Welcome back to anthropology-ish Friday. Today we’re reading Outlaws on Horseback: The Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers who Terrorized the Middle West for Half a Century by Harry Sinclair Drago. From the Amazon blurb:
Outlaws on Horseback concentrates on the long, unbroken chain of crime that began in the late 1850s with the Missouri-Kansas border warfare and ended in Arkansas in 1921 with the killing of Henry Starr, the last of the authentic desperadoes. Harry Sinclair Drago shows links among the men and women who terrorized the Midwest while he squelches the most outlandish tales about them.
The guerrilla warfare led by the evil William Quantrill was training for Frank and Jesse James and Cole and Jim Younger. Drago puts their bloody careers in perspective and tracks down the truth about Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, Cherokee Bill, Rose of the Cimarron, and the gangs, including the Daltons and Doolins, that infested the Oklahoma hills. The action moves from the sacking of Lawrence to the raid on Northfield to the shootout at Coffeyville.
The introduction and first chapter have so far been really good, so let’s jump right in (as usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):
“I have always treasured my chance meeting with Marshal Nix. It quickened my interest in that controversial chapter of American history dealing with the horseback outlaws of Indian and Oklahoma territories and the little army of U.S. marshals and deputy marshals who hunted them down and finally eliminated them in the most prolonged and sanguinary game of cops and robbers this country or any other ever had known. Roughly speaking, it began soon after the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from their homeland in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to reservations in the uninhabited wilderness to the west of the state of Arkansas, comprising the eastern third of present-day Oklahoma.”
These are the first five tribes that Anglo-European settlers generally considered to be “civilized” according to their own worldview, because these five tribes adopted attributes of the colonists’ culture, for example, Christianity, centralized governments, literacy, market participation, written constitutions, intermarriage with white Americans, and plantation slavery practices. The Five Civilized Tribes tended to maintain stable political relations with the Europeans.
The Cherokee, thanks to the brilliant Sequoyah, had their own syllabary (similar to alphabet) and thus their own Cherokee-language printing industry.
The Seminoles of Florida are notable for never having surrendered to the US government, which could not effectively track and fight them in the Everglades Swamp.
But back to Drago:
“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 proscription covered mixed bloods of all degree.
“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 whiskey 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 and the white savages of the Natchez Trace. It was, of course, from those very depth of criminal viciousness that a substantial number of the lawless characters infesting the Territory had come.”
EvX: The Natchez Trace:
is a historic forest trail within the United States which extends roughly 440 miles (710 km) from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, linking the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers. The trail was created and used for centuries by Native Americans, and was later used by early European and American explorers, traders, and emigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. …
Largely following a geologic ridge line, prehistoric animals followed the dry ground of the Trace to distant grazing lands, the salt licks of today’s central Tennessee, and to the Mississippi River. … In the case of the Trace, bison traveled north to find salt licks in the Nashville area. … Numerous prehistoric indigenous settlements in Mississippi were established along the Natchez Trace. Among them were the 2000-year-old Pharr Mounds of the Middle Woodland period, located near present-day Tupelo, Mississippi. …
The U.S. signed treaties with the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes to maintain peace, as European Americans entered the area in greater numbers. In 1801 the United States Army began the trail blazing along the Trace, performing major work to prepare it as a thoroughfare. The work was first done by soldiers reassigned from Tennessee and later by civilian contractors. To emphasize American sovereignty in the area, he called it the “Columbian Highway.” The people who used it, however, dubbed the road “The Devil’s Backbone” due to its remoteness, rough conditions, and the often encountered highwaymen found along the new road.
By 1809, the trail was fully navigable by wagon, with the northward journey taking two to three weeks. Critical to the success of the Trace as a trade route was the development of inns and trading posts, referred to at the time as “stands.” …
The Trace was the only reliable land link between the eastern states and the trading ports of Mississippi and Louisiana. This brought all sorts of people down the Trace: itinerant preachers, highwaymen, traders, and peddlers among them. …
As with much of the unsettled frontier, banditry regularly occurred along the Trace. Much of it centered around the river landing Natchez Under-The-Hill, (as compared with the rest of the town) atop the river bluff. Under-the-Hill, where barges and keelboats put in with goods from northern ports, was a hotbed of gamblers, prostitutes, and drunkards. Many of the rowdies, referred to as “Kaintucks,” were rough Kentucky frontiersmen who operated flatboats down the river.…
Other dangers lurked on the Trace in the areas outside city boundaries. Highwaymen (such as John Murrell and Samuel Mason) terrorized travelers along the road. They operated large gangs of organized brigands in one of the first examples of land-based organized crime in the United States.
Back to Drago:
“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. …
“The internecine strife that divided the Cherokees was waged up to and through the yeas 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.”
EvX: For my non-American readers, Drago is referring to the infamous removal of the Cherokee (and other “civilized tribes”) under President Andrew Jackson, memorialized as the “Trail of Tears.” The forced march from their ancestral lands in the southeast US to what is now Oklahoma (formerly, “Indian Territory”) resulted in 13,000-16,500 deaths. According to Wikipedia:
The Cherokee Trail of Tears resulted from the enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota, an agreement signed under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which exchanged Indian land in the East for lands west of the Mississippi River, but which was never accepted by the elected tribal leadership or a majority of the Cherokee people.
Interestingly, Chief John Ross was (according to Wikipedia) only 1/8th Cherokee, the rest of his family being of Scottish ancestry:
As a result, young John… grew up bilingual and bicultural, an experience that served him well when his parents decided to send him to schools that served other mixed race Cherokee. … During the War of 1812, he served as adjutant of a Cherokee regiment under the command of Andrew Jackson. After the Red Stick War ended, Ross demonstrated his business acumen by starting a tobacco farm in Tennessee. In 1816, he built a warehouse and trading post on the Tennessee River north of the mouth of Chattanooga Creek, and started a ferry service that carried passengers from the south side of the river (Cherokee Nation) to the north side (USA). …
Ross first went to Washington, D.C. in 1816 as part of a Cherokee delegation to negotiate issues of national boundaries, land ownership and white encroachment. As the only delegate fluent in English, Ross became the principal negotiator, despite his relative youth. When he returned to the Cherokee Nation in 1817, he was elected to the National Council. …
The majority of the council were men like Ross, who were wealthy, educated, English-speaking and of mixed blood. Even the traditionalist full-blood Cherokee perceived that he had the skills necessary to contest the whites’ demands that the Cherokee cede their land and move beyond the Mississippi River.
When Georgia moved to extend state laws over Cherokee lands in 1830, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Marshall court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not a sovereign and independent nation, and therefore refused to hear the case. However, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court ruled that Georgia could not impose laws in Cherokee territory, since only the national government — not state governments — had authority in Indian affairs.
I mention Cherokee Nation v. Georgia because it really is a testament to the Cherokees’ level of literacy and sophistication that they knew how to use the American legal system well enough to bring a case before the Supreme Court. But Jackson had enough problems on his hands (the nullification crisis in South Carolina) and decided he didn’t want to simultaneously face down the Georgia militia, so removal proceeded.
The Cherokee themselves were split on what to do. Some Cherokee (the “Treaty Party,” including Stand Watie,) thought they should just cut their losses, sign the treaty, take the $200,000 and leave. Other Cherokee, (the “No Treaty Party,” lead by John Ross,) wanted to stand their ground and use the legal system to defend their rights.
Back to Drago:
“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, as made a brigadier general before the struggle was over, and when he surrendered at Fort Towson, in June 1865, he was the lat of the Confederate commanders to lay down his arms. …
“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 the 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 whiskey to the Indians, plus the fluctuating and ever-changing 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. …
“The argument has been advanced in their favor that they were cowboys… This is sheer nonsense. … 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…
“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 a wild adventure. I feel as I imagine the old buccaneers felt when they roved the seas with the black flag at the masthead.”
EvX: According to Old West Legends: Henry Starr–The Cherokee Bad Boy:
During his 32 years in crime Henry Starr robbed more banks than both the James-Younger Gang and the Doolin-Dalton Gang put together. He started robbing banks on horseback in 1893 and ended up robbing his last in a car in 1921. The Cherokee Badman netted over $60,000 from more than 21 bank robberies.
Henry Starr was born near Fort Gibson in Indian Territory on December 2, 1873 to George “Hop” Starr, a half-breed Cherokee, and Mary Scot Starr, a woman of Irish decent and one-quarter Cherokee. Mary came from an educated and respectable family, but the Starr side of the family was rife with outlaws. Henry’s grandfather was Tom Starr, an outlaw in his own right. Henry would later say that his grandfather “was known far and wide as the Devil’s own. In all matters where law and order was on one side, Tom Starr was on the other.” …
Back to Drago:
“[Starr’s account] 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.
“… 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 the 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… 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.”
EvX: Here we skip forward to matters dealing incidentally with Quantrill, an outlaw. We’ll talk more about Quantrill next Friday:
“[Quantrill] led his men across the line into Indian Territory. This was more or less just a pleasant excursion, its only purpose being to raid the villages of the Upper Cherokees (the [John] Ross faction) and help themselves to the best horseflesh they could find. Preferably that meant tough, wiry animals of pure mesteno strain, and next best, crossbred mustangs which could go and go and go, and which, due to the incessant raiding among the tribes, had changed owners many times since originally being stolen out of Texas. A generation of Cherokees, born in the Territory, had become as adept at stealing horses a the so-called Wild Indians of the Plains. They tried to secrete their extensive herd, but the white invader from Missouri found the and, in the process of taking what they wanted, left a trail of dead Indians in their wake…
“Quantrill and his men had little to fear from Union reprisals. The War Department [this was during the Civil War] had withdrawn its troops from the posts in Texas and Indian Territory soon after the outbreak of hostilities, the announced reason being that it wold be impossible to supply them. It was a mistake; among the Five Civilized Tribes, the faction loyal to the Union felt they had been abandoned. Stand Watie and his Rebel army moved into Fort Gibson and wrought havoc up and down the Texas Road, the main north-south route through the Nations, parts of which were variously known as the Osage Trace, the Shawnee Trail and the Sedalia Trail, until Secretary of War Stanton reversed himself and gathered a force of several regiments of Kansas volunteers and a Missouri battery, accompanied by several hundred Osage tribesmen… and ordered them to retake Fort Gibson.
“Stand Watie, in the face of superior numbers, retired from Gibson without a struggle, but for the rest of the war years, he raided up and down the Texas Road, waylaying wagon trains from Fort Scott, Kansas, from which Fort Gibson had to be supplied. On one occasion… he captured a supply train valued at $1,500,000. …
“The scorched-earth policy Stand Watie pursued devastated the country and resulted in starvation and near-starvation for thousands of Indians. The confederacy strengthened the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, renaming it the Indian Brigade by reinforcing it with several regiment of white Texan volunteers.
“But it is not with the four bitter years of the war itself that this narrative is principally concerned; it is with the poverty, the starvation, the memory of the wanton killing and cruelty it left behind, all of which unmistakably made the ground fertile for the generation of outlaws who were to follow, such a Henry Star, Sam Starr, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, his brother Clarence and a score of others. ”
EvX: Note that Drago generally favors environmental explanations for the emergence of outlawry in the post-Civil War period.
Coincidentally, I first heard about Stand Watie–a rather obscure historical figure–the day before I picked up this book. There is a movement afoot in Oklahoma, inspired by the recent vogue for tearing down Confederate monuments, to rename Stand Watie Elementary.
Regardless of which side you favored in the War Between the States, Stand Watie sounds like an unpleasant person who killed or almost killed thousands of his own people. But Oklahoma, in a rare display of sanity, has noted that renaming schools costs money, and Oklahoma’s education budget is pretty tight.
See you next Friday for a full discussion of Quantrell’s Civil War depredations.