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Oklahoma Journeys

Cherokee Bill Meets His Maker

2010-03-20

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A hangman's noose ended the life of Cherokee Bill at the age of twenty, ending the life of one of the most notorious outlaws to roam the Indian Territory and perhaps the entire Western Frontier. It was in March 1896 that Cherokee Bill was hanged at Fort Smith. His story this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

In February 1876 Crawford Goldsby was born at Fort Concho near San Angelo, Texas. By the time he was twenty, he was dead, having been hung at Fort Smith, Arkansas. He left behind a two-year trail of crime unlike any in the history of the territory.

Crawford came from a broken home...his father a Sergeant in the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers; his mother, a Cherokee freedman. At the age of fifteen Crawford moved in with his sister and her husband near the present-day Nowata, but they didn't get along, so he moved on to Fort Gibson where his recently remarried mother lived. At the age of 18 Crawford was at a dance when Jake Lewis got into an argument with one of his brothers. A couple of days later Crawford took a six shooter and found Lewis and shot him. That began his short-lived crime spree. Crawford hit the trail, joined the Cook Brothers.

That same summer of 1894, the federal government purchased the Cherokee Strip form the Cherokee Nation and offered over $265 to each person who had settled in the Strip. Crawford Golsby and the Cook bothers were entitled to the money, but they couldn't ride into Tahlequah to collect it because they were all wanted men. The three stayed at a hotel outside Tahlequah and persuaded the lady who ran it to go into town to get their money. As she was returning to the hotel the sheriff was following her. That led to a gun battle between the sheriff and the three outlaws. One deputy was killed, and one of the Cook brothers was wounded. The lady from the hotel told the sheriff it wasn't Crawford Goldsby, it was Cherokee Bill who shot the deputy.

On July 18th, they held up the Frisco train at Red Fork, then two weeks later they robbed the Lincoln County Bank in Chandler. Between August and October, Crawford and the Cooks went on a crime spree, robbing and killing those who stood in their way. In September of that same year, Goldsby shot and killed his brother-in-law, Mose Brown, over an argument over some hogs. On November 8, 1894, when the men robbed the Shufeldt & Son General Store, Cherokee Bill shot and killed Ernest Melton, who happened to enter the store during the robbery. When the authorities offered a $1300 reward for the capture of Cherokee Bill, some of his acquaintances came forward and agreed to help. On January 30, 1895, Crawford was captured and taken to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to wait for his trial. On April 13, 1895, he was sentenced to death after being tried and convicted for the murder of Ernest Melton.

Judge Isaac Parker described Cherokee Bill as a "bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing" and was "the most vicious" of all the outlaws in the Oklahoma Territory. He sentenced him to die by hanging on March 17, 1896. Reportedly, when he was asked if he had any words, he said: "I came here to die, not make a speech."

You can learn more about outlaws before statehood by visiting the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.