Miss Catherine’s Boys

Some Background

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

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

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

The Challenges of History

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

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

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

About Miss Catherine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Henry McCarty/William H. Bonney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph McCarty-Antrim 

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lincoln County War

A story about America’s most corrupt state.

Between 1845 and 1850, a devastating fungus destroyed Ireland’s potato crop.  During these years, over a million Irishmen died from starvation and related diseases; twice that number immigrated to other lands, around 500,000 went to the United States where they accounted for half of all immigrants in the 1840s.  Although the potato blight receded in 1850, the effects of the famine continued to spur Irish immigration to the United States well into the twentieth century.  Between 1850 and 1855, another 250,000 Irish  entered the United States where many re-united with their families.

One of these immigrants was Lawrence Gustav Murphy, born sometime in 1831.  Like many single male immigrants, Murphy struggled to find worthwhile employment which led him to enlist in the U. S. Army in 1851 where he remained for ten years.  After his discharge in 1861, Murphy journeyed to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  When the Civil War broke out, he reenlisted in the Union Army and served for the duration of the war, mustering out in 1866 at Fort Stanton.  

After Murphy’s discharge, he joined the Grand Army of the Republic [Note 1].   A “networking” opportunity, Murphy established and maintained relationships with well-connected GAR members, which led him to Emil Fritz, with whom he went into business.  Murphy’s GAR contacts opened the door to military contracts supplying beef, vegetables, and other materials to Apache reservations.  The military contacts were good, but (apparently) insufficient, which led Murphy and Fritz to land fraud schemes selling land to they didn’t own to westward migrants.

Eventually, Murphy and Fritz moved their operations to Lincoln County, New Mexico and, in 1869, established L. G. Murphy & Company — a general store and bank.  Murphy and Fritz began referring to their business operation as “The House” [Note 2].  As an enterprise, The House did quite well.  The business model included the purchase of beef from cattle rustlers, which lowered operating costs, and in Lincoln County, Murphy & Company had no competition.  Murphy and Fritz could get away with charging outlandish prices for their goods and services.  In 1873, Murphy and Fritz hired another Irishman named James Dolan to help manage their monopoly.

When Emil Fritz died in 1874, James Dolan became Murphy’s business partner.  Murphy, knowing that Fritz had a life insurance policy, claimed that Fritz owed the company a considerable sum of money.  Murphy submitted his claim to the executors of Fritz’ estate.  The lawyer these executors hired to file the insurance claim was attorney Alexander McSween [Note 3].  Once the insurance policy claim had been paid, however, McSween refused to release the money to the executors because he believed Murphy and these executors were attempting to defraud the Fritz Estate.  In his refusal to release the life insurance money, McSween became an enemy of Murphy & Company.

Meanwhile, county ranchers and farmers, having tired of Murphy’s monopoly, formed their own mercantile operation — one headed by a newly arrived local rancher named John Tunstall and his attorney, Alexander McSween.

In 1878, Murphy filed suit against McSween for unlawfully withholding the money from Fritz’ estate.  The judge in this case (who may have been part of the Santa Fe Ring) ordered seizure of all McSween’s assets, but mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) included property that belonged to Tunstall.  Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed — but not before County Sheriff Brady [Note 4] sent deputies to execute the court’s order.

The predominant belief among Lincoln County’s ranchers unaffiliated with Murphy was that Sheriff Brady was on the payroll of L. G. Murphy & Company.  This was likely true.

John Tunstall

John Henry Tunstall (1853-1878) was an Englishman from an upper-middle-class family.  His father was a British businessman with interests in Canada.  Nineteen-year-old John emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia in 1872 to work at one of his father’s stores.  With available investment capital, Tunstall began looking for ways to acquire a ranch  suitable for raising cattle.  While visiting Santa Fe, Tunstall met Alexander McSween who dissuaded him from purchasing land in California because land in New Mexico was cheaper and more abundant for cattle ranching.  McSween told Tunstall that Lincoln County offered the potential for large profits because the county was in the midst of rapid settlement of people from back east.  As his exemplar, he told Tunstall about famed rancher John Chisum, whose herd exceeded 100,000 head of cattle.  It was from this early meeting that Tunstall and McSween formed a business partnership, whose efforts John Chisum supported.

Tunstall purchased land along the Rio Feliz, some thirty miles due south of Lincoln, New Mexico.  But Tunstall, with some experience in business, became appalled by Murphy & Company’s price gouging.  To counter The House, Tunstall and McSween opened a mercantile store and a bank in Lincoln.

The House, which then included Lawrence Murphy, James Dolan, and John H. Riley — Irishmen with similar backgrounds — not only felt challenged by Tunstall-McSween business interests, they also felt threatened politically.  Murphy fancied himself as the Lincoln County Boss; he owned the law, and he was affiliated with Tom Catron’s Santa Fe Ring.

While Tunstall was profit motivated, his business operation offered goods and services at reasonable prices.  Local citizens began to abandon Murphy & Company.  In letters back to England, John Tunstall indicated that he intended to challenge Murphy politically and unseat him.  Tunstall may not have realized that he was challenging far more than Murphy-Dolan.

Murphy & Dolan began to slide into bankruptcy — and if Murphy & Dolan was losing money, so too was Tom Catron.  Murphy & Dolan at first tried to challenge Tunstall & McSween in court; when that didn’t work, Murphy tried to goad Tunstall into a gunfight.  Eventually, Murphy ordered Sheriff Brady to hire gunmen affiliated with the Jesse Evans Gang [Note 5].

John Tunstall didn’t resort to hiring gun slingers, but he did ask for the support of John Chisum and a dozen or so local ranchers and cowboys who knew that Murphy-Dolan were behind cattle rustling in Lincoln County.  Tunstall was in great personal danger; he may have realized it, but seemed nonchalant about the prospects of being assassinated.  His friends, on the other hand, surrounded Tunstall whenever he left this ranch for any reason, to protect him from the possibility of a suicide while on the trail.  As it happens, one of Tunstall’s ranch hands was a 19-year old baby-faced fellow by the name of William Bonney (also known as Henry McCarty, William Henry Antrim, and El Chivato) [Note 6]. 

On 18 February 1878, Tunstall, Bonney, Richard Brewer, John Middleton, Henry Brown, Robert Widenmann, and Fred Waite were driving horses from Tunstall’s ranch into Lincoln.  Also on that day, a posse formed by Sheriff Brady had gone to Tunstall’s ranch to serve him with a court-ordered lien on his cattle — it was part of the lawsuit filed against Tunstall’s partner, Alexander McSween.

When these deputies arrived at the Tunstall ranch and discovered that he was not there,   several of the posse members (who rode under Jesse Evans, including William Morton, Frank Baker, Tom Hill, and Dolly Graham), broke away from the main posse and went in search of Tunstall.  Since Tunstall’s horses were not part of the court-ordered lien, there was no reason for the deputies to track Tunstall down — but that’s what Evans did.  

Artist’s rendition, the murder of John Tunstall

Jesse Evans and his men caught up with Tunstall a few miles outside Lincoln.  Bonney, who was riding drag, was the first to spot the Evans group and fired a shot into the air to give warning.  Evans, who may have thought that Bonney was shooting at them, began to shoot at Bonney.  Tunstall’s ranch hands heard the firing and rode to the top of a hill to observe what was going on.  Tunstall remained with the horses.  Unprotected, Evans and his men soon surrounded Tunstall and murdered him“execution style.”  Evans attempted to arrange Tunstall’s body so that it looked as if he attempted to resist arrest.  It was an incredible effort given that Tunstall was shot through the back of his head [Note 7].  John Tunstall’s murder ignited the Lincoln County War.

William Bonney, Artist’s rendition

William Bonney, who had become friends with Tunstall, was  devastated by the murder.  He, along with ten other men, went to the Lincoln Justice of the Peace, “Squire” John Wilson, and  filed a complaint alleging the murder of Tunstall by Jesse Evans and others.  Wilson accepted the complaint and swore them all in as “special constables” to arrest John Tunstall’s killers.  The constabulary posse, legally formed and led by Richard “Dick” Brewer.  Brewer was a well-respected landowner who had also served as Tunstall’s ranch foreman.  

Calling themselves “regulators,” [Note 8] Wilson’s constables organized themselves to bring in Evans, Morton, Hill, and Baker — but in fairness, it is likely that their motive had more to do with revenge for Tunstall’s murder.  The regulators included Brewer, Bonney, Frank McNab, Jim French, John Middleton, George and Frank Coe, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Charlie Bowdrie, Tom O’Folliard, Fred Waite (an Indian), and Henry Newton Brown.   

Following their appointment as deputies, Constable Martinez almost immediately began looking for Evans, Morton, Baker, Hill, and Graham.  On 20 February, Martinez, Brewer, and Bonney proceeded to the Sheriff’s office to serve their warrants.  Sheriff Brady promptly arrested  them in defiance of their status as lawful deputies.  Three days later, Deputy United States Marshall John Widenmann led a detachment of soldiers against Brady’s jailhouse, captured the deputies, and released Martinez, Brewer, and Bonney.   

After gaining release, Widenmann deputized the regulators and they continued their search for the men named in their warrants.  Regulators discovered Buck Morton, Dick Lloyd, and Frank Baker near Rio Peñasco.  Morton conditionally surrendered after a five-mile running gunfight.  The condition was that he and Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Baker would be returned alive to Lincoln.  Frank Baker had no part in the murder of John Tunstall, so Brewer gave Morton his assurance of safety.  Other regulators objected, however, insisting on a vengeance killing.  One of the regulators, William McCloskey, a friend of Morton, resisted the idea by vowing to protect the prisoners. 

On 9 March 1878, the third day of their journey back to Lincoln, the regulators killed McCloskey, Mortan, and Baker near Blackwater Creek — claiming that Morton killed McCloskey and then tried to escape with Baker, which gave the regulators no other choice but to kill the two escaping prisoners.  It was an extraordinary story because no one believed Morton would kill his only friend in the group of regulators.  Moreover, the bodies of Morton and Baker bore eleven bullet wounds — and unless some of these wounds were self-inflicted, there was one bullet wound for each constable.

On that same day, Tunstall’s other two killers, Jesse Evans and Tom Hill, were shot while trying to rob a drover near Tularosa.  Hill died from gunshot wounds, But Evans survived his wounds.  While undergoing medical treatment, Deputy US Marshal Widenmann arrested Evans for stealing livestock from an Indian reservation. 

Sheriff Brady telegraphed the Attorney General (Tom Catron) and asked for assistance to end the “anarchy” in Lincoln County.  Catron referred the matter to Governor Samuel Axtell, who decreed that Squire John Wilson had been illegally appointed as Justice of the Peace, which effectively nullified Wilson’s authority as Justice of the Peace and, at the same time, invalidated the actions of Wilson’s constables.  Governor Axtell also called upon US Marshal John Sherman of the Territory of New Mexico to revoke Widenmann commission — which he did, but Widenmann was reappointed 21 days later.

On 1 April 1878, regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown, and William Bonney readied themselves in the corral behind Tunstall’s store.  In a few more moments, they would assault Brady and his deputies on Lincoln’s main street.  Deputy George Hindman would succumb to his gunshot wounds; Brady was shot by a dozen bullets.  Bonney and French broke cover during the gunfight — some say to retrieve Bonney’s rifle, which Brady had confiscated from his prior arrest.  A surviving deputy, Billy Matthews, wounded Bonney and French.  French’s wound was severe and he was incapacitated for some time at Sam Corbet’s place.  Deputy US Marshal Widenmann was also in the corral that morning, but it is not known whether he participated in the ambush.  

Three days later, the regulators rode southwest from Lincoln to Blazer’s Mill, a trading post and saw mill that supplied beef to the Mescalero Apache.  En route, they came upon Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts, who was named on their arrest warrants as one of John Tunstall’s murderers.  In the exchange of gunfire regulator Dick Brewer was killed; Middleton, Scurlock, Coe, and Bonney were wounded.  Roberts didn’t survive his wounds.

After Brewer’s death, the regulators elected Frank McNab as their captain.  On 29 April, Sheriff George Peppin [Note 9] led a posse that included several members of the Jesse Evans Gang and the so-called Seven Rivers Warriors [Note 10].  Peppin engaged Frank McNab, Ab Saunders, and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz ranch.  McNab was killed, Saunders was wounded, and Coe was captured.  The next day, Seven Rivers Gang members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson, and John Galvin were shot to death in Lincoln; it was never conclusively proven that the regulators had anything to do with these murders and the matter is complicated because at the time, an intra-gang feud was well underway.  Frank Coe escaped from jail, supposedly with the assistance of Wallace Olinger, who Coe claimed gave him a pistol.

The day following McNab’s death, the regulators assumed defensive positions in town and spent the day trading shots with Murphy men and, according to some, several members of the US Cavalry Troop.  George Coe shot and wounded Dutch Charlie Kruling, but by firing their weapons at US soldiers, the regulators gained a new enemy — and one they could have easily done without.

On 15 May, regulators tracked down and captured Evans gang-member Manuel Segovia, whom the regulators believed killed McNab.  After Señor Segovia was dispatched into the afterlife, a Texan named Tom O’Folliard joined the regulators; he and William Bonney became good friends.

During the afternoon of 15 July, a confrontation between the Tunstall-McSween and Murphy-Dolan factions broke out inside Lincoln town; the regulators found themselves surrounded at two separate locations: the McSween home and Ellis’ Store.  Twenty Mexican regulators, led by Josefita Chavez, were also in town.  The men inside Ellis’ Store include Scurlock, Bowdre, Middleton, and Frank Coe.  At the McSween house were Alex McSween, his wife Susan, Bonney, Brown, French, O’Folliard, Jose Chavez, George Coe, and a dozen vaqueros.

Known as the Battle of Lincoln, opposing factions exchanged shots and insults for three days.  Tom Cullens was killed by a stray bullet at the McSween house.  Fernando Herrera, who was Doc Scurlock’s father-in-law, shot and killed Murphy-Dolan’s gunman Charlie Crawford [Note 11].  At five-hundred yards, it was a darn good shot.  At about the same time, Henry Brown, George Coe, and Joe Smith left the McSween house and went to Tunstall’s store where, finding two of Murphy-Dolan’s men, chased them into an outhouse.  With concentrated rifle fire, the regulators forced the men into the bottom to avoid being killed. 

Nathan Dudley

The Battle of Lincoln ended when Colonel Nathan Dudley [Note 12] led a cavalry troop and field guns into town and forced the regulators to withdraw — all except for the men in McSween’s house, who were left to their fate.  Late in the afternoon of 19 July, Murphy-Dolan’s men set the house on fire as a means to flush the critters out.  Susan McSween and the other women and their children were given safe passage while the men inside tried to fight the fire.  By 9 p.m., Bonney and French, decided to blaze their way out of  the house, followed by O’Folliard and Chavez.  Harvey Morris, McSween’s law partner, was killed.  When troopers advanced to take the escaped men into custody, a close-quarters gunfight broke out.  Alexander McSween and Bob Beckwith were killed.  Three Mexican regulators made good their escape and joined Bonney, French, O’Folliard and Chavez as they melted into the night.  

The Lincoln County War accomplished nothing beyond sending a few men to meet their maker.  New Mexico continued to suffer under corrupt government — and, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican (article by Steve Terrell, 11 August 2018) — New Mexico continues to hold the national title for corrupt government.  After Susan McSween hired an attorney by the name of Huston Chapman to pursue charges against James Dolan, Dolan (accompanied by Jesse Evans and Billy Campbell) murdered Chapman in cold blood and at point-blank range exactly one year from the date of Tunstall’s murder. William Bonney was also present at the shooting, but took no part in it. Dolan later went to trial for Chapman’s murder but was acquitted by a jury mostly composed of friends of Murphy and Dolan.

Lawrence Gustav Murphy died from cancer on 10 October 1878, 47-years old.  James Dolan, Irish immigrant, veteran of the Union Army, Republican political Boss and racketeer, businessman, gunman, thief, murderer, arsonist, and alcoholic, died at his ranch on 6 February 1898, 49-years of age.  At the time of his death, Dolan owned all of John Tunstall’s former lands.


  1. Caffey, D. L.  Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Power and Privilege in Territorial New Mexico.  University of New Mexico Press, 2014.
  2. Caldwell, C. R.  Dead Right: The Lincoln County War.  Caldwell Publishing, 2008.
  3. Chamberlain, K. P.  In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War.  University of New Mexico Press, 2013.
  4. Duran, T.  Francisco Chavez, Thomas B. Catron, and Organized Political Violence in Santa Fe in the 1890s.  New Mexico Historical Review, 1984.
  5. Jacobsen, J. K.  An Excess of Law in Lincoln County: Thomas Catron, Samuel Axtell, and the Lincoln County War.  New Mexico Historical Review, 1993.


[1] The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, Union Navy, U. S. Marines, and the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War.  It was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois, grew to include several hundred posts, and was dissolved in 1956 at the death of its last member.

[2] Murphy and Fritz’ Lincoln County operation was part of a larger structure of corrupt officials known as the Santa Fe Ring.  At the top of this organization was Thomas Catron, the Territorial Attorney General (later, United States Attorney for the New Mexico Territory).  Catron’s expertise was land law and he used his knowledge to acquire more than three million acres of New Mexico land by denying the claims of families who had been granted land under the auspices of New Spain or the Republic of Mexico — land that had been acknowledged as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican/American War.  Among Catron’s cronies in the Santa Fe Ring were Samuel Axtell, the discredited and impeached former Territorial Governor, and Warren Bristol, a territorial judge formerly suspected as being complicit in the assassination of Territorial Chief Justice John P. Slough.  Murphy and his new partner James Dolan had borrowed money from Catron to begin their Lincoln County operations, so Catron had financial interests in the unfolding events in Lincoln and may have been calling the shots from behind the scenes.

[3] Alexander McSween (-1878) was a Scot who was born and raised in Canada, possibly in Nova Scotia, who migrated to the United States to attend law school in St. Louis, Missouri.  He married Susan Hummer in 1873 and subsequently moved with her to Lincoln County, New Mexico where he began working for L. G. Murphy & Company.  

[4] Brady was also an Irish-Catholic who migrated to the United States during the potato famine, served several years in the U. S. Army with service in Texas, as was discharged in 1861 while holding the rank of sergeant.  When the Civil War broke out, Brady joined the New Mexico Volunteers as a first lieutenant.  He fought against the Confederates at Glorieta Pass.  He afterward served as a recruiting officer in Polvadera, New Mexico, as the Commanding Officer at Fort Staunton, and led successful campaigns against Navajo and Apache hostiles.  At the end of the war he served as a brevet Major.  After the war, Brady settled his family at Rio Bonito, four miles east of Lincoln.  He was first elected as Sheriff in 1869 and served in the New Mexico Territorial Legislature.  As part of the Santa Fe Ring, Brady aligned himself with Murphy & Company against John Tunstall.

[5] The Jesse Evans gang included twenty gunmen who rustled cattle, robbed and pillaged small ranches and Indian reservations, and murdered small ranchers in New Mexico between 1876-1880.  In 1877, Sheriff Brady hired the Evans gang and deputized them to help stamp out the so-called Tunstall-McSween faction in Lincoln County.  The Evans Gang was one of several affiliated outlaw organizations operating in New Mexico — an extension of the so-called Santa Fe Ring.  For a sketch of the other two outlaw gangs, see Notes 13 and 14.  

[6] The story of Henry McCarty, while a sad tale, may have been a common one in the post-Civil War period.  He was the son of Patrick and Catherine McCarty, an Irish-Catholic couple.  Henry was born in New York City.  After Patrick died, Catherine moved her two sons to Indianapolis, where she met William Henry Harrison Antrim.  Catherine and her sons moved with Antrim to Wichita, Kansas in 1870.  Catherine and Henry married in 1873 in Santa Fe, later moving to Silver City, New Mexico.  It was then that Henry and Joseph began using Antrim’s name.  In 1874, Catherine died from consumption and William Antrim abandoned her sons.  Henry was fifteen when his mother died and he went to work for Sara Brown, who gave him room and board.  His first violation of law was stealing food but ten days later he and George Schaefer robbed a Chinese laundry, stealing clothes and two pistols.  Henry McCarty was arrested and jailed pending trial, but he managed to escape, and he became a “fugitive from the law.”

[7] A special investigator commissioned by the United States Secretary of the Interior, a man named Frank Warner Angel, later determined that Tunstall was murdered in cold blood by Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill.  Witnesses to the murder, although from a distance, included Dick Brewer and William Bonney.

[8] The men who formed the regulators were well-known to each other, had worked together or associated with one another for several years, and most either worked as ranch hands or owned small ranches in Lincoln County.  History remembers William Bonney as one of these men, primarily because of the notoriety attached to his moniker “Billy the Kid,” but Bonney wasn’t the driving force behind the regulators.  Others of the group, including Ab Saunders, Charlie Bowdre, Doc Scurlock, Grand and George Coe, had all been involved in hunting down and killing cattle rustlers.  The two forces at work were the legally formed Sheriff’s posse under Brady, who murdered Tunstall, and the legally formed special constables under Justice Wilson — which leads us to the Lincoln County War.

[9] George Peppin was present during the Brady shootout but was not wounded.  John Copeland was appointed County Sheriff after Brady’s death, but was dismissed shortly afterward when he refused to support Murphy-Dolan.  Peppin, noted for his weak demeanor, was easily manipulated by Murphy.  On Murphy’s orders, Peppin organized an armed campaign against the regulators.

[10] The Seven Rivers Warriors was a gang led by Henry M. “Hugh” Beckwith.  It formed in opposition to John Chisum’s (and others) large cattle holdings; they aligned themselves with the Murphy-Dolan faction because the county sheriff was in Murphy’s pocket and Murphy/Brady made money from the gang’s cattle rustling activities.  In addition to Hugh Beckwith, brothers John and Bob were also gang-members.  Bob Beckwith and Wallace Olinger served as deputies under Brady; Wallace’s brother Bob Olinger served as a Deputy US Marshal.  The Seven Rivers Warriors frequently rode with the Jesse Evans Gang.

[11] At the time of the Lincoln County War, Lawrence G. Murphy was suffering from cancer.  He turned L. G. Murphy & Company over to James Dolan, who renamed it James Dolan & Company.  Subsequently, the gunmen became known as Dolan’s men.

[12] Nathan Augustus Monroe Dudley (1825-1910) began his military career before the American Civil War.  When war broke out, Dudley served as a captain in command of a company of the 10th US Infantry.  During the war he served as aide to Major General Nathan P. Banks, commander of the XIX Corps.  In January 1865, President Lincoln nominated Dudley for advancement to brevet Brigadier General, and his advancement was confirmed by the Senate the following month.  After the war, he reverted to his pre-war permanent rank and resumed his duties with the 3rd US Cavalry.  In time, Dudley served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 9th Cavalry, and Colonel commanding the 1st Cavalry.  Dudley’s part in the Lincoln County War was at least controversial, but at worst despicable and incompetent — no doubt his ineptness brought on by his frequent drunkenness.  As commander at Fort Stanton, Dudley received orders not to interfere in civilian matters, but he disobeyed those orders and threw his command behind the Dolan faction.  In 1879, Susan McSween filed charges against Dudley for his part in the destruction of her home and the death of her husband.  Dudley was acquitted at a subsequent court-martial.

[13] The leader of the Kinney Gang was John Kinney (1847-1919), another army veteran who, in 1873 settled in Dona Ana County, New Mexico.  Kinney’s gang was responsible for acts of robbery and cattle rustling.  Jesse Evans was one of his earliest gang members, along with Pony Diehl whose name was later associated with events in Tombstone, Arizona.  Once Evans had broken away from the gang to form his own, Kinney hired the Evans Gang to help him in the El Paso Salt War.  Kinney was arrested in 1883 for cattle rustling and sentenced to prison.  After his release in 1886, he did not return to crime.  He served in the Army during the Spanish/American War and ran a successful mine in Arizona before retiring.

[14] “The Rustlers” was a gang run by John Henry Selman (1839-1896).  Selman was one of those men who worked on both sides of the law — sheriff or town marshal followed by wanted posters for murder and mayhem.  Many of the Rustlers were former members of the Brady/Peppin posse and the Jesse Evans Gang.  They robbed stores, looted homes, murdered innocent farmers and their families, raped the women, and used children for target practice.  True scum.  But Selman was on the “inside” of New Mexican politics and no charges were ever filed against him or any of his men.  John Selman was the man who murdered John Wesley Hardin in an El Paso saloon.  

Posted in American Indians, American Southwest, Civil War, Corruption, Gunfights and such, History, New Mexico | 3 Comments

Uncle Jim

An account of lawman James Franklin Roberts

One may recall from The Pleasant Valley War that the long-running feud (lasting nearly fifteen years) was anything but pleasant for the folks in Gila County, Arizona.  Right in the middle of this dangerous melee was a man named James Franklin Roberts, whom everyone called “Uncle Jim.”

Roberts would not fit in well with modern society, but he was a man of his times — just what was needed to rid Arizona of thoroughly bad men, most of whom would sooner shoot you as look at you.  And he did this by ruthlessly pursuing bad guys, and then saving the taxpayers the cost of a trial by shooting them (well, some of them) dead. 

James Franklin Roberts

Jim Roberts (1859-1934), although born in Missouri, became one of the earliest Anglos to settle the Arizona Territory.  Some say that his exploits rivaled those of either Virgil or Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.  As with the Earps, not much was known about Uncle Jim Roberts until recently.

In 1887, Roberts raised horses on his ranch near Tonto Creek.  When one of his prized stallions turned up missing, an initial investigation suggested that the animal was liberated by one of the Grahams from over in Pleasant Valley.  Jim Roberts rode over to the Graham ranch and confronted them about the missing horse.  All Jim received in exchange for his trouble was disrespectful laughter.  The incident caused Roberts to side with the Tewksbury clan during the Pleasant Valley War.  According to some, Jim Roberts became “the most dangerous gun” in the entire feud owing to the fact that Roberts ended up killing two of the Graham’s and three of their “hired guns.”

Not long after this confrontation, lawmen arrested Roberts and charged him with murder [Note 1]; Roberts was set free because no one would (or could) testify against him.  Eventually, Roberts sold his ranch and moved to Congress, Arizona — a gold mining center and the location of the Congress Mine [Note 2].  In 1889, Sheriff “Bucky” O’Neill [Note 3] hired Roberts as a deputy and charged him with “cleaning up Congress.”

In 1892, Roberts was elected to serve as a constable in Jerome, Arizona — a copper mining town that, with around 3,000 miners working several mines, was known as a wild and dangerous place.  According to legend, Uncle Jim was unhesitant in pursuing bad men — but he was always fair in his dealings with suspected criminals.  For example, when anyone challenged Roberts with a sidearm, Roberts always gave his opponent the first shot.  Well, not every old west gunman was proficient with his sidearm.  Roberts didn’t have that problem — the man was deadly with a pistol — and while the miscreant was always offered the first shot, he never got a second.

In 1894, a shooting erupted in a Jerome saloon when two men apparently disagreed with the faro dealer about the fairness of the game.  Uncle Jim killed one of the men who resisted arrest; the second man, having reconsidered his options threw up his hands.  Later that year, Roberts was slashed by a knife while attempting to arrest a drunk, but the man was subdued; Roberts’ wound was minor.  Then, after a brawl involving two Mexicans — during which one of them was killed, Roberts tracked the victor to Mingus Mountain, eleven miles south west of Jerome.  Finding the man in an abandoned cabin, Roberts called for the man to surrender.  Full of anger, ruffled pride, and maybe a bad hangover, the Mexican refused.  Gunshots were exchanged.  The Mexican’s hangover went away once Roberts shot him in the head.     

In May 1897, James F. Parker [Note 4], Cornelia Sorata, and former Prescott constable Louis C. Miller broke out of the Yavapai County Jail; in the process, Parker shot and mortally wounded assistant district attorney E. L. Norris.  Parker made his escape on the back of one of Sheriff George Ruffner’s prized horses from a livery across the street from the jail.  Wounded during the escape, Lou Miller eventually returned to his family home in Jerome where Uncle Jim re-arrested him without incident.  Cornelia Sorata (a Mexican charged with attempted murder) was killed during the jailbreak.

Roberts didn’t fit the Hollywood image of an old west lawman.  He didn’t ride the brilliant stallion, nor wear a ten-gallon hat.  He dressed in regular clothes, wore street shoes rather than boots, carried his gun in his trousers pocket, and rode a mule.  It was his calm demeanor that caused folks to begin referring to Roberts as Uncle Jim.  He didn’t speak loudly, just directly … but in matters of law, his deadly stare and quiet tone was enough to give bad hombres a bleak premonition for their immediate future.  The thing about Roberts was that whenever he went in search for a criminal, that fellow’s days were numbered if he resisted arrest.

In one instance, Roberts and his deputy set off in pursuit of three men who, during a card game, ended up killing a fourth man.  Who knows why?  Roberts and his posse of one found the men who had already decided they didn’t want to be arrested, much less appear in court.  Roberts’ deputy was a young, inexperienced lawman who at the moment of the confrontation came down with a severe case of the shakes.  Realizing that he would not be able to rely on his deputy, Uncle Jim reconciled himself with the idea he’d have to take on all three.  He brought these men back to town draped across the backs of their horses.

In 1902, two criminals shot at killed Deputy Charles J. Hawkins and then fled the scene.  Roberts tracked the men to Camp Verde.  When he returned to Jerome, both men were slung over his mule.  It was another closed case.

When Willard Forrester and Earl Nelson arrived in Clarkdale on 20 June 1928, they intended to rob the Arizona State Bank.  The bank was flush with cash from a mine payroll shipment scheduled for the next day.  Forrester and Nelson were part of what remained of the Kimes/Terrill Gang in Oklahoma [Note 5].  The next afternoon, Forrester and Nelson parked their stolen car in front of the bank and went inside.  After herding the manager, tellers, and several patrons into the vault, Forrester and Nelson helped themselves to around $50,000.00.  As the robbers sped off, the bank manager ran to his  desk, took out a shotgun, and fired after the vehicle.

Jim Roberts, who was on foot patrol, heard the shot and ran to the corner of a street intersection — arriving there just as the getaway vehicle drove by.  It might have gone well for Forrester and Nelson had they not irritated Roberts by shooting at him as they drove past.  Roberts, who was just then a bit put off, took out his revolver, took a two-handed stance, and fired at the speeding vehicle.  Willard, who was driving, was shot through the head and the vehicle crashed into a utility pole.  As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, Earl exited the vehicle and fled on foot.  Uncle Jim, who was then 68 years old, chased after Nelson and placed him in custody.

James Franklin Roberts passed away on 8 January 1934 of natural causes.  While making a regular foot patrol in Clarkdale, he suffered a heart attack and died.  He was laid to rest at the Valley View Cemetery in Clarkdale. 


  1. Koch, M.  The Kimes Gang.  Author-House Bloomington, 2005.
  2. Stanley, J.  Arizona Explained: James Parker, Outlaw.  The Republic, 2014. 
  3. Wagoner, J. J.  Arizona Territory 1863-1912: A Political History.  University of Arizona Press, 1970.


[1] Everyone surviving an old west gunfight stood in the dock to answer murder allegations.  Coroners’ inquests or preliminary judicial proceedings usually determined whether the charges would stand for trial. 

[2] Gold was discovered in 1884, but the town’s real growth may have come from the Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix Railroad that passed within three miles of the mine.  The town remained prosperous until the mid-1930s, but little remains of the original townsite today.  Congress, Arizona today is a bedroom community just outside Wickenburg.

[3] William Owen O’Neill (1860-1898) was an Arizona lawman, newspaper editor, miner, politician, and gambler — nicknamed “Bucky” because in gambling, he frequently “bucked the tiger” … played against the odds … in card games.  O’Neill’s father was an immigrant from Ireland around 1850 who settled in Pennsylvania.  O’Neill migrated to Arizona c. 1879, arriving, it is said, on the back of a burro.  Bucky O’Neill was killed during the Spanish/American War while serving as a captain in the Rough Rider’s Regiment.

[4] The story of James Fleming Parker is not unusual in the late 1800s.  He had a tough life, with his mother passing away when he was ten years old and his father committing suicide four years later.  On his own at a young age, he never developed much respect for the law and found himself in jail more than a few times for such things as burglary and borrowing cattle without a permit.  He was particularly upset when an Atlantic & Pacific train killed a couple of his ponies who had wandered onto the tracks and then refused to pay his claim for damages.  So James decided to rob one of their trains, which as it turned out, didn’t work to his advantage.  Still, the people of Yavapai County had some sympathy for Parker up until he killed Norris.  Parker was hanged on 3 June 1898.

[5] The Kimes/Terrill Gang was led by Matthew Kimes and Ray Terrill who were active in robbing banks in prohibition Oklahoma.  All of their robberies were high-profile cases, including the murder of lawmen, to which was added their frequent escapes from jails and prisons.  Gang members reputedly swore a blood-oath to free each other from jail should they ever be captured, or die in the attempt.  To the extent that Roberts knew about this blood-oath is unknown to us.  By 1927, the gang leaders were either in prison or dead, but members of the gang continued to threaten law and order wherever they went.

Posted in American Frontier, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Oklahoma | 7 Comments

Move, Shoot, Communicate

US Mail and the Pony Express

All civilizations share certain characteristics, which include large population centers where economic transactions take place, architecture that house social institutions (government offices, court rooms, religious centers),  where craftsman and artisans produce their masterpieces.  Civilizations also have well-defined divisions of labor and a system of writing and record keeping.  

Human civilizations began to form between 4,000-3,000 BC; it was a gradual process that was only possible when human societies stabilized, when the put down roots, made their farms productive, domesticated animals, and organized their homesteads and villages to guard against foreign depredations.  In time, small villages became towns, and the towns became sophisticated population centers where trade occurred between farmers and villagers, townsmen and passerby’s.  Craftsman produced wondrous things that people soon realized they could use to improve their lives.  There were wheelwrights, blacksmiths, potters, weavers, tanners, and oil merchants — all gainfully employed and able to barter for grain, meat, milk.

Human civilization, as a process, began rather simply and developed into a complex arrangement of societies and institutions, each one a bit different because of culture and folkways.  Some towns, particularly those along well traveled trade routes, grew into well-fortified cities where hundreds of people lived and plied their trade.  The city-states were where one could find the king or the prince, their advisors, administrators, tax collectors, priests, the libraries, and from which the aristocracy communicated with other city states.  One mark of an advanced civilization is its ability to establish and maintain a reliable postal service.  No nation did this better than ancient Rome, which established such a high standard in postal communications no country came close to rivaling it until the middle of the nineteenth century. 

Samuel Adams

Beginning in 1764, a year after the end of the French & Indian Wars, the city of Boston established the first Committee of Correspondence.  Its purpose was to encourage opposition to Great  Britain’s imposition of customs regulations and the homeland’s denial of the right of colonies to establish their own monetary system.  New York followed suit in 1765 in order to keep the other colonies informed for its resistance to the Stamp Act.  In 1773, Virginia’s House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee of correspondence to facilitate inter-colonial communications.  These efforts resulted in the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

In 1772, a new Boston Committee of Correspondence was organized — this time to communicate with Massachusetts towns — an expansion of the opposition’s efforts to keep citizens informed events that affected them directly.  One example of these was the announcement that Massachusetts’s colonial governor and the colony’s judges would no longer be accountable to the legislature.  They would, instead, answer directly to the Crown.  It was after this that more than half of the colony’s towns also formed committees of correspondence. 

Benjamin Franklin

As one might imagine, committees of correspondence exchange letters and notes.  The method of exchange is over the post roads and/or the sea packets.  It would have been possible for individuals to exchange letters through messengers, but it would not have been possible to do this in great volume through personal messengers.  It would not have been possible without the efforts of our old friend, Benjamin Franklin.  In 1737, Mr. Franklin served as Philadelphia’s first postmaster.  In 1753, he became deputy postmaster for British North America and shepherded many much-needed reforms to the American colonial postal system.

Among his many accomplishments in the area of postal affairs, Franklin developed a system of fast-sailing packet ships for transmitting mail to and from Great Britain.  While we may credit Mr. Franklin for his clever intelligence, he was a learned man known to have consulted with antiquity for its history and accomplishments [Note 1].

Benjamin Franklin no doubt read about and understood the postal mechanisms employed long before the Eighteenth Century when the institutions of vast empires were created and held together by rapid and reliable communications.  Among these, perhaps, the Egyptians, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, and most certainly the Roman curses publicus, which in its own time was the most sophisticated of all the ancient communications systems — and in fact remained “the” example, with nothing to rival it until well into the Nineteenth Century  The Romans established mail drops, sorting stations, relay points, and en route protection.

Were it not for this system of rapid communications, none of Rome’s complex military and administrative systems could not have assured the Republic, much less the Empire — and were it not for Benjamin Franklin’s understanding of the importance of rapid communications, we may never have had an American Revolution.

But by the time of the birth of this new nation, people were already communicating with one another through the mail, from seacoast villages westward into the Appalachian settlements.  Families who could write often did, and exchanged letters to keep in touch with family members.    Many of these “letters home” inspired others to embark on westward journeys.

The westward expansion of the Americans simply meant a distention of postal services, strengthening the nation through sacks of letters, packages, business documents, financial instruments and newspapers as cargo on wagons, ships, and riverboats.  The postal service was also a key factor in expanding military control over vast western territories.  The widespread circulation of newspapers accomplished a coordination of state and territorial politicians and helped establish a spirit of nationalism — a sense of belonging to the great American institutions.

The United States Postal Department was created in 1792, as permitted by the Constitution, which empowered the Congress to establish post offices and post roads.  Federal law guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence and offered low-cost access to information.  Postmaster General Gideon Granger developed a “hub and spoke” system mail service, with the city of Washington as the hub and chief sorting center, and spokes (postal roads) going off in many directions.  By 1869, there were 27,000 post offices in the United States.  With the arrival of sophisticated rail systems came the development of Railway Post Offices, where mail was sorted en route in specialized railway cars.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 acted as a magnet to thousands of prospectors, investors, businessmen, and bankers and California went from territory to state within two years.  Close to 400,000 people lived in California by 1860 and there was a demand for a faster method of getting the mail to and from America’s western-most state.  The demand became even greater as war loomed on America’s horizon.  What was needed as a fast mail route to the Pacific Coast, and the men who devised such a system included William Russell [Note 2], Alexander Majors [Note 3], and William Waddell [Note 4].

Russell, Majors, and Waddell were already in the freighting and drayage business [Note 5] when they created the Pony Express Company.  At the peak of operations, Pony Express employed 6,000 men, owned 75,000 oxen, thousands of wagons and warehouses, a sawmill, a meatpacking plant, a bank, and an insurance company. 

By using horses rather than stagecoaches, Pony Express intended to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.  They envisioned the delivery of letters within ten days, which many at the time argued was impossible.  The initial price of Pony Express mailings was $5.00 per ½ ounce, but the price fell to $2.50 and then $1.00 by July 1861.  It was the intent of Pony Express to obtain a government contract — which was never offered.

It took Russell, Majors, and Waddell two months to organize the Pony Express, which they did with 80 riders, 184 way stations, 400 horses, and several hundred support personnel.  Essentially, the way stations were set up about ten miles apart along the Pony Express route.  At each stop, the rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch and personal sidearms with him.

The mail sack or pouch could hold twenty pounds of mail and twenty pounds of additional material.  It took the form of a saddle bag, but was thrown over the saddle and sat upon by the rider.  Because of the weight of the mail pouch, no rider was hired who weighed more than 125 pounds.  Riders were changed every 75-100 miles; they rode day or night, in sun or storm.  The average horse stood 14-hands high (58 inches) and weighed around 900 pounds.

Pony Express riders were paid $100.00 monthly, which is good money when compared to a regular horseman who earned between $0.43 to $1.00 a day. 

The route of the Pony Express extended some 1,900 miles, from St. Joseph, Missouri roughly following the Oregon and California trails to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and then the Mormon Trail (also, Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah, the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada, and then over the Sierra into Sacramento, California.  The route was divided into five sections.  To maintain a rigid schedule, Pony Express established 157 relay stations located from 5 to 25 miles apart (depending on terrain).  At swing stations, riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones; home stations provided room and board for riders in between runs.  Riders averaged 75 miles per day.  In total, there were 190 stations en route, many located inside military forts, but most were either new structures or refurbished from already existing buildings and grounds.

The first westbound Pony Express trip commenced from St. Joseph on 3 April 1860, arriving in Sacramento on 14 April.  The first eastbound Pony Express trip departed Sacramento on 3 April and arrived in St. Joseph on 14 April.  At St. Joseph, the Pony Express mails were placed in the US Mail for delivery further eastward.

In May and June 1860, and Indian uprising among the Paiute tribe disrupted the Pony Express mail service, the one and only instance when the mail did not go through.  During this incident, the station located on the Carson River (near present-day Lake Lahontan) was attacked.  Five men were killed and Indians took the horses and set fire to the station.  Pony Express riders were a particular target for Paiute war parties.  In total, seven stations were burned, and 16 employees lost their lives, 150 horses were stolen or driven off, and the cost to the Pony Express Company was around $75,000 in livestock and real estate. 

Lightweight, but tough

Riding for Pony Express was difficult work; the men used as riders had to be lightweight but tough.  One Pony Express advertisement is said to have read: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen.  Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.  Orphans preferred.”  Writer Mark Twain described the Pony Express rider as, “Usually a little bit of a man.”  Despite their youth and size, the Pony Express Rider became a sort of Western hero.  One of these young riders was a man named William Frederick Cody, who most people remember as Buffalo Bill Cody [Note 6].

Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam is remembered as one of the more brave and most resourceful of the Pony Express riders.  He was born in England in 1840.  After working to construct way stations, Haslam was given the mail run from Lake Tahoe to Buckland’s station near Fort Churchill.  His greatest ride was 120 miles in 8 hours/20 minutes while wounded by an arrow into his jaw.  For all his brave accomplishments, though, Haslam died of a stroke while in deep poverty.  Bill Cody, a friend for many years, paid for Haslam’s tombstone.

Jack Keetley was one of the few riders who lasted as long as the Pony Express company, about 19 months.  Billy Tate, a 14-year old, didn’t last quite as long.  He carried the mail in Nevada near Ruby Valley.  During the Indian uprising, Billy was chased by a band of Paiute on horseback and was forced into the hills, where, behind rocks, he killed seven of his pursuers before being killed by the Indians.  When his body was discovered, it was riddled with arrows — but as a demonstration of respect, the Indians did not scalp him.

During its brief operations, the Pony Express delivered around 35,000 letters.  At the beginning, however, Alexander Majors publicly stated that Pony Express was “just a precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railroad.  Today, the National Pony Express Association is a national nonprofit, volunteer-led organization designed to preserve the original Pony Express trail in partnership with the National Park Service. 


  1. Chapman, A.  The Pony Express: the record of a romantic adventure in business.  Putnam & Sons, 1932.
  2. Fike, R. E. & J. W. Headley.  The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective.  Bureau of Land Management, 1979.
  3. Gallagher, W.  How the Post Office Created America: A History.  Penguin Books, 2017.
  4. Gavin, A. M.  Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America.  Prologue Magazine, 2009.
  5. Leonard, D.  Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service.  Grove Press, 2016.
  6. Rich, W. E.  The History of the United States Post Office to 1829.  Harvard University Press, 1924.
  7. Settle, R. W.  Saddles and Spurs.  University of Nebraska Press, 1955.
  8. Visscher, W. L.  A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express: Or, Blazing the Westward Way.  Rand McNally, 1908.


[1]  Our founding fathers not only researched and studied antiquity, they did so by reading it, understanding it, and translating it to American English from Greek and Latin.  

[2]  William Hepburn Russell (1812-1872) was born in Vermont but moved west to Missouri with his family in the 1820s.  In 1837, Russel helped to organize the Lexington First Addition company with William Waddell.  In 1844, using borrowed money, Russell and James Bullard established a partnership to open a general store.  E. C. McCarty soon joined the enterprise and the firm expanded into shipping goods to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Afterward, Russell became a partner with Waddell, Ramsey & Company.  In 1850, with James Brown and John Jones, Russell entered the military freighting business.  When Brown died in 1850, Waddell took his place and by 1854, Russell, Jones, and Waddell had a well-established military freighting business into New Mexico.

[3]  Alexander Majors (1814-1900) was originally from Kentucky.  In 1848, he was a freight hauler on the overland trail to New Mexico and established a  new time record of 92 days for a 1,564 mile journey round trip.  Eventually, Majors employed 4,000 men and by 1853 he held contracts to haul supplies for the U. S. Army.  He also had a hand in establishing the Kansas City stockyards, which became the national center for shipping beef to east and west coast merchants.  Joining with Russell and Waddell in 1854, Majors assumed responsibility for shipping operations, Waddell ran the office, and Russell used his political connections to gain government contracts.

[4]  William Bradford Waddell (1807-1872) was born in Fauquier County, Virginia and over several years made his way to Kentucky, Illinois, and then St. Louis, Missouri where he clerked for a dry goods store.  In 1837, he joined with Russell in establishing the Lexington First Addition Company, the Lexington Fire and Marine Insurance Company, and the Lexington Female Collegiate Institute.  In 1853, Waddell and Russell formed the wholesale trading firm for hauling freight to Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Union, New Mexico.  Alexander Majors joined this firm in 1855 and was able to secure a contract with the War Department to resupply military forts west of the Missouri River.

[5]  This term originally meant “to transport by sideless cart” … or dray.  Such carts were used to move goods short distances, limited by the capability of the dray horse.  Drayage typically took place at ports, spreading to canal and rail terminals.  We know drayage today as “delivery truck.”

[6]  W. F. Cody (1846-1917) was born in the Iowa Territory, lived for several years in Canada, and settled in the Kansas Territory.  Cody began working after his father died and he was eleven-years old.  At the age of 15, he rode for Pony Express.  Later, during the Indian Wars, Cody served in the Army as a scout.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1872. 

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Old West Communications | 2 Comments

Flying Hay

On 10 November 1827, one-hundred-fifty Indians confronted eighteen Texians in what is presently Wise County, Texas.  Despite being significantly outnumbered, Lieutenant A. B. Benthuysen and his men defeated the Indians, inflicting fifty casualties upon them while suffering ten casualties among his men.  It was called the Battle of the Knobs.  After this demonstration of superior fire power and Texian stubbornness, the Indians withdrew further west and their decision opened Wise County to white settlement. 

Wise County was officially established in 1856, named in honor of Virginia congressman Henry A. Wise, who supported the annexation of Texas by the United States.  There were a few slaveholders in Wise County, but not many — and opinions were mixed about the Civil War.  People favoring the Union were persecuted by secessionists.  A few unionists were lynched, but it could have been worse.  In nearby Cooke County, forty-one men were lynched and two additional men were “shot while trying to escape” by Confederate soldiers.

The seat of Wise County is Decatur.  Fifteen miles south is another Texas town — Aurora.  It isn’t a very large town, as towns in Texas go.  It only occupies an area of about four square miles.  There are less than 900 people living in Aurora.  Besides the incident with Indians in 1827, there is but one additional “claim to fame.”  It is that, according to some, the good citizens of Aurora, Texas witnessed the crash of an extraterrestrial vehicle — in 1897.  

Whether or not true, the “incident” received the attention of the Dallas Morning News.  And, like the incident that occurred in Roswell, New Mexico fifty years later, the alien pilot was killed and interred in a local cemetery.  A tombstone was placed on the alien’s grave, but it has since been removed to help prevent the theft of the pilot’s remains — people like to collect things.  Before burial, a U. S. Army Signal Corps officer inspected the body and proclaimed it was “not of this world.”  The good news is that the alien was given a Christian burial.  The bad news is that the cemetery refused to allow any further examination of the alien’s remains.  So, there. 

In an interesting discussion of this incident in 2011, writer David Moye made a few interesting observations about the Aurora incident.  The first is that two reasonably well-educated individuals give credence to the claim that there have been more than a hundred “UFO” sightings between 1840 and 1900.  Noe Torres is a librarian in South Texas; John LeMay is a archivist in Roswell, New Mexico.

John LeMay, commenting on the Dallas Morning News article, points to the fact that the newspaper referred to the alien remains in Aurora as a “Martian.”  LeMay says this is understandable because, at the time, most people believed that if there was life in outer space, Mars would be the most likely place for it.

Mr. Torres claims that not only were there hundreds of sightings between 1840 and 1900, but they were reported in the Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, New York Times, and San Francisco Call.  But most interesting to Torres and LeMay is the manner in which these sightings were described.  Before air travel, before helium balloons, people had no frame of reference to aeronautical craft.  So what people reported seeing was flying serpents, metallic balloons, and a huge bale of hay on fire going through the air.  LeMay concludes that the descriptions may sound silly, but they also give the sightings credibility.  How else should a simple farmer describe a spaceship?

One final notation, which is also interesting.  Newspaper journalists in the 19th Century reported what witnesses told them — and did so without trying to make the witness seem as if he (or she) was three bubbles off plumb.  The witnesses were given respect and some appreciation for reporting what they saw — what they did not understand.

Cowboys and Aliens?  Perhaps the story is true, but maybe not.  It is a curious story though.

Posted in American Southwest, History, Texas, Very Strange | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Oklahoma Badlands

Oklahoma State Flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



  1. 1.Patterson, R. M.  Train Robbery: The Birth, Flowering, and Decline of a Notorious Western Enterprise.  Boulder: Johnson Press, 1981.
  2. 2. Patterson, R. M.  Historical Atlas of the Outlaw West.  Boulder: Johnson Press, 1985.
  3. 3. Scales, J. R.  Oklahoma Politics: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
  4. 4.Shirley, G.  West of Hell’s Fringe: Crime, Criminals, and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
  5. 5. Shirley, G.  Temple Houston: Lawyer with a Gun.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

California Indians — Part IV

The Modoc War

When the Commissioner of Indian Affairs failed to respond to Alfred Meacham’s request, Meacham took it upon himself to petition General Edward Canby[i], Commanding General of the Department of the Columbia, to move Captain Jack’s band to the Yainax Ranch area on the Klamath Reservation — his recommended site for Modoc use.  Canby forwarded Meacham’s recommendation to Lieutenant General John McAllister Schofield[ii], Commanding General of the Pacific — adding that the Army pursue peaceful negations before resorting to force.  While these steps proceeded, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs replaced Meacham with T. B. Odeneal, a man who knew almost nothing about the Modoc situation, but who was nevertheless charged with getting the Modoc out of Lost River.

On 3 April 1872, Major Elmer Otis held council with Captain Jack at the Lost River Gap (near present-day Olene, Oregon).  Otis advised Captain Jack that some of the settlers had complained about Modoc raiding parties; Jack argued that part of the problem was that the Modoc were being accused of behaviors perpetrated by other Indians.  Otis was unable to resolve this issue, but nevertheless determined to remove Captain Jack and his band to the Klamath Reservation.  At the time, Otis had insufficient forces needed to remove the Modoc; he recommended to his superiors that the army wait until later in the year when he could place the Modoc at a numerical disadvantage.

On 12 April, Odeneal received orders to move Captain Jack — if practicable, and ensure that the Modoc were protected from the Klamath tribe.  Within a month, Odeneal dispatched Ivan D. Applegate and L. S. Dyar to arrange a council with Captain Jack.  Jack refused to meet, however, and this prompted the Commissioner to order Odeneal to move Captain with the minimum force necessary.  In this process, there were a few minor skirmishes.  Captain Jack, feeling mistreated, grew angry.

On November 27, Superintendent Odeneal requested that the Commanding Officer at Fort Klamath provide sufficient troops to compel Captain Jack’s removal.  The next day, Captain James Jackson led 40 troopers to Lost River.  A militia force reinforced Jackson at Klamath Falls.

Wishing to avoid conflict, Captain Jack agreed to go to the reservation, but the situation became tense when Jackson demanded that the Modoc chief surrender his weapons.  Captain Jack had never fought the Army, so Jackson’s order confused him.  He finally agreed to relinquish his weapons and the Modoc band followed suite.

An argument suddenly developed between a Modoc warrior named Scarface Charley and Lieutenant Frazier A. Boutelle, of company B, 1st Cavalry.  They drew their revolvers and shot at each other, both missing.  The rest of the Modoc scrambled to retrieve their weapons.  A brief fire fight developed before the Modoc fled toward California.  After driving the remaining Modoc from the camp, Captain Jackson ordered a retreat to await reinforcements.  In the scramble for weapons, one soldier was killed and seven wounded.  Captain Jack’s band lost two killed and three wounded.  On 29 November a Modoc warrior named Hooker Jim led some number of men to the Lava Beds, south of Tule Lake.  On 29-30 November, 1872, Hooker Jim attacked and killed 18 white settlers.

Following this incident, Captain Jack and his band fortified themselves at the lava beds, and with the exception of a few hunting expeditions, remained there.  On 21 December, one of Captain Jack’s scouting parties assaulted a U. S. Army ammunition resupply wagon at Land’s Ranch.  By mid-January, the Army had 400 troopers in the field near the Lava Beds.

Then, after a small skirmish with the Modoc near Hospital Rock on 16 January 1873, the Army advanced on the stronghold at the Lava Beds on 17 January.  The Modoc occupied excellent positions and repulsed the troopers time and again.  Army losses included 35 dead troopers, 5 officers and 20 enlisted men wounded.  They were facing 52 well-positioned warriors.

On 25 January, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a peace commission to negotiate with Captain Jack.  General Canby served as counselor to the commission.  Its first meeting was held on 19 February at Fairchild’s Ranch (west of the Lava Beds).  A messenger was dispatched to arrange the meeting with Captain Jack, who agreed to the meeting so long as settlers John Fairchild and Bob Whittle would speak with him.  When he met with Fairchild and Whittle, he told them that he would meet with the commission if Judge Elijah Steele also participated at the meeting.  Steele had been friendly with Captain Jack in the past.

Judge Steele attended Captain Jack at the stronghold.  The next morning, Steele returned to Fairchild’s ranch and warned the peace commission that the Modoc planned treachery.  Meacham telegrammed the Interior Secretary and informed him of Steele’s suspicions.  The Secretary ordered Meacham to proceed — and added Judge A. M. Rosborough to the commission’s membership.

On 1 April, Colonel Alvin C. Gillem was placed in overall command of troops.  He established his camp at the edge of the Lava Beds.  Captain Jack met with the commission on the next day at a location midway between the stronghold and Gillem’s camp.  Captain Jack and the commission exchanged several proposals, but there was no resolution on the first day.  It was then that the Modoc turned on Captain Jack.  He wanted a peaceful solution — but believing that if the Americans lost their leaders, Hooker Jim and his group pressured Jack to kill the peace commissioners.  The proposition was that either Captain Jack step down as Modoc chief, or comply with the will of most of his band.  Jack agreed attack the commission.

Captain Jack

Captain Jack met with Meacham for several hours on 5 April.  Again, there was no resolution, but  Modoc interpreter Toby Riddle learned of the plan to kill the American commission.  She duly warned the commission of the plot.  Another meeting was schedule for 8 April.  Forewarned of the assault, army scouts concealed themselves to observe Modoc behavior.  When the observers noted twenty or more armed Modoc laying in wait, and signaled this information to Gillem’s camp, the commissioners cancelled the meeting — but asked Captain Jack to meet with them on 11 April.

Despite all advance warnings, General Canby and others met with Captain Jack as scheduled.  At a pre-arranged signal, three Modoc Indians ran forward from the hiding places, killed Canby, mortally wounded Reverend Thomas, and wounded Meacham.  Two others of the commission escaped.  The United States could not allow such atrocity go unpunished.  Colonel Gillem organized a general assault of the stronghold on 15 April.  During the night of 15-16 April, Gillem’s troops cut off the Modoc water supply.  By the 17th Colonel Gillem was positioned for a final attack.  By this time, the Modoc realized that their water supply had been cut off, they left the stronghold through a passage unknown to the army.  Thus far in the fight, the army lost one officer and six troopers killed, thirteen wounded.  Two young Modoc boys were killed while playing with unexploded ordnance.

On 26 April, Captain Evan Thomas commanded 71 men who were detailed to perform a reconnaissance of the Lava Beds to locate Modoc warriors.  Twenty-two Modoc led by Scarface Charley attacked Thomas at around noon.  Surprised, some of Thomas’ men fled in disorder.  Others, remaining behind to fight, were killed or wounded.  Five officers and 13 enlisted men died; one officer and 16 men were wounded.  Afterward, Gillem’s troops demanded that he step down from command.  Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis relieved Gillem and assumed command of all operational troops.

Another fight took place on 10 May at Dry Lake when Modoc attacked the army camp.  Aggressive troopers counter-attacked.  Five troopers were killed, along with 5 Modoc, and the Modoc were thwarted.  Dissent among the Modoc split their force.  In exchange for amnesty, Hooker Jim and his group surrendered to the army and agreed to help capture Captain  Jack.  Jack’s capture, along with his wife and daughter, occurred on 4 June.  A month later, the army delivered Captain Jack and his band (as POWs) to Fort Klamath for trial.  Captain Jack and five others received death sentences.  President Grant approved the penalty on 10 September, commuting two of the death penalty cases to life imprisonment.  Captain Jack and two others were hanged on 3 October 1873 at Fort Klamath.

The remainder of Captain Jack’s band (39 men, 64 women, 60 children) were consigned to the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma.  One long-term consequence of the Modoc War was that the American people lost confidence in President Grant’s Indian peace policy; thereafter, there was little sympathy for the plight of American Indians — no matter where they lived.


There can be no question that the arrival of Europeans in California had a devastating impact on California Indians.  It was a clash of Stone Age people with overwhelming numbers of modern human groups who possessed superior technologies.  That the California Indians became the victim of European encroachments may not now matter beyond learning the lessons of history.  The past cannot be changed, undone, or adequately compensated.

Spanish explorers and conquerors viewed native populations as a source of labor in furtherance of Spain’s dominion in the Americas.  The Spanish treated American natives no differently than they did the indigenous people of other regions of the world.  The Spanish system was one of conquest, domination, assimilation, and exploitation. 

Not every American Indian group was as easy to conquer as the California tribes, however.  After 1821, Mexico’s treatment of California Indians was similar in many respects to the Indian policies of New Spain (less the Mission System).  Neither was the United States’ treatment of California Indians any long-term benefit to California Indians after 1848.  Despite the sympathies of some Americans with the plight of California Indians, a greater number of Americans preferred extermination to coexistence.

Generally, with some exception, when compared to the Plains Indians, one can argue that native Californians were peaceful.  More specifically, however, this conclusion is at best ambiguous and at worst, simply not true.  There may have been no large-scale warfare among California tribes (as existed in most other areas of North America), but there are numerous examples of continual violence among Indian tribes within California.  Tribal conflicts were both inter-tribal and external lasting for hundreds of years.  Every tribe had a traditional enemy.  The essential cause of California tribal warfare was economic competition and revenge.  What makes the California Indians different from the Plains Indians, excepting the Mohave and Yuma Indians, was that most California tribes didn’t glorify warfare — but they certainly did engage in it.  It was both frequent and bloody.

Some examples of tribal warfare in California include the Northern Paiute against the Atsugewi, Shasta warred with Achomawi, Modoc battled Shasta, and some of these conflicts involved several tribes at the same time.

Considering all we know of native populations in California and the events surrounding Spanish, Mexican, and American dominion over them, there has never been much interest, by Indian or European, of creating or maintaining peaceful relationships.  History teaches us that in all human interactions, the winner of every cultural contest is not only the one that possesses a more sophisticated technology, but also the one that is willing to use it to their advantage. And the winner gets to write the history books.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.


[i] Edward Canby (1817-1873) graduated from the USMA Class of 1839 served in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War, and served as the US Custodian of Spanish and Mexican Records in California.  He later served in the Utah Territory during the Utah War, Commanded the Department of New Mexico, the Military Division of Western Mississippi, commanded Union forces against Mobile, Alabama, served as Governor of Louisiana, commanded the Department of Washington, the military district of North and South Carolina, the Military District of Texas, and as Commander, Pacific Northwest.  His assassination enraged the American people and set them firmly against making peace with native Americans.

[ii] John Schofield (1831-1906) graduated from the USMA Class of 1853 with service in the Civil War which included several high-ranking postings.  Under President Johnson’s administration, Schofield served as a special emissary to France, commanded the military district of Virginia, Secretary of War, and Commander, Department of Missouri.  As Commander, Military District of the Pacific, Schofield first proposed the establishment of a naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Commanding General of the US Army. 

Posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War | 2 Comments

California Indians — Part III

Oppressive California

California government soon became an instrument of Indian oppression.  In Governor John McDougall’s first address to the California legislature, he promised “… a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”  Ignoring the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War, California denied Indians citizenship, voting rights, and the right to give testimony in courts of law.  Despite California’s admission to the Union as a “free state,” the Indians had no right of redress, and therefore, no protection under the laws of the state of California.

California’s legislature quickly enacted a series of laws that legalized Indian slavery and indenture similarly imposed by Mexico before 1850.  There can be no greater heartbreak than the wanton murder of an Indian child’s parents so that he or she could be enslaved.  Once indentured, a child was thus “property” until reaching the age of 30 (males) or 25 (females).  This law was not repealed until President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863.

In 1854, the federal government appointed Edward F. Beale to serve as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California.  With a budget of $250,000 Beale proceeded to create an Indian preserve in the San Joaquin Valley, chosen because its proximity to livestock raiding by Southern California Indians.  Three tribes were relocated on this area’s 50,000 acres of barren land.  Despite the vast allocation of funds in modern dollars, Beale managed to relocate 200 Indians at San Sebastian.  Within ten years, Edward Beale owned title to most of the Indian set-asides.  Beale became the standard for American Indian Agents for well over fifty years.

Throughout the 19th Century, California Indians struggled to survive.  They were starving.  Many crossed over into the white world by finding jobs on white-owned ranches and farms.  Episodes of Indian conflict became fewer because there were almost no Indians left alive in California.  Some historians claim that one explanation for the few that did survive was that the Indians turned to a messianic cult movement that became known as the Ghost Dance of the 1870s.  Somewhat associated with the American missionary movement, adherents of the Ghost Dance became pan-tribal.  The movement promised a return of dead loved ones and family members.  At a time of dwindling Indian populations, of deep depression, the movement offered the disaffected greater hope for the future.  Despite lasting only a few years, the Ghost Dance was fundamental in revitalizing intra-tribal religious integration.

Conflict Renewed

In 1861, the United States went to war — with itself.  With most federal troops relocated eastward to participate in the war of attrition, California Indians went on the warpath, beginning in Northwestern California.  Why the northwestern part of the state?  It was there that deeply paranoid and aggressively over-reactive settlers routinely murdered local Indians, burned their villages, and occupied their lands.  White attempts to disarm the Indians met with fierce resistance.  As early as 1858, federal troops captured members of the Wilkut and Chilula tribes and deported them to the Indian Reservation at Mendocino.  Indian resistance to forced relocation seemed to justify the murder of peaceful, non-threatening Indians by local militia.

Certain members of the Hupa Tribe agreed to assist these militia in hunting down their hostile neighbors, but despite their cooperation and participation in suppressing Indian resistance, they too were rounded up and confined to the Hupa Indian Reservation in 1864.

California and federal officials greatly underestimated the number of surviving California Indians, so that when they made plans to arrest and remove all remaining California Indians to reservations, the Indians overwhelmed them.

There were several causes for the violence that began in the late 1850s.  Indians fortunate enough to have been assigned to reservations in their aboriginal territories were reluctant to share scant advantages with newly arrived (outsider) Indians.  When officials relocated “foreign” Indians to the Round Valley Reservation, violence among them was the result.  Each tribe’s creation story emphasized the sacred nature of its own particular landscape and Indian tradition emphasized territorially; to stray from ancestral lands required one to steal food resources from neighboring tribes.  Whites simply could not fathom the intensity and depth of the Indians’ spiritual attachment to their territories.

In 1859, white settlers attacked and massacred 70 (plus) Achomawi Indians, sixty of whom were women and children.  Known as the Pitt River Massacre, the squatters later justified this mass murder by claiming that they feared the Indians would steal their food.  For their part, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no interest in protecting the Indians or demanding justice on their behalf. 

Modoc and Klamath Indians share a common language and the Modoc Plateau.  Neighboring tribes included Shasta, Rogue River, Northern Paiute, Karuk, and Yurok Indians.  The Modoc homeland was located in the lower Klamath Lake region.  The Modoc’s first European contacts came after the opening of the Applegate Trail; many events of the Modoc War took place along the Applegate.  Beginning in 1847, Modoc warriors frequently attacked white emigrants for encroaching on their territory.  In 1852, such an encroachment resulted in the complete destruction of the offending wagon train; there was only one survivor.  His report of the attack set off a series of revenge killings on both sides. 

In 1864, Klamath and Modoc Indians made a treaty with the United States government.  The treaty required the Indians to cede traditional lands; in return, the U. S. promised an initial lump-sum payment and additional annual payments over fifteen years.  The US also promised to provide a reservation, stipulating that members from other tribes could be placed on the reservation, as well — but agreed to limit the reservation’s population to around 2,000 and no more than three tribes.

The land on the US reservation failed to provide sufficient food for both the Klamath and Modoc people.  Illness and tension between the two tribes escalated.  The Modoc requested a separate reservation, one closer to their ancestral home, but neither the federal or California government’s approved.  As a consequence, a Modoc warrior named Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack)[i] twice led his people off the reservations.  He was twice captured and returned against his will.  In 1872, Captain Jack left the reservation for a third time.  Violence and mass murder was the order of the day surrounding the Modoc War of 1872.  The Modoc finally refused to allow themselves deported to Oregon.

To survive the hardships foisted upon them by outsiders, the Indians had to become innovative and adaptable to change.  Those who accomplished this survived; those who would not, or could not change, perished.  One adaptation was the manner in which they chose their leaders, and this may have been the result of not being able to access their traditional lands, the sacred places revered for so many thousands of years.  Another factor was that under President U. S. Grant, Christian missionaries took over the responsibility for managing Indian reservations[ii].  These were men who were determined to destroy Indian culture through forced assimilation programs — some of which remained in place well into the 20th Century.    Given these circumstances, it should be no surprise that Indian leaders, such as Captain Jack, decided to take matters into his own hands.  In 1870, Captain Jack led a band of 200 Indians away from the reservation and returned to their traditional land at Lost River.  When they arrived, they discovered that a number of white settlers had taken over these lands.  Indian Agent Alfred B. Meacham recommended to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C. that Captain Jack’s Modoc be allowed exclusive reservation land.  Meacham recommended that Jack remain at Clear Lake in Oregon until the Commissioner made his decision — but the settlers in Oregon complained that Modoc were raiding their homesteads.  Of course, the allegations were true.  The Modoc did raid for food (and hunted) to feed their families because the government’s food allotments were insufficient.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.


[i] Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack) (1837-1873) was Chief of the Modoc Tribe in California and Oregon.  He was the first and (to my knowledge) the only Indian ever charged with and executed for “war crimes”.  The federal government executed Captain Jack’s three companions for murder.

[ii] See also, U. S. Grant and the Quaker Peace Policy.

(Continued next week)

Posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War | 3 Comments

California Indians — Part II

The Republic of Mexico

In 1823, the flag of the Republic of Mexico replaced that of Nuevo España.  In all likelihood, none of the California Indians noticed the change.  In Mexico City, however, major changes were underway, not the least of which was the resentment of the Catholic Church’s monopoly of Indian land and unpaid Indian labor.  While it is true that New Spain officials never made any land grants to favored citizens, they did issue grazing permits and concessions to Spanish settlers.  Mexican officials, in realizing that 16% of the entire territory of California was under Church control, decided to correct this problem.  Before 1821, legal title to this land belonged to the Spanish Crown — afterward, it belonged to the Mexican Republic.

The Spanish Crown only intended the Catholic missions to exist for ten years.  After ten years, the developed estates were supposed to be distributed to surviving mission Indians.  The Indians, in turn, were expected to become hardworking, taxpaying citizens.  But that isn’t what happened.  Missionaries continually made excuses about why it was important that the padres retain dominion over the California Indians and their lands.  With the Mexican Constitution of 1824, all Indians became citizens of Mexico; on paper they had the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to hold title to their land.  The stark reality, however, is that nothing changed for the Indians; Mexico continued to treat them as slaves.

Mission Santa Barbara

Between 1824 — 1834, the Republic of Mexico issued land grants to fifty-one citizens.  That is, land grants to people other than the Indians, who remained incarcerated in mission labor camps.  The grants did little more than increase the lust Mexicans had for Indian land.  As the colonial population increased, so too did the hunger for land by their offspring.  The number of voices demanding that missionaries relinquish their monopoly grew louder by the year.  It was past the time to free the Indians, they said.  Their voices, however, were more apparent than their sincerity.  The power of this Californian land-owning class prevailed between 1834-1836 when the Mexican legislature revoked the power of Franciscans to extract labor from the Indians and developed their so-called land reform initiatives.  The land reforms, however, simply redistributed Indian land to the Mexican land-owning class.  Moreover, the secularization process, as it was called, was so restrictive that few surviving Indians could qualify for land eligibility.  The reason for this was that most surviving Indians were from inland areas, rather than the coastal regions where most missions were located.  When finally liberated, California Indians returned to their native homes and territories.

 When the Indians returned to their native lands, what they found was devastation.  The decline of tribal populations had crippled the ability of Indian communities from farming.  Spain’s introduction of new animals (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs) had destroyed native flora, the primary source of Indian diet.  Additionally, imported animals had driven natural wildlife (deer, elk, antelope), upon which the Indians depended for meat.  Our picture, then, is of an Indian broken in body and spirit, returning home to find nothing that would sustain him or his family.  There should be no surprise to learn that these former slaves and fugitives soon turned to guerilla warfare to seize food and protect themselves against Mexican military or paramilitary assaults and slave-hunting raids.  Eventually, a significant number of these groups merged to form new tribal arrangements through which they could reassert their sovereignty, and push back against Mexican ranchers and military outposts.

Operating on the basis of “business as usual,” Mexican authorities authorized an additional 762 land grants before 1847.  When these guerrilla bands learned that they could provide American and Canadian trappers with stolen horses, their raiding activities increased dramatically.  How significant were these raiding activities?  By the mid-1830s, Mexican land holders began abandoning their land grants because Indian stock-raiding parties drove them out of the ranching business.  Famed mill owner Johann A. Sutter even petitioned the Mexican government for protection, and when that failed to materialize, he asked the Mexican government to purchase his mill.

Despite this new Indian organization, whites from Mexico, Canada, and the United States descended upon the Indians, reducing their numbers further between 1833-1848.  When the whites weren’t raiding Indian villages and murdering women and children, they were bringing other gifts.  In 1833, they brought malaria.  One explorer noted, “From the head of the Sacramento River to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin, we did not see more than six or eight live Indians.  We did find large numbers of their skulls and dead bodies under almost every shade tree near the water where uninhabited villages were transformed to graveyards.  The malaria epidemic is believed to have killed 20,000 central valley Indians; 2,000 died in 1837 alone.

Mexican forced labor and violence at the hands of the military and paramilitary slave-hunting parties account for a significant amount of human population decline.  On the eve of the United States’ takeover of California, 310,000 Indians had been reduced to an estimated 150,000 — in only 77 years.  It was a very bad situation, but it would become even worse.

The United States Invades

Fremont Assaults California

To say that Mexico neglected California would be a gross understatement.  It didn’t take long for Indian guerilla bands to overwhelm Mexican officials.  The arrival of U. S. military forces in California in 1846 didn’t have much trouble with the Mexicans, either.  Despite irrational and wholly unjustifiable U. S. Army raids on Sacramento River Indian villages, a majority of California Indians sided with the United States against Mexico and served them as scouts and wranglers.  When Mexican California collapsed in January 1847, a succession of U. S. military governors assumed responsibility for managing Indian affairs.  The first idiotic thing these governors did was appoint Indian-slavers Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Johann A. Sutter as Indian Agents.  Guerilla groups reacted almost immediately by increasing their raids against the white-eyes.  U. S. officials reacted by imposing oppressive restrictions on the free movement of natives.  For instance, the military government required Indians to carry certificates of employment on their person.

Conditions became worse after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.  If the whites seized Indian land in epic proportion before 1849, dispossession and murderous behavior increased ten-fold afterwards.  For example, Indian agent Johann Sutter attempted to negotiate a three-year lease for land surrounding Sutter’s Mill with the Coloma Nisenan Tribe.  The tribal chief did not understand Sutter’s interest in gold and gave him a grave warning: gold was very bad medicine; it belonged to a demon who devoured all who searched for it.  Fortunately, the military governor refused to approve Sutter’s lease arrangement.

By 1850, more than 100,000 gold-seekers descended on California like locusts — an event that overwhelmed the few American officials available to deal with them.  California civilian and military officials faced desertion on an unprecedented scale.  There was no law —or order.  Terror reigned in the dozens of mining camps, and mayhem spilled over into adjacent Indian villages.  One Indian witness observed, “We feared these invaders and as gold excitement advanced, tribal elders moved the village further and further away, each time in more haste.  Indian mothers blackened their children’s faces so that no one would steal them.”  The Indians feared vigilante groups such as the Humboldt Home Guard, who (among others) terrorized them.  Hubert Howe Bancroft noted, “The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability.  It can, however, boast a hundred or two as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers …”

The handiwork of vigilante death squads, combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians between 1849-1851, which amounted to the staggering loss of 2/3 of the California Indian population.  In 1852, the remaining 70,000 Indians teetered on the brink of extinction.  Despite these overwhelming odds, the Indians would not go quietly into the night.  In 1850, one tribal chief by the name of Antonio Garra organized San Diego area Indians to resist an illegal tax imposed upon them by the county sheriff.  Sporadic attacks led by Garra on Mexicans and Americans led to a crackdown on Indian communities.  A rival chief captured Garra and turned him over to the authorities, who promptly hung him.  A year later, several Miwok bands in the mountains resisted miners who attempted to overrun their territory.  One trading post was destroyed and the owner’s twelve Indian wives released back to their families.  In retribution, whites of an organization called the Mariposa Battalion conducted a ruthless campaign against the Yosemite Indians.  Their chief, a man named Tenaya was promptly exiled to an “Indian Farm.”

Raids on Indian villages had but two purposes: gain Indian land and provide political capital for ambitious office-seekers.  Federal and state officials agreed to reimburse these vigilante groups for their expenses.  The story of the California Indian us a story of wanton murder on a scale unequaled in all of the United States’ Indian wars.

And then came the treaties

In 1849, Washington officials dispatched two “special emissaries” to California to report on the nature of Mexico’s recognition of Indian land titles.  Neither official spoke to a single Indian; they eventually produced an ambiguous and wholly inaccurate report that did absolutely nothing for California Indians.  But Washington had to do something about deteriorating conditions in California and settled on the appointment of three officials whose duty it was to make treaties with the Indians.  It must have been a euphemistic expression because what these officials were actually doing was extinguishing Indian land claims while forcing them on to federal/state reservations.

Not long after their arrival in San Francisco in January of 1851, and only then becoming aware of the vast size of California, the commissioners decided to split up and negotiate treaties independently.  By this time, all California Indians were suspicious of the white men who claimed they were looking after the Indian’s interests.  Few Indians were interested in attending any of these meetings.  Those who did attend the meetings were only vaguely aware of the meeting’s purpose.  Part of this problem was the unavailability of Indian language translators.  Those with a rudimentary understanding of the Indian language had to first translate into Spanish, and then to English.  Few Indians understood English — fewer still were interested in what these men had to say.

Despite these crippling drawbacks, the treaty process continued through 5 January 1852.  In all, eighteen treaties were negotiated.  The treaties agreed to set aside certain tracts of land for the signatory tribes and promised the help of farmers, school teachers, and blacksmiths.  The also promised livestock, seeds, agricultural implements, and cloth.  In return, all the California Indians had to do was give up their land and relocate to other areas, where the white men told them to go.  Of the 18 treaties signed, the names of these tribes were unidentifiable — because they didn’t actually exist.  The worst part of this was that while only a small number of Indians were willing to make these treaties, the treaty provisions applied to all California Indian groups, whether they agreed to them or not.

When these treaties became public, the pioneering public was outraged, egged on by local newspapers and local politicians.  What if, for example, these Indian lands contained gold?  What then?  Most American settlers simply wanted the Indian problem to go away — as in removed to another state, but extermination would be okay, too.  On 8 July 1852, in executive session, the U. S. Senate refused to ratify the treaties. While this was going on, Congress created a commission to validate land titles in California.  The law required that the commission inform the Indians that it would be necessary for them to file claims for their land; the commission would then investigate the claims and make recommendations whether or not to accept them.  This was part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.  No one informed the Indians of any of this, of course, so California Indians never filed any claims.  It was a neat trick and its result completely dispossessed California Indians of their ancestral lands.  The only place where any of this could go was toward violence.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.

(Continued next week)

Posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

California Indians — Part I

Part of the problem we have understanding the indigenous people of the present-day United States is the reality that, “Native” Americans weren’t native to the Americas.  It’s more than semantics, but to avoid nitpicking, it might be fair to say that the Indians were “first” to arrive in the Americas.  It was a migration of Stone Age people, which simply means that they relied on stone implements to ensure their survival.  It was a very long migration cycle, perhaps lasting one or two thousand years.  They may have had significant genetic similarities, whether the first or last to arrive in North America, but they were also ethnically and culturally diverse.  They may not have shared a common language, for example.  After their arrival, as they split off and migrated further into North America, ethnic and cultural differences increased even more.

In the United States, such terms as American Indian Tribe, Native American Tribe, Alaskan Native Village, tribal nation, or other similar concept, is any extant or historical clan, tribe, band, nation, or any other group or community that can trace their origins to the First People migration, 20-25,000 years ago.  We often associate them with land or territory that they traditionally inhabited.  Today, the term tribe has become a convenient administrative category of a wide range of First People groups, also known as “Federally recognized Indian tribes” which have specific meanings under United States law.  We should, in all fairness, realize that Indian groupings are much more than that.

Anthropologists and archeologists tell us that the settlement of the Americas began when Paleolithic hunter-gatherer groups entered North America from the North Asian Mammoth steppe across a land bridge we today call Beringia.  Beringia formed between northeastern Siberia and western Alaska at a time when sea levels were low during the glacial maximum period.  As they arrived, their primary concern was food, so they located sources of nourishment and followed these sources over their natural (often seasonal) migration patterns.  In this way, the Asian groups filtered into the continent, spread out in different directions.  Some of these migrated eastward, others south.  Around 14,000 years ago, they began settling in present-day South America — all this time, making adaptations to their environment, an important factor in explaining who they are today.  Perhaps the Asian’s “onward” migrations took place because areas of the western continent region were already occupied by earlier arrivals.

The Californians

Native American Habitations in CA

Scientists believe that Indian cultures in California have existed for 20,000 years.  Over time, the First People of California evolved into 500 ethnic groups of various sizes.  Some of these groups had no more than fifty people — others as many as five-hundred.  What makes the California Indians interesting is that they inhabited similar climatic and ecological zones, and so despite the large number of Indian groups we can identify as uniquely Californian, they have remarkable similarities in their technological evolution — the materials used to create tools, homes, storage containers, for example. Their hunting, trapping, and fishing implements were also similar.  The size of Indian groups was directly related to the availability of fresh water and food sources.  What made them distinct from one another was how they adapted to California’s several environments.

Today, scientists distinguish California Indians by their region of habitation.  How we refer to these people today may have no relevance to who they are, according to their own language — so I see no value in alluding to them by names that may have no relevance to the Indians themselves; suffice to say that the California government classifies them by regions, and this makes perfect sense. We all know who the Plains Indians were even if we can’t memorize dozens of hard-to-pronounce names that they called themselves.

Northwest California Indians inhabited a rainforest environment.  All settlements existed along or near rivers, lagoons, and coastal bays.  Their dugout canoes were ideal for this environment.  They could manufacture such boats because of the magnificent trees that were available to them.  Similarly, redwood and cedar woods were used in the construction of their homes.  Natural phenomena shaped their religious beliefs.  The men who ruled these settlements or villages were the most-wealthy among them: those who claimed the most land or fishing areas, had the most food, and/or possessed the most goods. The notion that Indians never owned the land is pure poppycock.

There are two divisions of the Northeast Indians: those living on the western side of this region lived in mountainous areas.  They relied on acorns and salmon as their chief sources of food.  On the eastern side, the Indians survived in a high desert environment where they relied on grass seeds, tuber berries, rabbit, and deer.  They were independent from one another, but interconnected through trade and intermarriage.  Even before the arrival of Europeans, Indian populations increased or decreased because of disease and virulent illnesses.

Central California is a vast territory with many Indian groupings, from coastal to mountain areas.  Food was plentiful — deer, elk, antelope as examples, large animals that required sophisticated tools to kill them and process them for food.  They tended to live in semi-subterranean roundhouses, which sheltered them comfortably in winter or summer.  Interestingly, many of the Central Californian Indian’s rituals were quite similar — but the villages were fiercely independent and self-governed.  Some of these villages sustained upward of one-thousand people; they were large enough to develop craft specialists, producing goods that could be bartered within the settlement.  Family groups in smaller settlements produced all that was needed to sustain the family group.

Southern California groups were also unique.  It was the place where the northern groups migrated to, where they found a highly disparate landmass and climate.  These Indian groups maintained vibrant trade relationships, bartering sea based resources to animal and faunal resources found further inland.  Villages varied from poor desert communities to sophisticated and well-populated settlements.

The foregoing summary tells us about California Indians before the Spanish arrived.  What the Spanish learned from their late 17th Century experiences in Central and South America they took with them to Alta California.  The Franciscans determined that it would be better to establish their missions as independent entities from Spanish colonial leaders.  It would be the ‘soft side’ of conquest and it began in 1769 with Franciscan Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola.  Serra would be instrumental in establishing twenty-one Catholic missions in California.

What Happened

Bridgeman Art Library

The foregoing term soft conquest of the California Indians was the de facto purpose of Franciscan missions.  They were coercive religious labor camps designed to benefit Spanish colonizers.  The plan was carefully contrived: the military would first intimidate the Indians (the bad guy routine) and when the Spanish settlers introduced domesticated animals, which consumed Indian food sources, which made the Indians dependent on food sources managed by the missions, the Franciscans would, with sympathetic understanding, convince the Indians that they could achieve a better existence in the afterlife as devoted Catholic converts (the good guy routine).  Romantic portraits of the missionary system, as painted by revisionist historians, is pure fiction.

It was a through this well-established pattern of bribes and intimidation (and the Indian’s amazement that Europeans were immune to the diseases that killed off their people in the thousands) that convinced the frightened Indians to seek the protection of Catholic missionaries.  

Spanish authorities allotted ten years to the Franciscans for the conversion of these heathens to Catholicism.  Afterward, the Franciscans were to surrender control of all mission assets (livestock, fields, orchards, and buildings) to Indian control.  Franciscan missionaries ignored this law, which ultimately resulted in the wholesale theft of Indian land and wealth.  Still, the most effective factor in achieving control over the Indians was the introduction of pandemic disease and illness.

For tens of thousands of years, the First People evolved in isolation, without any exposure to the horrific diseases that had plagued Europeans for centuries.  They had their own variation of illnesses, of course, but among the European diseases, none was more virulent or deadly to native populations than smallpox — but syphilis, diphtheria, chickenpox, and measles took their toll as well.

When the Spanish arrived in California, they brought more than disease to the Indians; they brought also unhygienic practices that produced water-borne bacteria.  Indian populations, such as those in the present-day Santa Clara Valley, were devastated — and among the Indians, the children were most susceptible.  Measles alone killed thousands, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara — a consequence of the missionary practice of forcibly separating children from the parents at the age of six years, and forcing these children to live in filthy communicable barracks.  It didn’t help the Indian’s ability to resist these diseases when the missionaries literally worked them to exhaustion.

But the final nail in the Indian’s coffin occurred when native people lost faith in their village or tribal shamans to relieve them of their suffering and they were beset with severe psychological depression.  By the early 1800s, California Indian populations had declined by sixty percent.

The Indians Fight Back

If one wanted to characterize the life of an average California Indian in the year 1800, it would include unrelenting demand for labor, forced separation from their children, never-ending threats of physical coercion, and despair.

At first, Indian resistance took the form of surreptitiously maintaining their traditional religious beliefs.  Outwardly, the Indians became adherents to Catholicism; but they prayed to their traditional deities, and conducted native dances and religious rituals in secret.  And they ran away.  Thousands of the estimated 82,000 converts deserted the missions, but no more than one in every twenty-four actually escaped mission labor camps.

To the Indians, the Franciscan padres were powerful witches; the only way to stop them was through assassination.  In 1801, Indians poisoned three padres (one of them died).  In 1805, one Indian of the Yokut tribe attempted to stone a padre to death.  In 1812, one padre brazenly informed “his Indians” that he intended to punish them with a new instrument of torture.  He was promptly killed.

There were also more than a few armed revolts.  Indians in San Diego organized two major attacks against the missionaries and their military escorts within five weeks of their arrival in 1769.  In 1775, San Diego Indians destroyed Mission San Diego and killed the padre to stop him from sexually assaulting members of their community.  Two missions were destroyed along the Colorado River in 1781, killing four padres in the process and permanently disrupting the Spanish overland route from Mexico into Southern California.

The last great mission Indian revolt occurred in 1824 at Mission Santa Barbara.  Disenchanted Chumash Indians fought a pitched battle against Spanish soldiers, violently overthrew the mission, sacked it, and set it afire.  Around this same time, a number of guerrilla bands developed.  Mounted on horses and utilizing modern weapons, guerrilla bands began raiding mission livestock and assaulting Spanish colonial military forces.

Increasing native hostility was enough to persuade the Mexican Republic to strip the padres of their power over native Americans; afterward, the Spanish mission system throughout Mexico collapsed.  By 1824, around 100,000 (nearly a third) of the California Indian population had died — and yet, despite these circumstances, tribal groups maintained their identities and cohesion.  The missions became a mixture of Indians from different tribes, speaking their own languages, following their own traditions, and ignoring other Indians.  One thing they shared in common was their steadfast refusal to learn the Spanish language, which caused the Spaniards/Mexicans to appoint labor overseers who spoke the native tongue.  These overseers helped the Indians to maintain their distinct cultural identity.  Another factor was that the Indian groups refused to live in mixed-tribal barracks.

(Continued next week)


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.

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