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Four Memorable Lawmen of the Wild West

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The Wild West was a period of history that has captured the imaginations of Americans for more than a century. Legends were created — on both sides of the law. A handful of men risked their lives to maintain law and order. In honor of Wyatt Earp’s birthday (March 19), I have listed four lawmen worth remembering.

Bass Reeves (1838-1910)

Born a slave in Arkansas, Bass Reeves fled after knocking out his master during an altercation. Facing punishment, he escaped to Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), where he lived among Creek and Seminole Indians.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Isaac C. Parker judge of the Western District of Arkansas. Parker’s jurisdiction included Indian Territory. Murderers, drifters, whiskey peddlers and fugitives of the law operated freely in this 70,000-square-mile region.

Parker hired Reeves as a U.S. deputy marshal for his reputation as a crack shot, his ability to speak Creek and because he knew Indian Territory “like a cook knows her kitchen.” Reeves disguised himself as a drifter, cowboy, preacher or farmer to nab criminals. In one instance, Reeves shot a man from about a quarter mile with his favorite weapon: a Winchester rifle. He killed and captured hundreds of fugitives, on one occasion arresting 17 horse thieves near Fort Sill. Author Art T. Burton appropriately called the marshal “part Superman, part Sherlock Holmes and part Lone Ranger.” Reeves served as a lawman for 32 years, finally hanging up his guns in 1907.

John B. Armstrong (1850-1913)

In 1875, John B. Armstrong, a 25-year-old native of Tennessee, enlisted in Captain Leander H. McNelly’s company Texas Rangers and traveled to the lawless Nueces Strip (the area between South Texas and the Rio Grande). There as a sergeant, he clashed with Mexican bandits, American outlaws and feuding locals. 

Armstrong is famous for capturing the outlaw John Wesley Hardin, who supposedly killed more than 30 men. The Texas Legislature set a price of $4,000 on his head. In August 1877, Armstrong and a posse cornered the outlaw aboard a train at Pensacola, Florida. Armstrong entered the front of the car while two other lawmen snuck around the rear. During the ensuing struggle, one of Hardin’s companions put a bullet through Armstrong’s hat, grazing his scalp. Armstrong drew his Colt revolver and shot the man dead. He then pistol-whipped Hardin, knocking him out and taking him into custody. Armstrong will forever be remembered as the man who apprehended John Wesley Hardin.

Heck Thomas (1850-1912)

At the age of 14, Henry “Heck” Thomas served as a courier to his Uncle Edward L. Thomas, a Confederate general during the American Civil War. After the conflict, Thomas moved to Texas and worked as a railroad guard and chief agent for the Texas Express Company. He afterward joined the Fort Worth Detective Association and helped apprehend two of the most wanted men in Texas.

In 1886, Thomas, like Reeves, became a deputy marshal under Parker. He was a member of the famed “Three Guardsmen” — also including the Dane Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman. Thomas reportedly hunted down 300 outlaws before his retirement.

The most famous of these was Bill Doolin, a notorious desperado, murderer and leader of the Doolin Gang. In August 1896, Thomas pursed Doolin to Lawson, Oklahoma, six weeks after he escaped from jail. When confronted, Doolin attempted to fend off Thomas’ posse with his Winchester rifle. The clash ended with the outlaw dead after receiving a shotgun blast to the chest.

Wyatt Earp (1848-1929)

Wyatt Earp is arguably the most famous lawman of the Wild West. In 1870, Wyatt Earp’s 22-year-old wife Urilla died of typhoid fever, just months after their marriage. Following this tragedy, the widower had numerous run-ins with the law before drifting to Wichita, Kansas.

In 1876, he became a policeman and assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas. One traveler compared Dodge, flooded by gamblers, prostitutes and rambunctious cowboys, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Earp and others — like Bat Masterson, Ed Masterson and Charlie Bassett — represented the only law and order in the rowdy cowtown.

In December 1979, Earp settled in Tombstone, Arizona. With his brothers Virgil and Morgan, Wyatt became a lawman in the mining town and quarreled with the Clanton and McLaury brothers, Curly Bill Brosius, Johnny Ringo and other members of the Cowboys outlaw gang. In October 1881, the feud came to a head in a vacant lot near the O.K. Corral. Three men — Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton — were killed. This 30-second gunfight has become the most famous shootout.

As retribution, the Cowboys assassinated Wyatt’s brother Morgan and ambushed and shot Virgil. This led to the Earp Vendetta Ride — widely embellished in Western mythology. After his infamous “ride,” Earp drifted to Alaska and lived out his final days in California.

Intrepid men with various backgrounds and motives donned a badge to combat criminals on the American Frontier. Most have been forgotten. Take a moment today to honor these early protectors.

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