Sam Bass remains one of the favorite outlaws in Texas history. He is remembered for his bravery, generosity, the ease with which he managed to escape sheriffs and rangers, and soldiers, and the greatest train robbery in U.S. Sam Bass’ name survives in ballads and legends,
Sam Bass was born in Indiana on July 21, 1851. His father died when he was not yet 13, and his mother 3 years earlier. After their house had been sold at auction, Sam and his brothers went to live with their uncle David L. Sheeks (Gard 1). When Sam turned seventeen, the conflicts with his uncle, who insisted that boys should work for food and dwelling, became more frequent. Finally, he left his uncle’s home after a fight in autumn, 1869 (Gard 24).
Sam worked hard, but he skipped school and was fascinated by the stories of American frontier (Gard 16). Similarly, the Reno brothers who robbed trains in the neighborhood captured his imagination (Gard 18). Sam was a likable person – adventurous, ambitious, industrious, kind, and generous (Gard 16, 18). He dreamt of becoming a Texas cowboy, running a ranch, and herding longhorn cattle (Gard 22).
Sam Bass’ verbal portrait spread after the Union Pacific robbery, “Twenty-five to twenty-six years old, 5 feet 7 inches high, black hair, dark brown eyes, brown moustache, large white teeth, shows them when talking; has very little to say” (Gillett 1).
Sam Bass worked in Rosedale, Mississippi, at a sawmill (Gard 26), then as a farmhand for Sheriff Eagan in Denton, Texas. From his earnings, Bass bought a racing horse, the Denton Mare, started earning easy money, attending saloons and gambling, and gave up permanent job. After 1875, he lived from gambling and occasional thefts (Round Rock Chamber of Commerce).
In 1875, Bass met cowboy Joel Collins from San Antonio, who planned to drive a herd to Deadwood, South Dakota. Collins had borrowed money for the cattle and planned to return it after sale, but he gambled all his profit away in Deadwood. (Gillett 1). His attempt to mine gold in Nebraska failed. In despair, Joel Collins and Sam Bass joined the Black Hill Bandits.
Together with Black Hill Bandits, namely Jack Davis, Jim Berry, Bill Heffridge, and Tom Nixon, Bass ransacked seven stage coaches. However, the profits were too low, and they decided for a train robbery.
On September 18, 1877, the gang committed its greatest train robbery. At 10:48 pm, heavily armed bandits in masks took over a Union Pacific train at Big Springs railroad station near Ogallala, Nebraska. Bass defended the messenger from his companion who beat him to open the safe. When the bandits already thought that the attempt would not bring them any profit, one of them became curious about three boxes piled near the safe and found newly minted gold coins of $20 each. The boxes yielded the gang $60,000 (Gillett 1). A clerk at a merchandise store, who became suspicious of Collins and his associates, followed them in disguise for several days, saw the money in bags, and overheard their conversations. While sheriffs scoured the county in the search of the robbers, they decided to share the money and split into pairs. Sam Bass went to Denton County, Texas, together with Jack Davies (Gillett 1).
The information of the outlaws spread through Nebraska, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Texas. The frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers was searching for them. Joel Collins and Bill Heffridge were identified and shot in Kansas during an escape attempt (Gillett 1). Berry was found at his home and shot it his knee; he died from gangrene that developed from the wound. Tom Nixon disappeared (Gillett 2).
Bass stayed in Denton County. His money and personality attracted many people, and soon he gathered his own band in Elm Bottoms, Denton County. Bass’ new associates were Henry Underwood, Arkansas Johnson, Seaborn Barnes, Jim Murphy, Frank Jackson, Pipes Herndon, William Collins, and some others (Gillett 2).
On February 22, 1878, just several months after the Pacific Union robbery, Bass band held up a Texas Central train at Allen Station, which earned them $1,300. On March 18, 1878, they robbed the Texas Central express at Hutchins. On April 4, they held up a Texas Pacific train at Eagle Ford, near Dallas. Their last train was robbed at Mesquite Station, 10-12 miles out of Dallas, which brought them $3,000.
General John B. Jones organized a posse of Texas Rangers to capture Bass’ band. The latter did not use much disguise and openly used public highways. Many times, they just managed narrow escapes. The gang operated in Denton, Dallas, and Tarrant counties. Finally, the Rangers killed Arkansas Johnson, captured Pipes Herndon and Jim Murphy, and forced Sam Bass to move to northern Texas. Murphy agreed to betray his chief for freedom. He lied to his associates that he escaped and would accompany them in robberies further on. Though they suspected lies, they did not kill Murphy. As they were planning a bank robbery at Round Rock, Murphy slipped a note to General Jones. Jones informed the local sheriff and organized an ambush. He placed three of his people at Round Rock. Eight Texas Rangers reached Round Rock on July 19, 1878. The robbery was planned for Saturday, the 20th (Gillett 4).
Arriving at Round Rock, Murphy proposed buying a bushel of grain to feed horses and left his associates. Bass, Jackson, and Barnes assessed the location and went to Coppel’s store at the backside of the bank to buy some tobacco. There Bass was confronted for carrying a gun by Deputy Sheriff Grimes whom he killed at once. Then he shot Deputy Sheriff Moore through the lung. Dick Ware ran out of the barber’s shop and tried to detain the outlaws alone. General Jones ran out of the telegraph office, and two other soldiers joined him. Soon, every man who had a gun joined the fusillade. They killed Barnes and mortally wounded Sam Bass. Frank Jackson managed to keep them away while unhitching horses and helping Bass to mount. They escaped with Bass being pale and bleeding (Gillett 4).
Sam Bass lost a lot of blood and could not continue running away. Dick Ware’s bullets broke his belt and entered his back above his right hip tearing his kidney in pieces. Unable to ride, Bass urged Frank Jackson to leave him and save his own life. In the morning, he walked out of the wood to a nearby farmhouse. He asked for water but could not drink it anymore. The rangers found him under a tree in the farmer’s backyard. Bass refused to tell the names of his friends before death. He was buried at Old Round Rock. The inscription on his tombstone says, “Samuel Bass. Born July 21st, 1851. Died July 21st, 1878. A brave man reposes in death here. Why was he not true?” (Gillett 4).
Jackson swore to revenge the traitor. He returned to Elm Bottoms in search for “Judas” Murphy. Jim Murphy was hiding in the prison from Jackson. Soon enough, he committed suicide by drinking poison (Gillett 4). Bass’ friend Henry Underwood presumably burnt the Parlor Saloon run by the Murphy family in Denton (Treat n.p.).
Bass’ generosity attracted many people to him and won him a fame of a Texas Robin Hood. “The Ballad of Sam Bass” is a popular Texas folklore song.
Some people think that Bass could not have wasted his $10,000 within a few months, so he might have hidden it. The legend of Sam Bass’ gold attracts treasure seekers to Denton County even in our times.
The monument on Bass’ grave is not original. It had to be restored after collectors picked out stones from the original monument erected by Bass’ sister (Round Rock Historic Preservation Commission).
Sam Bass is a unique personality in Texas’ history, as he became a real folk hero. His life is the subject of songs and stories, and his trails are attracting tourists. However, his story is an example of romanticizing an outlaw. Even though Bass could have a kind and generous nature, he was a criminal, who chose robbing and killing.