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Grass-roots Gunfighters

The best known gunfighters were the two or three hundred glorified gunfighters whose fame and exploits became a part of the legend of the West - gunslingers such as Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp. Much more obscure were the thousands of grass-roots gunfighters whose exploits became little or not at all known beyond their own localities. Although generally not as effective as the glorified gunfighters, the grass-roots gunfighters could be deadly. One of them - Walter J. Crow of California - individually exceeded the single-gunfight killings of Hickok, James, Hardin, Billy the Kid, Earp, or any of the other glorified gunfighters. Some of whom, like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, were mythologized as popular heroes - as "social bandits."

Conceptualized by the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, a social bandit is, in American terms, a notable lawbreaker widely supported, paradoxically, by the law-abiding members of society. In the West the crimes of social bandits were often approved because they expressed the discontents and grievances of those who would never dare commit such crimes on their own. The historian Richard White has traced the grassroots admiration for social bandits in the tradition of Jesse James, whose bravery and daring was applauded as being that of "strong men who could protect and revenge themselves." Skilled gunhandlers, these social bandits often robbed banks and railroads whose steep charges were deeply resented by peaceable western farmers, ranchers, and townspeople in the post-1865 period when economic conditions caused severe hardship for those of small means.

A trend from 1865 to 1900 was wealthy and powerful individuals, companies, and corporations sought either to force settlers off the land or to overcharge them for their occupancy. In effect, this was a land-enclosing movement, which in the West engendered instability and discontent comparable to that caused by the land-enclosure movements in England from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. Especially aggressive in the West were the big ranchers, whose gunfighting cowboys tried to exclude small ranchers and homesteading farmers from the ranges. Crucial, also, to the land-enclosing trend were some top railroads of the West, which, through congressional land grants, tied up huge acreages and set the price of land sales to settlers.

It was just such a land grant, to the Southern Pacific Railroad, that bred the Mussel Slough conflict in California. In the agriculturally rich Mussel Slough country thirty miles south of Fresno in California's Central Valley, the homestead ethic of the settlers clashed with the capitalistic entrepreneurial ethic of the "Big Four" owners of the Southern Pacific - Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In dispute between the settlers and the railroad were thousands of acres for which the pioneers and the railroad had conflicting land claims. The legal dispute over the land's ownership entered the federal circuit court, where in 1879 Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, a friend of Stanford and Crocker, decided in the railroad's favor. The settlers responded with night-riding vigilantism to intimidate local supporters of the railroad and, in a no-duty-to-retreat mood, prepared to defend their richly productive small farms with firearms.

The crisis exploded into the deadliest civilian gunfight in far western history on 11 May 1880, when settlers resisted eviction from their homes. With a final toll of seven deaths, the Mussel Slough shootout far exceeded the three dead of the legendary Earp battle near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the following year but was entirely the work of grass-roots gunfighters - five pioneers versus two railroad supporters. The five settlers were all killed by the two gunfighters on the Southern Pacific side, both of whom also died. In killing the five settlers, however, Walter J. Crow, took more lives than were ever claimed on a single occasion by any of the glorified gunfighters such as Earp, Billy the Kid, or Hardin.

Public opinion in the nation and in California was strongly on the side of the settlers. The conclusion was drawn that a huge American and western corporation, the Southern Pacific, headed by a few millionaires, would not content itself with depriving industrious farmers and family men of their homes but would have them shot down in cold blood. The Mussel Slough affair and its mordant gunfight burned into the consciousness of late-nineteenth-century Americans. One of the five novels based on the Mussel Slough was Frank Norris's powerful American classic The Octopus (1901); its titleŚlong applied to the Southern Pacific in California - was, in effect, a hostile metaphor for the incorporating forces of the American West.

Defeated in both their courtroom and their gunfighting battles with the Southern Pacific, the Mussel Slough dissident farmers, had no choice but to leave their farms or pay the railroad. Most left. The resulting resentment affected an entire generation in California's Central Valley, far more than the hundreds of farmers who had been in direct conflict with the railroad. An outcome of this feeling was the popular admiration for a famous team of robbers, the social bandits Chris Evans and John Sontag, who repeatedly struck Southern Pacific trains from 1889 to 1892. The antirailroad lawbreaking of Evans and Sontag was a surrogate for the seething resentment toward the Southern Pacific by peaceful, law-abiding Californians. Evans and Sontag fought in two spectacular shootouts with law officers and railroad detectives, the last of which in 1893 killed Sontag and ended their criminal careers.

Indirectly related to the Mussel Slough conflict was the sensational 1889 killing of David S. Terry of California. A potent force in the anticorporation wing of the state's Democratic party, Terry had been a strong supporter of the Mussel Slough settlers against the Southern Pacific. Meanwhile, a personal and legal dispute festered between Terry and Justice Stephen J. Field of the U.S. Supreme Court. As the leading member of the Supreme Court in the late nineteenth century and in his concurrent role as a federal circuit judge on the Pacific Coast, Field, a Californian, had spearheaded court decisions favoring the Southern Pacific and other corporations. His judicial associate and protege, the federal circuit judge Lorenzo Sawyer, had dispossessed the Mussel Slough settlers. As the head of a powerful clique of economically conservative West Coast federal judges that included Sawyer, Field was a pillar of the establishment cause and, as such, a political and ideological as well as personal and legal opponent of Terry.

To protect Field from the threats of the violence-prone Terry, who had killed one man in a duel, David Neagle - a tough gunhandling lawman from Tombstone in the era of Wyatt Earp - was hired to serve as Field's bodyguard in the Golden State. When Terry slapped Field in a California railroad depot on 14 August 1889, Neagle immediately shot Terry dead in what quickly became a western and national cause celebre. The outcome of a legal process reaching the Supreme Court (Field abstaining) found Neagle to be without fault in the killing. Unconvinced were anti-Field partisans, who saw the killing as premeditated murder in the interest of an economic and judicial order that favored millionaire industrialists.

The range-cattle industry had both urban and rural battlegrounds. In urban terms the conflict was fought in the raw towns of the Great Plains that sprang up where cattle trails met the railroad shipping points to the midwestern packinghouses. In famed boomtowns like Abilene and Dodge City, urban merchants wanted to curb the disorder and violence of the Texas cowboys who whooped into town wild for pleasure after months out on the townless trails north of Texas. To intimidate and, if need be, to arrest or even kill cowboys, the mercantile clique used its dominance of boomtown governments to employ skilled gunfighters like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp to keep the Texans in line.

The typical cowboy who roared into the likes of Abilene and Dodge City was a Texan, a southerner in outlook, an ex- or pro-Confederate. On the other side were the merchants or entrepreneurs like Joseph G. McCoy of Abilene, a northerner who arranged for Wild Bill Hickok to keep order in Abilene. Hickok had established his gunfighting credentials as early as 1861 and became nationally known for his 1865 slaying of Dave Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, in the prototypical western showdown. Hickok, a northerner who fought for the Union in the Civil War and was reared in an Illinois abolitionist family, was a strong Republican in politics. In Abilene in 1871, Wild Bill intimidated violence-prone Texas cowboys and climaxed the season with a face-to-face killing of Phil Coe, a skilled Texas gunfighter and gambler. Gunfighters and lawmen like Hickok and the Earp brothers were in the van of the movement that safely incorporated Abilene, Ellsworth, Hays, Newton, Wichita, Dodge City, and other boomtowns into a social and economic system dominated by enterprising capital.

In the immense rural range country, the pattern pitted the cattle kings against small ranchers, cowboys, farmers, and rustling horse and cattle thieves who resisted the land-monopolizing thrust of the big cattlemen. In Montana, the reign of Granville Stuart and other cattle grandees (including a young Theodore Roosevelt, whose home ranch was across the territorial line in present North Dakota) was challenged by horse thieves in alliance with a motley faction of wolf hunters and ruffians whose outlaw haunts were in the wild Missouri Breaks river country of Montana. The horse-theft operations stretched from the Montana-Canada borderland down into Wyoming. Fed up with these outlaw inroads, "Stuart's Stranglers," embarked on a devastating campaign that burned the bandit cabins along the wooded shores of the Missouri and killed the inhabitants. Stuart, later to be idolized as "Mr. Montana" (the state's most revered pioneer), deputed a strong force of cowboys, who swept through eastern Montana and on into North Dakota, where those marked for death on a hit list, provided by Stuart, were killed. Theodore Roosevelt knew well the cattle-king leaders of Stuart's campaign, strongly approved of it until his dying day, and always regretted that Stuart and the others, fearing that the loquacious Roosevelt would talk too much, had kept him out of the triumphant campaign that, with over a hundred fatalities to its credit, was the deadliest of all western and American vigilante movements.

By the time Stuart's Stranglers disbanded in 1884, the Montana-Dakota range country was conquered territory. This was far from true across Montana's southern border, where in the late 1880s and early 1890s a Wyoming coalition of small ranchers, homesteading farmers, and cowboy outlaws resisted the growing aggressiveness of a powerful faction of big cattle ranchers. At the core of this faction, eastern and British aristocrats presided over their investments in the cattle country, lording it over the cowboys who toiled for them. Many of the latter struck back at the arrogant employers by rustling from them on the sly in order to break free and establish competing small spreads. By 1892, as the grandees of the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association saw it, wide areas of central and northern Wyoming were held by those who harassed and stole from them. With convictions of accused cattle thieves hard to come by from juries of local folk who were hostile to the cattle kings, the latter perfected their vigilante plans. Defiant Johnson County was marked for the strongest dose of lynch-law medicine.

Edited by Clyde A. Milner; Carol A. O'Connor; Martha A. Sandweiss. The Oxford History of the American West . Oxford University Press, USA. 1994.


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