The legend of the outlaws of the Old West starts in the Indian Territory and the courtroom of Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas

Outlaws - No Law West of Fort Smith

The outlaws made Parker's court famous.  It was in session for 21 years, from 1875 through the summer of 1896.  However, it's most notorious desperadoes gained their fame during the last decade, mostly because they rode as gangs. Their careers were usually short, usually less than a year from the first murder to the end of a rope.

The Rufus Buck gang were five Native Americans (Rufus Buck was full-blooded Euchee Indian, Sam Sampson and Maoma July were full-blooded Creeks, Lewis Davis and Lucky Davis were of mixed African American and Creek Indian blood). The gang started its deadly road to fame in July 1895 and for two weeks the Buck Gang crime spree was unequaled by all the other outlaw gangs combined. Although each gang member had been in and out of trouble with the law for years, two weeks accounted for the most deprived record of rapes and murders in the history of the Indian Territories.  Left to right in the picture at the right are Maoma July, Sam Sampson, Rufus Buck, Luckey Davis and Lewis Davis.  Notice the shackles on the men's legs.

Rufus Buck gang after their capture

On August 9, 1895 they were discovered by a posse of irate citizens of the Indian Territory and U.S. Deputy Marshals. Unaware of the posse, they sat under a groove of trees on top of a small hill dividing up the loot from two robberies earlier in the day.  The posse surrounded the outlaws and opened fire. The gang dove for cover and for hours held the posse at bay. Finally, out of ammunition, the gang surrendered and all five were taken alive and unhurt.  

They were tried in Fort Smith in September 1895 and all five found guilty of rape. Judge Parker sentenced the men to die on the gallows and on July 1, 1896 all five dropped together through the gallows trapdoor and met their final judge.   

Belle Starr was perhaps the most famous women outlaw in the old west. Someone once proclaimed that her reputation as an outlaw was overrated because she was convicted only once, in 1886 for horse theft. She was probably involved in much more and the fact she was held accountable only once gives testimony to her brains and cleverness. Belle was the daughter of a man who supported Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War and she herself, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, supposedly acted as a spy and courier for Quantrill. She was a dead shot with a pistol and an expert rider. Legend says that one of her first lovers was Cole Younger of the Jesse James gang, by whom she had a daughter, Pearl (not true). She married three times.  Her first husband was Jim Reed, stagecoach robber and horse thief who was killed by a deputy sheriff. Her second husband was Sam Starr the son of a notorious Cherokee renegade and an accomplished criminal in his own right.  He was killed in a gun fight while waiting trial for horse theft.  Her last husband was Jim July, another outlaw who may have been her killer.  Her cabin at Younger's Bend in the hills of eastern Oklahoma, near today's Lake Eufaula, became a hideout and refuge for bandits. 

Belle Starr and her favorite horse in Fort Smith

Live by the gun and die by the gun. Belle was ambushed by a person unknown as she was returning to her cabin on February 3, 1889. A shotgun blast to the back knocked her from her saddle. A second blast hit her in the face and neck and she was found face down in a puddle.  She died in the arms of her daughter Pearl just shy of the age of forty-one.  She was buried near her cabin near Porum, Oklahoma. A grave stone erected by her daughter Pearl marks the site. For more on Belle Starr click here for Belle Starr, Queen of the Outlaws.

Cherokee Bill, whose real name was Crawford Goldsby, was born in 1876 in Texas to George Goldsby, a member of the U.S. Tenth Cavalry (the Buffalo Soldiers)and Ellen Beck whose parents were former slaves.  The Goldsby's were of mixed African-American, Cherokee Indian, Mexican and White blood.  No one really knows how he came by his alias but during his short outlaw career most people knew him simply as Cherokee Bill.  Bill's criminal career started hen he was eighteen.  He was not yet twenty when he died on the Fort Smith Gallows.  When he was 17 he attempted to shoot and kill a man who had beaten him up in front of his girl friend at a dance.  The man filed charges against him for attempted murder.  Cherokee Bill started down the outlaw trail in earnest by joining with the infamous Bill Cook gang. During a holdup of a store and post office a few miles south of Coffeyville, Kansas Cherokee Bill shot Ernest Melton through the eye and killed him instantly.  Melton was watching the robbery from the window of a restaurant across the street.  This was the crime that would lead Bill to Judge Parker's gallows.

Cherokee Bill

During his career with the cook gang he was involved in numerous robberies and murders.  He was captured in January 1895 after he robbed a train on his own.  Bill was taken to Fort Smith and convicted of the killing of Melton.  During his incarceration in the Fort Smith jail a trustee smuggled him a revolver which he hid in his cell.  As the guard was about to lock down the cells Bill came out of his cell and shot him.  A furious gun battle raged for hours inside of the jail.  Finally, Henry Starr a friend and fellow outlaw persuaded the jailers to allow him to talk to Bill.  Starr convinced Bill to give up his gun on the promise that the guards would not hurt him.  Cherokee Bill's appeals failed and on March 17, 1896 he was marched to the gallows.  When asked if he had any last words he said, "I came here to die, not make a speech."  Cherokee Bill's Hanging

Ned Christie was a full-blooded Cherokee and very intelligent. His career as an outlaw was longer than most. He had served in the Indian legislature but turned to banditry and whiskey peddling as a more lucrative way of life. After several months on the run and battles with Parker's deputies Christie was cornered in 1889 and wounded not long after he ambushed and killed a deputy as the man was crossing a stream. He escaped.  Christie's hideout was a log house, a virtual fortress he constructed in Rabbit Trap canyon. about a dozen miles from Tahlequah.  In the fall of 1892 the marshals learned of his hideout and surrounded the location. The battle raged for days.  Even with the use of a cannon the deputies were unable to dislodge Christie.  

Ned Christie alive -
And dead (after a shoot-out with a posse in 1892

Finally, the marshals bound together several sticks of dynamite. Under a covering of rifle fire from the posse one of the marshals placed the bomb against the house. The explosion blew down walls and set the ruins of the building on fire. In the midst of the flames Ned Christie emerged from a trapdoor in the floor and attempt his getaway. A hail of bullets brought him down. In Fort Smith Christie's corpse was propped up on a slab and his picture taken, surrounded by the men who had ended his life. His body was claimed by relatives and buried in the Cherokee Nation.

The Dalton Gang

Three Dalton brothers served as U.S. Deputy Marshals for Judge Parker's Court. Frank was possibly the only law-abiding sibling of the Dalton brothers but died while attempting to arrest whiskey peddlers near Fort Smith.  Grat and Bob Dalton began their careers with the intent of following the footsteps of older brother Frank, but were soon involved in shady deals and horse stealing and were forced to end their careers as lawmen. The Dalton's were cousins of the Younger's and Bob Dalton dreamed of becoming more famous than Cole Younger and Jesse James. As bandits they never matched the cunning of the James gang but they earned their reputations by their disregard for their lives and the audaciousness of their robbery attempts.  Their final exploit in October 1892 gained them a national reputation and ended the lives of Bob and Grat.  

The end of the Dalton Gang
The town of Coffeyville, Kansas took unkindly to the daring daylight attempt to rob two banks at the same time. The town folk shot them to pieces as they tried to make their escape. Emmett was seriously wounded but survived to spend more than fourteen years in prison. He died peaceably at the age of sixty-six in Hollywood, California on July 13, 1937.  The Dalton's were the end of an era in old west and Judge Parker's Court.

For a more detailed accounts you should obtain a copy of Glenn Shirley's book, LAW WEST OF FORT SMITH, a History of Frontier Justice in the Indian Territory, 1834-1896 (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Neb., 1957) It is an interesting and entertaining history of the outlaws and lawmen who made Fort Smith a legend of the Wild West.



Ronald N. Wall
Copyright 1999. All rights reserved.
Revised:  23 April 2011