By the spring of 1902, the Fort Smith & Western Railroad was slowly pushing its way westward, into the heart of the Creek Nation in Indian Territory. A new town named Spokogee had sprung up in the path of the coming railroad. The Creek name meant ‘the exalted,’ or ‘near to God.’ It lay in the middle of the Dogtown Settlement, a lush, lawless country between the North Canadian and South Canadian rivers in what is now Oklahoma. Dogtown Settlement extended eastward from about where Wetumka and Calvin are today almost to Eufaula. The area attracted men who stole cattle and horses. It was where the Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw nations met, and stock was driven there to be rebranded and then taken on to Eufaula to be sold without a hitch.
The area around Spokogee was home to two feuding families, the Brookses and McFarlands. Willis B. Brooks, 48, was a well-known inhabitant of the Dogwood Settlement and one of the toughest men to be found in Indian Territory. He was a gunfighter from Alabama, by way of Texas. Jim McFarland, his chief adversary, had the reputation of being an outlaw and a killer. While the ribbon of steel inched its way toward Spokogee, the long-simmering feud between the warring families heated up and then erupted into a classic Western gunfight, settled with gun smoke, blood and lead.
Brooks, who had several gunfights to his credit, always appeared in public with a Winchester and a revolver in plain view. His younger brother Henry, known as ‘Peg Leg’ Brooks because he had lost his right leg after being wounded, was also in the Dogwood Settlement. They had the support of Sam Baker, deputy marshal of Checotah, who had grown up near the Brooks family in Lawrence County, Ala., and had married the Brooks brothers’ youngest sister, Francis.
Willis and Henry were the sons of Elisabeth Jane and Willis Brooks, Sr. During the Civil War, their father and oldest brother, John, had been tortured and killed in Alabama by eight renegade Confederate Home Guardsmen. Elisabeth Jane, known as Jenny, had gathered her young brood around her and made them swear a blood oath to avenge the deaths of their father and brother. As her boys grew up, they fulfilled that oath with deadly precision. Willis Brooks and his brothers had left a trail of blood that stretched from Alabama all the way to Texas. In later years, Jenny Brooks would proudly claim that of the eight men implicated in the death of her husband and oldest son, ‘Seven ov’um have been got!’ But along the way, she also lost two other sons. Gainum was killed during a bloody feud with a Creek Indianblack family in the mountains of Alabama, and Mack disappeared on a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail from Texas and was never heard from again.
Willis Brooks had left Texas for Indian Territory in 1890. After living near Grady in the Chickasaw Nation, he had moved his family to the Dogtown Settlement in 1894, eventually settling less than a mile south of what would become Spokogee. He had brought with him 500 head of cattle. At that time, Indian land was restricted. It could be leased or rented for agricultural purposes for five years and for grazing purposes for one year, but it could not be sold. Willis bought his land from the Indians, paying them in advance with the understanding that when the restrictions were removed, the land would be his, free and clear.
Willis Brooks had a good-sized ranch. Next to the split-log house was a large log kitchen and a low frame bunkhouse that held a dozen bunks. Not only hired hands stayed there; many an outlaw found refuge at the Brooks ranch. Willis’ wife, Maggie, was a friend to all, good or bad.
For many years, the nearest store was at Big Prairie, about six miles away. On June 27, 1902, the post office was moved from Old Watsonville, which was located about two miles north in southeastern Okfuskee County, to Spokogee. Old Watsonville was the home of Jim, Joe and Sam McFarland, bitter enemies of the Brooks family.
Jim McFarland had earned his reputation as an outlaw and a killer in Kentucky, his native state. Some of his neighbors there believed he had been responsible for the disappearance of some of their cattle, though no one dared to openly accuse him. After making his way to Indian Territory, he married a Creek woman named Sarah Watson, but was known to abuse her. When one of Sarah’s brothers was found floating in a pond, shot to death, everyone supposed that McFarland had done it because the man had objected to the way Jim was treating Sarah. No official charges were made.
Joe and Sam McFarland joined Jim in Old Watsonville, as did Sarah’s half-brother Santa A. ‘Sandy’ Watson and another Indian named Bill Franklin. The McFarlands found an ally in old man George Riddle and his son, Lon (Alonzo), who lived on the prairie to the northwest. The Riddles threw in with the McFarlands because Willis Brooks had apparently tried to drive George and Lon out of the area.
When 19-year-old Thomas Brooks, Willis and Maggie’s oldest son, was shot and killed on August 24, 1896, Willis held the McFarlands responsible. It seems there was a Texas Ranger living in the area who kept a hoard of money hidden in his cabin. The old man had appeared to be an easy target to rob. The McFarlands insisted that Tom Brooks, on his own, had gotten the idea to rob the old man and had gotten himself killed. The Brookses, on the other hand, claimed that Jim McFarland had conned the boy into trying to rob the old Ranger and then had tipped off the old man, who had waited for Brooks and killed him. In any event, Tom Brooks’ death was the beginning of a blood feud that would last six years. The Brookses threatened to kill McFarlands on sight and vice versa.
During the last week of January 1899, Jim McFarland had an argument over a bill with a man named John Johnson, alias Long, at Butler’s store in Spokogee. Tempers flared, but cooler heads prevailed before any blood was spilled–or perhaps Jim McFarland realized too many witnesses were present. Johnson thought the matter was satisfactorily settled, but McFarland would not let it rest. Later that day, he and brother-in-law Sandy Watson ran into Johnson at the house of Joe McFarland, Jim’s brother. Johnson had crossed the wrong man. Shots were fired and Johnson was hit twice in the head, once through the hip and bowels, and through both thighs. Jim McFarland escaped without a scratch. It is not known if Johnson ever got off a shot before he fell dead.
In January of the following year, Jim McFarland was tried for Johnson’s murder in the U.S. District Court at Muskogee. The only witnesses were McFarland’s brother and brother-in-law, and Jim was acquitted. Later, McFarland accumulated a number of other charges against him in the Muskogee court, including assault with intent to kill. Because these charges were pending against him and because he owed large sums of money, Jim decided it was time to pull a disappearing act. Sometime in 1901, while out on bail, he left home on horseback with $3,000 belonging to a cattle commission in Okemah. He was not heard from for two days. The evening of the second day, his horse came home riderless. There were bullet marks and evidence of blood on his saddle. Search parties immediately scoured that part of the Creek Nation, fully expecting to find the body of Jim McFarland riddled with bullets. But his body could not be found.
McFarland had slipped across the border to hide out in Juarez, Mexico. His ruse might have worked had he not tried to contact his family almost a year later. In August 1902, he gave himself up to authorities in Muskogee and posted $1,000 bond. Somehow, Jim was forgiven for absconding with the cattle commission’s money, and in September 1902 the charge of assault with intent to kill was thrown out of court. With his troubles apparently over, McFarland was soon back in his old haunts and up to his old habits.
The Fort Smith & Western Railroad was being built from Fort Smith, Ark., to Guthrie, the future capital of Oklahoma. Spokogee was chosen as the site of a township along the line mainly because it was situated halfway between the two cities. Neither the Brookses nor the McFarlands took too kindly to the intrusion of the railroad or the new town springing up practically on their doorsteps.
George Sparks, the president of the First National Bank of Fort Smith, and Cliff Speer, the owner of a hardware store in Fort Smith, controlled townsite privileges along the proposed railroad. Because they could not gain clear title to the restricted land needed for the townsites, however, the two men had been unable to capitalize on their concession. A prominent Muskogee lawyer, S. Morton Rutherford, and his young real estate partner, Jesse H. Hill, thought they knew how to circumvent the restrictions on the Indian land. They were given a contract to handle the townsites in the Creek Nation.
Rutherford and Hill secured agricultural leases on 320 acres of land on which the railroad station of Spokogee was to be located. The two promoters saw the warring factions of the Brookses and McFarlands as a potential problem and thought it wise to visit the adversaries. ‘Not to be partial, Rutherford and I stayed a night each at Brooks’ and McFarland’s,’ recalled Hill. ‘The nights were uneventful except for our constant battle with bedbugs, which were especially objectionable to my companion.’
Town lots were offered for sale on July 1, 1902, at $25 each, with location determined by drawing. The sale was to take place at noon in front of the promoters’ new office, an uncompleted wood-frame building without front or back walls. It was to be a festive occasion, with free drinks and barbecue for everyone.
At about 10 o’clock that morning at the sale site an argument broke out between Lon Riddle, son of old man George Riddle, and John Brooks, one of Willis Brooks’ sons. Both young men were about 20 years old. Lon Riddle had been drinking and was sporting a six-shooter. Captain G.G. Tyson, an old Confederate whom Hill called ‘camp manager,’ disarmed Riddle. A ring of men formed behind the row of new buildings to let the young men fight it out. Young Brooks came out slugging with a pair of brass knuckles and pummeled Riddle to the ground. This was contrary to Jesse Hill’s sense of fair play, so he stepped in front of Brooks and said, ‘You can’t hit him [with those].’ Captain Tyson quickly stripped the brass knuckles off Brooks’ hand. Before Riddle could get up off the ground, though, Sam Baker, John Brooks’ uncle by marriage, threw down on Riddle with his Winchester. Hill pushed Baker’s Winchester barrel to the ground and said, ‘Don’t act a fool.’ Baker released his hold on the stock of the Winchester with his right hand, but then drew his six-shooter and stuck it in Hill’s face. ‘It was the first and only time I ever looked down a gun barrel,’ Hill later recalled.
At the threat of gunplay, the crowd immediately took to the brush and a nearby cornfield, making it mighty hard to sell lots. Rutherford, who did not lack nerve, was not about to let his business be interrupted by Sam Baker or anyone else. He also thought Baker was about to kill his partner, so he emerged from the back of the office with rifle in hand and got the drop on Sam. He backed Baker up against a wall and proceeded to tell him what he thought of him. Rutherford had no way of knowing that Sam’s 16-year-old son, Bill Mite Baker, who had been standing to the rear, had leveled a Winchester on him. Coolheaded Cliff Speer averted any bloodshed by gently pushing Rutherford’s gun barrel down, allowing Baker a chance to retreat. Seeing that his father was out of immediate danger, young Bill Baker lowered his rifle, too.
Word of the disturbance reached Willis Brooks, and he entered the fracas. Jesse Hill recalled the scene: ‘Willis Brooks and his cohorts, each mounted and armed, rode up to do battle….Unless something was done to stay the upcoming disaster, potential buyers would not become lot-owners. To my surprise, Rutherford entered the scene. Rutherford addressed the leader of each side in turn, at times bombastically belligerent, at times profanely pacific, but at all times profusely perspiring. He talked the two sides out of battle, but all of this had a bad effect on the crowd.’
Hill went into the cornfield to round up the customers, assuring them that peace had been restored. The sale resumed, and despite the disturbance, Rutherford and Hill managed to take in $14,000 that day. Thus were the tumultuous beginnings of Spokogee.
Soon after the sale of lots, people began moving into the new town and building houses and stores. Although the population quickly grew to about 150, Jesse Hill would often find the town practically deserted. The BrooksMcFarland feud had everyone on edge. Both factions continued to make threats. Although there were still plenty of lots left for sale, under these conditions, Rutherford and Hill could find no more buyers.
Rutherford was no stranger to the Brooks family. Willis’ brother Henry ‘Peg Leg’ Brooks had been working the logging camps in the Choctaw Nation near Clayton when he struck up a horse trade with a man named Dickey. Unknown to Henry, the pair of horses he had acquired were stolen. Henry Brooks was arrested a few days later in possession of the horses, and on May 12, 1898, at South McAlester, he was convicted of horse theft and was sentenced to 10 years in the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth.
Willis Brooks retained the services of the Muskogee law firm of Cravens, Rutherford and English to obtain the release of his brother. After locating a witness to the trade, Rutherford and associates were able to present ample proof that a charge of receiving stolen property was the most Henry should have been properly charged with. Henry had served four years of his sentence by the time he received a presidential pardon by Theodore Roosevelt. Just 10 days after the July 1, 1902, lot sale and fracas Henry was released from prison. He immediately rejoined his brother Willis at Spokogee.
Jim McFarland had also missed the July 1 action, as he didn’t make it back to the Spokogee area from his self-imposed exile in Juarez, Mexico, until August. When the most formidable McFarland returned, everyone knew the simmering cauldron would soon explode. About once a week the Brooks brothers would ride into town, and the citizens would close up shop and head for cover, fearing the McFarlands would show up in a fighting mood. A few days later, the McFarlands would ride in to Spokogee, and the scene would repeat itself.
The nervous town refused to boom. Jesse Hill, for one, grew tired of the situation. ‘Old Willis Brooks would get into some kind of altercation with most anyone and throw a gun in his face and abuse him,’ Hill recalled. ‘I made up my mind that if he ever pulled [a gun] again on me and abused me, that I would take it but that I would assassinate him just as soon as I could make a chance.’ When he had had all he could stand, Hill returned to Muskogee and told his partner, Rutherford, he was not going back to Spokogee until the trains were running into town.
In late September 1902, Rutherford and Hill went deer hunting about 10 or 15 miles east of Spokogee. After three or four days with no luck, thunderstorms and a hard rain set in. The partners decided to head for their office in Spokogee. They arrived about dark and bedded down. It rained all night. About 9 o’clock on Monday morning, the sky began to clear and Rutherford and Hill went down the street to get some breakfast.
At Willis Brooks’ ranch, the thunderstorm had scattered some of the livestock. Henry Brooks and Willis’ son Earl went about rounding up the strays. Willis and his sons Clifton and John saddled up to ride into town for the mail. The date was September 22, 1902.
The McFarlands had anticipated the arrival of the Brookses, who they correctly guessed would not be working on the farm on a rainy day. Jim, Joe and Sam McFarland and Lon Riddle positioned themselves behind and around the buildings across the street from the Spokogee post office, located in Butler’s store. Jim McFarland sent old man George Riddle off to run errands. If the Brookses started anything, the McFarlands would reply with lead. But George Riddle must have thought he was safe, since he was unarmed.
When Rutherford and Hill returned from breakfast, they noticed that the Riddles and McFarlands were already in town. The two partners went back to their office to talk business. Hill was standing at the front window when he saw three horsemen ride into town. ‘Here are the Brookses,’ he said. ‘This thing is coming off right now or someone is going to show the white feather.’
It was about 10 o’clock. Old man George Riddle had just entered the post office when Willis, Clifton and John Brooks rode up and hitched their horses. The McFarlands’ plan of using George Riddle to get the Brookses riled up was sure to work.
Rutherford, who held a commission as a U.S. deputy marshal among his many titles, picked up his Winchester and walked to the front door of his office. Rutherford had no sooner thrown a shell into the chamber than it discharged into the floor. Hill would later say: ‘I will wonder to the end of my days whether that shot was accidental as Rutherford claimed. Of one thing I am certain, it was the shot that started the gunfight. No one on the street knew where it came from.’
John Brooks, who had tangled with Lon Riddle on July 1, was the first to enter the post office. Finding George Riddle there, he began to threaten and slap the old man around. Riddle backed his way out of the post office, right into Willis Brooks, and said, ‘Brooks, you can kill me, I am unarmed.’ Willis replied, ‘I will kill you!’ Cursing the old man, Willis levered a shell into his Winchester.
Rutherford, stepping onto the edge of the street, cried out: ‘I am an officer of the law. You must not do that, Willis!’ From the window, Hill could see Sam McFarland across the street begin to fire his six-shooter rather wildly–seemingly not trying to hit anything but only to create a ruckus or to taunt the Brookses. In the commotion, the terrified George Riddle suddenly turned and ran toward Rutherford, appealing for protection.
Willis Brooks took aim and fired his rifle at the fleeing target. The ball struck Riddle in the back of the head, tearing away part of his skull. George Riddle collapsed face down in front of Rutherford. The old man’s blood sprinkled Rutherford’s shirt and the barrel of his rifle. Then all hell broke loose. Lead and smoke filled the air for more than a minute. Willis wasted precious seconds firing two more shots into the dying Riddle before a bullet hit him in the right hip, passing clean through his body. When hit, Willis jumped high into the air and fell head first into the muddy street. He rose to his knees long enough to fire several more shots before a bullet to the chest ended his life.
Clifton Brooks was shot once in the leg, once in the neck and once in the chest. One of the bullets first passed through his gun hand. The wound was so painful that Brooks threw down his gun and tried to run. Lon Riddle and Jim McFarland, both on horseback, chased down young Brooks and killed him. He was cut down by a bullet in the back that severed his spinal column. John Brooks was hit by a steel-jacketed bullet and collapsed in the back door of the post office, near death.
When the smoke cleared, Willis and Clifton Brooks lay dead and George Riddle and John Brooks lay dying. The bodies of Willis and Clifton were sent home in the back of a wagon commandeered by Hill and Rutherford. Riddle and John Brooks were placed on cots and carried to vacant store buildings. Doctor Townsend, the attending physician, said there was absolutely no hope for George Riddle. Later that afternoon, Riddle died.
Rutherford immediately dispatched a rider to Eufaula to tell Deputy Marshal Grant Johnson what had happened. He then ordered Lon Riddle and Joe and Jim McFarland to surrender themselves to Hill, which they did. Sam McFarland, for whatever reason, was not arrested. Hill took the guns from the three prisoners and put the men in the back room of the office. Hill asked Rutherford what he was going to do with that gang of murderers, and Rutherford replied that he planned to take them to Eufaula and turn them over to Johnson.
About 3 o’clock, two buggies pulled up in front of the office. Jesse Hill looked out the window and saw a large, angry crowd forming. Most of the mob had Winchesters. Hill strapped on Willis Brooks’ six-shooter. With a Winchester across his arm, Rutherford stepped out the door onto a dry goods box and addressed the crowd: ‘These men are our prisoners. We are taking them to Eufaula to turn them over to the officers of the law. If there is a cap snapped, somebody will get killed.’ He then turned to Hill and said, ‘Bring out the prisoners.’
They loaded the prisoners into the front buggy and followed, with the guns of the living and the dead, in the second buggy. It figured to be a mighty long trip to Eufaula. As the party came to a wooded section of the road, Jim McFarland mentioned the possibility of an ambush. Rutherford gave Riddle and Jim McFarland each a Winchester.
When word of the gunfight reached Deputy Marshal Johnson at Eufaula, he immediately set out for Spokogee accompanied by Indian policeman Ima Boone and another officer. Soon after dark, about five or six miles from Eufaula, Rutherford and Hill met Johnson on the road and turned their prisoners over to him. Hill and Rutherford continued into town, and after turning all the weapons over to the U.S. commissioner there, caught a late train for Muskogee.
Late Monday evening, Maggie Brooks, with her 15-year-old son Earl and 13-year-old daughter Lela, also made the long wagon ride to Eufaula. They drove all night to bring the bodies of Willis and Clifton to the undertaker. After the bodies were prepared for burial, they were taken by train to Checotah and laid to rest at the Indian cemetery there. They were buried near Willis’ sister, Francis Baker, who had died of measles in 1899, and Willis and Maggie’s son Thomas.
The McFarlands and Alonzo Riddle were quickly arraigned in the court of the U.S. commissioner marshal at Eufaula. They were represented at their preliminary hearing by Morton Rutherford’s uncle and law partner, Colonel William M. Cravens. The men refused to testify. Because no one came forth to testify against them, charges were dismissed on Wednesday, September 24, 1902. John Brooks was charged with murder for his part in the shootout, but, because of his condition, he was allowed to remain in Spokogee.
John Brooks was slow to recover. Blood poisoning had set in, and The Holdenville Times reported on September 27 that ‘death is certain to ensue from the wound. Dr. Townsend, who is attending Brooks, says…it will be only a question of a day or two until death will occur.’ The newspaper and the doctor were wrong. John Brooks recovered, though it was more than five years before charges against him were officially dismissed. Brooks was represented at his trial by none other than S. Morton Rutherford.
Jim McFarland did not escape retribution. On Monday, October 13, about three weeks after the gunfight at Spokogee, Jim and his wife, Sarah, drove a wagon into Weleetka to do some shopping. Accompanying them on horseback were Sandy Watson and Bill Franklin. That afternoon, Jim and Sarah headed home. Watson and Franklin said they would join them later. Along the way, McFarland was shot in the back, from ambush, with a steel-jacketed bullet. He managed to jump from the wagon and fire one shot in the direction of his assailant before falling over dead. Sarah saw no one. Soon, Watson and Franklin rode up, put McFarland’s body in the wagon and took him home. Jim McFarland was buried in an unmarked grave at the WatsonWiley cemetery near Old Watsonville.
Several rumors circulated as to who killed Jim McFarland. Some folks in the area thought a member of the Brooks family, perhaps Henry, had fired the fatal shot. Some pointed an accusing finger at Sarah’s half-brother. Others believed McFarland was killed by Turner Scott, a member of Jim’s own gang. In any event, no one tried very hard to find Jim McFarland’s killer. Most believed he had gotten what he deserved.
The tracks finally reached Spokogee, and on April 1, 1903, the Fort Smith & Western Railroad ran the first train through the small town. The population at that time was about 225. The arrival of the railroad and the end of the Brooks McFarland feud brought prosperity and civilization. The Dogtown Settlement ceased to be. In exchange for a new railroad roundhouse on the north end of town, the residents agreed to change the town’s name from Spokogee to Dustin, in honor of Henry C. Dustin, an official of the Fort Smith & Western Railroad. Dustin became the legal name on May 9, 1904.
The deaths of Willis Brooks and Jim McFarland signaled the end of an era when disputes were settled with gun smoke and hot lead. With them also died the old feud. Today, many of their descendants still call the area around Dustin home.
Some newspaper accounts erroneously reported that Henry Brooks was killed about the same time as Jim McFarland. Henry, though, was arrested in Caddo County in 1905 for horse theft and went on to serve five years at the Territorial Prison at Lansing, Kan., and the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester. Henry was paroled in 1911 and returned to the mountains of Lawrence County, Ala., to care for his elderly mother. He resumed the age-old mountain tradition of distilling moonshine and was shot down by a posse on January 11, 1920, when he resisted arrest.
Henry was the last remaining son of Jenny Brooks. The ancient lady of the mountains followed her sons to the grave on March 29, 1924, at the age of 98, proud of the fact that all her boys had ‘died like men, with their boots on.’
This article was written by Edward Herringt and originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Wild West.
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