Shoot Out At the Pembina, North Dakota Post Office

by Jim Benjaminson

City of Pembina North Dakota, 1910

City of Pembina North Dakota, 1910

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, just 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 of 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 who headquartered himself 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 leader of the gang, 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 himself into the cab of the locomotive 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. After a brief shoot-out, both outlaws were dead 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 intent on robbing the local bank. Laying in wait were the Texas Rangers and local law enforcement. In a brief bloody shootout, one deputy sheriff was killed as was one of the outlaws. Bass himself was wounded but managed to clamber onto to his horse and ride away. The trailing posse found him the next day, lying under a tree, still alive but mortally wounded. Death came to Sam Bass July 21, 1878 – it was his 27th birthday.

Of the participants in the April 10th 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 of the bandits the paltry sum of $23 each! One of the gang – William Collins, was arrested days after the robbery and taken to Austin to stand trial. He was moved to the jail in Dallas in June 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 and 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. It would be easier to make the arrest, Anderson said, 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. Bellying up to the bar, both men ordered drinks, hoping to catch Collins off guard in order 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 when their attempts failed, they left without their man. 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.