Brooks-McFarland Feud

Indian Territory, 1890s

Indian Territory, the 1890s

The Brooks–McFarland Feud was a family feud that took place in the Creek Nation of Indian Territory (Oklahoma) at the turn of the century. The conflict began with the death of Thomas Brooks on April 24, 1896, while he was attempting to rob a Texas Ranger. The Brooks Family blamed the McFarlands for his death, claiming that Thomas had been coerced by a McFarland into committing the crime. After six years, the feud culminated in the Spokogee Shootout in 1902.

Brooks Family

Originally hailing from Alabama, the Brooks Family made their way to Indian Territory, via Texas in 1890. The head of the family in Oklahoma was Willis Brooks, Jr. who had been born to Willis and Louisa Jane “Jenny” Brooks on April 3, 1854, in the hill country of Lawrence County, Alabama.

Willis Jr. had four brothers; John, the eldest, Gaines, Mack, and Henry, the youngest. During the Civil War, the Brooks family joined the Confederacy, although many of their neighbors remained loyal to the Union. For this, their neighbors were called “Tories” by the rebels. Willis Brooks, Sr. attempted to enlist in the Confederate Army, but he was rejected due to his age. He did, however, become a saddle maker that was attached to a rebel cavalry in 1863. When Willis returned home he learned that a “Tory” had been annoying his wife, Louisa Jane “Jenny”, a half-breed Cherokee, who was nearly 20 years younger than her husband. Sometime within the next few days, Willis found the man and killed him, but his friends soon retaliated. Willis was shot dead in front of his house and then, a few days after his funeral, John was killed while working in a field. Mrs. Brooks witnessed the first event and she claimed that seven or eight men were responsible. She then had her sons avenge their father and brother. By late 1883, the Brooks brothers had killed the last of seven known men who had murdered their father. Though their revenge was seemingly complete, the Brooks’ continued to harass some of their neighbors.

Before long, Sheriff Alex Heflin had had enough and on April 14, 1884, he deputized several men and attempted to make several arrests in the Brooks family. However, a gunfight broke out, in which one member of Sheriff Heflin’s posse, a man named Phillips, was killed. Gaines Brooks was also killed and his younger brother Henry was hit in one of his legs. Part of Henry’s leg required amputation and he became known as “Peg Leg” Brooks.

Afterward, what remained of the Brooks family then moved west, settling in Cooke County, Texas in 1883. In 1890; they moved again, this time, to the Chickasaw Nation in Indian Territory. Four years later, Willis moved them again, finally settling in Dogtown which was about 25 miles west of Eufaula, in the Creek Nation. The area of the Dogtown Settlement was a lush, lawless country between the North Canadian and South Canadian Rivers. There, the family prospered as farmers and ranchers.

Somewhere along the line Willis married and would have six sons and at least two daughters; Thomas, Clifton, John, Earl, Marion, Willis III, Francis, and Lela. When she was old enough, Francis married Columbus Windfield “Sam” Baker, who was also from Alabama and would support the Brooks family in their dispute with the McFarlands. Together Sam and Francis had several children, one of whom was named Bill.

McFarland Faction

Not as large as the Brooks Family, the McFarlands also had an unsavory reputation before their arrival in Oklahoma. Jim McFarland, the leader, was said to have been a murderous cattle rustler in Kentucky. He too settled near Dogtown, about four miles north of the Brooks’ ranch. There, he married a Creek woman named Sarah Watson.

Sometime later, Jim was joined by his two brothers, Sam and Joe, as well as Sarah’s brother, Sandy Watson, and another Native American named Bill Franklin. The McFarland family was also supported by an old man named George Riddle and his son, Alonzo “Lon” Riddle, who owned a ranch to the northwest of the Brooks-McFarland homes.

Texas Ranger BadgeThe Feud

The feud began with the death of Thomas Brooks on April 24, 1896. Living in Dogtown was an old Texas Ranger who was said to have stashed a large amount of money. When Thomas attempted to rob the ranger, he was shot and killed. Willis Brooks claimed that Thomas was enticed by Jim McFarland to commit the robbery, but then told the ranger beforehand.

Willis soon confronted Jim with his suspicions, to which McFarland said that Thomas had been involved with a gang of thieves who intended to rob the ranger, but that Thomas had gotten greedy and tried to pull the job alone. Willis didn’t believe him and harboring a grudge, the feud slowly escalated, with both sides vowing to shoot each other on-site.

In 1898, Henry “Peg Leg” Brooks was arrested by Deputy Marshal Frank Jones for stealing horses and put in jail at Chandler, Oklahoma. While he was incarcerated a family member began to deliver him food goods, including “syrup”. However, the “syrup” was actually acid which Henry applied to the metal bars of his jail cell, in a plan to make his escape. However, the famous sheriff of Lincoln County, Bill Tilghman, discovered the “syrup” and foiled the escape attempt. Henry was later convicted, but received a pardon and was released on July 11, 1902, just a few weeks before the Spokogee shootout.

In January 1899, Jim McFarland got into an argument over a bill with a man named John Johnson at a general store in Dogtown. Later that day, Jim shot and killed Johnson during a gunfight in front of Joe McFarland’s house. Johnson was struck by five bullets; two in the head, one through the hip and bowels and two more in both thighs. Jim was unharmed and it is not known if Johnson was able to return fire before being killed. One year later, in January 1900, Jim was tried for Johnson’s murder in Muskogee, Oklahoma but the only witnesses were his brothers. Because there was a lack of evidence to prove that Johnson was not killed in self-defense, Jim was acquitted and allowed to return home.

Jim later accumulated several other charges against him, including assault with the intent to kill, but all were pending. Jim then decided to fake his own death to elude the authorities. Sometime in 1901, Jim had been released on bail and was working for a cattle company in Okemah when he stole $3,000 from his employers and fled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Two days later, his horse wandered home riderless with blood on the saddle and a bullet hole near the edge. The police suspected that the Brooks family was responsible and they organized a posse to search the area for Jim’s remains. Jim’s plan might have worked, but a year later, in August 1902, he tried to contact his family and was discovered by the authorities. Jim surrendered and quickly posted a $1,000 bond. The charge of assault with the intent to kill was dropped, due to the lack of evidence, and Jim’s former employers forgave him for taking the money after he claimed that he was “ambushed and abducted to Mexico” by some bandits. In no time, with Jim’s troubles seemingly behind him, he was soon back to his old habits.

By the summer of 1902, the Fort Smith and Western Railway company was building a line from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Guthrie, Oklahoma and approaching the Dogtown area. The present-day location of Dustin, Oklahoma, was chosen as the site of a new railroad town, which was to be named Spokogee, a Creek word meaning “near to God.” The new town was to be located right in the area between the Brooks and McFarland homes and neither family was very happy about it.

Regardless, plans for the railroad town proceeded and the townsite company purchased 320 acres from the Creek nation and began selling $25 lots and building a train station at the new site.

A large celebration opening-day sale was scheduled for July 1, 1902, which was just a few weeks before Jim’s return from Mexico. It was interrupted, though, by a confrontation between the two feuding families that came very close to becoming deadly. John Brooks, Willis’ son, and Alonzo Riddle, a McFarland supporter, began arguing about something. Quickly, an old Confederate named G.G. Tyson disarmed Riddle and led the two young men behind a building to fight with their fists.

Cowboy Feud

Cowboy Feud

When the fight started, Brooks began hitting Riddle with brass knuckles and knocked him to the ground, so Tyson intervened again to take the weapon away. However, before the fight resumed, John’s brother-in-law, Sam Baker, armed himself with his rifle and pointed it at Riddle. A man named Jesse Hill, a townsite promoter, who was standing nearby, pushed Baker’s rifle barrel toward the ground and said: “Don’t act a fool.”

Baker then released his hold on the rifle, drew his revolver, and pointed it at Hill’s face. Another townsite promoter and U.S. Deputy Marshal named Morton Rutherford then armed himself and pointed his weapon at Sam Baker while the latter’s 16-year-old son, Bill, grabbed his rifle and pointed it at Rutherford. The situation was very tense for a moment, but a “cool-headed” man named Cliff Speer managed to diffuse the situation by slowly lowering Rutherford’s rifle barrel and allowing Sam a chance to leave. When Sam was out of firing range, Bill lowered his weapon as well and they both left to tell Willis.

Before long, Willis Brooks and his cohorts, each mounted and armed, rode up to do battle. Then Mr. Rutherford stepped in again, and spoke to the leaders of both sides, talking them down from what might have been a deadly gunfight. The event took its toll on the “would-be” new town. Though lots sold, the town wouldn’t boom. Although Spokogee quickly grew to support a population of 150 people, the residents were nervous, especially when the McFarland or the Brooks families rode in heavily armed.

Spokogee Shootout

Though one battle had been avoided, the feud was far from over. After the July 1 incident, the McFarland faction was ready to kill the Brooks’ whenever the opportunity presented itself. The opportunity came on September 22, 1902, after a thunderstorm passed over the area. At the Brooks Ranch, the rain scattered some of the cattle and it prevented the men from working the farm. Because of this, Henry “Peg Leg” Brooks and his nephew, Earl, went out to round up the livestock while Willis and two of his other sons, Clifton and John, mounted up to ride into town for the mail. Meanwhile, the McFarlands and the Riddles had anticipated their arrival, due to the rain. They came up with a plan to ambush the Brooks’ in town, but in a way that made it appear as though it was self-defense. The McFarlands took up positions across the street from the post office and then sent George Riddle out to “take care of some errands.” However, Riddle’s real intention was to confront the Brooks’ and provoke a fight. When Willis and his sons rode into town later that morning, they dismounted and tied their horses up in front of the post office. Then, as the three were entering the building, Riddle came out of the door with his mail. The Brooks’ immediately began making threats and Riddle said something to this effect: “Kill me if you want, I am unarmed and have but one time to die.”

The plan worked perfectly. Willis and his sons cursed Riddle and then drew their weapons on him, but he hastily ran across the street to Morton Rutherford, who was standing in front of his office and requested protection.

Rutherford called out to Willis and demanded peace but before he could finish his sentence, Willis fired a shot at Riddle with his revolver. The bullet struck Riddle in the head and he fell to Rutherford’s feet.

After hitting George Riddle in the head, Willis “wasted precious time” by running up to him and shooting him twice more. Someone, possibly Rutherford, then fired on Willis and struck him in his right hip. Willis jumped up into the air and then fell face down into the mud. He got back up a moment later and began firing, but was then hit in the chest and killed. Clifton Brooks was struck multiple times; once in the leg, once in the neck, and once more in the chest, but he was able to survive the initial volley and make a run for it. Alonzo Riddle and Jim McFarland then chased him down on horseback and killed him.

John Brooks was shot “through and through” and found lying near the back door of the post office, having been struck by a steel-jacketed bullet. Immediately after the shooting ceased, Rutherford arrested Jim, Joe, and Alonzo and then delivered them to Deputy Marshal Grant Johnson in Eufaula by wagon. The three men were placed in the Eufaula Jail and went before the county commissioner’s court two days later on September 24. All three were charged with murder and released on bonds to await trial. John Brooks was also charged with murder, but he remained in Spokogee because of his critical condition. The town doctor expected John to die of blood poisoning, but he survived and lived into the 1950s. Willis and Clifton were buried in Checotah next to Thomas Brooks, who died in 1896.

Less than three weeks after the gunfight at Spokogee, Jim McFarland was killed in an ambush. On October 10, 1902, Jim and his wife were returning home from Weleetka in their buggy, and as they approached a river ford near Old Watsonville, someone opened fire on them with a rifle. One steel-jacketed bullet struck Jim in the back and he died a few minutes later.

Henry “Peg Leg” Brooks and Sam Baker were the prime suspects, but there was no evidence and neither of them was arrested. Some local citizens believed that McFarland was killed by a member of his own faction, but in any event, nobody was ever charged for the crime.

The death of Jim McFarland marked the end of the feud. John Brooks left the area after recuperating from his wounds.

In 1905, Henry was arrested for stealing horses again and sentenced to ten years in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When he was paroled on January 10, 1911, Henry went home to Lawrence County, Alabama, where he took care of his aging mother and became a bootlegger. On January 11, 1920, Henry was surrounded at his still by a posse under the command of Sheriff John Robinson. Though he was completely outnumbered, Henry chose to resist and began firing his revolver. The posse then retaliated and struck Henry twelve times. He died about fifteen minutes later.

Sam Baker also died violently. In 1911, Sam became involved in a dispute with a Checotah merchant, who shot him in the back. Old “Jenny” Brooks outlived all of her sons. She died on March 29, 1924, at the age of 98, and is said to have been proud that all of her sons had “died like men, with their boots on.” As for the McFarland faction; all of those arrested were later acquitted and they continued living in the area.

The Fort Smith and Western Railway tracks finally reached Spokogee on April 1, 1903, and soon after the town was renamed Dustin.

Compiled and edited Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2020.

Also See:

Frontier Feuds & Range Wars

Gunfighters of the Old West

Lawmen & Gunfighters Photo Gallery

Old West Gunfights


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