Barney Kemp Riggs was an infamous Texas gunfighter in the days of the Old West.
Riggs originally hailed from Arkansas, where he was born on December 18, 1856. The second of seven children born to Thomas and Hannah Felton Riggs, the family moved to Texas shortly after his birth. There, the family would begin a history of violence that would last for decades. Not only would Barney grow up to be a violent man, but several of his brothers and descendants would also.
His first killing allegedly took place when he was just 18 years old. Described as an accidental shooting, he killed a friend named Hugh Armstrong in Salado, Texas. Five years later, in 1879, when the sheriff was looking for him to ask some questions, Barney took off instead.
He was next in Cochise County, Arizona, where two of his uncles had settled. He went work for his uncle Jim Riggs, working as a cowboy on his ranch. He soon met a woman named Vennie Hicklin from Dos Cabezas, and the two married on February 21, 1882.
At about the same time, he was said to have been involved in several criminal activities, mostly stealing horses in Arizona and Mexico. On one of these occasions, he allegedly killed two Mexican men when they got into a dispute with his cousin at a watering hole. Three women, who were with the Mexican men, were initially left unharmed. However, after leaving, he worried that the women would identify him, so he went back and shot them as well.
Despite these activities, or perhaps because of them, when corrupt Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan deputized a number of men to go after the Earps and other gunmen who were in the midst of their infamous “Vendetta Ride,” Riggs was one of the posse members.
Riggs’ next victim was the stepson of his Uncle Jim, a man named Richmond Hudson, who was also his boss at the Riggs Ranch. After Barney had returned from a cattle-buying trip to Texas, he came home in September 1886 to rumors that his wife had been having an affair with Hudson. When Riggs approached Hudson, the other man denied the story, and Riggs let it pass for the moment. However, just a few days later, Hudson was heard to have boasted of his seduction of Vennie Riggs. On September 29, 1886, an unseen gunman shot and killed him.
However, the ongoing dispute between Riggs and Hudson was well known, and Barney Riggs was the prime suspect. When a $250 reward was offered for Riggs’ capture, he took off into the mountains. Soon, Fred Dodge, a lawman in Tombstone, went after Riggs. Working with Deputy Sheriff Charley Smith, the two set up surveillance overlooking the Riggs Ranch. After they spied a rider signaling Vennie Riggs from a hill overlooking the ranch, they captured the couple and took them to Tombstone.
Vennie was soon released, but Barney was held for trial. During the first trial held on November 11, 1886, the jury could not reach an agreement, as several held that killing a man for sexual advances on his wife was justified. A mistrial was declared, and a second trial began the next month. This time Riggs would not be as lucky as the jury could not condone an ambush murder. On December 31, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life at the Arizona Territorial Prison in Yuma.
However, in October 1887, when prison warden, Thomas Gates, was jumped by seven convicts in an escape attempt, his life was saved by Riggs. Somehow, the convicts had obtained guns, and when the attack occurred, a general melee broke out. The prison gates were closed, but as one of the convicts used Gates as a shield, Riggs snatched a gun from another escapee and killed the convict holding Gates. Riggs’ bravery won him a pardon, and he was released on December 31, 1887, just one year after his conviction.
He then went to California, where his wife Vennie and their son, William Earl Riggs, were residing. However, it was evidently too late for the couple, and Barney soon took his son and went back to Texas, leaving his wife behind. He then partnered with his younger brother, Tom, in operating a ranch about 30 miles west of Texas.
In the spring of 1889, the Albuquerque Citizen reported that he had been arrested for killing a cowboy, but Riggs denied this ever happened, and there is no record of him being jailed then.
There is also no record that he ever legally divorced his first wife Vennie, but Barney Riggs married again on September 23, 1891, to a woman named Annie Stella Frazer Johnson, the divorced wife of former Pecos County Sheriff, James Johnson, and the sister of George A. “Bud” Frazer, the Reeves County Sheriff. The couple would eventually have four children, but the marriage would be strained with difficulties.
In 1891, Riggs’ brother-in-law, Sheriff Bud Frazer made the mistake of hiring the notorious gunfighter Jim Miller as his deputy. Cattle rustling and horse theft suddenly increased up and down the Pecos Valley. Riggs pointed out to Frazer that perhaps Miller should be looked at as a suspect. But, without proof, Frazer kept him on. However, when Miller killed a Mexican prisoner who was “trying to escape,” Frazer began to investigate.
Riggs alleged that Miller had murdered the man because he knew where the deputy had hidden a pair of stolen mules. When Frazer found that Riggs was correct and located the stolen mules, he immediately fired Miller. This would be the beginning of the deadly Frazer-Miller feud, which would last for the next several years.
In 1892, a corrupt man named Andrew Jackson Royal was elected as the Pecos County Sheriff and soon hired Riggs as one of his deputies. Most often called A.J., Royal was a controversial figure from the start. Area citizens were initially split in their opinions. While some thought he was a tough lawman who worked hard to establish law and order, others thought he abused his power as sheriff, often terrorizing those who disagreed with him.
During his two-year term as sheriff, Royal got more aggressive and intimidating and was accused of several assaults. Though it is unknown as to whether Riggs participated in these events, it would not at all be surprising if he did.
When it came time for re-election in 1894, a bitter political feud erupted that necessitated the Texas Rangers coming to quell the matter. In October, Royal and his deputies, Riggs, Camilio Terrazas, and John P. Meadows, were arrested by the Texas Rangers for conspiring to let a Mexican prisoner named Victor Ochoa escape from the jailhouse.
Royal lost the election later that month and was assassinated in November.
While a deputy in Pecos County, Riggs obviously circumvented some potential arrests. However, this was not the case in neighboring Reeves County, even though the sheriff was his brother-in-law. He was arrested several times for public drunkenness, unlawfully carrying a pistol, and assault. In March 1893, he was indicted in Reeves County for assault with intent to murder a man named Augustin Palanco. Palanco claimed that when he went to the Riggs ranch to recover a strayed burro, Riggs shot at him and beat him over the head. However, when the case went to trial, Riggs was found not guilty.
Just four days after that indictment, Riggs was arrested by his brother-in-law, Sheriff Bud Frazer on a gun-carrying charge and brought before County Judge George M. Frazer, Bud’s father, and Barney’s father-in-law. However, because of the relationship, the case was transferred to another district and was later dismissed.
Bud Frazer and Jim Miller would have two gunfights, one in April and the other in December, but, both men would survive. Having lost the 1894, re-election, Frazer then made his way to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he operated a livery stable.
In early 1896, two of Miller’s henchmen, John Denson and Bill Earhart, were overhead in Fort Stockton, muttering threats against Barney Riggs. Later, they left for Pecos, Texas, to seek out Riggs. U.S. Deputy Marshal Dee Harkey wired a warning telegram, and Riggs avoided them when they arrived. However, on the morning of March 3, as Riggs was substituting for a friend as a bartender in R.S. Johnson’s Saloon, he was alone.
Denson and Earhart burst into the room, and a shot from Earhart grazed Barney, who instantly fired back, killing the other man. He then grappled with Denson before he was able to flee. Riggs followed and, as Denson was running away, shot him in the back of his head, killing him on the spot. Riggs surrendered himself. Though tried for murder, Riggs was acquitted.
Later that year, Riggs’ brother-in-law, Bud Frazer, would not be so lucky. While visiting his family in Toyah, Texas, he was assassinated by Jim Miller on September 14, 1896.
Over the next several years, Riggs continued his drunken and violent antics, and finally, his wife, Annie, left him. She then began running the Koehler Hotel in Fort Stockton, Texas. During their separation, Barney pulled a number of stunts and constantly harassed her when he was intoxicated. She was granted a divorce in March 1901.
A provision of the divorce settlement required periodic child support payments and Daniel J. “Buck” Chadborn, the 21-year-old husband of Annie’s daughter by a previous marriage, was named as the trustee to handle the payments. Barney resented Chadborn’s involvement in the matter and was quick to loudly berate the young man at every opportunity. A year later, Chadborn petitioned the court to relieve him of the responsibility, but the furious Riggs was still angry and beat him with a cane in April 1902. The very next day, when Riggs spied Chadborn again, he once again approached the young man, brandishing a cane. When Riggs made a threatening move towards Chadborn, the younger man shot Riggs in the chest. Riggs was then taken to the Koehler Hotel, where he died the next day.
Barney Riggs was buried in the old fort cemetery at Fort Stockton. Also buried there is his old partner, A.J. Royal.
Daniel J. “Buck” Chadborn was indicted for second-degree murder and tried in Brewster County in October 1903 but was found not guilty. He then moved on to New Mexico, where he had a long career in law enforcement, serving as a deputy sheriff and U.S. customs agent.
In 1904, Annie Riggs purchased the hotel where she worked and changed the name to the Riggs Hotel. She operated it successfully for many years before she died in May 1931. Today, the building continues to stand as the Annie Riggs Museum in Fort Stockton.
R.S. Johnson’s Saloon in Pecos, Texas, where Riggs killed Miller’s henchmen William Earheart and John Denson, is part of the West of the Pecos Museum. There is a plaque on the floor designating the spot where Denson was killed.
Though the notorious Jim Miller would continue with his wicked ways for the next few years, he too would finally get his just end when he was hanged by vigilantes in Ada, Oklahoma, in 1909.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
Bud Frazer and the Frazer-Miller Feud
James Miller – Hired Killer of the Old West
A.J. Royal – One Bad Pecos County Sheriff