By Shaun Treat
One of our favorite local legends of Denton County doesn't get nearly enough play in the history handbooks, though that may be because he is a Texas bandit who made a damn big impression in a fairly short amount of time. Although many long-in-the-tooth Dentonites may be familiar with the reputation of Sam Bass, few may linger long enough to really chew on why this infamous outlaw became immortalized as a hero of the common folk. Well, pull up a chair and grab a cold beverage, as we take a gander back at the short life and tall tales of the legendary Texas Robin Hood on a Fast Horse who should be more famous than Jesse James, the smiling Texas brigand Sam Bass.
Sam came to Denton in 1870 from his birthplace in Indiana, where the orphaned runaway had dreamed of Texas adventure gleaned from Wild West novellas. Barely 19, he got a job working the stables at the Lacy House Hotel on the Denton Square, a popular spot for cowboys to rest their herd while enjoying liquor and ladies before droving stock up the Chisholm Trail. Texas was still in the turmoil of Civil War Reconstruction under Federal Marshal Law and had just been readmitted to the Union, but these days of economic hardship and rampant lawlessness from destitute Rebs or Native American raiders plagued frontier outposts like Denton. Sam also took on work freighting supplies for Denton County Sheriff ‘Dad’ Egan, which gave him a knowledge of the county roadways and offpath trails that would come in handy later. By most accounts, Sam was a thrifty and affable lad with an easy smile who, like most teenagers, loved the fast horses that often raced on the dirt outskirts of town. Saving money from menial jobs to buy his own pony, Sam began winning races and gambling bets with a jenny that came to be famously known as The Denton Mare, a hard-charger notorious all across North Texas horse country for beating all challengers. Sheriff Egan became concerned and issued Sam an ultimatum, fearful that the fast life would corrupt honest work, but the young man’s group and his unbeatably fleet filly convinced Sam to go pro with horse racing and gambling. By 1874, the jovial Sam travelled across Texas and Oklahoma with his Denton Mare racing (and winning), but his gambling fortunes soon changed as did the company he was keeping.
Falling in with Joel Collins shady crew on a fast-money cattle drive north to the Black Hills, where the earnings were quickly squandered, the desperate ne’r-do-wells turned to robbing stagecoaches with modest returns. Things quickly became hot for the Collins Gang when a beloved stagecoach driver was accidently shotgunned by an itchy trigger-finger during a hold-up, which spurred the bold decision to attempt robbery of a fast-moving train. In 1877, with an unbelievable stroke of beginners luck, the bandits intercepted a Union Pacific train in Big Springs, Nebraska loaded with $20 double-eagle gold pieces fresh from the mint. The robbery haul was estimated at $60,000 in gold coins and another $1,300 in booty, a fortune in those days even divvyed up amongst the gang. To this day, it is still the single largest train robbery in Union Pacific history, a heist which attracted no small amount of attention from the railroad and the frontier press. In fact, Joel Collins and his gang were quickly hunted down and killed for the sizeable railroad reward, but Sam Bass barely escaped with a confederate back to Texas by cleverly posing as their own bounty hunters.
Back in Denton by fall under a story that he had struck rich mining silver, Sam fell back in with his old pals Henry Underwood, Sebe Barnes, and Jim Murphy as he freely spent his ill-gotten gains carousing. Sam shared his easy money freely, “I’ve got the world by th’ tail, money’s only good ‘til yer dust!” Yet speculation on the fate of Sam’s impressive cut of the heist has fueled treasure-hunter legends about hidden gold in “Sam Bass’ Cave” for generations, since by 1878 the Sam Bass Gang quickly began a crime wave of robbing stagecoaches and trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas while hiding out in the thickets of the rural Denton County area. By now with a $1,000 reward on his head as one of the most wanted outlaws in Texas, Sam was being hunted by the UP Railroad’s Pinkerton Men, the Texas Rangers, and a covey of bounty hunters. Stories abound of Sam being aided by rural Denton locals with little love for the banks and the railroad tycoons during these hard Reconstruction days, and many tell of smiling Sam’s rascal charm when it came to parsing out money to help neighbors or stymie pursuers. One account has the bandits’ horses confiscated to Denton after Sheriff Egan spooked their camp, only to be reclaimed at sunrise by a mounted Sam awakening Egan by playfully exclaiming to his former employer: “Wake up, Bill! I hear there’s thieving scallywags roaming these parts!” To Egan’s eight year old son, Sam cheerily tipped his hat as he rode away, “Hello ag’in there, lil’ pard!” Another story tells of a Confederate widow whose home was saved from bank foreclosure by Sam gifting money to pay off her note, then robbing the banker on the trail back to Denton. Now targeted by the Texas legislature as much for his growing notoriety than his bold robberies, the Sam Bass Gang led the Texas Rangers and railway-hired Pinkerton Men on a spirited chase across the trails of North Texas in the months known as “The Bass War.”
Sam met his legendary end in Round Rock, Texas on his twenty-seventh birthday July 21, 1878, betrayed by his childhood friend “Judas Jim” Murphy who had cut a Devil’s bargain to free his Denton family from arrest for aiding the outlaw. Mortally wounded in a shootout with Texas Rangers, Sam confessed he had never killed a man prior to that final gunfight but stubbornly refused to give details of his associates. The Texas Robin Hood was buried in Round Rock, where his mourning sister erected a tombstone inscribed: “A brave man reposes in death here. Why was he not true?” In death, Sam’s legend only grew. A cowboy ballad long immortalized his life and death, frontier dime novels stoked tall tales, and stories spun out in radio dramas and several movies (like the 1949 western Calamity Jane and Sam Bass). There are plenty of stories about Sam Bass to share later, but we might wonder how it was that an outlaw bandit came to be a beloved Texas folk hero? I think knowing a bit of history sure helps to understand the difficult days of Texas Reconstruction and the Gilded Age of the Railroad Robber-Barons who killed desperate towns as they built their own empires. But ole Sam himself was a charming Denton rebel with an entrepreneurial spirit that you may begrudge, but you surely can’t deny.
Below is a moody rendition of “The Cowboy Ballad of Sam Bass” by Denton’s own Justin Hawkins, member of TrebucheT.
Back in The Day is an ongoing WDDI contribution from Shaun Treat, an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc Treat has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.