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Joe Horner ("Frank M. Canton")

Frank M. Canton
Johnson County Sheriff stands tall and grim in a Wyoming winter scene.

Born Joe Horner near Richmond, Va., Frank M. Canton moved as a child to Texas with his family. Here, while in his teens, he became a cowboy, herding cattle from North Texas to the Kansas railheads in the late 1860s.

In 1871, Canton dropped from sight, becoming a bank robber and rustler. He was next heard from when he got into a quarrel with black cavalry troopers from Fort Richardson. Canton was in a Jacksboro, Texas, saloon on Oct. 10, 1874, when one of the black soldiers made a remark about white women. Canton demanded an apology and a gunfight erupted with Canton killing one black cavalryman and wounding another. He was jailed in 1877 for robbing the bank at Comanche, Texas, but he managed to escape and returned to cattle herding.

After driving a herd to Ogallala, Neb., he officially changed his name to Frank Canton and vowed to uphold law and order. To that end he hired on as the top enforcer of the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association, a group of powerful cattlemen intent upon driving out the immigrant farmers who had settled in Johnson County. Canton ran his own ranch near Buffalo, Wyo., and was later elected sheriff of Johnson County.

When Wyoming's wealthy stockmen persuaded Frank M. Canton, the former sheriff of Johnson County, to become chief detective in their vigilante war on alleged rustlers, local reaction was mixed. The stockmen, of course, rejoiced in their recruit; as a gunfighting lawman, he had already shown his mettle by capturing a number of rustlers and robbers. But the ordinary citizens who had twice elected Canton to office, including the small ranchers who were targets of the stockmen's war, felt that he had sold out to the big interests.

Canton himself felt no compunction about making the switch. As much as any gunfighter in Western history, he epitomized the flexible attitude that stamped such men as a breed. Theirs was a profession in which the opportunity for action, and for gain, tended to outweigh ethical considerations. Crossing the line that separated lawful from lawless acts was a common practice - though not necessarily one that gunfighters were eager to publicize.

In 1885, Canton married and the union produced two daughters, one of them dying in childhood. He then resigned as sheriff to accept a well-paying job with his former employers, the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association. At the same time, Canton was made a deputy U.S. marshal and he enforced the law as the cattlemen wanted it enforced. One of the leaders of the opposition, the settlers, was Nathan Champion who had been branded a rustler by the cattlemen, and, thus labeled, he was ordered to be arrested. This was essentially an order to murder Champion and Canton proceed to carry out this order without questioning his employers. He rode to Champion's cabin on the Powder River on Nov. 1, 1891, accompanied byJoe Elliott, Fred Coastes, and Tom Smith, who was a friend of Champion's. Once outside the cabin, the four men drew their guns and then burst inside. Champion, sick in bed, jumped up with his six-gun barking. Smith and Coates were slightly wounded as they exchanged gunfire with Champion and then Canton ordered his men to flee, all four gunmen running from the cabin, mounting their horses and riding pell mell out of the area as Champion blazed away at them with a rifle that his one-time friend Tom Smith had given to him some time earlier.

Canton then joined Frank Wolcott's Regulators, a group of more than fifty gunmen hired by the cattlemen to wipe out the settlers in Johnson County, especially the settlement at Buffalo. Wolcott, Canton, and Tom Smith led this small army toward Buffalo, Wyo., on Apr. 9, 1892, when they heard that Champion and a fellow gunman, Nick Ray, were holed up at the nearby K.C. ranch. As they approached the ranch, Canton spotted Jack Flagg driving a wagon near the ranch; this man was on the murder list of the Regulators and the gunmen fired at him. He managed to escape but left his wagon which the Regulators torched and then sent crashing into the log cabin ranch building where Champion and Ray were defending themselves. The place blazed up and Champion, his clothes smoking, dove through the front door with two six-guns firing, but fifty guns zeroed in on him and he was riddled with bullets, dying instantly.

This killing was too much for Canton to bear. In the months to come his nerves began to come apart. He had nightmares and would bolt upright from a dead sleep as he and his men slept about campfires and shout: "Do you hear them? They're coming! Get to your guns, boys!" The slightest sound, the wind, horses galloping in the distance, would cause Canton to tremble and become incoherent. He began seeing the ghosts of the dead, including James Averill and Ella "Cattle Kate" Watson, two rustlers who had defied the cattle barons and who were lynched by vigilantes, at Canton's insistence.

After his stint as top gun in the Johnson County War, Canton moved to Oklahoma Territory and resumed his career as a lawman. He did triple duty as undersheriff of Pawnee County and as deputy U.S. marshal for both Marshal Evett Nix of Guthrie and "Hanging Judge" Isaac Charles Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Here Canton made a name for himself as a lawman who would stand up to any gunman.

In Pawnee, Okla., in 1893, Canton tracked down and arrested a fugitive wanted on a murder charge, trapping him in a livery stable owned by gunman Len McCool. When McCool entered the stable and saw his friend, the fugitive, tied up and being made ready for the trip back to Judge Parker's courtroom, he slafted Canton and began to draw his gun. Canton jumped backward and produced a derringer, shooting McCool in the face, the bullet entering just under the left eye. Canton left McCool for dead and traveled back to Fort Smith. McCool, however lived, but got into a fistfight some time later and a blow to the wound inflicted by Canton brought about his death.

In the winter of 1895, Canton joined a posse that tracked down outlaws Bill and John Shelley, who had escaped from the Pawnee jail and had barricaded themselves in a cabin on the Arkansas River in Pawnee County. The posse peppered the cabin with more than 800 bullets in a five-hour gun battle but failed to dislodge the fugitives. Then Canton found a wagon filled with hay and, as he had done in the case of Nate Champion years earlier, sent this crashing into the ranch house. The resulting fire drove the outlaw brothers outside and they were quickly arrested and taken to Fort Smith.

In this period Canton helped to wipe out Bill Doolin's gang, and also outdrew and killed the sharpshooting desperado Bill Dunn. Outlaw Bill Dunn, a friend of the Shelley brothers, who was being hunted by Canton, rode into Pawnee, Okla., on Nov. 6, 1896, cornering Canton as the lawman was about to enter the courthouse. "Damn you, Canton," cried Dunn, "I've got it in for you!" He made a motion toward his gun but the lightning-fast Canton flung a six-gun from his wasitband and fired a single shot which struck Dunn square in the forehead. The outlaw fell backward, pulling out his gun as he fell but he died before he could fire a shot.

When Oklahoma grew too tame for Canton in the late 1890s, he followed the gold rush to the Klondike and served for two years as a deputy U.S. marshal in Alaska. The restless Canton left his family in 1897 and accepted an appointment as U.S. deputy marshal in Alaska where he underwent many harrowing adventures. Canton reportedly tamed the entire lawless town of Dawson and befriended the writer Rex Beach and was used by Beach as role model for many of the frontier heroes he portrayed in his novels. Canton was snowbound in 1888 and barely survived a winter which caused him to go snowblind. He returned to Oklahoma and once more became a lawman. In 1907 Canton became adjutant general of the Oklahoma National Guard and held this post until his death in 1927.

Canton's own past held a secret known neither to his cattle-raising employers nor to Johnson County voters. Only after his death at age 78 was it revealed. His name was a pseudonym; he was born Joseph Horner in 1849, the son of a Virginia doctor who moved to Texas after the Civil War. By the age of 26 he was wanted for bank robbery, rustling and assault with intent to kill. His rakehell years reached their climax in 1874 in a saloon brawl with some U.S. cavalrymen in which one soldier was killed. Joe Horner shot his way out of town and soon thereafter disappeared from Texas-later surfacing in Wyoming under his new name.

Years later, in failing health, Canton returned to Texas to make peace with his past. In an interview with the Governor, he secretly confessed that he was Joe Horner and won official forgiveness for his youthful crimes. Close friends then urged him to resume his true identity. But he declined, choosing to be remembered as Frank Canton, gunfighter for the law.

General Frank M. Canton was a picturesque frontiers man, veteran law enforcement officer of the Old West, colorful soldier of fortune, first adjutant general of the state of Oklahoma, and prototype for the fictional western heroes of Novelists. Very few knew that the true name of the man they honored was Joe Horner and that his "picturesque, colorful" history included a criminal career marked by convictions for bank and highway robbery, desperate jail escapes and indictments for cold-blooded murder. Frank Canton was accused of killing a number of men, but he spent most of his life trying to kill Joe Horner, the man he had been in his youth. He was successful that almost another half century passed after his death before the story of Horner came to light.

Paul Trachtman. The Gunfighters (Old West Time-Life Series) Time-Life Books Editors. Time-Life, 1974.
Jay Robert Nash. Encyclopedia Of Western Lawmen & Outlaws . Da Capo Press. 1989.


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