As a writer, my genre is western historical romance and regional history nonfiction. Therefore, it’s natural for me to be caught up in the people who settled the area of Northwest Arkansas. We live in the country south of all the hubbub. I thought I’d share some history of the city of Fayetteville, Arkansas with people who might have an entirely different understanding of we who live in the Ozarks. Oh, yeah, I know the vision you have. Deliverance, huh? Well, tighten your saddle cinches, hook your heels in your stirrups and relax while I entertain you with a story. Enjoy.
We often think of places like Deadwood and Dodge City as being the real shoot-em-up west towns of the 1800s. But the more I read about Fayetteville, Arkansas in her early days, the more I wonder why movies haven’t been made about this small town born around 1836 about the time Arkansas became a state. It wasn’t unusual for gunfights to break out in town on a regular basis into the 1900s.
For a long time the only law there were troops sent north from Ft. Smith to keep some sort of order. In 1882 the Police Gazette featured a story titled, “Arkansas’ Reign of Terror.”
Until September, 1913, a scaffold stood in public view in Fayetteville. From it were hung 18 people. The last was Omer Davis, executed September 11 of that year for the murder of a local teacher, Nellie Moneyhun of Springdale.
Some rather unusual punishments were thought up for crimes, of course there was the bread and water edict for prisoners, which was fairly common. In the early 1900s, an African‑American man, then referred to as Negro, was fined $10 for using disrespectful language and a white man was fined $1 for hitting him in the head with a rock. The next year the killers of Fred L. Bussey were found guilty of malicious intent to harm his (Bussey’s) dog. The judge ruled that the penalty was more severe than that for manslaughter. The defendants had claimed they aimed at the dog.
Records reveal riots, massacres, midnight bushwhackings, murders plotted by family members, racist attacks, and on and on. The Wild, Wild West? Certainly sounds like it. It appears the town could given Deadwood a run for its money.
Because of its location on the Mason/Dixon Line and bordering the wilds of Indian Territory, Arkansas is not only southern, it has had its share of famous outlaws. And as a result, there were also plenty of lawmen to chase after them. Outlaws soon learned to flee into Indian Territory because Indian courts and law officers could not prosecute white men who broke the law. It made the territory a perfect hideout. Indian outlaws were protected there as well, for the territory government was reluctant to extradite Indians to Arkansas where all‑white juries sitting in Judge Isaac Parker’s court, didn’t tend to be impartial to them.
Because of the tendency toward frontier justice in Arkansas, Indian Territory soon became a refuge for such outlaws and bank robbers as Pretty Boy Floyd and Henry Starr. The tradition of vigilante justice continued in the state into the 1920s. Horse thieves were caught and justly punished by such groups as the Anti‑Horse Thief Association. The Ku Klux Klan was thanked in public by the Washington County Sheriff for help in law enforcement. As late as 1923 the Committee of Twelve at Harrison drove striking railroad workers from the town and hung one striker who resisted them.
Thus, outlaws like the bandit queen Belle Starr and her common‑law husband Sam Starr, the James and Younger brothers as plenty of others took up residence in Arkansas because it was close to Indian Territory and the Cookson Hills–a part of the Boston Mountains–where they could hide out.
Henry Starr wasn’t quite as well known as his uncle Sam, but he cut a wide swath throughout the state beginning at the age of 19 when he and his gang robbed the People’s Bank in Bentonville, Arkansas in 1893. As it turned out, they didn’t do real well, considering that almost all the residents were packing side arms and immediately began to fire on the lookouts, who in turn shot back. This made it a bit nerve wracking for Henry and his buddies Frank Cheney and Link Cumplin, who were inside attempting to gather up silver and gold and currency. They did manage to grab a cashier to carry out some of their loot, several hundred dollars in silver, and one of the outlaws carried out $11,000 in gold and currency. The shoved a few customers and employees ahead of them as shields, but once in the open, the wild gunfire caused quite a bit of confusion.
Terrified, the captives ran off in all directions, that is all except the cashier, who had a gun pressed into his back. This wouldn’t help much, though, for as they scuttled past the door of the Bentonville Sun newspaper, a brave girl named Maggie Wood pulled open the door, grabbed the cashier and dragged him and his bag of loot inside, then slammed the door and bolted it.
Left with only $11,000, the outlaws made for their horses. One was shot but not killed, and they rode off, headed for, you guessed it, Indian Territory, not that many miles to the west. Sheriff Galbraith put together a posse, but it was of little use, for none of the men wanted to pursue the outlaws close enough to get shot, and so the gang soon disappeared into the wilds. There they divided their loot and rode their separate ways. They would never ride together again. Most would meet a violent death.
But Henry Starr would ride the outlaw trail off and on for twenty eight years. During the times he was out of prison, he tried to lead a lawful life. Part‑Cherokee, Henry was self‑educated, good looking and had a great personality. He could lead the life of a white man or a Cherokee, but chose Cherokee most of the time. He remained haunted by the experience in Bentonville, and feared being caught outside Oklahoma Territory. Addicted to gambling, he often needed money, though.
Then he made the mistake of returning to Arkansas. At the age of 47, he decided to rob the People’s National Bank in Harrison. This time he arrived by automobile and meant to leave the same way. But he found himself the target of a lone, courageous man who grabbed a hidden weapon and shot Starr dead. As it turned out he was right to have feared returning to Arkansas.
Constables were often the only law in such small towns as Fayetteville and Springdale in those early days. Usually these were men who had little if any experience enforcing the law, they were just willing to give it a try. Often it was a matter of popularity, as these men were elected.
Bruce Vaughn wrote in Emma We Love You, about Emma Street in Springdale during those halcyon days: “When the shooting started out in the street and bodies began falling, the search was on for (Constable Lee) Shankles. Someone found him in the Concord Theater lobby. When told there was a big shooting up the street and two or three were dead already, he asked, “Do they have guns?”
“Of course they have guns,” the citizen told the reluctant officer. He then wanted to know if they were still shooting. The citizen, growing rather exasperated, replied that yes, they were still shooting.
“Well,” said Lee. ‘Let’s just wait a few more minutes. Then we’ll go have a look.”
These days were fixin’ to come to an end, for down in Ft. Smith, a man arrived who would soon make a big difference in law enforcement in the Western U.S. Marshal District, which enforced the law there and in Indian Territory. His name was Isaac Parker, and it wasn’t long before he became known as the hanging judge.
To learn about all the folks in historic Arkansas go here.