Cherokee Bill


He lived to be a little older than 20 years, but in that 20 years he developed a reputation that most men need a lifetime of dissolution to attain. He is virtually unknown today – except to historians – but in his own time, he was as infamous as other, more noted outlaws, such as John Wesley Hardin and Bill Miner.


In his time, he was known to most people as Cherokee Bill. As to his personality, well….let’s just say you wouldn’t want your sister to date him. A paragon of virtue he was not.


Cherokee Bill’s real name was Crawford Goldsby, and he was born in 1876 at Fort Concho, Texas. He was part white, part black, part Mexican, and, of course, part Cherokee. Somewhere along the line he acquired the name Cherokee Bill because, simply put, the name Crawford Goldsby is a name that most people would give to an accountant, not a desperado.


Goldsby’s criminal career didn’t really get off the ground until he was 18, but when it got started, it started with a vengeance.


The Cook brothers had started their criminal careers somewhat in advance of Cherokee Bill’s, and with the shooting of Jake Lewis, Bill found that he had an instant posse on his trail. The Cooks, you see, had been rather busy giving a whole new meaning to the word “larceny”. If it wasn’t tied down, they took it.


Lawmen became rapidly and intensely interested in chatting, at length, with all three.


The forces of law and order became even more interested in June of 1894. During that month a posse stumbled across the three desperadoes, and, as it turned out, things didn’t go too well for the minions of the law.


At a place called Fourteen Mile Creek near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the good guys and the bad guys, met quiet by accident. By all accounts, virtually everyone concerned would’ve rather the situation hadn’t come up. But come up it did, and the result sealed the fate of Cherokee Bill – he killed his first man that day.


When the surprised lawmen confronted the equally surprised outlaws, the only one really recognized was Jim Cook, who they knew was wanted for theft. Of course, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Cook’s two compadres were probably not runaways from a seminary. Therefore, when one of the lawmen began to announce to Jim that he was under arrest, it wasn’t a real big surprise when Cherokee, along with both of the Cooks, went for their guns.


Everyone began shooting at once, horses began to bolt in fear, and dust and gunsmoke obscured virtually all of the combatants from each other. When the gunsmoke cleared, Cherokee Bill and both of the Cooks had galloped off.


Lawman Sequoyah Houston lay dead in the dust, and his fellow lawmen decided that it was Cherokee Bill who fired the fatal shot. It was not to be his last killing.


They say that even the worst of us have a few good points, Back in the 19th century, most of the so-called “badmen” had a good point or two.


Cherokee Bill’s “saving grace” was that he truly loved his family. Now, for most of us who can say we truly love our families, the word “murder” is not usually the first word that follows that phrase. In Cherokee Bill’s case, however, it applies.


Bill had a sister named Maude, and some time before her brother hit the outlaw trail, she married a “gentleman” named George Brown. George was one of those low-lifes who are, unfortunately, still prevalent today. He beat Maude regularly, and while she tried to keep this fact from her lethal brother, her efforts were less than successful and Cherokee Bill found out how George Brown had been treating his sister.


In 1894, at Fort Gibson, In Oklahoma (formerly known as the Indian Nations) Goldsby ran afoul of a local man named Jake Lewis. When a fist fight erupted between the two, it seemed to onlookers as though it would just be an entertaining little match of fisticuffs. Which is exactly what it was until Goldsby, hereafter known as Cherokee Bill, began to get the  worst of it.


Being a good loser was not in Cherokee Bill’s makeup. Consequently, he evened the odds in his own favor by pulling a pistol and shooting Lewis with it. As Lewis slumped to the ground, Cherokee Bill realized the full extent of what he had done. Knowing full well what would happen to him if Lewis died – the local citizenry would undoubtedly have gone out of their way to see him hanged – Bill decided to seek his fortune elsewhere, in a big hurry.


As it turned out, Jake Lewis didn’t die, but by the time the extent of Lewis’ injuries was ascertained, Cherokee Bill was long gone.


Joining forces with two other miscreants who also were in desperate need of some sort of moral code, Cherokee Bill hit the outlaw trail full time. His two partners in crime were the Cook brothers, Bill and Jim, and from that day onward, their destinies were inexorably linked to Cherokee Bill’s.


This is where the word “murder” comes into play. When Cherokee Bill got wind of Brown’s behavior, he immediately sought him out for an in-depth discussion of the matter. The two bandied a few words about and then Cherokee Bill awarded Brown several new orifices in places that God had not intended. In other words, after her brother finished discussing the situation with her husband, Maude Goldsby Brown was a Widow.


Later in 1894 Cherokee Bill and the Cook brothers were extremely busy, particularly Cherokee Bill. A station agent named Richard Richards got on Bill’s bad side by having the effrontery to complain because Bill and the Cook brothers were following their chosen profession – namely, they were robbing the place. Bill killed him for it.


Then there was the railroad conductor, Samuel Collins. When the conductor attempted to throw Cherokee Bill off the train, the outlaw killed him for his trouble. Apparently Bill felt that because he planned on robbing the train, he didn’t need a ticket to ride it.


In Lenapah, Oklahoma, Bill and several other accomplices were busying themselves robbing the Shufeldt and Son General Store. While they were occupied with this endeavor, a man named Ernest Melton happened by, and, hearing a commotion inside the place, stuck his head in to see what was going on.


This of course, was precisely what he should not have done. Cherokee Bill jerked a pistol and fatally shot Melton in the head.


Shortly thereafter, in early 1895, while Bill was visiting his sweetheart, alert lawmen trapped and captured him. And it was for Melton’s death that Bill was sentenced to hang by the legendary “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker.


Cherokee Bill managed to get himself into trouble wherever he went – even death row. On July 26, 1896 in the jail at Fort Smith, Arkansas, Cherokee Bill somehow got hold of a gun. Apparently thinking that he could escape from what would now be called a maximum security prison, the deluded Cherokee Bill stuck the weapon in the face of a guard named Lawrence Keating and demanded to be released. When Keating, the father of four, tried to reason with the desperate outlaw, Cherokee Bill shot him to death. Retreating back to his cell, he began taunting the authorities, laughing dementedly and firing an occasional round into the cell block.


At this point, the forces of law and order received some assistance from an unexpected source. Also languishing in the Fort Smith jail was Henry Starr, a more accomplished (and more humane) outlaw than Cherokee Bill had ever been.


Starr told the guards – none of whom were eager to confront Cherokee Bill – that he would be happy to go and disarm the crazed outlaw. The authorities, feeling that they had nothing to lose by such a maneuver – except maybe Starr himself – agreed.


Henry Starr had been called many names, but “coward” was not among them. After receiving permission to approach Cherokee Bill, Starr ambled casually down to Bill’s cell and strolled in. A rather tense silence followed, and then, a few minutes later, Starr emerged with Cherokee Bill’s weapon. Starr never did divulge what had passed between them, and the authorities really didn’t care. The main thing was that Cherokee Bill was back in irons.


And that was where he remained, right up until the day of his execution.


When Cherokee Bill mounted the 13 steps of the gallows, he was asked if he had any last words. Looking around him, Cherokee Bill then said the words for which he is best remembered today:


“I came here to die,” he said, “not to make a speech.”


Drew Gomber – Lincoln Heritage Trust Historian

The Tombstone Epitaph

March 2002  



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