Born in Fort Concho, Texas on February 8, 1876, the boy that would one day become known as “Cherokee Bill” was first blessed with the name of Crawford Goldsby. Born to St. George and Ellen (Beck) Goldsby, Bill’s father was a mulatto from Alabama, a sergeant of the Tenth United States Cavalry, and a Buffalo Soldier. His mother was a Cherokee Freedman, mixed with African, Indian and white ancestry.
By the time he was seven, his parents had separated and his mother moved him to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory. Before long, he was sent to an Indian School in Kansas, where he attended for three years. Afterwards, he was sent to an Industrial School for Indians in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for two years. However, despite attempts to provide him a good education, some sources indicate that he could barely read and write.
He left school at the age of 12 and returned to Fort Gibson. It was at this tender age that some say he killed his first man. Crawford, large for his age confronted his brother-in-law who had told him to feed some hogs. Grabbing a gun, Crawford shot and killed him, but was not prosecuted because of his age.
A year later his mother remarried and young Crawford did not get along with his new stepfather. It was around that time that he began to associate with a bad crowd, drank liquor, and generally rebelled against any authority. Two years later, at the age of 15, he moved from his mother’s house to his sister Georgia’s and her husband. By the time he was 17, he was working a ranch, where he said to have been well-liked. However, that would all change the very next year when he would begin his outlaw career, becoming one of the most dangerous and feared men in Indian Territory.
In the spring of 1894, at the age of 18, Cherokee Bill’s crime spree began when he shot a man named Jake Lewis for beating up his younger brother. Though Lewis would later recover from his wounds, Bill was sure he had killed the man and fled for the Creek and Seminole Nations, where he joined up with outlaws Jim and Bill Cook.
In June, 1894, the trio was confronted at Fourteen Mile Creek near Tahlequah, Oklahoma with a warrant for Jim Cook. In the inevitable shoot out that occurred, Cherokee Bill shot and killed lawman Sequoyah Houston. Jim Cook was also badly wounded and the other two took him to Fort Gibson. Forced to leave him, he was later captured by lawmen. In the meantime, Cherokee Bill rode to the home of his sister, Maud Brown, hiding from the law. When her husband, George Brown, a vicious drunk, began to beat Maud with a whip for not responding quickly enough to his orders, Bill walked up behind the man and shot him to death.
Afterwards, Bill Cook and Cherokee Bill rounded up a gang, mostly comprised of black men with Indian blood and began to terrorize Oklahoma. Starting out small, they were first accused on whiskey charges and horse theft, before advancing to robbing banks, stores and stagecoaches. The outlaws were ruthless, shooting anyone who got in their way.
On July 16th, the gang allegedly robbed a man named William Drew and two days later, held up the Frisco train at Red Fork. However, due to the express messenger having had the foresight to hide the money behind some boxes, the gang escaped with very little.
On July 31, 1894, the gang stole $500 from the Lincoln County bank in Chandler, Oklahoma, killing one person and wounding others. In the process, one member of the gang, Elmer Luca, was shot and captured by authorities.
Hotly pursued, the Cook Gang was surrounded at the home of a friend some fourteen miles west of Sapulpa, Oklahoma on August 2, 1894. During the volley of gunshots, one of the lawmen was shot and severely wounded. Two of the gang members, Lon Gordon and Henry Munson were killed and Ad Berryhill was captured. The rest of the gang fled.
Continuing with their outlaw deeds they robbed the J.A. Parkinson & Company store in Okmulgee, Oklahoma on September 21st, getting away with over $600.00.
Several weeks later, the gang got really daring when on October 11th they first robbed the depot of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Claremore, Oklahoma and less than two hours later, robbed the railroad agent at Chouteau.
Just some nine days later, they wrecked the Kansas City and Pacific Express five miles south of Wagoner, Oklahoma, making off with the loot.
Ever continuing their treachery through Oklahoma, Bill, along with several other members of the gang, rode into Lenapah on November 8th. While robbing the Shufeldt and Son General Store, an innocent passerby named Ernest Melton heard the commotion and stuck his head in to see what was going on. His curiosity got him killed when Cherokee Bill raised his rifle and shot him in the head. Shortly afterwards, U.S. Marshals got a tip to the outlaw’s hiding place; however, when they attempted to capture him, Bill escaped.
Continuing to be hotly pursued, Cherokee Bill persistently eluded the posse, for a while, at least. His final act along the outlaw trail happened on December 31, 1894, when he acted alone to rob the train station at Nowata, Oklahoma.
With the assistance of acquaintances who hoped to receive part of a $1,500 reward, he was captured on January 30, 1895 and was soon delivered to Fort Smith, Arkansas to await trial for murder. On February 26th, Cherokee Bill was tried for the murder of Melton before Judge Parker and found guilty. On April 13th, the seemingly unconcerned Crawford Goldsby was sentenced to death.
Later, we find out why Cherokee Bill was so unconcerned, as he was planning a daring escape. Somewhere along the line, Goldsby had obtained a gun smuggled to him by a trustee. On July 26, 1895 he attempted a jailbreak a gun battle soon broke out between him and the prison guards and one of them was killed. The shootout resulted in a standoff when the guards were unable to disarm Cherokee Bill. However, also jailed with Bill was an even more notorious outlaw, that of Henry Starr. Old acquaintances, Starr offered to disarm Bill if the guards would in turn promise not to kill Cherokee Bill afterwards. The promise was made and Henry entered the cell telling his friend that he had no chance of escape. Cherokee Bill gave up his revolver and Starr turned it over to the guards. This incident helped Henry Starr to later acquire his freedom.
In the meantime, Cherokee Bill’s lawyer was working on an appeal, maintaining that Bill had not received a fair trial in the court of Judge Isaac Parker, who had characterized him as a “bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing” and as “the most vicious” of all the outlaws in Oklahoma Territory.
However, the appeals were to no avail, and on March 17, 1896 federal officials hanged him before hundreds of spectators. Reportedly, when he was asked if he had any last words, he said: “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”
At the tender age of 20, Crawford “Cherokee Bill” Goldsby died at the end of a rope. His mother then took his remains back to the Fort Gibson area where he is buried at the Cherokee National Cemetery.
“This is as good a day to die as any.”
– Cherokee Bill, March 17, 1896, as he stepped into the courtyard at Fort Smith and saw the gallows.