The Story of Sam Bass
Early Years | Train Robberies | The "Bass War" | The Round Rock Shootout
Capture & Death | Library Bibliography Resources
The Historic Round Rock Collection is a project documenting Round Rock's history, funded in part with a grant from the Texas Historical Commission. These pages are adapted from the original 1991 print version.
The Outlaw Sam Bass1
Photo: Robert G. McCubbin, Jr.
The legend of Sam Bass has grown way out of proportion in relation to his actual deeds. A book collector claims that he has over 200 titles that deal with Sam Bass in some way (Carmack 1B). One of Round Rock's major streets bears his name as do several businesses. Texas history has often referred to him as "Texas' Beloved Bandit" or "Robin Hood on a Fast Horse" (Centennial Commission). In actual fact, Sam was probably more inept than brave or noble, and he appears to have never realized that robbing trains and banks was anything more than an amusing diversion. For him it was mere sport, the reality that people often were injured, either physically or financially, appears to have never surfaced on his shallow conscience (Smith 34).
To follow is an account of his 27-year life, focusing mostly on his final days in Round Rock.
As a legend, the accounts of Sam's life are as varied as the number of individuals telling the tale. For the events during and after the shootout, all of the stories have been gathered for the reader to examine; thus, throughout the narrative, differing views are presented. The basic storyline remains; the differing accounts are offered to allow the reader to appreciate the full extent of the legends and lore that have grown up around Sam Bass.
Sam Bass was born in Indiana, as everyone who has ever heard the "Ballad of Sam Bass" knows. Born on a farm two miles from Mitchell, Indiana on July 21, 1851, he was soon orphaned and he and his brother and sisters moved to a nearby farm to live with their uncle and his nine children. As a child, Sam received no formal schooling and he chose to strike out on his own in 1869. Sam traveled down the Mississippi, to Rosedale, Mississippi, where he worked for a year in Charles' Mill. It was here that Sam learned how to handle a pistol and honed his card playing skills. In 1870, Sam met up with Scott Mayes, a teamster headed to Denton, Texas. Sam had always been taken with the idea of moving to Texas and becoming a cowboy, and this looked like his chance. The two arrived in Denton, and Sam found employment with Sheriff W. F. "Dad" Eagan (who would later spend much effort searching for the outlaw Bass) (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 371-372). Sheriff Eagan employed Sam not as a deputy but as a farmhand; he curried the horses, milked the cows, cut firewood, but, most importantly, Sam spent some time as a teamster. It was at this position that he became acquainted with the country and learned all the trails, back roads and thickets that he would later use to elude the Texas Rangers (Webb Story of the Texas Rangers 104).
In Denton, Sam was considered to be a hard worker and was known for his thriftiness. It was here that he also met many of his friends, with whom he would later engage in unlawful activities. Saving his earnings, he was able to purchase a 15-hand mare, referred to as the "Denton Mare". This racehorse was fast and soon earned Sam enough money for him to quit his job with Sheriff Eagan and retire to a life of horse racing, gambling and saloon patronizing. After 1875, Sam never again held a permanent job, living instead on his gambling proceeds and eventually on thieving (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 372).
In December of 1875, Sam met Joel Collins in San Antonio. Together they decided to run a herd of cattle to the northern markets. This eventually took them to Nebraska, where they sold the herd and used the money to take up gold prospecting in the Black Hills. This venture left the two broke. To offset their losses, they turned to robbing stages. In association with Jack Davis and another man known as Nixon, they held up seven stages over the next few months (Ibid. 373). The "Black Hills Bandits", as the gang was known, tired of the puny payoffs from the stage robberies, turned their attention to the more lucrative crime of train robbing.
Their first train job took place at Big Spring Station, Nebraska at 10:48 P.M. on September 18, 1877, under a big moon. The bandits forced the station- master to signal the coming express train to halt and then boarded. Finding only $450 in the "way safe," they brutally beat the express messenger with a pistol in an attempt to force him to open the "through safe", which had a time lock preventing it from being opened until the train reached its destination. Finding some wooden boxes, the bandits broke them open revealing $60,000 worth of freshly minted $20 gold pieces headed from the San Francisco Mint to an Eastern bank (Smith 32).
Only known authenticated photo of Sam Bass. L-R: Sam Bass, Joe Collins, John E. Gardner, and Joel Collins. Photo: Robert G. McCubbin, Jr.1The bandits divided the gold coins six ways and then in pairs split up, each pair heading in a different direction. Joel Collins and his partner were shot and killed a week later. Another pair, composed of James Berry and Nixon, was split up and Berry was captured; Nixon, it is assumed, escaped with his share to Canada. The third pair, Sam and Jack Davis, rode south in a one horse buggy-- their share of the haul stowed under the seat.
At some point on their trip back to Texas, Sam and Jack Davis were joined by a company of soldiers and detectives who were searching for the train robbers. Sam and Jack Davis convinced these men that they too were searching for the bandits in the hopes of receiving a large reward. After four days, Sam and Jack Davis split from the other men and rode back to Denton (Centennial Commission). Once in Denton, Sam explained his new found wealth from a strike he had made prospecting in the Black Hills. His money and good spirits attracted many people, some of whom would later become a part of the "Sam Bass Gang" when he took to robbing trains in Texas.
It is assumed that Sam would have reached Denton by late autumn; yet, by February of 1878, Bass had begun to rob trains again. Why? How could he have spent $10,000 in less than four months? Many people have believed that there was no way that he could have spent the money; so they have speculated that Bass hid his gold. Stories abound of individuals searching for the Bass gold. One story places the hidden gold in a cave in East Mountain at Mineral Wells (Grigsby). Another legend speculates that Bass held on to his gold until he headed to Round Rock to rob the bank, hiding the gold in a cave west of Prairie Dell near Big Blue Spring for safekeeping during the robbery ("Amazing Story"). If anyone ever found the Bass Gold they never reported it. Since it is hard to imagine that Sam could have used up all of his gold before he started train robbing again, it lends credence to the story that Sam robbed for sport more than for profit.
Whatever the reason, the "Sam Bass Gang" stood up the Texas Central train at Allen Station on February 22, 1878. This holdup netted the gang $1,300 and on March 18th they again held up the Texas Central, this time at Hutchins. The Texas and Pacific Railroad was hit on April 4th at Eagle Ford and again on the 10th at Mesquite. Only the first robbery resulted in any significant payoff for the gang and the style of these robberies was highly amateurish; prompting some observers to speculate that the robbers were either extremely nervous or drunk at the time of the holdups due to the fact that during two of the holdups the gang missed large stashes of money that had been hurriedly hidden by the express messengers (Smith 33).
During the time of these Texas train robberies, the "Sam Bass Gang" was staffed by Frank Jackson, Seaborn Barnes (who was shot in the legs during the Mesquite job), Thomas Spotswood, Arkansas Johnson, Henry Underwood, Sam Pipes and Albert Herndon; Bass and Barns took place in all four of the robberies, Jackson participated in three, Johnson in two and the others in one (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 374). After the Mesquite Robbery, a cry of indignation went out from the people of North Texas. The Governor decided that the time had come to call in the Texas Rangers to capture the bandits; thus the "Bass War" began.
The "Bass War"
1878 was a time of political ill-ease in the State of Texas. Reconstruction had just ended and the state government was still weak. Citizens were deeply concerned about the presence of gangs of bandits in the state and the demand for law and order was sounded. This concern resulted in political action. Many politicians campaigned on a platform of law and order and proposed that a modern peace-keeping force be formed. The Texas Rangers, sensing the threat to their organization implied in this, chose to respond by proving that they were still an effective deterrent to crime. They chose Bass to be their example, and they set out to capture him at any cost. The end result would be the death and capture of Sam and the renewed faith and financial support for the Rangers (Centennial Commission).
During the four months of the "Bass War", the gang became the stuff of legend; they led the Rangers on long chases with narrow escapes. The gang, relying on Sam's thorough knowledge of the back trails and thickets learned during his days as a teamster, would suddenly surface in an area only to disappear at the first sign of trouble. The gang's success in avoiding capture can be ascribed to both the difficulties of the terrain and ineptness of their pursuers (Smith 33). In a desperate attempt to flush the gang out, the Rangers conducted a sweep of all residents suspected of harboring the bandits. This resulted in the arrests of both Jim Murphy and his father Henderson. Jim was taken to Tyler to face charges of robbing the U.S. mails. Seeking immunity, and with an interest in collecting the reward money, Jim agreed to rejoin the Bass Gang and betray Sam to the Rangers (Ibid. 34). Thus, the stage was set for the eventual Ranger triumph over the gang in Round Rock.
The first clash of the "Bass War" occurred on April 29 at Cove Hollow. The Rangers, under the direction of Captain Lee Hall, were able to take the gang by surprise while they were resting at Jim Murphy's house. Fleeing the Rangers, Bass was struck twice, once in his cartridge belt and another in the stock of his rifle, without injury. As Sam left the scene he was said to have uttered, "Hell, boys, they've hit me at last. Let's get out of here." Undaunted, Sam was soon flashing his stolen gold pieces around and living it up in the North Texas towns (Smith 33). In June, a posse challenged the gang to a gunfight in which Arkansas Johnson was killed and Henry Underwood rode off never to return to the gang (Centennial Commission). Now, with Jim Murphy looking to betray the gang to the Rangers, the gang decided to head to calmer areas in the southern part of the state.
The Round Rock Shootout
At some point on their way to Round Rock, Jim Murphy was able to slip away from the gang and send off a letter to Major Jones of the Texas Rangers indicating that the gang was proceeding to Round Rock with the intention of robbing the bank. Major Jones was surprised to hear that the gang was moving so far south; he immediately directed Rangers Dick Ware, Chris Conner and George Harold to proceed to Round Rock and be on the lookout for any members of the Bass Gang. He then rode to Round Rock with deputy sheriff Morris Moore of Travis County ("When Sam Bass").
Sam, Frank Jackson, Seaborn Barnes and Jim "Judas" Murphy arrived in Round Rock Sunday night July 14. Monday they went into the town to case the bank and get a shave. Sam and Seaborn were for stealing some fresh horses and hitting the bank as soon as possible. Murphy, stalling for time, suggested that stealing horses would only raise suspicions and that they should rest their horses and then rob the bank on Saturday. After discussion, the gang decded that the robbery would occur at 3:30 P.M. on Saturday July 20 (Smith 35).
On Friday the 19th, Sam, Frank and Seaborn went into New Town to case the bank one final time; Murphy had stayed behind in Old Town in the hopes of getting in contact with Major Jones. The bandits hitched their horses in the alley north of Georgetown Avenue at the corner of Lampasas. They then walked up the street to Kopperal's General Store, located at the southeast corner of Mays and Georgetown Avenue. At the same time, Ranger Ware crossed the street from Highsmith's Livery Stable to the barber shop. He later recalled that he passed the bandits at this point without realizing who they were ("When Sam Bass"). As the bandits crossed over to Kopperal's store, they were also observed by Morris Moore, a Travis County deputy sheriff, and Deputy Sheriff Grimes of Williamson County.
Grimes indicated that he believed that one of the strangers (he had not yet realized that they were the Bass Gang) was wearing a pistol, which was supposedly against the law in Round Rock (Ibid.). Another account mentioned that Grimes was concerned because he thought that Sam was wearing two pistols, which was one more than the law permitted in Round Rock ("Round Rock Remembers").
Photo of Sam Bass' gun and a rare book on his life. Courtesy of Red McCombs.
Whatever the reason, Grimes decided to investigate the strangers' intentions. Walking up to the bandits who were purchasing tobacco in the store, Grimes asked Sam, "Do you have a pistol?" to which Sam is said to have answered "yes" or "I'll let you have it" (Smith 35). But more important than what he said was that he, Frank and Seaborn also opened fire on Grimes, killing him instantly. Grimes never even had the opportunity to draw his gun; six bullet holes were found in his dead body (DiGesualdo and Thompson 113).
Moore, who had been waiting outside the door of Kopperal's Store, entered and opened fire on the bandits, shooting Bass through the hand. He was then shot in the chest, the bullet piercing his lung, and was forced to discontinue the chase (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 386). The shooting had attracted the attention of Ranger Ware, who was receiving a shave at the time. He ran to the street, his face still lathered, and for a time, single-handedly fought the fleeing bandits ("When Sam Bass"). The firing had also attracted the attention of Major Jones, who was at the International and Great Northern Telegraph Office at the time of the initial shooting. Meeting up with Ranger Ware, Jones fired what was considered to be his only shot as a Texas Ranger at the fleeing gang; the bandits returned the fire, missing Jones but lodging a bullet in the stone wall behind him (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 387). Ware and Jones were also joined in the fight for a time by a one-armed man named Stubbs, who had picked up Grime's gun and opened fire on the bandits ("When Sam Bass"). By this time, the bandits had made their way back to the alley and were attempting to mount their horses. Ranger Harold and a local citizen named Conner shot at the gang with rifles. It was at this point that Ranger Harold believes that he inflicted the mortal wound on Bass (Ibid.). Simultaneously, Seaborn Barnes fell dead with a bullet wound to the head.
Who actually shot Sam Bass was never completely decided. The doctors who examined Sam noted that the bullet had hit a cartridge in his belt and then split in two, part entering his back and passing out near his groin, the other part lodging in his body. This statement caused the Rangers to assume that Dick Ware was the one who had administered the fatal blow. Further supporting this theory is the account from Bass himself who indicated that he had been shot before he reached the horses, not in the alley where Harold claims to have shot him, and that the man that shot him had lather on his face. At the official inquest, Ware replied that he did not believe that he had shot Bass and Harold claimed that he did; thus, this is how it went into the official record. However, Ware is credited with killing Seaborn Barnes (Ibid.). Part of the confusion over who actually shot Bass stems from the fear of the Rangers and Round Rock citizens. Such was the fame of Bass that it was believed that the person who shot hm would be subsequently killed by one of Bass's supporters; thus, individuals were not anxious to be known as the person responsible for killing him (England).
At the point of Seaborn's death and Sam's wounding, many witnesses attributed a great deal of gallantry to the young (only twenty years old) Frank Jackson. With Seaborn dead in front of him and his leader Bass injured, it is said that Frank coolly held the Rangers at bay with his gun as he helped Sam to his horse. Together they made their escape from the firing citizens and Rangers (Ibid.). Another account of this event states that after Seaborn was killed, both Sam and Frank were able to mount their horses and had begun to ride off when Sam was hit by the bullet. Sam clasped onto his saddle horn but was unable to stay on his horse and fell to the ground. It was at this point that Frank held the charging Rangers and citizens at bay with his gun as he helped Sam back onto his horse, and they rode off with Frank steadying Sam (O'Neal 61).
As the bandits were fleeing through Old Town, Frank, concerned about gunfire, had the presence of mind to warn a little girl who was playing in a tree to get in the house (Reed and Tate 221). Jim Murphy, who had stayed behind in Old Town during the shootout, reported that he saw Sam and Frank come up the street on their way to their camp, which was near the Round Rock Cemetery. Sam was being held in the saddle by Frank while he put new bullets into his pistol (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 387). The Williamson County Sun reported that after the bandits picked up their things at their camp, they turned up Georgetown Road, present day Chisholm Trail Road, passing a Mrs. Tisdale's place; they then turned down a lane headed towards the woods. It was at this point that Sam indicated that he was in too much pain to continue (Scarbrough 295-296). Sam insisted that Frank leave him here and try to save himself. Frank did not want to leave his friend, but he was eventually convinced to do so. Sam gave him all of his money, guns, ammunition and his big bay horse, which was superior to Frank's. Frank left his horse with Sam and hid his saddle in the brush nearby; after a tearful farewell Frank rode off. However, Frank did not abandon his friend but camped nearby him (Reed and Tate 222). Back in Round Rock, Jim Murphy went into New Town and identified the body of Seaborn Barnes.
Capture and Death
No great effort was made to pursue the fleeing bandits due to the fear that Bass was supported by an army of outlaws who would seize on any pursuers. Of course the truth was that the actual Sam Bass Gang at this point was composed of only four individuals, one of whom was now dead and another having deserted the gang. Nonetheless, the previous successes of the gang and the hype surrounding them led people to fear that the gang was a great force that would pose a significant threat to any pursuers (England).
Out of concern for their own safety, the Texas Rangers decided to call off the search for Bass until Saturday morning. Two searchers, Tucker and Lane, spotted a man propped up against a tree but assumed that he was only one of the railroad workers who were constructing the line of the Georgetown Railroad at the time. Tucker eventually went up to him and Sam held up his hand and uttered, "I am Sam Bass, the man that has been wanted so long." At this time, the rest of the search party, including Jim "Judas" Murphy, appeared. Tucker felt that Bass should not see Murphy; so, Murphy identified Sam while hiding behind a tree. Bass explained to the questioning Rangers that his wounds had forced him to stop near the spot he was currently at last night. Bass told them that Frank continued his retreat at his insistence. During the night, Sam mentioned that he had become extremely thirsty and had walked to Mr. Sherman's house in an attempt to get water; his bloody appearance, however, had frightened the family away. He then returned to where he now was and was eventually given some water by an old man (Scarbrough 296-298). It has been suggested that Sam made much of this narrative up in order to protect Frank, who had chosen to stay behind to help his friend (Reed and Tate 223). The Rangers then put Sam in the back of a wagon and brought him back to Round Rock.
When Major Jones learned of Bass's capture, he contacted the Attorney General in Austin, who then notified the State Democratic Convention that was meeting at the time (DiGesualdo and Thompson 114). The dying Bass was placed in a small shack located on the lot at the intersection of present day Round Rock Avenue, Main Street and Mays. Major Jones questioned Bass but was unable to get any useful information about the other members of his gang. Bass's code of ethics was summed up by his statement: "it is ag'in' my profession to blow on my pals. If a man knows anything he ought to die with it in him," referring to his unwillingness to cooperate with the Rangers even though he knew that he was going to die. Bass did confess that "if I killed him [in reference to Deputy Grimes], he is the first man I ever killed." On Sunday, July 21, 1878, the doctor told Sam that it would not be long; Sam supposedly said, "Let me go", and a few minutes later opened his eyes and exclaimed, "The world is bobbing around me" and then died at 3:58 on his twenty-seventh birthday (Smith 35). John R. Banister, the Ranger who was assigned to guard the dying Bass claimed that Sam's last words were actually "This world is a bubble, - trouble wherever you go" - probably a more fitting epitaph for Sam Bass's life (DiGesualdo and Thompson 114).
The Rangers hoped to take Bass's body down to Austin in order to convince the Congress that he had finally been caught and to justify their worth as a law enforcement agency, being that the Congress was discussing the Rangers appropriation at the time. This plan was axed due to the summer heat and the inability to locate ice in which to pack his body (Centennial Commission). It was decided to bury him in the Round Rock Cemetery. His funeral procession consisted of two mules pulling a wagon with Sam's plain pine coffin, attended by two men to dig his grave. When the procession passed the house of J. W. Ledbetter, a Methodist Minister, he joined in and conducted a Christian funeral ceremony for Sam (Carmack 1B). Mary Matson, a black woman who had been employed by Sam Bass to cook some meals earlier in the week, observed the funeral from a cotton patch. After the ceremony, she reported that a man on a bay horse, whom she recognized as Frank Jackson, came riding up from the north. "He dismounted, stood thre a moment, and with an anguished look, flung a clod upon the grave (Reed and Tate 231)."
There are many accounts of what became of Frank Jackson after he left Round Rock. It is believed that he went to Denton for a few days (Ibid.), and other accounts say that he became a prosperous West Texas rancher ("Round Rock Remembers"). Ranger Ware claimed that he later saw him in the Arizona State Prison, using the name of Downing (Centennial Commission). Still others claim that he lived out his life on a ranch in New Mexico (Webb Century of Frontier Defense 390). Jim "Judas" Murphy spent the rest of his life in fear, worrying that one of Bass's friends was going to avenge Sam's betrayal by killing him. The following year, He killed himself by taking poison on June 7, 1879 (Ibid.). Some have speculated that Murphy did not really kill himself but was in fact killed by Jackson, but the truth will never be known (Centennial Commission).
Sam Bass gravestone in Round Rock Cemetery
A few years after his death, Sam's sister had a tombstone erected on which was engraved the following epitaph: "A brave man reposes in death here. Why was he not true?" This monument has long since been chipped away by souvenir hunters and has now been replaced with a granite tombstone erected by the Sam Bass Centennial Commission.
In death, Sam's legend grew, helped along by a song. "The Ballad of Sam Bass", written by John Denton of Gainesville, Texas, was sung by many cowhands in an attempt to sooth the herd on stormy nights. Sam's fame spread to Great Britain in the late 1800s, culminating in a wax statue of Sam in Madam Tussaud's Waxworks in London (Ibid.). Back in Round Rock, the Sam Bass legend was memorialized beginning in 1964 with the establishment of the Frontier Days Celebration. However, the most convincing evidence that the Sam Bass legend continues was the publication of yet another meticulously documented book on Sam, The Tenderfoot Bandits by Paula Reed and Grover Ted Tate in 1988.
The Sam Bass shootout was no doubt a unifying event for the young town of Round Rock. It gave citizens something to identify with and it gave the town something to distinguish itself. You can imagine someone responding to the statement, "I am from Round Rock" with "Oh, the place where Sam Bass was killed."
Today, Sam Bass is not as well-known as he was in the past; however, the City maintains its historical legacy as evidenced by the street markers identifying the events in the celebrated shootout.
Additional information about the apprehension of Sam Bass is provided in the brochure "Sam Bass and the Great Round Rock Shootout of 1878" originally produced by the Chamber of Commerce and distributed at the annual shootout reenactment.
1 Earlier versions of this web page used two photos that frequently have been claimed to be of Sam Bass and his gang, but are disputed. They have been replaced with an authenticated photo.
"Amazing Story of Sam Bass And Hidden Treasure West of Prairie Dell Told in Detail." Temple News. Aug. 22, 1933.
Carmack, George. "Shootout At Round Rock." San Antonio Express News. May 8, 1976: 1B+.
Digesualdo, Jane H. and Karen R. Thompson. Historical Round Rock. Eakin Publications, Inc., Austin, Texas: 1985
England, Ken. Personal interview, October 28, 1991.
Grigsby, C. M. "Sam Bass Buried his Gold In Gambling Joints." Dallas Morning News. Dec. 26, 1938.
O’Neal, Bill. "The Sam Bass Gang in Round Rock." True West. Feb. 1989: 61.
Reed, Paula and Grover Ted Tate. The Tenderfoot Bandits. Westernlore Press, Tucson, Arizona: 1988.
"Round Rock Remembers Sam Bass." Austin American-Statesman. June 23, 1953.
Sam Bass 100 Years Later. Published by the Sam Bass Centennial Commission, Round Rock, Texas. 1978.
Scarbrough, Clara Stearns. Land of Good Water. Williamson County Sun Publishers, Georgetown, Texas: 1973.
Smith, Helena Huntington. "Sam Bass and the Myth Machine." The American West. Jan. 1970: 31+.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Texas Rangers, A Century of Frontier Defense. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas: 1965.
The Story of the Texas Rangers. The Encino Press, Austin, Texas: 1971
"When Sam Bass, the Notorious Texas Bandit Was Killed, by Capt. Gillett." courtesy of the Texas Ranger Museum. Originally printed in the El Paso Herald. Aug. 12, 1902. Originally written by Captain Gillett, an ex-Ranger of Company E, frontier battalion, who was present at the capture and death of Sam Bass and was a friend of Dick Ware.