Although accounts differ on his shooting by a Prussian cattleman, this black Mormon sheepherder from South Africa has become a Latter-day hero.
One day in early February 1886, Frank Carl Bedke, a 41-year-old Prussian- born cattleman, mortally wounded 30-yearold black Mormon sheepherder Gobo Fango while the latter was tending his woollies in southern Idaho Territory. At least two accounts of the shooting exist, but unanswered questions remain 125 years later. One account comes from Oakley Justice of the Peace Claus Herman Karlson, who transcribed Fango’s version of the story from the victim’s deathbed. Herman E. Bedke, a grandson of the shooter, provided the second account in the 1970s.
With Fango’s narrative we are left to wonder if penman Karlson exaggerated any details. The Bedke account, based on family tradition and hearsay, has definite problems. Although Frank Bedke was twice tried for the killing, records of the court proceedings have gone missing for several decades. What remains of the historical record, filed in the Cassia County Courthouse in Burley, Idaho, are “court notes,” which describe very little.
No one disputes that Bedke shot Fango. But was it because Fango was black, because he was a Mormon or because he was a sheepherder? Perhaps Fango had become Bedke’s sworn enemy for all three reasons. On the other hand, Fango could have done something to antagonize Bedke. Could the cattleman have acted in self-defense? After all, juries in two court hearings declined to convict the shooter. Certainly “Gobo Fango” is an interesting name, as is the story of his life and death in the desert Northwest.
Disputes between cattlemen and sheep herders were common in the Old West. They were not always declared and not always violent, but sometimes they escalated into range wars. By the 1870s southwestern Idaho was a droughtstricken, overgrazed land, with cattlemen and sheepherders in dispute over grazing rights. In an effort to avert violence between the factions, the Idaho Territorial Legislature in 1875 passed the Two-Mile Limit Law. The statute, at first applicable to only three counties, was extended in 1879 and 1883 and by 1887 was made general law. The law read: “It is not lawful for any person owning or having charge of sheep to herd the same, or permit them to be herded, on the land or possessory claims of other persons, or to herd the same or permit them to graze within two miles of the dwelling house of the owner or owners of such possessory claim.”
The law did little to erase conflict on the range, however, and cattlemen eventually set up their own “deadlines”— boundaries the sheepherders were not to cross. In early February 1886 Fango was herding his sheep in Idaho Territory’s Goose Creek Valley beyond the area cattlemen’s deadline. Apparently, the sheepherder also was close to the two-mile limit of property claimed by cattleman Bedke.
Frank Bedke, born on November 22, 1844, in Rieth, Prussia (present-day Germany), traveled at age 16 to New York and never returned home. Toward the end of the Civil War he sailed from Boston around Cape Horn to San Francisco. In 1868 he ventured out for the next nine years to prospect and mine in Montana, Nevada and Utah territories. At some point his interest turned to ranching. In 1878 cattlemen hired Bedke to herd 97 head from Utah Territory north to the Goose Creek Valley. Settling in an area later known as Bedke Spring, he rode for other cattle operations while establishing his own herd. He married Polly Ann McIntosh in 1882.
Born around 1855 in South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Gobo Fango arrived in Boston in 1861, the opening year of the Civil War. The Henry Talbot family, white Mormon immigrants, had taken young Gobo under its wings and now headed to Utah Territory to join other Latter-day Saints. The young man grew up as the Talbots’ indentured servant in Kaysville, north of Salt Lake City. He later entered the service of Bishop Edward Hunter in Grantsville. Fango became a sheepherder and moved to Oakley, Idaho Territory, to work for Hunter’s sons, early settlers of the Goose Creek Valley.
The Prussian and the South African thus found themselves living near each other at a tense time in the history of Idaho’s rangeland. On February 7, 1886, Frank Bedke was on his way to a family gathering when he noticed sheep grazing on the grass near his property. He and his friend investigated and soon came across the unwanted neighbor, Gobo Fango. Little did Fango know this would be his last day on the range.
According to a journal entry by Karlson, dated February 1886, Fango dictated to him the following version of the shooting (original grammar and spelling left intact):
I was hearding sheep about 3 or 4 miles from Bedkie’s Ranch in little Basin about 9: o’clock this morning (Feb 7th). Bedkie and another man came up on horses and Bedkie ordered me to move off that part of the range. I refused to go unless he could show me a pattent for the land, he said I Will show you the pattent, I said I would like to see it, he got off of his horse his partner holding him, he came up to me knocked the gun out of my hands pulled out a deringer and shot me over the left eye. I fell and as I tried to get up he knocked me down with the deringer, I then said I will get even with you Mr. Bedkie, he then said you Black Son of a b—- I will kill you then fired another shot into me his partner then said let him alone and Bedkie said no by g-d I Will kill him right here. He then shot me again and I knew no more. When I came to I herd Bedkie Say he Won’t go far he Will die right there, then got up after they Was out of sight and Walked a distance of 4 miles to Walter Matthews house.
Herman Bedke, a former magistrate judge, described the incident a bit differently in a paper from a family volume titled They Called Me Bedke. He claimed to have obtained the information from court records, at the same time confessing that much of what he relates “has been handed down through the family for years.” According to the paper, Frank Bedke was en route to a family gathering that cold day in 1886, when he felt “prompted…to investigate northwest of his holdings.” Frank sent his wife ahead, telling her he would catch up later, while he and a friend went to check things out. Herman added:
As he rode down through the grass and brush he observed sheep grazing in the very close proximity of his holdings, well within the two mile limit. He spotted the sheep camp and while it was still early afternoon he rode with his companion Cawfield toward the sheep camp. As he approached the area of the camp, the Negro sheepherder armed with a rifle jumped out of the brush or grass in front of his horse and said, ‘Are you Bedke?’—to which Frank replied, ‘Yes.’ Frank was then ordered by the sheepherder to retreat and move back and get out of the area. At this direction, Frank spurred his horse and the horse jumped toward the Negro either knocking the Negro down or making him move so fast that he fell. Frank jumped off his horse and attempted to disarm the Negro. In the scuffle the gun went off and the Negro—later determined to be Gobo Fango—was struck by the bullet from his own gun in the neck.
The only eyewitness to the incident was Frank Bedke’s companion, identified by Herman Bedke as J. Cawfield. Frank instructed Cawfield to go tell his wife what had happened while Frank rode to Albion, the county seat at the time, to report the “accidental shooting” to the sheriff.
Frank Bedke was tried twice for the shooting of Gobo Fango, but without any extant court records, it’s impossible to say what testimony was given or why Bedke escaped any punishment.
“We don’t really know what happened to them—they’re just gone,” Cassia Deputy Recorder Viki Osterhout said of the court documents. According to the court notes, however, on April 15, 1886, the first day of the first trial, District Attorney H.S. Hampton moved that the court conduct a postmortem examination of Fango’s body. Bedke was arraigned the next day, and he furnished the $3,000 required for his bond. On April 17 he pleaded not guilty.
The hearing lasted nine days (April 15– 24) and ended in a hung jury. “Now come the Jury in this cause into court and report that they are unable to agree upon a verdict, and they are thereupon discharged from further consideration of this case, and this cause is hereby continued until next term,” the court notes conclude for April 24.
The notes do not give dialogue, background or further explanation. For example, a note on April 22 indicates what was taken into evidence but little more than that: “Thereupon the plaintiff… introduced in evidence the clothing of Gobo Fango, the deceased, worn at the time of the shooting and also the bullet extracted from the neck of said deceased, and here the testimony for the prosecution closes.”
A second trial began on March 21, 1887, and lasted little more than a week. On March 29 the jury found Bedke not guilty. Case closed, but not the mystery or controversy.
While it is uncertain who first pulled a gun, it most likely was Fango. We know Fango had a pistol, which, according to Karlson’s journal, he pulled while requesting to see Frank Bedke’s license for the land. Did Bedke feel threatened by Fango’s weapon? If Karlson’s account is accurate, Bedke went further than trying to simply defend himself. Only after knocking the pistol from the sheepherder’s hands did Bedke fire his first shot. Fango, according to Karlson’s account, was shot three times—twice in the head (“one over the left eye and one in the back of his head”) and once in the abdomen. His head also “was fearfully beaten up with Bedkies [sic] pistol.” It is not known whether the physical evidence and/or testimony of Bedke’s companion, Cawfield, supported those statements.
Even the date the shooting took place is not absolutely certain. Fango’s supposed deathbed story lists the date as February 7. However, an undated article by the Cassia County Historical Society titled “Negro Sheepman Lost Life in Idaho Range War” says the shooting took place during the night or early morning hours of February 10 and that Fango died “a few hours” after reaching Walter Matthews’ house.
According to some modern writings on the incident, Bedke was an influential member of the community and was not fond of Mormons. Considering the biases of the time, the fact Fango was a black Mormon made him doubly objectionable. It’s possible Bedke would have treated any sheepherder, even a white gentile, the same way. As for the missing records, Herman Bedke explained at the end of his account: “About 20 years ago when I first started practicing law, someone was examining the file of this case in the courthouse, and I remember distinctly examining the file folder. In recent years during the preparation of this story I attempted, with the courthouse people, to find that file, but it has been lost or misplaced, and the file is not available at this time.”
Fango left a will, transcribed by Karlson on February 9, a copy of which is preserved in the Cassia County Courthouse. The sheepherder dictated to Karlson that “my boddy [sic] be decently buried, with proper regard to my station and condition in life and the circumstances of my estate.” He directed that money go toward funeral expenses and friends, including “the needy por [sic] people in Grantsville,” and the remainder, about $400, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the building of the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. He appointed Edward Hunter of Grantsville and Rosel Hunter and William Hunter of Oakley to be “the executors of this, my last will and testament.”
Over the years Fango has become something of a hero in Mormon history. In the March 2003 issue of The Friend, a church magazine geared toward young readers, Fango’s story was dramatized in an article that describes him as “a valiant saint,” “a courageous child” and “one of the first African pioneers to join the early Saints in the West.”
Perhaps it’s fitting Gobo Fango be remembered that way. He didn’t live an easy life, and his death was just as hard. He was laid to rest in the Oakley Cemetery. The headstone, bleached white by more than a century of sun and storm, simply reads:
FEB. 10, 1886.
AGED 30 YEARS.
Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist for the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. Suggested for further reading: History of Oakley, Idaho, by Kent Hale and Charlie Brown; A History of the Latter-Day Saint Settlement of Oakley, Idaho, by Wayne R. Boothe; and Utah’s Lawless Fringe: Stories of True Crime, by Stanford J. Layton.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.