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Oklahoma Outlaws Thrived Before Statehood

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- In 1930, J. Frank Dobie wrote "the only genuinely interesting men that Oklahoma has produced have been Indians and outlaws." This was five years after Dobie, who became a prominent writer, stepped down as head of the English Department at Oklahoma A & M, now Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater and returned to his native Texas.

Oklahoma did have many interesting Indians including Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee alphabet.

Oklahoma's outlaws were also interesting. Some were daring and colorful. Many were two-bit criminals who never learned right from wrong, came from broken homes and lacked formal education. None were mental giants.

Following the Civil War, Indian Territory became a haven for outlaws including cattle rustlers, horse thieves, whiskey peddlers and bandits from neighboring states. The Territory was free of "white man's court."

The only court with jurisdiction over Indian Territory was the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas located at Fort Smith. The judge, however, was corrupt.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant replaced the corrupt judge with Judge Isaac Parker, 38, who hired 200 deputy U.S. marshals to bring law and order to Indian Territory.

Some of the marshals were black because American Indians distrusted white deputies. Among Parker's black marshals were Rufus Cannon, Ike Rogers, Grant Johnson and Bass Reeves, the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi.

During the next 21 years Parker tried more than 13,000 cases. One hundred fifty-six men and four women were sentenced to death by hanging. Seventy-seven were hung.

More than 60 of Parker's U.S. marshals and deputies were killed in the line of duty.

Indian Territory was dangerous, and it caught the fancy of newspapermen who reported on the exploits of outlaws.

The infamous Belle Starr was convicted of horse stealing in Parker's court in 1882 and sent to federal prison. When released, she returned to her home near Eufaula where she was murdered in 1889. Her killer has never been brought to justice.

Crawford Goldsby better known as "Cherokee Bill" became well known for robbing and killing at least seven, possibly 13 people. When he was captured in the 1890s and taken to Parker's court, Goldsby was found guilty and hanged. He was 20.

The notorious Buck Gang was led by Rufus Buck, with Lewis and Lucky Davis, Maoma July and Sam Sampson. They robbed, murdered and raped. All five were found guilty and hanged in 1896.

Parker also tried civil cases. The most important was against David Payne, a boomer, for illegally settling on lands in Indian Territory.

Soon after the unassigned lands were opened to settlement in 1889 and Oklahoma Territory was formed, a new federal court was established for Oklahoma Territory.

U.S. marshals began riding out of Guthrie, O.T., the territorial capital, looking for outlaws.

The jurisdiction of Parker's court over Indian Territory ended in the fall of 1896.

Bill Doolin had been a member of the Dalton gang but was not with them when they were gunned down at Coffeyville, Kan., just across the border from Indian Territory in 1892.

Doolin soon organized his own gang and robbed banks and trains. Doolin was captured in Eureka Springs, Ark. and jailed in Guthrie. He escaped again only to be tracked down and killed by U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas and a posse near Lawton.

Another well-known outlaw was Henry Starr, a relative of Belle Starr. Henry Starr's career in crime, which included bank robbery, began in 1890 and lasted 30 years. Starr's end came in 1921 when he was shot robbing a bank in Arkansas. He died from his wounds.

Still another colorful outlaw of sorts was Al Jennings who came to El Reno, Oklahoma Territory from Virginia. From 1892 to 1895, he served as prosecuting attorney in Canadian County.

Jennings then moved to Woodward and practiced law with two brothers.

One brother was killed and another was wounded in a shootout with a rival attorney Temple Houston, son of Sam Houston.

Jennings then became a ranch hand near Bixby in Creek County. There he soon joined a second-rate outlaw gang that tried to rob trains, general stores, and a post office with little success.

Jennings was wounded by lawmen in a 1897 gunfight in McIntosh County and sentenced to life in prison. He was freed on legal technicalities in 1902 and received a presidential pardon in 1907.

Jennings ran for governor but lost. He went to California and worked in motion pictures making Westerns. He died at Tarzana, Calif. in 1961.

After oil was discovered during the early 1920s and boom towns sprang up across the new state of Oklahoma, Bill Tilghman, retired deputy U.S. marshal, was sent to investigate 10 unsolved murders at Cromwell in Seminole County. A drunken federal prohibition agent killed Tilghman.

Because of the killing, Gov. Martin E. Trapp established a state crime bureau to clean up Oklahoma. During its first five years of operation, state agents killed 11 bank robbers and were involved in numerous gun battles with other outlaws.

A new challenge faced Oklahoma lawmen in 1933 when Charles F. Urschel, a wealthy Oklahoma City oilman, was kidnapped by George "Machine Gun" Kelly. The FBI entered the case. The ransom was paid and Urschel was released.

Lawmen were quick to track down Kelly and his accomplice Harvey Bailey, who were convicted of the crime.

By the 1930s, other outlaws with Oklahoma ties were brought to justice. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in Louisiana in 1934. They had killed a lawmen and abducted another officer at Commerce in northeastern Oklahoma.

That year "Pretty Boy" Floyd was killed in Ohio and his body buried near his home in Sallisaw. In Florida, "Ma" Barker and her son Fred were killed in a Florida gun battle. They are buried in a cemetery near Welch.

There were nearly 200 outlaws in Oklahoma between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s. Most were brought to justice. A majority were white, a fourth were black and about 20 were American Indian. By 1940, however, Oklahoma's outlaw era was passing into history.
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