Thursday, June 24, 2021

Did Wyatt Earp Pursue Outlaw Dave Rudabaugh 400 Miles?


So here's a story about something that a writer friend put to me recently. Yes, this is one of those blog posts that might upset a few people, so you might want to read this with the kids in the other room -- just so they won't hear you cuss me out. 

"Did Wyatt Earp really hunt down outlaw Dave Rudabaugh for 400 miles? And, why?" That question was put to me by someone who is presently researching Wyatt Earp for a book or screenplay and wanted to find out if I knew about Earp relentlessly chasing Rudabaugh. 

He asked, "As you know, I'm researching Wyatt Earp's chase of Dave Rudabaugh and Earp's first meeting Doc Holliday. There are several red flags, and I can use your help. Did Wyatt Earp really pursue Rudabaugh for 400 miles? While some sources say the robbery took place in October 1876, other sources say it took place in 1877. Either way, I can't find any information, zero, about a robbery or a killing taking place at any Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Road construction camp in Kansas by Dave Rudabaugh or his gang anytime between 1876 and 1877. 

Shouldn't there be something in the newspaper archives about a robbery taking place? I should find something in newspaper archives, but I can't find where this story originated. I'm now questioning if it really took place. Could it be a lie? ...

Do you have any information on the robbery, who was involved, and the particulars of how much was stolen, names of people killed, exact location, why wasn't Rudabaugh caught and charged? Also, do you know of another outlaw who was chased for 400 miles after robbing a railroad construction camp of its payroll? I assume a payroll was stolen? This all sounds fishy. Is any of it true? What do you think?"

This is the sort of conversation that I have with people who research things, especially when things don't sound right. What makes this supposed event interesting is that it's taken for granted and repeated in all sorts of Wyatt Earp books, movies, and websites that say that it did, in fact, take place. It's repeated again and again in most books dealing with Wyatt Earp. It's even been written about in articles in most respected Old West History magazine publications. 

What We Do Know

We know very little about the crime and subsequent events. All that is said about the robbery is that supposedly in October 1876. However, some sources say it was October 1877, outlaw Dave Rudabaugh robbed an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Road construction camp and fled south. Wyatt Earp was made a Deputy U.S. Marshal and chased Rudabaugh for over 400 miles to Fort Griffin, Texas. 

The story continues that Rudabaugh arrived ahead of Earp by just a few days. When Earp arrived, he checked with the "Bee Hive Saloon" for information. That saloon is said to have been owned by John Shanssey, who was a friend of Earp. Shanssey introduced Earp to Doc Holliday, who supposedly played cards with Rudabaugh. 

Holliday said he thought that Rudabaugh headed back towards Kansas. It was then that Earp supposedly telegraphed Ford County under-sheriff Bat Masterson from Fort Griffith. He gave Masterson the information that Rudabaugh had double-backed and was headed back to Dodge City. That supposedly led to the arrest of Rudabaugh. 

Most writers say Earp's first conversation with Holiday is what created their long friendship. That's the basic story of the pursuit. 

Let's Pick It Apart: The Who, What, When, Where, and How

Let's take the last thing first. Could Wyatt Earp have met Doc Holliday in Dodge City and not Fort Griffith for their first meeting? We know that Doc Holliday was running an advertisement for his dentist practice in Dodge City by June 1878. 

On June 8, 1878, among many other things, the Dodge City Times published articles about Dodge City, an advertisement for J.H. Holliday practicing dentistry, a summary of Commadore Furling going to the Sandwich Islands, and what took place at a City Council Meeting. It also reported that Wyatt Earp was promoted to assistant-City Marshal of Dodge with a salary of $75.

It's believed that he was already living in Dodge City when Wyatt reportedly met him living in Fort Griffin. So as you can see, there are questions about the timeline of Wyatt supposedly meeting Holliday in Fort Griffin. Some writers believe they met each other in Dodge City and not Fort Griffin. 

As for the robbery of an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Road construction camp by Dave Rudabaugh? Was a robbery committed? 

If a crime was committed, we don't know any of the specifics about what happened. For example, no one knows the names of those involved, including who the money was stolen from and who recognized the outlaws; or were they wearing masks, dusters, flour-sack hoods. No one knows what transpired, whether someone was killed or not, the exact date and time of the robbery; the exact location where the robbery supposedly took place; or how the robbery was committed. We don't even know how much was taken, the amount, or if it was a gold shipment, paper currency, payroll, or whether men were robbed at gunpoint for what was on them.

What was stolen or if someone was killed during the crime might answer what sort of pursuit took place. That goes to the question about such long-distance pursuits taking place in other circumstances. While hearing about a lawman chasing someone for 400 miles in the Old West really flies against what we know of the Old West when talking about a small robbery, lawmen did such things if they were on the trail of a killer or killers. 

The tale of the Texas Rangers chasing John Wesley Hardin from Texas to Florida is one such instance. In 1877, Texas Ranger John Armstrong arrested John Wesley Hardin in a Florida rail car. Armstrong returned Hardin to Texas to stand trial for the murder of a Deputy Sheriff near Austin, Texas. In that situation, Hardin was, as we would say today, "a Cop-Killer." 

As for pursuing Rudabaugh, we don't know why the County Sheriff did not assume jurisdiction over a crime in his county or why he didn't form a posse to pursue the bandits. If we believe that Earp telegraphed the Ford County under-sheriff later to make the arrest of Rudabaugh over the robbery, then that tells us that Ford County had jurisdiction. 

The Texas Rangers chasing Hardin all the way to Florida proves that there was no reason to contact the U.S. Marshal's Service and request that they appoint someone as Deputy U.S. Marshal to pursue a robbery suspect. Besides, why appoint Wyatt Earp as a Deputy U.S. Marshal since he was merely a young Dodge City policeman and not even a Ford County deputy at the time. If someone were to be appointed, why not Ford County, Kansas, under-sheriff Bat Masterson? If that robbery indeed took place, Bat Masterson was the more experienced lawman to pursue bandits?

According to some sources, Rudabaugh and his gang attempted to rob a train on January 22, 1878, near Kinsley, Kansas. While the robbery failed, the next day, a Sheriff's posse led by Ford County under-sheriff Bat Masterson captured Rudabaugh and his gang. Knowing that, why wasn't there a Sheriff's posse in the previous robbery? That is if it did, in fact, happen?

And let's first talk about Earp telegraphing Bat Masterson that Rudabaugh was headed back to Dodge City. If Earp knew Rudabaugh was headed to Fort Griffin, why didn't he telegraph the authorities in Fort Griffin just as he telegraphed Masterson about Rudabaugh's return? 

There was a lot of law present in Fort Griffin at the time, and they had a lot of manpower to apprehend wanted criminals on the run from Kansas or anywhere else. They did all the time as a matter of professional courtesy. 

How do we know there was a lot of law enforcement in Fort Griffin? The lawlessness in Fort Griffin was out of hand by early 1877. So by the Spring of 1877, law enforcement there was strengthened with the arrival of over two dozen Texas Rangers led by Capt. G. W. Campbell. 

If Earp arrived there in April of 1878 on the trail of an outlaw, as the story goes, then Capt. Campbell would have been in charge of that area. Earp wouldn't have had to check in at a saloon for information; all he had to do was talk to the Texas Rangers there. Of course, there is no mention of a visiting lawman in pursuit of Kansas outlaws in Capt. Campbell's logbooks. And after Texas Ranger Capt. Campbell was replaced by Ranger Lt. George W. Arrington in July of 1878; there are still no entries of Wyatt Earp or if they assisted a lawman in the apprehension of a dangerous outlaw. Yes, especially one who was trailed for 400 miles.  

If Earp did go to some saloon run by an old friend who supposedly introduced him to some stranger by the name of Doc Holliday for information, why didn't he also check in with the Texas Rangers there? We know that Earp did not, even though, according to him, he was supposedly a Deputy U.S. Marshal. 

As for staying in Fort Griffith, after meeting Doc Holiday, there is no reference to how long Earp stayed there. And there is no reference of Earp in hotel registers or in newspapers. That brings us to the newspapers. If Wyatt Earp did, in fact, pursue Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, then there should be records somewhere that say so. 

Was There A Robbery of An Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Road Construction Camp in Kansas by Dave Rudabaugh? 

If so, why no records? There's the problem. There are absolutely no records of that robbery. And to answer the question if there should be? The answer is an absolute yes. 

We know that most everything going on with the railroads was reported in several newspapers of the day. When researching this, as my writer friend found out, the problem is that there aren't any news stories mentioning a railroad camp robbery taking place in Kansas in 1877 by Rudabaugh or his gang. There are all sorts of stories but no mention of a railroad payroll robbery or any money stolen. There's no mention of Dave Rudabaugh, his committing a robbery, his fleeing South, or his being pursued by Wyatt Earp. 

Below are examples of all sorts of newspaper stories regarding the railroad in Kansas. You will find that both major events such as horse thieves and homicides were reported, along with the more mundane of how many miles of track was added. This should help you see why I say that it would have certainly been reported somewhere if there was a robbery. And while we might not have access to a Sheriff's logbook from back in the day without going to a local museum, we should certainly find a robbery mentioned in the newspapers of the times.

For example, here is an article from The Hutchinson News, August 1, 1872:


On the night of July 28th, a grand steal took place on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Road, about 100 miles west of here. The horses, a majority of which belong to the Railroad Co., are grazed on the prairie. 

On the night of the 28th, the herder disappeared, and at the same time, between 75 and 100 horses. The disaster, of course stopped work and created great excitement. A party immediately went in pursuit, found out where the thieves crossed the Arkansas River, and up to the latest accounts had recovered 16 horses.

The thieves were making in the direction of Wichita, probably in search of a market. If such be the case, they will undoubtedly be speedily overhauled. If they are, Judge Lynch will hold a court that will place them beyond such pranks hereafter. 

The deputy sheriff of the county, Al. Updegraff, accompanied by H. C. McCarty and others, left here early Monday [July 29] to assist in the pursuit. It is thought the herder in charge was the ringleader of the raid.

Here is an article from The Commonwealth newspaper, August 20, 1872, that reported:

The A., T. & S. Fe road was completed thirty-two miles west of Larned last Sunday night [August 18] and will be finished to Fort Dodge by the first of September. 

Here is an article from The Hutchinson News, August 29, 1972, that reported:

Out towards the end of the track of the A, T. & S. F., railroad horse thieves abound.

Here is an article from The Commonwealth newspaper, August 29, 1872, that reported:

A shooting affray took place at Raymond [Rice County, Kansas] last Sunday morning [August 25], between the conductor of a train and a desperado. No one was hurt.

Here is an article from The Hutchinson News, August 22, 1872, that reported: 

The end of the track is 45 miles on the other side of Larned.

Here is an article from The Hutchinson News, September 5, 1872, that reported:

The A. T. & S. F. R. R. is now finished and running to Dodge, 366 miles west of Atchison.

Here's an example of a homicide reported in The Topeka Kansas Daily Commonwealth, September 8, 1872. This is about the death of a man who may have caused a disturbance at Raymond, Kansas, on August 25:


For some time, a notoriously mean and contemptible desperado named Jack Reynolds has been "beating" his way on the western division of the A., T. & S. Fe road by murderous threats, backed by a six-shooter. On one occasion, he tried his "little game" on Conductor Jansen, (since died of a broken arm,) who tackled the brute, took the six-shooter away from him, and pitched him off the train.

Jack, with all his other meannesses, was very quarrelsome. On Thursday last [September 5], he got into a quarrel at Dodge City with one of the tracklayers, who, without any "ifs or ands," put six balls, in rapid succession, into Jack's body. The desperado fell and expired instantly; and thus, the law-abiding people of the southwest were rid of a terror.

Only a few days before, Jack had shot a man at Raymond, Kansas, for some supposed injury.
--end of articles. 

As you can see from the articles above, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Road had to deal with horse thieves, badmen, and all sorts of no goods. Some were meaner than others, but all in all, the railroad's employees were able to protect themselves, their equipment, shipments, and much more with frontier justice. Incidents dealing with badmen made the newspapers.

Time and time again, I mention how people in the Old West chronicled what seems like everything under the sun. As my screenwriter friend found out, archived newspapers, we can verify all sorts of things. Sadly though, it is frustrating when nothing can be found to validate a claim.

Was there a robbery? I don't think so because I can't find any evidence of that taking place. How much money was stolen? Who knows if anything was stolen. Because we have no mention in any form of record at the time, newspapers, court records, anything at all, we can't say that Dave Rudabaugh robbed anything, much less a railroad construction camp of enough money to form a posse or authorize a special appointment of a Deputy U.S. Marshal. 

So for me, the question as to whether or not Wyatt Earp really did trail Dirty Dave Rudabaugh for 400 miles is a great question because there's zero proof that it took place -- yet people believe it did. 

As most of my readers know, I've talked about how some stories are purely fabricated yet are now taken as fact by many historians. In this case, with no robbery committed and the supposed 400-mile pursuit unproven, one has to ask where did this story come from? Where did it originate? That question goes to the heart of trying to find out where many Old West myths originate. Of course, as with the problem of myths, determining where they started is almost impossible. That is true in most cases other than in this instant. 

It is no big secret that I've always been suspect of some of the claims made by Wyatt Earp. Whether it was Wyatt Earp telling his biographer Stuart Lake that he had arrested the famed gunman Ben Thompson single-handedly, or his claim that he shot and killed Curly Bill Brocius in a supposed shotgun dual, or his assertion that he was the person who killed Johnny Ringo, I have found these things not true. I say that because there's no evidence supporting his claims. While I've been attacked for merely questioning some of the things that Earp claim to have done, his claiming to do things like killing Ringo has even some of his most ardent supporters today asking why he would make such an unsubstantiated claim? 

So, Where Did The Story Originate? 

From what I can see, all trails lead to Wyatt Earp and his biography. That's where the story originates.

In the early 1920s, with Hollywood hungry for stories of the Old West, Wyatt Earp, like many others at the time, tried to cash in on his experiences in the Old West. Subsequently, he tried to get the silent film industry to take a look at his story. Since he was living in Los Angeles and was known to hang around the newly formed film studio spinning yarns, he became friends with early Western actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix. It is believed that Hart wanted to use Wyatt's biography as the basis of a film and told Earp to get a writer to write his biography. 

After a few rejections, he found Stuart Lake, who published "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" (1931). That work was the first major biography of Wyatt Earp. Supposedly, Lake interviewed Wyatt Earp a great deal for the material for the book. According to some, Wyatt had told him many yarns that simply don't add up when looking at the evidence. To many, it is a work of pure fiction. 

Among those stories is how Wyatt fought the elements and survived just to trail outlaw Dirty Dave Rudabaugh for 400 miles south into Texas. Though there is no mention of why he trailed him other than for a robbery of some supposed railroad construction camp, the tall tale ends in Fort Griffin when he met and became instant friends with Doc Holliday. As one writer put it, "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" is where "biography meets fantasy and becomes a legend." It's a fantasy that people still assume is true.

Tom Correa

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