Bill Tilghman – Thirty Years a Lawman

Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull

Cheyenne Indian

The big Indian who had swiped the sack of flour had scarcely turned around before Tilghman dropped him in his tracks with his rifle. This, as might be supposed, caused a panic among the other Indians, who little suspected that there was an enemy nearer than the hunting ground until they heard the crack of the gun. In an instant, Billy had in another cartridge, and another thieving Cheyenne was sent to the happy hunting-ground. The first Indian that succeeded in reaching his pony had no sooner mounted him than he was knocked off by another bullet from Billy’s big fifty. This made three out of the original seven already killed, and what was an unusual thing for a Southern Plains Indian to do, the remaining four abandoned their ponies and took it on the run for a nearby clump of timber, which all but one reached in safety. Billy managed to nail one more of the fleeing marauders before he could reach the sheltering protection of the woods. The shooting attracted the attention of his partners, who were not more than two miles away, causing them to hurry to camp, where they expected to have to take a hand in a fight with Indians, whom they had reason to believe were responsible for the shooting they had heard.

“The scrap is over,” said Billy, when the boys got near enough to hear him, “and three of the hounds have made their escape. I told you last night, didn’t I, Henry, that I would kill all that came if they stood their ground and didn’t run away. Well,” he said, in a rather disconsolate tone of voice, “I fell down somewhat on my calculations, as seven came and I only succeeded in getting four, but then that wasn’t so bad, considering that they left us their ponies.”

“What’s to be done now?” inquired Henry, who was not hankering for a run-in with the Indians at that time.

“Don’t get frightened.” said Billy; “and remember that we are in Kansas and that those dead Indians were nothing more than thieving outlaws who had no right off their reservation and if any more of them come around before we are ready to leave, we will start right in killing them.”

There was nevertheless little time wasted in getting away from that locality. The camp dunnage was loaded into the wagon in a hurry, and the team headed towards the north, and Ed, who was driving, told to keep up a lively trot whenever possible. Billy brought up the rear-mounted on one of the Indian
ponies and driving the others.

“Look here, Billy,” said Henry, as they were about to pull out of camp, “don’t you think we ought to bury those dead Indians before leaving?”

“Never mind those dead Indians,” replied Tilghman, “the buzzards will attend to their funeral; go ahead.”

When dark overtook the party that night they were on Mule Creek, twenty-five miles from where they had pulled up camp at noon. The Indians reported the occurrence of the killing to their agent at the Cheyenne Agency, but received no satisfaction, and were informed that they were liable to be killed every time they left their reservation without permission.

That was Tilghman’s first mix-up with the Indians, but it was not his last. He continued to hunt in that country, and as the Indians persisted in crossing over into Kansas, there were many clashes between them, which invariably resulted in the Indians getting the worst of the encounter.

A Scout for the Government

During the fall and winter of 1873-4, there was practically no cessation of hostilities between the Indians and hunters along the Indian border, finally culminating in an uprising among the four big southern tribes, namely the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche, which required almost a year for the government to put down. In this Indian war of 1874, Tilghman acted as a scout for the government and several times while carrying dispatches from one commander to another, had to fight his way out of mighty tight places with the Indians in order to save himself from being taken alive.

Dodge City, Kansas about 1875

Dodge City, Kansas about 1875

After the Indian uprising had been put down, Tilghman went up on the Arkansas River and took up a ranch close to Dodge City, where he lived for several years. In 1884 he was appointed City Marshal of Dodge City and made one of the most efficient marshals the city every had. He was just the sort of a man to run a town such as Dodge City was in those days, being cool-headed, courageous and possessing excellent executive ability.

In the summer of 1888, a County-seat war broke out in one of the northern tiers of counties in the state of Kansas, and Tilghman was sent for by one of the interested parties to come up there and try and straighten the matter out. Tilghman went and took with him a young fellow by the name of Ed Prather, whom he had every reason to believe he could rely upon in case of an emergency, Prather, however, proved to be a traitor, and one day attempted to assassinate Tilghman, but the latter was too quick for him, and Prather was buried the next day. After straightening out the County-seat trouble, Billy returned to Dodge and continued to live there until the opening up of Oklahoma Territory, fifteen years ago.

He was among the first to reach the territory and took up a claim at Chandler, Lincoln County, where he still resides. Tilghman acted as a U.S. Deputy Marshal when he first went to Oklahoma and did as much if not more to stamp out outlawry in the territory as any other man who ever held office in that country.

The Capture of Bill Doolin

Bill Doolin

Bill Doolin

Tilghman has served four years as Sheriff of Lincoln County, and during that time has killed, captured and driven from the country a greater number of criminals than any other official in Oklahoma or the Indian Territory. His capture of Bill Doolin in a bath-house at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, single-handed, was perhaps the nerviest act of his official career. Doolin was known to be the most desperate criminal ever domiciled in the Indian Territory and had succeeded for several years in eluding capture. A large reward was offered for his apprehension and a number of U.S. Marshals, with their deputies, had several times attempted to arrest him, dead or alive, but in every instance, Doolin either eluded them or, when too closely pressed, stood them off with his Winchester.

Doolin was credited with the killing of several Deputy Marshals. Tilghman got after him and trailed him to Eureka Springs, where he found him in a bath-house, and without calling on the local officials for assistance, affected his capture single-handed. Doolin was seated on a lounge in the bath-house when Tilghman entered, and before the desperado realized what was happening, he was covered by a 45-caliber Colt’s pistol and ordered to throw up his hands. Doolin hesitated about obeying the order and Tilghman was forced to walk right up to him and threaten to shoot his head off unless he instantly surrendered. Doolin had his pistol inside his vest and directly under his armpit, and made several attempts to get it before he was finally disarmed. It was certainly a daring piece of work on the part of Tilghman, and he was lucky to get away with the job without being killed.

Bill Raidler

Bill Raidler

Bill Raidler was another notorious outlaw whom Tilghman got after, but in this case, the Marshal was forced to kill his man before he could take him. Tilghman and Raidler met in the road in the Osage Indian Country, and Tilghman ordered the outlaw to throw up his hands, but instead of obeying he opened fire on the Marshal, who instantly poured a fistful of buckshot into the desperado’s breast, killing him in his tracks. Raidler had been a pal of Doolin’s and had been mixed up in several train robberies and had sent word to the U.S. Marshals that if they wanted him to come and get him, but to be sure and come shooting. Tilghman was too good a shot for him at the critical moment and Bill Raidler’s life paid the penalty for his many crimes. [Most sources say that Raidler was injured, tried, and sent to prison – see HERE.

Thomas Calhoun, a black man, was another notorious outlaw and murderer whom Marshal Marshal Tilghman captured in the Territory, but not until after he had shot and broken the desperado’s leg did he succeed in making him a prisoner. Calhoun was charged with the murder of a colored woman and a warrant for his arrest placed in Marshal Tilghman’s hands. The Marshal came upon Calhoun and ordered him to throw up his hands, which he refused to do, and promptly opened fire on Tilghman, who, as he had so often done before, returned it with such good effect that the negro’s leg was broken and he then surrendered but died soon afterward.

Dick West, known as “Little Dick”, was perhaps the worst criminal in the entire territory outside of Bill Doolin. “Little Dick” was a member of the Doolin Gang of train robbers, and the hardest outlaw in the Territory to trap. He never slept in the house, winter or summer, and kept continually changing about from one place to another. Tilghman finally got track of him and ran him to cover, when a fight ensued. Tilghman, though shot at several times, escaped without injury and finally succeeded in killing his quarry.

“Little Dick,” like his chief, Bill Doolin, had for several years made a specialty of ambushing and murdering U.S. Deputy Marshals in Oklahoma and the Indian Territory, and when the announcement of his death at the hands of Marshal Tilghman was made, there was universal rejoicing among the law-abiding citizens of that country. Space forbids that I go further into the career of William M. Tilghman at this time. It would take a volume the size of an encyclopedia to record the many and daring exploits and adventures of this remarkable man. His life’s history has been aptly stated by a magazine writer as almost a continuation of the memoirs of Davy Crockett or the story of Kit Carson, as far as it relates to his adventures on the frontier of Kansas in the early seventies. After a career covering a period of thirty-seven years, spent mostly on the firing-line along civilization’s lurid edge and after being shot at perhaps a hundred different times by the most desperate outlaws in the land, men whose unerring aim with either gun or pistol seldom failed to bring down their victims, this man Tilghman comes through it all without as much as a scratch from a bullet.

Sheriff for More than Thirty Years

Bill Tilghman

Bill Tilghman

Billy Tilghman was born in Iowa in 1854, and moved to Atchison, Kansas, in 1856, and as a boy, passed through the reign of terror known in that country in those days as the Kansas and border war, which existed for a number of years along the frontier of those two states. It was a fierce and bitter contest between the pro-slavery influence of Missouri on the one side and the abolitionists of Kansas on the other, which finally culminated in the Civil War.

At the time Alton B. Parker received the democratic nomination for the presidency in 1904, Billy Tilghman was selected by the Democratic National Convention as one of the delegates to notify Mr. Parker of his nomination, and was last in New York at that time. He is still a resident of Chandler, Oklahoma and will in all probability be elected Sheriff again there this fall. He is perhaps the only frontiersman living who has been almost constantly on the job for more than a generation, and who still lives on to tell the story.



Custom Wanted Poster

Personalized Wanted Poster

Note:  Bat Masterson could not have guessed, when he wrote this article in 1907, that Bill Tilghman would, in fact, die from a bullet. At the age of 70, he was still acting as a lawman when he was appointed as the marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma. After surviving decades of tough outlaws, he was shot and killed on November 1, 1924, while he attempted to arrest a corrupt Prohibition Officer by the name of Wiley Lynn.


By Bat Masterson, 1907. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2020.

About the Author and Notes: Though most of us know that W.B. “Bat” Masterson was famous as a gunfighter and friend of such characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Luke Short, many may not know that he was also a writer. After his many escapades in the American West, he accepted a post of U.S. Marshal in New York state. However, by 1891 he was working as a sports editor for a New York City newspaper. In 1907 and 1908 he wrote a series of articles for the short-lived Boston magazine, Human Life. This tale was just one of several of those articles. Masterson died in 1921 of a heart attack. The article that appears on these pages is not verbatim, as it has been very briefly edited, primarily for spelling and grammatical corrections.

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson

Also See:

Bat Masterson – King of the Gun Players

Complete List of Old West Gunfighters

Dodge City – A Wicked Little Town

Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman

Luke Short – A Dandy Gunfighter


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