Alabama’s motto, the “Heart of Dixie,” carries a deep-south image that often overshadows an older tradition. In its early years, Alabama was part of the Western frontier and made a rich contribution to the history of the Old West.
At least five legendary Old West figures claimed Alabama ties, including the commander of the Alamo, the sheriff who killed the West’s most infamous badman, the West’s deadliest gunfighter, the nation’s best known bank robber, and the Southwest’s most ferocious Apache warrior. You know their names – William Barrett Travis, John Wesley Harden, Pat Garrett, Jesse James, and Geronimo. But do you know their ties to Alabama?
William Barrett Travis
Travis became a hero in Texas because he was a failure in Alabama. The future commander of the Alamo was born in South Carolina and grew up near Monroeville.
He went to school in Claiborne and became an apprentice to an attorney in nearby Gosport. He also published a newspaper, the Claiborne Herald, and joined the local Masonic lodge, Alabama Lodge No. 3.
After his businesses and marriage faltered, Travis moved to Texas in 1831. When war broke out with Mexido, Travis was named the commander of a small garrison of volunteers at the Alamo. Two other, better known, legends also joined the fight – Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie – but Travis was the one in charge.
He made the decision to hold out at all cost, even if his 180-plus defenders were outnumbered by Mexican General Santa Anna’s three thousand troops. The beleaguered, makeshift fort held out for 13 days before being overwhelmed in a massive assault that killed most of the defenders.
Travis was killed in the early stages of the attack. After the battle, Santa Anna ordered that his body and those of the other defenders be burned in a massive funeral pyre in front of the mission.
Still the bravery of the defenders inspired the other Texas Volunteers led by Sam Houston. Houston’s army – yelling, “Remember the Alamo,” surprised Santa Anna’s soldiers seven weeks later at San Jacinto and won Texas’ independence from Mexico.
Travis wasn’t the only Alabamian to die at the Alamo. James Butler Bonham, one of the better known officers and a close friend of Houston, was an attorney in Montgomery before moving to Texas and joining the Alamo defenders
Another defender, William DePriest Sutherland, was from Tuscumbia. Others thought to have Alabama ties were James Buchanan, Isaac White, and Galba Fuqua, Fuqua was a teenager, not yet seventeen years old, when he died in defense of the mission.
Pat Garrett is best known as the New Mexico lawman who killed Billy the Kid. Before settling in Lincoln County, New Mexico, Garrett started his life in Alabama. He was born in Chambers County, near the town of Cusseta, in 1850.
His parents moved to Louisiana while Patrick was still a child. When he reached manhood, he ventured to Texas to try his hand as a buffalo hunter.
That set up his move to New Mexico, where he became embroiled in the infamous Lincoln County War. That bloodbath included some of the West’s most famous players, including cattleman John Chism, Governor (and Ben Hur author) Lew Wallace, and a young gunman who went by the name of William Bonney. Most folks just called him Billy the Kid.
The Lincoln County War wound down after the Kid was arrested and found guilty of murder. He escaped from jail, killing two guards in the process. Garrett, by then Sheriff of Lincoln County, tracked Billy to nearby Fort Sumner, where he shot and killed they young outlaw..
John Wesley Hardin
Gunman John Wesley Hardin may be the most overlooked Western badman with Alabama connections, perhaps because his name doesn’t appear in any official records in the State. But, while running from the Texas Rangers, he settled for a few months in Monroeville under the name Swain.
Hardin was probably the deadliest gunman in the history of the West, with more than 40 documented kills to his credit. When the Texas Rangers gave chase, the gunman took his family and left the state.
Hardin first settled in Gainesville, Florida, but, hearing that the Pinkerton detectives were closing in, he fled north to Jacksonville, Florida and then to Alabama.
He moved in with his wife’s relatives in Monroeville, took the name J. W. Swain, and became a businessman in the local lumber industry. Hardin and his wife kept in contact with their families through a mail box in Pensacola. Texas Rangers traced the mail box and captured Hardin on a train near the Florida city.
You won’t find the name Jesse James on many official records in Alabama either, but his brother Frank shows up in a major court case. Further, the James brothers are credited with an 1881 robbery near Muscle Shoals. And Jesse occasionally traveled to Selma when he was hiding from the law.
First, the stage robbery. That occurred in March 1881 when three masked men robbed the Army paymaster near Muscle Shoals. One of the robbers, Bill Ryan, was later captured in Nashville and identified Jesse and Frank James as the other thieves.
It may have been the last robbery of the gang. Within a year, Jesse was shot in St. Joseph, Missouri by Bob Ford. Frank James surrendered to the law soon afterwards.
Frank was tried for murder in Gallatin, Missour, but found “not guilty” by a jury in his home state. The law brought him to trial again, on robbery charges, in Huntsville.
It started on April 17, 1884, and became the “celebrity” trial of the time. Former Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker served as Frank’s lead attorney. William Smith, the U.S. attorney who had also served as a Reconstruction governor for the state, was the prosecutor.
Turns out the government couldn’t convict Frank in Alabama either. A jury, composed mostly of Confederate veterans, sided with James and Walker.
And, as for those Selma trips – that’s because the James boys had a friend in the area, a local contractor named John Greene Norris. Selma was a safe place to visit, since nobody in the area knew what the outlaws looked like.
That was typical of the Jesse and Frank in their heyday. When the law got a bit too hot, they moved east to hide out. Both lived in Nashville for several years, their families spent time in Franklin, Kentucky, too.
The Apache warrior Geronimo is probably best known for the guerrilla-style warfare that he conducted against the U.S. and Mexican armies in Arizona during the latter part of the nineteenth century, but the chief spent some of his last days in Mount Vernon, Alabama near Mobile.
The story started in 1858 when the Apache and a group of dissident Native Americans bolted from the reservation. That began a twenty-eight-year reign of terror marked by attacks on the military and settlers. Geronimo’s protest came to an end in 1886 when he was cornered by an Army troops commanded by General Nelson Miles in southern Arizona.
Geronimo and most of his followers were sent to Fort Pickens in Florida. A year later, the Apache was sent to Fort Stoddert at Mount Vernon, Alabama, where he was joined by his family. The fort had previously served as a prison for former Vice President Aaron Burr after his capture on treason charges in 1807.
Geronimo and his family stayed at Mount Vernon for five years. In 1894, they were moved to Fort Sill, Alabama, but he was never allowed to return to Arizona. He died at Fort Sill in 1909.
These are among the most prominent figures from the old West with Alabama ties, but there were plenty more.
Gunman and El Paso Marshal Dallas Stoudemire, a native of Macon County, is best known as the gunman who killed two people in El Paso’s famous “Four Dead in Five Seconds” gunfight on April 14, 1881. Stoudemire himself was killed September 18, 1882 by the Manning Brothers (Doc, Jim, and King), who were born in Mobile.
A lesser known gunman was the John Larn, a former resident of Mobile who moved west. He stole a horse and killed at least four men before establishing his own ranch on the Brazos River. After that, he killed several other men that he accused of being rustlers. He was shot by vigilantes in June 1878.
All of these personalities from the Old West reflect Alabama’s ties to that historic region. But, more importantly, they indicate something that many Alabamians forget.
In the early days of the state, when wagon trains were trekking to various parts of the state, Alabama was the front edge of the Western frontier. Some of those early settlers stayed here.
But others kept moving West, contributing to the history of an expanding nation.
Davis, William C. (1998). Three roads to the Alamo: The lives and fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. New York: HarperCollins.
Metz, Leon Claire (1983). Pat Garrett: The story of a Western lawman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Metz, Leon Claire (1996). John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Metz, Leon Claire (1996). The shooters. New York: Berkley.
Stiles, T. J. (2002). Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Tinkle, Lon (1996). 13 days to glory: The siege of the Alamo. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Yeatman, Ted P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James: The story behind the legend. Nashville: Cumberland House.
Debo, Angie (1982). Geronimo: The man, his time, his place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.