STEAMFUNK WILD WEST: Black Lawmen and Outlaws in the Age of Steam!
We continue our League of Extraordinary Black People Series with an in-depth look at those who enforced – and those who gave the finger to – the law and carved a trail of tears, blood and bullets across the Wild West.
The son of a Black Chickasaw Freedman father, and a Black Creek Freedman mother, Grant Johnson was born in northern Texas during the Civil War and raised in Indian Territory. This same territory is where Johnson would become renowned as one of the greatest U.S. Deputy Marshals in history.
Serving under Judge Isaac Parker for at least 14 years, his career as a U.S. Deputy Marshal began in 1887. His contribution was invaluable and in high demand as he was well-versed and proficient in the customs and language of the Muskogee Creek nation. Johnson often worked with Bass Reeves, the man considered by many to be the greatest lawman in history. Together, they captured one of the most notorious outlaws in the territory – Abner Brasfield. Johnson also captured the noted counterfeiter, Amos Hill; Choctaw outlaw Chahenegee; the murderers, John Pierce and Bill Davis; the Cherokee outlaw, Columbus Rose; train robber, Wade Chamberlee and dozens of others.
One of the most noted peace officers in the history of the Indian Territory, Judge Isaac C. Parker mentioned him as one of the best deputies that ever worked for his court.
In 1898, Johnson transferred to the Northern District, which was headquartered at Muskogee. For many years, Johnson worked alone, patrolling in and around Eufaula, Creek Nation. He developed one of the best arrest records of any of the deputies that worked the Northern District under Marshal Leo Bennett.
Johnson became a policeman for Eufaula in 1906, primarily patrolling the African American section of town. He died in Eufaula on April 9, 1929.
The Buck Gang
The gang had a total of five members – Creek First Nation natives, Sam Sampson and Maoma July and brothers, Lewis and Lucky Davis, who were Creek Freedmen. All of them had been apprehended on minor offenses and served time in the Fort Smith jail prior to their crime spree that summer.
It is rumored that the spree came about as a result of Buck boasting that his “outfit would make a record that would sweep all the other gangs of the territory into insignificance.” However, it is more likely that the spree – driven by Buck’s rage, poverty and desperation – was in response to the horrific and tragic event in which Creeks and Cherokees, along with the escaped slaves who married into those nations, were forced, by the U.S. government, to march over 1,000 miles during the infamous Trail of Tears. Many died along the way and the First Nation and Black people forced to settle in the region dubbed the Indian Territory struggled in that bleak region for fifty years, but finally carved out a decent living for themselves. The government’s attempts to take back that land and give it to Caucasians who now desired to settle in the Southwest was met with outrage, which – in the case of the Buck Gang – became, simply, rage.
On July 28, 1895, the gang shot and killed another Black Deputy U.S. Marshal, John Garrett, near Okmulgee. On their way from that murder, they allegedly abducted and raped a white woman known only as Mrs. Wilson. They killed horse rancher, Gus Chambers when he resisted the gang’s theft of his horses and then robbed a stockman of his clothing and boots, firing a hail of bullets just past his head as he fled naked to safety. Two days later, the gang raped a white woman, Mrs. Rosetta Hansen, while they held her husband at bay with Winchesters.
The gang was finally apprehended, brought to Fort Smith and convicted in a rape trial. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which upheld the verdict, and the gang died together at the gallows on July 1, 1896.
After Buck’s death, a photograph of his mother was found in his cell. On the back, Buck had written a poem:
I dreamt I was in heaven
Among the angels fair;
I’d near seen none so handsome,
That twine in golden hair;
They looked so neat and sang so sweet
And play’d the golden harp.
I was about to pick an angel out
And take her to my heart;
But the moment I began to plea
I thought of you my love.
There was none I’d seen so beautifull
On earth or heaven above.
Good by my dear wife and mother
All so my sisters
Crawford Goldsby, an Oklahoma outlaw better known as Cherokee Bill, was born at Fort Concho, Texas, on February 8, 1876, the son of St. George and Ellen (Beck) Goldsby. He had three siblings – a sister named Georgia and brothers Luther and Clarence.
Bill’s father – a man of Black, Sioux, Mexican, and Caucasian heritage – was a highly decorated Buffalo Soldier – a Sergeant Major in the 10th U.S. Cavalry; however, because of a fracas in Texas, St. George went AWOL and escaped to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
Bill’s mother was reportedly half black, one-fourth white, and one-fourth Cherokee. She had been born in the Cherokee nation, Delaware District. Her parents had been owned as slaves at one time by a Cherokee, Jefferey Beck.
After St. George left his family in Texas, Ellen moved with the all the children to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, except for Crawford (Bill) – who was too young to travel – whom she left behind in the care of a Black woman, Amanda Foster. Ms. Foster took care of Bill until the age of seven when he moved with his mother to Fort Gibson and then on to Cherokee, Kansas, where he attended Indian school for three years. He then attended the Carlisle Industrial School for Indians in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for two years.
After leaving school at the age of twelve, he returned to Oklahoma.
His mother remarried when Bill was thirteen. He did not get along well with his new stepfather and started hanging around with a rough crowd, drinking liquor and rebelling against authority.
At fifteen, he went to live with his sister, Georgia, and her husband.
At seventeen, he worked on a ranch where it was said he was well liked by all.
At eighteen, while attending a dance at Fort Gibson, Texas, Crawford shot a man named Jake Lewis twice when Lewis refused to stop beating his own little brother. Crawford then headed for the Creek and Seminole Nations (now Oklahoma) where he met Jim and Bill Cook, a couple of outlaws.
In the summer of 1894, the Cooks and Crawford convinced the owner of a restaurant – a Caucasian woman – to collect some money due to each of them as a payment share for some Indian land called the Cherokee Strip. The government had bought the land. The woman did as she was told, collecting the money for all three, but upon her return, was followed by a sheriff’s posse trying to catch up with the Cooks. There was a gunfight, ending with a posse member dead, one wounded and Crawford and the Cook brothers in the wind. The owner of the restaurant was questioned about the gunfight and was asked if Crawford was among the group. She replied no, but that among them was “the Cherokee Kid”. This, apparently, was where Crawford gained his nickname.
The famous Cook gang made itself known across the Cherokee and Seminole Nations (in what is now Oklahoma) in July, 1894 with train and bank robberies and murder.
Cherokee Bill murdered at least seven people and may have killed as many as thirteen, later forming his own gang and riding with such well-known outlaws as Henry Starr and Billy the Kid.
With the assistance of acquaintances who hoped to receive part of a $1,500 reward, federal authorities finally captured Cherokee Bill and transported him to the federal district court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. There, he was convicted of murder of an unarmed man who happened to witness Bill’s participation in a robbery and sentenced to hang. After an unsuccessful escape attempt in which he killed a jail guard at Fort Smith, Bill received a second murder conviction.
When the United States Supreme Court rejected his appeal of his first conviction, federal officials hanged him before hundreds of onlookers, on March 17, 1896. When asked if he had any last words, his response was, “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”
After his death, Cherokee Bill’s mother took his body to the Fort Gibson area (Oklahoma), where he was buried.
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. His slavemaster, William S. Reeves, moved the household to Paris, Texas in 1846, where he became a prominent politician in the region as well as a farmer. Bass worked as a water boy in the cotton fields of the Reeves farm, where other enslaved Blacks regaled him with stories of adventure featuring Black heroes
When the Civil War broke out, William Reeves’ son, George, was commissioned as a colonel in the Confederate army and took Bass to war with him. Although he was supposedly George Reeves’ servant, Bass fought in several battles during the conflict. However, after a dispute with George over a card game which led to fisticuffs and the large and powerful Bass opening a can of whoop-ass on the colonel, Bass escaped and fled into the Indian Territory (which we now know as Oklahoma) as a fugitive slave. There, he lived among First Nation peoples from the Creek and Seminole, developing an understanding and appreciation of their languages, cultures and customs. During this time, Bass served in the Union’s first Indian Home Guard regiment under an assumed name.
Bass eventually moved to Arkansas where he acquired property near Van Buren. He met a young woman named Nellie Jennie and in 1870, the two were married and settled into Bass’ farm, where they raised five boys and five girls.
By 1875, however, he had found a new profession – as a U.S. Deputy Marshal, under the direction of Judge Isaac C. Parker. Bass’ family continued to reside in Van Buren during these years.
This change, from farmer to lawman, began the most colorful, noteworthy, and successful careers of all the western frontier marshals. Bass worked in the Parker court at the time of the execution of James Diggs, a notorious criminal, who had been wanted for years. He assisted in the capture of deadly outlaws Bob Dozier and Johnson Jacks and in 1884, he is noted for bringing a caravan load of prisoners from Indian Territory.
Bass served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Indian Territory for 32 years and was the only one to serve from Judge Parker’s appointment until Oklahoma’s statehood. He became one of the most successful lawmen in American history, arresting more than 3,000 fugitives. Bass’ work as a Deputy U.S. Marshal ended in 1907 when Oklahoma was granted statehood. He then went on to work for the Muskogee Police Department for two years until he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease. He died on January 12, 1910.
Bass Reeves has been immortalized in literature and in film. We continue this tradition in the Steamfunk movie, Rite of Passage, in which Bass Reeves – one of the guardians of the town of Nicodemus, Kansas – is the possessor of a pair of pistols and a rifle that gives him extraordinary powers and enhances his already formidable skills. Veteran film director and actor, Omar Sean Anderson is tasked with bringing this amazing character to life and you are sure to love how we – and Omar – envision the legendary Bass Reeves.
Following is a complete list of Black Deputy U.S. Marshals who worked in the Ft. Smith, Arkansas region. Their numbers – and their stories – are quite amazing.
Jefferson, Edward D.