Old West Myth & Fact Archives

Mountain Men Battle Indians

  In 1822 William Ashley advertised for men to go up the Missouri River and trap for pelts. The trappers were to spend the winter alone, and then Ashley would come back up river in keelboats, the next spring, and pick them up along with the furs.
  When Ashley arrived the next spring, on May 29, 1823, he was met by Jedediah Smith, and was told the trappers needed horses. On May 31 Ashley and his men went to a nearby Arikara Indian village in order to trade for the needed horses.
The next day Ashley got 20 horses from the Arikara in return for gun powder and shot… a trade they were later to regret. In the middle of the fourth night there, one of two men who were staying in the Indian’s village came running out screaming that his partner had been killed. It’s not known if it was part of a plan or there had been a problem, but at the break of dawn the air was filled with arrows and just traded bullets, fired from behind the stockade. The horses were the first to die. Using the dead horses as shelter, the mountain men yelled for the boats to come ashore and pick them up.

Finally, Ashley was able to get a couple of skiffs up to the shore. It was every man for himself. Those who didn’t make it in a skiff were washed downriver. Finally, with the survivors aboard the keelboats, they drifted downriver about 25 miles before they pulled ashore to take inventory.

  There were 13 men dead or missing. Eleven were wounded. Their horses were dead, and they had provided the local Indians with enough fire power to keep them out of the area for some time.

Frank James Surrenders

   Six months after a member of his own gang shot Jesse James in the back, and after committing at least twenty robberies, on October 5, 1882, Frank James, Jesse’s brother surrendered to Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden.
   At the ceremonial surrender, Frank James said, “I want to hand over to you that which no living man except myself has been permitted to touch since 1861, and to say that I am your prisoner.” With that Frank James turned over his .44 Remington revolver, holster and cartridge belt.
   Now, prior to this Frank James had entered into negotiations that were to determine the outcome of his surrender and later trial. He had written Governor Crittenden asking for amnesty because the hardships he had endured as an outlaw were worse than a prison sentence. He also maintained that others committed many of the crimes of which he had been accused.
   Governor Crittenden had replied that he could not give amnesty… but if Frank James went on trial and was convicted, he could give him a pardon.
So Frank James went on trial for murdering Frank McMillan, a passenger who had been killed during a train robbery a year earlier. After seven days of witnesses, and two days of legal arguments, Frank was acquitted. It seems the case against him had mysteriously collapsed.
   After his acquittal, Frank James returned to a normal life and spent 32 years in a variety of jobs, including a four-year tour with a theater company, and six years as a doorman at a St. Louis burlesque house. His last years were spent on the Missouri homestead where he grew up, charging tourists 50 cents to view the cabin in which he and his brother were born.

Jesse James’ Home Fire-Bombed By Pinkertons

   In 1874, Jesse and Frank James were robbing banks and trains to the point that the railroads decided to hire the famous detective group the Pinkertons to hunt them down.  But, the Pinkertons, in spite of their numbers and skill, weren’t having any luck rounding up the James boys. Then late in 1874 one of their agents, John Wicher was found dead close to the James home. The Pinkertons were convinced that the James’ or one of their people had killed him, and they decided to raise the ante.
  Receiving information that Jesse and Frank were visiting their mother in Kearney, Missouri, on January 26, 1875, the Pinkertons surrounded the James home with the idea of catching Jesse and Frank.  In the process, they threw an incendiary device into the house to illuminate the interior.  But it exploded.  Unfortunately, it blew off the arm of Jesse and Frank’s mother and killed their little brother.  In addition to this, neither Jesse nor Frank was there.
  Although the Pinkerstons never acknowledged that they were responsible for the bombing, everyone knew they did it.  Realizing they had overplayed their hand, from this point forward the Pinkertons developed a low profile in their search for the James Brothers.
  The bombing convinced everyone that the James Brothers were innocent victims of the powerful railroads.  The Missouri legislature even came close to passing a bill that would give amnesty to the Jameses.  And Zerelda Samuel, their mother, was always willing to make public appearances, showing her missing arm, and giving a melodramatic speech about how the evil railroads were persecuting her innocent sons.
  It worked too.  Because farmers throughout the region hid and protected the James Brothers, so the Pinkertons were never able to come close to catching them.

A Horse Thief That Was Caught

Little is known of William Arnett prior to his arriving with a couple of buddies in Goldcreek, Montana on August 21, 1862. The trio had a string of six good horses. However, there was something strange about the men. Although they looked as if they had done some hard traveling, they had no saddlebags or other evidence of men who would own fine horseflesh.

The men put the horses in a local corral and put out the word that they were for sale. In a short time, they found a buyer. The three men split up the proceeds from the sale, and Arnett’s buddies left town. But William Arnett decided to stick around Goldcreek, have a few drinks and play some cards.
On August 25, two strangers arrived from Elk City, Idaho. They started asking around town if three men had come through with a half dozen horses. They said the men had stolen the horses. The strangers were told three men had come through town, sold the horses, and one was still in town, at the saloon.
The men went to the saloon and found Arnett playing cards. When they confronted Arnett, he said he wasn’t going to surrender and end up being hanged… That he would rather shoot it out right now. With his cards in one hand, Arnett went for his gun. Unfortunately, for him, the two men shot faster than Arnett, and killed him on the spot.
When the smoke cleared, Arnett was laying on the floor, cards still clutched in one hand and gun in the other. In fact, his hands clutched the cards and gun so tightly they couldn’t be pried open, and William Arnett was buried with two full hands. 

Rattlesnake Dick

As a teenager Dick Barter and two of his relatives went to the California goldfields to seek their wealth. Dick’s relatives found working a sluice box too tough and went up to Oregon. But Dick loved the possibility of becoming wealthy.

One of the richest areas was Rattlesnake Bar. Dick worked that area. He constantly told everyone how beautiful the area was and that Rattlesnake Bar would make him wealthy. So, people started calling him Rattlesnake Dick.
But it seems his personality was such that he irritated everyone around him. After working the area a couple of years, some cattle showed up missing. Although there was no proof, Rattlesnake was accused and arrested for stealing the cattle. Eventually he was found innocent. A few months later he was accused and arrested for stealing a mule. This time he was convicted. But, on his way to prison, another man confessed to the crime.
Dick decided he had no future at Rattlesnake Bar, so he left. For two years he prospected with no incidents. Then miner’s items started disappearing, and Dick was again accused of taking them. To complicate things, a miner who had known Dick at Rattlesnake Bar told everyone about Dick’s background.
At this point Rattlesnake Dick decided that if everyone thought he was a thief, that’s just what he would become. And for the next three years he and his gang stole cattle and horses, robbed miners and stages.
Then on July 24, 1859 he met the fate of most outlaws and was killed by the sheriff. One could say, Rattlesnake Dick lived down to the expectations of others. 
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