Lawmen and Outlaws

C12  - By Sue (Crouch) Buzzard
The History of Craig County Its People and Places, Volume 1

First federal jail in Vinita, Craig County, OK

First federal jail in Vinita, located at the corner of South Scraper and West Delaware.
No part of the west was more of a legal and jurisdictional nightmare -- and a criminal's paradise -- than Indian Territory, of which the Cherokee Nation was a part.  Without a doubt the territory offered outlaws their safest refuge and their richest field for uninhibited plunder.

Around 1870, the only authorized permanent residents of the Territory were some 50,000 Indians.

The five tribes were recognized by the U.S. Government as self-governing nations within their own assigned lands, and each tribe had its own laws, courts and the Indian police.

Until 1875, most crimes were punishable by whipping.  Murder and rape were both punishable by hanging.  There were no degrees of murder.  If you killed someone . . . it was murder.  Larceny of livestock was a very serious offense, the punishment being 50 lashes upon the bare back for the first offense; the second offense was 100 lashes and if the third time was proven, the culprit was hanged, that is if he survived long enough to get off the ranch.

One did not have to be a lawyer to practice before the courts, although those pioneers of the territorial bar were men of sound and clear understanding of human nature.

Indian courts had no jurisdiction over white invaders, and they lost jurisdiction over every Indian who committed any crime against -or in company with- a white.  Such Indians and every white who committed any crime whatsoever within the territory fell under the jurisdiction of the United States Court for the Western District of Arkansas, whose sole judge and handful of marshals were expected to enforce law and order over some 70,000 miles of outlaw-haunted terrain.

In 1875, Isaac Charles Parker was appointed to the Federal Judgeship over the territory in Ft.  Smith, Arkansas.  He became known as "The Hanging Judge." (During his reign, he sentenced 160 men to the gallows.)

A total of 91 defendants were tried by Parker in the first session of his court, which lasted eight weeks.  Of the accused, eighteen were charged with murder and fifteen were convicted.  Eight received long prison terms and one was killed trying to escape.  The remaining six were condemned to the gallows.

These men were not big-time gunfighters, one had murdered to get a young cowboy's fancy boots and saddle.  Another had clubbed and knifed an old friend to death to get his pocket money.

Not only did Parker try cases, but he also organized ways and means of bringing in more lawbreakers to stand trial.  Congress and the President had invested Parker with unique powers to cope with the problems of Indian Territory.  His marshal, also a Presidential appointee, was authorized to hire a small army of 200 deputy marshals.

In recruiting his force of deputies, Parker realized there would be some bad ones who would take opportunity of their badges.  He hated gunfighters, but he knew that it took one to catch one.  So if the man was good with a gun the judge was willing to overlook blank spots in his background.

Two of the Dalton boys had been deputies, they were only a couple that turned bad after becoming deputies.

The marshals received .60 a mile for travel, and $2 per arrest, averaging about $500 a year.  The marshals who tracked criminals in Indian Territory were issued a pamphlet of guidelines that read as follows:

"U.S. Deputy Marshals for the Western District of Arkansas may make arrest for Murder, Manslaughter, Assault with intent to kill or to maim, Attempts to Murder, Arson, Robbery, Rape, Burglary, Larceny, Incest, Adultry, Willfully and Maliciously Placing Obstructions on a Railroad Track."

"These arrests may be made with or without warrant first issued and in the hands of the Deputy or the Chief Marshal.  It is always better for the Deputy to have a warrant before making an arrest, yet if he knows of any one of the above crimes having been committed and has good reason to believe a particular party guilty of the crime, his duty is to make the arrest."

10 of the 16 US Deputy Marshalls
Click for larger view of photo

Ten of the sixteen U.S. Deputy Marshals in the posse that killed Ned Christie are pictured.  Standing, from L: Wes Bowman, Ab Allen, John Tolbert, Bill Smith and Tom Johnson; Seated, from L: Dave Rusk, Heck Bruner, Paden Tolbert, Charles Copeland, and Captain G.S. White.


Many deputy U.S. Marshals whose names have been written in the history of law and order in Indian Territory lived in Craig County.

When federal districts were changed in 1885, Indian Territory was divided into three judicial districts.  Downingville, or Vinita, was headquarters for the Northern District and for many deputy marshals, coordinated by the Territorial U.S. Marshal, Evett D. Nix.

Some of the early deputy U.S. Marshals were: Paden Tolbert, Heck Bruner, Bill Smith, Dave Rusk, Tom Johnson, Bud Ledbetter, Charley Copeland, Sam Burns, Ike Gilstrap, Ves Bond, Riley Thompson, Bill Ellis, and G.S. (Cap) White.  One of the most famous U.S. Marshals was Heck Thomas.  Thomas, a native Georgian, was 12 when he served as a Confederate Army courier; after the War, while working as a private detective in Texas, he single handed, captured two desperadoes, and won reknown among outlaws as a man to be shunned.  Thomas provided much of the muscle in Judge Parker's crusade against outlaws, and came through Craig County often.

W.H. Darrough was named deputy U.S. Marshal for this district around 1898 and served until Oklahoma statehood.  He was active in Vinita affairs.

In 1907, Sam Ridenhour was the first elected sheriff of Craig County.  He served in that capacity for eight years.  He was also Chief of Police several times over and served many years as Chief of the Vinita Fire Department, driving the first team of fire horses Vinita ever had.  Truth is, they only had one team that lasted until the motor trucks came into use.

Ridenhour got his first law job as a deputy U.S. Marshal's commission by accident about 1899.  Two outlaws held up the M.K.&T. and robbed it at Pryor Creek.  Ridenhour apparently had a look-a-like who happened to be one of the robbers.

Ridenhour and a man named John Hodge were arrested, tried and convicted.  Luckily for them a man by the name of Turlington who had killed the Sheriff of Booneville, Missouri, had been caught and sentenced to hang.  He confessed to the train robbery at Pryor Creek and told where his partner was located in Texas.

The U.S. Officials redeemed themselves by giving Ridenhour a commission as constable.  He covered the whole Cherokee Nation for several years.  C.H. Goodpaster was a later deputy marshal.

Ridenhour served as sheriff from 1907 to 1912 and again in 1921-22.

Harry J. Campbell was elected Craig County Sheriff and took office September 3, 1923, serving eight years in office.  He caught 21 bank robbers, 20 of whom were convicted and sent to the penitentiary.

Faced with constant loss of cattle at the hands of rustlers, cattlemen organized the Cherokee National Stockmen's Protective and Detective Association in 1881 and ranchers of what is now Craig County were prominent in the group.

Abraham Mills, of the Welch area, was president and Henry Eiffert, secretary.  A brand book was issued showing owners of cattle, location of ranges and their brands.  Rewards were offered for apprehension of cattle thieves.

In 1884, the association was headed by G. W. Clark, with John A. Foreman as secretary.

It continued for years but a larger group with a similar purpose came into existence in the 1890s in this area with the formation of the Anti-Horse Thief Association (A.H.T.A.) protecting owners against horse stealing.

There were lodges throughout the county even in the smallest communities. Kinnison, Russell Creek, Eagle, Welch and others - all areas had A.H.T.A. groups and Craig County men were prominent in the state organization.


Vinita's streets did not run red, probably because of so many U.S. Deputy Marshals being headquartered there.  Of course, there were killings on Vinita streets and other crimes were committed, but the town escaped the fury of outlaw gangs that terrorized many parts of the Cherokee Nation.

The Dalton gang, which consisted of Bob, Emmet and Gratton (called Grat), robbed trains all around this area of the Cherokee Nation.  Bob lived on Duck Creek near Afton, I.T., at one time during their outlaw days.

Bob Dalton had been hanging around the billiard hall at Adair for about a week.  A.M. Fishback, who ran the pool hall, knew he had seen the man before, but could not place him.  When Fishback questioned him, he claimed to be a U.S. Marshal looking for a man.

The train robbery took place July 14, 1892, about 9 a.m. Two doctors were sitting in front of the drug store about a block away from all the action, thinking they could not be seen.  Both men were shot.  They were Dr. Garrison and Dr. Youngblood. They were put aboard the train and taken to Vinita.  Dr. Garrison died on the way, and Youngblood was a cripple the remainder of his life.

When Fishback, a large German man who weighed about 250 pounds, heard the shooting, he ran out the back of the pool hall headed for home.  In the alley behind the hall, he ran smack dab into the robber's horses.  The man who was watching the horses shouted at Fishback, but he never stopped running until he fell in the door at home.  His wife said it was quite a while before he had his breath back so he could tell her what happened.

After the robbery, Fishback then remembered where he had seen the men.  He had lived on the adjoining farm next to him on Duck Creek.  He verified him as Bob Dalton.

In Glenn Shirley's book "Heck Thomas, Frontier Marshal," he tells of the arrest of George Weightman alias Red Buck, at the home of a man named Willis south of Vinita, for stealing mules from Bob Knight and a horse from the Blythes.

Red Buck had a long record of murders and robberies before he was killed in western Oklahoma.

Paden Tolbert, Heck Bruner, Bill Smith, Ike Gilstrap, and a few others were U.S. Deputies headquartered in Vinita, and they were instrumental in the capture of many lawbreakers.

Heck Bruner and his brother Wood, captured or killed a gang of outlaws at White Oak in November, 1893.  Ralph Hallett, one of the gang, had robbed the safe at the Frisco Station in Chelsea not long before.  He was one that was shot at White Oak.

Belle Starr frequented this area.  She was arrested several times, but due to her power of seduction or generosity, many times deputies were persuaded to return empty handed.  L.W. Marks was said to have been the first deputy U.S. Marshal to arrest Belle.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Paden Tolbert was among the deputies who participated in the slaying of Ned Christie, a Cherokee outlaw who wore his clothes out from the inside he was so rough and mean.  He was high on the most-wanted list of felons in I.T. Christie had begun life as a law abiding gunsmith.

Crawford Goldsby alias Cherokee Bill was captured northwest of Big Creek.  He was of Indian, Mexican and Negro descent.

On February 14, 1914, the Vinita Journal published a story stating that Poncho Villa, the ex-bandit leader and rebel chief terrorizing Mexico, was in reality George Goldsby, who in the 1880s came to Vinita along with his family to live.  George, a black man, cooked for the Tom Knight family.  A son, Luther worked at the Cobb Hotel.  George and Crawford "Cherokee Bill" Goldsby were reportedly half-brothers.

Cherokee Bill was captured by Deputy Marshals Ike Rogers and Clint Scales and later was hanged at Ft.  Smith, Arkansas.

On September 4,1906, Vinita had it's only "legal" hanging.  The man was Robert Cotton, a black, who had been convicted of killing his wife near Vian.  He signed a full confession before he was hanged.

In 1932 and 1933, when Pretty Boy Floyd was at his summit of crime, he was said to have spent two days in Vinita at one of the leading hotels looking the First National Bank over with thoughts of robbery in mind.  The bank got wind of it and hired a guard, Harry J. Campbell, who had served as sheriff for eight years.  He worked there for four years.

Other outlaws went through here.  They came along the old road by Tater Hill and the Russell Creek Cemetery.  The Mills family had a black woman cook, Phyllis.  After the family had eaten, the Jennings boys would come in, sit down, and eat breakfast.

Sometimes a man would get into trouble with the law and hide out.  Friends and family would put food out for him at an agreed upon place as long as was needed.  Sometimes they provided a horse for him to get away.

Although Cherokee Bill spent a part of his time in what is now Craig County and Bitter Creek Newcomb hid out at times in the northern part of the county, the area was free of organized gangs.  But there were exceptions.

The robbery of the Centralia Bank Oct. 16, 1916, was said to have been performed by what was known as the Poe-Hart gang, headed by Oscar Poe and William Hart.  Harry, a twin brother of William also participated in their crimes.  They were from Vinita.  Another member was Poem Poe, and several were unknown.

After a string of robberies, holdups and murders, the two Harts and Oscar Poe were killed near Okmulgee in a raid by officers Jan. 21, 1917.

A lone monument marks the graves of four persons buried in the old Williams Cemetery, five miles east of Welch, three of them the resting place of countians linked with criminal episodes in the early 1930s.

The bodies interred there are those of the notorious Kate (Ma) Barker and two of her sons, Freddie and Herman.  The fourth is the grave of the husband and father of the lawbreakers, George Barker, who apparently never had a part in their criminal career.

The outlaws were a part of what was known as the Karpis-Barker gang that made the headlines with their bank and payroll robberies, two major kidnappings and several murders.

They reportedly had hideouts in the Craig and Nowata areas and avoided capture for years.

Ma Barker and Freddie were in Florida in 1935 when slain by officers.  Herman had killed himself at Wichita, Kan., in 1927 rather than be captured by officers.

Also see Lawmen & Outlaws on the OKGenWeb page.


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