No part of the west was more of a legal
and jurisdictional nightmare -- and a criminal's paradise -- than Indian
Territory, of which the Cherokee Nation was a part. Without a doubt
the territory offered outlaws their safest refuge and their richest field
for uninhibited plunder.
Around 1870, the only authorized permanent residents
of the Territory were some 50,000 Indians.
The five tribes were recognized by the U.S.
Government as self-governing nations within their own assigned lands, and
each tribe had its own laws, courts and the Indian police.
Until 1875, most crimes were punishable by whipping.
Murder and rape were both punishable by hanging. There were no degrees
of murder. If you killed someone . . . it was murder. Larceny
of livestock was a very serious offense, the punishment being 50 lashes
upon the bare back for the first offense; the second offense was 100 lashes
and if the third time was proven, the culprit was hanged, that is if he
survived long enough to get off the ranch.
One did not have to be a lawyer to practice
before the courts, although those pioneers of the territorial bar were
men of sound and clear understanding of human nature.
Indian courts had no jurisdiction over white
invaders, and they lost jurisdiction over every Indian who committed any
crime against -or in company with- a white. Such Indians and every
white who committed any crime whatsoever within the territory fell under
the jurisdiction of the United States Court for the Western District of
Arkansas, whose sole judge and handful of marshals were expected to enforce
law and order over some 70,000 miles of outlaw-haunted terrain.
In 1875, Isaac Charles Parker was appointed
to the Federal Judgeship over the territory in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
He became known as "The Hanging Judge." (During his reign, he sentenced
160 men to the gallows.)
A total of 91 defendants were tried by Parker
in the first session of his court, which lasted eight weeks. Of the
accused, eighteen were charged with murder and fifteen were convicted.
Eight received long prison terms and one was killed trying to escape.
The remaining six were condemned to the gallows.
These men were not big-time gunfighters, one
had murdered to get a young cowboy's fancy boots and saddle. Another
had clubbed and knifed an old friend to death to get his pocket money.
Not only did Parker try cases, but he also organized
ways and means of bringing in more lawbreakers to stand trial. Congress
and the President had invested Parker with unique powers to cope with the
problems of Indian Territory. His marshal, also a Presidential appointee,
was authorized to hire a small army of 200 deputy marshals.
In recruiting his force of deputies, Parker
realized there would be some bad ones who would take opportunity of their
badges. He hated gunfighters, but he knew that it took one to catch
one. So if the man was good with a gun the judge was willing to overlook
blank spots in his background.
Two of the Dalton boys had been deputies, they
were only a couple that turned bad after becoming deputies.
The marshals received .60 a mile for travel,
and $2 per arrest, averaging about $500 a year. The marshals who
tracked criminals in Indian Territory were issued a pamphlet of guidelines
that read as follows:
"U.S. Deputy Marshals for the Western
District of Arkansas may make arrest for Murder, Manslaughter, Assault
with intent to kill or to maim, Attempts to Murder, Arson, Robbery, Rape,
Burglary, Larceny, Incest, Adultry, Willfully and Maliciously Placing Obstructions
on a Railroad Track."
"These arrests may be made with or without warrant
first issued and in the hands of the Deputy or the Chief Marshal.
It is always better for the Deputy to have a warrant before making an arrest,
yet if he knows of any one of the above crimes having been committed and
has good reason to believe a particular party guilty of the crime, his
duty is to make the arrest."
Click for larger
view of photo
Ten of the sixteen U.S. Deputy Marshals in the
posse that killed Ned Christie are pictured. Standing, from L: Wes
Bowman, Ab Allen, John Tolbert, Bill Smith and Tom Johnson; Seated, from
L: Dave Rusk, Heck Bruner, Paden Tolbert, Charles Copeland, and Captain G.S. White.
Many deputy U.S. Marshals whose names have been
written in the history of law and order in Indian Territory lived in Craig
When federal districts were changed in 1885,
Indian Territory was divided into three judicial districts. Downingville,
or Vinita, was headquarters for the Northern District and for many deputy
marshals, coordinated by the Territorial U.S. Marshal, Evett D. Nix.
Some of the early deputy U.S. Marshals were:
Paden Tolbert, Heck Bruner, Bill Smith, Dave Rusk, Tom Johnson, Bud Ledbetter,
Charley Copeland, Sam Burns, Ike Gilstrap, Ves Bond, Riley Thompson, Bill
Ellis, and G.S. (Cap) White. One of the most famous U.S. Marshals
was Heck Thomas. Thomas, a native Georgian, was 12 when he served
as a Confederate Army courier; after the War, while working as a private
detective in Texas, he single handed, captured two desperadoes, and won
reknown among outlaws as a man to be shunned. Thomas provided much
of the muscle in Judge Parker's crusade against outlaws, and came through
Craig County often.
W.H. Darrough was named deputy U.S. Marshal
for this district around 1898 and served until Oklahoma statehood.
He was active in Vinita affairs.
In 1907, Sam Ridenhour was the first elected
sheriff of Craig County. He served in that capacity for eight years.
He was also Chief of Police several times over and served many years as
Chief of the Vinita Fire Department, driving the first team of fire horses
Vinita ever had. Truth is, they only had one team that lasted until
the motor trucks came into use.
Ridenhour got his first law job as a deputy
U.S. Marshal's commission by accident about 1899. Two outlaws held
up the M.K.&T. and robbed it at Pryor Creek. Ridenhour apparently
had a look-a-like who happened to be one of the robbers.
Ridenhour and a man named John Hodge were arrested,
tried and convicted. Luckily for them a man by the name of Turlington
who had killed the Sheriff of Booneville, Missouri, had been caught and
sentenced to hang. He confessed to the train robbery at Pryor Creek
and told where his partner was located in Texas.
The U.S. Officials redeemed themselves by giving
Ridenhour a commission as constable. He covered the whole Cherokee
Nation for several years. C.H. Goodpaster was a later deputy marshal.
Ridenhour served as sheriff from 1907 to 1912
and again in 1921-22.
Harry J. Campbell was elected Craig County Sheriff
and took office September 3, 1923, serving eight years in office.
He caught 21 bank robbers, 20 of whom were convicted and sent to the penitentiary.
Faced with constant loss of cattle at the hands
of rustlers, cattlemen organized the Cherokee National Stockmen's Protective
and Detective Association in 1881 and ranchers of what is now Craig County
were prominent in the group.
Abraham Mills, of the Welch area, was president
and Henry Eiffert, secretary. A brand book was issued showing owners
of cattle, location of ranges and their brands. Rewards were offered
for apprehension of cattle thieves.
In 1884, the association was headed by G. W.
Clark, with John A. Foreman as secretary.
It continued for years but a larger group with
a similar purpose came into existence in the 1890s in this area with the
formation of the Anti-Horse Thief Association
protecting owners against horse stealing.
There were lodges throughout the county even
in the smallest communities. Kinnison, Russell
Creek, Eagle, Welch and others - all
areas had A.H.T.A. groups and Craig County men were prominent in the state
Vinita's streets did not run red, probably because
of so many U.S. Deputy Marshals being headquartered there. Of course,
there were killings on Vinita streets and other crimes were committed,
but the town escaped the fury of outlaw gangs that terrorized many parts
of the Cherokee Nation.
The Dalton gang, which consisted of Bob, Emmet
and Gratton (called Grat), robbed trains all around this area of the Cherokee
Nation. Bob lived on Duck Creek near Afton, I.T., at one time during
their outlaw days.
Bob Dalton had been hanging around the billiard
hall at Adair for about a week. A.M. Fishback, who ran the pool hall,
knew he had seen the man before, but could not place him. When Fishback
questioned him, he claimed to be a U.S. Marshal looking for a man.
The train robbery took place July 14, 1892,
about 9 a.m. Two doctors were sitting in front of the drug store about
a block away from all the action, thinking they could not be seen.
Both men were shot. They were Dr. Garrison and Dr. Youngblood. They
were put aboard the train and taken to Vinita. Dr. Garrison died
on the way, and Youngblood was a cripple the remainder of his life.
When Fishback, a large German man who weighed
about 250 pounds, heard the shooting, he ran out the back of the pool hall
headed for home. In the alley behind the hall, he ran smack dab into
the robber's horses. The man who was watching the horses shouted
at Fishback, but he never stopped running until he fell in the door at
home. His wife said it was quite a while before he had his breath
back so he could tell her what happened.
After the robbery, Fishback then remembered
where he had seen the men. He had lived on the adjoining farm next
to him on Duck Creek. He verified him as Bob Dalton.
In Glenn Shirley's book "Heck Thomas, Frontier
Marshal," he tells of the arrest of George Weightman alias Red Buck, at
the home of a man named Willis south of Vinita, for stealing mules from
Bob Knight and a horse from the Blythes.
Red Buck had a long record of murders and robberies
before he was killed in western Oklahoma.
Paden Tolbert, Heck Bruner, Bill Smith, Ike
Gilstrap, and a few others were U.S. Deputies headquartered in Vinita,
and they were instrumental in the capture of many lawbreakers.
Heck Bruner and his brother Wood, captured or
killed a gang of outlaws at White Oak in November, 1893. Ralph Hallett,
one of the gang, had robbed the safe at the Frisco Station in Chelsea not
long before. He was one that was shot at White Oak.
Belle Starr frequented this area. She
was arrested several times, but due to her power of seduction or generosity,
many times deputies were persuaded to return empty handed. L.W. Marks
was said to have been the first deputy U.S. Marshal to arrest Belle.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Paden Tolbert was among
the deputies who participated in the slaying of Ned Christie, a Cherokee
outlaw who wore his clothes out from the inside he was so rough and mean.
He was high on the most-wanted list of felons in I.T. Christie had begun
life as a law abiding gunsmith.
Crawford Goldsby alias Cherokee Bill was captured
northwest of Big Creek. He was of Indian, Mexican and Negro descent.
On February 14, 1914, the Vinita Journal published
a story stating that Poncho Villa, the ex-bandit leader and rebel chief
terrorizing Mexico, was in reality George Goldsby, who in the 1880s came
to Vinita along with his family to live. George, a black man, cooked
for the Tom Knight family. A son, Luther worked at the Cobb Hotel.
George and Crawford "Cherokee Bill" Goldsby were reportedly half-brothers.
Cherokee Bill was captured by Deputy Marshals
Ike Rogers and Clint Scales and later was hanged at Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
On September 4,1906, Vinita had it's only "legal"
hanging. The man was Robert Cotton, a black, who had been convicted
of killing his wife near Vian. He signed a full confession before
he was hanged.
In 1932 and 1933, when Pretty Boy Floyd was
at his summit of crime, he was said to have spent two days in Vinita at
one of the leading hotels looking the First National Bank over with thoughts
of robbery in mind. The bank got wind of it and hired a guard, Harry
J. Campbell, who had served as sheriff for eight years. He worked
there for four years.
Other outlaws went through here. They
came along the old road by Tater Hill and the Russell Creek Cemetery.
The Mills family had a black woman cook, Phyllis. After the family
had eaten, the Jennings boys would come in, sit down, and eat breakfast.
Sometimes a man would get into trouble with
the law and hide out. Friends and family would put food out for him
at an agreed upon place as long as was needed. Sometimes they provided
a horse for him to get away.
Although Cherokee Bill spent a part of his time
in what is now Craig County and Bitter Creek Newcomb hid out at times in
the northern part of the county, the area was free of organized gangs.
But there were exceptions.
The robbery of the Centralia Bank Oct. 16, 1916,
was said to have been performed by what was known as the Poe-Hart gang,
headed by Oscar Poe and William Hart. Harry, a twin brother of William
also participated in their crimes. They were from Vinita. Another
member was Poem Poe, and several were unknown.
After a string of robberies, holdups and murders,
the two Harts and Oscar Poe were killed near Okmulgee in a raid by officers
Jan. 21, 1917.
A lone monument marks the graves of four persons
buried in the old Williams
Cemetery, five miles east of Welch, three of them the resting place
of countians linked with criminal episodes in the early 1930s.
The bodies interred there are those of the notorious
Kate (Ma) Barker and two of her sons, Freddie and Herman. The fourth
is the grave of the husband and father of the lawbreakers, George Barker,
who apparently never had a part in their criminal career.
The outlaws were a part of what was known as
the Karpis-Barker gang that made the headlines with their bank and payroll
robberies, two major kidnappings and several murders.
They reportedly had hideouts in the Craig and
Nowata areas and avoided capture for years.
Ma Barker and Freddie were in Florida in 1935
when slain by officers. Herman had killed himself at Wichita, Kan.,
in 1927 rather than be captured by officers.
& Outlaws on the OKGenWeb