In 1876 ‘Persimmon Bill’ Chambers committed several ruthless murders and dished general mayhem on folks traveling to and from gold country on the Cheyenne–Black Hills Road.

In 1876, during the heady, freewheeling days of the Black Hills Gold Rush, the name William F. “Persimmon Bill” Chambers curdled Hillers’ imaginations. News of his lawlessness was head- line fare in the Cheyenne and Laramie news- papers—he the fancifully monikered horse thief, ruthless murderer and coy newshound, with Wyo- ming and Dakota landmarks like Fort Fetterman, Hat Creek, Indian Creek, the Cheyenne River and Red Canyon his lair and oozing with the blood of victims. Travel on the Black Hills Road north of Fort Laramie and through Red Canyon was treacherous enough, especially beyond the Hat Creek Breaks, where an Indian trail to Powder River country crossed this citizen’s road. But Chambers also hit that span hard, dishing mayhem with seeming impunity. Persimmon Bill Chambers’ outlaw run was mercifully short-lived, but his legacy is tied to several of the most heinous murders committed on the Cheyenne–Black Hills Road in 1876. During his spree this critical avenue to a prosperous new gold country was one of the most dangerous roads in America.

Much of what is known today about the early life of William Chambers comes from the outlaw himself and is mostly derived from a chance encounter in April 1876 with a newsman traveling the Cheyenne–Black Hills Road to the Dakota goldfields. Evincing a beguiling charm and a certain eagerness to tell his story, Chambers told of his North Carolina roots and of his Civil War service, supposedly first with a Confederate infantry outfit and then, after a desertion and another enlistment, with a Union cavalry regiment. As with much about Chambers, such details do not always check out. Chambers’ propensity for gunfighting reportedly stemmed from those Civil War years, as Bill related having shot a fellow Union soldier in Bowling Green, Va., over a woman’s attention. Chambers said he fled and rejoined the Confederates, was captured and served out the war in the Union prison on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie, Ohio.

The newsman in 1876 described a pleasant featured, well-dressed man about 5-foot-9, rather well built and weighing perhaps 140 pounds, with short brown hair, bright blue eyes, a small, well-shaped nose, thin lips shaded by a blond mustache, and a chin covered with a short brown beard. “The only features indicating his ferocious disposition,” wrote the correspondent, “[were] his very heavy protruding eyebrows and his thick, heavy lower jaws.” Albert W. Merrick, publisher of The Black Hills Daily Pioneer, supposedly also encountered Persimmon Bill, at a stage station in mid-1876, and recalled quite a different character, being “tall,” he said, “swarthy, keen-eyed, with coal-black hair, straight as an Indian’s.”

By his own account Chambers was several years making his way to Cheyenne, drifting through Fort Collins, North Platte and Sioux City, always in trouble but eventually taking ranch employment in Wyoming with Malcolm Campbell, not yet the famous Wyoming lawman but then a businessman holding a contract to produce charcoal for Fort Fetterman. Campbell is one of the few, aside from that first newsman, to speak kindly of Chambers, whom he recalled as the best herder he ever had, who stayed with him for two years before going “to the bad.” It is hard to imagine Campbell knew about Chambers’ nefarious background, but that changed as the name Persimmon Bill became regular fodder in Wyoming newspapers.

 The first known mention of the nickname “Persimmon Bill,” or “Persimmons Bill” as it sometimes appears—a name never explained but likely reflecting the same astringency as that unique fruit when unripe—appeared in the March 9, 1875, Cheyenne Daily Leader. Chambers was then serving time for horse rustling in the Cheyenne jail, the “Hotel d’O’Brieno” as the paper called it—a teasing reference to Laramie County Sheriff Nicholas O’Brien. The Leader observed that Chambers and an accomplice both had reputations as “very hard characters, with a weakness for hovering occasionally on the outskirts of the Indian horse herd near Red Cloud,” meaning the Red Cloud Agency in northwestern Nebraska. A grand jury would soon investigate, the mention continued, but in the meantime, “Indian horses will become scarce in the horse markets at Sidney, Cheyenne and Laramie City.” But Persimmon Bill seems to have evaded any consequences in this instance and was soon free.

Chambers was singled out in the Laramie Daily Sentinel a few weeks later when three Indians appeared in town on the trail of horses stolen from them by a rustler named “Persimmon Bill.” Bill later boasted of his skill at thieving horses and the enterprise it spawned, telling some chance-encountered Black Hills travelers he was the “leading spirit” of a regularly organized band of horse thieves. Its members, he said, were stationed at different points between the Black Hills and the San Juan country in southwestern Colorado, and that horses stolen in Colorado were brought north and disposed of, and when rustled in Wyoming were taken south and sold. Bill noted that every case of horse theft in Colorado or Wyoming over the past four or five years could be traced to members of this gang.

Another chance encounter north of Cheyenne, this time between a young bullwhacker working for the Charley Clay freighting outfit and Chambers, painted a believable picture of the outlaw. The herder, William Francis Hooker, was on the trail of a stray bull. When topping a hill he spotted a horseman coming on. As that rider drew near, he raised his carbine and pointed it straight at Hooker. Hooker recognized the rider almost immediately. “He was a tough-looking customer, filthy dirty, hair hanging far down his back, and face covered with [a] straggling beard.”

“Do you know me?” Chambers asked, still pointing the gun.

“Sure,” young Hooker replied. “Sure I know you; you’re Persimmons Bill. I saw you last year at Hunton’s place near Fetterman.”

A short conversation ensued, with Chambers begging for food and explaining he had not eaten since leaving Fort Laramie the day before. Hooker noticed Chambers rode “a big American horse that bore [an] uncanceled ‘U.S.’” Hooker finagled some bacon and corn pone for Chambers, who admonished him to keep the encounter quiet. “If you squeal on me,” he said, “they won’t get me, for I’ll be a long way from here before they can start; but, boy, I’ll get you.”

Bill’s rustling and petty thievery surfaced as occasional news in Wyoming during the winter of 1875–76. But an episode near Fort Fetterman on March 4, 1876, thrust ill-tempered, hair-triggered Persimmon Bill into the headlines. When a band of Arapaho Indians living near Fort Fetterman tracked stolen horses to a ranch on the Medicine Bow Road, three miles south of the fort, they lodged a complaint with the post commander, Major Alexander Chambers of the 4th U.S. Infantry. Major Chambers dispatched Sergeant Patrick Sullivan of Company F, 4th Infantry, with the Indians, and on returning to the ranch, they encountered Persimmon Bill and two partners. Bill claimed the ponies as his own, but Sullivan attempted an arrest. The moment Sullivan’s back was turned, Bill and an ally fired shots at the sergeant, one entering the sergeant’s back and exiting his left breast, killing him instantly. The Indians fled, and Bill and his accomplices robbed Sullivan’s body of a gold watch and money, later claimed to be $300 but according to the Army amounting only to $30, and alighted for cover south in the Laramie Mountains.

The Army identified Sullivan’s killer as the “desperado named William Chambers, (alias) Persimmon Bill,” and marshaled a considerable response—the government offering a $1,000 reward for Bill’s apprehension, and Major Chambers enlisting the services of the U.S. marshal in Cheyenne and support from Fort Sanders on the Union Pacific Railroad near the other end of the Medicine Bow Road, the supposed route of the outlaws’ escape. Three days later one of Bill’s accomplices, named Brown, was arrested at Fort Fetterman. Some 10 days later an officer from Fort Sanders apprehended the other accomplice, William Madden, at Medicine Bow. But Persimmon Bill eluded the chase, evidently making his way to Rawlins, a rowdy railroad town west of Medicine Bow, and then doubling back toward the Black Hills. Stealing horses as he moved, Chambers was spotted at Medicine Bow, Owen’s Ranch, Bull’s Bend and south of Hat Creek on the Cheyenne–Black Hills Road.

Keeping tabs on Bill made good news in Cheyenne, as on April 21 when the Daily Leader reported he was now in the Black Hills, “and when not engaged in his thieving business, loafs about the towns there, having plenty of money and spending it freely.” In hindsight such reports provide critical evidence linking Bill to the most notorious killing spree in early Black Hills history, first the heinous murders of the four-member Charles Metz party and then Henry E. “Stuttering” Brown, a Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Co. manager. Each episode bore Chambers’ imprint and earned the outlaw another nickname, “Scourge of the Black Hills Trail.”

 News of the so-called Red Canyon Massacre, or Metz Massacre, a sordid affair occurring on the Cheyenne–Black Hills Road some 10 miles north of the Cheyenne River crossing, splashed across the Cheyenne newspapers beginning on April 21. The location itself, Red Canyon, was a unique Black Hills feature. A narrow defile some seven miles long from its mouth to its head, Red Canyon sliced through luminous brick-red sandstone that cast a vibrant crimson tone on virtually everything, with high-rising red stone sidewalls, an ever-present red powdery dust and even the creek running the canyon’s floor flowing a tinged red. The canyon was an easy avenue leading from the surrounding prairie directly northward into the Black Hills and on to Custer City and was a favored route used by early Hillers, freighters and the Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage. But Red Canyon also featured blind corners, masking groves of cottonwoods and scrub vegetation, and secluded side canyons, all perfect for ambush. From the earliest days of the Black Hills Gold Rush, Red Canyon was a fearful passage from which there was no escape. One Hiller captured that anxiety perfectly in a few apt verses, scrawled on a sign at the canyon entrance:

Look to your rifles well
For this is the Canyon of Hell
The Red Canyon

Charles Metz, a Laramie City baker lured to Custer City in February 1876, made a quick and prosperous living there until the placer boom drifted from French and Spring creeks in the central hills northward toward Deadwood. Instead of joining the northbound rush, Metz seized an opportunity in mid-April to cash out, for a goodly sum of placer gold some said, and return to Laramie. Although freighters advised Metz against traveling alone south from Custer, on April 16 he embarked, believing his danger was from Indians lurking the prairie and Powder River Trail and not short of there. The party of four—Metz, his wife, their black cook, Rachel Briggs, and their driver, a teamster named Simpson—was dining under the shade of cottonwoods midway through Red Canyon when attackers struck. Metz fell dead instantly, shot through the head and body. Rachel Briggs fell nearby, an Indian arrow in her back. Simpson fell dead about a half-mile from the wagon, and Metz’s wife was killed still farther away, shot through the heart. Freighters who discovered them the next day noted the victims had been atrociously mutilated, the two women, in the term of the day, “ravished,” and the party’s trunks and boxes broken open and their contents strewn about.

The freighters carried the Metzes to the Cheyenne River ranch for burial, while Simpson and Briggs were buried where they fell in the canyon. The murders were attributed to Indians, and the arrow recovered from Briggs’ body was displayed at the Stebbins, Post & Co. Bank in Cheyenne. But many early Hillers also quickly surmised Persimmon Bill was involved and likely even led the assault, as he’d been lurking about Custer City beforehand, and the massacre had the look of murder for money. Although searchers later gathered Metz family papers and opened letters from a hilltop overlooking the canyon, no cash or gold ever turned up. Jesse Brown, a Black Hills pioneer and early chronicler, was among those fingering Persimmon Bill, writing that he personally explored the killing ground and saw where “persons had concealed themselves behind pine bushes that had been cut and planted in the ground, and footprints all show[ed] boot or shoe tracks, besides…knee prints in the ground [that] showed the weave of cloth.”

Barely had news of the Metz Massacre settled across Cheyenne and the gold country when another murder occurred, this time of the well known and respected H.E. Brown of Omaha and Salt Lake City. Brown had come to Cheyenne in February to manage the Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage, Mail and Express Co., owned by the Gilmer, Salisbury & Patrick partnership of Salt Lake City. As the fledgling company’s business expanded that spring, Brown was named superintendent of the danger-fraught “up line” north of Fort Laramie to Custer City.

Stocking stations with hay, grain, horses and equipment was steady business for Brown, a man of sound character but also a quick temper and pronounced stutter. Thieves preyed on company stock, especially on the leg between Hat Creek and Red Canyon, and when a fine team intended for use on the run north through Red Canyon went missing, Brown investigated and in due course encountered none other than Persimmon Bill at the Cheyenne River stage station immediately south of Red Canyon. A mere five days had elapsed since the Metz killings. Chambers’ reputation as a rustler was well known, and Brown accused him of the theft and threatened to kill him if he did not quit the stage road. Chambers denied any involvement and melted into the darkness, quietly remarking to others at the station he would get even with Brown.

As Brown and two companions, Charlie Edwards and stage driver Silvin Bishop “Curly” Ayres, sped southward toward Hat Creek, making a night run on April 21 in one of the company’s fast freight wagons, they came under attack around midnight some 18 miles north of the Hat Creek station. A shower of bullets rattled the wagon, but only Brown and a mule were struck. Brown’s wound was serious, the ball slicing the cartridge belt at his waist, smashing a shell, and the ball and torn cartridge cutting deeply into his abdomen. Brown, laid out in the wagon, told his companions to save themselves and the surviving stock by riding on to Hat Creek. Sometime after the companions had departed, Brown recovered enough to mount the wounded mule and resume the trail himself.

At Hat Creek the company men formed a party to recover Brown, whom they presumed to be dead. Instead, the riders found him slumped over but alive on the road several miles from the Indian Creek station, his mule at his side. They returned to Hat Creek with Brown and summoned a surgeon from Fort Laramie, 70 miles south. The stage man was still alive when Dr. Charles V. Petteys arrived many hours later, but there was little to be done, and Brown expired. Soldiers brought Brown’s body to Fort Laramie for an autopsy. Doctors there retrieved the fatal bullet, and his body was packed and forwarded to Omaha for burial.

 By now Persimmon Bill Chambers’ reputation was in full flower. The U.S. Army wanted him. Wyoming law officers wanted him. He was implicated in the Metz Massacre, despite the probable participation of Indians. And since witnesses had seen the face-off between Stuttering Brown and Persimmon Bill at the Cheyenne River station just hours before the stage man was struck down, it was immediately assumed Chambers was connected.

A critical element in the case linking Chambers with the Metz slayings came from the outlaw himself in a rambling interview that first appeared in the Laramie Daily Sentinel on April 29, 1876, and was reprinted widely thereafter. The interview had occurred about a week earlier, putting it in timely proximity to both the Metz and Brown slayings. While en route to the Hills a Sentinel correspondent had chanced upon a band of Sioux on Indian Creek “out on a lark from one of the agencies,” the writer presumed. “In the party of redskins was a pleasant-featured, well-dressed white man, who, upon being asked if he was a captive with the Indians, laughingly responded: ‘No; I am Persimmon Bill; some call me Sogerkilling Bill, while those who desire to be polite call me Government William.’”

As the visit progressed, some 18 or 20 Indians escorted the newsman into their camp, and Bill drew the reporter to his own fire, making him welcome and assuring him of his safety. After stretching out on a buffalo robe, Chambers commenced telling his story, visiting his upbringing in Carolina, his escapades in Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa, and his killing of Sergeant Sullivan at Fort Fetterman, where he derived the name “Sogerkilling Bill.” Chambers’ remorselessness troubled the reporter, and in his story he labeled the outlaw a “coldblooded murderer” and noted how Bill laughed at Sullivan’s slaying, saying, “I am death on soldiers and government property, and that’s why they call me Government Bill.”

The irony of Chambers consorting with Indians barely days after the Metz killings was apparently not grasped by the reporter, who closed his tale by recalling that Lt. Col. Luther P. Bradley at Fort Laramie offered a $1,000 reward for the outlaw, “dead or alive.” Chambers’ ironic friendship with Indians from the Red Cloud or Spotted Tail agencies had another twist, too, but apparent only much later.

On June 2 the Cheyenne Daily Leader reported that William Hawley, former sheriff of Rawlins, had struck Persimmon Bill’s trail and with a chosen band of daring men was attempting his capture, though there is no record of an arrest or death. Meanwhile, the Army moved to better secure the landscape terrorized by Chambers, in June establishing infantry camps on the Cheyenne–Black Hills Road north of Fort Laramie— one at the head of Sage Creek, in the Hat Creek Breaks adjacent to the stage station, the other at the mouth of Red Canyon, a few miles north of the Cheyenne River station. Bill’s world was being hemmed in, and just as quickly his trail went icy cold.

Persimmon Bill’s name occasionally appeared in local newspapers after this, but he was never again linked to outlandish episodes. One brief mention placed him with Sitting Bull in the days following Lt. Col. George Custer’s June 25 loss at the Little Bighorn, while another had him feuding with Deadwood outlaw “Texas Joe.” But one passing mention in the Omaha Daily Bee, on October 14, 1876, said more in a few words than anyone immediately grasped. A Hiller, having just returned to Omaha from the goldfields, told the paper that Persimmon Bill, the noted horse thief, had been reported killed. Faint and false reports of sightings cropped up a while longer, but then Chambers’ name simply dropped away altogether.

On May 3, 1879, The Cheyenne Daily Sun related a tale of Persimmon Bill’s death, a report confidently offered by Nick Janis, a credible old French-blood Missourian married to a niece of Red Cloud, long an interpreter at Fort Laramie and more recently a rancher in the North Platte River valley 30 miles east of that post. “Persimmon Bill’s dead,” Janis said, “and I know the man that killed him. He was killed in the Red Canyon in the fall of ’76 by a party of injuns from the agency. How was he killed? Why, this way. A train had been taken in, and that imp of Satan got up a row about dividing the plunder and got shot by a young buck before he knew there was danger. Oh, yes, Persimmon Bill is dead, boys, you can bet on that.” One might infer that one of the Indian cohorts who had joined Chambers in raining death on the Metz party, then camped with him when visited by the Laramie Daily Sentinel correspondent, had rained death on Bill too.

Several other versions of Chambers’ demise exist, but while colorful, they are neither well timed nor confirmed. Only Janis’ version of Persimmon Bill’s death rings true. He had no stake in Chambers’ story and functioned in that quixotic fringe of the Indian frontier, at places like Fort Laramie, on the North Platte River, and on the margins and in the midst of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Sioux agencies. He was a respected and trustworthy individual in both the white and Indian worlds, a man noted for his honesty and unimpeachable integrity. He said he knew Persimmon Bill’s killer, an Indian, and in every probability he did. In the end it appears that horse rustler and murderer Persimmon Bill Chambers, the “Scourge of the Black Hills Trail,” died about as he lived: cold-blooded, quick-triggered, ruthless and alone in Dakota’s Red Canyon in 1876.

 

Paul L. Hedren is a retired National Park Service superintendent and the author of many books exploring the history of the northern Plains, including Ho! For the Black Hills: Captain Jack Crawford Reports the Black Hills Gold Rush and Great Sioux War. Hedren adapted this version of Persimmon Bill’s story from a longer article in the Autumn 2009 issue of Annals of Wyoming.

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.