Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Great Tascosa Gunfight 1886


For a long time now, my readers have heard me say that there were a number of gunfights that were a lot more famous in their day than what took place in the lot near the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. 

One of those gunfights took place in the Texas town of Tascosa on March 21st, 1886. Known as the Tascosa Gunfight, it was also known as "The Big Fight at the Jenkins Saloon". And while it had similar causes to what took place in Tombstone, the difference is that the Tascosa Gunfight took on more of the tone of a running gunbattle rather than just a short 30 second shootout. 

The Texas Panhandle consists of the northernmost twenty-six counties in the state. The "panhandle" is that rectangular area of Texas bordered by New Mexico to the west and Oklahoma to the north and east. The three original towns of the Panhandle were Clarendon in Donley County, Mobeetie in Wheeler County, and Tascosa in Oldham County.

The town of Tascosa is actually the former capital of ten counties in the Texas Panhandle. The town grew out of an effort to rival Dodge City, Kansas, as a railhead in the 1880s during the days of cattle drives. It's actually located in Oldham County northwest of Amarillo, Texas,

It's said that Tascosa served the cattle ranches for a hundred miles in every direction back in the day. Besides its general merchant stores, cowhands from all over are said to have frequented the town's saloons and dance halls, its gambling houses, and of course its brothels. 

Tascosa had a reputation for lawlessness. It also had a reputation of being one of the few towns that did not have a church for several years. Despite this, The Tascosa Pioneer once wrote that the community "is not half so rough as many have been led to believe ... but in general the people of Tascosa and Oldham are whole-hearted, sociable, and exceptionally civil. Law-breaking is the exception and not the rule."

While The Tascosa Pioneer may have thought so, the friction between the LS Rangers and locals hit its boiling point in 1886. And while that was the case in 1886, it actually started a few years before in the spring of 1884 when none other than Pat Garrett of Billy the Kid fame arrived in the Texas Panhandle as a newly appointed Captain of the Texas Rangers. 

The story goes that Garrett was tasked by the Texas State government and by the big ranchers of the Canadian River Valley with organizing a company of Texas Rangers to put a stop to the rampant rustling and re-branding of cattle. Yes, running irons were hot in that area.

For you folks who might not know, a "running iron" is a branding iron that's made in the form or a straight poker, or with a curve. In the 1870s, Texas actually outlawed the use of this iron for branding. The reason is that a "running-iron" is used to change the brands on rustled cattle. The law in Texas was such that if a man was found in the possession of a "running iron," he better do some fast explaining before he found himself on the end of a rope hanging from some lone tree. People at the time were not sympathetic to rustlers. And right or wrong, Western Justice was dealt out very swift.

Because a range war was brewing in the state over the fact that cattle theft was so common, Pat Garrett set up his headquarters at the LS Ranch. From there he petitioned the government for official papers so that he could go to work. In the following months, he and his men became known locally as the "LS Ranch Rangers" or simply the "LS Rangers." They were said to be successful at patrolling the area and being there to prevent the same kind of feud that took place in New Mexico's Lincoln County War about eight years earlier. 

But though they were efficient, just a year later in the spring of 1885, Pat Garrett's unit of Texas Rangers were disbanded. A number of the men went on their way, others stayed on as ranch hands and took up where Garrett left off when he left Texas and went back to New Mexico. In fact, it's said that Garrett's men continued to work for the LS Ranch as "LS Rangers".

But there was a problem. Since they were no longer officially Texas Rangers, they had no real authority. Of course that didn't stop them from thinking that did.

So besides having former-Rangers around thinking they were still Rangers, it's said their hard-drinking and arrogant ways began to stir up a great deal of local resentment. In fact, so much so that the Tascosa locals called the LS Rangers "barroom gladiators" because they were always looking for trouble and getting into fights. 

One of Garrett's former-Texas Rangers was Ed King. Though no longer a Texas Ranger, he worked for the LS Ranch as LS Ranger. He is said to have been a loud mouth and trouble-maker. His arrogance was said to be limitless especially when drunk. It was also said that he was quick to use any excuse to pull his gun. So no, he did not help relieve tensions in the town between the former-Rangers and the town's people. In reality, King helped increase the tensions in Tascosa. 

It's said the final straw came when a Jenkins Saloon girl by the name of Sally Emory dumped her boyfriend who was the bartender there. His name was Lamar Albert Woodruff, but most simply knew him as "Lem". After dumping Lem Woodruff, Sally Emory took up with LS Ranger Ed King.

It was after that that King persuaded the other LS Rangers to see Lem Woodruff as being an associate of a local cattle rustling group known as "the System." And while some try to say that the Great Tascosa Gunfight of 1886 was a fight between lawmen and cattle rustlers, I really don't see how it was like that at all. No, to me it sounds more personal than that.

Fact is, it was reported that in the days preceding the fight, Ed King was said to taunt Lem Woodruff with various insults trying all in an attempt to goat him into a gunfight. King was known to call Woodruff, "Pretty Lem" to demean him in front of others. King also tried to humiliate Woodruff by trying to get Woodruff to call King by the term "Daddy." Imagine that.

Yes, Ed King only proves that history is full of jerks who really need an ass kicking. To my way of thinking, and it's just my opinion, King really was one of those jerks who was way over-due for an attitude adjustment. Of course, in the 1800s, folks had a different way of taking care of bullies.    

On that Saturday evening, March 20th, 1886, Ed King and three others from the LS Ranch, John Lang, Frank Valley and Fred Chilton, rode into Tascosa to take in a local dance. Dance or not, it's said they rode in looking for trouble. 

The dance went on into the early hours of Sunday, March 21st. Yes, the day of the Great Tascosa Gunfight. Afterwards, the four left the dance and headed into town.

Soon enough Frank Valley and Fred Chilton left their horses and walked into the Equity Bar. John Lang was still outside tying up his horse when he saw Ed King and Sally Emory meet outside the Jenkins Saloon at the corner of Spring and Main Streets. 

It's said that Ed King was hailed by someone in the shadow of the saloon. Then stepping up onto the porch, Ed King was shot in the face. At the same time, Lem Woodruff rushed out and shot Ed King in the head and in the neck, I don't know if Woodruff did it because he simply wanted to or if it seemed to him as something that needed to be done, but either way Ed King died instantly.

As for Sally Emory, it's said that she may have thought that she was next, so she ran away down Spring Street as fast as she could. Seeing his friend shot down, John Lang rushed into the Equity Bar to get help. Finding his friends in the Equity, he is said to have demanded to have the shotgun that the bartender kept in the back of the bar.

The bartender handed it over, and then the three rushed out and down the street towards the Jenkin's Saloon where King was shot in the face. But instead of going through the front door, they went around the back. At that same time they come around back, Lem Woodruff, Louis Bousman, Tom and Charley Emory who was also known as "Squirrel-Eye Charley", William Oscar Arnim who was also known as "Poker Tom", John Gough who was also known as the "Catfish Kid", and a few others were exiting the back door of Jenkin's Saloon. 

The three LS Ranch boys started shooting immediately. Len Woodruff and Charley Emory were shot first. Woodruff is hit in the abdomen, and Squirrel-Eye Charley Emory is hit in the chest. 

Then Frank Valley ran towards the door of an adobe shack behind the saloon thinking that he can stop the gunfire coming for that way. Frank Valley was shot in the head and dies instantly as soon as he opened the door to the adobe shack.

Fred Chilton comes face to face with Jesse Sheets, who is a local restaurant owner. Even though it's believed that he had nothing to do with anything going on at the time, Fred Chilton shots Jesse Sheets in the face just because he was there.

Jesse Sheets hits the ground dead. But then Chilton is shot in the chest by the Catfish Kid who was shooting from a woodpile outside Jenkin's Saloon. Then while dying, Fred Chilton is said to have handed his gun to John Lang.

With his three friends all dead, John Lang now finds himself alone and being shot at in a crossfire from the saloon and from the Catfish Kid shooting from behind the woodpile. Lang decides to get the heck out of there and runs up Spring Street. Yes, shooting as he goes. All while bullets are tearing into the ground and through the air around him. 

Luckily for Lang, as he turned a corner, he met up with friends from the Equity Bar. The men regroup and start to make their way slowly back down Main Street. But soon enough, County Sherriff Jim East and his deputy arrived on the scene and take over. 

The gunfight left Ed King, Frank Valley, Fred Chilton, and Jesse Sheets dead. John Lang had bullet holes through his coat but wasn't scratched. And believe it or not, Lem Woodruff and Squirrel-Eye Charley Emory survived.

Murder charges were filed against Lem Woodruff, Louis Bousman, both Tom and Charley Emory, John Gough also known as the Catfish Kid, and John Lang. The first trial ended in a hung jury. And in the second, all the men were acquitted. Obviously, self-defense was seen differently at the time.

The gunfight at Tascosa is not really known today, but in 1886 it was more famous than the gunfight near the O.K. Corral. It certainly was a longer gunbattle and involved more fatalities than the shootout at Tombstone a few years earlier.

As for the town of Tascosa? It started as a local crossing of the Canadian River which cowboys passed on their way to the railhead and cattle markets in Dodge City. Tascosa was a town of tents and adobe shacks. Then a stone courthouse was erected in 1884 at a cost of $18,000. 

It reached its peak in 1888 with cattle, farming, dairying, general stores, saloons, a dance hall, and yes a brothel or two. Today the old courthouse is a museum. It and the schoolhouse that was built in 1889 are the only buildings from the old town that actually survive today. 

So yes, all in all, the town that was once known as the "Cowboy Capital of the Plains" is today considered just a Ghost Town with markers here and there telling of its past. Of course, some say if you visit Tascosa, you can still hear the sounds of rowdy cowboys and the shots the broke the early morning on that Sunday long ago.

Tom Correa 

4 comments:

  1. Pretty exciting writing and Thanks for preserving history in the Panhandle of The Great State of Texas! Wes Carter

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    1. Hello Wes, The great state of Texas is great in my eyes. Wonderful place, nice people, outstanding history. I appreciate you liking my writing. Thanks, Tom

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  2. So many great stories, so hard to keep up with them. They have to be read with the mentality of the times which may not be in agreement with todays confused state.

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    1. Hello J&C, I believe you're right. They certainly did not have the sensitivities of today's world. Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm glad you like my stories. Tom

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