By James B. Gillett in 1921
The noted train robber was born in Mitchell, Indiana on July 21, 1851, to Daniel and Elizabeth Jane Bass. He came to Texas while still little more than a boy and worked for Sheriff Everhart of Denton County until he reached manhood. While still an exemplary and honest young man, Bass came into possession of a small race pony, a little sorrel mare. On Saturday evenings, when most of the neighborhood boys met in Denton, Bass raced his pony with much success. Everhart soon noticed that Sam was beginning to neglect his work because of his pony and, knowing only too well what this would lead to, he advised Sam to sell his mare. Bass hesitated, for he loved the animal. Finally, matters came to such a point that Mr. Everhart told Sam he would have to get rid of the horse or give up his job. Bass promptly quit and this was probably the turning point in his life.
Bass left Denton County in the spring of 1877 and traveled to San Antonio. Here, many cattlemen were gathered to arrange for the spring cattle drive to the north. Joel Collins, who was planning to drive a herd from Uvalde County to Deadwood, South Dakota, hired Bass as a cowboy. After six months on the trail the herd reached Deadwood and was sold and all the cowboys were paid off by Collins.
At that period Deadwood as a great, wide-open mining town. Adventurers, gamblers, mining, and cattlemen all mingled together. Though Joel Collins had bought his cattle on credit and owed the greater part of the money he had received for them to his friends in Texas, he gambled away all the money he had received for the herd. When he sobered up and realized all his money was gone he did not have the moral courage to face his friends and creditors at home. He became desperate, and with a band of his cowboys, known as the Black Hills Bandits, held up and robbed several stagecoaches. These robberies brought Collins very little booty, but they started Sam Bass on his criminal career.
In the fall of 1877, Collins, accompanied by Bass, Jack Davis, Jim Berry, Bill Heffridge, and Tom Nixon, left Deadwood and drifted down to Ogallala, Nebraska. Here, he conceived, planned and carried into execution one of the boldest train robberies that ever occurred in the United States up to that time. When all was ready these six men, heavily armed and masked, held up the Union Pacific train at Big Springs, a small station a few miles beyond Ogallala. The bandits entered the express car and ordered the messenger to open the safe. The latter explained that the safe had a time lock and could only be opened at the end of the route. One of the robbers then began to beat the messenger over the head with a six-shooter, declaring he would kill him if the safe were not opened. Bass, always of a kindly nature, pleaded with the man to desist, declaring he believed the messenger was telling the truth. Just as the robbers were preparing to leave the car without a dime, one of them noticed three stout little boxes piled near the big safe. The curious bandit seized a coal pick and knocked off the lid of the top box. To his great joy and delight, he exposed $20,000 in shining gold coin! The three boxes each held a similar amount, all in $20 gold pieces.
After looting the boxes the robbers went through the train, and in a systematic manner robbed the passengers of about $1,300. By daylight, the bandits had hidden their booty and returned to Ogallala. They hung around town several days while railroad officials, U.S. Deputy Marshals, and sheriffs’ parties were scouring the country for the train robbers.
Collins and his men frequented a large general merchandise store. In this store was a clerk who had once been an express messenger on the Union Pacific and who was well acquainted with the officials of that company. I have forgotten his name, but I will call him Moore for the sake of clearness in my narrative. Of course, the great train robbery was the talk of the town. Moore conversed with Collins and his gang about the hold-up, and the bandits declared they would help hunt the robbers if there was enough money in it.
Moore’s suspicions were aroused and he became convinced that Collins and his band were the real hold-up men. However, he said nothing to anyone about this belief but carefully watched the men. Finally, Collins came to the store and, after buying clothing and provisions, told Mr. Moore that he and his companions were going back to Texas and would be up the trail the following spring with another herd of cattle. When Collins had been gone a day’s travel, Mr. Moore hired a horse and followed him. He soon found the route the suspects were traveling, and on the second day, Moore came upon them suddenly while they were stopping at a roadside farmhouse for something to eat. Moore passed by without being noticed and secreted himself near the trail. In a short time Collins and his men passed on and Moore followed them until they went into camp. When it was dark the amateur detective crept up to the bandits, but they had gone to sleep and he learned nothing.
The next day Moore resumed the trail. He watched the gang make their camp for the night and again crept up to within a few yards of his suspects. The bandits had built a big fire and were laughing and talking. Soon they spread out a blanket, and to Moore’s great astonishment brought out some money bags and emptied upon the blanket sixty thousand dollars in gold. From his concealed position, he heard the robbers discuss the hold-up. They declared they did not believe anyone had recognized or suspected them and decided it was now best for them to divide the money, separate in pairs and go their way. The coin was stacked in six piles and each man received $10,000 in $20 gold pieces. It was further decided that Collins and Bill Heffridge would travel back to San Antonio, Texas, together; Sam Bass and Jack Davis were to go to Denton County, Texas, while Jim Berry and Tom Nixon were to return to the Berry home in Mexico, Missouri.
As soon as Moore had seen the money and heard the robbers’ plans he slipped back to his horse, mounted and rode day and night to reach Ogallala.
He notified the railroad officials of what he had seen, gave the names and descriptions of the bandits and their destinations. This information was broadcast over southern Nebraska, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Texas. In the fugitive list sent to each of the companies of the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers, Sam Bass was thus described: “Twenty-five to twenty-six years old, 5 feet 7 inches high, black hair, dark brown eyes, brown mustache, large white teeth, shows them when talking; has very little to say.”
A few days after the separation of the robbers, Joel Collins and Bill Heffridge rode into a small place in Kansas called Buffalo Station. They led a pack pony. Dismounting from their tired horses and leaving them standing in the shade of the store building, the two men entered the store and made several purchases. The railroad agent at the place noticed the strangers ride up. He had, of course, been advised to be on the lookout for the train robbers. He entered the store and in a little while engaged Collins in conversation. While talking the robber, he pulled his handkerchief out of his coat pocket and exposed a letter with his name thereon. The agent was a shrewd man. He asked Collins if he had not driven a herd of cattle up the trail in the spring. Collins declared he had, and finally, in answer to a direct question, admitted that his name was Collins.
Five or six hundred yards from Buffalo Station a lieutenant of the United States Army had camped a troop of ten men that was scouting for the train robbers. As soon as Collins and Heffridge remounted and resumed their way, the agent ran quickly to the soldiers’ camp, pointed out the bandits to the lieutenant and declared, “There go two of the Union Pacific train robbers!”