Frank Dalton and James Cole vs Dave Smith, Will Towerly and Mr. and Mrs. Dixon

Based on the research of Robert Ernst and George R. Stumpf; with extra reporting by Mark Boardman


Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Dalton is a busy lawman. Last Friday he came into Fort Smith with six prisoners after a protracted trip to the Indian Territory. He is going out now on a Sunday; it will be his last manhunt. All images True West Archives unless otherwise noted


November 27, 1887

Working out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Dalton is tracking a horse thief named Dave Smith in the Cherokee Nation. Dalton is accompanied by Deputy James Cole, who also has an arrest warrant for Smith for introducing whiskey in the Indian Territory.

The two track the suspect to a river-bottom camp where they see a large tent and hear men, women and children eating breakfast inside. Both lawmen dismount and walk toward the tent on foot.

Dalton approaches the south side, and Cole, the north. Dalton opens the tent flap with his left hand, while holding his rifle in his right.

As he leans in, Lizzie Smith (wife of the horse thief) grabs Dalton’s rifle barrel and pushes it up. Startled, Dalton jumps back, as Dave puts down the kid he is holding, grabs a rifle and lunges out of the tent.

Dalton says, “Don’t shoot; I want no trouble,” but Dave fires point-blank, hitting the lawman in the chest. Deputy Cole, coming around from the other side of the tent, fires, hitting Dave in the back.

Everyone inside the tent comes bursting out the tent flap as Cole, startled, backs up and trips over a tent rope. One of the men, Lee Dixon, fires, nearly grazing Cole in the chest. Lee’s wife, Jennie, grabs ahold of Cole’s rifle barrel to push it away, but Cole breaks free and fires, hitting Jennie in the chest, then Lee in the shoulder.

Joe and Elizabeth Pearson flee with their six-month-old daughter toward the woods.

Cole heads toward cover, running by Dalton and asking if he’s hurt. When he receives no answer, Cole takes cover behind a tree as bullets whiz around him. Cole empties his rifle, then hides deeper amongst the trees to reload. He hears two rifle shots.

Seeing Cole retreat, Will Towerly runs up to Dalton and puts two bullets in the lawman’s face. (In another version, Towerly puts the barrel of his gun in the mouth of the lawman, who is pleading for his life.)

Cole makes his way back to Fort Smith for help, while Towerly takes Dalton’s rifle and flees.

The bloodbath is over, but the killing is not.

Inside a Crowded Tent
When the gunfight broke out, Joe and Elizabeth Pearson were inside the tent with their six-month-old daughter. Lee and Jennie Dixon were there with their two-year-old and nine-month-old, as was Lee’s sister, Lizzie Smith, her husband, Dave, and Will Towerly. All illustrations by Bob Boze Bell


Unbeknownst to the two lawmen at the time, Dave Smith (at far left) had made threats that whoever tried to serve him papers would pay dearly. He made good on that threat, but took down several of his own with him, as well as a stalwart lawman.


These are some U.S. marshals who also worked the Indian Territory. After five years of evading the law, the accused murderer of Deputy Daniel Maples, Ned Christie, met his maker when he was shot down by 16 posse members, including these marshals: Charles Copeland and Capt. G.S. White (front row, from left); Bill Smith, Bill Ellis and Paden Tolbert (back row). Out of more than 300 marshals who have been killed in the line of duty since President George Washington founded the U.S. marshals, more than one-third of them died serving in Oklahoma. Courtesy Fort Smith National Historic Site


Frank Dalton is buried in a place of honor at the cemetery in Coffeyville, Kansas. His nefarious brothers are nearby, yet separated from the rest of the upstanding citizens. Johnny D. Boggs photo


Aftermath: Odds & Ends

A large posse returned to the scene later that day. Frank Dalton and Dave Smith were dead, as was Jennie Dixon.  Dave was buried near the tent. Lee Dixon would also pass away from his wounds suffered during the gunfight.

In nearly a week, on December 3, lawmen tracked down William Tow-
erly at his family’s farm near Atoka, Indian Territory, and killed him during a shoot-out. Deputy U.S. Marshal Ed Stokely was also gunned down during the gunbattle to capture Towerly.

Frank Dalton’s brothers, Bob, Grat and Emmett, joined the deputy marshal’s ranks, but Bob was soon fired for taking a bribe, and amid rumors of cattle rustling, the other two brothers resigned. Bob and Grat died in the ill-fated dual bank robbery attempt in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1892.

A decade after the Dalton fight, James Cole was convicted of manslaughter for killing a man during another arrest attempt.

Recommended Read: Deadly Affrays: The Violent Deaths of the U.S. Marshals by Robert Ernst, published by ScarletMask.

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