John Coffee Hays

Jack Hays 004In 1836, a 19-year-old young man by the name of Jack Hays migrated from his home in Tennessee to the Republic of Texas.  He came from a good family, was well-educated, and had influential friends or friends of the family, including one former governor of his home state by the name of Sam Houston.  Jack’s father, Harmon, fought alongside Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston in the War of 1812.

Arriving in Texas, Jack presented himself to General Houston, made his manners, and presented to him a letter of recommendation from his great uncle, Andrew Jackson who was, at the time, serving as President of the United States.  Rachel Jackson was Jack Hays’ great aunt from the Donelson family, and a relative of Jack’s mother.

The well-mannered Jack Hays spoke in an even, measured tone.  He was thoughtful, considerate, and logical.  Houston liked the young man and appointed him to serve with the Texas Rangers, variously referred to as ranging spies and scouts (the term spies being synonymous with scout).  History doesn’t remember much about Jack between 1836-40.  He was apparently in the learning stage of his career.

The Stars have gleamed with a pitying light

On the scene of many a hopeless fight,

On a prairie patch or a haunted wood

Where a little bunch of Rangers stood.

They fought grim odds and knew no fear,

They kept their honor high and clear,

And, facing arrows, guns, and knives,

Gave Texas all they had—their lives.

~W. A. Phelson

Life in Texas demanded uncommon practicality and an uncompromising attitude toward survival.  The entire purpose behind Mexico’s invitation to these migrating Americans was so that they could deal with the problem of hostile Indians, which in the course of the previous three hundred years, Spanish Mexico never resolved [1].  Texas promised but one thing: a hard life.  Initially, if settlers were plagued by Indians with hostile intent, it was up to them to band together and solve the problem —or die.  But small groups were only capable of defending themselves; they were not equipped to address the larger problem of Comanche culture.

When Jack Hays arrived in Texas, the rangers had been in existence for thirteen years, although not as a formal organization and not labeled as Texas Rangers.  They were an irregular force, unpaid, poorly equipped, and their only reason for existing at all was the necessity of defending the colonies.

By 1839, rather than waiting for the horror of an Indian assault in the dead of night or at first light, the Texans had begun to take the fight to the Comanche.  This aggressiveness was a new experience for the Comanche.  Four events in 1839-40 became more than episodical footnotes in Texas history.  They included the discovery of a Mexican plot to unite hostiles against Texas settlements, the fight with Cherokees and their expulsion from Texas, the Council House Fight in San Antonio, and the Battle of Plum Creek.

The Battle of Plum Creek unfolded as a consequence of the Council House Fight in San Antonio [2].  Under the Comanche Moon [3] of August 1840, a band of Comanche warriors and their allies, numbering between 500 and 1,000 Indians, moved south from the Comancheria under the war chief Buffalo Hump of the Penateka Tribe.  Their route of march took them east of San Antonio, near Gonzalez, and struck deep within the Anglo-Texas region above the Nueces.  The Comanche cut a swath of destruction and no white was safe.

On 6 August, Buffalo Hump surrounded the town of Victoria and did something that few Indian war leaders had ever done before: he seized the town.  The citizens of Victoria, hastily thrown together within a span of moments, held but a small section of the town.  Comanches rode howling through the town, killing fifteen people, including slaves.  When they left, they took with them upwards of 2,000 horses [4].  These horses would be the undoing of the Comanche raiders.

When Buffalo Hump was finished with Victoria, he led his marauders to Peach Creek, moving toward the Gulf of Mexico in a great half-moon formation.  Texas militia turned out, but they could only hover on the Indian’s trail and observe them from the flank of the Comanche formation.  Settlers unfortunate enough to find themselves in the Comanche’s path welcomed death after their horrific torture.  The corpse of one man, Parson Joel Ponton, was found with the soles of his feet sliced off, and to make sure he suffered, the Indians dragged him along for miles before they bashed in his head and took his scalp.

The Indians were easy enough to track; all one had to do was follow the burning houses and plumes of dust kicked up by hundreds of Indians.

On 8 August, Buffalo Hump arrived at Linnville, Texas, a small town situated on Lavaca Bay.  People who survived at Linnville did so only because they quickly boarded boats and put out into the Bay.  When Buffalo Hump was finished, Linnville ceased to exist.  Every building was burned to the ground.  Linnville was never rebuilt.

The Comanche’s loot from this sortie was about two-years worth of merchandise consigned to Samuel Maverick and James Robinson.  Three whites and two Negroes were killed.

Retribution for the Council House fight had been obtained and Chief Buffalo Hump was finally sated.  It was time for the war party to return to the Comancheria.  Buffalo Hump had with him between 2,000 and 3,000 horses, mule-loads of loot, dozens of prisoners.  Thus burdened, the Indians could not move quickly back to the high plateau. 

Jack Hays 002As the Indians walked their horses and prisoners back to the West, dusty riders were pounding their horses through the coastal prairie.  Every male who was old enough to carry a gun was turned out from Lavaca, Gonzalez, Victoria, and a hundred widely scattered farms.  The Texans answered the call of their captains: J. J. Tumlinson [5], McCulloch [6], Caldwell [7], and Burleson [8].  Present too was a young ranger by the name of John Coffee Hays. 

Very early in his ranging career, Hays had become friends with an Apache chief named Flacco [9].  In the years of their acquaintance, not once did Jack lead a charge into an enemy formation where Flacco wasn’t at his side.  But Flacco wasn’t Hayes’ only native American ally.  In August 1840, the Tonkawa chief Placido and thirteen of his braves joined with Hays’ rangers in dogging the Comanche war party as they headed for the Big Prairie, just off Plum Creek.  Tracking wasn’t necessary because it was impossible not to see massive plumes of dust into the distance.

Plum Creek runs adjacent to the town of Lockhart, Texas, about 30 miles south of present-day Austin, a branch of the San Marcos River.  When Felix Huston [10] and Colonel Burleson reached Plum Creek, they dismounted their militia and independent rifles and had them conceal themselves within the scrub along the creek near Good’s Crossing.  There, they awaited the arrival of Buffalo Hump.

Once the Indian cavalcade entered the prairie, Huston, Burleson, and Caldwell walked their horses out from their concealed positions, their mounted rifles following in column.  As the two great lines of horsemen converged, the Comanche began to display their impressive skill on horseback—showing off, as it were.  The young Texas were suitably impressed with the Comanche’s skill, but the experienced officers were unimpressed and impatient with the bravado.  Burleson and Caldwell waited for Huston’s order to charge, but he seemed mesmerized by the Comanche show and said nothing.  Burleson and Caldwell knew that the Indians were only trying to delay combat until they had pushed their stolen horses forward.  Burleson finally leaned over to told Huston to give the order, which he promptly did.

Screaming and shooting, the Texans spurred into the Comanche flank, stampeding the herd of horses and the Comanches as well, who floundered while trying to control their mounts, the herd, and the pack animals.  Horses and mules piled up on the boggy stretch and the Indians began to show signs of panic.  At this moment, the Texans rode into and among the Comanche and began firing their .36 caliber Colt six-shooters, methodically killing every Comanche in their path.

Plum Creek wasn’t a battle in the sense of opposing sides in fixed formations; it was more of a running gunfight that lasted fifteen to twenty miles.  At first, once the Comanche settled down and realized it was time to withdraw at the gallop, the Indians easily distanced their pursuers, but they were bearing too much loot and trying to control thousands of horses.  And their prisoners were in the way, as well. 

Early in the confrontation, panicked Comanche bashed their prisoners in the head and left them for dead.  One captive woman was tied to a tree and pierced several times with arrows—only her bone corset saved her.  But the Comanche were cruel to their own in equal measure.  One warrior, angry because his squaw was holding him up, ran her through with a lance and left her there to die.

The combat was up-close, personal, and cruel.  Despite the ferocious reputation of the Comanche, the battle was less that than it was a massacre.  The Texans were angry, dozens of Indians fell mortally wounded from their mounts.  In the end, between 80 and 100 warriors lay dead.  One Texan combatant was killed.  Soon after the battle, owing to his performance at Plum Creek, President Lamar elevated Jack Hays to Captain of Texas Rangers.

In 1842, Hays commanded Texas Rangers against the invasion of Mexican General Adrian Woll.  Hays, handsome and quiet, a gentleman of the purest character, and through his utter fearlessness in the face of grave danger, set an indelible stamp upon the Texas Rangers.  In his own day, Hays’ reputation was such that every young man wanted to emulate him.

Three characteristics stood out.  First, he was self-contained and self-confident.  He was no talker, would not tolerate rudeness in any man, a born partisan who was intensely loyal to Texas and what it stood for.  Second, he was not a great gunman, but a man possessed of unsurpassed leadership, devoid of fear or hesitation, and whose rise to fame came from his own ability.  Third, Hays was a superb psychologist, able to bend friend and foe to his will.  He was the same kind of man as Ben McCulloch, Sam Walker, Leander McNelly, and Big Foot Wallace —good men who became better men under Jack Hays’s influence.

Jack Hays was the first to use the Colt revolver on Plains Indians.  On one occasion, he was jumped on the Pedernales River (present-day Kendall County) by a war party of seventy Comanches.  Serving under Hays were fourteen rangers.  His choices were run and die, or fort up and fight [11] —and this is what the Comanches thought he would do.  Texans could not match the Comanche on horseback, and so when confronted by hostiles, they routinely dismounted their horses and fought a defensive action from the ground, which immediately gave the Indians the advantage.  On this occasion, Hays took a different route.  He and his fourteen mounted rangers attacked the Indians on horseback.  He lost a few rangers but killed 35 to 40 Comanche.  The difference was in the fact that each ranger carried two six-shooters.  The Indians couldn’t compete with the Colt revolver.

Shortly afterward, Hays’s company encountered another superior force of Comanches west of San Antonio, in the Nueces Canyon. The Indians, shrieking and shooting arrows, swept around and surrounded the mounted rangers.  At Hays’s order, the Texans emptied their long rifles, then leaped into the saddle. Hays yelled “Charge!” in his high, clear voice. The Rangers were at close quarters before the startled Indians —who had rarely known white men to do anything but fort up or run— could turn their horses. “Powder-burn them!” Hays screamed

As Texas Rangers rode between the Comanche ranks, they shot the Indians from their horses on both sides.  The Comanches were entirely brave; they turned to stand —only to observe the Rangers coming on, fire-spitting again and again from their fists, striking down milling horsemen on all sides.  The Indians fled, and Hays and his boys pursued them for three miles.  In the end, the demoralized Comanches threw aside their useless shields, lances, and bows.  Leaning low over their horses, the hostiles raced away in routed flight.  The Comanche war chief stated later that he lost half his people, and that wounded warriors died on the trail for a hundred miles to the Devil’s River.  “I will never again fight Jack Hays, who has a shot for every finger on the hand,” the Indian moaned.

Neither Hays or any of his rangers ever tried to downplay the crucial role of the Colt six-shooter in mounted combat. “They are the only weapon which enabled the experienced frontiersmen to defeat the mounted Indian in his own peculiar mode of warfare….” Read one testimonial. 

Colt 1836The six-shooter was important beyond the romanticism and enduring symbolism it produced. A superb horseman in open country, armed with one or more long-barreled Colts, represented the most effective weapon system known to the middle nineteenth century.  In one step, Texas borderers achieved parity with the Plains Indians and a marked superiority over the Mexican cavalry lance and the vaquero’s rope.  They would hold both until the dispersion of an effective, accurate breechloading rifle, which did not appear until the 1870s. The revolver, very simply, meant power in southwest Texas, and long after the power was no longer needed, this symbol is synonymous with Texas today.

Between 1846-48, Hays commanded the First Regiment of Texas Rangers at the Battle of Monterrey, established six companies along the northern and western frontier, and then later commanded the Second Regiment of Texas Rangers in Winfield Scott’s Mexico City campaign.  While fighting under General Joseph Lane, who was defending the American line of communication at Veracruz, Hays defeated a superior force of Mexican cavalry at Galaxara Pass [12] and a guerrilla force at Matamoros, which enabled General Lane to capture the Mexican supply depot.  Once again, Jack Hays was the first to use the Navy Colt Paterson (Paterson being the name of the city in New Jersey where they were produced) five-shot revolver in an armed conflict.  He subsequently dispatched Captain Sam Walker to meet with Samuel Colt, which led to the legendary Colt Walker six-shot revolver.

After the Mexican-American War, Jack Hays married Susan Calvert, a descendant of George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore.  Between 1947-49, they lived quietly in Seguin, Texas.  Upon the birth of their first child, Chief Buffalo Hump sent the Hays family the gift of a golden spoon. 

Jack Hays 003In 1849, Jack Hays received an appointment as an Indian Agent for the Gila River reservation in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona.  In that same year, Hays led a party of Forty-Niners from Texas to California, and upon arrival, the Hays family decided to remain in California.  In 1850, Jack Hays was elected sheriff of San Francisco County, where he served for three years.  In 1853, he was appointed to serve as United States Surveyor-General for California.  He was one of the earliest residents of Oakland, and over several years, amassed a fortune in land speculation, real estate development, and ranching investments.

Civil War came to America in 1861, but John Coffee Hays wanted nothing to do with it [13].  We hear nothing more about Jack Hays until 1876 when he was elected as a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention.  Jack passed away at his home 21 April 1883.


  1. Conger, R. N.  Rangers of Texas.  Waco: Texian Press, 1969
  2. Greer, J.K.  Colonel Jack Hayes: Texas Frontier Leader and California Builder.  New York: Dutton, 1952
  3. Webb, W. P.  The Texas Rangers.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982 (Reprint)
  4. Wilkins, F.  The Highly Irregular Irregulars: Texas Rangers in the Mexican War.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1990


  1. The reason Spanish Mexico had so many problems with the Comanche is that the Comanche held the Spaniards in utter contempt.  In the early days of Anglo-Texas, the Comanche, having no experience with them, treated the Texians with caution and friendliness.
  2. On 9 January 1840, three Comanche chiefs and their entourage rode into San Antonio where they sought a conference with Texas Ranger Henry W. Karnes.  They stated their desire to negotiate peace with the Texans.  For an account of this event, see Of Conflict and Sorrow. 
  3. Comanche moon refers to that stage of the lunar cycle when the brightness of the moon enabled Comanche warriors to travel at night, a tactic of stealth that enabled them to travel great distances undetected.
  4. To the Comanche, horses were as valuable as gold was to the white man.
  5. John Jackson Tumlinson, Jr. (1804-53) served as a captain of Texas Rangers in DeWitt Colony.  When in 1823 his father was killed by Indians, John and his brother Joseph led a handful of settlers to track down and kill the guilty parties.
  6. Ben McCulloch (1811-62) was a Texas Ranger, United States Marshal, and a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.  He traveled to Texas with his brother Henry in the company of David Crockett, who was a neighbor in Tennessee.  Ben served as a first lieutenant and second in command to John Coffee Hays.  During the Battle of Plum Creek, McCulloch distinguished himself as a scout and commander of the right-wing of the Texas Army.
  7. Mathew Caldwell (1798-1842) (nicknamed “Old Paint” on account of his whiskers appearing spotted) was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, a soldier in the Texas Army, a captain of Texas Rangers from Goliad, a captain of infantry in the Texas first regiment, and led a company of mounted rifles at Plum Creek.  Caldwell had been wounded at the Council House Fight. 
  8. Edward Burleson (1798-1851) served in the War of 1812, migrated to Texas in 1830, served as a lieutenant colonel of infantry under Stephen F. Austin, was appointed as Brigadier General of Volunteers to replace Austin in command of the Texas Army,  In 1836 he commanded the first regiment at the Battle of San Jacinto; at Plum Creek, he commanded a militia company of mounted rifles.
  9. Two Lipan Apache war chiefs were named Flacco: Flacco the Elder, and Flacco the Younger.  Flacco the Younger became the friend and scouting companion of Jack Hays.  Flacco the Younger was murdered by Mexican bandits while herding horses south of San Antonio in the winter of 1842.
  10. Huston (1800-57) was an attorney, adventurer, and a brigadier of the Texas Army.  Huston arrived at Plum Creek on the evening of 11 August and took command of all gathering troops.  Most people viewed Huston as a peacock; great to look at but deficient in matters of courage and military efficiency.
  11. The last mistake any Texan ever made with the Comanche was to try and run from him.
  12. With 35 Texas Rangers, Hays assaulted and defeated a Mexican cavalry force of 150 men.
  13. Jack’s brother Harry served the Confederacy as a Brigadier General with responsibilities in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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The Chisholm Trail

Who do we associate most with the Chisholm Trail?  John S. Chisum?  John Wayne?  We’ve allowed ourselves to become a bit confused about this period of history and I think it’s time we sorted it out.

Here we go.

The first film I remember seeing that mentioned the Chisholm Trail was titled Red River (1948), whose list of Hollywood Stars was by itself significant: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Noah Beery, and Shelly Winters.  Two authentic Indian chiefs also had roles in the film.  The film did quite well at the box office.

In 1970, Wayne starred in another film titled simply Chisum.  It was another block buster with a good cast: Forrest Tucker, Christopher George, Ben Johnson, and Richard Jaeckel.  There was almost nothing accurate about this western film, but it was loosely based on the events surrounding New Mexico’s Lincoln County War (1878).  It was good entertainment, though, and yet the film did a disservice to actual history given the fact that most Americans today aren’t capable of differentiating between real or revisionist history.

Longhorn 002The Chisholm Trail (which many people pronounce as Chisum Trail) was the major route out of Texas for livestock between 1867-84.  Its significance is that the Texas Longhorn cattle driven north along the trail provided a steady source of income that helped Texas recover from the effects of the Civil War.  The young men who participated in these cattle drives helped to cement the vision most people developed about Texas, the old west, rampaging Indians, back-shooting outlaws, and the Texas Rangers.  The Texas cowhand became a romantic figure among young boys trying to imagine what it was like to live that adventure.

In any case, the Texas economy was effectively in shatters at the end of the Civil War, its only assets being tens of thousands of Longhorn cattle —for which there was no demand.  Kansas and Missouri had closed their borders to Texas cattle in the 1850s because of the deadly Texas fever [1].  Gradually, the demand for cattle increased in the East and this provided the impetus for such men as Joseph G. McCoy in Illinois to supply it.  In 1867, he persuaded officials of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad to install a siding at the small town of Abilene, on the edge of the quarantine area.

Having constructed cow pens and loading facilities at the siding, McCoy sent the word to Texas cattlemen that a cattle market was emerging; come and get it.  In that year (1867), McCoy shipped 35,000 head of cattle to eastern markets.  The number of cattle shipments doubled each year through 1871, when 600,000 cattle managed to gut the market.

Oliver W. WheelerThe first Texas herd to utilize what would become the Chisholm Trail belonged to Colonel Oliver W. Wheeler of San Antonio, Texas (and investors) [2].  Initially, Wheeler planned to winter the cattle on the plains and then trail them to California.  At the North Canadian River, deeply in Indian country, Wheeler’s point riders discovered wagon tracks and followed them.  The tracks were made by Jesse Chisholm.

Chisholm (1805-1868), was the son of Ignatius Chisholm, a Scottish immigrant and Martha Rogers Chisholm, a Cherokee from the area of present-day Polk County, Tennessee.  In the 1820s, he migrated with his mother to Oklahoma during a period when Cherokees voluntarily removed themselves to the western territories.  At age 20, Chisholm joined a gold-seeking party that blazed a trail and explored the region of Wichita, Kansas.  In 1830, he helped establish a trail from Fort Gibson, Oklahoma south to Fort Towson.  In 1834 he became a member of the Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition, the first whites to make contact with the southern plains Indians as representatives of the US government.

Jesse Chisholm

Jesse Chisholm

In 1836, Jesse married Eliza Edwards and they established a homestead near her father’s trading post on the Little River near its confluence with the Canadian River.  In these days, Chisholm made his living trading with the Indians.  As Chisholm was fluent in the Indian tongue, he served as an interpreter between the Republic of Texas and local Indian bands.  He did this for over twenty years (1838-58).  Jesse stayed out of the way during the Civil War, but concerned about becoming targets of both sides who were attempting to exert their control over adjacent territories, he led a band of refugees to the western part of Oklahoma.  It was not an easy decision, and the results were dismal because during the war, Indians withdrew into the western territories as well and trade with them dried up.

After the war, Chisholm settled near Wichita and reestablished his Indian trade.  He built up what had been an Indian and military trail into a road capable of carrying heavy wagons; this trail became known as Chisholm’s Trail (later, The Chisholm Trail).  Jesse passed away in 1868 from food poisoning.

Initially, the trail was simply referred to as “the trail,” “the Kansas Trail,” “The Abilene Trail,” or “McCoy’s Trail.”  Originally, the trail only applied to the pathway north of the Red River, but Texas cowmen soon named it the Chisholm Trail, which included the entire trail from the Rio Grande to central Kansas.  Its first reference as such in print was published in the Kansas Daily Commonwealth in 1870.

The Chisholm Trail was not the first (or best) of cattle trails.  Texas cattle were herded up the Shawnee Trail from around the 1840s.  It’s popularity fell off when Missouri ranchers blocked the passage of Texas Cattle owing to the (then) unknown disease that infected them.  The Shawnee Trail passed through Austin, Waco, and Dallas, crossed the Red River near Preston, veered north along the eastern edge of Oklahoma, into Missouri ending variously at St. Louis, Sedalia, Independence, Westport, and Kansas City.  Many called it simply, “The Texas Road.”

The cattle drives did not follow a clearly defined trail except at river crossings where fording was well established.  The reason for this was that it was necessary in moving cattle to spread them out to find grass.  It was important to keep the cattle as fat as possible en route to rail or market heads.  Beyond this, cattle well fed and watered were unlikely to stampede.  Generally, the stockmen rarely moved their cattle more than ten or twelve miles a day.  After trailing techniques were well established, a trail drive would involve a trail boss, ten cowmen, a cook, and a wrangler (responsible for the horses).  This small number of men could trail a herd of 2,500 cattle for three months.

The Chisholm Trail and demand for cattle after the Civil War led to the so-called cowboy profession.  These were men contracted to move cattle for a rancher or several ranchers.  A few large ranchers delivered their own stock, men such as Captain Richard King (King Ranch) and Abel (Shanghai) Pierce, but the majority of cattle drives were handled by professional drovers.  John T. Lytle and his partners were responsible for diving 600,000 cattle.  George Slaughter & Sons, Snyder Brothers, and the Pryor’s were also professional contractors.  In 1884 alone, Pryor delivered 45,000 head of cattle in fifteen separate trail drives.  

Once the plains Indians were subdued and the buffalo herds decimated, cattle ranches began appearing all across the plains.  Most of these were stocked with Texas Longhorn and manned by Texas stockmen.  Raising cattle on the open range (access to free grass) attracted investors from the East, who formed partnerships with such men as Charles Goodnight.  Ranching syndicates appeared, such as the Scottish Prairie Land and Cattle Company, and Matador Land and Cattle.  Texas attempted to outlaw foreign investors, but failed.  There was simply too much opportunity for profit.  Then, in a reversal, Texas granted the Capital Syndicate of Chicago three-million acres; it became known as the XIT Ranch.  This was a deal that led to the construction of a new capital building in Austin when the original burned to the ground in 1881.

The Chisholm Trail was finally closed by barbed wire, which led to the range and fence cutting wars of the 1880s.  In its time, however, more than five million cattle and horses were moved along the Chisholm trail, setting a livestock migration record in the entire world.  And there was never a Chisum Trail.


  1. Hoig, S.  Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.  Oklahoma Historical Society.
  2. Rossel, J.  The Chisholm Trail.  Kansas Historical Quarterly, Kansas Historical Society, 1936.
  3. Cushman, R. B.  Jesse Chisholm, Trail Blazer: Sam Houston’s Trouble-Shooter and Friend.  Eakin Publishing, 1991.
  4. Skaggs, J.  The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1973.
  5. Worcester, D. E.  The Chisholm Trail.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.


  1. Unknown to Texas cattlemen at the time, the so-called Texas fever was caused by blood-sucking ticks.  This was a fact left undiscovered until the microbiologist Theobald Smith (1859-1934) discovered the causes of several infectious and parasitic diseases between 1888-93.  This discovery and his research led to the later identification of mosquitoes as the primary spreader of malaria and yellow fever.   
  2. Wheeler was born in Connecticut in 1830.  While still a young man, he contracted consumption and left home seeking a better climate for his health.  He came ashore in Panama, where he became infected with a tropical fever (malaria or yellow fever) which weakened him further.  Finally arriving in California, Wheeler engaged in several jobs: prospecting and mining proved too strenuous for him, but mercantile sales and freighting seemed to be a good fit.  Wheeler migrated into the livestock business with sheep, cattle, and horses.  In 1837, Wheeler was 37 years old.  He departed San Antonio with 2,400 head of cattle and 54 cowhands.  The trail took him through Indian country into Kansas and made him the first man to drive cattle through hostile (Indian) territory.  We aren’t sure why he was titled “Colonel.”
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Milt Yarberry

People change their names for all kinds of reasons.  In the old west, it was more likely that a man or woman was running away from something, a result of having something to hide, or possibly as simple as not wanting to be found.  This was the case of John Armstrong, who in time would be known as Milt Yarberry —a thoroughly dangerous gunman.

Armstrong was born and raised in Arkansas.  Around 1860, the Armstrongs became involved in a land dispute of unknown scope, but it must have been quite serious because John killed a man as a result of it.  According to our understanding, the Armstrong family was locally respectable and the incident did little more than bring them shame.  For this reason, John Armstrong left home for another county and, owing to the fact that he was wanted for murder, he changed his name.  A few months passed and John was living in Helena, Arkansas when a confrontation between he and another man resulted in the other fellow’s murder.  We have no facts of this second murder, only the rumor that has followed Armstrong’s reputation.  In any case, we know that he fled again, and changed his name.

Calling himself Milt Yarberry, he joined up with the outlaw Dirty Dave Rudabaugh [1] and Mysterious Dave Mather.  In 1870, Mather was working as a laborer and was boarding with a cousin.  The pay must not have been enough, because between 1870-73, Rudabaugh, Yarberry, and Mather committed several robberies operating mostly out of Missouri and Arkansas.  When the three men were implicated in the murder of a prominent rancher in Sharp County, they split up and took flight.  For his part, Mather went back to Connecticut and signed on as an able seaman, eventually making his way to New Orleans.  Rudabaugh went to South Dakota where he found robbing stagecoaches lucrative and suitable for his hitherto demonstrated skill set.  Yarberry settled in Texarkana, on the Arkansas side.  When a bounty hunter appeared in town, asking questions about John Armstrong, Yarberry killed him.  A bounty of $200 was offered for the arrest of John Armstrong (a.k.a. Milt Yarberry).

Yarberry fled to Texas and, as many men before him, enlisted in the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers.  After mustering in, he was assigned to Jack County [2] and, although he didn’t remain with the rangers for very long, he served  honorably and earned a good reputation for toughness and fidelity.

Bounty Hunter Generic

If someone was looking for a bounty hunter, he might look something like this.

In 1876, Yarberry was in Decatur, Texas (in Wise County), living under the name John Johnson.  Partnering with a man named Bob Jones, he opened a saloon.  All might have been well had a second bounty-hunter not shown up asking questions around town looking for a fellow wanted for murder in Sharp County, Arkansas.  Yarberry quickly sold his half of the saloon to Jones and left town.  A few days later, the bounty-hunter’s body was discovered a few miles out of town riddled with holes from a .44 caliber handgun.

For the next few years, Yarberry kept on the move.  In 1877, he was in Dodge City, Kansas; a year later, in Canon City, Colorado.  In Colorado, he established a partnership with Tony Preston and established a saloon and variety house.  Eddie Foy [3]  performed at the variety house.  In an interview several years later, Foy said that Yarberry was a good violinist, but somewhat negligent in paying his debts.  When Eddie Foy and Jim Thompson had completed their engagement, which had lasted several weeks, Yarberry and Preston were unable to settle the account.  This prompted Thompson to steal a barrel of whiskey and considered the matter closed.  What surprised Foy is that Thompson had the guts to go up against Milt Yarberry.

On 6 March 1879, as a result of some disagreement between Tony Preston and a local barkeep, a man who actually worked in two saloons, the barman entered Preston’s saloon and shot him.  Preston was seriously wounded and Yarberry joined the posse to pursue the shooter.  The man eluded them, but he turned himself in to the town marshal the next day.  He explained the he only ran away because he was afraid of being lynched.  Either his story was pure gas, or Preston was locally popular in Canon City.  In May, when Preston was well enough to travel, he and his wife Sadie packed up and moved to San Marcial, New Mexico.  Some writers suggest that Yarberry’s saloon was a brothel, which is entirely plausible given the reputation of Las Vegas at that time.

Eventually, Yarberry sold his share of the business to Steamboat and moved to San Marcial, New Mexico where he rejoined Tony Preston.  Preston was still recovering from his wounds.  Within a month or so, Yarberry departed San Marcial, and took with him Sadie Preston and her four year old daughter. 

NM Marshal BadgeYarberry and Sadie arrived in Albuquerque, where Milt befriended county sheriff Perfecto Armijo.  With Armijo’s support, Yarberry obtained an appointment as Town Marshal, the city’s first lawman.  He apparently was needed because in 1880, Albuquerque was plagued with gun violence.  Within a short time, Yarberry confronted two separate gunmen and , as both men resisted arrest, Yarberry killed them both.

In January 1881, a man named Harry A. Brown drifted into town.  He was a self-proclaimed gunman without fear or common sense.  Earlier, in 1876, Brown had participated in thwarting an attempted robbery by Dave Rudabaugh and others near Kinsley, Kansas.  Although he was never known to have shot anyone, he bragged about having killed several men.  This may have been typical of drifters in the old west, particularly those with drinking problems.  His drink shortened his temper and he was known for pulling his gun with little provocation. 

Albuquerque 1880

Albuquerque NM 1880

Brown and Sadie became acquainted, under circumstances that aren’t entirely clear, but by February the two were romantically involved.  On the night of 27 March, Brown and Sadie were having dinner at Gerard’s Restaurant.  Up until this day, Yarberry was not aware that the two were involved.  Sadie had left her daughter at home in Milt’s care while she “took her love to town.”  John Clark, a coach driver, had taken the couple to the restaurant and was the only eye-witness to what then transpired.

Brown and Sadie entered the restaurant and were seated.  Shortly after, Yarberry appeared walking up the street holding the hand of Sadie’s daughter.  Someone mentioned to Brown that Yarberry was coming down the street, so Brown walked out the doorway to Gerard’s.  Yarberry walked past Brown with the little girl in tow, took her to her mother, and then a moment later, walked back outside.  He spoke a few words to Brown and Brown became irate.  

Brown accompanied Yarberry to a nearby vacant lot, still speaking in loud voices, Brown saying that he wasn’t afraid of Yarberry.  Before they reached the vacant property, Sadie appeared in the doorway to Gerard’s and called out to Brown.  Brown immediately hit Yarberry in the face while drawing his weapon and firing.  The bullet grazed Yarberry’s hand.  Yarberry then drew his weapon and fired two quick rounds into Brown’s chest, which effectively ended Brown’s career as a gunman.

Sheriff Armijo took Yarberry into custody and held him for an inquest.  Several witnesses testified that they heard Brown say on more than one occasion that he intended to kill Yarberry, others testified that Brown had drawn his weapon first.  The inquest cleared Yarberry on the grounds of self-defense, but some citizens complained and demanded a grand jury to hear the evidence.  A grand jury convened in May 1881.  Yarberry’s attorney, S. M. Barnes, Esq., introduced a parade of witnesses on Yarberry’s behalf and the charge of murder was dismissed. 

Milt Yarberry

Marshal Yarberry

On 18 June, Yarberry was sitting on the porch of his friend’s home, Elwood Maden, conversing with gambler Monte Frank Boyd.  As they were talking, a shot was heard coming from the direction of the Greenleaf Restaurant.  Yarberry and Boyd ran to see what was going on.  The next few moments were confusing and witness accounts were inconsistent.  Apparently, Yarberry asked a bystander if he knew who had fired the shot.  They man pointed toward a man who was walking away from the restaurant and Yarberry called for him to wait; Yarberry wanted to have a few words with him.  Within mere seconds, three shots were fired, and Charles D. Campbell lay dead on the street.

Sheriff Armijo arrested both Yarberry and Boyd.  Yarberry claimed that Campbell, who was not known to him, had turned toward him with a gun, and so he fired in self-defense.  One of Campbell’s bullet wounds was in his back, but Yarberry explained that it must have happened when, having been shot, Campbell’s body turned after being shot in the chest.  Campbell was armed, but no one could verify Yarberry’s story, that when Campbell turned around, his gun was already drawn.  Still, as before, Yarberry and Boyd were cleared at a preliminary inquiry. 

Lionel Sheldon

Governor Sheldon

Once again, some citizens complained that Yarberry was being “let off.”  Boyd took his leave of Albuquerque and headed west, toward Arizona [4].  Yarberry was again taken into custody and held for trial.  A grand jury indicted him in the murder of Campbell.  New Mexico’s governor, Lionel Sheldon [5], having only recently assumed office, was reconciled to stop the killing in New Mexico.  It was the time of the Lincoln County War and a fellow named William F. Bonney was running amok.  Sheldon intended to make an example of Yarberry.  The territorial attorney general, William Breedon, prosecuted the case.  Yarberry was represented by Jose Francisco Chavez and John H. Knaebel.  During the trial, Thomas A. Parks, an attorney from Platt City, Nebraska, testified that he saw the entire event.  He saw no gun in Campbell’s hand.  It was damning testimony.

Yarberry, in defense, pointed out that Campbell’s gun had been fired, and that Campbell had fired it at least once at him.  No one could testify for Yarberry, but no one, save Parks, could refute his testimony.  Yarberry also testified that he had fired only once, hitting Campbell in the chest, adding that the only reason he had shot Campbell was because Campbell had fired at him first.

The trial lasted three days.  Yarberry was convicted of murder and was sentenced to hang.  While awaiting execution, on 9 September 1882, Yarberry and three other men escaped from the Santa Fe jail.  New Mexico authorities placed a $500 bounty for his recapture.  The other escapees were quickly recaptured, but Yarberry was more elusive.  Santa Fe County Sheriff Romulo Martinez organized a posse and the manhunt had begun.  On 12 September, Santa Fe Police Chief Frank Chavez captured Yarberry twenty-eight miles outside of town.

Gallows 001

The steps to eternity.

In February 1883, Yarberry’s appeal was denied.  Knaebel filed additional appeals with the federal government,  insisting that his client was innocent, but his efforts proved to no avail.  In his final interview, a journalist observed that he looked pale, to which Milt Yarberry replied, “Maybe.  But I ain’t sick, and I ain’t scared, neither.”

On 9 February, under guard provided at the order of Governor Sheldon, the so-called Governor’s Rifles, Yarberry was marched to the gallows.  His friend, Sheriff Armijo was tasked with pulling the lever to the trap door, through which Milt Yarberry/John Armstrong fell.  Around 1,500 people attended Yarberry’s hanging.  His last words were, “Gentlemen, you are hanging an innocent man.”

Long after Yarberry’s death, his supporters, which included Sheriff Armijo, continued to insist on his innocence.  According to Armijo, the issue wasn’t guilt or innocence.  The issue was that the more affluent members of the community wanted him dead because men like Yarberry impeded commerce inside the town limits.  


  1. New Mexico Historical Society
  2. Nash, J. R.  The Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1994 


  1. See: They Were All Dirty
  2. The county is named in honor of Patrick Churchill Jack and William Houston Jack who served Texas in the Texas revolution.  In 1874-75, Jack County was on the edge of Comanche country.
  3. Eddie Foy (1856-1928) was an actor, comedian, dancer, and vaudevillian.  Vaudeville was a stage performance that included comedy, poetry, songs or ballads, and dancing.  It was popular in the United States from around 1875 to 1930.
  4. Boyd was killed by Navajo Indians the following year.
  5. Sheldon, a former Union (Brevet) Brigadier General, was a carpetbagger who, during reconstruction, served in the US House of Representatives from Louisiana (1869-75) and received an appointment as Territorial Governor of New Mexico in 1881.  In 1886, he moved to Los Angeles, California where he practiced law.  He died in Pasadena, California in 1917.
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The Davis Guards

This article is about the First and Second Battle of Sabine, Texas in 1862 and 1863.

But first, some background 

Join or DieThe United States declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776.  It was a bold move, not simply because the colonists had pulled the tail of the British tiger, but also because not every American colonist supported it.  There were some who were devout loyalists —viewing themselves as more British than American; some who were American and no longer British, and about another third who were apathetic to either cause.  Despite these contrasting sentiments, those who championed independence, who listed their grievances within the Declaration itself, realized that divided colonies could not stand against the might of the British Empire.

Thus motivated, and having made their declaration, the Continental Congress in 1777 developed a confederation of states.  The colonists called their instrument the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  Despite their urgency and its necessity, the states were fearful of central authority; colonial Americans had suffered under one central authority and were hesitant to create another.  As a demonstration of the uneasiness among state delegates, the instrument wasn’t ratified until 1 March 1781.

The Articles of Confederation provided that the states would remain sovereign and independent entities.  Congress would serve to resolve disputes.  Collectively, the states were named The United States of America —even when the states were far from united.  Authority to make treaties and alliances, create and maintain armed forces, and the right to establish a monetary system rested with the Congress.  Central authority was prohibited from levying taxes and regulating commerce between the states.  In essence —the Articles of Confederation created a completely unworkable relationship among the states because there was no trust between the states, and no trust in the central government [Note 1].  There was at the time little confidence that a republic could serve the interests of a large nation or act in the interests of its citizens.

Unbeknownst to these early founders, their concerns would carry forward, past the development and acceptance of the United States Constitution (ratified on 21 June 1788).  In 1798-99, Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence) and James Madison (Father of the Constitution) developed the doctrine of nullification (arguments as set forth in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions), which opposed the Federal Alien and Sedition Acts [Note 2].  Written anonymously [Note 3], Jefferson’s primary argument was that the national government was a compact between the states and that any exercise of undelegated authority by the central government was invalid and unlawful.  The states, he argued, had the right to decide when their powers had been infringed upon by the central government, and it was their right to determine the mode of redress of their grievances.  Virginia and Kentucky thus declared the Alien and Sedition Acts “null and void.”  Madison’s argument, somewhat more restrained, argued that the authority to determine the validity of federal law must rest with state legislatures.

The issue of nullification became a crisis in 1832-33 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson when South Carolina declared that the Tariffs of 1828-32 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of the state.  South Carolina (and its citizens) had been adversely affected by the economic downturn in the 1820s and claimed that their economic woes were the direct result of tariffs imposed following the War of 1812.  The tariffs were designed to protect northern industrialists from European competition.  The “Tariff of Abominations” was enacted during the presidency of John Quincy Adams in 1828.  Of concern to southern states, the tariffs were unfair to agrarian states who suffered most from their effects.

The election of Andrew Jackson gave southern states hope that these tariffs would be reduced.  They were not.  President Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun (a son of South Carolina) were split on this issue.  Calhoun was at the time the most able proponent of Nullification Theory and was so set against the tariffs that he resigned the vice presidency over his objection to Andrew Jackson’s recalcitrance.  Eventually, Jackson did reduce the tariff of 1832 but not enough to satisfy South Carolina.  At a state convention in February 1833, South Carolina’s legislature adopted the Ordnance of Nullification and to back it up, initiated military preparations to resist federal enforcement.  A month later, Congress authorized the president to use military force in South Carolina, but a new negotiated tariff (1833) was found acceptable to South Carolina and the crisis was averted.

The issue of the right of states to nullify federal edicts (and of secession from the union) was once more asserted by opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 [Note 4].

US-CSA Flags 001Among the (several) causes of the American Civil War, historians frequently cite slavery, territorial expansion, states’ rights, sectionalism, protectionism, nationalism, and the election of Abraham Lincoln.  These were, of course, important issues that demanded resolution —but what caused the American Civil War was the unwillingness of men to find solutions.  I believe that thoughtful men will examine the events leading to Civil War and conclude that powerful men in the North wanted war more than they did solutions and worked hard to achieve it.

Foremost among the issues leading to war was, in my view, the right of states to govern themselves pursuant to the United States Constitution, specifically:  The Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Bill of Rights): The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people; Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery as an abomination to a nation founded on equality among men, but he was more concerned about maintaining the union.  Even as much as Lincoln abhorred slavery, he did not believe it was an issue that could excuse bloodshed and treason.  Civil War, when it came, was a horror of epic proportions and its effects lasted for over 100 years [Note 5].  Not only was the war devastating in terms of its carnage, or its effects upon the land, but also in terms of the psychology of an entire cultural region of the United States.  Worse still, it was a war easily avoided by reasonable men.  Between 1850-77, the United States had no reasonable men.

The First Battle of Sabine Pass

It wasn’t going all that well for the Confederate States of America in 1863 —for all kinds of reasons.  In a war of attrition, the Northern states had a larger population of men able to fight.  It was a war of resources.  The economies of the southern states were agrarian; the northern states were industrialized, which meant that the northern states had the ability to produce armaments (from rifles to cannons, and from Gatling guns to navy ironclads).  The northern states had a sophisticated network of roads, and interconnecting railway systems.  The southern states had railroads, but only a few.  The northern economy was self-sustaining; the southern economy was heavily dependent upon trade (if not with northern states, then with European countries).  Realizing its advantages, the Union developed a strategy designed to strangle the southern states into submission.

Sabine, Texas is the waterway serving the outlet of Sabine Lake estuary.  It is formed by the confluence of the Neches and Sabine Rivers.  In 1862, the port at Sabine City was connected by a rail spur to the railroad line running from the eastern border of Texas to Houston and Galveston, serving the coastal trade in Texas.  As part of the Union’s strategy to deny southern states access to foreign trade, Texas became the target of riverine blockades.  In September 1862, Rear Admiral David Farragut commanded the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.  Farragut commissioned Frederick Crocker and the steamer USS Kensington to capture Sabine City.  The USS Rachel Seaman was ordered to assist Kensington.  On 23 September, USS Henry Janes (a mortar schooner) joined the operation.  Kensington’s deep draft prohibited negotiation of the shallow waters, so it was decided that Rachel Seaman and Henry Janes would coordinate their attack.

Early in the morning of 24 September 1862, Henry Janes went aground within sight of the fort at Sabine City.  Captain Lewis Pennington ordered a barrage against the port, soon joined by Captain Quincy Hooper, commanding Rachel Seaman.  Gunfire from these two ships (as well as from the fort) fell short of their mark.  Henry Janes was freed from the muck after five hours and maneuvered to within a mile or so of Fort Sabine.  A second barrage began at around 5:30 p.m.

Within the fort, Confederate artillerists numbered 28 men supported by 30 troops of mounted cavalry.  Armed with outdated guns, the Confederates were unable to return effective fire.  The rebels took shelter until the barrage ceased after nightfall.  At that time, Major Josephus S. Irvine, commanding the Confederate artillery, re-emerged to spike his guns and organize an orderly withdrawal.  There were no casualties on either side of this confrontation.

One year later, a second engagement would produce a different result.

The Second Battle of Sabine Pass

France was openly sympathetic to the Confederacy, but typical of the French, it never matched its empathy with diplomatic or military support [Note 6].  After defeating Mexican forces in 1863, Mexican President Benito Juarez escaped his capital and France installed Maximillian as Emperor of Mexico.  After France seized control of Mexico, the Confederates hoped to establish a trade route between Texas and French-Mexico to obtain much needed supplies.  And if that should happen, the Sabine Pass would become a vital link in Confederate resupply.

Responding to anticipated Confederate intentions, President Lincoln sent a joint army-navy expedition to establish a military presence in Texas.  Major General Nathaniel P. Banks exercised overall command.  Banks was a political weenie; great at organizing offices and paperclips, but somewhat inept in command of combat forces.  Initially, Banks wanted to launch his campaign in northwest Louisiana.  This scheme called for the US Navy to send warships from the Mississippi River up the Red River to the point where Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas came together.

New Orleans was captured on 1 May 1862.  After Confederate capitulation of Vicksburg in 1863, the Union exercised absolute control of both east and west banks of the Mississippi River.  Beyond this, shallow water in the Red River prevented Union gunboats from any effective operations there, so the idea of an overland Union invasion of Texas was scraped.

In 1863, General Banks ordered Major General William B. Franklin to enter the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico and defeat the small Confederate detachment at Fort Sabine, located on the river’s west bank —about two miles from the mouth of the river.  The Army’s plan was that after the Navy silenced the fort, an assault group of 200 infantry would force the fort to surrender.  The Union battle plan included 22 ships carrying US Army regular forces: in all, about 5,000 men augmented by a small artillery detachment.  Neither Banks nor Franklin believed that this was an insurmountable challenge —but then, neither of these gentlemen had been introduced to First Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, Confederate States Army, the Texas Davis Guards, commanding at Fort Sabine.

Fort Sabine was renamed Fort Griffin in honor of Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Griffin [Note 7].  The Confederate Detachment at Fort Griffin were the Davis Guards, named in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  The company was manned by mostly Irish American men from Houston and Galveston, recently merged into the First Texas Heavy Artillery.  Their post was a hastily constructed earthwork about one mile upstream (north) of the Southwest bank of the Sabine Pass.  Lieutenant Dowling commanded 47 men and six smoothbore cannon, which Dowling had placed on an elevated platform.  To Union observers, it was an unimpressive sight.  The elevated guns may have given Union officers a dim view of the rebel commander’s expertise as an artilleryman, and while that may be true, Lieutenant Dowling had a clear view to the horizon for many miles.  The flat marshlands stretched to the North toward Port Arthur and Beaumont, northeast into Louisiana, southeast toward to the Gulf of Mexico, southwest toward Galveston, and westward toward Houston.  The nearest observation point afforded the Union force, besides the topmast of a naval ship, was the lighthouse at Sabine Pass at the mouth of the river. 

Clifton-Sachem captured

Capture of Clifton and Sachem

On the afternoon of 8 September 1863, Lieutenant Frederick Crocker [Note 8], US Navy, was in temporary command of the advance squadron of four gunboats.  Crocker was a veteran naval officer, experienced in riverine operations and blockade duty.  His ship was the USS Clifton, a steam-powered side-wheeler.  His squadron consisted of the ironclad vessels USS Granite City, USS Sachem, and USS Arizona.  Seven naval transports were anchored three miles southeast of Fort Griffin, well out of range of the rebel guns.  The transports were carrying most the Army’s landing force troops.  The landing force commander, Major General Franklin was headquartered aboard USS Suffolk.  Outside the sandbar at the mouth of the Sabine, an additional two miles downstream, were a 22-vessel invasion fleet.

The first wave of 500 men aboard Granite City steamed behind Clifton as close as possible but remaining out of range of the rebel guns.  They infantry planned to land in an open space adjacent to and downstream of the fort.  The landing area was wide and muddy.  The rebel garrison had cleared away brush, affording the fort with clear fields of fire for their canister and grapeshot.  The Union army intended to silence the fort’s guns before the main body of the landing force went ashore.  It was the largest amphibious invasion assault force ever assembled on enemy territory in the history of the US military up to that time.

At Beaumont, Texas, Leon Smith [Note 9] ordered all Confederate troops in that city —about 80 men— to board the steamer Roebuck and dispatched them down the river to reinforce Fort Griffin.  Smith and Captain Goode rode to the fort on horseback, reaching Fort Griffin three hours ahead of Roebuck just as Union gunboats came within range of the rebel guns.  Smith and Goode assisted Dowling in the defense of the fort.

Dowling’s men were efficient artillerymen and supremely confident.  The garrison had placed range-stakes in the two narrow and shallow river channels.  The white-painted stakes helped the artillerists determine the range of the fort’s guns.  Gun crews knew how much charge was needed for each type of projectile available, which guns, charges, and loads had the best potential to hit each range-stake.

Conversely, Lieutenant Crocker had only a general knowledge of the river’s channels; there were no river pilots to advise him, and he had no assurances of water depth.  Nevertheless, on Crocker’s order, with Clifton in the lead, Sachem and Arizona advanced up the right channel (Louisiana side) while firing their port-side guns at Fort Griffin.  Crocker’s orders were to delay landing troops until the rebel guns had been silenced.  When Sachem was within Dowling’s range-stakes, the Lieutenant ordered his men to fire for effect.  Clifton and Arizona soon came into range.  Dowling’s fires were deadly accurate.  As a result, the Confederates captured Clifton and Sachem with their 13-heavy cannon and two new Parrott rifles [Note 10].  Two dozen Union men were killed or badly injured; 37 men were declared missing in action.  Dowling’s men captured 315 Union sailors.  The combined Union Army and Naval invasion force withdrew and returned to New Orleans.  The Davis Guards suffered no casualties.

In recognition of Dowling’s victory, the citizens of Houston collected funds to provide a specially struck medal to the Davis Guard.  The only medals awarded to Confederate troops during the war, they were made from Mexican silver pesos, strung from a green ribbon, and presented to the men during a later formal ceremony.

The battles of Sabine Pass were of little tactical or strategic significance to the Civil War.  A Confederate supply line from Mexico to Texas was never established, although Texas did continue to export its cotton through Mexico to European markets.  But, without a formal supply line, the Confederates were forced to rely on the highly dangerous tactic of blockade running against a vastly superior naval force. 

Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Richard William Dowling (1837 – 1867)

Richard William Dowling (1837-1867) was born in County Galway, Ireland, the second of eight children.  In 1845, young Richard was taken by his older sister to New Orleans.  A year after his parent migrated to New Orleans in 1851, yellow fever took both his parents and one of his younger brothers.  Dowling moved to Houston when anti-Irish sentiments in New Orleans made life there untenable.  In Houston, he worked as a saloon keeper, operating two establishments.  In 1857, he married Elizabeth Ann Odlum, the daughter of a Texas congressman.  By 1860, Dowling owned several saloons.  With the rumor of war, Dowling formed a militia company dominated by Irish Americans.  Initially, it was more of a social club than a militia, but the company was mustered into the Confederate Army in 1861 and Dowling was elected First Lieutenant.

Dowling was elevated to hero status after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass; he subsequently served as an army recruiter in Houston.  After the war, Dowling returned to running his saloons and became one of the city’s leading businessmen.  He died in 1867 from another outbreak of yellow fever and was laid to rest at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery in Houston, Texas.


  1. Cothan, E. T.  Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004
  2. Cornell University: The Making of America, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion: Series I, Volume 6: Atlantic Blockading Squadrons (1861)
  3. U. S. Government Printing Office: Crocker, F.  Official Report, Official Record of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Pp. 546.  1921.


  1. Given what we know of our history, the suspicions of these early founders toward central authority was well justified.
  2. Imposed limitation on civil liberty and the growth of an authoritarian central government.
  3. Its authors were not identified until 1823.
  4. Nullification has been asserted in California (1863), by opponents of civil rights legislation (1964-65), and by opponents of federal acts regulating firearms (throughout the twentieth-century, and in the prohibition of the sale and possession of marijuana (2001).
  5. Actually, longer when one considers the damage that Barack Obama did to race relations in the United States (2009-2016).
  6. France learned its lesson when, after supporting the American colonies in their war with Great Britain, the USA reneged on its promise of financial renumeration.  Given the outcome of the American Civil War, France made a wise decision.
  7. Griffin was known for extraordinary courage under fire while commanding the 21st Texas Infantry in East Texas and Louisiana.
  8. Crocker (1821-1911) was an experienced seaman achieving command of a whaling vessel at the age of 24-years.  At age 40, Crocker volunteered for service in the Union navy.  He demonstrated courage and ability in several successful naval engagements on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.  Taken prisoner after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, Crocker was held at Camp Ford near Tyler, Texas for 17 months.
  9. Smith (died 1869) was a volunteer naval officer.  In this capacity, he was named Commander of the Texas Marine Department under General John B. McGruder.  Smith participated in most major conflicts along the Texas coast during the Civil War.  He was described as the most able Confederate naval officer in the Gulf waters.
  10. Muzzle-loaded rifled artillery of various weights.  A 20-pound rifle weighed over 1,800 pounds.
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The McCanles-Hickok Shooting

D C McCanlesDavid Colbert McCanles (the family name was later changed to McCandless) was born in 1828 in North Carolina.  He was the son of James M. McCanles and Rachel Alexander.  It has been said that before moving his family west, he served as the sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina but there is much about David McCanles that we are uncertain about.  We believe that McCanles and his brother James were traveling westward in 1858 intending try their hand at prospecting in Colorado.

In Nebraska, McCanles encountered several disappointed men who had also gone to Colorado expecting to strike it rich, but who were then returning to their homes in the east with nothing to show for their efforts.  Their stories were enough to convince McCanles to change his plans.  He instead purchased the property of Mr. S. C. Glenn, who operated a way station along the west bank of Rock Creek —known simply enough as the Rock Creek Station.

The property wasn’t much to look at, consisting of only a small cabin, a barn, and a small make-shift store.  McCanles continued to operate the station and, noting the difficulty pioneers were having getting across the creek [1], he constructed a toll bridge, which added to his growing wealth.  He also constructed a cabin and dug a well on the east side of Rock Creek, which he named East Ranch.  The following year, McCanles either sold or leased the East Ranch to the Russell, Waddell, and Majors Company (RWM) (a freight and overland stage company [2]), who in turn hired Mr. Horace G. Wellman as their station keeper, and Mr. James W. Brink as their stockman.  If McCanles sold the property to RWM (rather than leasing it), the terms of the sale obligated RWM to make installment payments to McCanles.

J B Hickok 1860

James Butler Hickok c.1859

In 1860, James Butler Hickok worked for Russell, Waddell, and Majors driving a freight wagon between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Hickok found the road blocked by a Cinnamon Bear (related to the Black Bear) and her two cubs.  He dismounted the wagon, approached the bear, and fired a shot into its head.  Unfortunately for Hickok, the round glanced off the bear’s head and it attacked him.  Hickok did manage to kill the bear after a harrowing struggle, but he was badly injured with a crushed chest, broken shoulder, and a mauled and broken arm.  He was bedridden for several months and while recuperating, the company sent him to Rock Creek to work as a stable hand under “Doc” Brink.

McCanles was a known bully who, having taken a dislike to Hickok, regularly harassed him because of his slight (feminine) build and unflattering looks.  McCanles called Hickok “Duck Bill” due to the protruding shape of his face.  McCanles is also known as the leader of a gang of murdering outlaws who are said to have robbed banks, trains, and rustled horses and cattle.  The only evidence we have that McCanles did any of these things is Hickok’s claim (see below).  Beyond this, there is no evidence that McCanles led an outlaw gang or robbed any banks or trains.  It would not have been unusual for a western rancher to help himself to other people’s cattle, particularly in an area settled by German immigrants.

RWM fell behind in their payments to McCanles, prompting him to confront the station master.  On 12 July 1861, McCanles arrived at the station with his 12-year-old son, Monroe, cousin James Woods, and one of his employees named Jim Gordon.  McCanles pounded on the door the cabin and was met by the station master’s wife, Mrs. Wellman.  James Hickok was in the cabin, as well.  Either Wellman was away at the time or refused to meet with McCanles.  In any case, whether by force or invitation, McCanles entered the cabin demanding payment.  Voices were raised, and no doubt threats were made.  Hickok shot McCanles, killing him.  Monroe rushed from the cabin and hid himself in the nearby creek. Hickok stepped outside of the cabin and shot both Woods and Gordon, who like McCanles, were not armed.  Woods and Gordon were wounded, but still alive when “Doc” Brink killed Gordon with a shotgun blast, and Mrs. Wellman finished Woods off by hacking him to death with a garden hoe.

In an 1867 interview for Harper’s Monthly, Hickok later claimed that he single-handedly killed nine desperadoes known as the McCanles Gang.  This particular fairy tale, along with other embellishments made by Hickok, contributed to Hickok’s reputation as a gunfighter.  Hickok’s luck ran out on 2 August 1878 when he was assassinated by Jack McCall while playing cards in Deadwood Gulch, Dakota Territory.


Fifty or so years later, the U. S. Navy awarded David McCanles’ grandson Byron the Navy Cross in recognition of his courage while commanding the USS Caldwell (DD-69) during World War I.  Byron McCandless was also responsible for several inventions, including a heavy tractor, a camera, portable lamps, and a light-projection system.  Byron’s son was Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism and taking command of the cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38) after Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Captain Cassin Young (and their staffs) were killed on the bridge during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  His son, Navy Captain Bruce McCandless II served 13 days in space as an astronaut.


  1. Weiser, K.  Nebraska Legends: Rock Creek Station and the McCanles Massacre.  Legends of America, (2012)
  2. Kelsey, D. M.  Our Pioneer Heroes and Their Daring Deeds.  Kessinger Publishing, (1883)
  3. Arthur, J. P.  A History of Watauga County North Carolina.  Overmountain Press, (1992)


[1] Crossing this or any creek was a tedious process that involved raising heavy wagons off the ground by the use of a hoist, swinging them over the bank of the creek, lowering them down into the creek, pulling the wagon across the creek, and repeating the process to move the wagon out of the creek onto the opposite bank.  McCanles charged from ten to fifty cents, depending on the size and weight of the wagon.

[2] Also founders of the Pony Express Company.

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New Mexico, Part II

(Continued from last week)

American Civil War 

Between 1850 and 1861, the lower portion of the New Mexico Territory was largely neglected by the federal government and the territorial government in Santa Fe.  As a result of this neglect, and with the expectation that the people living in this area would receive better treatment from the government in rebellion, Confederate sympathies were strong.  Seeking to capitalize on these sympathies, rebel forces seized Mesilla and captured federal troops stationed there.  Early in 1862, the Confederacy established the Confederate Arizona Territory, which included the southern portions of present-day New Mexico and Arizona.  Mesilla, situated 45 miles west of El Paso, Texas, became the Confederate Territorial capital.  What the Confederates wanted was access to gold and silver mines in California and Colorado and access to seaports in Southern California.

Opposing military forces were commanded by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, CSA and Colonel Edward Canby, USA.  In February 1862, Sibley managed to push Canby back into Fort Craig at the Battle of Valverde, but in doing so failed to secure Canby’s surrender.  Sibley then by-passed Fort Craig and occupied Santa Fe on 10 March.  While Sibley established his headquarters at Albuquerque, Canby held fast at Fort Craig awaiting reinforcements.

Realizing the value of Glorieta Pass, General Sibley directed Major Charles L. Pyron and 300 Texans to conduct a reconnaissance and, if possible, seize the western side of the pass in order to keep it out of Union hands.  Sibley followed up by dispatching six companies under Colonel Tom Green to block the eastern end of the pass.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass was joined on 26 March.  At that time, Major Pyron commanded the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, four companies of the 5th Texas, nine companies of the 4th Texas, five companies of the 7th Texas, and five field cannon.  Opposing Pyron was Colonel John P. Slough, USA who commanded the 1st Colorado Infantry and elements of the 1st and 3rd US Cavalry Regiments, five companies of the 5th US Infantry, two independent companies, and a handful of New Mexico militia augmented by two artillery batteries.

Union forces overwhelmed Pyron’s picket of fifty men on the western edge of the pass and quickly advanced on the rebel main body.  Well-aimed artillery forced the Yankees back.  Major John M. Chivington, USA was able to flank Pyron’s force, delivering devastating fire into the Confederate force and Pyron was forced to withdraw.  Fighting stopped on 27 March while both sides waited for reinforcements.

By the next day, the Confederate force has grown to 1,100 men and five cannon.  Lieutenant Colonel William Read Scurry assumed overall command.  Thinking that the Union forces would launch another assault, and assuming that Colonel Green would soon arrive at the Union rear, Scurry ordered a static defense.  Colonel Slough also received reinforcements, bringing his strength to around 1,300 men.

Battle of Glorieta Pass

Battle of Glorieta Pass 1862

Union and Confederate forces clashed at Apache Canyon and the trail near Pigeon’s Ranch.  By 3:00 pm, it looked as if the rebel forces were winning the battle since union troops were forced to withdraw to Kozlowski’s Ranch, where they established a defensive perimeter.  Next to arrive on the scene was Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Chaves, commanding the 2nd New Mexico Infantry and volunteer militia.  Chaves’ scouts had located the rebel supply train at Johnson’s Ranch and urged a union assault which ultimately destroyed 80 supply wagons, ran off 500 horses, and took a number of rebel quartermasters as prisoners.  Scurry, no longer able to sustain his assault, was forced to withdraw.  Glorieta Pass was transformed from a likely Confederate victory into a resounding defeat.  The battle became the turning point of the war for control of the New Mexico Territory.  In terms of casualties, both sides experienced around 50 killed, with 80 wounded, although the rebel forces gave up a larger number of prisoners.

In the final analysis, a Confederate stronghold in the American southwest was impractical from a purely logistical point of view, but notwithstanding Scurry’s withdrawal, the Union directed the California Column eastward through New Mexico in the summer of 1862 and these additional forces would have jeopardized any rebel presence in the southern territory. 

Post War Violence

Radicals 001What we know for certain about the impact of the American Civil War is that it set the United States (and its people) on a new course.  Post-war reconstruction created confusion among ordinary people both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Always present in these early post-war days was the Northern middle-class philosophy that a little humiliation was good for the southern soul.  Politically, there were two forces at work in the post-war period: Republican moderates (conservatives) and Republican Radicals.  The former championed for an easy transition back to union; the latter, under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens, demanded such extraordinary punishments that it led General Nathan Bedford Forrest to participate in the creation of the Klu Klux Klan.

Reconstruction accomplished these five things: (1) It dismantled American democracy and abolished governments within the southern states; (2) It divided the American south into five military districts, over which Union military officers had absolute authority.  (3) It required southern states to rewrite their constitutions to reflect Negro suffrage; (4) it ordered southern states to establish new elections that included the Negro vote; and (5) It ordered southern states to approve the Fourteenth Amendment, which then as well as now was clearly in violation of the U. S. Constitution.  Nevertheless, the demand was upheld by the pro-North Supreme Court of the United Stats.

The Civil War ennobled no one, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln.  What it did do was bring inevitable changes to American society.  The South was utterly destroyed, of course, while the North gained in wealth, population, and power.  War manufacturing exploded industrial production, made agriculture productive, and drew to the United States an unprecedented number of immigrants, who quite rapidly replaced the numbers of Union war dead.

Until 1861, the Industrial north had been held in check by the agricultural south.  With this check removed, the industrial states consolidated their gains.  Political power moved steadily toward the federal capital; economic power was centralized in New York through wartime congressional acts.  Businesses and enterprises were rapidly formed that soon transcended the economic power of state governments.  Old America, with large farming accomplished on a small scale, its tiny mercantile and professional elite was submerged by a flood of money and roaring steam.  The new industrialists needed but a few things from government: money obtained from the people to finance the railroads; tariffs to protect investments; centralized control of money, continued immigration to hold native workers in check, and a hard-money policy.

Millions of northern workers suffered from the effects of this new political-industrial-financial machine.  In many respects, people living in the North suffered far worse than those in the South because they had more to lose.  Hard money policy destroyed small farmers by depressing the debtor class, but it did stabilize northern industrialists.  

This disparate distribution of wealth and opportunity led northern cities toward conditions found in London in the early 1800s.  People lived in squalor; jobs went to immigrants, who would work for less money; unemployed men turned to alcoholism and crime.  In the North, an unprincipled, amoral ruling class had the same effect on civil war veterans as did the radicals who controlled the South: people were shoved out of their homes and communities and sent packing into the western wilderness.  Angry dispirited men from north and south made their way to the American west.  Some of these men were extraordinarily dangerous; some of these plagued the good citizens of New Mexico.

The list of old west desperadoes is long, and many of these men came from post-war northern states.  John Hicks Adams, from Illinois; Charlie Anderson, from Indiana; Billy Wilson, from Ohio; Sam Bass, from Indiana; Tulsa Jack Blake, from Kansas; Curly Bill Brocius, from Indiana; Butch Cassidy (Robert L. Parker), from Utah; and Long Hair Jim Courtright, from Illinois —to name a few.  In New Mexico today lay the remains of Thomas E. Ketchum, known as Black Jack and his brother Sam —both from Texas.  Sam was shot and killed by New Mexico lawmen; Black Jack surrendered and was hanged [Note 6].

A frequent reader recently observed that the line between the good and bad in the American southwest was often blurred.  It’s true.  Some of these gunmen worked both sides of the law.  In Frisco (now Reserve), New Mexico, a group of Texas cowboys had been maliciously attacking Mexican communities.  In one incident, they castrated a local resident for no other reason than he was a “Mexican.”  Local Hispanics lived in a state of perpetual fear.

Elfego Baca

Lawman Elfego Baca

Now enters Elfego Baca (1865-1945), who was variously a gunman, sheriff, US Marshal, lawyer, and politician.  Baca was born in Socorro, New Mexico.  At the age of 19, Elfego became the sheriff of Socorro [Note 7].

In 1884, Baca arrested a drunk cowboy named Charlie McCarty in Middle San Francisco (called Frisco) and took him to jail for disorderly behavior.  In an attempt to spring their friend, the cowboys assaulted the jail.  Gunfire followed threats and Baca returned fire.  One of his bullets killed the horse of John Slaughter’s foreman.  The horse fell on the cowboy and killed him.  Another cowboy was shot in the knee, but Baca kept his prisoner.

While the cowboy assault was taking place, Justice of the Peace Ted White ordered Baca to release McCarty.  When Baca refused, White deputized a local rancher by the name of Bert Hearne and ordered him to go to the jail, release McCarty, and arrest Baca for murder.

Deputy Hearne duly presented himself at the jail house and ordered Baca to surrender.  Baca refused.  Hearne broke down the door and shots were exchanged [Note 8].  Hearne, shot in the stomach, soon died, and the standoff with the cowboys continued.

Baca soon found himself resisting between 50-60 armed and highly agitated cowhands.  Later evidence suggested that the cowboys fired 4,000 rounds into the jail house.  If true, then Baca was a fortunate man because none of the bullets found their mark.  Conversely, Baca’s bullets did find twelve cowboys, four of whom were killed with eight more wounded.  After about 36 hours, the battle ended when a local lady persuaded Baca to surrender.  Ultimately, Baca was acquitted of murder when he submitted as evidence the door to the jail, which had 400 bullet holes.

Elfego Baca was subsequently elected as county sheriff.  He is one of those lawmen with a mixed reputation.  While serving as a US envoy to Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, he was accused of aiding in the escape of General Jose Ines Salazar, but he was acquitted.  It was said that Baca drank too much whiskey, talked too much of himself, and had a weakness for wild women.  At no time in his long career did he hesitate to shoot people he felt needed shooting.  Yet, in serving arrest warrants, Baca never dispatched deputies to make arrests.  He instead sent accused persons a letter, which read: “I have a warrant for your arrest.  Please come in by (date) and give yourself up.  If you don’t, I’ll know you intend to resist arrest and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come for you.  Most of the accused turned themselves in [Note 9].

Buckshot Roberts

Buckshot Roberts

Andrew L. Roberts (a.k.a. Buckshot Roberts) was another civil war veteran and who was forced to make a living as a buffalo hunter.  Some claim that Roberts hunted with the famed Buffalo Bill Cody and that he served as a Texas Ranger under the name Bill Williams.  He earned his nickname due to a serious wound inflicted on him by use of a shotgun.  The wound restricted the movement of his right arm and this required that he develop a somewhat unorthodox shooting style.  Roberts was a man who kept his own council, rarely spoke of his past, and was known as one of those fellows who a prudent man would never intentionally rile.

When the Lincoln County War broke out, Roberts worked for James Dolan and this put him at odds with the so-called Regulators, who aligned themselves with John Tunstall and Alexander McSween.  Roberts wanted nothing to do with the Lincoln County War and made plans to sell his ranch and move away.  On 4 April 1878, Roberts rode to the local trading place, called Blazer’s Mills, looking for the arrival of his payment for his ranch.  Instead of a check, Roberts found the entire Regulator gang eating a meal in an adjacent building.

Frank Coe, a member of the Regulators and a gunman of some repute, approached Roberts and spoke to him about surrendering his weapon to the Regulators —for his own safety.  Roberts, believing that he would be assassinated out of hand, refused to give up his weapons.  Regulator Dick Brewer sent a few of his men to the trading post to arrest Roberts.  Roberts saw the armed men approaching and took up his Winchester repeating rifle.  Charlie Bowdre drew his weapon and he and Roberts fired at the same time.  Roberts was hit in the stomach, but retreated to the doorway of Blazer’s Mills while firing at the Regulators.  His bullets hit John Middleton, Doc Scurlock, William Bonney, and George Coe (Frank’s brother).

Barricading himself inside Blazer’s Mills, Roberts ignored his wound and the Regulator’s gunshots.  Since none of the Regulators wanted to approach the trading post, they called out for Roberts to surrender.  Roberts declined, and this prompted Dick Brewer to go to the side of the building where he could get a clear shot.  Brewer fired into the building but missed Roberts.  Roberts returned fire and didn’t miss.  Demoralized, the Regulators left town but sent a doctor to see to Roberts, who died the next day.  He and Brewer were buried near Blazer’s Mills.

Among the men opposing Roberts that day were Henry McCarty (also known as William Bonney and Billy the Kid), who was also nicked by one of Roberts’ bullets.  Charlie Bowdre was later killed by lawman Pat Garrett, who also killed Billy the Kid [Note 10].  Pat Garrett (1850-1908) was a lawman, barman, customs agent, and sheriff/politician.  He was killed (possibly motivated by local politics) by Jesse Wayne Brazel, who was acquitted of the murder after a one-day trial.

In researching information for this post, I was amused by the fact that New Mexico historians revel in their outlaw/gunslinging past.  It wasn’t that long ago that New Mexicans preferred to string these criminals up.  After the outlaw cowboys came the depression-era outlaws, many of whom frequented New Mexico during their crime sprees.  I suspect that the differences in the attitudes between the 1870s-1930s and now is the commercial value of long-dead hombres.


  1. Brands, H. W.  Dreams of El Dorado.  New York: Hachette Books, 2019
  2. Sanchez, J. P.  New Mexico: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013
  3. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Da Capo Press, 1968, 2000.


6.  Ketchum’s execution began as a hanging but ended up as a decapitation.

7.  Some academics argue that Baca was a self-appointed sheriff, and this may be a fact.  It is also true that something had to be done about these cowboys and apparently, Baca was the man to do it.

8.  Deputy Hearne may have been the dumbest lawman in the history of New Mexico.

9.  Elfego Baca was the first Hispanic person in popular American culture to earn the status of hero.  In the 1950s, Walt Disney Studios released a ten-part television series titled The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, which starred Robert Loggia in the role of Baca.  A feature film entitled Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law was released in 1962.

10.  Henry McCarty is buried in a cemetery at Fort Sumner, but the exact site is unknown because a flood moved the gravestones from their original placement.


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New Mexico, Part I

There no place on Earth without an interesting story, and there is no story about any of 19 present-day states of the United States that doesn’t begin with the Spanish Empire as a backdrop.  The story of New Mexico is one of these.


During the Middle Ages, Spain operated as a multi-national conglomerate —much like the Roman Empire that preceded it.  The Spanish arrived in the Americas for one purpose: to enrich the Spanish Crown.  In the accomplishment of this goal, the Spanish conducted exploratory expeditions, conquered indigenous people, transformed these people into sources of labor, and then set about to extract the vast resources found in the new land.  For the most part, the Spanish accomplished their mission.  They displaced native populations and immersed them in Hispanic culture and placed them on the hierarchical ladder of Spanish society.  The Spanish extracted gold and silver, established vast plantations, created new towns and cities, established provinces, and incorporated them into the Spanish Empire.  Having subjugated the natives, the Spanish took their place at the top of a complex social structure, and to make this arrangement legal and binding, they created encomiendas [Note 1].  Overall, it worked out quite well for the Spaniards, as demonstrated by the brilliant seventeenth-century societies in Lima, Peru and Mexico City.

New Spain

New Spain Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms, New Spain

In terms of land area, the Spanish Empire was twice the size of ancient Rome.  Like Rome, the Spanish Empire was too large to manage from Spain and so the Spanish crown created four viceroyalties to oversee political, social, and administrative institutions.  Spanish viceroyalties were established in New Spain, Peru, Rio de La Plata, and New Granada.  New Spain included North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania.  In North America, Spanish territories included present-day Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, parts of Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  In present day Canada, Spain controlled the area of Southwestern British Columbia.

In the process of creating their American empire, Spain vanquished millions of natives and reshaped them in Spain’s own image.  The societies they created remain with us today.  The Empire of Spain lasted for more than 300 years … a long enough period of time to pass along to all subsequent generations their language, culture, religion, and social structure.

There is a downside to this story.  In achieving everything previously described, Spain bequeathed to its successors lasting problems that originated within Hispanic society itself: its structure, philosophy, politics, its method of distributing wealth, and even its relationship to the Church.  Modern Hispanic societies maintain many (if not most) features from the Middle Ages, including their class structure an embedded cruelty toward anyone “below” their station.  This is not a judgment—it is a fact.  The Spaniards could not help who they were.  They were the product of centuries of events before them that was far beyond anyone’s control, and they could not help but to pass along to subsequent generations their uniquely culture.  Then, as now, Spanish culture was true to its history and able to transmit its own unique set of values (or lack of them) to others.

It did not take the Spanish long after their arrival in the New World to send out explorers to learn about this new place, and they spared no expense in doing so.  Francisco Vasquez de Coronado assembled an enormous expedition at Compostela, Mexico in 1540.  His mission was to locate the mythical cities of Cibola.  What they knew of it they learned from the writings of Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, who wandered for eight years finding his way from Florida to Mexico.  De Vaca and three companions were the only survivors of an expedition mounted in 1527.  In their travels, they lost several hundred men and eighty horses.


The journey begins by Frederick Remington

Senior Coronado was sure he would do better.  He assembled 1,300 horses and mules, hundreds of sheep and cattle as a portable food supply.  He would explore the land, of course, but he was looking for riches.  What he found were natives who lived in pueblos, whom he named Pueblo Indians.  There were no magnificent cities, no high-order civilizations.  But Coronado didn’t do better than De Vaca and he returned to Mexico a poor man, dispirited, and to some extent, discredited.  Nor did subsequent expeditions uncover cities of gold —only wide plains and dangerous natives.

Fifty years later, Juan de Oǹate marched north from the valley of Mexico taking with him 500 soldiers and settlers, 7,000 head of livestock, and founded the first Spanish settlement in Nuevo Mexico.  The year was 1598 and the settlement was called San Juan de los Caballeros (St. John of the Knights).  San Juan was located in a small valley near the Chama River, which flows into the Rio Grande.  Oǹate constructed a roadway he called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the royal interior road, which was a 700 mile trail from New Spain to his remote colony.  Senior Oǹate became the first Spanish governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico.

Oǹate intended to subjugate the natives, but this wasn’t the Valley of Mexico and these natives were not inclined to surrender to anyone.  Oǹate was persistent, however.  Scholars assure us that, “Spanish governors were a greedy and rapacious lot whose single-minded interest was to wring as much personal wealth from the provinces as their terms allowed.  They exploited Indian labor for transport, sold Indian slaves in New Spain, and sold Indian-made products manufactured by forced labor.”

Oǹate was no exception; he pulled out all stops to suppress New Mexico Indians.  He began by cutting off the left foot of every man over the age of 25-years.  He mercilessly killed hundreds of these people, mounted continuous raids and reprisals against the nomadic tribes, especially the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche.  Meanwhile, Franciscan missionaries could not understand why these natives continually shunned Catholicism.

Hostile Indians

Pueblo Indian Dress

Pueblo Indian Attire

The San Juan settlement was particularly vulnerable to Apache attacks, and so in 1610, Oǹate’s moved the capital to a place called Santa Fe.  Following Oǹate as governor, Pedro de Peralta ordered the construction of a governor’s palace so that everyone would know that the Spanish governor was an important man.  But Santa Fe wasn’t prosperous and in a few years all that remained in Santa Fe were a few Catholic missions.  Albuquerque became the new settlement in New Mexico beginning in the mid seventeenth-century.  Decades had passed and the Indians still wanted nothing to do with the missionaries.

A struggle began between the secular and religious factions in New Spain.  The fact was the Spanish settlements weren’t colonies in the sense of the British-American ventures.  Spanish people didn’t migrate to the new world so that they could perform labor as common peasants —that was what the Indians were for.  But native populations were decreasing as the result of European diseases, they were being worked to death, and childbirth took a sudden downturn.  A dispirited broken people often choose not to have children.  Soon, Spanish sources of labor dwindled.

In 1512, the Spanish Crown promulgated the Laws of Burgos that governed the behavior of Spaniards in the Americas, particularly with regard to indigenous people.  The maltreatment of Indians was forbidden.  Initially, the law only applied to the Island of Hispaniola, but was later extended to Puerto Rico and Jamaica.  The Franciscans in New Mexico, if they knew of these laws, ignored them.  In the minds of Franciscan missionaries, the solution to the problem of dwindling natives was to work them harder.

In 1650, governor Bernardo Lopez de Mendizabal prohibited the New Mexico priests from punishing the Indians or from employing them without compensation.  He also allowed the Indians to practice their traditional observances.  The priests could not accept such interference by a politician, so they complained to the Inquisition.  Mendizabal was arrested and taken to Mexico City for trial; when he died in 1664, his body was buried in a pig pen near the prison.

Afterwards, under governor Diego de Penalosa, the priests reigned supreme in New Mexico and life for the Indians got much worse.

It should not surprise anyone that the Indians of New Mexico harbored great hostility toward the Spaniards and their priests.  The natural economies of the Indians were disrupted when they were sent off to work the encomiendas.  The Indians might have been a bit slow, but they weren’t stupid.  They began using new farming implements as weapons of defense, not only against hostile Indian raids, but against the Spanish as well.  A severe drought swept through the area in the 1670s, which increased the number of attacks by hostile Indians who were scavenging for food.  Spanish soldiers were unable or indisposed to adequately defend the settlements.  Life among the Pueblo Indians was dismal; they soon returned to worshiping their own gods which caused the Franciscans to repress them even more.

When Franciscans arrested an Indian leader by the name of Popé (pronounced Po-pay) for practicing witchcraft, Popé reacted by orchestrating a revolt.  After regaining his freedom, Popé relocated to Taos where he planned an uprising against the Spaniards.  He did this by dispatching runners to all the Pueblos carrying knotted cords that signified the number of days remaining until the beginning of the uprising.  When the Spaniards learned of the planned uprising, Popé ordered the date advanced to 13 August.  It was a massive  rebellion and the Spanish were driven from all but the southern-most portion of New Mexico.  The Spanish created a temporary capital in El Paso (Texas); it would do until Spain reconquered New Mexico.

Once the Spaniards were gone, Popé ordered the destruction of all crosses and other Catholic symbols.  He was serious about this; any Indian refusing to carry out these orders was himself put to death.  He also ordered the destruction of Spanish livestock and crops (wheat and barley), and demanded that any Indian married in the Church dismiss his wife and take another under traditional rites.  Popé seized the governor’s house and ruled over all Pueblo, collecting tribute from them until his death in 1688.

Popé’s death caused a problem among the Indians: who should inherit his hard-won authority?  The tribes were often separated by hundreds of miles; they spoke six different languages.  Who should rule?  These power struggles —weaknesses— encouraged raids by the nomadic tribes.  Drought weakened the Pueblo further —physically and psychologically.  In 1692, Diego de Vargas led the Spanish military assault against the Pueblo at Santa Fe.  He called for the Indians to surrender, promising them clemency if they would swear their allegiance to the King of Spain and return to the Christian faith.  The weary Indians agreed to sue for peace. 

Through the Indian’s short-lived independence, they gained a measure of freedom from the Spanish after 1692.  They were permitted to observe their own religious rites and maintain cultural traditions.  The Spanish crown issued substantial land grants to the Pueblo Indians and charged public defenders to protect those rights.  However, the Spanish experienced no such success with the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Ute, or Navajo; these hostiles continually raided Spanish settlements.  They took what they wanted, leaving dead settlers, soldiers, and sedentary Indians in their wake.  Pueblo Indians not killed outright were taken as slaves.  This was the nature of the plains Indians.

The Comanche

Comanche Warrior

Comanche Warrior

Beginning in the early 1600s the Southwest plains Indians developed a horse culture.  Massive raids stripped the Spanish of their horses and cattle and the population of these hostiles increased over time to around 45,000.  By the mid 1700s, the plains Indians controlled territories from South Texas to Alberta, Canada.  The Navajo were among the first mounted Indians to develop a pastoral culture based on sheep stolen from Spanish settlements.  Comanche judged wealth by the number of their horses, the Navajo by the number of their sheep.

The greatest danger to Spanish settlements after the Pueblo revolt was the Comanche.  Their territory was called the Comancheria, which was well in place in 1700.  It was, for all intents and purposes, a Comanche Empire.  The Comanche successfully confronted the Spanish, Mexican, French, and Americans in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico.  In their time, the Comanche were the most powerful military force in North America.  They maintained this reputation through utter ruthlessness, which included the slaughter of settlers, demands for tribute, robbing supplies, enslaving captives, and holding high-born persons for ransom.  The Comanche also incorporated other plains Indians into the network: Kiowa, Ute, Navajo, and Apache.  In this way, their language and culture spread across the expanse of the North American plain.

The Empire was an economic construct rooted in a vast network that facilitated trade.  Politically, it was a decentralized system.  There was no central Comanche authority; each chief went his own way, and no tribal chief could order another to comply.  In this sense, the tribes and bands operated as a cooperative.  When this was not possible, for whatever reason, they simply went to war and settled matters through violence.  Typical of nomadic cultures, whenever a band reached a certain population level, some number of them split off to organize a new band.  These bands then became part of an extended network of family and friends with shared customs, traditions, and values.  Young braves could advance within the framework of this system by proving themselves in battle.

New Mexico settlements first reported contact with the Comanche in 1706; by 1719, Spanish settlements were under constant attack.  What made the Comanche stand out from other hostile groups was the level of their violence.  It didn’t matter to the Comanche if one was a Spaniard or the member of a different Indian tribe —everyone who was not a Comanche was the enemy.  The Comanche were mobile and elusive than other Southwest Indians.  They knew where the Apache and Navajo lived; the Apache and Navajo never knew where the Comanche were.

Among European settlers and native Indians alike, the Comanche were a puzzle.  While participating in peaceful trade gatherings with New Mexicans, they concurrently raided other settlements.  At the trade fairs, they would trade or sell their captives and do this while kidnapping others from settlements some distance away.  There was no greater danger to New Mexico settlements than the Comanche Indian.  Literally thousands of Spanish settlers were killed or kidnapped between 1700 and 1850, forcing the abandonment of many settlements.

In 1779, a Spanish expedition of 600 soldiers under Juan Bautista de Anza surprised a Comanche village near Pueblo, Colorado and killed Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), who was one of the most prominent Comanche war chiefs at the time.  This event prompted the Comanche in Colorado and New Mexico to sue for peace.  These Comanche subsequently joined a Spanish and Pueblo force that concentrated on the subjugation of the Apache.  Rather than raiding Spanish settlements in New Mexico, they instead began concentrating their raids in Tejas and Mexico.  Peace with the Comanche in New Mexico stimulated population growth.  Throughout this period, the citizens of New Mexico lavished the Comanche with gifts (bribes) and the peace in New Mexico was maintained until the United States conquered it in 1846.

While peace with the Comanche benefitted New Mexico settlements, it did not protect them from Apache and Navajo raids.  The Navajo were eventually defeated by the United States Army under Colonel Christopher H. “Kit” Carson in 1864, but the Apache did not surrender until 1886.  Anglo-European expansion in the American southwest destroyed Comanche culture by the spread of disease and constant warfare with a white population that could not be stopped [Note 2].

Mexican American War

Following the Battle of San Jacinto on 21 April 1836 (a battle that, according to General Sam Houston lasted 18-minutes), President-General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was taken prisoner.  On 14 May, Santa Anna and Texas Ad Interim President David G. Burnet signed the Treaties of Velasco.  There were two: The public treaty contained ten articles [Note 3]; a private treaty contained six [Note 4].  Why the Texans felt it necessary to execute two treaties is not well-understood.  In any case, the government of Mexico repudiated Santa Anna’s agreement arguing that as a prisoner of war, he was under duress at the time of his agreement.  Accordingly, hostilities continued to exist after Santa Anna’s release.

Mexican American WarThe admission of Texas into the United States in 1845 prompted the Mexican American War.  On assuming the American presidency in 1845, James K. Polk attempted to secure an agreement with Mexico establishing the boundary at the Rio Grande; he was also interested in the purchase of California.  What Polk (and others) failed to realize was that no Mexican politician could agree to the alienation of any Mexican territory, including Texas.  Frustrated by Mexico’s intransigence, Polk ordered the US Army to advance to the Rio Grande; Mexico viewed this as an act of war. 

At the conclusion of hostilities, Mexico ceded its northern holdings to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  These holdings included California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.  The treaty also resolved the question of the border dispute in Texas.  The United States agreed to recognize resident’s claims to lands granted them by right of ancestral and Spanish land grants.

After admission, Texas continued to claim the northeastern portion of New Mexico as part of the state of Texas.  This issue was finally resolved with the Compromise of 1850 when Texas ceded these claims to the United States.  Congress formally established the Territory of New Mexico in September 1850.  At that time, all citizens of New Mexico became citizens of the United States, which the people of New Mexico embraced without any hesitation [Note 5].

The United States gained additional territories in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 (Southwestern New Mexico and Southern Arizona, south of the Gila River).  The Gadsden Purchase permitted the United States to construct a railroad system in the acquired areas.

Notwithstanding the establishment of the New Mexico Territory, peace did not come to New Mexicans in 1850.  It was an enormous territory that included most of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Colorado.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, New Mexico played a role in the trans-Mississippi theater of operations and both sides in the conflict claimed territorial rights within the territory.  For their part, the Confederacy claimed the southern tract as its own Arizona Territory and waged an ambitious campaign to control the American southwest.  Its goal was to open up a corridor to California.  Confederate assertions were short-lived, however.  The Battle of Glorieta Pass settled the matter in 1862.

(Continued next week)


  1. Brands, H. W.  Dreams of El Dorado.  New York: Hachette Books, 2019
  2. Sanchez, J. P.  New Mexico: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013
  3. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  De Capo Press, 1968, 2000.


  1. Encomienda was a legal system instituted in 1503 in which the Spanish crown defined the status of indigenous populations.  It was based upon the practice of extracting tribute from Muslims and Jews during the Reconquista of Muslim Spain.  An encomienda granted to a Spanish noble (or others) exclusive rights over the land, all of its resources, including human inhabitants, so long as the noble protected these persons and instructed them in the Christian.  An encomienda was not a land grant per se; it was the right to exercise supervisory authority over the land and its people.  It was the duty of the individual who received this grant to make the people and the land productive for the good of the Spanish Crown. 
  2. In 1875, there were only about 1,500 Comanche left alive, which is about the same number of Comanche that live today on the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma —formerly known as Indian Territory.
  3. Summarized, (a) a cessation of hostilities, (b) Mexico would not again take up arms against Texas; (c) the immediate withdrawal of Mexican forces across the Rio Grande; (d) restoration of property confiscated by Mexicans; (e) an exchange of prisoners; (f) Santa Anna’s safe return to Mexico; (g) the Army of Texas would not approach closer than five leagues to retreating Mexican forces.
  4. Summarized, (a) Santa Anna’s liberation on condition that he use his influence to secure from Mexico acknowledgment of Texas Independence; (b) Santa Anna’s promise not to take up arms against Texas; (c) withdrawal of Mexican forces from Texas; (d) Mexico’s acceptance of a Texas mission; (e) to strive for a treaty of commerce; (f) acknowledgement of the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas.
  5. The willingness of Hispanic citizens of New Mexico to join the Union contrasts sharply with Hispanics in South Texas and California, who never accepted the political reality of their citizenship.  Most people living in South Texas and Southern California today continue to regard themselves as citizens of Mexico.
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The Santa Fe Expedition

Lamar’s Folly

Lone Star 001Mirabeau Lama served as the second president of the Republic of Texas.  He had a vision that one day, Texas would extend from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Coast —a somewhat linear projection not unlike the earliest maps depicting the eastern state territories extending from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River (the beginning of Spanish territory).  Lamar was a well-educated man, but also insufferably arrogant.  His hubris may have gotten in the way of common sense when he “unofficially” authorized the Santa Fe Expedition in 1841.  In his mind, the opportunity to transform the Republic of Texas into a continental power was limited; time was of the essence for two reasons: first, to hinder a growing sentiment in Texas to petition the United States for annexation, and second, to defeat the suggestion of other southern states (in connection with the concept of annexation) to break Texas up into (five) smaller states that might be admitted into the Union as slave states [Note 1]. 

Lamar’s intent, in addition to transforming Texas into a continental power, was to develop trade links between Texas and New Mexico, which at the time was still a province of Mexico.  President Lamar had already dispatched commissioners to New Mexico with the hope that these emissaries could demonstrate that New Mexico would fare better under Texas than it could under the flag of Mexico.

The Santa Fe Expedition began on 19 June 1841 from Kenny’s Fort near Austin.  It was a massive train of 21 ox-drawn wagons carrying merchandise worth around a quarter of a million dollars.  Most of the men were merchants, who were promised transportation and protection of their persons and their goods along the expedition’s route of march.  Four Texian emissaries accompanied the train: William G. Cooke, Richard F. Brenham, Jose Antonio Navarro, and George Van Ness.  A military escort of 300 men and a company of artillery served under the command of Hugh Macleod.  The train was poorly prepared and organized from the beginning.  Indian attacks, inadequate supplies, and a dearth of water plagued the expedition from its beginning.  During the journey, their Mexican guide disappeared in the wilderness, which caused the train to lose its way.  Macleod was forced to split his command to create a discovery force to find a proper route to Santa Fe.

The expedition finally arrived in New Mexico in September.  Several scouts were captured by Mexican military units, including Captain William G. Lewis.  Everyone on the expedition was shocked by New Mexico’s hostility; they expected a welcoming committee but were instead met by 1,500 irritated Mexican soldiers.  Apparently, New Mexico’s governor, Manuel Armijo [Note 1] was not happy to receive these Texans and he wanted them to leave.  If the Texians agreed to leave, Governor Armijo would grant them safe passage and an armed escort to the border.  The Texans had little choice in this matter because they were seriously outnumbered by Mexican forces, they were worn out from their journey, their supplies were depleted, and there was no hope for reinforcement from Texas.  These circumstances led the Texians to surrender to Governor Armijo.

By the next morning, however, Governor Armijo had changed his mind.  Armijo’s soldiers arrested the Texians, bound them, abused them, and informed them that their deaths were imminent.  Not everyone in Armijo’s governing council supported execution, however, and the matter was put to a vote.  By a single vote, Armijo’s council decided to spare the Texans from death.  Instead, they were forced to march 2,000 miles from Santa Fe to Mexico City.  Not everyone survived the journey.  Those who did survive were imprisoned at the Perote Prison at Vera Cruz until diplomats from the United States could secure their release —about one year.

By his decision to surrender, the people of Texas reviled Lewis —but his options were nil.  Fighting would have resulted in a second Alamo.  Beyond this, Lewis assumed Governor Armijo was an honorable man and would keep his word.  Taken in context with the dishonor displayed by Mexican officials from 1835-42, this too was a mistake.  Mariano Chaves [Note 2], who had acted as Armijo’s spokesman in brokering the surrender of the Texians, claimed for the balance of his life that he had acted in good faith toward the Texans.  Chaves died in 1845.

Nor were the Texians happy with Mirabeau B. Lamar for authorizing the expedition or for his mishandling the Republic’s economy.  What was proved, however, was that the Republic of Texas lacked the resources needed to control its claimed western territories.  A majority of the people living in Texas were born and raised in the United States, and even though they voluntarily moved to a “new country,” they were idealistically and culturally Americans.  More than anything Sam Houston ever did to persuade Texians to support annexation, Mirabeau Lamar’s arrogant mistake convinced them that it was the sensible thing to do.  Houston was reelected to the office of the Texas presidency in 1841, serving until 1844.  Lamar’s folly brought General Adrian Woll to San Antonio again in 1842 and Houston was forced to deal with yet another Texan-Mexican conflict.  Anson Jones became the fourth and last president of Texas as Texas became the 28th US State, annexed in 1845.

With annexation, the quarrel between Texas and Mexico became a quarrel between Mexico and the United States.  Mexican officials had always believed that the goal of the United States was to steal Texas away from them.  They were probably right about that, but it was Mexico who invited Americans to the Mexican State of Tejas to populate it, settle it, and defend it against the Comanche Indians.  In any case, the treatment of the members of the Santa Fe Expedition while imprisoned added to the animosity between the United States and Mexico over the issue of its territorial border.  What followed in 1846 was the Mexican American War, which lasted until 1848.

The conflict ended in victory for the United States, giving it undisputed control of all lands that up until then had been claimed by Texas.  The issue of adding western territory to the state of Texas was vociferously resisted by the United States Congress and other southern states.  At this time, Sam Houston was serving as a US Senator representing Texas.  As part of the Compromise of 1850, the government of Texas agreed to relinquish its northwestern territorial claims, including Santa Fe.  In exchange, the US government agreed to assume responsibility for the state’s debts; Texas was left in control of its territorial boundaries (which was actually twice the size of the territory it had ever controlled as a republic), and most of the remaining western lands were organized as the Territory of New Mexico.

During the Mexican American War, Governor Armijo surrendered Santa Fe without firing a shot and made a hasty departure for Mexico; Mariano Chaves died in New Mexico in 1845.  After the war, Armijo returned to New Mexico, where he died in 1853.

A final disposition of the lands west of Texas were not settled prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and because the issues were unsettled, the Confederate States of America attempted to establish control over New Mexico prompted by the arguments previously offered by the Republic of Texas under Mirabeau B. Lamar.  Rebel attempts to seize New Mexico brought that territory back into conflict with Texas.  The issue of Confederate control of New Mexico was resolved at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (26-28 March 1862).


  1. Kendall, G. W.  Narrative of the Texas Santa Fe Expedition: Comprising a Description of a Tour Through Texas and Capture of the Texans.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844, brokered through Bauman Rare Books, New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. [Note 4].
  2. Simmons, M.  The Little Lion of the Southwest: a life of Manuel Antonio Chaves.  Chicago: Swallow Press, 1973.
  3. Connor, S. V.  Perote Prison.  Handbook of Texas Online, 2015.
  4. University of Texas (Austin), Robert D. Phillips (1842-1844), Phillips Family Texan Santa Fe Expedition Letters and Documents.


  1. This effort to attach conditions to the possibility of Texas annexation, which was always the goal of Texas President Sam Houston, serves as an excellent example of repugnant politics in the United States from the very beginning of the United States of America.  In his reaction to such moves, Lamar similarly demonstrates that Texas politicians were themselves inadequate to the needs of their citizens.
  2. Mariano Chaves is often confused with Manuel Antonio Chaves (1818-1889), who was a soldier in the Mexican Army, a New Mexico rancher, and a man known for his courage and marksmanship.  Manuel Antonio Chaves, having proclaimed his loyalty to the United States, participated in the Battle of Glorieta Pass as a lieutenant colonel of US volunteers and helped the Union regain control over the Territory of New Mexico during the American Civil War.
  3. Manuel Armijo (1793-1853) served three times as New Mexico’s governor.  He was instrumental in putting down the revolt of 1837, commanded the force that captured the Santa Fe Expedition, and surrendered to the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican American War (after which New Mexico became a territory of the United States).
  4. George Wilkins Kendall was born in Mount Vernon, New Hampshire in 1809.  He published the first issue of the Picayune of New Orleans in 1837, which was sold for a Picayune (a Spanish coin worth about 6.25 cents).  In 1841, Kendall joined the Santa Fe Expedition as an observer and reporter.  In this capacity, Kendall is today regarded as America’s first war correspondent owing to the expedition and his coverage of the Mexican American War.  After 1855, Kendall resided with his family in New Braunfels and Boerne.  Source: Daughters of the American Revolution, George W. Kendall Chapter, Boerne, Kendall County, Texas.
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Cattle & Cowboys

Texas Longhorn

Texas Longhorn

We’ve all seen the Hollywood recreations of the old west cattle drive.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, moving cattle was part of a major industry in the United States.  The films depict cowboys moving thousands of cattle several hundred to a thousand miles over rough terrain to stockyards or railheads.  The men involved in these drives endure drenching rain, flooded rivers, burning sun, force winds, dark nights, hostile Indians, and in a few instances, cattle rustlers.  The cattle are usually shown as Texas longhorns, a breed of animal that developed from feral Andalusian stock in South Texas.  The longhorn has become a Texas icon.  Today, the Longhorn is a favored mascot of American high-schools and universities —twenty-four in Texas alone— and we find the image or silhouette of the animal’s head depicted on football helmets, t-shirts, and sweaters.  The Texas Longhorn is a symbol of an adventurous period in southwest history; it projects the image of power, strong will, and the fierce independence we most associate with the western pioneer, trail blazer, and six-gun toting, leather chapped cowboy.

The Andalusian cow was brought to the American continent by Spanish settlers 350 years ago.  Living wild in the area of present-day South Texas, the animal developed a body and stubborn temperament that allowed it to survive in the harsh environment of the Texas plain.  The animal has formed a resistance to splenic fever [1], had a high reproductive rate, less muscle fat and less saturated fat than other types of beef.  Its marbled beef (low in cholesterol) made the Longhorn renowned for the quality of its meat, and this made Longhorn beef highly desirable.  In the late 1800s, enterprising ranchers experimented with the Longhorn by mixing it with European beef and American bison.  After 1888, the numbers of Texas Longhorn cattle declined, but when ranchers learned that the Longhorn produced comparably superior beef, efforts were made to reestablish the animal after the 1920s.

Texas Longhorn cattle are a strong and sturdy animal capable of enduring great distances.  They are also known for their aggressive and temperamental character.  No cowpoke wanted to pursue a Longhorn into dense mesquite shrub, particularly if the animal didn’t want to rejoin the herd.  With a horn span measure from four to six feet from tip to tip, many a cowpony and its rider met an unhappy fate from an angry Longhorn.  The Longhorn’s temperament is one reason old west cattle drives were so dangerous.  Herding cattle was far more involved than simply pointing them in a direction and shouting, “git along little doggie.”

Cowboys [2] didn’t all perform the same function on the cattle drive.  Essentially, the various jobs (positions) were trail boss, point rider, swing rider, flank rider, drag rider, wrangler, and cook [3].  An experienced trail boss would have served in all these positions (except cook).  The trail boss was responsible for plotting the day’s course, designating breaks along the way, deciding on watering holes, and the locations of campsites.  He also supervised branding, made decisions about what to do with injured animals, newborn calves, and anyone they met along the trail.

Point riders set the pace for the day and herded the cattle in the direction the trail boss selected.  Long drives and large herds might employ more than a single point rider.  We would find swing riders about a third of the way back in the herd —at least two.  Their job was to keep the herd bunched in transit and to help the point rider turn the herd.  Swing riders were constantly preventing animals from breaking away from the herd.  An animal trying to make a break would be caught and turned back to the herd.  A swing-rider would be called to the point whenever the point rider was called away.  Flank riders (usually two) would ride two-thirds of the way to the back of the herd.  Their main job was to back up the swing rider and keep the herd from fanning out too far in the center of the formation.  Drag rider was the least desired position on the cattle drive. His job was to keep pushing cattle forward and rounding up strays.  Drag riders inhaled the dust kicked up by thousands of cattle —which probably explains the relative short life expectancy of cowhands [4].  The average pay for stockmen working a trail drive ranged from between $120.00 a month (trail boss) to $40.00 a month for the drovers.  The men were paid at the end of the trail drive, when the cattle were sold.

Trail drives took a long time.  Although Longhorn cattle could move 25 miles in a day, such a pace would cause them to lose weight (and lose their value) while on the drive.  To keep the cattle fat, the point man set a pace of between eleven and fifteen miles per day.  After several days of travel, the trail boss would rest the animals for a day or two at a location suitable for grazing and water.  A drive of 1,000 miles would take several months.

There were four primary cattle trails that led from Texas to northern rail heads.  The earliest of these was the Shawnee (1840s-1865), which took an easterly course skirting Oklahoma (Indian territory) and ending in St. Louis, St. Joseph, or Kansas City.  The Goodnight-Loving Trail struck west from Texas to New Mexico, and into Colorado.  Rail heads were located at Pueblo, Colorado and Denver.  Some drives extended into Wyoming.  The Chisolm Trail was a northerly course from Fort Worth through Oklahoma into either Abilene or Ellsworth, Kansas.  The Chisholm Trail was a popular route from around 1867 to 1887.  The last important trail drive was called the Great Western, which began in South Texas into the western edge of Oklahoma, through Kansas, and into Nebraska, popular between 1875 and 1885.  In each case, however, closed ranges made cattle drives increasingly more difficult and set into motion such conflicts as the Fence Cutting Wars [5].

Oliver Loving

Oliver Loving

One of the famous old west trail bosses was a son of Hopkins County, Kentucky —a man named Oliver Loving.  Oliver was born on 4 December 1812.  His parents were Joseph and Susannah (Bourland) Loving.  At the age of 21-years, Oliver was farming in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and did so for ten years.  In 1843, Oliver, his brother, and his brother-in-law relocated to Texas with their families.  In Texas, Oliver acquired 640 acres of land that extended through three counties: Collin, Dallas, and Parker.  He farmed that land to feed his growing family and earned extra money hauling freight.  He was married to Susan Doggett Morgan Loving, whom he married in 1833.  They were still married when he died in 1867.

Parker County TX

Location of Parker County, Texas

In 1855, Oliver established a cattle ranch along the Keechi Creek in present-day Palo Pinto County.  At the same time, he opened a general store in Parker County [6] in a town that would become known as Weatherford, Texas.  The ranch was a successful enterprise; by 1857, Oliver Loving owned a thousand acres and a sizeable herd of cattle.  He drove some number of these out of Texas and, at the same time, he entrusted his 19-year old son Joseph to drive an additional number of his and his neighbor’s cattle to Illinois via the Shawnee Trail.  Loving’s profit was $36 per head, successful enough that he repeated the drive in 1858 in a partnership with John Durkee.

In 1860, Loving teamed up with John Dawson and started a herd of 1,500 cattle toward Denver, Colorado (roughly 800 miles) where cattle were in high demand to feed prospectors and miners.  After selling off the herd, Loving intended to return to his home in Texas, but by then the Civil War had broken out and Union authorities initially prevented him from doing so.  With the intervention of Colonel Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson [7], Loving was eventually allowed to return to his home.  Back in Texas, Loving accepted a commission to provide beef to the Confederate States Army.  At the end of the war, the confederacy owed Loving around $200,000.00 —which he never collected.  In the post-war period (1865-66), Loving suffered financially, along with other Texas cattlemen; they had more cattle than they could sell in the face of diminished markets.

Charles Goodnight

Charles Goodnight

In 1866, Loving learned that there was a demand for cattle at Fort Sumner, New Mexico where 8,000 reservation-bound Indians were in desperate need of meat.  Loving assembled a herd, combined it with that of Charlie Goodnight [8], and began the long drive to Fort Sumner.  This route later became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  The drive of these 2,000 cattle to Fort Sumner netted Loving and Goodnight $12,000 in gold.  Goodnight remained in the New Mexico territory while Loving moved unsold cattle to Denver, Colorado.

Goodnight and Loving reunited in southern New Mexico and formed a partnership with John Chisum [9] at Bosque Grande in the New Mexico Territory, some 40 miles south of Fort Sumner.  John Chisum’s sister Nancy was married to Loving’s cousin, B. F. Bourland.  The three men spent the winter of 1866-67 at Chisum’s ranch, providing cattle to Fort Sumner and Santa Fe.

John S. Chisum

John S. Chisum

In the Spring of 1867, Loving and Goodnight returned to Texas with plans to begin a new drive.  Once the cattle were formed, however, heavy rains and Indian hostilities slowed their progress across the southern plain.  Loving rode ahead of the herd to arrange contract bidding, taking with him an experienced point man and scout called One-arm Bill Wilson.  Given the presence of hostiles, Wilson advised Loving to proceed at night, but Loving insisted that they push on during the day.

Several days later, a Comanche war party attacked Loving and Wilson at a bend on the Pecos River.  While killing several of their attackers, Loving received a serious wound in his arm during the initial engagement.  A lethal standoff then began that would last five days.  In the dead of night on the second day, Loving sent Wilson into the river to escape the Indians with the expectation that Wilson would be able to reach the Goodnight camp and bring reinforcements.  Although successfully holding off the Indians, Loving experienced high fever and a substantial loss of blood.  He finally slipped into the river and made his escape.  After a few days on foot, Loving was discovered by Mexican traders, who transported him to Fort Sumner.

Wilson made it back to Goodnight on foot, starving and dehydrated.  After Wilson reported the incident, Charlie proceeded immediately to Fort Sumner where he found Loving in the care of an alcoholic army medical doctor.  Despite the urgings of Goodnight and Wilson, the surgeon refused to undertake the amputation of Loving’s gangrenous arm.  Before Oliver Loving died on 25 September 1867, Goodnight promised to return his body to Texas.  Before he could do that, though, Goodnight had to finish driving the cattle to Colorado. Goodnight had Loving’s wooden casket set inside a metal container fashioned from 42-gallon capacity oil drums, packed it with charcoal, and temporarily buried him at Fort Sumner.  As promised, and with the assistance of Oliver’s son Joseph, Charlie Goodnight returned Loving’s remains to Weatherford for burial.  Oliver Loving was interred at the Greenwood Cemetery on 4 March 1868.

The story of Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight formed the basis of author/screen writer Larry McMurtry’s popular series, Lonesome Dove, published in 1985 with a television miniseries following in 1994.  The miniseries starred Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.  Jones’ character was Woodrow F. Call (a Charlie Goodnight type character) while Duvall played Augustus McCrae, who was in many ways like the real Oliver Loving.  Incorporating the reality of western life, Lonesome Dove may be the best western fiction ever written.


  1. Skaggs, J. M. The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1876-1890.  University of Kansas Press, 1973.
  2. Dykstra, R. R. The Cattle Towns.  University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  3. Handbook of Texas Online, Donald E. Worcester: “Longhorn Cattle”; “Chisholm Trail”.
  4. Worcester, D. E. The Chisholm Trail.  University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
  5. Adams, A. The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days.  Houghton, Mifflin, 1903 (available online).
  6. Johnson, F. W. Oliver Loving: Texas Cattleman.  A History of Texas and Texans, Volume V, American Historical Society, 1916
  7. Hedstrom-Page, D. From Ranch to Railhead with Charles Goodnight.  B&H Publishing Group, 2007.
  8. Caldwell, C. R. John Simpson Chisum, The Cattle King of the Pecos Revisited.  Santa Fe: Sunstone Books, 2010.


[1] Splenic fever (also known as anthrax) is a serious bacterial infection common to cattle, sheep, horses, mules, and other feral animals.

[2] A word re-invented by Hollywood film producers.  In the mid-1800s, the term “cowboy” had a derogative meaning, something on the order of scoundrel, saddle tramp, thug, gangster, thief, murderer, and terrorist.  People who worked with cattle were referred to as cowpokes, cowmen, cowhands, stockmen, or drovers.  A drover would take offense to anyone referring to him as a cowboy.

[3] According to scholars of the old west, the trail-drive cook was far different from how he is portrayed in Hollywood films, which is usually a feeble old man who is an unreliable flake.  In truth, the camp cook was one of the toughest hands on the cattle drive.  He was the first to awaken to prepare breakfast, and the last to bed down at night.  The chuck wagon didn’t follow the herd, it led the herd and set up the camp site in advance of the herd’s arrival.  If an animal required butchering, the cook did it.  It also helped if he could prepare good food.  The cook was also in charge of ammunition storage, toolbox, cash, and medical supplies.  In ranking, the cook was second only to the trail boss, whom he would replace if necessary.

[4] Some scholars say that the average life-expectancy of old west cowhands was 24-27 years.  Many of these fellows died from falling from their horses.

[5] See also: The Texas Fence Cutting Wars; Ira Aten, Texas Ranger.

[6] Parker County was established in 1855, named in honor of Isaac Parker, a member of the Texas legislature, veteran of the War of 1812 who later served Texas in the Texas Brigade during the Civil War.  The county seat is Weatherford, named in honor of State Senator Thomas J. Weatherford.

[7] For additional information on Kit Carson, see: The First Battle of Adobe Wells.

[8] Scholars suggest that Charlie Goodnight was a real-life composite of every character ever played by the popular western actor John Wayne.  He was rugged, quiet, hard-working, accomplished, and despite a preference of justice over the rule of law, a good and decent man.  Before the Civil War, Goodnight worked as a cowhand, fought Comanche in a local militia, and served as a Texas Ranger.  Among his many accomplishments, Charlie Goodnight invented the chuck wagon.  Before then, cowhands carried their food in their saddlebags.

[9] John Chisum was another character played on screen by actor John Wayne.  In real life, Chisum arrived in Texas in 1837, started a cattle ranch in 1854, and was the first rancher to drive large herds of cattle into the New Mexico Territory.  His ranch at Bosque Grande was situated along the Pecos River.  He eventually owned about 100,000 head of cattle, prompting him to form a partnership with Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight.  Chisum was involved with Alexander McSween in the Lincoln County War in 1878 and an opponent of the famed William F. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid).

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Wyatt Earp

Born on 19 March 1848, he was named Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp in honor of his father’s commanding officer during the Mexican American War.  He was the fourth child of Nicholas Porter Earp and his second wife, Virginia Ann Cooksey.  Altogether, Wyatt had seven siblings and a half-brother (Newton) from his father’s first marriage.

Sometime between 1849-1850, Nicholas joined with about a hundred others looking to relocate to San Bernardino County, California, where he intended to purchase farmland.  While not having a precise record of this, it is a reasonable assumption that Nicholas journeyed to California before deciding to risk any capital investment.  In any case, the Earps began their journey but were interrupted in their travels at Monmouth, Illinois when the child Martha became ill.  Ultimately, Nicholas bought a 160-acre plot of land just outside Pella, Iowa.  Martha eventually died there on 26 May 1856.

In November 1861, Newton, James, and Virgil enlisted in the Union Army.  At the time, their father was a provost marshal, recruiter, and drilling officer of local companies.  This left Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren behind to maintain the farm.  Before the end of the Civil War, Nicholas Earp organized a wagon train and headed off to San Bernardino, California.  The company arrived in mid-December of that year.  Virgil Earp arrived in the fall of 1865 and found work as a stagecoach driver and cargo-hauler.  Wyatt Earp became his older brother’s assistant.  Beginning in 1866, however, Wyatt drove cargo wagons between Wilmington-San Bernardino-Las Vegas-Salt Lake City.

In the spring of 1868, the Earp family moved east once more to Lamar, Missouri with Wyatt joining them the following year.  Nicholas Earp became the local constable, later being elected Justice of the Peace.  Wyatt replaced his father as the town constable.

Wyatt Earp c. 1869

Wyatt Earp c. 1869

Wyatt Earp began courting 20-year old Urilla Sutherland (1849-70), the daughter of a hotel owner in Lamar.  Wyatt and Urilla were married by Nicholas Earp on 10 January 1870.  Wyatt purchased a lot just outside town and by August of that year, Wyatt had built their home.  Urilla died of Typhoid fever while carrying their child, an event that caused Wyatt to enter a period of severe depression, exacerbated by too much drink.  Pouring gasoline on the fire, Barton County, Missouri sued Wyatt alleging that he’d skimmed money collected for tax revenues.  James Cromwell (a taxpayer) also sued Wyatt for similar reasons.

In 1871, Edward Kennedy and John Shown were charged with stealing two horses from William Keyes, the value of the horses set at $100.00 each.  Deputy US Marshal J. G. Owens arrested Earp for theft of horses and he was arraigned later that month; bail was set at $500.  Indictments were handed down against Earp, Kennedy, and Shown.  John Shown’s wife Anna claimed that Earp and Kennedy had gotten her husband drunk and threatened his life to get him to help them in the theft of the animals.  Edward Kennedy was acquitted, but the case against Earp and Shown remained.  Earp decided not to wait for trial and escaped from jail.

Accounts of his life are confused at this point; some claim that he went to Peoria, Illinois, where he lived in the home of Jane Haspel.  Another assertion is that he headed west to hunt buffalo in the winter of 1871-72.  Available evidence suggests he went to Peoria, because when police raided Haspel’s home, they arrested four women and Wyatt, Morgan, and a man named George Randall.  The Earps and Randall were charged with operating a house of ill-repute and upon conviction, were fined $20 each.  Wyatt and Morgan were again arrested for the same offense in May, this time being fined $44.55 each.  Finally, in September 1872, Wyatt was again arrested while aboard a floating brothel registered in his name, which he named the Beardstown Gunboat.  A young woman named Sally Heckell was arrested with him and charged with prostitution, but she claimed to be Mrs. Wyatt Earp.  Sally may have been the daughter of Jane Haspel.  In the view of most citizens in Peoria, Wyatt Earp was a “bummer,” a word used to describe a contemptible loafer.  It is likely that Wyatt Earp, at this time in his life, was little more than a pimp.

In early 1874, Wyatt and Sally moved to Wichita, Kansas where his brother James operated a brothel.  Police records reflect that from 1874-76, Sally and James’ wife Nellie (Bessie) Ketchum had a controlling hand in the whore house.  Some have suggested that Wyatt and James were pimps for their wives; others contend that Wyatt was probably a “bouncer,” paid to keep order in this place of entertainment.  There is no record of Sally after 1875.

Wichita, Kansas was a cow town.  Drunken armed cowboys would fill the town in celebration of the end to long and tedious cattle drives.  Drunken cowhands meant busy police officers.  Wyatt Earp was hired as a Wichita Deputy Marshal on 21 April 1875.  Of course, an absence of cowhands meant that the lawmen were idle and needed something else to do which may explain why lawmen such as Earp often found additional work as faro dealers in local saloons.  Earp’s employment as a lawman ended a year later when former lawman Bill Smith publicly accused Earp of trying to use his position to hire his brothers as city police officers.  Earp bested Smith in a fist fight but ended up paying a fine of $30.  On 2 April 1876, the Wichita city council voted against re-hiring Earp as a deputy marshal.  Earp moved on to Dodge City, where brother James had opened a new brothel.  In Dodge City, there was no such thing as too many brothels.

Deadwood C. 1876

Deadwood, Dakota Territory c. 1876

Dodge City, Kansas evolved into a major hub for cattle drives from Texas.  In May 1876, Earp was hired as Assistant Marshal under Lawrence Deger, but soon departed with brother Morgan for the boomtown of Deadwood in the Dakota territory.  Upon arrival, the Earps learned that all the land that might be suitable for mining or prospecting was already claimed.  Pictured left, Deadwood in 1876 was little more than a slum and it didn’t take the Earp brothers long to decide to return to “civilized” Dodge City.  Morgan returned alone, Wyatt hauled firewood to mining camps during the winter of 1876-77 (earning around $5,000); he returned to Dodge City in the spring of 1877.

Arriving back in Dodge City, Wyatt re-joined the police force.  In October, “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh [1] robbed a Santa Fe Railroad camp and fled to the south.  Wyatt received a temporary commission as a Deputy US Marshal to pursue him.  The search for Rudabaugh took Wyatt over 400 miles to Fort Clark and Fort Griffin in Texas.

At the frontier town of Clear Fork (along the Brazos River), Wyatt made inquiries at the Beehive Saloon, an establishment owned by John Shanssey [2], whom Wyatt had known for several years.  Shanssey informed Wyatt that Rudabaugh had passed through Clear Fork earlier that week but had no knowledge of where he’d gone.  Shanssey suggested that Earp check with a gambler by the name of John H. Holliday (known as Doc) since he might know something.  Holliday informed Wyatt that Rudabaugh had returned to Kansas.  Wyatt telegraphed this information to the Ford County Sheriff, Bat Masterson, and Rudabaugh was soon taken into custody.

After Wyatt returned to Dodge City, he was re-appointed as an assistant town marshal under Marshal Charlie Bassett.  “Doc” Holliday and his common-law wife, Mary Katherine Cummings (a.k.a. Big Nose Kate [3]) arrived in Dodge City during the summer of 1878.  This was the summer Ed Morrison and two dozen cowboys rode into Dodge City and shot up the town.  Morrison and several of his boys entered the Long Branch Saloon, vandalized the place, and bullied its customers.  Upon hearing the commotion, Wyatt Earp burst through the door to find numerous guns pointed in his direction.  Holliday was playing cards in the back of the saloon, unseen or ignored by Morrison.  Holliday put his pistol against Morrison’s head and forced him and his men to disarm.  Wyatt credited Doc Holliday with saving his life on that day and from that that point forward, the two men became close friends.

Mattie BlaylockAlso, while in Dodge City, Wyatt became acquainted with James and Bat Masterson, the gunman Luke Short, and a woman named Mattie Blaylock (shown right).  Mattie became Wyatt’s common law wife for about three years.  Manic-depressive, Mattie later killed herself by overdosing on laudanum (an opium derivative).

Early in the morning of 26 July, George Hoyt and other drunken cowhands began shooting their weapons wildly in the streets adjacent to the Comique Theater.  Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson (along with a few other citizens) responded by firing at the fleeing horsemen.  Hoyt and his boys crossed the Arkansas River south of town, but Hoyt fell from his horse wounded.  He later died from gangrene after his leg was amputated.  According to some stories, Hoyt was killed by Wyatt Earp, but in a situation where several men were firing their weapons at fleeing cowboys, it would be impossible to know which of the shootists hit Hoyt.

By 1879, Dodge City began to quiet down.  Virgil Earp, who was working as the town constable in Prescott, Arizona, wrote to his brothers in Kansas and told them about “opportunities” in a new boomtown called Tombstone.  Wyatt resigned from the police force in September 1879 and, with Mattie, James, and Bessie, traveled to Las Vegas, New Mexico.  There, Wyatt reunited with Doc Holliday and the three men (with their women) proceeded to Prescott, Arizona.  Three days before leaving for Tombstone (280 miles away), Virgil Earp received an appointment as Deputy US Marshal for the eastern district of Pima County.  Virgil, Wyatt, James and their wives finally arrived in Tombstone on 1 December 1879.  Doc Holliday remained in Prescott where he was making good money from gambling.

At the time of the Earp’s arrival in Tombstone, the population of the town was around 1,000 people.  The town had only been in existence for nine months, starting off with around 100 residents.  Initially, Wyatt had visions of starting a stagecoach line out of Tombstone, but upon arrival, he discovered that there were already two such businesses.  He turned to gambling as a faro dealer for his income.  Virgil, Wyatt, and James partnered with Robert J. Winders to establish the Mountain Maid Mine and purchased an interest in the Vizina Mine.  They also purchased water rights on Goose Flats.  None of these investments proved productive so the Earp brothers were forced to find other sources of income.  James became a barkeep; Wyatt found work with Wells Fargo and worked with Fred J. Dodge as a shotgun messenger.  Morgan and Warren arrived in Tombstone late in 1880.  When Doc Holliday arrived in September 1880 he was in possessions of winnings of around $40,000 (approximately 1.1 million dollars today).

For a summary of events leading up to confrontations with the Cochise County Cowboys, see The Cowboy Wars.

In late July 1880, Wyatt Earp was hired as a deputy sheriff for the eastern part of Pima County, Arizona —which, at the time, included Tombstone.  Morgan replaced Wyatt as a shotgun messenger with Wells Fargo.  Wyatt’s position was a good one because the deputy sheriff, in addition to earning a salary, was entitled to a around 10% of taxes and fees collected.  Scholars estimate that Wyatt was making around $40,000 annually in this position —and all Wyatt had to do to obtain this kind of income was to play along with the political infrastructure of southeast Arizona.

Late-night drunks, who for some reason enjoyed firing their weapons into the air inside the town limits, caused town Marshal Fred White to confront these cowhands.  On one particular night, Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp was in the Owens Saloon.  Although unarmed, he heard the discharge of firearms and, borrowing a pistol from Fred Dodge, ran to the scene.  Town Marshal White, in the process of trying to disarm Curly Bill Brocius, had been shot in the groin.  Arriving at the scene of the shooting, Earp clubbed Brocius with his borrowed pistol, knocking him to the ground.  Brocius appeared unaware of what had happened.  Nevertheless, Wyatt took him into custody.  According to Fred Dodge, who witnessed the incident, “Wyatt’s coolness and nerve never showed to a better advantage than they did that night.  When Morg[an] and I reached him, Wyatt was squatted on his heels beside Curly Bill and Fred White.  Curly Bill’s friends were pot-shooting at him in the dark.  The shooting was lively, and slugs were hitting the chimney and cabin.  In all that racket, Wyatt’s voice was even and quiet, as usual.”

Brocius, on the advice of counsel, waived his right to a preliminary hearing so that his case could be transferred to the Tucson District Court.  Virgil and Wyatt escorted Brocius to the Tucson court to stand trial.  Moving Brocius probably saved him from being lynched in Tombstone because Fred White was popular among the residents of Tombstone. White died two days later, aged 31 years.

In December 1880, Wyatt Earp testified that the shooting of Marshal White was accidental, a claim substantiated by a qualified gunsmith and the deathbed statement of Fred White.  Curly Bill Brocius, while released by the court, remained angry at Wyatt Earp for being pistol whipped.  This inscident made Wyatt Earp a sworn enemy of the gunman Curly Bill Brocius.

At the time, Wyatt’s boss was Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell, a Democrat who enjoyed the overwhelming support of The Cowboys.  In the election of 1880, Robert H. Paul announced his candidacy for sheriff as a Republican.  Paul had previously served as a county sheriff in California.  In the San Simon/Cienega voting precinct, Shibell won 103 votes.  What made this an interesting result was that there were only 15 registered voters living in that precinct.  Bob Paul suspected (with good reason) that there was some ballot-stuffing going on in the election; he contested Shibell’s victory.  In time, Shibell’s election was overturned.  But in the meantime, Wyatt Earp resigned as undersheriff as a protest to Shibell’s reelection.  The vacancy created by Earp’s resignation cause Sheriff Shibell to appoint fellow Democrat Johnny Behan as Earp’s replacement.

Three months later, the eastern section of Pima County was broken up to form Cochise County and Johnny Behan, with all his political connections (two terms in the Territorial Legislature) (friend and business partner of the well-connected John Dunbar) received the governor Fremont’s appointment as Cochise County Sheriff.  Wyatt Earp wanted the job but had no worthwhile political connections.  Behan’s appointment did nothing to improve his relationship with the Earp clan.

Events through 1881 increased tensions between the Earps and the Cowboys (Clanton’s and McLaury’s).  When Cowboys attempted to rob the Kinnear stage on 15 March, popular stage driver Bud Philpot was killed along with a passenger named Pete Roerig.  An Earp posse (which included Johnny Behan) tracked down Luther King, who admitted to participating in the robbery as a “horse holder.”  He identified Bill Leonard, Harry Head, and Jim Crain as his cohorts.  All three men were members of the Cowboys.  King was arrested and Behan escorted him to the Tombstone jail.  Within mere moments of King’s arrival in Tombstone, he escaped jail and fled to parts unknown.  The implication was that Behan “let him go.”  When the Earp posse finally returned from their manhunt on 1 April (empty handed), Behan informed them of King’s escape and, at the same time, refused to reimburse them for their trouble.  It was a incident that added to the already existing bad feelings between the Earps, Behan, and his Cowboy friends.

In September 1881, the Cowboys robbed the Sandy Bob stage.  The holdup men were identified as sheriff’s deputies Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence (who were also business partners).  When two of Behan’s deputies were implicated, Behan stated that he’d fired these men before the robbery.  Judge Wells Spicer set their bail at $7,000 each; both men arranged bail and were released.  In those days, $7,000. was a tremendous sum of money.

On 13 October, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp rearrested Stilwell and Spence, charging them with violating a new law —that of interfering with a mail carrier.  The new arrest was mischaracterized in the local press, which reported that Stilwell and Spence were arrested and charged with another stagecoach robbery in nearby Contention on 8 October.  The erroneous press report convinced The Cowboys that the Earps were harassing them.  Frank McLaury approached Morgan Earp and warned him that the McLaury brothers would kill the Earps if they ever tried to arrest any of The Cowboys again.  This warning came two weeks before the gunfight at O.K. Corral.

Despite overwhelming evidence in court that Stilwell and Spence were the culprits behind the Sandy Bob robbery, the court found no direct tie connecting them to the September robbery.  Both men were released from pre-trial confinement.

For a summary of the gunfight at O.K. Corral, see The Cowboy War.

On 30 October, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday.  Judge Wells Spicer opened a preliminary inquiry the next day.  Lasting for well over a month, Spicer took written and oral testimony from 30 witnesses.  Sheriff Behan testified that The Cowboys had thrown up their hands and opened their coats to prove that they were unarmed.  He also claimed that the first two shots were fired by the Earp posse, and that the first of these were fired by Doc Holliday using his nickel platted revolver.  Other witnesses reported that Doc Holliday was carrying a messenger shotgun when the gunfight broke out.  Wyatt testified that he drew out his weapon only after Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury went for their pistols.  Judge Spicer eventually ruled that the Earp posse acted within the law and dismissed the case.  The Cowboys promised revenge for the killings of 26 October 1881.

After the assassination attempt on Virgil’s life (where he was seriously wounded), Wyatt Earp wired Territorial US Marshal Crawley Dake and requested an appointment as Deputy US Marshal, replacing Virgil, with authority to select his own deputies.  Dake granted the request in late January 1882 and provided Wyatt with funds borrowed from Wells Fargo.  By this time, the Earps were under considerable pressure from The Cowboys and their local sympathizers.  After consulting with Virgil, Wyatt Earp resigned as a Deputy US Marshal on 2 February.  Crawley Dake refused to accept Wyatt’s resignation, however, and ordered him instead to “arrest all parties committing crimes against the United States.”

Wyatt Earp sought and received arrest warrants from Judge William H. Stilwell (no relation to Frank Stilwell) for the arrest of the men he believed were responsible for the shooting of Virgil Earp.  Judge Stilwell was one among many Tombstone residents who were unhappy with Sheriff Behan’s failure to curtail the terrorism of the Cowboy organization.

On January 17, Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats.  Both men were arrested by James Flynn, then serving at Tombstone’s city marshal.  Both men were fined and released, but Ringo was rearrested and jailed for an outstanding warrant on a charge of robbery in Galeyville.

Less than a week later, Wyatt organized a posse consisting of brothers Morgan and Warren, Doc Holliday, “Texas Jack” Vermillion and four other men, and led them to Charleston, Arizona where Wyatt suspected that he might find Ike and Phin Clanton and the outlaw Pony Diehl [4].  Johnny Ringo, who was still in jail, learned of the posse and arranged with Sheriff Behan to post bail.  Behan released Ringo before the bail money was paid, and he headed straight for Charleston to warn his friends.

En route to Charleston, the Earp posse picked up an additional 30 riders from Tombstone.  Outside Charleston, the posse arrested known Cowboy associate Ben Maynard.  The posse soon took over the town and started a door-to-door search for the Clanton’s and Diehl, but Ringo had beat them to the punch and the three wanted men fled the town.  Ultimately, Earp re-arrested Ringo.  The next morning, Earp directed a search of the surrounding countryside.  The search was halted when a Tombstone deputy arrived with a warrant for the arrest of Sherman McMaster, alleging that he stole two horses from the Contention mining camp.  The posse returned to Tombstone where McMaster posted bail.

Ike and Phin Clanton surrendered to Wells Fargo agent Charley Bartholomew on 30 January and was placed in the Tombstone City Jail.  After being locked up, the Clanton’s were surprised to learn that the warrant was not for armed robbery, as they thought, but rather for the attempted murder of Virgil Earp.  Ike Clanton’s hat had been found at the scene of the shooting and Sherman McMaster testified that he had heard Ike talk about the shooting in Charleston.  According to McMaster, when Ike learned that Virgil had survived, he said that he would have to go back and do it again.  However, Ike and Phin’s lawyer produced seven witnesses who testified that the Clanton’s had been in Charleston the entire night.

After dismissing the charges for lack of evidence, Judge Stilwell called Wyatt aside and told him, “… you’ll never clean up this crowd this way; next time, you’d better leave your prisoners in the brush where alibis don’t count.”

Ike Clanton refiled murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday (who was then in Contention, Arizona) … but when he could not provide any new evidence, the charges were dismissed.  Meanwhile, Wyatt’s legal fees were adding up.  In mid-February, he mortgaged his home to pay his attorney, James G. Howard.

Morgan Earp was murdered on 18 March 1882.  Wyatt remembered the advice offered to him by Judge Stilwell and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp c. 1886

On 20 March, Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp formed a posse consisting of James and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMaster, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Charlie Smith, Dan Tipton, and Texas Jack Vermillion to protect his family and pursue Morgan’s assassins.  Earp promised to pay these men $5.00 a day.  They escorted Morgan’s body to the railhead in Benson, Arizona where James would accompany the remains to the family home in Colton, California.  The posse then provided a guard for Virgil and Allie Earp to the passenger depot in Tucson.

Wyatt had been informed that Frank Stilwell and others were waiting to ambush Virgil in Tucson.  The next morning after Virgil’s departure, Stilwell’s body was discovered alongside the rail tracks riddled with buckshot and numerous gunshot wounds.  Wyatt and five other federal deputies were promptly indicted for murdering Stilwell.  Tucson Justice of the Peace Charlie Meyer issued arrest warrants.

The Earp posse returned to Tombstone where Sheriff Behan attempted to take them into custody, but Earp brushed him aside.  Warren Earp and Charlie Smith remained in Tombstone while the rest of the posse headed for Pete Spence’s wood camp in the Dragoon Mountain area.  Spence wasn’t present, but the posse located and killed Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz.  Two days later, the posse stumbled into the wood camp of Curly Bill Brocius, Pony Diehl, and several other Cowboys near Iron Springs in the Whetstone Mountains.

Both sides opened fire almost simultaneously.  The Earp posse withdrew to find cover … but Wyatt and Texas Jack advanced on the Cowboy’s positions.  Curly Bill fired at Wyatt with a shotgun but missed.  Wyatt returned fire with his own shotgun hitting Curly Bill in the chest from about 50 feet in distance, killing him instantly.  Wyatt then unholstered his revolver and shot Johnny Barnes and Milt Hicks.  Despite the intense gunfire, Wyatt who was not hit, added to his mystique as a western hero.

After the Iron Springs fight, the Earp posse rode north to the Percy Ranch, run by Hugh and Jim Percy.  Fearing retribution by the Cowboys, the Percy’s asked Wyatt to move on, which he did.  On 27 March, the Earp posse arrived at the Sierra Bonita Ranch, owned by Henry Hooker, who befriended Wyatt and provisioned him with fresh horses —refusing payment for them.  Meanwhile, Behan’s posse, acting on the Tucson indictments, searched for Earp and his group of federal deputies.  Hooker advised Wyatt to make a stand at his ranch, but Earp elected to move his men to a point three miles further on near Reilly Hill.  Behan never located Earp’s posse.  In mid-April, Earp left Arizona and headed into New Mexico and then to Colorado.

All told, Earp and his men killed Frank Stilwell, Curly Bill Brocius, Indian Charlie, and Johnny Barnes within a two-week period.  There may have been more assassination.  In 1888, Wyatt Earp gave an interview to historian Hubert Howe Bancroft and admitted to killing “over a dozen” stagecoach robbers, murderers, and cattle thievesc[5].

The gunfight at O.K. Corral lasted less than 30 seconds.  Virgil, not Wyatt, oversaw the posse in Tombstone.  Wyatt Earp’s vengeance ride lasted less than two weeks —and yet, these two events defined Wyatt Earp for the rest of his life.  After killing Stilwell in Tucson, Wyatt Earp received his fifteen minutes of fame in the press.  However, most of Wyatt’s fame came to him after his death in 1929 (a mere sixteen years before my birth).  During his life, he associated with some of the Old West’s greatest personalities: Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Texas Jack Vermillion, Sherman McMaster, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Shotgun John Collins, and Charlie Bassett.  None of these men were “wholesome” Americans, but they were part of the fabric of America’s western history.

What (most) people may not know about Wyatt Earp is that in 1910, aged 62-years, he and Arthur Moore King worked for the Los Angeles Police Department as bounty hunters, apprehending and returning to US jurisdiction, men wanted for crimes committed in Los Angeles.  In this endeavor, Earp and Moore were quite efficient.  It was also a position that led to Wyatt’s final armed confrontation.

In October 1910, Los Angeles Police Commissioner H. L. Lewis asked Wyatt to head up a posse to protect surveyors of the American Trona Company, who were attempting to gain control of mining claims of potash [6] on the edge of Searles Lake.  Wyatt and his posse were regarded as claim jumpers and found themselves facing armed representatives of the other company.  With guns pulled and ready to fire, Wyatt Earp emerged from his tent armed with a Winchester rifle and fired a round at the feet of Federal Receiver Stafford W. Austin.  “Back off, or I’ll blow you apart … or my name isn’t Wyatt Earp.”  Of course, this isn’t how S. Wallace Austin remembered it in 1929, after Earp’s death.  Well, he was there as the Acting Receiver of the Trona Company, so he ought to know.  The owners summoned the US Marshal, who arrested Earp and 27 others, holding them in “contempt of court.”  Earp’s involvement did not resolve the mining dispute, which eventually led to the potash wars of the Mojave Desert.

Wyatt Earp c. 1928

Wyatt Earp c. 1928

According to a letter Wyatt wrote to John Hays Hammond in 1925, “notoriety had been the bane of my life.”  This may be a true sentiment in the same sense that men having distinguished themselves in combat do not wish for people to refer to them as heroes.  Men like Wyatt Earp —rightly or wrongly— became the heroes of young boys, and this in turn without anyone ever being aware of it, may have been a catalyst for an interest in law enforcement when the boys grew into men.  Still, Mr. Earp may have been coy because according to writer Allen Barra [7], Wyatt had ambitions with the Hollywood cinema crowd.

At this late stage in his life, he and Josie Earp were financially stressed living in run-down apartments.  Among Wyatt’s long-term friends was the famous lawman Bill Tilghman.  Earp and Tilghman worked together in the Dodge City days and in 1915 Tilghman managed to obtain financial backing for a film that he both directed and starred in.  In 1920, Tilghman was back seeking support from Universal and dropped in to visit with Earp.

Another of Earps friends was William S. Hart —the Gary Cooper of his own day.  Wyatt infrequently functioned as an unpaid consultant for silent-film era western films and Hart was known as a stickler for realistic detail.  Wyatt also befriended Tom Mix and visited the movie sets of director John Ford whose primary film star (before John Wayne) was Harry Carey.  These associations cause one to wonder, if Earp shunned notoriety, why was he so interested in the film industry?

Earp's last home

Wyatt Earp’s last home still stands in Los Angeles, California

Wyatt was the last surviving Earp brother and last surviving participant of the Gunfight at O. K. Corral.  He died at his home at 4004 W. 17th Street, Los Angeles, California on January 13, 1929.  There is some debate as to the cause of his death, but he was 80 years old.  In 1887, the Los Angeles Herald described Earp as, “quiet, unassuming, broad-shouldered, with a large blonde mustache.  He is dignified, self-contained, game and fearless, and no man commands greater respect.”  That’s the way people remember him today, as well–including me.


  1. The Eastern Earps, Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun, 10 May 2005.
  2. Isenberg, A. C.Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.  Macmillan, 2013.
  3. Eppinga, J.  Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
  4. Guinn, J.The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at O.K. Corral and How it Change the American West.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011
  5. Marks, P.M.And Die in the West.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996
  6. Johnson, D.John Ringo.  Stillwater, OK.  Barbed Wire Press, 1996.
  7. Tefertiller, C.Wyatt Earp: the Life behind the Legend.  New York, Wiley Press, 1999


[1] See They Were All Dirty.

[2] Shanssey (1848-1919) was a professional boxer, gambler, saloon owner, and a mayor of Yuma, Arizona.

[3] It is likely that Wyatt Earp knew Kate before she took up with Doc Holliday.  Born sometime in 1850 in Hungary, Kate’s father was a physician serving Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.  When Maximilian was deposed, the family moved to Davenport, Iowa.  In 1865, both her parents passed away leaving her and sister Wilhelmina orphans and the children were placed in a foster home.  Kate ran away with the help of a boat captain, later marrying Silas Melvin, a dentist with whom she had a child.  Kate lost her husband and child to yellow fever.  In 1869, she began working as a prostitute in St. Louis.  In 1874, she worked for Nellie “Bessie” Earp, James’ wife in Dodge City.  It is likely that Wyatt knew her in this capacity.

[4] Charles “Pony Diehl” Ray (b. 1848) was a ruthless outlaw known to affiliate with the John Kinney and Jesse Evans gangs.  Pony Diehl participated in the murder of (possibly) three soldiers in a saloon in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  In 1876 he participated in cattle rustling and armed robbery and supported the Murphy-Dolan faction in the Lincoln County War.  Arriving in Arizona in 1878, he joined The Cowboys and may have participated in several robberies and cattle rustling expeditions in the Arizona Territory.  Diehl was suspected of participating in the assassination attempt of Virgil Earp on the night of 28 December 1881.

[5] Setting aside the fact that Wyatt Earp relished his history as a lawman, and the likelihood that he embellished some of his exploits, there is plenty of reason to believe that he was capable of exacting violent retribution on those who destroyed his family.

[6] Mined salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form.

[7] Allen Barra, “Wyatt on the Set,” True West Magazine (May 7, 2012)

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