Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tom Threepersons -- The Last Gunfighter

Tom Threepersons was a Cherokee American lawman, who some consider to be the Old West's last gunfighter lawman. In a career that spanned the last days of the Old West well into the age of the automobile,

I've always believed Frank Hamer, who was a Texas Ranger and is known for tracking down and killing the criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934, was the last of the Old West gunfighting lawmen. Hamer acquired legendary status in the Southwest as the archetypal Texas Ranger. Hamer fought in nearly 100 gunfights during his career as a lawman in the Southwest and is reputed to have killed fifty-three men.
On the other hand, Tom Threepersons' life is one clouded with myth and legend. But even though that's the case, facts can be pieced together to understand why he might be considered the last gunfighter of the Old West.

Some argue that his career did not begin until the early 20th century, but all in all, like Masterson, Earp, and Hamer who lived well into the 20th Century, Tom Threepersons was indeed an Old School Old West gunfighter in the classic sense.

Thomas Edwin Threepersons was born in Vinita, Indian Territory on July 22nd, 1889, to John and Bell Threepersons. His family and the family of his friend, Bill White, both moved to the Montana-Alberta border.

Later he attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But after returning from school, as a great horseman Threepersons rode the rodeo circuit throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming. Some say he rodeoed in Colorado as well.

In 1907, both he and Billy White's fathers were killed during a fight with cattle rustlers. Though the suspects were caught red-handed and arrested, but were released on bond. This event changed his life.

It's said that Tom Threepersons tracked the murderers to a local saloon, and surprised them by entering through a back door. When they went for their guns, he calmly killed them both.

He was arrested for murder and tried but was acquitted by a jury that deliberated for only seven minutes. Yes, in those days, juries understood what justice really meant -- even if it was an eye for an eye.

After that Threepersons and Bill White joined the Northwest Mounted Police and were stationed 50 miles from Calgary. They were soon assigned to track down three smugglers who had murdered an entire family. They learned that the killers were heading toward the Yukon River in Alaska, a trail that they were determined to follow.

After following the three for five days in the snow, the two Mounties had to abandon their exhausted horses and proceed on foot carrying backpacks. They met up with the killers two days later, and the trio immediately opened fire, killing Billy White almost instantly.

Some say he was like the fury of Hell incarnate. Some say it was as if his shots were guided by the hand of providence. Either way, Tom Threepersons shot and killed one outlaw while the two remaining killers ran for their lives.

Only stopping long enough to dig a shallow grave and bury his life-long friend, Tom Threepersons picked up the killers’ signs and tracked them for days. The whole while living on small game and eating snow, he finally arrived at a small settlement named "End of the Trail".

It was there that he found out that the two killers were nearby. He also found out that the place was home to other outlaws and killers. Rather than confronting them in the town, he located their cabin outside town and waited for them there.

Knowing the chance for an arrest in the settlement without being killed was not in his favor, he waited and met them as they walked in. Immediately the two killers went for their guns opting to shoot it out.

It's said that a bullet actually knocked Tom Threepersons’ stiff-brimmed Stetson from his head. It's also said that Threepersons had a Colt revolver in each hand when he killed both men and avenged Billy White's death.

Those who made the mistake of having Threepersons on their trail soon found out that he was not one to let up.

One night in Calgary, Threepersons killed three bank robbers in the process of foiling a bank job before his partner could even get his gun out of his holster and into play. And yes, a few months later, Threepersons added even more notches to his gun while frustrating a holdup of a Canadian Pacific train near Medicine Hat.

Threepersons’ experiences in the Mounted Police became less exciting after these incidents. Then in 1912 he returned to ranching, and again returned to rodeo where he was proclaimed World Champion Cowboy in Calgary by the lieutenant governor of Alberta.

While it is said he made some money in ranching, it is hard to verify that he treated himself to a trip around the world. Yes, according to legend, he supposedly visited Argentina, most of Europe, Africa, Asia, China, Japan, the Philippines, and even Hawaii. And yes, he supposedly did this in only 11 months of travel!
Friends, I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but in 1912 that's a pretty good trick if he did in fact do such a thing. Whether he did or not, it is said that Threepersons came home unimpressed complaining, "Nobody talked like I did, or wore the clothes I wore, or ate the food I wanted!"

After a few years of working in the cold North, and supposedly traveling around the world for 11 months, around 1914 he moved to Douglas, Arizona, where he worked as a cowboy.

In fact, he was a cowboy in Douglas, Arizona, when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. Because of that raid in 1916, he joined the U.S. Army and served under General “Black Jack” Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico.

Some accounts say that Threepersons was recruited by George Patton to scout for the Punitive Expedition, while other accounts have him simply volunteering as an intelligence scout. While either story may be correct, we know that as part of the Punitive Expedition, Threepersons developed a friendship with the commander, Black Jack Pershing.

We know that Threepersons carried a notched, pearl-handled six-shooter much like George S. Patton was known to carry and that he was captured by Villistas and sentenced to death by a firing squad. His escape became legendary as he trekked across the desert for three weeks.

We also know that he enlisted as Thomas E. Threepersons, and was later assigned to Fort Bliss, on the Texas–New Mexico state line after the Punitive Expedition. While at Fort Bliss, he was injured when kicked in the head by a horse. He was discharged from the Army that same year.

It's true. He was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, breaking horses for the remount squad.

Threepersons said his only excitement during his entire World War I service was being kicked in the head by a horse he was breaking, receiving a serious wound for which he endured a silver plate in his head the rest of his life. That kick to the head caused him severe headaches for the rest of his life.

After the war, he stayed on as a blacksmith’s helper but was released in April 1920 due to a reduction in force.

While the 1920 census for El Paso, Texas, listed Tom Threepersons profession as Blacksmith, we know that he worked for the El Paso Police Department that year. Yes, according to records, after leaving the Army in 1920, he was hired by the El Paso police department as a patrolman. He walked a beat in dark and dangerous Little Chihuahua, the town’s Mexican settlement.

Although he was quickly promoted, he continued to work in the Mexican-dominated area of South El Paso.

Threepersons was reportedly wounded five times during his service as a police officer, nearly dying one time in South El Paso when he was shot in the chest. If it weren't for his partner, Juan Escontria, who reportedly saved his life -- that might have been the end of the story.

We also know that the two were involved in multiple shootouts during that time with smugglers, resulting in multiple suspects being killed.

Locally, Threepersons was well known for his exploits as a gunfighter and lawman. This was so much so that starting in 1920, the famous S.D. Myres Saddle Co., of El Paso, began advertising the "Tom Threepersons-style holsters".

The "Tom Threepersons" style holster featured a cutaway top exposing the hammer and trigger guard of the revolver. This design remains a standard today and has been copied by many holster makers.
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On June 6th, 1922, Threepersons was appointed as a Federal Prohibition Agent for a period of ninety days, with a salary of $1800 per annum, and actual necessary traveling expenses subject to the limitations prescribed by law and departmental regulations.

He took his oath of office on June 8, 1922, and was presented with pocket credentials 9374 and badge 6318. Threepersons was permanently appointed a Federal Prohibition Agent on September 8, 1922.

It is said that he was so feared by bootleggers, that they put a $10,000 price on his life. A newspaper account read, "He [Tom Threepersons] was a fearless officer and at one time captured $7,000 worth of liquor and 16 smugglers who were bringing it across the international boundary."

Word was that when bootleggers knew he was on their trail, they left town on the first train out.

He resigned from service with the Prohibition Unit on December 24, 1922, without prejudice taking a job to manage the "Cudahy Ranch" in Durango, Mexico. During his brief employment for the ranch, he killed two rustlers during a shootout. This was not something the Mexican authorities took lightly and he was arrested, luckily he escaped and returned to the United States.

In July 1923, Threepersons accepted a position as a Mounted Inspector for the U.S. Customs Service. That same year he was run over by a bootlegger's vehicle during an arrest, which resulted in more injuries although none life-threatening.

In November 1925, Threepersons joined the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. According to newspaper reports, Threepersons quit the department in August the following year, the result of a controversy with the Sheriff.

Reports had it that Threepersons wanted to turn confiscated liquor over to the Internal Revenue Service, but the sheriff interpreted the law differently and stored the confiscated liquor in the department’s vault.

In the late 1920s, it's said that Hollywood focused its attention on the exploits of Tom Threepersons and even offered him a chance to go into the movies. Yes, Hollywood wanted to make him a star in Western Movies. And yes, it is also reported that they offered him a salary of $700 per month to start.

That wasn't very unusual for the times. We should remember that famous Cowboy star Tim McCoy was also a rodeo champion, and also served in the Army. Instead of going to Hollywood, Tom Threepersons chose to stay on the border, preferring real adventure to make-believe versions.
About 1929, Threepersons began to suffer health problems mostly connected with that head injury. He left law enforcement that year to take up ranching near Gila, New Mexico.

In 1933, he traveled to New York City for some sort of corrective surgery. Following the successful surgery, he moved to Silver City, New Mexico, and spent the rest of his life working as a rancher and hunting guide. Yes, for the rest of his life, Tom Threepersons was a rancher and a sort of local legend.

He worked as a foreman for many Texas ranches, including the John T. McElroy Ranch, 30 miles south of Odessa. In New Mexico, he was a foreman for the Tom Lyons ranch on the Gila, the Heart Bar Cross in the Mogollon, and the Moon Ranch, near Buckhorn.

His days of working for both the El Paso County Sheriffs Office and the El Paso Police Department were over, but there were still those who told stories, amazing stories of courage and determination and fortitude, of a Cherokee American who became a legend.

I read where a U.S. Customs Agent who was a  gun collector in El Paso, Texas, had got a hold of a Smith & Wesson Triplelock .44 Special and a Winchester Model 94 .30-30 carbine that Tom Threepersons sold to an El Paso saloon owner in 1929. The barman was said to be a collector of the guns of famous western figures, and at one time he supposedly owned the Colt SA Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid.

On April 2, 1969, at 76 years of age, Tom Threepersons died of cardiac arrest and pneumonia in Safford, Arizona. He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Silver City.

Yes, after looking at his life, I'd say that Tom Threepersons can surely be considered one of the last of the famous gunfighting lawmen of the West.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Fascinating article, Tom. Took a lot of work. Like your style. And, you might be right about him being the last of the real deal gunman. Thanks for posting

    1. Thank you for liking it. I found Tom Threepersons an interesting man who seem to live a full life. From what I could learn about the man, it was certainly great to find a man who was always on the side of the law -- and kept to a higher Code.

  2. I would like to point out that the photograph associated with this article features the Tom Threepersons who was born on the First Nation Blood Reservation in southern Montana, Canada who subsequently won the 1912 Calgary Rodeo title and not the Tom Threepersons born in Vinita, Oklahoma, USA who is the person featured in this article.

    1. Thanks John, I made the correction. Much appreciated pard.

  3. Thank You Sir, I just found his name in a Clancy novel and had to go look. Thank You. I looked at you first, now I will go see Wiki and see what they messed up.

  4. I really wish they would make a movie about his life..

  5. The Tom Threepersons holster is one of the most popular modern day holsters out there. Over 100 years of craftsmanship and it still hasn't failed to impress. When he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 79 on April 2, 1969, he was still the biggest legend in law enforcement history as well as Old West history. He will forever be remembered as the "Cherokee Lawman". Tom Threepersons really was one of a kind.


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