"Everyone knows they were the Desperate Daltons … that they were a band of cold blooded murderers that roamed the Midwest without challenge, robbing and killing at will…." Or so the story goes. The legend of the Dalton gang has more myth than truth in its telling nowadays, but the real story can still stand on its own.
The Dalton Gang story really cannot be told without beginning with the brother who first lost his life to violence. Frank Dalton, born in 1859, was commissioned a U.S. Deputy Marshal at Fort Smith in 1884. He was involved in numerous dangerous episodes as a deputy and was described as "one of the most brave and efficient officers on the force."
But all of that was to change in a "bloody tragedy" on November 27, 1887. Frank, at that time 28 years old, and Deputy J.R. Cole had gone to the Cherokee Nation to arrest Dave Smith on horse stealing and whiskey charges. Not anticipating any trouble, Frank stepped up to the tent that Smith and his friends were camped in and was immediately shot in the chest by Smith. Deputy Cole reacted quickly and shot Smith in the back. Another man in the tent then rushed out and shot at Deputy Cole who retreated backward, but could not escape a bullet in the chest. The deputy sprang to his feet, though, and using his Winchester as best he could, took refuge behind a tree.
By this time, Cole, under the impression that Frank was dead, decided to try to make his way back to Fort Smith for assistance. Frank was still alive, however, and after Cole got out of range, Will Towerly came out of the tent and shot him in the head twice with a Winchester. Newspaper reports of the time indicated that Frank was conscious and begged Towerly not to shoot him as he was already mortally wounded.
Back at Fort Smith, Deputy Cole gathered up a posse of officers to take back to the scene. Smith, Dalton, and a woman hit in the crossfire were already dead. Another man was badly wounded and taken back to Fort Smith where he died in jail. Will Towerly, the murderer of Frank Dalton, escaped unhurt.
Over the next several years, some of the other Dalton boys would meet equally violent ends, but none in the heroic, law abiding way that Frank did.
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.