Badman Cherokee Bill

When we hear mention of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), most of us naturally think of Indians first. Even if we know little about such indigenous tribes as the Caddo, Wichita and Kichai, many of us know 19th-century Indian Territory became home to the transplanted Southeastern people known as the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. Starting in 1829 the self-taught Cherokee linguist Sequoyah, who created the syllabary that made reading and writing in his native tongue possible, made his home on Big Skin Bayou, an Arkansas River tributary in what today is Sequoyah County, Okla. Other well-known Cherokee figures of the 19th century include John Ross, who was the tribe’s principal chief (in both the Southeast and Indian Territory) from 1828 until his death in 1866, and Stand Watie, who immigrated to Indian Territory in 1835 and later served as a Confederate general during the American Civil War. The best-known Indian who operated in the territory, though, is Quanah Parker. The son of a Comanche chief and a white captive, he was considered by many the last chief of the Comanche Nation.

Mighty interesting fellows. But after we’ve considered such Indians, who comes next to mind in connection with Indian Territory? Yes, indeed, those colorful characters central to the Wild West—outlaws. “The only genuinely interesting men that Oklahoma has produced have been Indians and outlaws,” said Texan folklorist, newspaper columnist and historian J. Frank Dobie in 1930. A bit of an exaggeration, of course. Who could forget such notable Sooners as humorist Will Rogers, actor James Garner and ballplayer Mickey Mantle?

But it’s true enough that following the Civil War the territory was inundated with hard cases, from whiskey peddlers and rustlers to bandits and killers. The criminal annals of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory (which existed from 1890 to 1907, when it joined with Indian Territory to form the state of Oklahoma) featured the likes of the Dalton brothers, Bill Doolin, Belle Starr and Al Jennings. Some of the better-known outlaws operating in what became Oklahoma merit double consideration because they were also Indians, full blood or otherwise.

Heading that list is Ned Christie, born in the Cherokee Nation’s Goingsnake District, though he started out a statesman for his people and only turned criminal fugitive after being falsely accused of killing a deputy U.S. marshal. Close behind Christie in name recognition is Henry Starr, a mixed-blood Cherokee who claimed to have robbed 21 banks, more than the James-Younger Gang and Doolin-Dalton Gang combined. Henry’s uncle was Cherokee horse thief Sam Starr, who married Belle “Bandit Queen” Starr in 1880.

If you’re game for triple consideration about Indian Territory figures, multiracial outlaws enter the picture. The notorious Buck Gang comprised Rufus Buck, Lewis Davis, Lucky Davis, Sam Sampson and Maoma July, all of whom were of black and Creek descent. The five desperadoes robbed, raped and killed, terrorizing Indian Territory citizens until caught and hanged together from Judge Isaac Parker’s gallows in Fort Smith, Ark., on July 1, 1896. Even so, the Buck badmen generally play second firearm to Crawford Goldsby (Feb. 8, 1876, to March 17, 1896), better known by the alias Cherokee Bill. His father was mulatto, his mother half-black, one-quarter Cherokee and one-quarter white. Before he was hanged at age 20, Bill killed anywhere from six to 13 men, probably outdoing Billy the Kid in notches on his pistol grip.

“Cherokee Bill was every bit as colorful and outrageous as any criminal of the Western frontier, perhaps even more so,” says Art T. Burton, author of Bill’s bio and also the article “The Short, Violent Life of Cherokee Bill,” in the June 2021 issue of Wild West. “He received national media attention for his crimes while he was living and became the most famous black outlaw of the Wild West era. Billy the Kid was remembered and immortalized in books and films in the 20th century. This did not occur for Cherokee Bill.” How about it, filmmakers of the 21st century—Cherokee Bill Rides Again or even, dare I say it, Cherokee Bill vs. Dracula? WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s latest historical novel is Man From Montana (2021). His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. This article was published in the June 2021 issue of Wild West.