Cherokee Bill: On the Outlaw Trail

Probably the most famous outlaw that was hanged on the Fort Smith gallows was Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill. He was born on February 8, 1876 at Fort Concho, Texas, the son of George Goldsby, a buffalo soldier of Mexican, white and Sioux descent, and a woman named Ellen Beck, half black, one-fourth Cherokee and one-fourth white. When George Goldsby abandoned his pregnant wife and son two years later, Ellen returned to Fort Gibson and sent Crawford to Indian Schools in Kansas and Pennsylvania. When he returned, he worked odd jobs until his first run in with the law in the summer of 1893 at age 17.

On September 29, Goldsby attended a harvest dance at Fort Gibson to see Maggie Glass, a pretty 15 year old girl with whom he was infatuated. While there, he got into a fight with Jake Lewis and was easily overpowered by the man. The next morning, Goldsby appeared at Lewis' farm with the intention of killing him for the embarrassment in front of Maggie. Although Lewis suffered two gunshot wounds, he lived to file charges against Goldsby.

By this time, Goldsby had adopted the nickname of Cherokee Bill. Apparently the name derived from his Cherokee heritage and his attendance at the Indian School at Cherokee, Kansas. In the Cherokee country the name "Bill" meant "wild hand," not a person to run counter to.

After the assault on Jake Lewis, Cherokee Bill began riding with the Cook Gang. Led by Bill Cook, this group of outlaws terrorized the Cherokee and Creek Nations during 1893 and 1894. Their crimes started off small with whiskey charges and stealing horses, but soon led to train robberies, stage holdups, and bank theft. On July 31, 1894, the gang stole $500 from the Lincoln County bank in Chandler, Oklahoma. On September 21, the J.A. Parkinson & Company store in Okmulgee lost over $600 to them. On October 10 "the record of bold and desperate deeds" was broken when the gang held up and robbed the depot of the Missouri Pacific Railroad at Claremore. Less than 2 hours later, they robbed the railroad agent at Chouteau. Ten days later it was the wrecking and robbing of the Kansas City and Missouri Pacific express five miles south of Wagoner.

On November 9, Cherokee Bill and two other gang members held up a store and post office fifteen miles south of Coffeyville, Kansas. Cherokee Bill shot and killed a painter named Ernest Melton who was watching the heist from a window of a restaurant across the street. "The ball struck Melton below one eye and came out the back of his head, killing him instantly."

It was this crime that Cherokee Bill would hang for in Fort Smith, but the road to the gallows had several more twists and turns for the law enforcement officials in Fort Smith.

Juliet Galonska
February 1995

References: Marauders of the Indian Nations by Glenn Shirley.

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.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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