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Horseback Outlaws

It was a land without law, other than the tribal law and courts of the Five Tribes. The only police were Indian police. There were a number of military posts between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Red River, to the south and west, of which Fort Gibson, some sixty miles up the Arkansas River, at the confluence of the Grand and Verdigris, was the only one of real consequence. The military had no authority to interfere in criminal and civil cases arising among the Indians. In fact, they were expressly forbidden to do so, and this postscription covered mixed bloods of all degrees.

What had become Indian Territory had been known to the criminal element of a dozen Southern and Midwestern states for years. Though it offered a safe refuge for wanted men, few appear to have taken advantage of it. But now, with thousands of "civilized" Indians with their government allotments to prey on, they came from far and near, got themselves adopted into the tribes by marriage and not only proceeded to debauch their benefactors with the wildcat whisky they brewed in their illicit stills, but plundered and killed with a merciless abandon equaled elsewhere only by the pirates of the lower Mississippi and the white savages of the Natchez Trace. It was, of course, from those very depths of criminal viciousness that a substantial number of the lawless characters infesting the Territory had come.

The seeds of lawlessness had been planted, and it remained only for the passing years to bring them to flower. The half-breed sons of the white renegades grew to manhood with contempt for tribal laws, which among the Choctaws and Cherokees were strict and severe in their punishments. The invariable aftermath to a quarrel was murder. Usually the killings went unexplained, or, in the Cherokee Nation, were charged to the implacable feud between the No Treaty Party and the Treaty Party that took the lives of so many. There is no record to say what the number was, but it must have run into the hundreds. We do know that there were nights when four, even five, men were shot down within a few minutes.

The internecine strife that divided the Cherokees was waged up to and through the years of the Civil War, and it was responsible for the defeat of the adherents of the Confederacy among the Five Tribes. It also helped to provide the climate for the day of the horseback outlaws.

The strife that divided the Cherokee Nation went back to the treaty signed with the federal government that resulted in their removal from their ancestral homeland. Principal Chief John Ross, titular head of the tribe for almost forty years, had refused to sign it, and he and his faction held that those chiefs who had - Stand Watie; Elias Boudinot, his brother; and Major John Ridge - were traitors. Boudinot, Major Ridge and his son, John, were assassinated following the removal. Only death could heal that breach. It followed that when the conflict between North and South began, those two old enemies took sides, John Ross declaring for the Union, and Stand Watie taking the field for the Confederacy. The latter, a redoubtable man and something of a military genius, was made a brigadier general before the struggle was over, and when he surrendered at Fort Towson, in June 1865, he was the last of the Confederate commanders to lay down his arms.

I became acquainted with a number of "reformed" outlaws, among them Emmett Dalton, the last of the Dalton Gang, who had spent almost fifteen years in prison for his part in the spectacular and tragic Coffeyville, Kansas, fiasco before he was pardoned. I recall him as a well-preserved man, in his early fifties, still truculent and highly opinionated. He was looking for a writer to assist him in putting down on paper the "true" story of the Daltons, which he claimed had never been done, and which he alone was in a position to supply.

His need was the need without exception of all of the leftovers from the bygone days of the horseback outlaws, and the horseback marshals as well, who had achieved some claim on fame. Each was convinced that he had a "great" story to tell; all he needed was someone to write it. Eventually, most of them managed to get into print, with the aid of either a literary ghost or a collaborator. Unfortunately, the books they produced, including Emmett Dalton's When the Daltons Rode, had little to say that had not been said before. Most of the little that was new was either straight fiction or based on hearsay and alleged conversations, for which no substantiating evidence was, or could be, offered. That these so-called firsthand narratives are in violent disagreement with one another, even on what have come to be accepted as established facts, is not surprising, for among the score or more of professional writers of the first rank who have tried to break through the web of math and legend surrounding a half-century of Oklahoma outlawry, there are endless contradictions, differences of opinion and an acrimonious readiness to charge with incompetence whoever might disagree.

I am thinking particularly of Burton Rascoe, the highly regarded and always caustic author of Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, which when published in 1941 was accepted widely as the definitive last word on Belle, Cole Younger (the father of her daughter Pearl), the Youngers' "cousins," Frank and Jesse James, Henry Starr (related only by Cherokee marriage of his cousin Sam Starr to Belle) and other characters who gained some prominence in the era of the horseback outlaws. Rascoe went out of his way to demolish the published accounts that had preceded his, and with evident relish points out the errors in them. He then proceeds to make many horrific errors of his own. He says, on page 281: "Train robbery `inverted' by Jesse James. First train robbery in the world, on July 21 (1873) when Frank and Jesse James, Cole and Jim Younger and three others held up the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific passenger express near Adair, Iowa, getting $3,000 from the safe in the express car and several hundred dollars in cash and jewelry from the passengers."

He was very wide of the mark. It was generally known, and a writer of Burton Rascoe's prominence should have known, that the first robbery of a railroad train occurred on October 6, 1866, and was accomplished by "a crew of Hoosiers who thought it up, then put it into practice on the Ohio and Mississippi Railway near Seymour, in Jackson County, Indiana." I am quoting Stewart H. Holbrook, the dedicated historian of the steam cars. He continues:

"This first stickup was a simple job. A passenger train carrying an express and baggage car pulled out of Seymour in the early evening, heading east, and almost immediately two masked men came into the car from the coach just behind. In those days it hadn't occurred to expressmen to lock their car doors, so the entry was made without fuss. The two men secured the messenger's keys, opened the safe, took out some $13,000, then pulled the bellcord to signal the engineer to stop. Stop he did, and the robbers dumped another safe, unopened, from the car, and leaped after it into the darkness.

"This was something new. The train crew hardly knew what was expected of them. They discussed the event wonderingly, then took the train to the next station. Here an armed posse was recruited. They pumped their way on a handcar back to the scene of the crime, to find only the unopened safe, which had been too much for the robbers. Such was the holdup. A bit later, and doubtless with good reason, John and Simeon Reno, two brothers of questionable habits, and Frank Sparks, no better than he should be, were arrested, indicted for the crime, and admitted to bail. Their trial was postponed from time to time and was never held."

A year later, the same train was stopped and robbed, also near Seymour. Walker Hammond and Michael Collins, friends of the Reno brothers, were suspected; and it was believed that the Reno brothers, of whom there were four, had masterminded this second holdup. The Pinkertons got their hands on John Reno, and he was sent to prison for a long term. James D. Horan, in his Desperate Men, speculates, and wisely, I believe, that some member of the James Gang became acquainted with John Reno while both were serving time in the Missouri Penitentiary, and carried the idea of robbing trains to Jesse.

Since the days when that indispensable barbershop publication, the National Police Gazette, entertained its readers with its exciting, supermelodramatic and grossly fantastic and inaccurate "lives" of Frank and Jesse James and their outlaw contemporaries, so much has been written and so much documentation supplied that one is surprised to find Rascoe saying:

"You must remember that after Frank James got his release from prison (after having served twenty-one years) he had a tough time making a living. He was 60 years old and he had never worked a day in his life except while he was in the penitentiary, and about all he had done there was to sort gunny sacks."

This is wrong. If Frank James ever sorted gunny sacks it was not in prison, for he never served a day for his crimes. It is a matter of record. When he was brought to trial in Gallatin, the county seat of Daviess County, Missouri, it was the only time he ever faced a judge and jury. Paul Wellman, a writer for whom I have an enduring respect, says in his recent and excellent A Dynasty of Western Outlaws: "Except for the few weeks he [Frank James] spent in custody awaiting his trial he did not serve a single day in prison for his many crimes. No other charges were made against him, and he died peacefully in 1915, when he was seventytwo years old. Of all the gang, he alone escaped punishment."

Although in his introduction to A Dynasty of Outlaws, Wellman decries "the school of professional `so-called' debunkers," he does not hesitate to point out numerous other errors in Rascoe (he misses some), and then says later, "It is almost impossible to avoid mistakes, particularly where there are many versions of a given event." He makes his share, honest mistakes of fact and opinion, which I shall have occasion to point out later, and without apology, knowing that mine will be pointed out to me. It is the surest way, I believe, to get at the truth and demolish the myths and legends that we have been duped into accepting as factual history.

The course of my writing life has been such that I have seldom been beyond shouting distance of what I like to call the Horseback Outlaws of Indian Territory, Old Oklahoma and the state of Oklahoma, which emerged from those early beginnings. Digging through the musty files of old newspapers and examining such court records as were available was an enlightening and often confusing experience, made even more so by interviewing "eyewinesses" (all but one or two of whom have passed away in my time). Under examination, those firsthand accounts seldom proved to be reliable. But the old-timers believed in the truth of what the had to say, even when they disagreed among themselves. Of course, most of them were going back half a lifetime to recall what they had seen and heard. What they failed to realize was that the imagination had been at work through the dim years they had put behind them, coloring whatever they chose to recall and leading more than one to appropriate something he had read and to palm it off as his own experience.

The absurd statement has been made that there were five thousand outlaws running wild in the two territories. There may have been as many as five thousand criminals unapprehended in the country between the Kansas line and Red River, at one time or another. I believe there were. That would include petty thieves, safe-crackers, murderers, a few rapists and the several thousand who were engaged in the manufacture and sale of whisky to the Indians, plus the fluctuating and ever-hanging number of "wanted" men who regarded that lawless country as only a temporary refuge. Of the genuine horseback outlaws, who did their marauding in gangs, robbing banks and express offices and holding up trains, the acknowledged elite of their lawless world, the like of whom America had never seen before and was never to see again, I can account for fewer than two hundred.

No excuses can be offered for them. A few, Bill Doolin for one, were chivalrous, after a fashion. But with few exceptions, even the most hardened lived and died by a code that was not without honor, prizing bravery and loyalty above all other manly virtues. It is not glorifying their banditry to say tht they are not to be confused or likened to the modern-day "hood" and gangster.

The argument has been advanced in their favor that they were cowboys, who found their occupation gone with the opening of the Territory to white settlement; that afte the wild, free life of the open range, they rebelled at the thought of being cooped up on a quarter section of land and trying to scratch a living with a plow. This is sheer nonsense. As I have said elsewhere, cowboying as a way of life did not end with the opening of the unassigned lands of Old Oklahoma to white settlers in 1889; the northern ranges of Wyoming, Montana and Dakota were just entering the era of their greatest prosperity. The big outfits were hungry for men. To get them, they were paying higher wages and serving better grub than Texas and Oklahoma punchers had ever enjoyed. Any man who wanted a job could find one.

The truth is, of course, that very few of them were cowboys. I mean working cowboys, following that vocation from year to year. Frank and Jesse James and the members of their gang had never punched cattle for a living. That is equally true of Cole Younger and his brothers. The same can be said of the Dalton brothers, the Jennings boys, Cherokee Bill, Texas Jack and a host of others. Of all the major gangs of horseback outlaws, only Bill Doolin and his Iongriders can truthfully be identified as of cowboy origin. Doolin had been a top hand on Oscar Halsell's big H X Bar spread before he stepped into outlawry with the Daltons. Only a lame horse kept him out of the Coffeyville fiasco. Returning to the H X Bar, on the Cimarron, north of Guthrie, he began recruiting a gang of his own. When he was ready to take to the brush, the men who rode with him were, with one or two exceptions, were H X Bar cowboys. They were rough, tough young men, reckless to the point of foolhardiness, who knew what they were doing. No one had pushed them into outlawry.

It has been said many times that it was the lure of easy money, the chance to make a big stake in a hurry, that took so many men into outlawry. Unquestionably the prospect of the rich pickings to be gleaned was of the first importance with them. But only in the beginning. After a few successful forays, the thrill and excitement of sweeping into a town and cowing it with their guns became almost as important to them as money. No one ever put it better than handsome Henry Starr, the most gentlemanly, and to me the most intelligent of all horseback outlaws, when he said, after thirty years of robbing banks and being in and out of prison: "Of course I'm interested in the money and the chance that I'll make a big haul that will make me rich, but I must admit that there's the lure of the life in the open, the rides at night, the spice of danger, the mastery over men, the pride of being able to hold a mob at bay - it tingles in my veins. I love it. It is wild adventure. I feel as I imagine the old buccaneers felt when they roved the sea with the black flag at the masthead."

Fred Sutton, the often unreliable author of Hands Up, says he jotted down the above (and a lot more) during one of Starr's visits to his (Sutton's) office in Oklahoma City. I accept it as authentic; it sounds like Starr, and it echoes sentiments he had expressed to others. I rather believe Sutton got it second hand from Marshal Bill Tilghman, who often befriended Starr and never completely lost faith in the man. But that does not matter; others had said much the same. It is important only because it partially explains why the confirmed outlaw stuck to his trade until his career ended in a blast of gunfire or the hangman's noose.

Only a very few had even the rudiments of an education; the rest were ignorant. Many, like Cherokee Bill, Bill Cook, Rufus Buck, could sign their name, and that was about all. But they were not fools. They had a native shrewdness and sagacity. If they knew anything, it was that none of their predecessors in the game they were playing had succeeded in piling up a fortune and getting away to Mexico or South America to enjoy it. (A few got away, but they always returned, and that was their undoing.) Knowing what the score was, why did they persist in their banditry until they arrived at the inevitable end?

For several reasons. Not only did they believe they were smart enough to avoid the mistakes that had been the downfall of others, but they held their lives cheaply, which is not difficult to understand. Many of them hailed from Missouri, the cradle of outlawry. Either as children or as grown men, they were products of the bitter cruel years of border warfare between the proslavery and antislavery factions of Kansas and Missouri, followed by the even bloodier years of guerrilla warfare between Union and Confederate forces, captained by such men as Kansas' mad Jim Lane and Charles Jennison, leader of the Red Legs, and the notorious William Clarke Quantrill of the Secessionists. Lee's surrender at Appomattox did not end the internecine strife in war-torn Kansas and Missouri. It went on for years, and a decade and more passed before it burned itself out. It is of the first importance because it provided the climate which produced the horseback outlaws.

It is no longer possible to contact eyewitnesses to the raids and holdups or the surviving marshals and deputy marshals who made war on the outlaw gangs, as it was forty and more years ago when I was filling notebooks with firsthand interviews, very much as Frederick S. Barde, the Guthrie newspaperman, was doing as he traveled up and down and across Oklahoma by horse and buggy. The Barde Collection, a gift from his daughter, reposes in the archives of the Oklahoma Historical Society, immensely valuable.

Harry Sinclair Drago (1888-1979)

Harry Sinclair Drago. Outlaws on horseback: the history of the organized bands of bank and train robbers who terrorized the prairie towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for half a century. Bramhall House, New York, 1964.


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