• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

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Myths? -- Doolin and Tilghman

As the stories of outlaws and lawmen have been retold through time, some untruths may have crept into them. Two of the better tales, which may or may not be true, involved outlaw Bill Doolin and Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman.

The first one recalls that in January 1895, Tilghman went to the Rock Fort Ranch to capture cattle rustlers and secure information on the Doolin Gang. The ranch house was a dugout with one big room that was lined on both sides with tiers of bunks. These were covered with curtains and there was no way to Tilghman to know if they were occupied or empty. When the deputy entered the room, there was only one man in the room by the fire. He was surly and uncivil, not wanting to talk, especially to a lawman. Tilghman, preparing to leave, turned his back to the fire and looked around the room. To his surprise, he saw from every bunk that the muzzle of a gun had been shoved out a little way. Those behind the curtains did not know that Tilghman knew that they were there or that he expected to be shot to death the next instant. He calmly made his exit and drove on.

As it turned out, all the members of the Doolin gang were in the ranch house that night; Red Buck Weightman wanted to kill Tilghman and would have shot him in the back had not Doolin and the ranchman held him. Doolin is supposed to have said "Bill Tilghman is too good a man to be shot in the back."

The next story says that Tilghman's posse was close on the heels of the Doolins one morning. Doolin and his men had just eaten a large breakfast at a farmhouse, and as the gang leader stepped outside, he saw Tilghman and his men riding down a distant hill. The farmer though that the Doolins were part of the posse and did not object when Doolin told him that the men coming down the hill would want breakfast too and that they would pay for all of the meals. Tilghman and his men arrived, ate a hearty meal and were then told by the farmer that the first group had told him that Tilghman would pay for the meal. The lawman reluctantly dug into his pockets and paid the farmer for the food his own men and the outlaws had eaten.

Did Doolin save Tilghman's life on that snowy January night? Was the deputy the victim of Doolin's ruse with a farmer? We'll probably never know for certain.

Juliet Galonska
March 1996

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Did You Know?

foundation remains of first fort overlooking Arkansas River

The U.S. Army selected a spot overlooking the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers for the site of a fort. Soldiers from the Rifle Regiment arrived in 1817 and named the site Fort Smith after their commanding officer, Thomas A. Smith.