Cherokee Bill and Stagecoach Mary

Editor's Note: Attorney Douglas Lewis, director of the University of Michigan's Student Legal Services, has a longtime interest in African American history, particularly as it pertains to the settling of the West. This is his second in a series of columns written for The Legal News during Black History Month.

In the old west here were "Good Guys", "Bad Guys" and "Working Guys". African Americans filled all of these categories.

Almost all of us have heard of William Bonnie, aka Billy the Kid. He is known to have been one of the worst outlaws of that era. Very few of us, on the other hand, know of Crawford Goldsby, better known as Cherokee Bill. By all accounts, he was much worse than Billy.

Goldsby's father was black and his mother was black and Native American. His father, George Goldsby, was a buffalo soldier stationed in Texas.

One time, several of George Goldsby's fellow soldiers went into town for a little recreation. That meant, of course, an afternoon in the local saloon. One of the soldiers started playing the piano for the amusement of his comrades. In time he tired of that and decided to leave. The cowmen in the bar took offense and demanded that he continue playing. When the uniformed soldier refused ,the cowmen grabbed him and beat him. He was later able to make it back to the fort. When his brothers in arms discovered what happened they decided it was time to earn a little respect from the townspeople and the cowmen.

Now, I am going to pause for a second because I know you are wondering about that word cowmen and asking, "Did he mean cowboys?" In the 1860's to 1880's, whites were not called cowboy. They were called cowmen. Only blacks, Mexicans and natives were referred to in that manner. There is a line of thought that says the term cowboy actually referred to the slave boys who tended the masters cows on the plantation.

When the soldiers wanted their guns, it was George Goldsby who issued them. The soldiers went back to the bar, had a short drink, and then turned and started firing at those who they thought were responsible for the beating. When the Texas Rangers showed up at the fort, it was Goldsby they wanted. His commanding officer delayed that hanging party long enough for Goldsby to make his escape.

With his father gone, Cherokee Bill's mother remarried. Bill's stepfather did not care for him much, so he beat him frequently. Cherokee, of course, tired of that and decided to move in with his uncle. His uncle thought no better of him and decided to treat him as his stepfather had. Cherokee decided it was time to leave and try it on his own. Of course there were few opportunities for a young man of color in Texas, a state that received the news of the Emancipation Proclamation two years late. Living on his own, he did what any kid might do. He turned to stealing to support himself. Soon he was robbin,' shootin and doing dirty deeds like so many before him. It has been said by many that he was very fast with a pair of six shooters. As a result, there was no one who was anxious to go after him.

One day, after robbing a store, he shot and killed an onlooker on the street. That led to a posse being formed and his eventual hanging. As he stood on the gallows with the noose around his neck, he was asked if he had any last words. His response was, "I didn't come here to make a speech, I came here to die!" With that, they pulled the leaver. His body dropped about seven feet and came to an abrupt, bone crunching stop. He never got the chance to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Now you know I like movies based on real people. The comedian Sinbad made a movie called "The Cherokee Kid" in which Sinbad plays the hero seeking righteous revenge against those who murdered his mother. He also has another character in the movie who was a real person. Dawnn Lewis plays Stagecoach Mary. She drove a stagecoach and helped the "love Gang" rob banks. Stagecoach Mary's real name was Mary Fields. She drove a freight wagon for a Catholic convent.

Mary was one tough woman. It was said that she could shoot, fight and cuss as well as any man. It has also been said that she had a standing bet that she could knock any man out with a single punch. Mary never lost a bet. After she was asked to leave the convent, she opened a laundry in a nearby town. Mary was respected by many. In fact, the town fathers passed a special ordinance that allowed her to be the only woman in town permitted in the local saloon.

A white customer once took his laundry without payment. When Mary saw him days later, she asked if he was going to pay. When he refused, Mary knocked him out cold in the street. In some places, that could that gotten her sent to prison or worse. Here it got her asked the question; "Are you going to get your money from his pockets?" Her response was, "He's paid in full!"

Once again, Hollywood doesn't quite get it right. But that doesn't change the fact that we were there!

Published: Mon, Feb 20, 2012