The Frontierado Holiday is coming up this Friday August 2nd! Here’s another seasonal post examining forgotten gunslingers of the American West who deserve a lot more attention than they generally receive. Remember, Frontierado celebrates the myth of the West, not the grinding reality.
4. KLONDIKE KATE – Kate Rockwell eventually became one of the best-known entertainers of her day. Most of her career is outside the purview of this article, which will concentrate on her dangerous years in Alaska and Canada during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s onward.
Kate was born in Kansas in 1876 and by the early 1890s her wealthy stepfather was paying for her education in the musical arts in Osage. The stock market crash of the 1890s wiped out her stepfather’s fortune and ended her education. The young lady took to dancing and singing in cheap saloons, winding up in Spokane, WA, where she first took to performing with a Derringer pistol tucked somewhere in her costume to deal with occassional rowdies or overly amorous fans. After stints in Seattle, WA and then British Columbia in Canada Kate got bitten by the Gold Bug and joined the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897.
Rockwell arrived in Skagway, Alaska by ship and performed at some of the saloons and theaters there, most of which were crude shacks or simply tents at that early stage in Skagway’s history. With more and more frequency Kate was forced to use her concealed Derringer while on stage because the men in search of Klondike gold had generally not seen women in years. Rockwell also took to carrying around a .38 caliber pistol when she was off-stage and it came in handy several times up there in the gold territory, where life was cheap.
Owing to the heavily snowed-in roads people involved in a shooting could not just skip to the next town like they could in the Lower 48 States so a clear-cut case of self-defense was necessary to avoid jail time or deportation. Kate’s good looks drove men wild and she gained a reputation for resorting to gunplay only when other means of subduing an aggressor proved futile. Thus Klondike Kate made her way from mining boomtown to mining boomtown, braving the elements and the trigger-happy thugs along the way.
Kate incorporated tap-dancing, roller-skating and trick-shooting into her stage act and was such a hit with the audiences that in Whitehorse, Alaska her appreciative fans spelled out her name with bullets in the ceiling of a hotel in town. By 1901 Kate and her new beau, Alexander Pantages, were in Nome, Alaska, where another Gold Rush had begun in 1899 and the usual tableau of fast money, rowdy saloons and dangerous streets had taken shape.
By late 1902 Klondike Kate’s gunslinging days were behind her, but she continued performing in the United States and Canada. With Pantages managing her the couple amassed a fortune and that money financed Alexander’s famous Pantages Theatre chain. Unfortunately for Kate, however, Alexander still refused to marry her and eventually dumped her, keeping all the money the two had made over the years.
Kate sued but lost in court twice so she returned to the stage to earn some money just for herself. Klondike Kate died of old age on February 21st, 1957.
3. X – How does a real-life figure who was known by the cool nickname “X” fly under the radar as thoroughly as this man has? His real name was John Xavier Beidler with his nom de guerre coming from his distinctive middle initial. Born in 1831 X was one of the most successful Vigilantes in the history of the American West and his way of playing judge jury and executioner should have made him the subject of several gritty, “adult” westerns from the 1960s onwards. Spaghetti Westerns in particular could have romanticized him as a figure akin to that sub-genre’s famed Vigilantes like the Soldier of God and Sartana and others.
By the 1850s Beidler was living in Kansas where he was associated with John Brown and some of the more active elements of the Abolitionist movement. In 1852 he took part in sabotaging the offices of a pro-slavery newspaper and the exchange of gunfire that accompanied the act. Whether or not X played any further role in the Bleeding Kansas violence is still being debated.
In 1863 John took part in the Montana Gold Rush and found himself frequenting Virginia City and Bannock. As in the California Gold Rush outlaws took advantage of the chaos to prey on gold shipments and payroll deliveries.
In Montana, however, the situation was further complicated by the fact that the gunslinging leader of the criminal faction, the one and only Handsome Henry Plummer, was also serving as the head of the area’s law enforcement.
(This was similar to the way in which modern-day criminal organizations often outrightly OWN the local authorities. Back then the crooks assumed a more active role by just pinning on a badge themselves and using their office as a cover for their illegal activities.)
Frustrated, many Montanans formed groups of Vigilantes to handle what the lawmen were too crooked or too inept to handle. Beidler refused to hide his identity like the other members of the Montana Vigilantes and so in late 1863 his fame as “X” began. Over the next few years Handsome Henry and countless other outlaws in Montana and Idaho were killed by the relentless Beidler, who also excelled at surviving ambushes and death traps that the criminal element laid for him.
By 1867 X was serving as a legitimate U.S. Marshal in Montana and Idaho, and among other adventures arrested the expatriate British gunfighter known only – and appropriately – as John Bull. Bull had gunned down the more popular gunslinger “Farmer” Peel and not only did X succeed in bringing the Britisher in alive but he even out-maneuvered the remaining Vigilantes in the area to keep Bull alive for his trial. (I guess it takes a Vigilante to out-think other Vigilantes)
Despite all the evidence against him John Bull went free after the trial, supposedly prompting a reawakening of X’s Vigilante tendencies.
From then on X’s reputation for going beyond the law to take down men he knew were guilty grew even more. He eventually spent time as a stagecoach guard, where there were fewer bureaucratic hindrances to his tendency for delivering summary justice. Only Whispering Smith would rival X in terms of taking the law into his own hands but even he was a distant second to Beidler.
The extension of the Utah & Northern Railway all the way to Butte, MT by late 1881 eventually caused the closure of the stagecoach lines in Montana and Idaho ending X’s latest career. By the mid-1880s X was down on his luck and unemployed so in 1886 he was appointed to the office of Collector of Customs for Montana and Idaho in recognition of his service in taming the area. John Xavier Beidler passed away on January 22nd, 1890.
2. DIAMONDFIELD JACK – Born Jackson Lee Davis this neglected gunslinger is a colorful example of the old west’s gunmen for hire. He’s also a poster child for the confusion and conflicting information that surrounds those figures. Various sources place his year of birth anywhere from 1864 to the mid 1870s and in several different states. Even the story behind his nickname is disputed as I’ll deal with in detail as we go along. Diamondfield Jack is noted for the shotgun he carried in a holster on his back, like a quiver of arrows carried by an archer. He also sported three 45 caliber pistols in holsters and coatpockets and had a Bowie knife strapped to his leg.
By the late 1880s Jack was in Colorado during the Silver Boom. In return for various killings and acts of violent intimidation he performed for the railroad tycoons and the silver mine owners he was partially paid with several uncut diamonds. Later Jack’s own boasting and the usual embellishments that accompany men like him exaggerated the story to the point where he supposedly owned a hidden diamond mine near the Idaho/Nevada border. Jack cultivated the story by forever after carrying around a pocketful of uncut diamonds.
In 1892 Diamondfield Jack was in Silver City, Idaho, working for the Black Jack Mine’s owners to try to shoot down chances of the miners organizing a union. After a time he was wanted for questioning in some killings in the area and laid low in the mountains for several months. (In later years this sojourn was pointed to as one of the times Jack was claimed to have discovered the fictional diamond mine)
By 1895 Davis was employed by the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Company in Elko County, Nevada and Cassia County, Idaho. In yet another of the American West’s Range Wars between established cattlemen and newly-arrived sheep ranchers, Jack was being paid between $50 and $150 a month to lean on the armed sheep herders. “If you have to kill, the company will stand behind you” was part of the understanding. Diamondfield Jack and his fellow mercenaries spent months raiding sheep camps, poisoning wells and spreading a lot of lead around in the conflict.
On February 19th, 1896 sheepmen Daniel Cummings and John Wilson were killed at Deep Creek by the cattle faction and, as the most notorious of the gunslingers working for Sparks-Harrell Diamondfield Jack was largely assumed to be the culprit. Davis fled the territory but was eventually arrested by lawmen in Arizona and extradicted back to Idaho.
Jack may have been innocent of these particular killings but was found guilty and in the years that followed he was incarcerated at various prisons as a complicated legal web of appeals, jurisdictional feuds and stays of execution played out. The Idaho Supreme Court got involved and future Senator William Borah was the attorney for the sheepmen.
All that drama came to a close on December 17th, 1902 when Diamondfield Jack was pardoned and released. In 1904 Diamondfield Jack rolled into Goldfield, Nevada, where another gold rush had been underway for a few years. Virgil Earp was in town at the time as a Deputy Sheriff and his brother Wyatt was there making money at the gambling tables.
From 1904 to December 1907 Diamondfield Jack made his usual living by wielding his guns against miners and pro-union gunmen. He also carried on an affair with Goldfield’s famous singer Diamond-Tooth Lil. On December 4th, 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt sent federal troops in to restore order to the violence-plagued region.
Mining tycoon George Wingfield rewarded Jack for his services in the conflict by advising him on investments and soon Davis owned mines in Utah, Montana and California. Several years later Diamondfield Jack had blown his sizeable fortune and was financially strapped. In 1949 the elderly man was killed after being accidentally struck by a taxi in Las Vegas, NV.
1. SAM SIXKILLER – Not only did our top gunslinger have a name that screams out for cinematic treatment (or at least a cable television series) but he also saw more action than many western figures who are better known. Born in 1842 Sam Sixkiller was a Cherokee lawman in Oklahoma back when it was still being called Indian Territory and had not yet been opened up for white settlement. The unique setting of life in Indian Territory and the way it served as a microcosm of issues that the nation at large was dealing with after the Civil War adds layers of depth to Marshal Sixkiller’s tale that I find incredibly intriguing.
In 1863 Sam enlisted in the Union Army as the Civil War raged and saw action in Arkansas and Indian Territory. Because many Native Americans owned slaves (black and mixed-race) as their tribes had for centuries the Indian Territory was as split in terms of support for the Union and Confederacy as were badly-divided states like Missouri.
Between conventional battles and Bushwacker raids the Territory was reduced to a wasteland in many areas by the end of the war. In May 1865 Sam was discharged and returned to his wife Fannie to attend to their farm.
Following the Civil War the slaves in Indian Territory were declared Freedmen like the slaves in the late Confederacy, and as citizens of Indian Territory those Freedmen were in theory entitled to some of the money that was still being paid to the tribes in the Territory and to land. In reality the Five Civilized Tribes who called Indian Territory home were resentful of their former slaves’ new status and often used violence to drive out the freed slaves, even burning down their homes in many cases.
Outlaw bands would ride in to loot and pillage in the Territory then flee outside its borders to escape prosecution. In addition bootlegging and rustling were rampant and construction of railroads through Indian Territory brought new crimes. Throw in the usual inter-tribe conflicts that still surfaced and the Territory was a very dangerous place at the time.
In 1874 Sam Sixkiller’s father, Redbird Sixkiller, a former Chief Justice of the Cherokee, talked him into leaving his farm and taking a job as Sheriff in the town of Tahlequah. Over the next few years Sam did an outstanding job cleaning up and maintaining order in his jurisdiction, but in late 1878 ran afoul of a wealthy and influential Native American family, the Thompsons, and shot down their son Jeter when he was involved in unlawful behavior with firearms.
Through their influence the Thompsons brought on an investigation into their son’s shooting, an investigation that eventually resulted in Sheriff Sixkiller being suspended without pay pending a hearing before the National Council of the Cherokee. In that hearing, which was held in November of 1879, no wrongdoing was found and Sam was reinstated, but the Council refused to pay him the income he missed while under suspension, prompting Sixkiller to quit.
By February, 1880 Sam was employed in Muskogee as both a Sheriff and, because of the railroads already running through the Indian Territory and the ones under construction, he was also sworn in as a U.S. Marshal by none other than Judge Isaac Parker, the West’s legendary “Hanging Judge.” Parker would praise Sixkiller’s performance extravagantly in the years to come. Sam supplemented his income by working as a security agent for the Missouri- Pacific Railroad, so his threefold law enforcement roles complemented each other nicely. Sam’s career in Muskogee ran until December of 1886.
From his time as Sheriff in Tahlequah to his final days as a Marshal in Muskogee Sam Sixkiller exchanged gunfire with an impressive rogue’s gallery of outlaws and renegades. Among his memorable adversaries were:
* Half-Blood Dick, a mixed race outlaw who had his hand in many criminal pies and who would be Sam’s most bitter foe throughout his career.
* Willis Pettit, an emancipated black slave who waged his own personal campaign of theft and killing against the Five Tribes who had held him and others as slaves.
* The prostitutes of Muskogee’s Hotel de Adams, who would spit, scratch and otherwise resist arrest when Sam and his deputies took them in.
* Various white intruders who encroached on Tribal land and needed escorted – or sometimes driven – out of Indian Territory.
* Cunningham and Annie, two female bootleggers who were notorious for the elaborate hiding places for whiskey in their wagons and grocery store. Cunningham tried to gun down Sixkiller when the pair were arrested.
* Deadly gunfighters like “Baron” Gus, William Fox, Wild Charley Buffington and Tandy Walker,
* “Highwayman” Bill Rider, a prolific stagecoach robber.
* Horse thieves like Charles Ashcroft, the Hawkins Brothers and others.
* Various bootleggers like “Simple” Frank, “King” Solomon Coppell, Isaac Deer, Jon Copper, the Lee Brothers and Charlie Pierce, a future member of the Dalton Gang.
* Thieves like Nancy Britton, Henry Lewis and James Murphy.
* Barney Sweeny ( a former Jesse James Gang member) and his gang of trainrobbers. Sweeny’s colleagues were killed (one by Sweeny himself) but Sixkiller brought Sweeny himself in alive and eluded a Vigilante mob that wanted to lynch his prisoner.
* “Wise” Solomon Coon, a railroad cargo thief and bootlegger.
* Chick Kinney, William Allen and James Allen, disgruntled employees of the Missouri Pacific Railroad who maliciously derailed an entire train near Colbert in Indian Territory.
* “Badman” Dick Glass, an outlaw of all illegal trades. Glass, another former slave of the Five Tribes, was known for his silver-plated pistols with marble handles and for the breastplate he wore as a bullet-proof vest.
* “Mule Thief” Bollen
* Milo Hoyt, leader of a huge criminal faction called “The Outlaw Militia”, an outfit that included his son Black Hoyt.
On Christmas Eve, 1886, an unarmed Sam Sixkiller attended evening services in Muskogee with his family and on the way home afterward was waylaid and shot to death by his longtime foe Half-Blood Dick (Richard Vann) and Alf Cunningham. The killers fled but were soon brought to justice by other lawmen. Sam’s wife Fannie died of tuberculosis less than two years later.
FOR FOUR MORE NEGLECTED GUNSLINGERS CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2013/07/14/four-cool-but-forgotten-gunslingers-for-frontierado/
FOR SIX MORE NEGLECTED WESTERN FIGURES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/06/18/six-neglected-wild-west-figures/
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