Bill Tilghman – Thirty Years a Lawman

By W.R. (Bat) Masterson in 1907

Central Pacific Railroad near Salt lake, Utah, 1865

Central Pacific Railroad near Salt Lake, Utah, 1865

Notwithstanding 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 evidence of higher civilization is 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 Jack 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.

Bill Tilghman

Bill Tilghman

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 37 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.

Billy 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.

Hunting buffalo to feed a wagon train of pioneers

Buffalo Hunting

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, 1874

Slaughtered Buffalo, 1874

“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 Cheyenne 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 afterward 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.

Buffalo Hunt by Charles M. Russell, 1891.

Indians by Charles M. Russell, 1891.

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.