It was precisely high noon on Thursday, July 6, 1865, when a sudden burst of gunfire in the barroom of the Bella Union Hotel signaled the beginning of one of the most sensational gun battles in early Los Angeles. The bloody encounter involved two members of the King family and wealthy rancher Robert Carlisle.
An eyewitness account of this famous gunfight appears in the privately published 1935 book Wranglin’ the Past, which was written by cowboy Frank King, son of gunfight participant Samuel Houston King. ‘I have personally known most of the gun shooters who filed notches on their guns and mighty few of them gave the man they killed a Chinaman’s chance,’ King writes in Chapter 1. The 1865 Los Angeles gunfight stood out most in his mind because it involved not only his father but also his uncle, Francis (‘Frank’) Marion King.
The author writes that his grandfather, Samuel King, was a sheriff in Georgia before deciding in 1849 to go west. Sam King had heard tales of fortunes being made in California. So he loaded his family and belongings into two wagons and, with chickens squawking in their cages and cows lumbering behind, hit the westward trail. His family included two girls, Mary and Martha, and three boys, Andrew Jackson, Frank and Houston. The brothers, in their early teens, served as good guards because, being chips off the old block, they would fight anything that moved or made noise.
The Kings stopped for supplies in Socorro, New Mexico Territory, and Sam got into an argument with a Mexican farmer over the price of beans. The farmer called for help from a Mexican colonel. Reckless things were said by Sam, and the officer challenged him to a duel with pistols. In the duel, Sam inflicted only a minor wound on his opponent and escaped injury himself when the colonel slipped on the wet ground and misfired.
After first backtracking into Texas to check out a ranch he heard was for sale and deciding against it, Sam King set a course across central Arizona Territory to investigate mining possibilities. Because of strong rumors of an Apache uprising, Sam eventually pushed on to his original destination, California. In 1853, he and his family settled in El Monte, about 12 miles east of Los Angeles. As the years went by, Sam acquired considerable land holdings there. Though he was respected in the community, he was often at odds with someone over one thing or another. One such altercation involved a man named Johnson. What the argument was about has been lost to history, but Frank King states in Wranglin’ the Past that his grandfather was ‘assassinated by a man named Johnson.’ The author adds that his father, Houston, who was Sam’s second son, followed Johnson into Tehachipi Pass, 130 miles north of Los Angeles, cornered him on a trail and killed him in a gunfight.
At the same time the King family arrived in California, Robert Carlisle came across the Great Plains from Missouri. Carlisle was a large, strong, handsome man who possessed above-average courage but also a volatile temper. As had many of the frontiersmen of those days, he had already put a couple of men into their graves. In time, Carlisle put together one of the largest cattle operations in Southern California. The 46,000-acre Chino Ranch became known far and wide as the Carlisle spread. As for little Los Angeles, it was a hotbed for shootings and lynchings and was sometimes referred to as the town of Los Diablos (‘the devils’).
At 4 p.m. on July 5, 1865, a high-society wedding took place in the brightly decorated ballroom of Los Angeles’ fashionable Bella Union Hotel. It was the social event of the season, with music, merrymaking and too much liquor. During the reception, an argument broke out between Undersheriff Andrew King and Carlisle. The rancher apparently accused King of falsifying evidence in the murder trial of one of the cowboys on the Chino Ranch. In the scuffle, Carlisle slashed Andrew King across the hand and stomach with a bowie knife. Carlisle also threatened to kill on sight any and all of the King brothers.
The next day, July 6, shortly before noon, with the wounded Andrew King under the care of a Dr. Griffin, Frank King said to his brother Houston, ‘Let’s go see if the bastard’s man enough to do what he says.’ In a matter of minutes, the two revenge-minded King brothers were marching down Main Street toward the Bella Union Hotel. When they entered the lobby, they saw Carlisle in the barroom. The Kings approached with drawn guns.
Frank called out, ‘I don’t care for your mouth, Carlisle, and I especially don’t care for you.’ Soon the shooting started. Who shot first is not certain. Frank emptied his Colt .44. Carlisle set his drink on the bar and in a blurring motion drew his revolver and fired. The shot hit Houston King, puncturing his lung. Houston dropped to one knee. Unable to raise his right arm, he still managed to tilt his revolver upward and fire with amazing accuracy. He put four shots into Carlisle’s belly. The room rocked with the roar of gunfire, and the air quickly filled with blue smoke. Carlisle, despite his wound, struggled to get to his feet, intending to continue the fight.
Frank King stepped forward and struck Carlisle on the head with his empty revolver with such force that the weapon broke. Carlisle, considered by many to be a man of iron, staggered to the wall, raised his revolver with both hands and fired. It was his last shot, but it struck Houston King in the chest. At this point a friend of Carlisle’s ran into the cardroom from a rear door, and as Frank attempted to lift Houston to his feet, the man shot Frank through the heart, killing him instantly. From the floor where he had fallen, Houston managed to get off a wild shot at the intruder. That was the end. The sensational gun battle was over, and the shooters were either down or dead… except for the intruder who killed Frank.
Witnesses from the lobby moved in cautiously. An examination of Frank King confirmed that he was dead. Bystander J.H. Lander had been wounded in the thigh, and Felix Skaggs, a bartender, had caught a slug in his wrist. One of the many flying bullets had struck and killed a horse hitched to a stagecoach across the street. The bullet-riddled body of Robert Carlisle was carried into the cardroom and placed on a billiard table. Covered with blood and writhing in pain, he requested a drink of whiskey. His many stomach wounds made recovery hopeless, and at about 3 p.m. he died. Houston King was carried to the office of Dr. Griffin, where a delicate operation saved his life.
The bodies of Frank King and Robert Carlisle were prepared for burial at the Corder-Lynwood Funeral Parlor. Due to the large number of mourners expected, Carlisle’s funeral was conducted in the Bella Union ballroom. Frank King’s funeral was held at his residence with only the family and a few political friends present.
Houston King was charged with murdering Robert Carlisle, and as soon as he was able, he was brought to trial. It was a long and hard-fought trial, but in the end, Houston was acquitted. That decision did not please everyone. The reckless daring of both parties certainly caused great concern in the community. To ensure that such a traumatic, deadly shootout would not happen again, citizens looked to the law for action. The story of the tragedy reached the floor of the Chamber of the Common Council, and in late July 1865, an order was issued that stated: ‘This order prohibits everyone except officers and travelers from carrying a pistol, dirk, sling shot, or sword.’ Public concern, however, proved to be short-lived and scant attention was ever paid to the law.
To be sure, the King–Carlisle battle was not forgotten by the King family, especially by Houston King. He learned that the friend of Carlisle’s who killed Frank had returned to Texas. Shortly after his acquittal, King was heard to say: ‘It is our family code to repay in kind anyone who harms a member of the King family. I intend to honor that code.’ It would take eight years for Houston to fulfill that vow.
Houston had long wanted to relocate his family, and he had Texas in mind. So, in 1873, they loaded up a covered wagon and headed east. One of Houston’s great-uncles had a ranch in Ellis County, just a few miles southeast of Fort Worth. That was their destination. But first Houston had a pledge to keep. In every town and village, at every ranch and roundup, Houston inquired about the man with connections to Robert Carlisle in California.
One day he got the lead he had known would come sooner or later. After setting up camp and making sure his family would be all right for a few hours, he headed across the open range. Shortly after sunset, with a full Texas moon rising over the distant mountains, he came upon a man cooking over a camp fire. ‘Good evening, mister,’ Houston said. ‘I’m looking for a man. A friend of Bob Carlisle who had the Chino Ranch in California. Could it be you’re that man?’ ‘Could be,’ the man answered. ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m one of the King family,’ Houston said, and he drew his weapon.
A few days later, a cowboy riding cross-country found the body lying next to the cold ashes of a campfire. As was the custom of those times, the cowboy buried the body, then rode on. The score was settled, and the family code was intact. Houston rejoined his family and the next morning headed toward his great-uncle’s ranch.
And it was there that Frank King, son of Houston King and author of the book from which most of these facts were taken, became a cowboy. First working for his great-great uncle and then for his father, Frank took to the rugged life of punching cattle and working roundups. The years rolled by, and one day Frank decided to go out on his own. He headed west, to Arizona Territory — the land of the Earps, Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo. Frank was gregarious by nature, and he brushed elbows with many of these legendary figures of the Old West and survived to tell about it.
Around 1890, Frank took a job breaking 75 head of mustangs for rancher Sam Webb near Phoenix. Upon completion of that bone-pounding job, Frank declared he was finished with cow-punching and bronco-busting forever. ‘What’re you going to do?’ a friend asked. ‘Well,’ Frank said, ‘I always wanted to be a newspaper man and by Jingo I’m going to give it a try.’ John Dunbar, editor of the Phoenix Gazette, gave Frank his chance, and being a storyteller with a nose for news, Frank became a success. He eventually got around to telling the story of his turbulent life in the early days of the West in Wranglin’ The Past. Only 300 copies were printed.
It should be noted that in October 1956 and again in August 1993, the Los Angeles Times ran an account of the Bella Union gunfight. The earlier of the two stories was based on what Eugene Carlisle Broderick, grandson of gunfight participant Robert Carlisle, told the Times. Broderick was unable to shed any light on the reasons for the bitter feud between his grandfather and the Kings. His account suggests that it was Frank King, not Houston King, who put the four bullets in Robert Carlisle, and that the dazed Carlisle (not a mysterious friend of Carlisle’s) fired the bullet that killed Frank King. But Broderick did not totally discount Houston King’s version. ‘Who can really say if King’s story is true?’ Broderick told the Times. ‘After all, it happened nearly a hundred years ago.’
And, of course, Broderick said that more than 40 years ago.
This article was written by George Gardiner and originally appeared in the June 1998 issue of Wild West.
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