Crawford Goldsby was born in Fort Concho, Texas, on February 8, 1876, 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. Afterward, he was sent to an Industrial School for Indians in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for two years. However, despite attempts to provide him with 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. Large for his age, Crawford 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. Around that time, 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 following 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 severely 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.
Afterward, Bill Cook and Cherokee Bill rounded up a gang, mostly comprised of black men with Indian blood, and began to terrorize Oklahoma. Starting small, they were first accused of 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 16, the gang allegedly robbed a man named William Drew and, two days later, held up the Frisco train at Red Fork. However, the gang escaped with very little due to the express messenger having had the foresight to hide the money behind some boxes.
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 a friend’s home 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 21, getting away with over $600.00.
Several weeks later, the gang got daring when on October 11, 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.
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 gang members, rode into Lenapah on November 8. 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 afterward, U.S. Marshals got a tip to the outlaw’s hiding place; however, Bill escaped when they attempted to capture him.
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 26, Cherokee Bill was tried for the murder of Melton before Judge Parker and found guilty. On April 13, 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 shoot-out 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 promise not to kill Cherokee Bill afterward. 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 acquire his freedom later.
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.
Over the years, Cherokee Bill was said to have killed eight men.
“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.