His early days are little known and his later life largely a blank. But in between, this shadowy hard case rode with outlaw gangs in Wyoming and Dakota territories and became a gun handler of the first rank.
Gunman-turned-rancher Jack Watkins and young ranch hand Richard Rogers rode into Laramie, Wyoming Territory, on May 24, 1875, to obtain a writ from the courthouse office of Judge Ira Pease for possession of a horse. Apparently unaware that Albany County Sheriff John R. Brophy held a warrant for his arrest on an earlier infraction, Watkins was surprised when the sheriff and Deputy Larry Fee cornered him in the courthouse and attempted to make an arrest.
Watkins and Rogers both drew and fired their guns. One of their bullets creased Brophy across the lower abdomen and struck Fee between his knee and hip, dropping him to the floor. Ignoring his belly wound, Brophy grappled with Rogers and overpowered him. Rogers wasn’t done struggling, though, so the sheriff recruited courthouse employees to help escort the ranch hand to jail. Meanwhile, Watkins fled the building, leaped on his horse and galloped out of town.
U.S. Deputy Marshal Nathaniel K. Boswell, having heard the shot, rushed to the scene and hurriedly organized a posse. Despite his serious leg wound, Deputy Fee served on the posse, along with Buck Bramel, J.W. Conner and several others. The posse gained good ground on Watkins. At one point, according to Boswell’s later account, the lawmen got within gunshot range of the fleeing fugitive, and one posseman’s long shot dropped Watkins from the saddle. It must have only grazed him, though, as Watkins clambered back onto his mount and rode off in even greater haste. Left in the dust, the posse returned to Laramie empty-handed.
Jack Watkins was one of those shadowy gunfighters who appeared in a frontier locale from no one knew where, burned brightly for a short period and then disappeared into the obscurity whence he came. Hints as to his background are meager. It appears he came west with crews building the Union Pacific Railroad in 1867. That was the year Cheyenne became the latest “Hell on Wheels” headquarters for the assortment of saloon keepers, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, footpads and thugs that accompanied the hardworking laborers stretching the tracks of the Union Pacific westward on its way to the historic linkup with the eastbound Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, May 10, 1869.
Jesse S. Hoy, who came west from Pennsylvania as a bullwhacker and stayed on to become a successful cattle rancher in the remote Browns Hole country, spent time in Cheyenne during those early days. The new town, he remembered, was tumultuous, “composed mostly of saloons, dance halls and houses of ill repute” in which “killings were a frequent occurrence.” In the winter of 1867–68 he bunked with Watkins, who had already acquired a reputation as a fast and deadly accurate gunman.
In the dangerous railroad town, Hoy felt fortunate to have the friendship and protection of a notorious gunman. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” he said. “Jack was a fighting man without being a bully. Owing to his superiority…he attracted the attention of men generally and was an object of jealousy, fear, admiration or hate….He slept with his right arm above his head with a six-shooter in his hand. So lightly did he sleep, that a rat running across the room brought him to a sitting position with the gun automatically leveled in the direction of the noise. When in a saloon…he usually stood with his back to the wall, ready for officers or town toughs, who all envied his attainments.”
Although he mistakenly remembered his surname as “Watson,” pioneer cattleman Ed Lemmon identified Jack Watkins as one of the leaders of the violent November 19, 1868, riot at the railroad town of Bear River City, Wyoming Territory. Employed as a “commissary man” by the railroad subcontracting firm of Coe & Carter, Watkins reportedly led a gang of railroad men against an opposing force headed by a man named Thomas Smith, who, as “Bear River Tom” would later gain fame as town marshal of the uproarious communities of Kit Carson, Colo., and Abilene, Kan. Lemmon said the battle “was the largest killing during U.P. construction,” and Watkins “was unquestionably the best and quickest shot” of that time. A boy of 10 in Cheyenne when he first heard tales of Watkins’ six-shooter prowess, Lemmon was so impressed that he later ranked the gunfighter on a level with Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Tilghman, Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald, Bat Masterson, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.
In 1870 Jack Watkins was one of 32 men and one woman enumerated in the widely scattered settlements of Albany County, Wyoming Territory. He gave his name as John W. Watkins and said he had been born in Arkansas 28 years before. He listed his occupation as “hunter.” A year later, in November 1871, he told editor James H. Hayford of the Laramie Daily Sentinel he had been born in Nashville, Tenn., and was 33 years old. He said he had come west to the Laramie Valley of Wyoming 15 years earlier, or about 1856, and was named Andrew J. Watkins, but everyone called him “Jack.”
Many Westerners resented questions about their Eastern origins and either refused to answer inquiries or gave hazy replies. Watkins seems to have been doing the latter. Early Wyoming pioneers recalled him as a noted hunter who supplied meat for Overland Stage stations. As the Laramie editor remarked, “Jack, like Nimrod, is a ‘mighty hunter’ and has chased the antelope over the Plains for half a generation. Few in the entire west can compare with him as a good shot with rifle or revolver or as a successful hunter.”
By 1871 Watkins had abandoned the pursuit of wild game for the pursuit of wild games on the lawless “Owlhoot Trail.” The contemporary press openly accused him of heading up an outlaw gang of horse thieves, and he terrorized the residents of Laramie and Cheyenne with his drunken sprees. A story survives about one of his riotous benders, which led to an early face-off with Nathaniel Boswell.
Boswell, then serving in Laramie as the no-nonsense sheriff of Albany County, managed to keep Watkins under some control during his binges in that town. So when the sheriff chanced to be visiting Cheyenne at the time Watkins was on one of his tears there, several high-ranking Cheyenne officials requested his help in subduing the troublemaker. Boswell at first demurred, explaining he was out of his jurisdiction and had no arrest authority in Cheyenne. A federal judge solved that problem in short order. Asking Boswell to raise his right hand, he swore him in on the spot as a deputy U.S. marshal and instructed him to assist local lawmen in maintaining order.
Boswell had no trouble locating the source of the ruckus, tracing a commotion to a darkened side street. Pushing through the throng, he confronted two men facing each other with drawn guns. In the dim light and his zeal to quell the disturbance before someone was killed, Boswell made an embarrassing mistake: He seized one of the men from behind, knocked the gun from his hand and shouted, “You’re under arrest, Watkins!” But when he spun the fellow around and looked into his face, Boswell realized he had just arrested a Cheyenne policeman.
Amid the confusion, the other gunman, the actual Watkins, bolted into a nearby store. Boswell hurried after him. Watkins, guns in hand, wheeled to face the lawman, but Boswell, angry and chagrined by his error, was not to be denied. Training his own gun on the desperado, he demanded Watkins’ surrender. The gunman, it turned out, was more afraid of the mob outside. Watkins agreed to turn over his arms if Boswell would protect him from the wrathful crowd. Boswell gave him that assurance.
As the marshal escorted his prisoner toward jail, the mob surged forward. Someone produced a rope, and there were cries for a necktie party. But Boswell issued a stern warning: Watkins was his prisoner, and before he would allow anyone to take him, he would return Watkins’ guns, and the two of them would shoot down as many as they could in the crowd. This announcement quieted the mob, and officer and prisoner continued to jail without further interference. Watkins is said to have always respected Boswell after this incident.
When a Laramie newspaper announced in the fall of 1871 that the town had been “invaded by a gang of horse thieves, members of Jack Watkins’ gang,” Sheriff William Miles Hawley of Carbon County, west of Albany, carefully read the report and entrained for Laramie. He carried with him warrants for Watkins’ arrest on four indictments. On October 23 he collared his man. The Laramie Daily Sentinel editor reported the story: “The notorious Jack Watkins, who for years has proved himself a terror to this country, was arrested on Monday evening by Sheriff Hawley for committing a grievous assault and committed to jail by Judge Lang in default of $5,000 bail. This Watkins is wholly devoid of principle, and his acts show a malignant and abandoned heart. He is a very desperate character, and it will be difficult to keep him confined, but if he be forthcoming at our next term of court, there is no doubt but that he will get his just rewards.”
Oblivious of or perhaps forgetting the single-handed arrest of Watkins by Sheriff Boswell of his own county a few months before, the Daily Sentinel editor added, “Sheriff Hawley deserves great credit for arresting him, and he is the only officer in the territory who ever attempted it alone.”
Hawley took his prisoner under heavy guard by train to Rawlins, locked him up in the Carbon County calaboose and ordered extra guards to prevent his escape. Still apprehensive that members of the Watkins gang might assault the jail, the sheriff later moved his dangerous prisoner to the better protected confines of the guardhouse at Fort Sanders, some 35 miles from Cheyenne, putting him under the care of Church Howe, U.S. marshal for Wyoming Territory. Watkins remained there until transferred to the Albany County jail at Laramie for trial.
On November 13, a jury listened to evidence regarding Watkins’ multiple indictments. After deliberating 24 hours, it saw fit to clear the defendant on three of the charges but found him guilty on the fourth, convicting him of assault with intent to commit bodily harm on the person of William Brower with a knife on August 15, 1871. The judge sentenced Watkins to one month’s imprisonment in the Albany County jail and imposed a $100 fine.
It was during Watkins’ stretch in the Laramie hoosegow that editor Hayford of the Daily Sentinel interviewed him and found him to be “a good specimen of the frontiersman,” exhibiting the “wild, reckless bravado” of the breed. The newsman noted that although Watkins was serving only a short sentence for the relatively minor offense of assault with intent to commit bodily harm, the prosecutors in his case “seem to have a wholesome dread of his wonderful prowess and have ordered him heavily ironed and placed in a dungeon. This rigorous treatment seems to be disproportionate to the character of the offense with which he is charged.”
Following his release from jail, Watkins established a ranch near Wyoming Station and for the next several years avoided violence and further clashes with the law. Then, in early 1875, workers cutting railroad ties at a camp adjacent to James M. Sherrod’s ranch on the Little Laramie River decided to throw a dance. Watkins and Sherrod attended, as did almost every male from miles around. The tie-cutters brought in several sporting women, a few fiddlers and a goodly quantity of hard liquor from Laramie, some 20 miles away.
At the height of the festivities, a fight broke out. In his memoirs, Sherrod described what happened next:
Guns began to pop all over the place. Fistfights were rare those days—it was either guns or knives. It was pretty lively around there when the notorious Jack Watkins took a hand. His gun misfired three times in succession, something it had never done before, Jack said, and the fellow he was shooting at, or someone else in the crowd, got Jack in the hip. He got outside somehow and made for my stable and hid in my haystack. When he didn’t show up in the morning, the boys were all afraid to check out the stack—for Jack was a dead shot, and everyone thought his gun might not misfire again.
Finally, I went out. He was just crawling out of the stack. I said, “Hello, Jack, you’re not dead yet, are you?”
“No,” he replied, “but I’m pretty well used up.”
I took him up to the house and dressed his wound and kept him there until he recovered, which didn’t take long.
Sherrod said he always believed someone at the dance had tampered with Watkins’ gun, hoping to get him killed. A few months after this incident, Watkins and his ranch hand Richard Rogers, who sometimes went by “Sam Jackson,” had their courthouse run-in with Sheriff Brophy and Deputy Fee. Well-known black cowboy Nat Love rode into Laramie with several companions that day and 30 years later gave this garbled account in his autobiography:
[It was] just as the notorious Jack Watkins escaped from the Albany County jail, and the excitement in the town was at fever heat. Jack Watkins, who was probably the most desperate criminal that was ever placed behind prison bars, had been arrested and placed in close confinement, as the officers of the Western states had long tried to effect his capture. And they did not want to take any chances of losing him now that they had him, but for all their caution he escaped, shooting Deputy Sheriff Lawrence [Fee] in the leg, crippling him for life.
Ex-conductor Brophy was at that time sheriff. The officers, noting our arrival at such time, at once ordered us out of the city, as they suspected we knew something about the outbreak. We protested our innocence of any knowledge of the trouble. But appearances were against us, so we had to leave, going direct to Cheyenne, Wyo.
The depredations of Watkins and followers once again raised the threat of mob violence in Laramie. There was talk on the streets of resurrecting the vigilance committee that had been active during the town’s early days and of seizing Watkins’ cohort from jail and administering summary hempen justice. But cooler heads, led by Sheriff Brophy, prevailed, and townspeople made no attempt to lynch Rogers.
Although it was never clear whether Watkins or Rogers fired the shot that wounded Brophy and Fee, Rogers, the bird in hand, was the one who stood trial, charged with assault with intent to kill. On August 14, 1875, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in the territorial prison. A year later another jury convicted him on a second charge of larceny. On July 31, 1876, Territorial Governor John M. Thayer pardoned him for the first offense and on March 31, 1877, issued another pardon for the second offense. After serving one year, seven months and 17 days, Rogers walked out of the prison at Laramie and, without apparently joining up with Watkins again, disappeared from the pages of history.
As for Jack Watkins, the Albany County commissioners had offered a reward of $500 for his capture immediately after the courthouse shooting, and officers throughout southern Wyoming were on the watch for him. Members of David J. Cook’s Rocky Mountain Detective Agency, headquartered in Denver but with operatives all over the West, were particularly diligent in working for that reward money. Late in August 1875, a few days after the Rogers trial was completed, Cook, who also served as sheriff of Arapahoe County, Colorado Territory, wired Boswell, the agency’s representative in Laramie, that Jack Watkins had been sighted near Denver. Boswell left immediately, as the Laramie Daily Sentinel put it, to join Cook and “help bag the desperado.”
The paper reported a few days later that “Sheriff D.J. Cook and Marshal Boswell went into Colorado after Jack Watkins, thought to be in the ‘Pineries on the Divide,’ but learned he had left for New Mexico two weeks ago with a drove of horses.” Certainly many reading that short notice wondered if Watkins had acquired any of the horses in that drove legally.
From time to time over the next few years, the elusive fugitive reportedly rode with various outlaw gangs. In August 1876, a paper in Golden (in what had just become the state of Colorado) reported that Watkins was riding with the notorious outlaw William F. Chambers, better known as “Persimmon Bill.”
In 1878 John B. Furay, a U.S. postal inspector sent to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, to investigate a rash of stagecoach robberies and theft of the U.S. mails between the Black Hills country and Cheyenne, found that several gangs were at work. He named the principal outlaws as “Persimmon Bill” Chambers; Jackson Bishop, wanted for murder in Colorado; Frank Towle; Jack Campbell; Tom Reed; and an unnamed deserter from the 3rd U.S. Cavalry. He also believed that Jack Watkins and “Big Nose George” Parrot were involved.
That same year, a newspaper report claimed that Watkins was a member of a gang that included Clark Pelton, Robert “Reddy” McKimie and Bill Bevans. The article went on to quote well-respected Black Hills Sheriff Seth Bullock on the subject of gun-handling by outlaws and the officers who hunted them. Bullock singled out Watkins as particularly skilled in the art of pistol-fanning:
Road agents and detectives seldom ever use the term “pistol” when referring to their arms. No matter if they are of the most limited dimensions, they call them “guns.” Mr. Bullock informs us that the gang of which McKimie was a member made a specialty of shooting from the hip and, by continued practice, became very expert.
The modus operandi was to place the right hand holding the “gun” firmly against the hip and strike the hammer back rapidly with the left hand. For this reason, self-cockers were scarcely ever used by the gang. The advantage of this plan was that the arm could be drawn and fired very quickly and without attracting attention like the arms-length motion. It also enabled them to aim at the middle of a man’s body, where the shots were almost certain to prove fatal. By turning slowly, they could direct their shots to different points and empty every barrel in an almost incredible short space of time.
Bullock says that Jack Watkins, a member of the gang, became very expert in this manner of firing and could put every ball from a six-shot Navy revolver into a space 4 inches square, at long range. This is what we should call a two-legged Gatling gun arrangement.
At least one newspaper report confused Watkins with McKimie and accused him of robbing fellow gang members. The Denver Times, quoting a story in a Deadwood paper, said Bevans and two other bandits had held up the Deadwood stage and made off with the treasure box: “Jack Wadkins [sic], who is known as ‘Reddy,’ and his pal ‘Calamity Jane’ succeeded in getting Bevans and party drunk …when they made off with the gold dust, which had been so industriously procured from the stagecoaches.” (The “Calamity Jane” mentioned was not the celebrated female frontier character Martha Jane Canary but a male criminal tagged with that well-known nickname.)
Old-time Westerner Edgar Beecher Bronson later wrote about the perils of that Deadwood to Cheyenne stagecoach run:
Throughout 1877 and 1878, it was the exception for a coach to get through from the Chugwater to Jenny’s stockade without being held up by bandits at least once.
Any that happened to escape Jack Wadkins [sic] in the south were likely to fall prey to Dunc Blackburn in the north— the two most desperate bandit-leaders in the country….
Within six months after Boone [May] was employed, both Dunc Blackburn and Jack Wadkins disappeared from the stage road, dropped out of sight as if the earth had opened up and swallowed them, as it probably had….The belief was general that he [May] had run down and “planted” both. Indeed, it is almost a certainty this is true, for beasts of their type never change their stripes, and sure it is that neither were ever seen or heard of after their disappearance from the Deadwood trail.
Bronson was certainly wrong about the fate of outlaw Duncan Ellis “Dunc” Blackburn. He did not fall victim to intrepid shotgun messenger D. Boone May but was apprehended by the equally daring and resolute messenger Scott Davis. In November 1877, Davis tracked Blackburn for 14 days and 400 miles before nabbing the noted stage robber. Tried and convicted on multiple charges, Blackburn was sent to the penitentiary that Christmas Day for 10 years. He was released on March 8, 1885, after serving seven years and two months.
Wyoming authorities never did apprehend Watkins. There remain only fragmentary reports of his later activities. The Laramie Daily Sentinel reported in late 1879 that Watkins was in Colorado, freighting between Leadville and Gunnison.
In 1890 a man named John N. Reynolds published The Twin Hells, a book relating his experiences as an inmate of both the Kansas and Missouri state penitentiaries. Reynolds mentioned an inmate he had encountered named John Watkins, referring to him as “one of the most notorious horse thieves in the Kansas penitentiary.”
When Reynolds met him, Watkins had finished a three-year stint in the Missouri pen and was serving 10 years in the Kansas penitentiary. Reynolds said this fellow ran a theft ring out of Kansas City, stealing horses in and around Omaha and Lincoln and disposing of them through various dealers in Omaha, St. Joseph, Atchison, Leavenworth and Kansas City. Whether this John Watkins was the same Andrew J. “Jack” Watkins of Wyoming notoriety is unknown.
In 1894, marking the 19th anniversary of the Albany County courthouse shooting, the editor of the Laramie Daily Sentinel wrote, “It is understood that Watkins is now a well-to-do ranchman in Mexico, and he has settled down and is a steady citizen. Larry Fee still carries one of Watkins’ bullets in his knee.” And so it was, from a historical perspective, that one Jack Watkins—frontiersman, hunter, desperado, gunman, outlaw, fugitive— disappeared back into the obscurity from which he had emerged.
R.K. DeArment of Sylvania, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to Wild West magazine and has received many awards for his more than 40 years of dedicated research in the field of outlaw-lawman history. He is the author of Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers, Alias Frank Canton and many other nonfiction books and articles about Western figures. Suggested for further reading: DeArment’s Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West ( Volume 2); Tales of Old Laramie City, by Gladys B. Beery; Empty Saddles, Forgotten Names: Outlaws of the Black Hills and Wyoming, by Doug Engebretson; and The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage and Express Routes, by Agnes Wright Spring.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.