His real name was Sam McWilliams, but he rejoiced in the title of the Verdigris Kid. Fancy handles like that weren’t uncommon in the West. Among the other “kids” who roamed the frontier were Billy the Kid, Harry the Kid, the Sundance Kid, the Mormon Kid and one of the Dalton boys’ early associates, the Narrow-Gauge Kid. It wasn’t unusual for an unprepossessing punk to try to inflate his image by inventing a tough-sounding nickname for himself.
The Verdigris River winds down out of eastern Kansas, past Coffeyville, where the Daltons lost a shootout with a bunch of tough citizens in October 1892. Then it wends its way on to its confluence with the broad Arkansas River, down in Oklahoma. Just how McWilliams acquired his Verdigris Kid handle is lost in the mists of time, but probably people started calling him that because his family lived along the Verdigris River. Or maybe he acquired his handle simply by inventing it himself. In any case, he came to his untimely and well-deserved end in the process of trying to push honest people around, the same thing he had done a good many times before. But this time the Verdigris Kid and some outlaw friends picked on the wrong town. They should not have ridden into the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) settlement called Braggs on March 28, 1895.
Braggs was a bustling little place about nine miles east of Fort Gibson, not far from Muskogee. The settlement was named for one Solomon Bragg, a white man who settled in the Illinois District of the Cherokee Nation and married a Cherokee woman. Bragg had built a gristmill in the area, something of an essential for a growing farm town, and later on, the Iron Mountain Railway pushed its line down the Arkansas Valley and called its local stop Bragg Station.
In 1886 Braggs, as it had come to be called, got its own post office, set up, after the custom of the day, in John Patrick’s store. Tom Madden opened a second store, and the town grew to include, besides the gristmill, a doctor’s office, more shops, a feed store and a lumberyard. The town also boasted a blacksmith shop, a hotel, a small bank, a grocery, a one-room school and a Methodist church, which was served by itinerant preachers.
In common with a number of other little Indian Territory communities, Braggs was a wild town in the first years of its life. In the early days the store windows were covered with shutters each night. As one observer noted, the store owners did this because of the “habit of drunken horsemen to come into town at night to shoot out the lights seen through windows.” And there were other hazards for peaceful people. As one family sat at dinner in their log house, their eldest son, his back to the open door of the cabin, was killed by a bullet from outside the house. It came from a hoodlum who reportedly “mistook him for his father, a Texas man who came there in the early days and married a Cherokee woman.”
Store owner Madden, a Cherokee, also had enemies to fear, so much so that he carried a gun in an innocuous paper bag. According to the Muskogee Phoenix, there had “been bad blood between Madden and certain other parties at Braggs for some time and that there would be bloodshed was not unexpected….” Violence finally erupted in April 1896, and Madden either didn’t have his paper bag with him or couldn’t reach inside it in time. He was shot down in front of his store.
Such were the hazards of ordinary life in Indian Territory, and in little Braggs. To these dangers was added the threat of invasion by the plague of hard cases who infested the whole territory. The Fort Smith Weekly Elevator reported:
“Bad men” had full sway for a time, robbing trains, looting express and post offices and pillaging stores, but after a while their actions became a stench in the nostrils of Uncle Sam, and the Government took a hand in the suppression of these highway robbers.
The reference was mostly to the infamous Cook Gang, which rivaled the worthless Buck Gang as the worst collection of scum ever to ride the owlhoot trail in Indian Territory. Most of the gang had been run to earth when in 1895 the Verdigris Kid rode into Braggs in company with Sam Butler and George Sanders, outlaws as bad as he was.
Both Sanders and McWilliams were leftovers from the Cook Gang. That venomous bunch, led by Bill Cook, had included a mixed-blood multiple murderer Crawford Goldsby— better known to history as Cherokee Bill. Another member was one Jim French, who was numbered among the considerable congregation reputed to be sometime lovers of sometime bad girl Belle Starr.
Little is known about the background of the Verdigris Kid, but he was probably born in 1876. He reportedly started his criminal career in a humble way, by stealing three cows from a settler. The teenager soon graduated to greater things, allying himself with the Cook Gang as they terrorized eastern Indian Territory in the mid-1890s. With the Cook outfit, he made himself a reputation of sorts in several robberies— individual people, bank, post office, stage and train; the Cook outlaws weren’t particular about who or what they robbed.
The Verdigris Kid was reputed to have backed Cherokee Bill during a robbery of the Schufeldt Son Store in little Lenapah in the fall of 1894. During the holdup, Cherokee Bill wantonly murdered Ernest Melton, an inoffensive citizen who did no more than look at the outlaws from outside the store window while the robbery was in progress. It was this pointless killing that would ultimately get Cherokee Bill well and truly hanged at Fort Smith.
Although perhaps not as bad as Cherokee Bill, the Verdigris Kid was an outlaw without, as the judges say, any redeeming social value whatever. George Sanders was an equally nasty piece of work. He had, as the Eufaula Indian Journal noted with some contempt, “always been a desperado, though he only lately joined McWilliams.” The newspaper added:
Last fall he robbed U.S. Drake at McKay by holding a revolver at his babe’s head and threatening to kill it if he did not give up money. He was a brother of Levi Sanders who robbed the Fort Gibson mail hack, killed a woman, [and] was himself killed near Tahlequah last summer.
Another territorial paper commented that “Sanders was a Cherokee murderer and has a bloody record.”
Now it was late March 1895, and the Verdigris Kid and Sanders rode into Braggs with Sam Butler and possibly a few others as well. They headed for the store run by Madden (one old-time resident called him Maddim), herding ahead of them whatever male citizens they encountered. Among the residents they stuck up and disarmed was U.S. Deputy Marshal Ed Barbee.
Dismounting, the Kid and Sanders pushed inside to make a leisurely job of robbing the storekeeper. Butler posted himself in front of the store to intercept anybody wanting to go inside. His weapon held at bay the deputy marshal.
Standing among them, according to one account, was the railroad depot agent, a young man called Sam Morrison. When Morrison started to go on to the depot, Butler simply shot him down. Maybe the outlaw thought the young man was on his way to summon help or to use the telegraph; maybe he just resented somebody not following his orders. The Edmond Sun-Democrat reported somewhat obscurely, “The clerk, a young white man and son of the depot agent at Braggs, started to run out at the back door and [was] shot by the outlaws.” This reference is almost surely to young Joe Morris, a clerk at Madden’s, son of the railroad agent at Braggs.
However, as the pistol-waving Butler swaggered in the street, and his comrades dallied inside the store, help for the town was on the way. Madden, who lived within sight of his store, was alarmed when through his spyglass he saw people standing on the store porch with their hands raised. With more courage than sense, he wanted to leave his house and “make a fight of it himself,” but his wife’s cooler head prevailed. She insisted that her husband go after peace officers, who lived about a mile away. The officers he found were a pair of tough Cherokee deputy sheriffs, Johnson Manning and Hiram Stevens (or Stephens), and the two lawmen hurried toward the town.
Even with a mile to travel, they were in plenty of time, for the Verdigris Kid and Sanders were in no hurry to rob Madden’s place, apparently fully enjoying playing the role of big-time outlaws. Not content with stealing whatever money Madden had in the till, they spent as long as 40 minutes decorating themselves inside the store. The Weekly Elevator reported:
They removed their old shoes and put on new boots. New clothes and a large number of silk handkerchiefs were selected. One of the bystanders was made to lead up a fine road [sic] horse that was hitched in the street, unsaddle one of the roan horses belonging to the robbers, and place the saddle on the roan.
The Indian Journal added dryly:
[The two outlaws] took things leisurely and picked out such goods as they wanted. Each had a suit apiece, and the two inside were picking out gloves when Butler warned them of the approach of Johnson Manning and Hiram Stevens.
Their posturing and preening suddenly over, the Verdigris Kid and Sanders ran to the door of Madden’s store and opened fire on the lawmen, killing Manning’s horse. Manning and Stevens returned fire, and the Verdigris Kid went down for keeps, shot through the center of the chest. He was just 19.
Deputy Marshal Barbee, disarmed by the outlaws, ran through the line of fire between them and the deputy sheriffs to snatch up the Kid’s Winchester and get into the fight. Madden’s clerk, Joe Morris, courageously tried to help capture Sanders and Butler—maybe by running for the depot—and was shot through the body for his pains. Morris was mortally wounded.
What followed was a monumental gunfight, as the surviving outlaws tried to hold off not only the deputies but also a growing number of townspeople, armed and angry. In addition to Manning and Stevens, the early shooting was done by a merchant named Craig and a citizen called Ellis Petit. At the start of the fight, the outlaws sheltered behind one of their horses, but Petit dropped the horse, leaving the bandits exposed to a heavy hail of lead.
One G.W. Slater, a citizen who lived north of Braggs, had been pushing cattle that morning with a cowboy named Jim Green. Slater and Green had ridden into town to get something to eat and had settled themselves comfortably in the dining room of the town’s little hotel just before the war started in the street outside.
Stray rounds from the beginning of the gun battle seriously discommoded the two diners, blasting the dishes from their table, and both men ran from the hotel. They sought out and quickly found what Slater thought was a U.S. deputy marshal— although Slater called the lawman Hiram Stevens. Slater and Green forthwith volunteered to help capture the outlaws, a task that would turn out to be somewhat easier said than done. As Slater told the story years later, in the twilight of his life:
We went behind the hotel and took our places at the corner of the building. One of the gang started around the corner and we shot him and his horse. This started a real battle. Other citizens came to our assistance and after a thirty minute battle we had killed all but one. He was trying to get out of town and was shooting back toward us. I had no more ammunition, so I picked up a gun belonging to one of the gang….Butler’s gun fell from his hands and he rode away speedily.
Up to this point, Slater’s personal account squares at least generally with other stories of the fight, but then it departs into the golden realm of hyperbole, painting the gunfight in the vivid colors of the Battle of Waterloo. “At the end of the battle,” said this citizen, “there were thirteen dead men and twenty-seven dead horses. Those were very exciting days.”
Exciting days indeed, no doubt. But it would appear that the Braggs fight got even more exciting as it ripened with time in Slater’s memory. In fact, there is no certainty that more than two criminals died in the shootout in front of Madden’s store, although some other recollections by area pioneers do indeed suggest that the outlaw casualty list may have been higher.
One early settler named Albert Barry much later recalled a report that “five of the outlaws had been killed.” Earlier that day, Barry said, he had sold ammunition to two men in a store at a settlement called Illinois Station. He took a train to Braggs after hearing of the fight there, “to find the dead were lying on the station platform.” He added: “The first two I saw were the men I had sold the ammunition to…the only one I personally knew was Sam McWilliams, known as the Verdigris Kid.”
However many outlaws were really involved in the Braggs gunfight, there were too many tough lawmen and pugnacious citizens for the bandits to cope with. With the Verdigris Kid down, Sanders and Butler—with any other gang members who may have been along—fell back toward their horses, firing desperately at a growing host of enemies. Sanders didn’t make it. Hit several times in the body and once in the temple, he went down for keeps.
Butler managed to scramble to his horse through a hail of bullets and left Braggs at the high lope. According to Eufaula’s Indian Journal, Butler “was thought to be wounded”; the Weekly Elevator asserted that he was hurt badly enough that he left a trail of blood. Butler managed to elude pursuit, at least for the moment.
The remains of Sanders and the Verdigris Kid were tossed in a wagon and hauled off to Eufaula, where Bill Cook, McWilliams’ erstwhile leader, was then languishing in jail. Officers brought the outlaw from his cell to view the corpses, and Cook, while reportedly “laying his hand affectionately upon the box where his former comrade lay,” said, “This is the Kid.” Thereafter, the bodies were hauled off to Fort Smith in western Arkansas and delivered to U.S. Marshal George J. Crump, “in order,” wrote the Beaver Herald, “that the government reward of $250 for the body of ‘Verdigris’ might be collected.” It is not recorded whether the remains of Sanders were worth anything at all.
The Herald reported that a pistol was found on the Verdigris Kid that had been taken from a lawman killed during a train robbery at Correta, Indian Territory. And, as it turned out, when what was left of the Kid and Sanders arrived in Fort Smith, one Buz (or Bass) Lucky was even then on trial there for his participation in that same Correta robbery. “He was,” as the paper reported, “convicted an hour later.” And the writer of the article concluded with some satisfaction: “These are the last of the outlaws who became famous as bandits in this section last year. All the balance have been killed or captured.”
One paper reported that the Verdigris Kid was “the last and one of the most desperate of the late Cook Gang and has continued to terrorize the territory since Cook’s capture.” With some satisfaction, a government inspector named Johnston told the Indian Journal that “every man who was ever connected with the Bill Cook combination has now been accounted for to the satisfaction of the Government’s officers, Verdigris Kid being the last one on the list.”
That left only the verminous Butler, who proceeded to prove that he was terminally stupid. Once he got clear of the town of Braggs, he simply rode on home, leaving a reasonably clear track behind him. And so, on the night of August 1, 1895, Deputy Marshal John Davis followed Butler’s trail to what was then called the “Henry Chambers place,” up on the Verdigris River. Butler’s wife and mother also lived there.
Butler was taking his ease beneath an apple tree, but he was awake, and when he saw Davis approaching he jumped to his feet, grabbed his gun and fired, driving a bullet through the lawman’s right side. Davis fell from his horse, mortally wounded, but his return fire smashed into Butler’s chest and killed him instantly. Marshal Davis lived only about an hour after the fight, but at least he had the satisfaction of leaving the world a cleaner place.
Another account of the Braggs battle— without quoting sources—ends the tale of the Verdigris Kid in a different way. In this version, the outlaws got away with their robbery at Braggs, at least temporarily. However, they were tracked by Hiram Stevens into the “mountain fastnesses along the Arkansas.” And there, this tale tells us, Stevens killed both Sanders and the Verdigris Kid when they resisted arrest. Butler then “took to the murky waters of the Arkansas and swam for his life [and] has never been heard from since.”
The reader may choose between these two satisfying endings, although the first version has substantial support from contemporary newspaper accounts. In either case, Indian Territory had much reason to thank a couple of tough Cherokee lawmen, a fearless deputy marshal and a bunch of angry citizens.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.