The Brief & Heinous Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang
The Rufus Buck gang’s exploits didn’t last long, but they were brutal enough to quickly go down in Western outlaw history.
On July 1, 1896, five young men, chained and dressed in black, walked to the gallows at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Rufus Buck, no older than 22, led the way, followed by his violent — and even younger — cohorts: Maomi July, Sam Sampson, Lewis Davis and Lucky Davis.
They had been sentenced to hang by Judge Isaac Parker — the “Hanging Judge” of Fort Smith who became synonymous with swift frontier justice — in the fall of 1895, after a two-week spree punctuated by murder, rape, robbery and other crimes.
The guilty verdicts for the men came quickly — their juries deliberated for just minutes — but the cases were appealed and sent to the Supreme Court, a de facto legal move many outlaws in Indian Territory took up as a way to fight back against Parker’s heavy-handed judicial reign.
But the Supreme Court refused to overturn Parker’s results, and in the spring of 1896, the five men were once again sentenced to hang. On the last night in June, the outlaws prayed, sung hymns and spent time with Father Pius, who had also baptized the group.
It was a strange turnabout for the five men who spent two weeks in the summer of 1895 terrorizing citizens of the Creek Nation. They had killed a deputy marshal, assaulted individuals and families, raped women, robbed stores and in general caused the type of mayhem that put an entire region on high alert.
“It is not considered safe for women to go about, and many of the homes are under partial guard of the men folks on the places, in fear that the gang may visit them to do violence,” reported the Cherokee Advocate.
Now, there was no more evading the inevitable, and the outlaws made their way calmly to the infamous trap door at Fort Smith’s gallows, nicknamed the “Gates of Hell” for all the convicts it had put to death.
There wasn’t much of a crowd: Buck’s father was present, drunk, and sisters of Sam Sampson and Lucky Davis were also in attendance. The days of large public gatherings for hangings at Fort Smith were over, and on this day, few onlookers witnessed the final minutes of Rufus Buck and his peers.
It was the last group hanging at Fort Smith under the watch of Judge Parker — the court’s jurisdiction over Indian Territory would end two months later — and one of the final chapters of that gallows’ storied history.
Related read: 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin
The Changing Tides of Indian Territory
The Rufus Buck gang’s crime spree was indefensible, but it was not without cause. Buck and his family lived in the Creek Nation, one of several independently governed nations in Indian Territory — what is now Oklahoma — created in the 1830s.
At that time, white settlement continued expanding throughout North America, and the young nation’s desire for land was largely unquenched, particularly in the southeast, home of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” including the Creek (Muscogee), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminoles.
As a result, President Andrew Jackson, who had a history of negotiating treaties for land with various tribes, signed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830. It was a forceful move that allowed the U.S. government to relocate indigenous groups in the southeast to land west of the Mississippi River — to a region that was believed, at the time, to be far removed from U.S. interests.
Over the next decade, more than 50,000 men, women and children were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southeast to the designated territory located in present-day eastern Oklahoma. While some groups went peacefully, others resisted the order, resulting in tragedies like the Trail of Tears, when thousands of Cherokees lost their lives marching east in harsh and inhumane conditions.
Indian Territory was divided into nations for the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, but by the 1890s, white settlers began pouring into the territory at an overwhelming rate, despite federal laws requiring them to have tribal licenses to do so.
“Thousands of whites in every business and profession entered the territory as traders with the half-dozen railroad building projects launched by the government during the 1870s and 1880s,” wrote Glenn Shirley in Thirteen Days of Terror. “Many Indian settlements boomed as commercial centers.”
Despite the economic advantages of this newfound commerce, citizens of the territory — tribes who had been granted this land more than 50 years prior — once again saw their lands being taken over by white settlement.
Many of the territory’s rightful citizens — including John Buck, Rufus’s father — were not pleased with the white “intruders,” but wanted to solve the issue politically, by addressing the laws, taxes and policies that governed relations between the nations and U.S. government.
But not everyone wanted a diplomatic approach shrouded in federal red tape. That included Rufus Buck, a young, bold Yuchi — a southeastern indigenous group allied with the Creek and removed with them in the 1830s — who, by the summer of 1895, had several brushes with the law and a problem with how thoroughly white settlers had occupied Indian Territory.
And unlike his father, Rufus Buck wasn’t willing to protest peacefully.
The Early Life of Rufus Buck
Rufus Buck was born and raised in the Creek Nation of Indian Territory, on a family farm off the Arkansas River south of present-day Tulsa. In his teens he attended Wealaka Mission, a boarding school for Creek children, but was expelled for unruly behavior.
In his early twenties, he was arrested for bringing whiskey into Indian Territory — an increasingly common, though illegal activity — and spent 90 days in Fort Smith’s jail, where he would one day meet his demise.
Not longer after being released, Buck was arrested in Okmulgee, some 40 miles south of Tulsa, this time for being involved in cattle theft, though he would escape from a credulous guard before facing any criminal charges.
After his disappearing act, Buck met up with four locally known criminals: Sam Sampson and Maomi (Maoma) July, both “full-blood” Creeks, as well as Lewis Davis (Yuchi), and Lucky Davis, a Creek Freedman with a reputation as a “fiendish” outlaw.
Lucky was one of thousands of Freedmen in Indian Territory, many of whom were descendants of Black slaves once owned by the Five Civilized Tribes. After the Civil War, the tribes were required to abolish slavery, and Creeks adopted newly freed slaves into their populace, granting them tribal rights to land and other resources.
Freedmen faced prejudices and cultural challenges in Indian Territory, to be sure, but these were still preferable to life in the states. “Very few left their host nation,” wrote William Loren Katz in Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. “Whatever unfairness they felt among their Indian friends could not match what they knew they would experience among whites. They knew this and stayed.”
Buck and his associates began stockpiling guns and ammunition, and by late July 1895, they were prepared to terrorize white settlers of the Creek Nation.
Related read: The Origins of Scalping: A True and Surprising History
The Spree Commences
On July 30, 1895, the gang rolled into Okmulgee for supplies, and by nighttime, had staked out a position behind a Creek-owned trading post whose owner, Parkinson, may have carried a significant sum of cash. Word spread that Buck was in town, so Okmulgee town marshal (and Deputy U.S. Marshal) John Garrett visited the trading post to investigate.
It would be one of Garrett’s last decisions as marshal: when he exited the back of the store, Buck ambushed the lawman, shot him at close range and took off on horseback. Garrett would die soon after, and the hunt for Buck and his gang was officially on.
Buck’s motive for the murder wasn’t immediately clear: Garrett was a Creek Freedman, not a white settler, though some accounts argue it was a revenge killing for Buck’s attempted arrest after he was released from prison.
Over the next few days, the gang roamed the territory committing one atrocity after another, and world of their exploits traveled fast. They allegedly burnt down the homes of Creek white sympathizers and attacked white settlers on the road.
On August 4, the gang approached an older man, Ayers, and his daughter, who was assaulted and raped on the spot. The gang would allegedly rape at least four women during their spree, and several reportedly died from their injuries.
In the early days of August, they attacked and robbed several travelers, and targeted Benton Callahan, a white rancher whose father had expelled Buck from boarding school. The gang shot at Callahan and his Black farmhand, who by some accounts later died from his injuries, and Callahan only escaped after the five took a vote and decided to let him live.
Another night, the gang attempted to steal horses from the ranch of Gus Chambers, who stayed up all night shooting back at the outlaws. His family hid under a bed that was later found to be riddled with bullet holes. The Chambers’ family survived the scare, but it further proved no white household was safe from the Buck gang’s wrath.
It didn’t take long for posses to gather and track the outlaws, but as lawmen followed their trail, the five criminals continued their rampage of robbery and rape. Deputy U.S. marshals and Creek Lighthorse were fast tracking the men, as were vigilante posses looking to protect their own communities.
Within the first week of August, arrest warrants were issued for the outlaws, and at one point 12 deputies were tasked with bringing the gang to justice.
Terror on the Hassan Family Farm
On August 6, the Buck gang approached the farm of Henry Hassan, a white settler who lived with his wife, Rosetta, three children and Rosetta’s mother. Hassan had previously had issues with Lucky Davis, and knew of Rufus Buck, though he was unaware of the gang’s present criminal binge.
Within minutes, the gang cornered Henry, forced Rosetta to make them a homemade meal, and devoured the nervous woman’s offerings. When they were done, Lucky took Rosetta to the barn, raped her, and watched as the other outlaws followed suit.
As the tragedy unfolded, the outlaws held a gun to the head of Henry Hassan, revealing the details of John Garrett’s murder in order to scare him, wrote one newspaper. The men next took aim at Henry and a neighboring rancher who stumbled upon the vicious scene.
“They then amused themselves by making Hassan and another man who was present fight each other and dance, shooting around their feet to make them more lively,” wrote S.W. Harman in Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men.
The gang allegedly made the two men march some two miles away from the Hassan home, and by the time Henry made it back to his family, Rosetta was hidden in a cornfield, traumatized, while the children cried under the watch of Rosetta’s grief-stricken mother.
For terrified citizens of the Creek Nation, the rape, assault and torment of the Hassan family was the final straw: the Buck gang had to be caught.
Related read: Best Western Movies on Netflix Right Now
The Buck Gang Brought to Justice
On August 7, Creek lawmen, deputy U.S. marshals and citizens “by the hundreds” hit the valleys, trails and hills around Okmulgee looking for signs of the Buck gang. Deputy U.S. Marshals Samuel Haynes and N.B. Irwin led federal efforts, and Captain Edmund Harry led the Creek Lighthorse. The outlaws spent the day robbing stores in Orcutt, McDermott and Okmulgee, collecting supplies, food and fresh clothing.
J.I. Belford, the 10-year-old son of Newt Belford, who ran a store in Orcutt, later recounted his meeting with Lucky Davis and Lewis Davis on that frightful day.
“Lewis Davis announced that the bunch was hungry,” Belford recalled in True West magazine. “I cut a big slice of cheese and told them to help themselves to cans of sardines and crackers.”
Davis would later return to the store, looking for Newt, who had joined a local posse combing the area. When J.I.’s younger brother told Davis their father was “out hunting the Buck gang,” Davis took the opportunity to further stock up.
He plucked a pair of boots that hung on the center post of the store, and cut about a yard and a half of quarter-inch rope from a coil to tie the boots together. Then he went behind the counter and stuffed the boots full of cartridges, including shotgun shells.C.H. McKennon, When the Buck Gang Rode, True West
The following day, the gang divided their loot on the banks of Flatrock Creek, less than 10 miles north of Okmulgee. In his account, J.I. Belford suggested Davis mentioned in the store where they planned to rendezvous, and Belford tipped off local lawmen immediately afterward.
In any case, the five outlaws were more than surprised when Haynes, Irwin, Harry and other Lighthorse members snuck up on their meeting place, leaving the gang just enough time to scramble up nearby Flat Rock, where they gained a higher vantage point over the lawmen.
The ensuing firefight lasted hours, and a posse of nearly 100 townspeople formed on the other side of Flat Rock, ensuring the gang had no obvious exit. By nighttime, the lawmen had reached the top of Flat Rock and managed to scare the outlaws when Lighthorsemen Shansey used an explosive to finally scare Buck.
“The explosive shattered bark from the tree, and a fragment of metal cut Buck’s cartridge belt,” wrote Glenn Shirley. “As it fell to the ground, the outlaw leader threw away his Winchester and fled with the rest of his equally demoralized gang down the opposite side of the knob into the arms of Sloan’s posse.”
Four of the gang were arrested on the spot, while Lewis Davis managed to hide in the bushes long enough to escape to a nearby house later that night.
Related read: 9 Fascinating Facts About Virgil Earp, Noble Lawman
Taming the Lynch Mob
The townspeople were understandably impatient with the Buck captives: they wanted frontier-style justice delivered on the spot. But the marshals and Lighthorsemen in charge of the criminals didn’t appease the mob’s requests.
“After the deputy marshals and lighthorsemen had taken the prisoners in custody, the crowd clamored to get them in its clutches, men begging the officers with tears in their eyes, to let them have them without a fight, which would cost the lives of good men,” reported The Coffeyville Journal.
But “the guards were determined to hand their prisoners over to the law and proceeded to Okmulgee, the Creek Capital, followed by a great mob.”
Getting the Buck gang all the way to Fort Smith to face charges for the rape of Rosetta Hassan and murder of John Garrett would prove daunting; one night, guards had the outlaws hold their own chains quietly in order to escape a potential mob ascending on the jail.
On Sunday, August 11, the four captured outlaws arrived by train in Fort Smith, and the spectacle was something to behold, wrote S.W. Harman.
There was no time lost; the marshals headed for the sidewalk, the crowd separated and with officers leading the way and others bringing up the rear, the strange procession marched slowly and silently up the Avenue, while the morning church bells tolled a requiem to the dead victims of this blood-thirsty gang, the only sound except the clank, clank of the chains as they struck upon the sidewalk.S.W. Harman, Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men
By Tuesday, Lewis Davis had been caught hiding, and was transported to the Fort Smith jail, where the five awaited trial in the court of Judge Isaac Parker.
Related read: 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West
Justice Under Judge Parker
Beginning in May 1871, the federal court at Fort Smith held jurisdiction over crimes involving white U.S. citizens in Indian Territory. This included crimes committed by and against whites, though the court often overstepped its bounds by prosecuting crimes that may have been handled by the tribes’ themselves.
In 1875, 36-year-old Judge Parker took over a court that had been fraught with corruption and mismanagement for years, and his goal was to uphold the law as best he could.
In more than 20 years as the judge at Fort Smith, “344 were tried for offenses punishable by death, 174 were convicted and 168 were sentenced to die on the scaffold; eighty-eight of the convicted ones were hanged,” wrote Harman. Parker quickly gained a no-frills notoriety for justice, and was nicknamed the “Hanging Judge” for all those he sentenced to death.
For more than 14 years, Parker’s word in court was final: it wasn’t until 1889, when federal laws changed, that defendants could finally appeal their Indian Territory convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court. Once appealing was an option, more than 20 defendants did just that, and several, including the infamous Henry Starr, had their sentences lessened or cases acquitted.
The Buck gang’s trials for assault and murder began on September 23, 1895. They first faced rape and assault charges for their attack of Rosetta Hassan, who was forced to take the stand and relive the hellish episode. Henry Hassan also testified, and their account of the attack was emotionally devastating: it took the jury just three minutes to find the defendants guilty.
In an unprecedented move, Parker dismissed the first jury and immediately called the next, who would hear the John Garrett murder trial. This trial was yet another formality, and the next day, the jury took 12 minutes to find the five guilty.
Had the trials occurred before 1889, the outlaws couldn’t have appealed their verdicts, but now they did. They were sentenced to hang on October 31, 1895, but Parker issued a stay of execution while the appeal process played out. By the spring of 1896, the appeal was unsuccessful, and when attempts to have the outlaws pardoned were also ignored, Judge Parker resentenced the men to hang on July 1, 1896.
When the gang was caught in August 1895, the mobs of townspeople looking to hand out vigilante justice were afraid the criminals would escape on legal loopholes and maneuvers — like an appealed case to the Supreme Court. Several outlaws had escaped punishment that way, and the mob wanted to ensure it wouldn’t happen with the Buck crew.
It didn’t, fortunately, but the appeal process meant the five outlaws were allowed to languish in jail for nearly an entire year. By the time they were hung in 1896, the uproar of their spree had died down, and the five seemed to accept their fate.
“The condemned men ascended the steps leading to the gallows without any apparent trepidation, and listened patiently while the death warrant was being read,” reported the Muskogee Phoenix on July 9. “The black caps were adjusted and at 1:28 the trap was sprung and five human beings shot into space.”
Nearly one year after Buck and his gang murdered Deputy U.S. Marshal John Garrett in cold blood, they were finally hung for their two-week tear of viciousness.
Rufus Buck’s Final Words
After Buck’s death, guards cleaning out his jail cell found an old photo of his mother with a handwritten poem on the back.
Clearly influenced by the Christian hymns the men had taken up before their deaths, the poem is a strange finale to Buck’s saga, hinting at a loss and longing that may have fueled the young man’s fury.
Buck came to adulthood in a land that his people were forced upon, at a time when white encroachment knew no bounds. As the notion of Indian Territory became less clear, and official statehood loomed, Rufus Buck’s rampage was perhaps the most violent symbol of a hopelessness that spread across the territory — like incoming traders, like railroads, like cattle herds.
What to Read Next
- The Origins of Scalping: A True and Surprising History
- 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
- 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
- 29 Most Iconic Quotes from Tombstone
- I’m Your Huckleberry: The Real Meaning of Doc Holliday’s Iconic Line
References & Further Reading
- Shirley, Glenn (1996). Thirteen Days of Terror: The Rufus Buck Gang in Indian Territory. Barbed Wire Press.
- Harman, S. W. (2001). Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men. Eastern National.
- Akins, Jerry (2012). Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith: A History of Executions in Judge Parker’s Court. Little Rock, AR.
- Shirley, Glenn (1968). Law West of Fort Smith: A History of Frontier Justice in the Indian Territory, 1834-1896. University of Nebraska Press.
- Burton, Art T. (1991). Black, Red and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory, 1870-1907. Eakin Press.
- Katz, William Loren (2012). Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. Atheneum Books for Young Readers
- McKennon, C. H. (1976). When the Buck Gang Rode. True West, 23(6), 24–48.
D.T. Christensen is the founder of OldWest.org, a history website committed to sharing and preserving stories of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and also writes for Territory Supply and True Crime Time.