Lawless Sheriffs and Honest Desperadoes

GO-GETTER MORALITY BROUGHT an age of Good Bad Men and Bad Good Men. While sheriffs and marshals were in the pay of rustlers and cattle barons, outlaws and vigilantes were taking oaths “to enforce the law.” A Go-Getter’s loyalty was his willingness to stick by his guns to avenge a friend, to defend his cattle, or to secure a fortune. It was a time of boon companions, of pals and “pardners,” and of quick and mortal enemies. It was far easier to recognize a friend or an enemy, to tell a good proposition when you saw one, than to know whether or not the “law” was on your side.

THE PREVALENCE OF FIREARMS and the high value placed on the quick draw made a sureshot the test of manliness. From earliest colonial times, the needs of the wilderness and the threat of Indians had put firearms in the American household. The right to bear arms had been hallowed in the Constitution.

The six-shooter, a stepchild of the West, would for the first time provide a portable, rapid-shooting repeater which put “law enforcement” in the reach of any trained arm. The perfection of the six-shooter was a response to the special needs of Texan cattlemen in the treeless Great Plains. Menaced by the Comanche Indians, the settlers who went to Texas from the United States in the early nineteenth century, found themselves at a dangerous disadvantage. Their encounters with the Indians were commonly on horseback. But the skillful Comanche could ride three hundred yards and shoot twenty arrows in the time it took the Texan to reload his firearm once. Even if a Texan went the limit and actually carried two heavy single-shot pistols in addition to his rifle, he still had no more than three shots before he was forced to stop and reload. Anyway, the rifle could not be used effectively from horseback.

When Samuel Colt, a sixteen-year-old Connecticut sailor, whittled his first wooden model of a revolver on the long voyage to Singapore in 1830, he could hardly have been thinking of the needs of Texas pioneers. Two years later Colt sent a description of his revolver to the Patent Office in Washington. Employing the new techniques of interchangeable parts, Colt’s company manufactured his revolvers, but the United States government refused to take these revolvers, nor were they extensively bought by private citizens in the East.

The new six-shooter did have great appeal out in the new Republic of Texas. In fact, so much of the demand came from there that Colt himself christened his first popular model “the Texas.” The Captain of the Texas Rangers, Samuel H. Walker, went to New York to confer with Colt on improvements. Colt’s new model, heavy enough to use as a club in close combat, and easier to reload, was then named “the Walker.” The name “six-shooter” itself seems to have been introduced by the Texas Rangers. “They are the only weapon,” Ranger officers insisted, “which enabled the experienced frontiersman to defeat the mounted Indian in his own peculiar mode of warfare … your six-shooter is the arm which has rendered the name of Texas Ranger a check and terror to the bands of our frontier Indians.” Probably the first use of the six-shooter in a mounted battle against Indians was at the Pedernales in 1840 when some fifteen Texas Rangers defeated about seventy Comanches.

But in the East the demand was so small that the Colt factory went bankrupt in 1842. The United States Army still could not see the value of the weapon. When war with Mexico broke out in 1845, the Texas Rangers at first used their own six-shooters, and then urgently demanded that the United States government provide a supply. Colt, who at the time did not possess even one six-shooter to use as a model, resumed production. “He had made a better gun,” explains Walter Prescott Webb, eloquent historian of the Great Plains, “it had blazed a pathway from his door to the Texas Rangers and the Plains, and the world was now to pave that pathway with gold.” The Mexican War established the six-shooter as the characteristic American weapon of the West and Southwest.

TO MANY OF the cattlemen and cowboys who gathered in the West in the late 1860’s and ’70’s, the Civil War had given a new familiarity with all kinds of firearms. That bloodiest war of the century had accustomed them to the face of death and the smell of carnage. How all these experiences and opportunities came to focus among Western Go-Getters was illustrated in the remarkable career of Wild Bill Hickok.

As a boy James Butler Hickok loved to hunt, and he had a reputation for being the best shot in northern Illinois. In 1855, when he was only eighteen, he joined the Free State forces in Bleeding Kansas. Serving briefly as a town constable, he then found a job driving a stage across the Santa Fe Trail, which gave him further opportunity to test his fighting prowess. On one occasion he used his bowie knife to kill a bear. When driving on the Oregon Trail in 1861, he shot it out with the infamous McCanles Gang. His service as scout and spy for the Union in the Civil War was full of dangerous adventure and narrow escapes, which kept his shooting arm well practiced. In the public square in Springfield, Missouri, he killed a former friend of his, a fellow Union scout who had joined the Confederates. Then, after the war, as deputy U.S. marshal for a vast area around Fort Riley, Kansas, he became famous as a recoverer of stolen property and a killer of outlaws. As marshal of several rough Kansas cow towns, including Abilene, he proved faster on the draw than some of the most notorious desperadoes, until the number of men he had killed in single combat was reputed to be greater than that killed by any of his contemporaries. He became a public performer, touring the country with Buffalo Bill in 1872–73. Three years later when he returned to one of his old haunts, Deadwood, Dakota Territory, he was shot in the back of the head by a local citizen from whom he had won some money at cards earlier in the day. He was only thirty-nine years old. His murderer was tried and acquitted by the local court.

After Wild Bill’s burial in Deadwood, the monument and railing around his grave were dismantled piece by piece by people who wanted a memento of so great a killer. Nobody knows exactly how many he actually shot down in open personal combat; some put the figure as high as eighty-five, but it was surely not less than thirty. He managed all these killings without once being brought into court even for a charge of manslaughter. During much of his active life Wild Bill Hickok wore the badge of the law. Still, a tantalizing ambiguity surrounded many of his killings, for his rule in doubtful cases seemed to be to shoot first and investigate afterwards. Admirers of Western ways have called Wild Bill “the greatest bad man ever in likelihood seen upon the earth.” According to General Custer, “on foot or on horseback he was one of the most perfect types of physical manhood I ever saw. His manner was entirely free from all bluster and bravado. He never spoke of himself unless requested to do so. His influence among the frontiersmen was unbounded; his word was law. Wild Bill was anything but a quarrelsome man, yet none but himself could enumerate the many conflicts in which he had been engaged.” If a willingness to take another’s life on slight or half-proven cause was the sign of a bad man, Wild Bill was surely one. Yet if a willingness to risk one’s life to defend the law and the right was the sign of a good man, Wild Bill was surely one of those, too.

“Desperado” was the name commonly used for the Western bad-man whose services often were not covered by the badge of the law. But in the world of the cattlemen, there were few if any notorious “bad men” who had not at some time or other worn the badge of the law, and risked their lives for what some men in their neighborhood called law and order. Beneath the widespread admiration for the “manhood” of the quick-on-the trigger desperado was a gnawing suspicion that the desperado himself was often (perhaps even more often than his opponents) on the side of the right. “The ‘bad men,’ or professional fighters and man-killers,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1888 after one of his trips out West, “are of a different stamp [from the common criminal, horse thief or highway robber], quite a number of them being, according to their light, perfectly honest. These are the men who do most of the killing in frontier communities; yet it is a noteworthy fact that the men who are killed generally deserve their fate.” Some described desperadoes as simply engaged in a modern American version of the ancient trial by combat. “It was the undelegated right of one individual against that of another. The law was not invoked,” observed Emerson Hough, who himself was a witness, ”—the law would not serve. Even as the quickest set of nerves flashed into action, the arm shot forward, and there smote the point of flame as did once the point of steel. The victim fell, his own weapon clutched in his hand, a fraction too late. The law cleared the killer. It was ‘self-defense.’ ‘It was an even break,’ his fellowmen said; although thereafter they were more reticent with him and sought him out less frequently.”

Was this perhaps another example of Americans’ giving the law and the right to the man who “got there first”? Unwritten Law, so rigid and unbending in the static society of the older South, in another form thus came to rule the free-ranging West. But while in the South men could look to the traditional practices of the “best” people, and few dared doubt who those were, in the West there were no such people. Out there, the Unwritten Law showed all the vagueness and unpredictableness of a law each man chose for himself. It was in the lands of new property—of gold and silver and of cattle—that the peculiarly ambiguous American bad man flourished. Although the “ideal desperado” of course did not kill for money alone, in the early days most desperadoes were involved in or at least somehow were accused of “unlawfully” acquiring property.

UNEXPECTED SUBTLETIES, the classic confusions of Go-Getter Morality, appear in the careers of nearly all the eminent cattle-country desperadoes. We can examine them conveniently in the life of the most notorious of them all—Billy the Kid. William H. Bonney (his real name) was born in New York City in 1859 and as a boy was taken West by his family. His father died when they were living in Kansas, and his mother moved to Colorado and then on to New Mexico. His character as a young man was described by his sometime friend and co-worker, later his assassin and biographer, Sheriff Pat Garrett:

Bold, daring, and reckless, he was open-handed, generous-hearted, frank and manly. He was a favorite with all classes and ages, especially was he loved and admired by the old and decrepit, and the young and helpless. To such he was a champion, a defender, a benefactor, a right arm. He was never seen to accost a lady, especially an elderly one, but with his hat in his hand, and did her attire or appearance evidence poverty, it was a poem to see the eager, sympathetic, deprecating look in Billy’s sunny face, as he proffered assistance or afforded information. A little child never lacked a lift across a gutter, or the assistance of a strong arm to carry a heavy burden when Billy was in sight…. Billy loved his mother. He loved and honored her more than anything else on earth.

At the age of twelve, Billy was reputed to have stabbed a man to death for insulting his mother.

Billy’s first serious job was at the age of sixteen when he and a companion tried to persuade three peaceable Apache Indians on the reservation to supply them with horses. This is how Billy himself (reported by Garrett) described the venture:

It was a ground hog case. Here were twelve good ponies, four or five saddles, a good supply of blankets, and five pony loads of pelts. Here were three blood-thirsty savages, revelling in all this luxury and refusing succor to two free-born, white American citizens, foot sore and hungry. The plunder had to change hands—there was no alternative—and as one live Indian could place a hundred United States troops on our trail in two hours, and as a dead Indian would be likely to take some other route, our resolves were taken. In three minutes there were three “good Injuns” lying around there careless like, and, with ponies and plunder, we skipped. There was no fight. It was about the softest thing I ever struck.

In the course of various adventures in Old and New Mexico, Billy was soon credited with a dozen more killings. All of which seemed qualifications for the job he found in 1877 when he arrived at the Pecos Valley.

At that time there was brewing in southern New Mexico a struggle, the Lincoln County War, destined to become the bloodiest of all the cattlemen’s wars. This was not unlike the later Johnson County War in Wyoming in the readiness of both sides to hire gunmen and use the powers of “law-enforcement” officers. Here, however, the issue was not between the big and the small cattlemen. Rather, it was between two nearly equal factions of rich owners of large herds, both of whom were using all available means to secure contracts to supply the government posts and Indian agencies. Each faction accused the other of foul play and of stealing its cattle. From this distance it seems that they were both right. Soon nearly every cattleman in those parts was involved on one side or the other. In the late winter of 1877 when Billy the Kid started working for J. H. Tunstall on his ranch in Lincoln County on the Felix River, the feud had climaxed in a complicated lawsuit as a result of which the opposing faction, headed by Lawrence G. Murphy, sent a deputy sheriff and a posse of their own men to Tunstall’s ranch to seize his cattle. Murphy controlled the wagon trains and dominated the finances of the region. On February 18, 1878, Murphy’s men killed Tunstall in the presence of his foreman and Billy the Kid. The long-brewing Lincoln County feud now became open warfare.

This gave Billy the Kid a purpose from which he never relented—to punish the murderers of his friend Tunstall. Tunstall’s foreman was sworn in as a “special deputy” by McSween, the leader of the anti-Murphy faction, and he gathered Billy the Kid along with a dozen others to wreak their revenge. Billy led several of the fights which followed. He and six cohorts ambushed and killed the sheriff of Lincoln County and his deputy, both of whom were partisans of the Murphy crowd. Then Billy and the other McSween men went on a law-enforcement spree of their own. Carrying a warrant issued by a justice of the peace authorizing them to recover stolen horses, they killed another of the Murphy men. The climax came in July 1878 when federal troops, summoned by a new sheriff of Lincoln County, who was a tool of the Murphy faction, brought up a company of cavalry to arrest McSween and his men. When they refused to surrender, the Murphy men set fire to McSween’s house, but all except two of the party escaped in the night. The Lincoln County War did not begin to come to an end until General Lew Wallace (the Civil War hero who later wrote Ben Hur), carrying “extraordinary powers” from President Harrison, arrived as governor of New Mexico in August. He brought a truce to southern New Mexico, but he could not bring to justice the crimes of the past year. Someone suggested that the only way to give everyone his due was to hang the whole population of Lincoln County. But after many indictments, the cases were gradually dismissed, showing the inability of the official law to meet the needs of a society that lived by Go-Getter Morality.

Although more than sixty men had been killed, the only man actually brought to trial for a killing in the Lincoln County War was Billy the Kid. Governor Wallace summoned him to a meeting where, in the presence of witnesses, he asked Billy to lay down his arms and stand trial, promising that if Billy was convicted, the governor would give him a pardon. Some doubted the general’s word and suspected that Billy was to be made a scapegoat. “There is no justice for me in the courts of this country now,” Billy is reported to have replied as he refused to stand trial. “I’ve gone too far.”

Billy the Kid now began a new chapter of desperate adventures. He had become too accustomed to the excitement of a professional gunman to settle for the cowboy routine of fence riding and roundups. With a dozen old associates he roamed the countryside stealing cattle, killing old enemies, and seeking out new enemies whom he suspected of wanting to avenge his earlier killings. The courageous Pat Garrett, newly elected sheriff of Lincoln County, captured Billy the Kid, and managed to secure his conviction for his long-past murder of Sheriff Brady. But before the Kid could be hanged, he killed his guards and made another bold escape. It was two months before Garrett again found Billy the Kid, and as the Kid walked into the house of a friend, killed him under cover of darkness.

Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed by Garrett that he named him Collector of Customs at El Paso, but the President later withdrew his favors when he caught Garrett lying. Garrett himself was finally shot by one of his own tenants. The killer pleaded self-defense and the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty despite the fact that Garrett had been shot in the back of his head and had died with a glove on his trigger-finger hand. Ranchers in the neighborhood long remembered the barbecue offered by a prosperous local cattleman to celebrate the acquittal of Garrett’s killer.

The gallery of Good Bad Men and Bad Good Men—of lawless sheriffs and honest desperadoes—could be lengthened indefinitely. It would include every shape and mix of good and evil. It would have to include mining-town Go-Getters like Henry Plummer, sometimes called “the gentleman desperado,” who actually served as officer of the law while he led his band of road agents, then in disguise boldly joined the band of vigilantes organized to hunt him down. His commission as a U.S. marshal arrived while he was standing ready to be executed on the gallows. Of course, in those towns, too, there were a few, like Boone Helm, who seemed entirely without conscience (on one occasion when starving in the woods, he actually ate the flesh of a companion) and who never sought the cover of the law.

Alongside the authentic man of mixed motives and confusions, whose inner uncertainties reflected the uncertain possibilities of the American landscape, there arose a man of simpler stamp, the creation in large part of the telegraph, of the newly prospering, sensation-hungry daily press. He was the “Imitation Desperado—the Cheap ‘Long Hair’” as the cowboy historian Emerson Hough labels him, “the counterfeit bad man … produced by Western consumptives for Eastern consumption…. There always existed in the real, sober, level-headed West a contempt for the West-struck man who was not really bad, but who wanted to seem ‘bad.’” He was the twentieth-century “Drugstore Cowboy.” But the man really guided by Go-Getter Morality was a man who felt newly free, a man in the open air who still could not quite forget that society made discomfiting demands of him. The imitation bad man of the West, on the contrary, simply carried out West the criminal ways of a settled society.

Cowboy, cattle rustler, and cattle baron—Western sheriff and Western desperado—were all creatures of free land and the open range. They were all enticed by strange new opportunities and temptations. Men who had once made their living on free buffalo saw nothing odd about free cattle. The disappearance of the open range, the rise of the barbed-wire fences, and the selling and leasing of the West would put an end to many of the opportunities and temptations, and to the cast of characters of the cattleman’s heyday. While counterparts might survive in the mountains, in a world of new flowing minerals, and later in the cities, the lawless sheriff and honest desperado would no longer roam the world of the stockman. These men, with their moral-legal ambiguities, would pass, but the Go-Getter Morality would survive.

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