“Each year, from 1892 through 1896 Oklahoma led all states in the number of gunfights, a total of 30 of 76 nationally.” - Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters
Two men stand barely 30 yards apart on the dusty street, both poised to reach for their pistols. Suddenly, in a blur, one pulls his revolver from its holster and, in a fanning motion of his hand, fatally shoots his rival. This scenario has been played out countless times in the Hollywood version of a 19th century gunfight but historians will contend that it never happened. Experts maintain that shooting a pistol accurately in a fanning motion is impossible and that the weapon of choice, if a shoot out really occurred, would have been the rifle. Pistols were seldom carried in holsters and, more likely, if they were used at all, pistols were shoved into pockets, waistbands or a coat. Hollywood hype! Further, a review of the style of the most prolific gunfighters wasn’t facing an opponent down on a dusty street, it was to ambush him.
Notable outlaws of Northeastern Oklahoma were no exception, there was seldom an incident recorded where lawman and criminal faced each other in the open. Crawford Goldsby aka Cherokee Bill is a case in point. Before joining the Cook gang, he began his career by shooting his brother-in-law in the back for beating his sister, then murdered a railroad station agent while looting the depot and killed a conductor after an altercation. There were other incidents, but when he was finally captured it was with rifle in hand, no “high noon” shootout. He was hung in Fort Smith for killing an innocent bystander during a grocery store robbery. Bill’s mode of operation was typical of most gunmen in the region only a few were involved in one on one gunfights on dusty town streets. One such incident involved a newly appointed deputy sheriff for Judge Isaac Parker, Ed Reed who was living in Wagoner. Wagoner was also the “watering hole” for Dick and Zeke Crittendon who occasionally terrorized the town when they drank too much. Such was the situation on October 25, 1895 and when Reed attempted to arrest the pair, he was forced to shoot both …with a rifle.
The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters lists 255 gunfighters, the number of gunfights and number of killings, most whose names would not be recognized. Only a select few so called gunslingers rated television recognition or a Hollywood movie. From 1955 through 1961 and two hundred twenty six episodes of the television series Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O’Brian, countless felons supposedly “bit the dust” dueling with Earp. The real Wyatt Earp engaged in four gunfights and killed no one. Guns blazed and men fell in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Robert Redford. Fact replaces fiction once again when historical research reveals the Sundance Kid also was involved in four gunfights, killing no one.
The era of gunfights erupted after the Civil War. Weapons had been vastly improved and there were thousands of ex-soldiers who knew how to use them. Gunfighters came from all walks of life. Some made their living as law officers until they determined the pay was better “on the other side.” That and the fact that there was inadequate law enforcement made the prospects for criminal activity easier.
According to research the most prolific gunfighter was Jim Miller, apparently overlooked by Hollywood and perhaps for good reason. Miller is credited with twelve killings in 14 “gunfights” but on closer examination drama was seldom involved. At the age of eight, living with his grandparents, he was accused of killing them with a shotgun but never brought to trial. Sent to live with his sister, at the age of 17 he killed her husband during an argument. Drifting around, he became a deputy sheriff and reportedly ambushed several Mexicans with a shotgun. Married in 1891, Miller became a devout Methodist and became known as “Deacon Jim.” Accused of stealing two mules, “Deacon Jim” murdered the local sheriff, but for unclear reasons was acquitted. He then ambushed and killed Joe Earp who had testified against him. Shortly after, the district attorney who had prosecuted the case died of food poisoning, and there was wide-spread speculation that Jim had slipped arsenic into the lawyers food. In 1900 the Millers moved to Fort Worth where Jim became known as a killer for hire and dispatched three more by ambush before contracting to kill rancher A.A. Bobbitt in Ada, Oklahoma. Miller completed the “job” with a shotgun, but upon returning to Texas he was arrested and extradited back to Oklahoma. While housed in the local jail Miller, along with three companions, was “freed” and unceremoniously hung in a nearby livery stable.
There was nothing glamorous about life on the American frontier or in Northeastern Oklahoma, it was a dangerous place to live. Murderers and thieves were commonplace and their appearance anywhere could potentially result in someone’s death. Further, disease was rampant, particularly cholera since medical science had not discovered the perils of polluted water. Tragic accidents occurred on farms and ranches and frequently resulted in death because of the lack of medical assistance. Reality trumps Hollywood hype and also raises a question…How would we have fared in the 1900s?
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.