Shoot Out At the Pembina, North Dakota Post Office

City of Pembina North Dakota, 1910

City of Pembina, North Dakota, 1910

by Jim Benjaminson

In the annals of western outlawry, certain names have been etched into the American psyche – names such as Jesse and Frank James, the Younger Brothers, Billy the Kid, Black Bart, and Sam Bass, to name a few. For the most part, their villainous exploits took place in parts of the country far remote from rural North Dakota. The closest any of them got to North Dakota was the James Gangs’ ill-fated attempt at robbing the bank in Northfield, Minnesota and the Bass gangs robbing seven stagecoaches in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, the effect of one outlaw’s exploits rippled to the tiny town of Pembina, Dakota Territory, in 1878.

Sam Bass was a young Texas outlaw headquartered in Denton, Texas. Teamed up with the outlaw Joel Collins and four others, the Bass gang staged the largest train robbery in U.S. history (at the time) when they held up the Union Pacific Railroad at a tiny watering hole called Big Springs, Nebraska, on the evening of September 18, 1877. Although Bass was considered the gang leader, law enforcement claimed Joel Collins was the brains of the outfit. The gang rode into the stopover, made hostages of the station master and several others in the vicinity, cut the telegraph lines, and waited. When the train pulled in for water, one gang member swung into the locomotive’s cab and took the engineer and fireman hostage while the others headed for the baggage car.

When they rode off into the night, the gang had relieved the railroad of $60,000 in freshly minted 1877 twenty-dollar gold pieces. Dividing up the treasure, each man had 500 gold coins in his possession – about 35 pounds of gold per gang member. The group split into three groups of two men, each heading in a different direction. Word spread fast about the robbery, and law enforcement swooped in on the area. One of the gang members disappeared and was never heard of again (many assumed he had gone to Canada). Joel Collins and his partner didn’t fare as well, being intercepted by a posse within days. Both outlaws were dead after a brief shoot-out, and $20,000 of the gold coins were recovered.

Bass and his partner figured two lone riders would be suspicious, so they acquired a buggy, stashed the coins under the seat, and rode blissfully by the bands of law officers they encountered. Returning to Denton, Bass enjoyed the high life, spending freely and enjoying a local sort of hero worship. He had plenty of friends to warn him of approaching trouble, and knowing the area like the back of his hand, he could easily hide from pursuers. Living the high life, the money soon ran out, and Bass returned to his old ways. Organizing a new gang, he returned to robbing trains. Only this time, he chose to hit the local railroads – his gang robbing four trains in quick succession within a 25-mile radius of his base of operation. It was at this point the locals turned on him and his gang. For seven weeks, the gang was pursued by a company of Texas Rangers, U.S. Marshals, and local law enforcement, all to no avail (although an accomplice, “Arkansas” Johnson, was killed in a skirmish from which the rest of the gang escaped).

Bass’ downfall came at the hands of a spy that infiltrated the gang – and by gang member Jim Murphy who betrayed him in exchange for having charges dropped against himself and his father. The fatal day came when the gang rode into Round Rock, Texas, to rob the local bank. Laying in wait were the Texas Rangers and local law enforcement. In a brief, bloody shoot-out, one deputy sheriff was killed, as was one of the outlaws. Bass himself was wounded but managed to clamber onto his horse and ride away. The trailing posse found him lying under a tree the next day, still alive but mortally wounded. Death came to Sam Bass on July 21, 1878 – it was his 27th birthday.

Of the participants in the April 10 train robbery at Mesquite, Texas, six of the eight robbers had either been killed or were in prison by the time of Bass’ death. The robbery had netted each bandit a paltry sum of $23 each! One of the gang – William Collins, was arrested days after the robbery and taken to Austin to stand trial. In June, he was moved to the jail in Dallas, where a family friend posted a $15,000 bond to secure his appearance in court—a date he did not intend to keep.

Sam Bass Gang, photo courtesy City of Roundrock, Tx and Robert G. McCubbin, Jr.

Sam Bass Gang.

A brother to outlaw Joel Collins, who had participated in the earlier Big Springs train robbery, William Collins jumped bail. He headed north, roaming across several states before eventually ending up in Pembina, Dakota Territory working as a bartender in Jim White’s saloon, a unique watering hole that straddled the border. A red stripe painted on the floor designated which country a patron was in – the saloon on the U.S. side of the line, with the kitchen and sitting room on the Canadian side. Known to the locals as William Gale, Collins befriended a local man, Robert Ewing, finally telling Ewing his real name and confiding he had a wife living in Dallas. Gale/Collins asked Ewing to write her a letter, which apparently Ewing did. One can only speculate, but it is assumed authorities were watching her mail. It wasn’t long before a deputy U.S. marshal arrived in Pembina looking for Collins.

Appointed as a deputy U.S. marshal in 1872, 38-year-old William Anderson was determined to bring Collins in. Arriving in Pembina, Anderson first sought out local deputy U.S. marshal Judson LaMoure and Pembina county sheriff Charlie Brown (Brown served from 1876 to 1884), asking their assistance in capturing Bill Collins, a.k.a. William Gale. Anderson said it would be easier to make the arrest if LaMoure and Brown went without him as he was “personally known” by Collins. With the information that Collins was tending bar in White’s Saloon, the two lawmen ventured to the boundary to make the collar. Both men, bellying up to the bar, ordered drinks, hoping to catch Collins off guard to get the drop on him. It had been noted earlier that Collins had a habit of always taking the “gunfighters seat,” never turning his back to a door or window. Both LaMoure and Brown tried to get Collins to compromise his position, but they left without their man when their attempts failed. Collins was apparently aware Anderson was in town and looking for him as he is supposed to have told Sheriff Brown he expected to “have it out” with the Texas lawman.

When Anderson learned his man hadn’t been apprehended, he approached postmaster and customs officer Charles Cavileer about using the post office to capture Collins. Cavileer went along with Anderson’s plan to nab Collins and Anderson took up residence in the building. It was Friday, November 8, 1878. From here, we pick up the story as it was recalled by James R. Moorhead (son of William H. Moorhead, first sheriff of Pembina County) for Win V. Working of the Grand Forks Herald.

Moorhead and other young boys were playing near the post office when the final scene was played out. Moorhead stated, “it was growing late in the afternoon, although the sun was still warm. Anderson lay on a bench in the office. Cavileer was sorting mail. He looked out the window and saw Collins approaching. “Here comes your man now,” he called to the marshal. Anderson sprang from the bench, examined his six-shooter, and, stepping around the counter, took a position a few feet from the door. When Collins entered, Anderson ordered him softly to throw up his hands. Collins complied and began to talk. Collins let his hand drop bit by bit when suddenly his right hand flashed to the inside of his shirt. Anderson fired just before his fingers gripped the butt of his six-shooter, which hung in a harness under his left armpit. The bullet clipped off most of the end of Collins’s right thumb up to the first joint and passed through his chest just above the heart.

Pembina Post Office 1863, Dakota Territory. Colorized

Pembina Post Office 1863, Dakota Territory. Touch of Color LOA.

Although mortally wounded, Collins was still able to draw his weapon. Moorhead continued: “Collins fired, and Anderson ran to the rear of the room and fled through the kitchen door before the wounded Collins could bring his gun up again to fire a second time. During the shooting, the young boys, including James Moorhead’s brother, Shep, and a boy named Joe Bouvette, were sitting on an “open stairway” with other youths peeking through a rear window of the post office. Collins first bullet passed within an inch of a lad named Ira Davis, according to Moorhead. The wounded desperado worked his way past the stove to a point where he had a clear view of the kitchen door. Anderson returned and peered cautiously through the open door, but he exposed part of his body, and Collins shot him through the doorway before the bad man fell to the street. When the smoke cleared, both men lay dead.

The official marshal service report tells pretty much the same tale, the only exception being that Anderson grabbed Collins’s left arm and asked another person in the post office to secure Collins’s right arm when Collins broke away and drew his weapon.

In true western fashion, both men “died with their boots on.” But Anderson died wearing something else….a pair of gold cufflinks—gold cufflinks given to him on the day of his marriage by his best man – William Collins. Although William Anderson was several years older, he and William Collins had gone to school together, and each had been the best man at the other’s wedding. Somewhere along the line, they had gone their separate ways – one becoming a lawman, the other an outlaw. William Anderson left behind a wife and two children; his family received the $10,000 reward offered for the arrest of Collins. William Anderson’s body was shipped back to Texas, where it rests in the Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas. William Collin’s body was buried in an unmarked grave in Pembina.

The old post office in Pembina stood until May of 1883 when it was demolished. Built in 1864, it had served as the U.S. Customs House, the first post office, and home of Pembina’s first postmaster, Charles Cavileer. Upon its demolition, the Pembina paper commented, “it has served its day and generation (and) has to submit to the destroyer. In the old front door is a bullet hole, the relic of a terrible tragedy which occurred some five years ago, when a detective and a desperado exchanged mutually fatal shots, both expiring in a few minutes” — the bloody legacy of Sam Bass, Texas outlaw.

Telegram by US Marshal informing of deputy marshal's death in Pembina.

Telegram by US Marshal informing of deputy marshal’s death in Pembina.

Excerpted from “Murder and Mayhem in Pembina County.” © Jim Benjaminson, 2013. Updated November 2022.

About the Author: Jim Benjaminson is a retired 32-year veteran of the North Dakota State Highway Patrol, Motor Carrier Operations. Before that, he was a deputy sheriff with the Pembina County Sheriff’s Department, the oldest in North Dakota, dating back to 1867. Benjaminson is a lifelong resident of North Dakota, growing up in Cavalier, the county seat of Pembina County.  He currently lives in Walhalla, North Dakota, and has been involved in the Pembina County Historical Society for many years as a past historian, President, Vice President, and Director. In addition to writing history on law enforcement, Benjaminson is an avid antique automobile collector, historian, writer, and photographer, with published works in magazines including Special Interest Autos, Collectible Automobile, North Dakota History, North Dakota Peace Officers, and others. He was also a significant contributor to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942 encyclopedia, and has written three books on the history of Plymouth and De Soto automobiles.

Also See:

Big Springs Train Robbery

Sam Bass and His Train Robber Gang

Joel Collins – Cowboy Outlaw of the Black Hills

Jim Murphy – Betrayer of the Bass Gang

U.S. Marshals – Two Centuries of Bravery

Old West Lawmen

Old West Outlaws

North Dakota – Rough Rider Country