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Bill Tilghman - Thirty Years a Lawman

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By W.R. (Bat) Masterson in 1907

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Central Pacific Railroad, 1865Notwithstanding the discovery of gold in California in 1849, and at Pike's Peak, Colorado, ten years later, the civilizing of the West did not really commence until after the close of the Civil War. It was during the decade immediately following the ending of the conflict between the North and South that civilization west of the Missouri River first began to assume substantial form.


It was during this period that three great transcontinental lines of railroads were built, all of them starting at some point on the West Bank of the Missouri River. The Union Pacific from Omaha to Ogden, Utah, was completed during these years, also the Kansas Pacific, from Kansas City to Denver, Colorado, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe from Atchison, Kansas, to Pueblo, Colorado.


In twenty years from the day the first railroad tie was laid on the roadbed of the Union Pacific at Omaha, our Western frontier had almost entirely disappeared. There has been no frontier in this country for a good many years. The railroads long ago did away with all there ever was of it. Railroad trains, with their Pullman car and dining-car connections, have been reaching almost every point in the West of any consequence for the last twenty years.


On what was once known as our great American plains, which, a generation ago, furnished a habitat for the wild Indian, the buffalo, the deer and the antelope, today can be seen thousands of beautiful homes, in which none of the evidences of higher civilization are lacking. While it required but twenty years or so to bring about this wonderful change in this vast territory, the task was by no means an easy one.

Let the reader remember that in those twenty years, no less than half a dozen bloody Indian wars were fought, and that the scenes of those conflicts extended from the Dakotas on the north to the lava beds of Oregon on the west, and south to the frontier of Texas; and a fairly good idea of the magnitude of the undertaking will be gained. It was during those stirring times that nearly all of the famous characters of our once immense frontier, many of whom are now but memories, played a conspicuous part in this vast theatre of human strife.

James B. Hickok (Wild Bill) was perhaps the only one of that chivalrous band of fighting men, who composed the vanguard of western civilization, who had acquired fame before the period I have named. When this most remarkable man came to the West at the close of the Civil War, in which he had taken a conspicuous part, both in southwest Missouri and in the campaign along the Mississippi River, he brought with him a well-earned reputation for great daring and physical courage --a reputation he successfully upheld until stricken down by the assassin McCall at Deadwood, in June, 1876. But it was not of Wild Bill I started to write, but of one whose daring exploits on the frontier will not suffer by comparison.


The purpose of this article is to tell a story of Bill Tilghman [born July 4, 1854], who was among the first white men to locate a buffalo-hunting camp on the extreme southwestern border of Barber County, Kansas, just across the Indian Reservation line, as far back as 1870. Billy Tilghman is one of the few surviving white men who reached the southwest border of Kansas before the advent of railroads, who is still in harness and to all intents and purpose as good both physically and mentally as ever.


It is now thirty-seven years since a slim-built, bright-looking youth, scarcely seventeen years old, pulled up for camp one evening on the bank of the Medicine Lodge River in southwestern Kansas, only a few miles north of the boundary line between Kansas and the Indian Territory. An Indian uprising, lasting more than a year had been put down the year previous by General Custer, and, as a natural consequence, the Indians who had taken part in the uprising entertained for the white man anything but a friendly feeling.




Bill TilghmanBilly Tilghman, like others in that country at the time, became a buffalo hunter and was working along nicely until the Indians got after him. The Indians, by the terms of the treaty lately concluded with the government, had no right to leave their reservation without first obtaining permission from their agent.


It was therefore as unlawful for an Indian to be found in Kansas without government permission, as it would have been for a white man to enter the Indian Territory for the purpose of either hunting or trading whiskey with the Indians. The Indians; however, cared little for treaty stipulations at the time and often crossed over into Kansas for the purpose of pillage as well as killing buffalo.


The Indian, besides destroying the hunter's buffalo hides and carrying away his provisions and blankets while he was temporarily away attending to the day's hunting on the range, was often known to have added murder to his numerous other crimes, so that an Indian off his reservation got to be viewed with apprehension by the hunters.


It was a well understood thing among the buffalo hunters whose camps were located close to the Reservation line, that any time a hunter could be taken unawares by the Indians he was almost sure to be killed, if for no other reason than to secure his gun and belt of cartridges. The Indians had, in prowling around the country one day, come upon Billy Tilghman's camp, and, after pulling up what hides he had staked out on the ground for drying purposes, proceeded to set afire to those already dried and piled up ready for market.

When Tilghman and his two companions returned to camp that evening, after their day's work on the range, they found their camp a complete wreck. Besides the destruction of several hundred dollars' worth of hides, they also found that the noble red men who had paid their camp a visit during their absence had carried off everything there was to eat. But, as buffalo hunters found no trouble in making a hearty meal on buffalo meat alone, they did not despair nor go to bed on an empty stomach.


The day's hunt had resulted in the taking of twenty-five buffalo hides, and the question now arose what was to be done with them. If they were staked out to dry as the others had been, there was no reason for believing the Indians would not return and destroy them as they had the others. Tilghman's two partners were for moving away the first thing in the morning.

"We are liable to all be killed," said one of them, "if we stay here any longer.

Slaughtered Buffalo"I think we ought to go about twenty miles farther north over on Mule Creek," said the other. "Besides the hunting is as good there as it is here. And the Indians hardly ever get that far away from the Reservation."

"We will move away from here," said Billy Tilghman in his characteristically deliberate manner, "after I get even with those red thieves for the damage they have done us."


Billy Tilghman, although a mere boy at the time. was the master-mind of that camp, and what he said was law.


"Ed," said Billy to one of the partners, "go and hitch up the team and drive to Griffin's Ranch and get a sack of flour, some coffee and sugar and a sack of grain for the horses and get back here before daylight in the morning, and Henry and I will unload those hides and peg them out to dry. Don't forget to feed the team when you get there and let them rest up for an hour or two, as you will have plenty of time to do that and get back here by daybreak."

Griffin's Ranch was fifteen miles north of Tilghman's camp on the Medicine Lodge River and the only place nearer than Wichita, which was one hundred and fifty miles farther east, where hunting supplies and provisions could be obtained.

Ed was soon on his way to Griffin's Ranch, which only took about three hours to reach. While Tilghman and Henry were busily engaged in fleshing and staking out the green hides, Billy remarked that if those thieving Cheyennes came again around his camp for the purpose of destroying things. There would likely be a big pow-wow take place among the Indians as soon as the news of what occurred reached the, "for," said he with some emphasis, "I don't intend to stop shooting as long as there is one of them in sight."

" But supposing," said Henry, "that there is a dozen or so of them when they come, what then?"

"Kill the entire outfit," replied Billy, "if they don't run away."


There was little else said on the subject before bedtime, but as Henry afterwards told me, it was not a hard matter to understand by Tilghman's actions, that the only thing that seemed to worry him was the fear that the Indians would fail to pay the camp another visit.


Before daylight the following morning, Ed was back in camp, having carried out his instructions to the letter. After breakfast that morning, Tilghman informed Ed and Henry that they would have to hunt without him that day, as he intended to conceal himself nearby the camp, so as to be in a position to extend a cordial welcome to the pillaging red-skins when they showed up.


Billy, as a precaution, planted himself before the other boys left for the hunting ground, so that in case the camp was being watched by the Indians, they could not tell but what they had all left camp as they had done the previous day. About noon, and just as Billy was commencing to despair, one lone Indian made his appearance. He rode up very leisurely to the top of a little knoll where he could get a good view of the camp, and, after a careful survey of the surroundings, and discovering nothing to cause alarm, proceeded to make the usual Indian signals, which is done by circling the pony around in different ways.

Tilghman, who was crouched down in his little cache, was intently watching the Indian, understanding as well as the red-skin did, the meaning of the pony's gyrations. Directly, six other Indians rode up alongside of the first and proceeded to carefully make a mental note of everything in sight.


They soon concluded that there was no lurking danger and all rode down to the camp and dismounted. This was exactly what Billy had been hoping they would finally conclude to do. Now if they will only all dismount, said Billy to himself, as he saw the Indians riding down to camp, I will kill the last one in the outfit before they can remount. He got his wish, for they all hopped off as soon as camp was reached. Billy; however, waited for a while to see if they intended mischief, before opening up on them with his Sharp's big fifty buffalo gun that burned 120 grains of powder every time it exploded a shell. He did not have long to wait, for no sooner had one big buck hit the ground than he ran over to the sack of flour and picked it up and threw it across his pony's back, while some of the others started out, as Billy supposed, to cut up the freshly staked hides.


The big Indian who had swiped the sack of flour had scarcely turned around before Tilghman dropped him in his tracks with his rifle. This, as might be supposed, caused a panic among the other Indians, who little suspected that there was an enemy nearer than the hunting ground, until they heard the crack of the gun. In an instant Billy had in another cartridge, and another thieving Cheyenne was sent to the happy hunting-ground. The first Indian that succeeded in reaching his pony had no sooner mounted him than he was knocked off by another bullet from Billy's big fifty. This made three out of the original seven already killed, and what was an unusual thing for a Southern Plains Indian to do, the remaining four abandoned their ponies and took it on the run for a nearby clump of timber, which all but one reached in safety. Billy managed to nail one more of the fleeing marauders before he could reach the sheltering protection of the woods. The shooting attracted the attention of his partners, who were not more than two miles away, causing them to hurry to camp, where they expected to have to take a hand in a fight with Indians, whom they had reason to believe were responsible for the shooting they had heard.

"The scrap is over," said Billy, when the boys got near enough to hear him, "and three of the hounds have made their escape. I told you last night, didn't I, Henry, that I would kill all that came if they stood their ground and didn't run away. Well," he said, in a rather disconsolate tone of voice, "I fell down somewhat on my calculations, as seven came and I only succeeded in getting four, but then that wasn't so bad, considering that they left us their ponies."

"What's to be done now?" inquired Henry, who was not hankering for a run in with the Indians at that time.

"Don't get frightened." said Billy; "and remember that we are in Kansas and that those dead Indians were nothing more than thieving outlaws who had no right off their reservation and if any more of them come around before we are ready to leave, we will start right in killing them."

There was nevertheless little time wasted in getting away from that locality. The camp dunnage was loaded into the wagon in a hurry, and the team headed towards the north, and Ed, who was driving, told to keep up a lively trot whenever possible. Billy brought up the rear mounted on one of the Indian
ponies and driving the others.

"Look here, Billy," said Henry, as they were about to pull out of camp, "don't you think we ought to bury those dead Indians before leaving?"

"Never mind those dead Indians," replied Tilghman, "the buzzards will attend to their funeral; go ahead."

When dark overtook the party that night they were on Mule Creek, twenty-five miles from where they had pulled up camp at noon. The Indians reported the occurrence of the killing to their agent at the Cheyenne Agency, but received no satisfaction, and were informed that they were liable to be killed every time they left their reservation without permission.

That was Tilghman's first mix-up with the Indians, but it was not his last. He continued to hunt in that country, and as the Indians persisted in crossing over into Kansas, there were many clashes between them, which invariably resulted in the Indians getting the worst of the encounter.



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Old West Lawmen, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander and Legends of AmericaOld West Lawmen -  By Kathy Weiser, Owner/Editor of Legends of America - Autographed - Marshals and sheriffs were in high demand in some of the most lawless settlements as well as the numerous mining camps that dotted the West. Though the vast majority of these lawmen were honorable and heroic figures, ironically, many of them rode both sides of the fence and were known as outlaws as well. 

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