9 Fascinating Facts About Cherokee Bill, Ruthless Outlaw
Notorious outlaw Cherokee Bill once killed a man while he was appealing to the Supreme Court for another murder charge.
The annals of the Old West are laden with outlaws who immortalized themselves with violence. Names like Jesse James, Wes Hardin, and Billy the Kid are probably the most well‐known — thugs who breezily saw murder and pillage as a livelihood. Lesser known, but equally vile, was Crawford Goldsby, also known as Cherokee Bill.
Cherokee Bill operated in the 1890s in Indian Territory, which is essentially today’s state of Oklahoma. The region was primarily divided between the Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee, which together comprised what were called the Five Civilized Tribes.
These Native Americans were not the original residents of Indian Territory, but had been pushed there from the Southeast by the United States earlier in the 19th century.
By the end of the 19th century, Indian Territory was in chaos. It was pressed by white settlers who were incurring illegally into their lands. Imported liquor created disruptive societal conditions. The economy was poor and law enforcement fragmented. This all led to conditions where rapining outlaws could thrive.
It was perfect for a killer like Cherokee Bill. Here are nine facts about the man who would go down as one of the Old West’s most brutal outlaws.
1. Cherokee Bill was born in Fort Concho, Texas.
Crawford Goldsby was born on February 8, 1876 in Fort Concho, Texas. The National Park Service explains that the boy had a diverse heritage.
His mother, Ellen Beck, was Cherokee, African American, and white, and his father, George Goldsby, was a Buffalo soldier with a rank of sergeant in the 10th Cavalry. He was part African American, Mexican, Sioux, and white.
George ran into trouble when whites came into racial violence with the Buffalo soldiers. In 1878, after a racially motivated shootout in which he was not involved but suspected that he may support, he fled to Indian Territory, where he realized that he would not be protected off the post.
It was a poor start to Crawford’s life. His mother moved them to Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory, where she had family. He was fostered and sent to the Indian School at the town of Cherokee and then later the Catholic Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
When he returned to Indian Territory at age 12, he found that his mother was remarried to William Lynch, with whom he had a contentious relationship. This seems to be the real start of Goldsby’s troubles.
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2. He became an outlaw as a teenager.
By the time he was a teenager, Goldsby was hanging around with the wrong crowd. According to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, he took to drinking whiskey and soon rebelled against authority. His stepfather kicked him out of the house.
At this point, one researcher asserted that he ended up living with his sister Georgia and brother-in-law Mose. However, Mose hated Goldsby and the boy soon found himself on his way back to Fort Gibson. By the time he was 17, he worked various jobs and was generally “well-liked.”
While there are rumors of Goldsby killing his first man at age 12, it is likely that he generally stayed clear of running afoul with the law until he was 17. The National Parks Service details how on September 29, 1893, Goldsby got into a fight at a harvest dance with African American Jake Lewis, who beat him up.
Two days later, Goldby ambushed Lewis with a six‐shooter and pumped two rounds in him, ostensibly out of revenge since he got pummeled in front of a girl Goldsby was infatuated with.
Oklahoma Black Cherokees describes how Lewis survived the attack, but Goldsby still fled further into Indian Territory. He fell under the jurisdiction of Cherokee law and since Lewis survived, he probably would have gotten less than one year in jail.
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3. Goldsby became Cherokee Bill under the Cook Gang.
It was in Indian Territory that Goldsby met up with the criminal brothers Jim and Bill Cook, and it was at this time that Goldsby became known as “Cherokee Bill.” Outlaws of the Wild West tells us that the Cooks were also part Cherokee.
In the summer of 1894, the federal government purchased a portion of the Indian Territory called the Cherokee Strip. This entitled anyone who could prove they owned some of the land and had at least one-eighth Cherokee blood compensation.
For the Cooks, it was $265.70.
The Cooks traveled with Goldsby toward Tahlequah to claim their share. En route, they stopped at Fourteen-Mile Creek where at a hotel, the Cooks’ brother-in-law worked at a hotel restaurant owned by Effie Crittendon. They cajoled Crittendon to go to Tahlequah and make the claim for them since the Cooks and Goldsby knew they were wanted men.
Crittendon did that, but she was followed home by the law. Throughout the evening, a gunfight raged in which the Cherokee deputy Sequoyah Houston was killed, probably by Goldsby.
It was in the aftermath that the nickname “Cherokee Bill” first appeared. When questioned about the incident, Crittendon explained there wasn’t a Crawford Goldsby present, but there was a Cherokee Bill.
Shortly after, in July 1894, the Cooks formed a gang formed mainly of Cherokee freedmen, but also African Americans and others of mixed parentage.
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4. Cherokee Bill led a reign of terror in Indian Territory.
Soon, Cherokee Bill and the Cook Gang intensely pillaged the Indian Territory.
Oklahoma Black Cherokees attributes the gang’s first crime to the robbery of the Scales Mercantile in Creek territory on July 2, 1894. On July 5, they robbed the Nowata depot. Cherokee Bill was reputed to have killed a station agent and conductor.
Outlaws of the Wild West also tells us that on July 14, 1894, the gang robbed the Muskogee-Fort Gibson stage. Two days later, they robbed a Cherokee chief. To grab more pilferage, the gang stopped a train and robbed passengers, as well as an express train in Red Fork.
At the end of July, they robbed the Lincoln County Bank in the Oklahoma Territory. During this crime, Cherokee Bill killed a barber who attempted to warn the town of the coming gang. It must have been an intoxicating month of pillage for Cherokee Bill.
The gang continued to plunder for months. It is difficult to say which deaths were at the hands of Goldsby, but it is fairly certain that he killed a number of men, including Ernest Melton, in Lenapah, while robbing a store.
This murder is the one that Cherokee Bill would be most implicated for. Authorities were outraged at such brazen lawlessness and according to Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith, a $250 bounty was posted for each member of the Cook gang.
Cherokee Bill would have a $1,300 bounty set on him after the murder of Melton.
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5. Cherokee Bill was in part protected by Treaty.
Part of what enabled Cherokee Bill and the Cook gang to get away with so much marauding and murder was that most of their crimes took place in the Indian Territory, which was outside the jurisdiction of most American enforcement agencies.
This was compounded by the patchwork of jurisdictions in different tribal areas, which led an outraged U.S. secretary of war to declare that he would abrogate treaties in order to bring these men to justice.
Cherokee Bill eluded capture for months. However the National Parks Service reported that on January 29, 1894, deputy Ike Rogers, who had a shady past and had associated with criminals, lured Goldsby out of hiding to his home to meet a girl whom the outlaw was taken with: 17-year-old Maggie Glass.
In the convoluted drama that followed, Rogers finally laid cuffs on him by striking him on the back of the head with a poker whilst the bandit was lighting a cigarette from the fire. Rogers and his neighbor, Clint Scales, bound Cherokee Bill with baling wire and laid on handcuffs.
Goldsby nearly escaped, breaking his handcuffs, though he was eventually subdued. Cherokee pleaded for his freedom, promising money and horses. But it was to no avail, and he was brought to Fort Smith for justice.
6. Cherokee Bill was tried at “Hanging Judge” Parker’s Court.
Cherokee Bill and Bill Cook (who had been captured in New Mexico) landed in the court of Isaac “the Hanging Judge” Parker. Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith relates how Cook and Cherokee Bill first went on trial on February 6, 1895 for the Red Fork train robbery.
It took the jury only ten minutes to deliver a guilty verdict. They were then tried for robbery. Curiously, the Cook gang never seemed to have netted much proceeds from these crimes despite all the chaos they caused.
In one instance, in Wetumpka, they took only 35 cents and made the victim so angry he blasted his Winchester repeatedly at them, making them drop their other loot. Cook was sentenced to 45 years imprisonment for these crimes.
As for Cherokee Bill, he faced a more serious charge with the murder of Ernest Melton. This trial took place on February 25 and lasted from the afternoon until ten at night.
The jury quickly came back with a guilty verdict. Cherokee’s mother and sister started weeping to which Goldsby quipped, “What’s the matter with you? I’m not dead yet by a long ways.”
7. Cherokee Bill killed a man while he was appealing to the Supreme Court.
On April 13, 1895, Judge Parker condemned Cherokee Bill to death.
At the sentence, the Hanging Judge said:
Your great effort now should be to get rid of that load of guilt, so you can enter upon a new existence with your sins, wickedness, and crime behind you. Do everything you can to accomplish this end, and lose not a moment’s time.”
His execution was scheduled for July 25.
Cherokee Bill did not lose a moment’s time — or at least his lawyer, J. Warren Reed, didn’t — since he managed to successfully get the case before the Supreme Court, who stayed the execution while they reviewed the appeal.
However, Cherokee Bill displayed his utter contempt for law by trying to orchestrate a jailbreak on July 26.
A .45 revolver was smuggled into the jail, where he held up his jailors. One, however, reached for his gun and Cherokee Bill killed him. More guards arrived and a 100-round shootout commenced, ending with Goldsby jailed once more.
Goldby underwent a new trial for this murder on August 10, and the jury found him guilty in 13 minutes. After this, there was no chance that the Supreme Court would show him clemency. His fate was sealed.
8. Cherokee Bill’s execution was a spectacle.
Cherokee Bill’s public execution was scheduled for March 17, 1896, St. Patrick’s Day.
Five days before the date, he received religious advice from a Father Pius of Fort Smith’s German Catholic Church. He saw him every day thereafter.
On the day of the execution, Cherokee Bill was reportedly in good spirits, singing and whistling. The execution of such a notorious outlaw drew a wide crowd of up to 3,000.
At 2:00 pm, he was led to the gallows by four guards, where he said, “This is about as good a day to die as any.” He also spied his mother in the crowd and said to her, “Mother, you ought not to have come up here.”
His mother replied, “I can go wherever you go.”
Just before the trapdoor was released at 2:13, Bill said, “Good-bye, all you chums down that way.” He then dropped and his neck snapped by the hangman’s noose. He hung for 12 minutes before he was taken down and put into a coffin.
He was only twenty.
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9. Cherokee Bill may have just been unlucky.
Among the superstitious set, there was some speculation that Cherokee Bill was particularly susceptible to the unlucky number 13. Hell on the Border catalogs the strange coincidences.
Goldsby was found guilty in 13 minutes. He was believed to have killed 13 people in the course of his criminal career, and he had a $1,300 bounty placed on his head. He was sentenced to die in the Melton case on April 13. He tried to break out of jail on July 26 (13 times two).
Judge Parker took 13 minutes to charge the jury in his second murder case. The foreman of the case boarded at a house numbered 313. The trial took 13 hours and the jury reached a verdict in 13 minutes. The jury and its foreman which boarded together numbered 13 and there were 13 witnesses for the prosecution.
If Cherokee Bill was unlucky, it was not due to triskaidekaphobia.
Regardless, Crawford Goldsby was unfortunate for the circumstances of his childhood, coupled with a resentful and rebellious spirit that led him to become one of the worst outlaws of the Old West.
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References & Further Reading
- Outlaws of the Wild West, Terry C. Treadwell
- Cherokee Bill: Black Cowboy-Indian Outlaw, Arthur T. Burton
- Oklahoma Black Cherokees, Ty Wilson & Karen Coody Cooper
- Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith: A History of Executions in Judge Parker’s Court, Jerry Akins
- Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men, S.W. Harman
- Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, And Little-Known Stories From History, Tricia Wagner
- The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States, William Loren Katz
Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.