopkins Sibley.

[6] Minnesota eventually returned Little Crow’s head and scalp to his descendants for proper burial in 1971.

[7] Two additional Dakota braves, one named Little Six and the other Medicine Bottle, managed to escape into Canada.  Minnesota bounty hunters later tracked them down, captured them, drugged them, and returned to Fort Snelling, where officials hanged them in 1865.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Justice, Minnesota, Pioneers, Sioux Indians, Society | 1 Comment

Sally Scull: Mean as a snake

One axiom of the old west was that good-hearted cowboys were as mythical as unicorns.  The saying probably does some injustice to stockmen, cowhands, ranchers, and trail drivers.  The truth is that the term cowboy had, at one time, the connotation of an outlaw rather than someone who worked livestock, but it does seem unfair to single out stockmen for lacking kindness at a time when almost everyone out west was “hard-boiled.” Living on the western frontier was a challenge to everyone who made that daring (and often unsuccessful) journey.  All men were tough hombres, some a bit harsher than others, but it was in the nature of the frontier environment that made men dangerous and worrisome.  It was a time when a smooth-faced teenager was as threatening and troublesome as any cantankerous old cuss.

Old Wet ladies (few of whom were lady-like) were as tough as the men; they had to be.  No one, male or female, survived long in the old west if they could not stand up to the frontier environment’s severity.  Women worked as hard as the men, and maybe even harder.  Most women could handle a firearm —not because they necessarily liked shooting, but because firearms proficiency was one (of many) needed survival tools.

Old west women had few options about their place in society.  They could (and often did) marry at a young age (some as young as thirteen years) and usually to someone considerably older.  The young bucks may have smelled better, but owing to their youth and inexperience, they were generally less capable of taking care of a wife (and children) than the older fellows —who had more ponies on his string.  Some women pursued a different path, such as Belle Starr, Jane Mosey, Pearl Hart, or Lillian Smith.  Some women began their lives in traditional ways but took another course owing to tragic circumstances beyond their control.  Many of the so-called dance hall girls were widows.

William Rabb’s father trained him to work as a miller in western Pennsylvania.  As a young man, William traveled by keelboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to sell processed flour and rye whiskey in western settlements and New Orleans markets.  From what we know of the riverboat trade, it was a harsh and dangerous line of work.  If the rivers didn’t kill you, river pirates might.

With this background, Rabb eventually moved his family further west —first into Ohio, and later to Illinois.  The journey started in 1801.  Twenty years later, Rabb, his grown children, and grandchildren found their way into Spanish territory —a place called Tejas, in the company of folks calling themselves the Austin Colony.

In 1805, William Rabb consented to marry his eldest daughter, Rachel, to Joseph Newman from North Carolina.  Five years later, the extended Rabb clan relocated to Illinois, where William opened a mill, a general store, and served as a judge in the court of common pleas.

During the War of 1812, Joseph Newman joined a dragoon unit that waged a bloody campaign against native Americans.  Two years after the negotiated peace between the United States and Great Britain, the Newman’s welcomed into their family the fifth of their ten children and christened her Sarah Jane.  Everyone called her Sally.

Born in 1817, Sally moved with her grandfather, parents, and siblings into the Austin colony in Texas sometime in 1823.  They were one of the original 300 of Austin’s Texas settlers[1].  As with the other early settlers, Indians frequently visited the Rabb/Newman allotments to steal their horses or harass the women-folk if the men were away.  The Newman cabin was typical of the early settlements; the door did not touch the floor.  When one enterprising Indian tried to force entry by thrusting his feet under the door to raise the door from its hinges, Rachel Newman took an ax and removed his toes.  On another occasion, Indians tried to enter the cabin through the chimney.  Rachel smoked them out by adding feathers from a pillow to the fire.

Seven-year-old Sally once observed two Indians creeping toward the house while trying to conceal their movements in the surrounding shrub.  Salley ran to the house, obtained a pistol, and shot one of them.  But one young girl and her mother could not hold off so many marauding Indians.  Deciding that the family could no longer sustain the loss of horses and corn to thieving Indians, William Rabb moved everyone from their original parcel on the extreme northern edge of the Austin Colony down the Colorado River to a place called Mercer’s Crossing (near present-day Wharton) in 1824.  It there that Sally grew into womanhood without the benefit of formal schooling.

Throughout her journey to adulthood, Sally demonstrated an unusual degree of independence.  For instance, twelve-year-old Sally registered her own cattle brand, swallow fork, and under slope[2].  The registration occurred in 1829 but remained publicly unreported in the Records of Marks and Brands until 1833.

Joseph Newman died in 1831, an event that may have forced Sally into an early marriage in 1833 to a man named Jesse Robinson[3].  Robinson was twice Sally’s age.  He was born on 11 February 1800 in Kentucky, the son of Charles Michael Robinson, a Revolutionary War veteran.  Jesse first went to Texas in 1822, taking employment as one of Stephen Austin’s rangers detailed to protect the Austin colonists from Indians.  In 1824, he was with a ranger company that rescued the Rabb and Newman families from Waco and Tawakoni Indians, who were terrorizing them.  Austin accepted Jesse as a member of the colony in 1827.  In 1831, he received title to a quarter sitio of land (about 1,112 acres) on the San Marcos River (near the Gonzales-Caldwell county lines).

After their marriage, Jesse took Sally home to his property, some twelve miles north of Gonzalez, Texas.  Jesse was a no-nonsense frontiersman and Indian-fighter.  During the Texas Revolution in 1836, Jesse mobilized with other able-bodied men to confront the Mexican Army under Antonio López de Santa Anna.  After the fall of the Alamo, Sally and her two-year-old daughter (Nancy) participated in the so-called Runaway Scrape.  Jesse, meanwhile, participated in the Battle of San Jacinto and numerous additional confrontations in its aftermath.

After the Texas Revolution, Jesse and Sally began having marital problems.  We do not know why; we only know that after Sally inherited her father’s land in Colorado County, she moved there with Nancy and their son Alfred.  Jesse divorced her in 1843 —it was a nasty divorce.

Note: Purported to be an image of Sally Scull. I was unable to verify that claim.

Eleven days following the divorce judgment, Sally married George H. Scull.  Scull was a gunsmith by trade.  On that very day, she sold the last 400 acres of the land inherited from her father together with a yoke of steers, four cows, twenty hogs, a mule and a bay colt, and Scull’s full set of gun maker’s tools and farming implements.  One may suppose that the Scull’s wanted to start their lives together “afresh.”

The relationship didn’t last long, however.  Five years later, Sally reported that George had died.  The circumstance of George’s death is unknown to us, but some claim that Sally “probably” killed him.  A sudden end was common in those days, and no one gave much thought to death unless caused by hostile Indians.  By this time, Sally was well-known for her explosive nature, and people were likely to believe anything about her.  Mr. Scull may not have died, however.  There is a legal document dated 1853 with George’s X … as if that is proof of anything.  In any event, speaking again of Sally’s violent nature, famed Texas Ranger John S. “Rip” Ford recorded in his journal an incident when Sally shot and killed a man in Corpus Christi.

In the mid-1850s, Sally lived on a 150-acre spread in Banquete, Texas (Nueces, County) —twenty-five miles west of Corpus Christi.  By this time, Sally’s reputation was that of an amazon desperado who lived in the wild country, a woman equally skilled with pistol and bowie knife, with little hesitation in using either.

Sally was a cattle and horse dealer, someone who bought and sold cattle and horses.  She purchased the livestock (or stole them —sometimes, or so the story goes, from Mexican rancheros), or captured wild horses, and moved them to her land.  When the herds reached a specific size, she either sold them from her property to those seeking to increase their livestock or moved them to markets.

If one envisions an amazon as being an unusually large or muscular female, Sally did not qualify.  She was a small woman, had a hawk-like nose and a sunburned face.  But whatever she lacked in size, she made up for in fierce determination.  In the saddle, Sally rode as men did.  She dressed in men’s clothing when working the ranch with her vaqueros, which generally involved a wide-brimmed hat, buckskin shirts, trousers, and Mexican-made boots.  Sally never went anywhere unarmed.  She carried two cap and ball pistols around her waist, a bowie knife on her hip, and a saddle gun whenever mounted.  Even when wearing ladies’ clothing, Sally carried two French pistols beneath her dress.

Sally’s steel-blue eyes were communicative —always wary, and if her profanity wasn’t enough warning, people claimed that just looking into her eyes was enough to send chills down a tough man’s spine.  People knew Sally Newman Robinson Scull as a man-killer, and no reasonable man wanted to provoke her.  She was a skilled rancher, excellent horse-woman (only the best horses would do), and she could rope as well as any vaquero.  She was also proficient with the blacksnake whip, able to pick flowers with it or leave a scar on the face of a cheeky man.  Salley could even dance the fandango as well as any Mexican senorita, or gamble as well as any cardsharp.

By the 1850s, Sally was in full operation as a horse trader and overland trader.  Her ranch in Banquete was an essential water source along the dusty, rutted Texas highway, the old Camino Real running northward from Matamoros to Goliad.  If one believes any of the tax records in early Nueces County, her success as a livestock trader is questionable.  On the other hand, most self-employed Texans saw no benefit from claiming their actual earnings to the tax collector.  In 1852, tax records reflect that Sally sold four horses and four head of cattle.  In the next year, tax records combined Sally’s income with John Doyle, whom Sally married in October.  In 1854, Sally’s assets included 33 horses, fourteen head of cattle, four yokes of oxen, and a wagon.  In 1855, Sally purchased an additional 150 acres of land in Banquete.  By this time, Sarah Doyle was in business with her cousin John Rabb[4] and his friend, Mr. W. W. Wright.

Sally Scull (as she was popularly known long after George disappeared) was not a poor woman.  She was known as a gambler, even risking as much as $500.00 on the outcome of a horse race.  When she was on the road buying, selling, or trading horses, she carried a nosebag on her saddle horn reputed to contain gold coin; this may be true.  What is also true is that other Texas ranchers resented her success, and there was no shortage of rumors about her method of acquiring horses.

Some of her competitors, for example, strongly hinted that Sally didn’t buy all her animals.  One accusation was that after she visited the ranches in a neighborhood, raiding Lipan and Comanche Indians drove off the best horses, which later turned up in her herds.  The suggestion of a business relationship with Indians defies credulity.  But there was also tongue-wagging among jealous wives accusing Sally of making eyes at their husbands while Sally’s vaqueros raided their pastures.

Sally had five husbands, which is a somewhat loose term.  She did marry a couple of these men but likely lived (in the common law) with others.  Two of these men, George Scull and John Doyle, simply disappeared.  Disappearing husbands encourage conjecture, and the longer rumors continue, the more interesting (creative) they become.  If Sally did “do away” with these men, she had plenty of acreages in which to plant them.  Husband number four was Isaiah Wadkins, age 22 —she was 44.  The marriage lasted two years.

I can not say whether this is Sally Scull, only that the fragment of the newspaper photo seems to make that claim.

Sally was well-positioned to take advantage of the Civil War and didn’t hesitate to do so.  The Union blockade of southern ports put an end to ocean trade between the American South and Europe.  However, English mills demanded cotton, and the Confederacy’s survival depended on materials from Europe.  Since international law prohibited interference with trade with Mexico, Texas cotton moved freely across the border into Mexico, and from there to Europe.  The Camino Real became the Cotton Road, and the Cotton Road became the lifeline of the Confederacy.

Cargo wagons piled high with cotton usually demanded ten oxen or six mules, but South Texas terrain often required more animals depending on the goods’ weight.  No one knew the back roads in southeast/south-central Texas better than Sally Scull.  She gave up horse-trading for hauling cotton, and because the pay was far more profitable, Sally added several wagons and teams to form mule trains.  Her vaqueros became teamsters and security for these goods’ movement, and Sally always accompanied her wagons.

Sally and her vaqueros were seemingly inseparable.  Her Spanish fluency and willingness to pay the vaqueros a fair wage guaranteed their desire to do whatever she demanded of them.  Nevertheless, Sally ruled over them with an iron hand; their obedience to her orders was always immediate and unquestioned.  Before the Civil War, Sally had no problem obtaining vast herds of horses, which led some to speculate that she got them illegally from unsuspecting Mexican rancheros.  She and her men drove most of these to Louisiana.  During the Civil War, Sally employed her vaqueros with equal efficiency.

When the war ended, the story of Sally Scull comes to an end, as well.  Sort of. America’s courthouses are repositories of history —including intriguing events and the people who participated in them.  When these courthouses go up in smoke, as several in Texas have, then whatever information they contained is gone forever.  From court records in Goliad County, we know that a county grand jury indicted Sally Scull on a perjury charge in 1866.  We also know that a jury found her innocent of the allegations.  In 1867, the court of San Patricio County reflects that a lawsuit filed by Jose Maria Garcia against Sarah Wadkins and her husband Isaiah (reasons unknown) in 1859 went through a series of continuances with one final notation, which reads “death of defendant suggested.”

Did Sally Scull die shortly after the war, or —owing to Yankee Reconstruction in Texas —did she simply disappear to avoid federal prosecution?  Was she murdered by Isiah Wadkins, as some suggest, or did she go to live with relatives in El Paso?  There is no shortage of conjecture about Sally’s ultimate demise.  We simply do not know … because, in the absence of written records, there is no history.


  1. Bradford, T. V. Sallie Scull on the Texas Frontier: Phantoms on Rio Turbio.  San Antonio: Naylor Publishing, 1952.
  2. Kilgore, D. Two Six-Shooters and a Sunbonnet: The story of Sally Scull.  Texas Folklore Society, Legendary Ladies of Texas, 1994.
  3. Kilgore, D. Scull, Sarah Jane Newman [Sally] (1817—Unknown).  Texas State Historical Society, Biographical entry, online.
  4. Nolan, O. W. Gun-Toting Woman Horse Trader.  Cattleman Magazine, July 1943.
  5. Thomas, S. C. The Notorious Sally Skull: Blazing a trail through Colorado County.  The Colorado County Citizen, 24 September 2019.


[1] Actually, 297 families and some partnerships of unmarried men purchased 307 parcels of land from Stephen F. Austin and established a colony of American settlers that encompassed an area that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Brazoria, Washington, Grimes, and Fayette counties.  Each household head received a minimum of 177 acres up to 4,428 acres depending on whether they intended to farm or raise livestock.  Settlers would forfeit grants not cultivated within two years.

[2] A method of marking the ear of cattle to prove ownership.  A swallow fork is a cut from the upper part of a cow’s ear, while the under slope is a similar cut mark on the underside of the animal’s ear.

[3] In colonial Texas, it was common for people to sign a marriage bond—a promise of formal marriage whenever a minister was available to perform the ceremony.  Jesse and Sally were “formally” married in 1838.

[4] Rabb was prolific in the acquisition of grazing land.  He ran great herds of cattle under the Bow and Arrow brand.  How great were Rabb’s herds?  When he died in 1872, his wife became known as the Cattle Queen of Texas.  The Rabb’s are long gone now, but the Bow and Arrow brand continues to exist with Mr. Wright’s descendants in Nueces County.

Posted in Civil War, Pioneers, Society, Texas | 2 Comments

U.S. Marshal C. P. Dake

All we know about this man’s family is that (a) they were Canadian, (b) they moved to New York when their son was still a child, and (c) they demonstrated one heck of an imagination when they named their son Crawley.

As a young man, Crawley P. Dake (15 September 1836-9 April 1890) operated a retail store in Michigan while also serving his community in various minor public offices.  He married Catherine E. Smith and the couple had one son, born in 1860, whom they named Charles Allison Dake.  At the beginning of the American Civil War, Crawley Dake was 25-years of age.  His prominence within his community enabled him to raise a company for service with the 5th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry Regiment[1].  Until 1863, the regiment remained in Michigan “protecting the capital.”  Apparently, someone well-placed in the Michigan political hierarchy was concerned about another invasion from Canada, but when that didn’t happen (as it only rarely ever has), the regiment was assigned to the Army of the Potomac.

Dake and the regiment participated in the Battle of Hanover, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Williamsport (Maryland).  At the Battle of Mine Run, Major Dake received a serious wound to the leg and was subsequently separated from service due to medical incapacitation.

Once recovered from his wound, Dake served briefly as Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal in Detroit, and for the Internal Revenue Service[2].  On 12 June 1878, Dake was appointed United States Marshal for the Arizona Territory.  Territorial Governor John P. Hoyt objected to the appointment.  On this very same day, Gov. Hoyt learned that President Rutherford B. Hayes had replaced him with John C. Frémont.  Why he objected to Dake’s appointment is unknown, but Michigan’s congressional delegation prevailed in the argument and Dake assumed his office.

Dake took with him to Arizona two men who were skilled administrators.  With their assistance, Dake established an efficient office, created a bonds program, and appointed eight deputies.  One of his first challenges was to find ways to run his office with limited funds allocated by the government for that purpose.  The process of obtaining operating funds was also perplexing.  Before he could pursue outlaws, he first had to ask for special funds.  The delay incurred while waiting for funding authorization frequently meant that desperadoes had ample opportunity to flee into Mexico.  In this regard, Dake had difficulty addressing the problem of stagecoach robbery in Arizona.  Stage robbery was a serious problem because it underscored the amount of lawlessness in the territory, because it had a negative impact on commerce.  When mail robbery became a federal crime, it became the duty of U.S. Marshals to sort it out.

Crawley Dake, as a man of action, refused to wait for permission of higher authority to pursue suspects.  Attempting creativity in law enforcement, Dake posted a $500 reward.  Though successful, Washington bureaucrats refused additional funds.  By the fall, Dake was working closely with Mexican officials to fight outlaw activities along the border.  Without first seeking permission, Dake sent deputies into Mexico in pursuit of bandits who had stolen five-hundred pounds of silver bullion.  As I’ve said, a man of action.

In September 1878, Territorial Judge Charles Silent[3] asked Dake to deputize John Adams and Cornelius Finley.  Less than two weeks later, deputies Adams and Finley were accosted by five Mexican bandits who killed them.  One of the suspects in the killing was a man identified in the Arizona Weekly Star as Florentino Saiz.  During the coroner’s inquest into the death of Morgan Earp, Pete Spence’s wife Marietta Duarte, implicated her husband and four other men, including Florentino Cruz, in Morgan’s murder.

Some historians have speculated that Saiz and Cruz were the same person.  Two men wanted as suspects in the murder of Adams and Finley were known living in Mexico.  Typically, Mexican authorities refused to extradite them; justice for Adams and Finley would not be served until Wyatt Earp killed Florentino Cruz during his vendetta ride —if in fact Saiz and Cruz were the same man.

While Dake was struggling with ever-increasing crime, Washington bureaucrats sat on their duffs refusing to acknowledge that the western territories were “out of control.”  Despite several hundred federal troops stationed in Arizona, the U.S. Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act (1878), which limited the power of the federal government in the use of federal military personnel to enforce domestic policy.

Note: The Posse Comitatus Act originally applied to the U.S. Army only but was later expanded to include the Air Force.  The Act excluded the Navy and Marine Corps, but Navy Regulations later incorporated those prohibitions to both services.  Note further that exceptions were applied to the Marine Corp in 1921 and 1926 when units of the Marine Corps participated in measures to protect the U.S. mail service.  Marines could not pursue outlaws, but they were allowed to shoot them dead during robbery attempts.  See also, General Order No. 1.  The Act also does not apply to the U.S. Coast Guard, owing to their law enforcement mission, or to the U.S. Space Command for similar reasons.

In 1879, Congress denied any appropriations to the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which forced Dake to use his remaining funds to prosecute those already in federal custody.  In late November 1879, Dake deputized Virgil Earp to help resolve on-going problems in Eastern Pima County (later, Cochise County) with the so-called Cowboys, who focused their unlawful activities on stage robbery, cattle rustling, horse stealing, and murder.

When Dake was unable to resolve a long-simmering feud between the Earps and Cowboys, prominent Territorial Democrats soundly criticized him.  Following the shootout at O.K. Corral, Dake was forced out of office and replaced by Zara T. Tidball.  For additional information about this period in Arizona history, see The Cowboy War, Who Were the Earps, and Wyatt Earp.

Three years after he resigned from the Marshal’s Service, Dake was charged for misappropriating funds, which of course he did —but only in the interests of doing his job.  In any case, Dake was later cleared of any wrongful activity.  Dake died in 1890 after suffering an illness for two years —he was 53 years old.


  1. Ball, L. D. The United States Marshals of New Mexico and Arizona Territories: 1846-1912.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  2. Goff, J. S. Arizona Territorial Officials, Volume IV: Secretaries, U.S. Attorneys, Marshals, Surveyors General, Superintendents of Indian Affairs, 1863-1912.  Cave Creek: Black Mountain Press, 1988.
  3. Roberts, G. L. Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend.  New York, 2007.


[1] Part of the Michigan Brigade which was, for a time, commanded by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

[2] The IRS was created by the Revenue Act 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, which also imposed the first income tax on the American people.  Between 1862-1864, the IRS increased taxes from 3% of everything over $800 to 5% on earned  income between $600-$5,000 and 7.5% on income between $5,000-$10,000, and 10% on income above $10,000.  IRS has been increasing taxes ever since because government has never seen a tax it didn’t like.

[3] Silent (1842-1918) was a German-born jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Arizona Territorial Court, and later became one of California’s leading private defense attorneys.

Posted in Arizona Territory, History, U.S. Marshals | 4 Comments

Old West vs. Hollywood West

What most of us learned about the Old West, as kids, was what we saw at the cinema and on early black and white television.  It was great fun.  In my day, we all looked forward to the Saturday matinees and serials.  Matinee admission, 35-cents.  Popcorn, 15-cents.  Candy bars … I think also around 10-cents, but back then 60-cents was a lot of money.

Most of the films we saw on Saturdays were re-runs from previous decades.  Cowboy films weren’t the only matinee or serial fare, but given the choice between Tarzan the Ape Man, Dick Tracy, and John Wayne films, Wayne was always my first choice.  Gene Autry was okay, but he wasn’t John Wayne.  I don’t recall The Duke ever singing anyone into jail.

The fact is that the movies were —well— movies.  No one was ever really shot, no one ever died, no one went to jail.  It was make-believe.  In order to sell a pretend world, it was necessary to exaggerate plot lines with unrealistic suppositions.  Hollywood was not the real old west, and movie stars were nothing like actual old west lawmen and outlaws.  In the real old west, there was a very thin line between lawman and outlaw; they quite often changed sides —maybe even more than twice, and no one could tell who the good guys were by the color of their hats.

In terms of gunfights, there were nowhere near the number suggested by Hollywood films and few gunfights were manly confrontations in the middle of the street at high noon.  Hardly any of them were pre-arranged challenges —and no one discharged a revolver at someone else more than 25 yards distant with the expectation of hitting anything other than an unsuspecting bystander.  Now the reason for this is that in the real old west, few people ever “slapped leather.”  Some men carried their six-shooters in holsters (mostly worn on the left front of their bodies for a cross-body draw), but most gunmen carried their guns stuffed into their waistband or in the pockets of their outer garments.  A man putting his hand inside his pocket during an argument made everyone nervous.

Gunfights did erupt (although not often) and when they did, the shooters were frequently standing close together.  Then, when the guns started blazing, it was common to see both shooters scurrying out of the way.  That scene in the film Tombstone, where Doc Holiday ran with his head down toward the building shooting at Ike Clanton was probably an accurate representation.  No one wanted to get shot, much less getting shot in the face.

Often, though, old west shooters were little more than assassins and dry gulchers.  They shot at other men from behind cargo wagons or from a second-story window looking into the street.  It wasn’t only a single shot, or even two (tap, tap); in most cases, the damn fools emptied their revolvers, their aim offset by rot-gut whiskey. The winner of the contest was the last man standing, but occasionally no one remained standing.  Then, with a room full of gunsmoke, no one was sure who shot first, or even, who shot whom.  The reality of old west gunfights wasn’t very manly, or romantic, or something a ten or eleven-year-old would want to see at a Saturday afternoon matinee.

Exempli Gratia

Dodge City in 1875

In the late 1870s, two railroad companies competed for dominance in Colorado.  Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad challenged the Denver and Rio Grande Company for the right to lay track through Raton Pass.  Both companies had lines into Trinidad, Colorado and the pass was the only possible access to New Mexico.  Both companies took the matter to the courts, but as that battle was unfolding, the companies also threatened each other with violence—railroad gang against railroad gang.

To gain an edge, Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe hired gunslingers from Dodge City to intimidate the Denver and Rio Grande workers.  Faced with this threat, and running out of money, Denver and Rio Grande were forced to cede the pass and the matter was resolved without bloodshed.  In 1879, however, a silver strike in Leadville, Colorado brought the struggle back to life.

In 1879, the railroad war focused on the placement of track along the narrow Royal Gorge.  By then, the Denver and Rio Grande had hired its own gunslingers.  Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe upped the ante by bringing in Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson, Dave Rudabaugh, and Mysterious Dave Mather —and around 70 additional gunmen.  In June, the courts ruled in favor of the Denver and Rio Grande.  With the backing of the courts, Denver and Rio Grande gained the additional assistance of the sheriffs of the counties through which the railroad track passed and then mounted an attack on its rival’s forces.  Masterson’s forces were quickly overwhelmed, and the war ended with Denver and Rio Grande in control of the Royal Gorge.

Saloon in Las Vegas, NM 1880s

With Kansas now an unfriendly place for Masterson and his cronies, many migrated to Las Vegas, New Mexico, a small town established on the edge of the eastern plains, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1835.  If anyone thinks that Dodge City, Kansas was bad news, or Tombstone, Arizona —Las Vegas, New Mexico was far worse.

Because of its location on the Santa Fe Trail, some 600-miles from Kansas (a long way in an ox-pulled wagon), the townspeople prospered.  By the time folks arrived in Las Vegas, whiskey and women were in high demand so the enterprising folks in Las Vegas provided such comforts.

By 1860, Las Vegas had grown to around 1,000 people and from then on, the population exploded.  By the time the railroad made its way to Las Vegas in 1879, it had become the largest city between Independence, Missouri, and San Francisco, California.  To maintain its control of development rights, the railroad established a train depot one mile outside of town, the effect of which created a rival town —East Las Vegas (east of the Gallinas River) and West Las Vegas.

With six trains stopping at the Las Vegas depot every day, the railroad was a steady conduit for businessmen, investors, respectable residents, and an assortment of toughs from Dodge City, Kansas.  The toughs included rough-shod people who were wanted for murder, robbery, and thievery; they were gamblers, prostitutes, swindlers, vagrants, railroad tramps, and Gunslingers.  Notable among these were Doc Holliday and his woman (known as Big Nose Kate), Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Dave Mather, Dave Rudabaugh, J. J. Webb, Hoodoo Brown, and a fellow known as Handsome Harry.  Others went through Las Vegas, too, at one time or another … Black Jack Ketchum, the Youngers, Doc Middleton, and Bob Ford.  Bad fellows.

Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas, John “Doc” Holliday put out his dentist’s shingle, but the effort was short-lived.  No one wanted a “lunger” breathing into their face, so Doc put his shingle away for the last time and went into a partnership with John Joshua Webb in the purchase of a saloon.

On 19 July 1879, Doc and Webb were sitting at one of the gambling tables in their saloon when a local tough by the name of Mike Gordon suddenly erupted with rage at one of Doc’s dancehall girls (a euphemism for prostitute).  Gordon wanted the woman to go away with him and she wasn’t inclined to do so.  The furious Gordon began cussing and kicking chairs out of his way as he made his exit from the saloon.

Doc calmly got up from where he was sitting and followed Gordon into the street.  Just as Holliday reached the doorway, a shot from Gordon’s pistol whizzed past him.  Calmly pulling his revolver, Holliday shot Gordon.  One-shot was good enough and Gordon fell into the dusty street.  Gordon died the next day.  When Doc learned that he would likely be held for trial, he fled to Dodge City.

It may have been this incident that led to the creation of the so-called Dodge City Gang, a loose association of Kansas gunmen formed around Hyman G. Neill, who was also known as Hoodoo Brown.  Not long after he arrived in Las Vegas, Neill ran successfully for Justice of the Peace.  As Justice of the Peace, he was also the de facto East Las Vegas mayor, responsible for hiring town lawmen.  Also serving as coroner, Neill decided if or when to convene a coroner’s inquest to a shooting.  Most of his friends were appointed as members of the coroner’s court.

With his friends hired as town marshals/deputies (J. J. Webb served as town marshal, appointing Dave Mather, Joe Carson, Dutch Schunderberger, and “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh as deputies), Neill was well placed to protect his friends and profit from his control over ELV gambling establishments.  Note: the picture shown (above) is of the Dodge City, Kansas “Peace Commission,” which included some of the members of the Dodge City Gang operating in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  “Neil Brown” (a.k.a. Hyman G. Neill/Hoodoo Brown) is seated on the far right.

A few of the gang members supplemented their incomes by committing crimes, such as robbing local stagecoaches.  In this endeavor, men were murdered.  By the summer of 1880, townsfolk had grown tired of the lawlessness and formed vigilance committees.  Hyman Neill might have hanged but forewarned he quickly departed from New Mexico and headed for Houston, Texas.

No one knows for certain what happened to Hoodoo Brown.  Some contend he was killed in Coahuila, Mexico, others say he found his way to Leadville, Colorado where he lived out his days with the widow of one of his former Las Vegas deputies.

Marshal Webb was arrested for shooting and was sentenced to hang (in fairness, the shooting was likely a case of self-defense).  Deputy Rudabaugh also found himself in jail.  Eventually, Webb and Rudabaugh escaped from prison.  In time, Rudabaugh was shot to death in Mexico and Webb perished from a smallpox infection.

More than leading the Dodge City Gang, Hyman G. Neill was up to his armpits in thievery, murder, and who knows what else.  One thing we know for sure is that Hoodoo Brown was a cowardly back shooter —the kind of man we would likely encounter in the REAL old west —and he looked nothing like film star Randolph Scott.

Posted in American Southwest, Gunfights and such, History, Kansas, New Mexico, Westward Expansion | 1 Comment

The U.S./Mexican Border

As U.S. law enforcement continues its struggle against Mexican smugglers and murderers, (popularly referred to as the drug cartels), it may be useful to note that this struggle has been going on since around the mid-1800s.  If practice makes perfect, then American lawmen should rank highly among the world’s premier interdiction forces. Who knows, perhaps in relation to other law enforcement agencies, they do … but I suspect this is not a reality.

Historically, U.S. Army units stationed along our southern border have not fared much better.  The American army has been deployed along the US/ Mexico border off-and-on since the 1850s tasked with a myriad of missions —from outright war to security patrols along the border, chasing bandits, and guarding American lives and property.  While each of these missions was gallantly undertaken, the results leave much desired.  In defense of their record, army historians will argue that their missions were performed under exceedingly difficult circumstances, not the least of which were insufficient forces, and detailing foot soldiers when cavalry or dragoons were better suited to their task.  These arguments do have merit, of course, but in too many cases, army patrol leaders weren’t always sure where the U.S./Mexico border was.  One cannot protect a border when one doesn’t know where it is.

As for the “enemy,” there was never any shortage of things for Mexicans to smuggle.  They smuggled textiles and stolen automobiles[1] from the United States into Mexico and illegal whiskey, drugs, people, and stolen merchandise into the United States.  The smuggling of narcotics, illegal whiskey and people has long been part of the bottom line of Mexican Crime International, LLC., and the only cost to Americans has been a few hundred or a thousand lost lives here and there.  Well, that is, besides the annual $70-billion in ancillary costs since 2001.

Palpable animosity between Mexicans and Texians began immediately after El Presidenté Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s surrender to Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 and it has only gotten worse since them.  Despite a signed instrument of surrender, the government of Mexico refused to accept it and thereafter implemented a series of punishing expeditions into Texas from Mexico.  Smuggling wasn’t an issue back then; only murderous raids by Mexican malcontents.  Transferring their hatred of Texians to Anglo-Americans was relatively an easy thing to do after the U.S. annexed Texas as its 28th state.  War with Mexico was the result of this annexation, ending in 1848.

Beginning with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 (the end of the Mexican/American War), the Rio Grande became the official boundary between the two countries, as well as the location of most smuggling activities.  Part of understanding cross-border smuggling activities is realizing that the Treaty essentially divided Mexican families who were long resident within the border region.  Tio Juan went to bed in Mexico one night and awakened in Estado Unidos the next morning.  With family members living on both sides of the border, it was a simple matter for people to walk across the border at will, taking with them materials that were profitable on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Generally, Southwestern U.S./Northern Mexican communities accepted smuggling as a fact of life.  The state of Texas, for example, never sanctioned smuggling until after the American Civil War —because smuggling suited the Confederate cause.  Smuggling was also quite easy —for a couple of reasons.  First, U.S. regulations governing customs and immigration were so burdensome, confusing, and overwhelming that law enforcement officers were unable to enforce those laws; in time, many officers didn’t even try.  Second, except for recognized ports of entry, border checkpoints were nearly nonexistent.  Third, most of the area in between checkpoints is untamed, inaccessible, harsh wilderness.  Fourth, profit from smuggled items was tax-free.  The entire border protection mechanism was dishonest and corrupt.  The brains behind smuggling operations engaged in it because it yielded great profit; those who did the smuggling had two reasons for doing so —make some money and screw the gringo.  Some of the more prolific smugglers became heroes of Mexico in their own lifetimes.

In the 1880s, trafficking became very profitable for Mexicans because much of what went across the U.S. border was illegal and, therefore, in high demand.  Human trafficking is not a new event in Mexico; Mexican smugglers trafficked in illegal Chinese immigrants for years and those involved did not appear overly concerned about the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The main benefit of this exclusion was that it increased revenues associated with moving Chinese immigrants through Mexico into the United States.  When American officials finally became aware of this activity and increased border area patrols, many of these transiting Chinese ultimately ended up settling in such places as Sinaloa, Sonora, and in Arizona (then a U.S. territory).  It was these Chinese that first introduced opium into regions of the American southwest.  Mexicans had made marijuana into a cash crop since around the 1870s, so incorporating cocaine posed no difficulties.

And then, of course, there was whiskey smuggling, which reminds one of that old Mexican saying, “No dejes ninguna piedra sin remover”—leave no stone unturned.  What made smuggling whiskey and tequila more profitable than ever —well worth the danger involved— was at first a state, and then later, federal prohibition.  It was left to lawmen in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to enforce these laws, often with insufficient manpower or a lack of interest in doing so.

Modern historians criticize the Texas Rangers of the early 1900s for being particularly prone to violence against Mexicans along the border.  None of these people seem to appreciate the extremely dangerous environment in which Texas lawmen were stationed or considered who the Texas Rangers were working for at the time[2].  Few historians ever found themselves on the receiving end of lethal, well-directed Mexican rifle fire, ambushes, or overwhelming assaults by Mexican gangs.  They only point to the fact that Texas Rangers, for example, were “quick on the trigger.”  Indeed, they were, and they needed to be because if a lawman wasn’t quick on the trigger, he was very soon a dead lawman.

The Arizona legislature passed prohibition laws in 1915.  The main effect of state prohibition was an increase in demand for alcohol.  Higher demand meant higher prices; it was a perfect business environment for Mexican smugglers.  Cochise County, Arizona (in southeast Arizona) is bordered by Mexico and New Mexico.  At the time, both Mexico and New Mexico were “wet,” which made Cochise County a perfect conduit for alcohol smugglers.

Sheriff Harry Wheeler of Cochise County, Arizona was a former captain of the Arizona Rangers.  Having witnessed too many murders caused by excessive alcohol consumption, Wheeler favored and actively enforced Arizona’s prohibition laws.  Cochise County deputies arrested dozens of smugglers and knowing that his county was a pipeline for illegal whiskey, Wheeler and his deputies regularly patrolled the border area.

1915 Oldsmobile Touring Car, Model 42

During the night of 5 March 1917, Sheriff Wheeler and Deputy Lafe Gibson were returning to Gibson’s home in Gleeson, Arizona.  The two men were riding in an Oldsmobile Touring Car after a day of patrolling the Chiricahua Mountains looking for evidence of smuggling operations.  The early night was pitch black and they were traveling over old wagon trails with a limited vision of what lay ahead of the automobile.  This was dangerous in and of itself —driving off into an arroyo would not be a fun event— but added to this, Wheeler and Gibson were physically exhausted.  Sheriff Wheeler decided to stop for the night and make camp.  Their location was about two miles east of Gleeson in an area adjacent to Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.

Unknown to Wheeler or his deputy, Gibson had stopped the car within 200 yards of a Mexican outlaw/bandit group concealed behind several large boulders.  Soon after the two men unrolled their bedrolls, bandits began firing at them; the initial shots smashed into the front of the Oldsmobile.  Wheeler grabbed a box of ammunition and his rifle and began returning fire; Gibson had only his revolver and the ammo on his gun belt.  After some time, Wheeler and Gibson crawled to the top of the railroad berm for a better view.  The lawmen could hear the Mexicans shouting insults at them in Spanish.  Between the insults and flashes of rifle fire, Wheeler and Gibson estimated the location of the bandits.  Wheeler guessed that four attackers were confronting them.

Sheriff Wheeler and the Mexicans exchanged ineffective gunfire for over an hour before Wheeler realized he was wasting his ammunition unnecessarily.  When a bright moon illuminated the area, the lawmen lay prone atop the berm until the moon dipped below the horizon.  At some point, the bandits began advancing by fire and maneuver toward the Oldsmobile.  One of the bandit’s poorly aimed shots nearly hit Wheeler.  Sheriff Wheeler, an expert shot, decided he’d had enough.  He fired six rapid shots at the location of the bandit’s muzzle flash and heard the agonized groans of a wounded man.

Wheeler’s shot, having apparently hit one of the bandits, stopped the outlaw advance and sent them back into the rocks for cover.  Once the moon disappeared below the horizon, Wheeler and Gibson charged the Mexican position but found it already abandoned.  At that location, Wheeler found ten cases of whiskey loaded on four donkeys.  The following morning, Wheeler and Gibson discovered horse tracks that led toward the Chiricahua Mountains and a pool of blood and tracks indicating that a wounded man had tried to escape, but the absence of a body suggested that the wounded bandit was still alive.

The touring car was so damaged that Wheeler and Gibson decided not to pursue the outlaws right away.  More than a month passed before Wheeler and several deputies captured two of the suspected shooters.  The two suspects were transiting through Apache Pass toward Mexico at the time of their detention.  Sheriff Wheeler identified the leader as Santiago Garcia, who admitted to the shooting but claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity.  Garcia thought Wheeler and Gibson were members of a rival smuggling operation who had come to steal their whiskey.

The conclusion of the Wheeler event was somewhat underwhelming, but in fairness to the Sheriff’s Department, Wheeler was at the same time investigating two murders at two separate locations; Cochise County is a large area.  This event in the U.S. southwest illustrates the presence of constant danger to lawmen; Wheeler and Gibson could have been killed for ten cases of whiskey.  It also serves to demonstrate the inability of modern historians to form logical conclusions.  There was no intentional campaign among lawmen to cause violence and suffering among the Mexican poor living along the border.

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1916

The U.S./Mexican border extends roughly 1,600 miles from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California.  This entire span was troubled by murder, mayhem, and turmoil; in the minds of American lawmen, the issue was one of survival in an area where Mexican smugglers had no objection to killing them.

To reiterate an earlier point, U.S./state law contributed to border violence.  The effect of such legislative actions as the 1909 Opium Exclusion Act and the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Law, ostensibly designed to disrupt the import of marijuana and opium, instead served to increase demand for and the export of drugs from Mexico[3] , and Mexican smugglers continued their regular assault upon American lawmen all along the border region.  Certainly, ethnocentrism was part of the ill-feeling between lawmen and border bandits, but this was certainly no one-way street.  Gunfights, murderous assaults, and the subsequent mutilation of the bodies of dead American lawmen failed to create any warm feelings along the southern border.

Mexican outlaws and U.S./state laws determined the activities of Texas Rangers and other lawmen on the Mexican border, along with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), and the First World War.  Between 1911-1915, Mexico had nine presidents (one of whom served for only 28-minutes).  Most of these men sought to solidify their political position through anti-American rhetoric, which by every account worked to their advantage in several ways —not the least of which was that men assaulting American sovereignty and U.S. lawmen would not be able to challenge their presidencies.

During the war years, German agents were scattered throughout Mexico as spies, instigators, and military advisors to Mexican generals.  Anti-American sentiments were prevalent in Mexico, and outlawry was one way to “even the score” with the Norte Americanos.  The violence that occurred with regularity inside Mexico spilled over into U.S. border states and with unbridled rage, American lawmen responded in kind; hundreds of innocent Mexicans died at the hands of local sheriff’s posses, police officers, and rangers.  But considering Mexico’s cross-border raids that resulted in the wanton murder of innocent American citizens and the theft of personal property, U.S. lawmen found plenty of justification for their no-nonsense approach to problem-solving.  The icing on the rage cake among American police was the fact that Germany supplied Mexican outlaws with weapons and ammunition, Japanese civilians[4] taught the above-average Mexicans how to make bombs, and Germany helped Mexicans craft a plan to retake the American southwest by force.  Of these enemies and their cohorts, U.S. law officers gave no quarter—and asked for none.  Innocent civilians are harmed in every war —the border war with Mexico was no different.

On October 18, 1915, a band of Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande and proceeded to the railway tracks north of Brownsville.  They pulled up the rail spikes and removed fish-plates (rail joints); as a train approached traveling about 30 miles-per-hour, the bandits pulled up the track from the cross-ties with a chain thus causing the speeding train to derail.  When the train skidded to a full stop, bandits began firing indiscriminately into the train cars.  Witnesses testified hearing shouts of “Viva Carranza” as bullets whizzed through the cars.  Everyone took cover in between the wooden seats, but the bandits entered the listing train cars and began killing passengers not already dead or injured.

There was always smuggling along the U.S./Mexican border, but at no earlier time was this activity more profitable than it was during the Prohibition Years.  The costs associated with U.S./Mexico border troubles were high.  In terms of murder or violent death, 550 Americans and 367 Mexican civilians died; 123 soldiers on both sides of the bordered gave up their lives.  In terms of property damage, a congressional committee estimate places that figure at around $500-million.

If there has been any change in the past 100 years, the situation of Mexican smuggling and violence along the border has only gotten worse.


  1. Febre, M. Tequileros, and Moonshiners: Prohibition in Texas.  Unpublished paper.
  2. Greenfield, V. A., and Blas Nunez-Neto (et.al.) Human Smuggling and Associated Revenues. Homeland Security Analysis Center, 2019.
  3. Katz, F. The Secret War in Mexico, Europe, and the United States.  Chicago, 1981.
  4. Leffler, J. J. Germany, Mexico, and the United States, 1911-1917.  Portland: Portland State University, 1982.
  5. Matthews, M. M. The U.S. Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective.  Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2007
  6. Spector, J. S. Extraditing Mexican Nationals in the Fight Against International Narcotics Crimes.  Lansing: University of Michigan Law School Press, 1998.
  7. Von der Goltz, H. My Adventures as a German Secret Service Agent.  London, 1918.


[1] There are no reliable statistics concerning the number of automobiles stolen from the United States (usually from within 500 miles of U.S. border towns), but there are estimates generated by the Uniform Crime Report.  Its estimate, based on the value of stolen vehicles, which is an astounding $1.96 billion, suggests 301,300 unrecovered vehicle thefts in 2009.  The estimate underscores only one of many unsolved problems with Mexico.

[2] James E. “Pa” Ferguson was a Democrat who served in office from 1915-1917.  He was indicted and impeached during his second term, forced to resign, and barred from holding further office in Texas.  Ferguson’s wife Miriam “Ma” was twice elected as governor in non-consecutive terms (1925-1927, 1933-1935).  “Ma” continued her husband’s corrupt practices.

[3] It wasn’t until 1927 that Mexico finally outlawed the export of marijuana and opium, which as we have seen, has had no effect on the smuggling of drugs into the United States.

[4] Such was the assertion of Walter Prescott Webb in 1935, which was, in subsequent years, widely discredited by revisionist historians.  Rumors of the day linking Mexico and Japan were not unfounded or simply the product of German propaganda.  The Japanese had demonstrated a keen interest in Mexico for some time; they knew, as well as the Americans, that the American southwest was the vulnerable underbelly of the United States.  Moreover, Japan deliberately cultivated its relationship with Mexico, and it would not have been beyond the pale to imagine that the Japanese would willingly participate, even if only peripherally, in the bandit assault of the United States.  In April 1911, Grand Admiral Yashiro made a speech in which he stressed Mexico and Japan’s common cause in opposing the “Yankees” while his Mexican audience shouted “Viva Japan—Abajo los gringos.”  Today, China has replaced Japan with an interest in America’s soft underbelly.

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