Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Cherokee Courthouse Shootout 1872

Dear Friends,

Folks are lead to believe that shootout at the OK Corral was the worse shootout ever to occur in the Old West. In reality, the gunfight that took place in a vacant lot near the OK Corral was not even close to the worse.

One shootout that was a lot worse than what took place in Tombstone, Arizona, is the Cherokee Courthouse Shootout that took place during a trial in the Cherokee court system on April 15th, 1872. in the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation. Where three men died in the 30 second shootout in Tombstone, Arizona, 11 men were killed in the Cherokee Courthouse Shootout. And yes, later the melee would also been known as called the Going Snake Tragedy and the Going Snake Massacre

It started when Ezekial "Zeke" Proctor was being tried for killing Polly Beck and wounding Jim Kesterson in a shooting incident between what some say were family members. And yes, tensions were high due to the strong family ties of the accused and victims. And of course, there was the dispute over court jurisdiction. Some wanted Proctor tried in the Cherokee Nation, other wanted him tried in a federal court.

How did it start?

Ezekiel "Zeke" Proctor, a Cherokee from Georgia, fought for the Union Army, during the Civil War. He was know as a local "outlaw" and "hombre" with a bad temper, especially when he was drinking. All of the Beck family, who were also Cherokee, fought for the Confederate Army. As expected, after the war, the Becks and the Proctors did not get along. 

Zeke Proctor's romantic interest in Polly Beck didn't help things. Proctor was also a member of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society which was a group created to preserve tribal traditional ways and fight "white encroachment". The term Keetoowah supposedly means ?full-blood," or "old-time Cherokee," or something similar to that.

So yes, Proctor disapproved of Cherokee women being involved romantically with white men. And since he was romantically in Cherokee woman Polly Beck, he made it known that she should not be in any sort of relationship with a white man. That white man being Jim Kesterson.

Proctor's hypocrisy regarding this must have given a few people something to talk about since both his and Polly Beck's fathers were white men.

Polly Beck was said to have been an attractive woman. Her father was white and her mother was Cherokee. It's said that at a young age, she was married to a white man, Steve Hilderbrand. He had been killed during the Civil War.

She then married Jim Kesterson who was a white man. Some say he was either her fourth or fifth husband, but I can't verify that. As for siblings, she had one brother. Of course two of her first cousins were Deputy US Marshals.

First, Zeke Proctor murders Polly Beck and wounds Jim Kesterson.

Why did he kill Polly Beck? Well, from what I gather, most of it is all conjecture because I don't think anyone really knows for sure. That is of course, other than the fact that Proctor didn't like the fact that a Cherokee woman who he was interested in was already married to a white man.

Some say Jim Kesterson had previously been involved with Proctor's sister, Susan, and had left her for Polly, leaving Susan and the children destitute. Others say that never happened and that there were no children, or that the children were not Kesterson's. Another story is that Kesterson caught Proctor stealing cattle and wanted to prosecute. And yes, there's ever a story that claims Proctor had been previously involved romantically with Polly, who was supposedly promiscuous. And yes, he was supposedly still in love with her. But frankly, that's all hearsay.

We do know that Zeke Proctor confronted Polly and Jim at her late husband's mill in the Oklahoma Territory on February 27th. They met at the so-called Hildebrand Mill, in what is now Delaware County, Oklahoma, on Flint Creek, just a little west of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Polly was the widow of Steve Hildebrand, who had owned a share in the mill. After Hildebrand was killed in the Civil War, Polly ran the mill with Jim Kesterson,

Once all three were there, tempers flared and an argument erupted. From there, Proctor attempted to kill Jim Kesterson and did in fact kill Polly Beck. Fact is, Zeke Proctor used a rifle to shoot Jim Kesterson in the head. But believe it or not, he only wounded him. After shooting her husband, Proctor then turned to Polly and shot her dead. 

Later, Proctor would say that he murdered Polly accidental. And supposedly, Proctor surrendered himself after the murder of Polly to the sheriff of the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee court took jurisdiction.

The Trial

Though the Becks were also Cherokee, they were afraid of the Keetoowah Society’s influence. They wanted the federal court in Fort Smith to intervene on grounds that Kesterson was white. The other thing they saw was a rigged court.

And yes, for very good reason because Zeke Proctor was related to just about everybody including Lewis Downing who was the tribal chief. Proctors's mother had been a Downing. And if that wasn't bad enough, they couldn't find a prosecutor who was unrelated to the Proctors. And also, the regular judge, Jim Walker, was also related to the Proctors, and Judge T.B. Wolfe was also. 

Cherokee Chief Downing appointed Blackhaw Sixkiller as judge. Judge Sixkiller set the trial for March of 1872. The first short session ended in recess when Beck's lawyer, J.A. Scales, asked the chief to remove Sixkiller on an assortment of charges. 

Chief Downing temporarily suspended Sixkiller, then called an emergency meeting of the tribal council. The council quickly decided that the charges against Sixkiller were without merit, and the trial set for April 15th.

Believing that Proctor would not be convicted in a Cherokee court, his case is appealed to the local federal court. Yes, including asking that an arrest warrant be issued to ensure that Proctor received a trial in a non-Cherokee court in front of Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas. 

The trial was held in the Whitmire schoolhouse, rather than the Going Snake Courthouse. The school building, near what is now Christie, Oklahoma, was farther away from Beck country than the court was. 

The school was built like a bunker. It was built of logs, had only one door on its west side, and had only a couple of windows. So yes, the trial was moved there for a reason. It was see as easier to defend in case of trouble. 

Because the Proctor family was large and well connected, and because Zeke Proctor was a prominent Keetoowah, the Beck family was not sure that their notion of proper justice would be done at the Whitmire schoolhouse. And so on April 11th, a wounded Jim Kesterson and members of the Beck family rode into Fort Smith to hedge their bets. 

There, they swore out a federal warrant for Zeke Proctor's arrest. They also got warrants for seven other men, including two Walkingsticks, a couple of Sixkillers and the entire jury. Imagine how that went over.

Most accounts say that the Beck's did in fact get federal warrants for Proctor's defense counsel and Judge Sixkiller. And yes, in spite of the treaty, the U.S. Commissioner in Fort Smith issued the warrants based on the proposition that the United States had jurisdiction over offenses against white people. And while Kesterson was adopted as a Cherokee, he was white.

The warrants were given to Deputy U.S. Marshals Jacob Owens and Joseph Peavey. They were instructed to arrest everybody named in the warrants only if Zeke Proctor were acquitted. In case of conviction, they were not to serve the warrants at all. It was a recipe for trouble.

And so, there came the day of trial. The makeshift courthouse was jammed with people, many of them Proctor friends and family armed to the teeth. Yes, that included the defendant himself who was armed. And outside, a crowd of Cherokee eager to hear the proceedings had gathered. Although most agree that they were there to be available in case of trouble. 

Among them were a number of Beck friends and family. They were also armed, and wearing twigs of wild plum blossoms in their hats as a sort of badge. Yes, for identification when the shooting starts.

In the make-shift court, Judge Sixkiller sat at a little wood table facing the single door. Just to his left was Joe Starr, the court clerk, and Proctor’s lawyer, Mose Alberty, sat on the Judge Sixkiller’s right. An armed Zeke Proctor sat next to his attorney. Tom Walkingstick was one of his guards, and he stood near Proctor.

As for the actual massacre?

At about 11 a.m., not long after proceedings had begun and prosecutor Johnson Spake was arguing some procedural matter, the federal posse arrived. Out in front were Deputy U.S. Marshals J.G. Peavy and J.G. Owens, both well respected and well liked in Indian Territory. 

Marshal Owens had ordered his posse to stay out of the schoolhouse, and to remain outside until the verdict was reached. The posse dismounted and formed a rough column of twos. They soon started through the crowd toward the door. In the meanwhile, a few armed Beck supporters joined them from the crowd waiting outside. 

Supposedly, in the lead was White Sut Beck cradling his double-barreled shotgun. Some say he started the melee, but in the confusion that's just hearsay. Actually once inside the schoolhouse, juror George Blackwood saw the grim-faced federal posse and Beck family members coming in the door.

Supposedly, Blackwood shouted, "Look out! Look out! They're coming to get Zeke Proctor!"

No one really knows who fired the first shot, or what made some shoot at all, but soon someone fired a shot and then all hell broke loose. And depending on what Cherokee faction one talks with, Proctor versus Beck, the story of who is responsible for starting the massacre shifts. Some say it was a Beck and others say it was a Proctor who over reacted, either way in the confusion that's just hearsay.

According to some White Sut Beck drew down on Zeke Proctor with his shotgun, but Johnson Proctor, his brother, supposedly grabbed White Sut’s weapon and then took one barrel full in the chest. Believe it or not, Johnson already mortally wounded still hung on to the shotgun, forcing the second shot down toward the floor. 

Zeke Proctor was hit in the foot by a couple of buckshot. Mose Alberty, never had a chance. He was sitting at the clerk’s table or judge’s desk, apparently reading some document, when he was hit with two shotgun rounds. He was killed instantly.

As gunfire roared, men began to drop on both sides. It's said that Zeke Proctor produced a revolver from somewhere, but who knows. And as for the stories of him killing everyone in sight, in reality he is said to had taken cover in a chimney corner where he wouldn't get hit.

As the smoke cleared, the floor of that schoolhouse was littered with bodies both dead and wounded. Four dead lay just inside the schoolhouse door. Three more bodies lay just outside. A few paces away was another corpse, a badly wounded man lay moaning behind the building. And still, they say another lay dying in a nearby clump of bushes.

Judge Sixkiller took two buckshot in the wrist, and lawyer Alberty lay dead near Johnson Proctor. One juror had a hole in his shoulder, and several others also had wounds, most of them minor. Close by, in Mrs. Whitmire’s house, Deputy U.S. Marshal Owens was dying.

Widow Whitmire had her teenage sons hitch the family mule to a wagon and gather up the dead and the dying. The bodies of those killed were conveniently arranged on the Whitmire front porch so that their families could tend to them. The wounded were carried inside to be cared for by Mrs. Whitmire and others.

The next day the jury reconvened at Captain Arch Scraper's house. The jury deliberated less than 10 minutes and acquitted Zeke Proctor of murder. And yes, it is said that the jury then departed in some haste after hearing that Fort Smith will send more Deputy U.S. Marshals along with more Becks.

James Huckleberry, the U.S. marshal, sent a second posse down to Going Snake. In command was Deputy U.S. Marshal Charles F. Robinson, he and 20 others including two doctors, Julian Fields and C.F. Pierce there to help the wounded. All toll, 11 men were beyond help.

As for the massacre, the bottom line is that a federal posse consisting of two Deputy US Marshals, two of their regular posse members, six white men from Fort Smith, and five Cherokee who were all relatives of Polly Beck, was sent to Cherokee Judge Blackhawk Sixkiller's court to attend the trial. They were also there to arrest Proctor on federal charges if he was acquitted.

Treaties with the federal government said that Cherokee Nation courts would have jurisdiction over Cherokee people, so the involvement of non-tribal law officers was seen as a threat to tribal sovereignty.

Remember, the federal court dispatched a ten-member posse led by two Deputy US Marshals to secure the arrest of Proctor at the court house in Tahlequah. And yes, five members of the Beck clan traveled with that federal posse.

It's said there were more guns than people in Sixkiller's courtroom. The Cherokee gathered several members of the tribe to protect Proctor and their treaty rights. The Cherokee court's trial of Proctor was moved to the schoolhouse, since it was seen as being easier to defend than the courthouse. 

Some Cherokee, those aligned with the Proctors, say that without warning, the Deputy US Marshals and other members of their posse attacked the schoolhouse. But really, according to others, no one really knows who started the shooting.

Fact is, shooting broke out in the crowded make-shift courtroom during the proceedings. Eight of the Marshals posse and three Cherokee citizens were shot to death. It is said that nine Cherokee, including Zeke Proctor and Judge Sixkillers, were wounded.

As for the United States Marshals Posse members who were killed? They were Deputy U.S. Marshal Jacob Owens who died the following day of wounds, and posse members William Beck also died the following day of wounds, Black Sut Beck, Sam Beck, William Hicks, George Selvidge, Jim Ward, and Riley Woods.

Of the United States Marshals Posse members who were wounded? They were Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph Peavey, and posse members Paul Jones, George McLaughlin, and White Sut Beck.

As for the Cherokee who were killed? They were Johnson Proctor, brother to suspect Zeke Proctor, William Alberty, who was Proctor's attorney, and Andrew Palone who was a Cherokee and Civil War veteran.

The Cherokee wounded, Zeke Proctor, Judge Blackhawk Sixkiller, John Proctor
Isaac Vann, Ellis Foreman. and Joe Chaney.

After the shooting, Cherokee authorities moved the trial to another locations and acquitted Proctor. District Attorney James Huckleberry in Fort Smith, actually dispatched a large posse under the command of Deputy US Marshal Charles Robinson. 

The second posse arrested several men believed to have been involved in the killing of the Deputy U.S. Marshals. And no, no resistance was made against the second federal posse. One of those arrested was the jury foreman Arch Scaper, who was identified as on of the Cherokee shooters. All of those arrested were taken to Fort Smith, Arkansas for trial, but all were eventually released due to lack of evidence or because witnesses were not willing to testify.

All in all, a federal grand jury in Fort Smith indicted twenty Cherokees present at the trial as well all the tribal court officers. Cherokee Nation issued warrants for several Cherokee citizens, as well. The federal government later dismissed all indictments. 

As for Zeke Proctor, the man who got away with murder? 

He fled by the time the second posse arrived. Not surprisingly, he fled to Mexico for a little over four years. But by the 1880s, Proctor was back and supposedly had a small ranch. In 1877, believe it or not, he was elected as a Cherokee Senator. 

And as for more irony, believe it or not, in 1894, he was elected sheriff of the Flint District of the Cherokee Nation. Some say, if there was anyone who should have never worn a badge -- he was that man.

Tom Correa 


1 comment:

  1. Great history lesson. My Father was a western, hispanic professor and told me the same thing as you pointed out at the beginning of this story, the OK corral shooting was a minorshooting compared to other's that took place in California gold rush days as well as others from 1850 through 1900.
    The OK corral hit eastern papers and was widely published.
    I enjoyed this syory very much. Thanks.
    Tom Boring.

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