Zeke Proctor had nothing against Aunt Polly Beck Hildebrand. They were related, in fact, and Zeke didn’t want to kill her at all. Fact was, Zeke was after her man, Jim Kesterson, and Polly just got in the way of one of Zeke’s bullets. Kesterson made it to cover, but Polly was beyond help.
No doubt Zeke, or Ezekial, saw the whole thing as an accident, but the Beck family felt otherwise. Family loyalties ran very deep in the Cherokee Nation. It followed that if you killed somebody from another family, you could usually count on smelling powder smoke yourself before much time passed. So it was with Zeke Proctor. His lack of murderous intent didn’t mollify a whole passel of tough, straight-shooting Becks. The Beck family was determined to see Zeke dead. Either the duly appointed authorities would kill him legally or the family would handle it themselves.
Zeke Proctor killed Polly Beck in 1872 at the so-called Hildebrand Mill, in what is now Delaware County, Okla., on Flint Creek, just a little west of Siloam Springs, Ark. There had been some sort of mill on the site since about 1845, when Thomas Beck bought a share in it, and it was a first-class operation for its time. The millstones had come all the way from France to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), and then by oxcart to Flint Creek. In those days the Cherokee Nation was split into political subdivisions called districts, and the mill lay in Going Snake District. The area was named for a much-respected full-blood chief who had come up the Trail of Tears from Georgia back in the 1830s. He was called Eenah-tah-tah-oo, which means ‘a snake crawling along.’ That mellifluous name lost quite a lot in translation, which could come no closer than ‘Going Snake.’
Polly was the widow of Steve Hildebrand (sometimes seen as Hilderbrand), who had owned a share in the mill. After Steve was killed in the Civil War, Polly ran the mill with Kesterson, who was either her fourth husband or her lover, depending on which account you read. The reason for Zeke’s anger at Jim Kesterson is lost in the mists of time. One story says Kesterson was married to Zeke’s sister, Susan, and had left her and her children destitute (and in fact Kesterson had once been married to Susan Proctor). In this tale, Zeke moved his sister and her children in with another sister, then rode up to the mill to avenge Kesterson’s neglect of his family. In another version, Kesterson had started the whole thing by accusing Zeke of stealing stock. Still another story says Zeke may have gone to the mill in his capacity as deputy sheriff — which office he actually held at one time or another. His mission was to direct Polly to control her farm animals, which had been straying into other people’s fields.
Most of the old-timers at least agree that the Kesterson-Proctor fight had something to do with stock. Some Proctors espoused the abandoned wife story. And another pioneer thought Polly ‘was the cause of Proctor being put out as sheriff of the Going Snake District just before this happened and he was angry at her.’ One variation on the tale says Zeke prepared for his meeting with Kesterson by tanking up on frontier neck oil. He then galloped off to the mill and found Polly and Kesterson outside. Shouting ‘I’m going to kill me a white man!’ Zeke dismounted and went for his revolvers.
Whatever the actual reason for Proctor’s visit, both men got angry enough to go for their guns. Proctor was quicker on the draw than Kesterson, but Polly Beck Hildebrand threw herself between the two antagonists and stopped a bullet in the chest. Kesterson ran for his life as Proctor drilled two more slugs through his coat, and the fat was in the fire. Although one story says Proctor hid out for months after the shooting, it seems most likely that he immediately turned himself in to Going Snake Sheriff Jack Wright.
The shooting occurred on about February 13, 1872, and the political maneuvering began almost immediately. If the Becks were numerous and influential, so were the Proctors. Both families had taken leading parts in Cherokee government. The two families had been close once, too, but the Civil War had changed some of that friendship. The Becks had supported the Confederacy by and large, while some Proctors, Zeke included, had fought for the Union. Zeke, men said, had fought in many battles, but had only received one minor wound.
The situation was also complicated by the fact that Zeke was a Keetoowah, and the Becks were not. The Keetoowah Society stood for preservation of tribal tradition; the term means full-blood, old-time Cherokee, or something similar. The Keetoowahs believed deeply in preservation of the old ways against encroachment by white men, who were now settling in large numbers on Cherokee land in Indian Territory. The Keetoowahs generally had supported Cherokee Chief John Ross in defending the Union. And the Keetoowahs stuck together, swearing, among other things, not to testify against each other. The Keetoowahs also stood for Cherokee separateness and Cherokee sovereignty. They believed the Cherokee Nation ought to have control over its own lands and its own affairs, and especially objected to the trial of Cherokees for crimes committed against whites. When the U.S. District Court at Fort Smith later asserted its right to try Zeke Proctor, the Keetoowahs would oppose that assertion and rally tightly around the accused.
Exactly what kind of man Zeke Proctor was is hard to say today. A reliable man who knew him described Zeke, who was born on July 4, 1831, in Georgia, as’stoic…reserved…rather tall and straight as an arrow.’ He was husky, about 5 feet 7, and his straight black hair hung down below shoulder level. He favored a broad-brimmed black hat, and often appeared in a fancy beaded buckskin vest. ‘He had keen black eyes which could look with stern reproval from their depths, or with a smile that would illuminate his whole face,’ one contemporary noted.
Clearly an imposing figure, Proctor was often called a bad Indian, a gunfighter and a general wastrel, but nobody knows now just how much of that reputation was really deserved. Some of his contemporaries described Zeke as intelligent and peaceful, a man who loved children and got along with people who got along with him. He spoke English, as well as his native Cherokee.
Like so many other men of his time, Proctor was superstitious. When a thunderstorm threatened, he would split a chunk of firewood with his ax, then point both log and ax toward the storm, a practice supposed to divide and detour the thunder and lightning. He also was careful to leave milk for the fairies outside his barn each night. One tale pretty well illustrates the ‘good man-bad man’ image that followed Proctor most of his life. It seems that Zeke, full of booze, was riding past a house in which a young girl was playing the piano. Charmed, Zeke halted and listened. When the music stopped, he rushed into the house, put his pistols on the piano, and said simply, ‘Play!’ He got the rest of his concert.
Proctor himself told his grandson that he had killed repeatedly, and admitted that at least one shooting was just plain murder. It happened, he said, when he met a young Indian near the Illinois River. The youngster was carrying a jug of white lightning, and Proctor asked him for a drink. The boy refused, and Proctor, thirsty and displeased, simply shot him, took his jug and buried him.
Other old-timers in the Cherokee Nation remembered Proctor as an ‘outlaw,’ or at least wild and unpredictable, especially when full of prime coffin varnish. One pioneer recalled that Proctor and other ‘wanted men’ loafed on the streets of Tahlequah until they got word that marshals were in the area, a warning passed from the Arkansas border by a kind of gunshot telegraph. At least in his youth, Proctor did indeed have a distinct fondness for strong spirits and roistering, and for shooting up saloons in Cincinnati, Ark., his favorite watering hole. He apparently kept his welcome warm in Cincinnati by returning to pay the damages after the fog of booze had worn away.
Proctor family legend relates that Zeke killed a pair of brothers called Jaybird early in his life. His own son later said that Zeke killed as many as 25 men over the years, including several deputy U.S. marshals, and was acquitted of murder on 16 occasions. Another old-timer put Zeke’s tally at 21 corpses and attributed Zeke’s longevity in part to wearing a steel breastplate under his clothing.
Maybe so, but 25 killings — or even 21 — seems a gross exaggeration. The pre-Civil War records of the federal court in Van Buren, Ark., were destroyed in a fire. Nevertheless, there is said to be no record of any murder prosecution of Zeke Proctor in either the Fort Smith district court or in the Cherokee tribal courts. Men also said that Zeke harbored at his farm an assortment of outlaws — including Belle Starr — but with all that he still managed to become a farmer of some substance. By 1890 he owned three farms, 10 structures of various kinds, a large stock of produce and a sizable collection of domestic animals. In addition to his thriving farms, he seems to have maintained more than one wife, but in those days polygamy was neither unusual nor unlawful in the Cherokee Nation.
Proctor’s granddaughter later said that Zeke had been ‘on the scout’ for most of his life, starting with the Jaybird killings. Certainly Proctor was a fine woodsman and an excellent shot, with a well-developed instinct for danger. He was always heavily armed with a pair of revolvers; in later years, these were reportedly pearl-handled .45s. He also carried, according to his son, a seven-shot Spencer rifle. And, as one witness said, he ‘could both see and hear to a superlative degree as almost his entire life was lived dodging real or imaginary enemies.’ Proctor never sat with his back to a door, and he would sidle along a town street so that his back was turned toward the buildings. Whatever way he used when he came to town, he left by another route.
The clash between Proctors and Becks, between Keetoowah beliefs and white man’s law, was further aggravated by a jurisdictional dispute between Indian and U.S. courts. Zeke Proctor was unquestionably Cherokee. Although his father, William, had been a white man, his mother was a full blood, and Zeke followed the Keetowah ways. Kesterson was white, but Aunt Polly Beck had been half Cherokee, and so Kesterson, as her husband, was considered an adopted Cherokee. At first blush, it appeared to be a clear case for tribal jurisdiction. After all, the United States-Cherokee treaty seemed pretty specific: ‘…the judicial tribunals of the [Cherokee] nation shall be allowed to retain exclusive jurisdiction in all civil and criminal cases, arising within their country, in which members of the nation, by nativity or adoption, shall be the only parties, or where the cause of action shall arise in the Cherokee Nation except as otherwise provided in this treaty.’ The Cherokee court accordingly took jurisdiction, although the Becks, afraid of the Keetoowah Society’s influence, wanted the federal court in Fort Smith to intervene on grounds that Kesterson was white.
There were some vexing complications right from the beginning. For one thing, Zeke was related to just about everybody, including Lewis Downing, the tribal chief. Zeke’s mother had been a Downing.
It was very hard to find a prosecutor who was unrelated to the Proctors. The regular judge, Jim Walker, also turned out to be related to the Proctors — to both sides, for that matter — and was duly disqualified. So was Judge T.B. Wolfe, and for the same reasons. At last Chief Downing appointed Blackhaw Sixkiller as judge, and Sixkiller quickly set about getting the murder case to trial, naming a date in March 1872.
The first short session ended in recess when Beck’s lawyer, J.A. Scales, asked the chief to remove Sixkiller on an assortment of charges. Chief Downing temporarily suspended Sixkiller, then called an emergency meeting of the tribal council. The council quickly decided that the charges against Sixkiller were without merit — ‘trumped up,’ they said — and the trial was back on, this time set for April 15.
Everybody was expecting trouble, so the case was set to be heard in the Whitmire schoolhouse, rather than Going Snake Courthouse. The school building, near what is now Christie, Okla., was farther away from Beck country than the court was. Besides, the school was built of logs, had only one door — on its west side — and had fewer windows than the courthouse did. It was therefore easier to defend in case of trouble. And trouble there would be.
Because the Proctor family was large and well connected, and because Zeke was a prominent Keetoowah, the Beck family was not sure that their notion of proper justice would be done at the Whitmire schoolhouse. And so on April 11, Jim Kesterson and a party of Becks rode into Fort Smith to hedge their bets. There, they swore out a federal warrant for Zeke’s arrest. They also got warrants for seven other men, including two Walkingsticks, a couple of Sixkillers and the entire jury.
Most accounts say they got warrants for the defense counsel and Judge Sixkiller as well. In spite of the treaty, the U.S. commissioner in Fort Smith issued the warrants, based on the proposition that the United States had jurisdiction over offenses against white people, and Kesterson, adopted Cherokee or not, was white.
The warrants were then passed on to a couple of luckless deputy marshals for service. These unfortunate lawmen also received the curious instruction that they were to arrest everybody named in the warrants only if Zeke were acquitted. In case of conviction, however, they were not to serve the warrants at all. It was a recipe for trouble.
And so came the day of trial. The makeshift courthouse was jammed with people, many of them Proctor partisans armed to the teeth — including, one account says, the defendant himself. Outside stood a dense crowd of Cherokees, eager to hear the proceedings…or to be available in case of trouble. Among them were a number of Beck partisans, also armed, wearing twigs of wild plum blossoms in their hats as a sort of badge.
Inside, Judge Sixkiller sat at a little wood table facing the single door. Just to his left was Joe Starr, the court clerk, and Proctor’s lawyer, Mose Alberty, sat on the judge’s right. Zeke sat next to Alberty, and close to Zeke stood Tom Walkingstick, one of his guards.
At about 11 a.m. on April 15, not long after proceedings had begun and prosecutor Johnson Spake was arguing some procedural matter, trouble appeared. It came in the form of a federal posse, which included some of the toughest of the Becks and their supporters. Out in front were Deputy U.S. Marshals J.G. Peavy and J.G. Owens, both well respected and well liked in Indian Territory. Owens had ordered his possemen to stay out of the schoolhouse turned courthouse, and to remain outside until the verdict was reached. Unfortunately, Owens quickly lost control.
The possemen dismounted, formed a rough column of twos and pushed through the crowd toward the door. Other armed Beck partisans joined them from the crowd waiting outside. Nobody doubted they meant business, for they were cocking their weapons as they came. In the lead was Surry (‘White Sut’) Beck, cradling his double-barreled shotgun. Inside the schoolhouse, juror George Blackwood saw the grim-faced posse coming. ‘Look out!’ he shouted. ‘Look out! They’re coming to get Zeke Proctor!’ Near the doorway, White Sut shoved aside one of the Indian lighthorsemen, or policemen, and stormed into the building. Inevitably somebody, probably White Sut, fired a shot, and then all hell broke loose.
White Sut pulled down on Zeke with his shotgun, but Johnson Proctor, Zeke’s brother, grabbed Sut’s weapon and took one barrel full in the chest. Johnson, mortally hurt, still hung on to the shotgun, forcing the second shot down toward the floor. Zeke was hit in the foot by a couple of buckshot, but his brother had saved his life. Zeke’s defense counsel, Mose Alberty, never had a chance. He was sitting at the clerk’s table or judge’s desk, apparently reading some document, when he was hit with two shotgun rounds and went down dying.
Another version of the fight had White Sut getting close enough to press the muzzle of his weapon ‘right against Zeke Proctor’s breast. ‘Now, old man,’ he crowed, ‘I have got you.” But he didn’t. Johnson clung to the shotgun, and other Proctor partisans grabbed for their weapons. White Sut then murdered Johnson Proctor, according to one old-timer, who added, ‘He hated to have to shoot him, but he had to, to get him loose from the gun; so he pulled a pistol out of his pocket and shot him dead.’
As gunfire roared in the log schoolhouse, men began to fall on both sides. Nobody knows how many men Zeke Proctor shot, but he produced a weapon from somewhere, most likely a revolver, and the range was point-blank. He probably took shelter in a convenient chimney corner, which gave him at least a little cover.
Another old-timer said later that Zeke snatched a Winchester ‘out of the hands of the guard nearest him,’ which probably would have been Tom Walkingstick. This version is a little doubtful, if only because the same witness quite incorrectly said that the verdict had been handed down before the Beck party rushed the building, and that Zeke hid out in Mexico for the next four years.
Another witness to the fight, a youngster at the time, said Zeke killed’six or seven men.’ Since a lot of people were banging away simultaneously, that seems a large bag even for Zeke Proctor, and indeed, the young witness’ opportunity to see what happened may have been considerably limited by the dictates of his good sense: ‘I fell down under a bench and stayed there when it happened,’ he said, ‘and they thought he had killed me too.’
At the door, Sam Beck stepped in front of White Sut, and somebody cut him down. Then White Sut dropped, and more and more men fell in agony as weapons roared in and outside the building. The Beck faction quickly realized they were badly outgunned. They scattered then, those who could still stand, and the firing and the shouting died away.
As the smoke blew away, the ground was littered with bodies. Four corpses lay in a welter of blood just inside the schoolhouse door. Three more bodies sprawled silent just outside. A few paces away was another corpse, a badly wounded man lay moaning behind the building, and still another was dying in a nearby clump of bushes.
Judge Sixkiller took two buckshot in the wrist, and lawyer Alberty lay dead near Johnson Proctor — both of them elderly and unarmed. One juror had a hole in his shoulder, and several others also had wounds, most of them minor. Close by, in Mrs. Whitmire’s house, Deputy U.S. Marshal Owens was dying, gasping that he had tried his best to hold back the Becks.
The Becks had taken terrible casualties. Black Sut, Samuel and William Beck were dead or dying. So were William Hicks, Jim Ward, George Selvidge (or Selvage) and Riley Woods. White Sut Beck was terribly hurt — although he would survive — and Isaac Vann had a bad elbow wound.
In addition to Johnson Proctor, the Proctors lost Andrew Palone, a Civil War veteran of the Pea Ridge fight, variously described as either killed or wounded. Various others, both partisans and bystanders, had suffered more or less minor injuries. Zeke’s only wound was the buckshot from White Sut’s weapon, and Zeke could still fight and ride. Having fought, he now rode.
Widow Whitmire got her teenage boys to hitch the family mules to a wagon and began to collect the dead, the dying and the wounded. The bodies of those killed were conveniently arranged on the Whitmire front porch so their kinfolk could easily collect them. The wounded were gently carried inside, to be cared for by Mrs. Whitmire and others.
Next day, the 16th, the jury reconvened at Captain Arch Scraper’s nearby house to finish the job. Scraper, who was foreman of the jury, found he still headed a complete panel, counting a new juror appointed to replace a member too badly hurt to continue. Zeke Proctor was there, too, announcing that he would not give up his right to be present at his own trial, wounds and all. The jury deliberated long enough to acquit Zeke. They then intelligently departed in some haste, on the sound theory that Fort Smith would send more marshals, or more Becks would appear, and whoever came would be angry men.
James Huckleberry, the U.S. marshal, was indeed an unhappy man. No doubt angry over the death of a fine officer, he accused Sixkiller of obstructing justice, even of deliberately holding court where the marshal’s posse could best be resisted. He sent a 21-man posse down to Going Snake, but by the time the lawmen arrived on the 17th nearly everybody had scattered. Jury foreman Scraper, who had not fired a shot, was one of the unlucky ones who was arrested and taken to Fort Smith. But he was eventually released.
The deputy marshal in command, Charles F. Robinson, was an intelligent officer, who wisely decided not to launch a fruitless pursuit into the hills and thickets of the district. Robinson had brought along two doctors, Julian Fields and C.F. Pierce, who did what they could for those wounded in the courtroom shootout. Eleven men were beyond help.
Zeke Proctor was long gone in any case. Escorted by a strong group of perhaps 50 heavily armed Keetoowahs, he was headed for the toughest and most inaccessible parts of the Cherokee lands. Digging out him and his escort would be bloody work, and probably fruitless, and Robinson decided he hadn’t lost anything out there in the backcountry. Judge Sixkiller had also departed for the tall timber, as had most of the jurors. Robinson rode back to Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital, where he lodged a formal demand for the delivery of Proctor and a long list of other Cherokees. Chief Downing naturally declined to honor the demand — even if he could have. Instead, he contacted the Cherokee delegation to Washington, D.C., asking that they lobby for the return of complete internal sovereignty to the Cherokee Nation.
In spite of Robinson’s intelligent decision not to pursue Zeke Proctor, it would take time for all the bad blood to die away. For a while afterward, great tension existed between the Cherokees and anybody who was or looked like a deputy marshal. One thing was clear: No marshal, no matter how efficient or courageous, was going to catch the elusive Proctor. He was something of a hero to most Cherokees, a symbol of tribal resistance to the increasing encroachment of white government from the East.
Inevitably, Zeke was indicted for murder in the death of Deputy Marshal Owens, charged with some 20 others, including the judge and jury. In the verbose, tedious legal language of the age, the indictment recited how Zeke, with ‘a certain pistol then and there loaded and charged with gunpowder and twenty leaden bullets…then and there feloniously and willfully and of his malice aforethought did shoot and discharge; and that…with the leaden bullets aforesaid out of the pistol aforesaid then and there by force of the gunpowder shot and sent forth as aforesaid Jacob Owens in and upon the left side of him….’ On and on went the indictment, which included allegations of aiding and abetting murder against a whole host of other Cherokees. Meanwhile, Cherokee leaders indicted White Sut Beck and several of his friends for the murder of Johnson Proctor.
The Cherokee delegation’s patient lobbying in Washington finally bore fruit, and President Ulysses S. Grant granted complete federal amnesty to Zeke Proctor and his Keetoowah supporters. The Proctor family said later that for years Zeke displayed on the wall of his house the document that granted him that amnesty. He is known, with some justification, as the only individual with whom the United States ever concluded a formal treaty.
The federal indictment was at last dismissed toward the end of 1873. Apparently Zeke and a small army of supporters rode into Fort Smith and were actually present when the U.S. attorney entered a nolle prosequi in the case. The indictment against White Sut Beck was also dismissed, and in February 1874, the Cherokee National Council passed a general amnesty. And so peace of a kind returned to Going Snake District — but there was no peace between Zeke Proctor and White Sut Beck. For many years each man watched his backtrail, kept his weapons close, wondered what lay hidden in the woods up ahead. Each man was carefully watched over by his kinfolk, and there was no real truce.
In later years, Zeke Proctor remained something of a Cherokee hero. Some Cherokees even believed that he had some sort of divine protection, and some thought that this aura would protect them also, if they stayed close to Zeke. Most probably, Proctor’s survival was actually due to his ceaseless vigilance, and maybe also to the fact, as rumor had it, that he habitually wore an iron cuirass underneath his coat.
In any case, Zeke Proctor became the Cherokee senator from Going Snake District in 1877 and was elected sheriff in 1894. Perhaps his greatest service, ironically, began in the fall of 1891, when he was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal, riding with, among others, the tough, indefatigable Heck Bruner. Marshaling must have agreed with Proctor, who knew every trail and hideout in Indian Territory; he renewed his marshal’s contract in February 1895.
Zeke Proctor, 76, died at home in February 1907, not of hot lead or cold steel, but of pneumonia. He still lies in the Proctor family plot in the Johnson cemetery, five miles west of Siloam Springs. His monument is the tallest in the cemetery, and that is as it should be. Respectable in his old age, Proctor had never entirely forsaken the old ways. His last words, his granddaughter said, were, ‘Feed the boys good.’ He meant the outlaw Wickliffe brothers, then lying low in Zeke’s barn.
But before Zeke died, and long years after the rains had washed away the clotted blood outside the Whitmire schoolhouse, White Sut Beck and Zeke Proctor finally met. One version of the story says they met by accident; another says the meeting was arranged by mutual friends. Even the year of the meeting is not certain: It may have been in the late ’80s, or as late as 1903. In any case, they met in the land office at Tahlequah, and after all the years stood face to face at last, two old and mortal enemies.
Finally, White Sut Beck spoke. To Proctor he said: ‘We’re too old to fight. But I’m game and I know you are too. I’ll walk away if you will.’ And then, without more, the two tough, proud old men turned and left the land office by different ways. The feud was over, without formality, without fanfare, without speeches. Nobody had backed down; nobody had won; nobody had lost.
Which was how it should have ended.
This article was written by Robert Barr Smith and originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!