‘Gunfighters first opened fire in Texas during the 1850s and continued to blaze away at each other until past the turn of the century’
For the following article Bill O’Neal has earned the 2012 Wild West History Association Award for best general article. The article originally appeared in the October 2011 Wild West. O’Neal has also won WWHA’s lifetime contributions award.
Tascosa, Texas, was already known as the “Cowboy Capital of the Plains” when one of the deadliest saloon shootouts in frontier history exploded at the town’s main intersection. On Saturday evening, March 20, 1886, four cowboys from the nearby LS Ranch—Ed King, Fred Chilton, Frank Valley and John Lang—attended a baile at a dive just west of town. These LS riders frequently caroused in Tascosa and had made a number of enemies; King was especially disliked. At 2 in the morning the quartet of LS men left the dance and rode into Tascosa. At the central intersection King dismounted to meet sporting lady Sally Emory. King’s companions continued west in search of further recreation in a saloon, while Ed and Sally strolled arm in arm toward her house.
According to one account, as the couple passed the Dunn & Jenkins saloon, several men out front exchanged words with King. Suddenly a gunshot rang out, and King collapsed, dead when he hit the ground. Lem Woodruff, a cowboy who had been trying to win Sally’s affections, ran out of the saloon and without hesitation fired a Winchester slug into the throat of the fallen King. “Boys, they’ve killed Ed!” shouted John Lang. “Come on!”
Brandishing their revolvers, Lang, Chilton and Valley sprinted toward King’s corpse. The angry trio slipped into the rear of Dunn & Jenkins, and moments later a barrage of gunfire erupted inside. With Woodruff were John “the Catfish Kid” Gough, Charlie and Tom Emory, Louis Bousman and others, and these men blazed back at their attackers. Two bullets caught Woodruff low in the abdomen, and one hit Charlie Emory in the leg. The wounded Woodruff stumbled away, still clutching his Winchester. Valley pursued Woodruff, but Lem stopped him in his tracks with a slug to the left eye.
The gunfire awakened Jesse Sheets, owner of the North Star restaurant next door. When he unwisely peered out the back door of the North Star, either Chilton or Lang gunned him down. Even as Sheets dropped with a hole in his forehead, two bullets ripped toward Chilton’s gun flash. The rounds tore into Chilton’s chest. He handed his gun to Lang and died. Lang now retreated outside, exchanging a furious fire with the men in the saloon. Sheriff Jim East hurried to the scene, and his deputy shot at the Catfish Kid, who dropped and played possum, then escaped into the night.
Woodruff and Emory survived their wounds, but that afternoon the town held a mass funeral for the three LS men and Jesse Sheets, the latter of whom left a widow and five children. A mortician clad the dead men’s bodies in new black suits, and the entire populace of Tascosa, along with a number of area cowboys, formed a half-mile procession to Boot Hill. At his widow’s request, Sheets was buried far from the plots of King, Valley and Chilton.
Juries tried the survivors for murder, but all were ultimately acquitted. The following year the Catfish Kid killed an adversary in another post-midnight shootout. Indeed, Tascosa saw at least 10 fatal gunfights during the 1880s (see “Tascosa: Hell Town of the Texas Panhandle,” by Frederick Nolan, in the December 2010 Wild West).
Tascosa may have stood out like a sore thumb on the frontier, but there were plenty of bloody trigger fingers elsewhere in Texas—with notable gunfights occurring in such Lone Star hot spots as San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth and Lampasas. After the cowboy—a Texas creation—the most colorful and romanticized frontier figure is the gunfighter. Texas made an enormous contribution to gunfighter lore. A survey of 255 Western gunfighters and 589 shootouts in which they participated reveals that Texans dominated the tally sheet of frontier pistoleers. More of these gunfights—nearly 160—occurred in Texas than in any other state or territory; no other Western commonwealth was the arena of even half as many shootings. Most Western states and territories saw widespread gunplay for only a brief number of years before law and order prevailed: Kansas, for example, during the cattle town era; New Mexico during the bloody Lincoln County War; and Oklahoma during its lawless heyday as an outlaw refuge. But gunfighters first opened fire in Texas during the 1850s and continued to blaze away at each other until past the turn of the century.
In a rating of gunfighters based on the number of killings each (with number of gunfights also taken into consideration), 10 of the deadliest 15 spent most of their careers in Texas. The top 15, with the Texas contingent italicized, were Jim Miller, John Wesley Hardin, Harvey Logan, “Wild Bill” Hickok, John Selman, Dallas Stoudenmire, King Fisher, Billy the Kid, Ben Thompson, Henry Brown, John Slaughter, Cullen Baker, Clay Allison, Jim Courtright and John Hughes. More gunfighters were born in Texas than in any other state or territory, and more died in Texas than in any other state. Until the development of the modern revolver, Texas barroom brawlers and other men who found themselves in violent conflicts resorted to the knife, as single-shot pistols were inadequate in a close fight (the frontier’s most famous knife fighter, of course, was Jim Bowie, who died at the Alamo).
Private feuds, endemic to the lawless Texas frontier, produced some of Texas’ earliest gunfights. The first blood feud was the Regulator-Moderator War, which wracked east Texas with homicidal violence from 1840 through 1844, its assorted assassinations, lynchings, ambushes, street fights and pitched battles claiming more than 30 men. Among those murdered were Harrison County Sheriff John B. Campbell and District Judge John M. Hansford. Regulators killed Senator Robert Potter, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The Regulator force eventually boasted more than 200 riders and the Moderators more than 100 men. Courts ceased to operate and anarchy reigned in Harrison County, Panola District and Shelby County. Only the personal intervention of Republic of Texas President Sam Houston and a 600-man force of Texas militia halted the bloodletting.
The Regulator-Moderator War established for future Texas feudists an imposing standard of murderous violence, as well as for deeds of heroism, endurance and sheer physical courage. Texas would become the site of more blood feuds than any other state or territory.
The poisonous atmosphere of Reconstruction intensified the violence and produced such gunfighters as John Wesley Hardin. In 1868 the 15-year-old Hardin pumped three pistol balls into the chest of a former slave. Hardin and many other Texans shot it out with occupation soldiers and members of Governor Edmund J. Davis’ detested State Police. The turbulence of Reconstruction also spawned the Early-Hasley Feud (1865–69), pitting Union supporters against former Confederates; the vicious Lee-Peacock Feud (1867–71); and the Sutton-Taylor Feud (1868–75). In the latter Hardin and his cousins the Clements boys assisted the Taylors; in 1873 Hardin helped kill Sutton stalwart Jack Helm, sheriff of DeWitt County. The following year faction leader Bill Sutton fled to New Orleans, boarding a steamer at Indianola with his young wife and child. But Jim and Bill Taylor caught up with him before the steamer could sail, firing bullets into his head and through his heart as his horrified wife looked on, then shooting companion Gabe Slaughter in the face.
Feuding in Texas was at its height during the 1870s. In Lampasas in March 1873 the violence-prone Horrell brothers took on the State Police in a local saloon, killing four of the seven officers who came to arrest a brother-in-law. Through 1877 the Horrell boys fought local law officers, Texas Rangers and rancher-gunman John Pinckney “Pink” Higgins, with time out to battle through the “Horrell War” in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory. The Horrell-Higgins Feud reached its climax in Lampasas County in 1877. Pink killed one of the Horrell brothers in a Lampasas saloon, and the two factions lost one man apiece in a battle on the town square. By 1878 five of the contentious Horrell brothers had been slain. Only one of the seven brothers survived to old age.
In Hood County the Mitchell and Truitt families feuded in 1874 over a land dispute, and two of the Truitts died of wounds. The next year county officials legally hanged patriarch Cooney Mitchell in Granbury. Mitchell’s son, Bill, blamed the Rev. James Truitt, a young minister whose testimony was the key to the conviction. After nursing his grudge for more than a decade, Bill murdered Truitt in 1886 at his home in Timpson (in Shelby County, focal point of the earlier Regulator-Moderator War).
The Mason County War (1875–76), or Hoodoo War, was a culture clash between Anglo-American and German-American settlers that, aggravated by cattle theft, escalated into a murderous conflict.
The politically motivated Jaybird-Woodpecker War (1888–90) of Fort Bend County featured a wild shootout outside the Richmond courthouse on August 16, 1889. Following several brawls and fatal gunfights, Sheriff J.T. Garvey was escorting a Jaybird troublemaker to the courthouse when several other Jaybirds suddenly appeared and opened fire. Deputies Tom Smith and H.S. Mason drew their revolvers, but Garvey fell, riddled with bullets. Mason dropped beside the dying sheriff with a shoulder wound, while Smith fired at opposing gun flashes in the gathering darkness. When his gun clicked empty, Smith continued to fight with the revolvers of the two fallen officers.
Two Texas Rangers emerged from the courthouse to intervene, but one quickly dropped with a leg wound. Smith continued to provide covering fire until all the officials reached the courthouse. (The deputy soon became a key figure in Wyoming’s notorious Johnson County War. Shortly after Smith returned to Texas, a fugitive shot him to death.)
Another classic Western dispute that often resulted in gunplay was the wide-ranging clash between cattlemen and sheepherders. Franciscan missionaries introduced sheep to Spanish Texas, but subsequent cattle ranchers and cowboys resented their presence on the Texas range. During the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s the cattle faction mounted at least 30 raids, resulting in the destruction of more than 3,200 sheep and the deaths of a number of sheepherders. One cattleman in Fort Stockton openly shot to death a sheepherder named Brutelle, but an all-cattleman jury acquitted him on the grounds of self-defense. Texas cattleman reportedly paid Fort Worth–based Jim Miller, the West’s premier assassin, $150 for each sheepherder he dispatched. “I have killed 11 men that I know about,” he once reported, before adding with disdain, “I have lost my notch stick on the Mexicans I killed out on the border.”
Cattlemen, too, faced mortal danger. In 1889 Burnet County sheep rancher Andy Feild agreed to hire a cowboy who was desperate for work. Immediately the cowboy caused trouble, and within days Feild had to fire him. The cowboy rode up to Feild at a sheep pen and dismounted. “You son of a bitch!” he spat out. “You’ve fired your last man!” The man pulled a six-gun and snapped off a shot that went wild. Anticipating trouble, Feild had slipped his .41 Colt revolver into his waistband. Now he whirled around, gun in hand, and shot the cowboy in the elbow and chest. Feild charged as the cowboy fled on foot. As the cowboy glanced back to see if his pursuer was gaining, a bullet struck him between the eyes, dropping him to the ground.
Gunfighter buffs may not know Andy Feild, but certainly they are familiar with Jim Miller. Texas produced dozens of prominent gunfighters, from “Killer Miller” to the legendary Ben Thompson, not to mention the lethal King Fisher, Clay Allison and John Selman, who numbered Wes Hardin and ex-Ranger Baz Outlaw among his victims. Rangy Dallas Stoudenmire tamed El Paso before dying there in a vicious fight, and the homicidal Cullen Baker terrorized northeast Texas before being slain in Arkansas—on his corpse authorities reportedly found a shotgun, four revolvers, three derringers and six pocketknives. Famed Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes was a deadly left-handed marksman. Badly wounded in his right arm at age 19, he had to train himself to shoot with his other hand. Hughes became so proficient that few suspected the “Border Boss” was not a natural southpaw.
Georgia-born Doc Holliday fought the first of his eight gunfights in 1875 in Dallas, and the following year Bat Masterson engaged in his inaugural shootout in a Mobeetie saloon. Henry Brown killed the first of at least five career victims in a Panhandle cattle camp in 1876. Eleven of Ben Thompson’s 14 gunfights were in Texas, and all five of “Bloody Bill” Longley’s fatal shootouts were in his native state. Ben Thompson, Wes Hardin, John Selman, Baz Outlaw, King Fisher, Sam Bass, Mannen Clements and “Longhair Jim” Courtright are among the noted Western gunfighters who met their end in Texas shootouts. Ambushers felled both Thompson and Fisher in a hail of gunfire on the night of March 11, 1884, at San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theatre.
One of the West’s most famous gunfights occurred on February 8, 1887, at Fort Worth’s White Elephant. With Bat Masterson at his side, gambler Luke Short clashed with former city marshal Jim Courtright. Longhair Jim whipped out a six-shooter and jammed it into Short’s vest front, but Courtright’s hammer caught on the gambler’s watch chain. Luke palmed his own revolver and emptied it. The first slug smashed the cylinder of Courtright’s pistol, two shots went wild and three bullets tore into Longhair Jim’s right thumb, right shoulder and heart. Courtright collapsed and died within minutes, and authorities released Short from custody on grounds of self-defense.
In 1879 actor Maurice Barrymore—father of Lionel, Ethel and John and great-grandfather of Drew—brought his troupe, the Warde-Barrymore Combination, to Marshall for a performance in the Mahone Opera House. That night after the show Barrymore and fellow thespians Ellen Cummins and Ben Porter traded insults in a restaurant with drunken railroad detective Big Jim Currie. Barrymore, an accomplished boxer, doubled his fists and approached Currie, but Big Jim produced a Smith and Wesson revolver, plugged Maurice in the shoulder and mortally wounded Porter. Eastern newspapers severely castigated Texas in general and Marshall in particular, especially after Currie won acquittal. As the local saying went, “In Harrison County steal a hog, get sent to jail; kill a man, get set free.”
In 1878 Round Rock hosted one of the legendary Texas gun battles. That spring Sam Bass and his gang staged four train holdups in the Dallas area yet eluded a widespread manhunt. Bass planned to rob a bank in Round Rock in July, but accomplice Jim Murphy betrayed the plan to the Texas Rangers in exchange for leniency. The town was swarming with lawmen when Bass, accompanied by Seaborn Barnes and Frank Jackson (Murphy dropped back on a pretext), rode in to case the bank. Confronted by two deputy sheriffs at a general store, the trio gunned down the lawmen, but a Ranger killed Barnes when they stepped outside. Mortally wounded, Bass fell from his saddle, but Jackson braved a hail of lead to put Sam back on his horse. The two made it out of town, but Bass compelled Jackson to leave him beneath a tree, where Rangers found him the next morning. Taken to Round Rock, he lingered in agony for two days, dying on his 27th birthday.
Texas’ two deadliest shootouts tolled four fatalities apiece. One was the 1886 Tascosa gun battle, which claimed three cowboys and an innocent bystander. Dallas Stoudenmire was the central figure of the other tragic fight. Stoudenmire already had three south Texas shootouts to his credit when appointed city marshal of wild and woolly El Paso in 1881. Within four days of his taking the badge, a man named John Hale shot Constable Gus Krempkau, and the new marshal charged up the street brandishing a revolver in each hand. Stoudenmire fatally wounded a Mexican onlooker and then shot Hale in the brain when the latter peered out from behind an adobe pillar. The dying Constable Krempkau shot another of his antagonists, Jim Campbell, in the wrist and foot, whereupon Stoudenmire put a bullet in Campbell’s stomach. Mortally wounded, Campbell clutched his middle and cried, “You big son of a bitch, you murdered me!”
Three days later a friend of Hale and Campbell’s lay in ambush for Stoudenmire, but his shotgun fired prematurely, and Dallas and a companion whipped out revolvers and pumped eight slugs into their assailant. As the would-be assassin collapsed, other would-be killers opened fire wildly from across the street. The marshal charged, and the shooters scattered. Stoudenmire put his six-shooter to use in three more El Paso gun battles before finally dying in an 1882 saloon fight.
By far the most prolific Old West gunfighter was Killin’ Jim Miller. As the story goes, he warmed up to his life’s work at the not-so-tender age of 8 by murdering his grandparents in Evant. At 23 he shotgunned his brother-in-law while the man slept at his home near Gatesville. Among Miller’s many victims were Reeves County Sheriff Bud Frazer, Mannen Clements and, according to widespread rumor, Pat Garrett. Between murder assignments “Deacon Jim” spoke at Methodist prayer meetings, served two hitches with the Texas Rangers and dressed in a metal undershirt that twice saved his life in 1894 shootouts with Frazer in Pecos.
In the first encounter Frazer shot Miller in the right arm. Miller switched his revolver to his left hand, but managed only to drill a bystander in the hip. Frazer emptied his six-shooter into Miller, felling him but producing no damage, other than a few dents in Jim’s steel breastplate. Eight months later Frazer again attacked Miller, shooting him in the arm and leg. But Miller stood his ground, popping away with a revolver as Frazer shot him twice in the chest. As the bullets glanced off Miller’s protective breastplate, Frazer’s courage folded and he fled. In 1896 Miller ended their feud by entering a Toyah saloon and blasting away most of Frazer’s head with a shotgun.
For 13 more years Miller continued his murderous inclinations, mostly in Texas. Cattlemen paid him $500, for example, to assassinate Lubbock lawyer James Jarrott, who had won several cases for area farmers. As Jarrott watered his buggy team near his farm, Miller drilled him in the chest from ambush. Jarrott stayed on his feet, but Miller felled him with another rifle bullet. Somehow Jarrott struggled to his feet as Miller emerged from hiding. Miller triggered another round, which tore into Jarrott’s neck and shoulder and again knocked him down, but it took a fourth bullet to finish him. “He was the hardest damn man to kill I ever tackled,” noted Killin’ Jim.
Miller finally bushwhacked one man too many. In 1909 three men from Ada, Okla., hired him to kill a competitor. Following the murder, Fort Worth officials happily complied with extradition requests, and an angry mob hanged Jim and his three employers from livery stable rafters.
The Texas gunfighter tradition continued into the 20th century—the habit of frontier violence would not die. Pink Higgins, who had used his guns against Comanche warriors, stock thieves and the Horrell brothers starting in his teens, clashed with fellow range detective Billy Standifer in 1902. Although now in his 50s, Higgins rode out to meet Standifer in a mano a mano rifle duel.
Leaving his ranch home astride his favorite mount, Sandy, Pink soon encountered Billy. Both men were riding in the same general direction, with Standifer on Higgins’ right. Pink felt certain Billy would dismount to use his horse for cover, just as he intended to utilize Sandy. “I made up my mind to keep my eye on his left foot,” related Pink, “and the minute that foot left the stirrup, I would get off and go for my gun.”
Warily the adversaries advanced, until separated by a distance later measured at 62 paces. Suddenly, Billy’s left boot left the stirrup, and Pink instantly slipped out of the saddle behind Sandy, pulling at his Winchester. He had a hard time clearing his rifle from its sheath, though, and as he cocked and leveled the weapon, Standifer fired a shot. The bullet hit Sandy’s flank. The stricken animal slammed into Pink, then bolted. Higgins’ shot went wild as he was knocked off-balance. “I always hated to lose the first shot,” lamented Pink.
Standifer’s horse, too, had run away in the commotion, also leaving him exposed. “Standifer was shooting,” recalled Pink, “but he was jumping around like a Comanche, and his shots were going wild. He was sideways to me, and so then I knew I had to shoot mighty accurate to hit him. I knew he couldn’t do any good with his gun till he stopped jumping. So I dropped on my knee, trying to get a bead on him, and when he slowed down, I let him have it. I knew I had got him when the dust flew out of his sleeve above the elbow and he started to buckle. He dropped his gun into the crook of his other arm and tried to trot off. I called to him, saying if he had had enough I wouldn’t shoot again and would come to him, but he fell face forward, his feet flopped up, and he didn’t speak.” The bullet had ripped through Billy’s arm and ranged into his torso, inflicting a fatal wound. Standifer was buried a short distance from where he had fallen.
As the violence died down in the early 20th century, those Texans seeking to use their guns in the cause of law and order gravitated to Arizona Territory, where rustling, train robberies and street shootouts still plagued citizens—so many outlaws and so much violence that Congress would not consider statehood for the territory. In 1901 the Territorial Legislative Assembly created the Arizona Rangers, modeled on the Texas Rangers and given carte blanche to wipe out the outlaws.
During the Rangers’ eight years of operation, 107 men wore the badge. Forty-four of these officers, or 41 percent of the total, were from Texas, of whom Ranger Captain Harry Wheeler observed, “They seem to desire to be tough.” Sergeant Billy Old of the Texas Rangers was brought on as a lieutenant and named Wheeler’s second-in-command.
The last old-fashioned blood feud in Texas erupted three-quarters of a century after the Regulator-Moderator War had introduced feuding to the Lone Star Republic. Even in the second decade of the 20th century, west Texans still bristled with the violent impulses of the pioneers who had settled the region only a generation earlier.
Pioneer cattlemen Billy Johnson and Dave Sims arrived in west Texas in 1878 and 1887, respectively. Each man started his ranch from a dugout cabin, and both built large spreads. In 1905 Gladys Johnson, Billy’s only daughter, and Ed Sims, the eldest son of Dave’s 10 children, married and united two prominent ranching families. But the bride was only 14, and the marriage deteriorated as both Ed and Gladys were unfaithful to each other. Ed and Gladys divorced, but hostility lingered regarding the custody of their two little girls. In 1916 Gladys and her brother Sidney shot Ed to death on the Snyder square in front of the couple’s daughters.
Judge Cullen Higgins, eldest son of feudist Pink Higgins and Snyder’s most respected attorney, won acquittal for both Sidney and Gladys. Gladys fell in love with and married her father’s bodyguard, famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. The oldest Sims son-in-law, former lawman Gee McMeans, led an ambush on Hamer in Sweetwater. Gladys helped fight off the attackers with her handgun, while Hamer, although twice wounded, killed McMeans. In another act of retribution, a three-man assassination team shotgunned Judge Higgins (echoing Judge John Hansford’s murder by shotgun during Texas’ first blood feud, the Regulator-Moderator War). Lawmen quickly apprehended one of the assassins, and his mysterious death inside the Sweetwater jail was interpreted as retribution from the law enforcement fraternity.
“‘Vengeance is mine!’ saith the Lord,” reminded C.L. Sonnichsen, historian of Texas feuds. “But in and out of Texas he has always had plenty of help.”
Bill O’Neal has written 36 books and more than 200 articles. For further reading see O’Neal’s Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, The Johnson-Sims Feud, War in East Texas: Regulators vs. Moderators, The Bloody Legacy of Pink Higgins and Fighting Men of the Indian Wars. Also recommended: The Sutton-Taylor Feud, by Chuck Parsons; The Mason County “Hoo Doo” War, 1874–1902, by David Johnson; and I’ll Die Before I’ll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas, by C.L. Sonnichsen.