Wham, Bam, Thank You Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam's Buffalo Soldiers vs. Mormon Outlaws

Uncle Sam's Buffalo Soldiers vs. Mormon Outlaws
Uncle Sam’s Buffalo Soldiers vs. Mormon Outlaws

May 11, 1889

Riding in a dougherty (canopied ambulance), U.S. Army Paymaster Maj. Joseph Washington Wham (rhymes with bomb) is on his way to pay “all troops in the muster of April 30.”

His route includes Forts Huachuca, Bowie, Grant, Thomas and Apache, and the San Carlos Agency in Arizona.

Having successfully paid the soldiers at Forts Bowie and Grant, Wham and his Buffalo Soldier escorts are on their way to Fort Thomas, around the mountain from Grant.

Private Hamilton Lewis of the 24th Infantry drives the lead wagon, carrying Maj. Wham, his clerk William Gibbon and mule tender Pvt. Caldwell, as well as a strongbox full of mostly gold coins, valued at just over $28,000.

Sergeant Benjamin Brown and eight of  his fellow Buffalo Soldiers from the 24th Infantry follow on horseback, leading a second wagon with two privates from the 10th Cavalry. All of the men are stationed at Fort Grant.

As both wagons enter a narrow defile known as Bloody Run (named for an Apache attack on this spot seven years earlier), the driver of the advance wagon spies a good sized boulder in the center of the road.

Gibbon and several soldiers get out to investigate. As they walk forward, one of them remarks, “That rock was rolled there by hand.”

Gibbon reaches down to throw a smaller rock off the road when a voice is heard from above: “Look out, you black sons of bitches!” A buckskin-clad outlaw fires his pistols, a signal that unleashes a volley of rifle fire from the ridge, bringing down the lead mule on Wham’s wagon and two mules on the escort wagon. The soldiers retrieve their rifles (stored unloaded in the bed of the second wagon) as the terrified mules buck and pull at their traces, dragging both wagons off the road and into the rocks.

Rifles fire from both sides of the road as Maj. Wham directs his men to find cover. Multiple shooters rain bullets down at the exposed soldiers: Pvt. Lewis takes a bullet in the gut; 24th Infantryman Squire Williams is hit in the ankle; and 24th Sgt. Brown is struck in the arm and side.

The black warriors take up a position behind a small ledge, but the mainly Mormon attackers command the heights and rain a withering fire at them, striking several soldiers. Wham’s men can’t hold the position and retreat down a ravine draining into Cottonwood Wash. Major Wham joins them as they are driven to the creek bottom, about 300 yards from the wagons. With wounded soldiers lying all around him, Wham has given up defending the payroll.

Several robbers come down from the fortifications and climb into Wham’s wagon. The soldiers hear violent hammering (they can’t see the wagon). Eyewitnesses count 12 to 15 men making their way back up and over the ridge where the attack first started.

The fight has lasted about two hours, but the attackers have achieved their goal and the payroll is gone.

 

The Man with the Plan

Gilbert Webb (center), 52, served his Mormon mission in Hawaii, had three wives in Utah, got crossways with Brigham Young after failing to deliver on a contract to supply telegraph poles, declared bankruptcy and skated on the intervention of his attractive sister, Ann Eliza, who agreed to marry Young in exchange for retiring her brother’s debt. Webb moved to Arizona to help grade track for the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad and later landed in the Gila River community of Pima where he started several businesses, including a store, a real estate operation, a stage line from Solomonville to the rail head at Willcox and the Webb Cattle Company. He also served on the town’s first city council and as mayor, and helped build Pima’s first school.

A year prior to the robbery, Webb’s name was struck from the Pima Mormon rolls for his alleged illicit affair with a widow (although he still chaired the church’s building committee). At the time of the robbery, Webb was on the verge of bankruptcy; his stage line and his store had been shut down, and he didn’t have the capital to fulfill several lucrative government contracts. Many people in town owed him money. The need for capital was clear, and the means was on its way—being carried by Wham’s wagon.

 

Righteous Robbers

By most accounts, the Wham Payroll Robbery is almost a community project, led by Pima’s mayor and major job provider Gilbert Webb, who convinces most of the cowboys and farmers to participate by pinning the survival of the town (and by extension, his fellow Mormon citizens) on liberating U.S. funds. It isn’t a hard sell because the U.S. government has been harassing Mormons for a long time. The gang of 12-15 includes Webb’s three sons: Wilfred (who, at the time of the holdup, is facing an indictment for stealing cattle), Leslie and Milo.

The robbers do not wear masks, probably because masks would imply wrongdoing. Webb & Associates likely rationalize that the black troopers are cursed and unworthy of the money. At that time, a virulent strain of Mormonism contends that blacks are descendants from Cain, who was cursed by God, and that his descendants’ dark-colored skin is the “mark of Cain” (many who believe this also apply it to Indians). By liberating much needed capital for the work of God, from an evil government protected by descendants of Cain, the robbers may not have felt the need to wear masks.

A local quote from that time says it all: “The nigger soldiers would just waste the money on liquor, gambling, and whores, so why not take it and use it to the benefit of a community that really needed some cash to stave off bankruptcy for Webb and some of his neighbors.”

A Pima pioneer, Don Pace, later claims that “the Pima colony would have been starved out if not for the ingenuity of Gilbert Webb.”

 

The Eyewitness in the Bright Yellow Blouse

Riding a big bay, Frankie Campbell, a.k.a. Frankie Stratton, is decked out in a bright yellow, tight-waisted blouse, a billowing wine-colored skirt and a large floppy straw hat decorated with a red paper rose and red velvet streamers.

Her husband is locked up in the Fort Grant guardhouse, accused of killing a fellow soldier. The couple are known gamblers (some speculate Frankie is a soiled dove), and they have at least one child. Frankie insists on riding with the paymaster entourage to Fort Thomas to collect on gambling debts on payday.

Riding just ahead of the wagons, Frankie is beyond the boulder when the shooting starts and startles her horse, who throws her off. She takes cover under a bush, near the fork in the road leading to Cottonwood Creek, and witnesses the battle with a ringside seat. After the robbers leave, she approaches the troops. Major Wham arrests her on suspicion of being in collusion with the outlaws. She is left behind with the severely wounded while Wham commandeers the escort and heads for Fort Thomas.

At the subsequent trial, Frankie keeps the jurors in stitches with her humorous responses.


 

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

After a marathon trial in Tucson involving political infighting (the original judge was removed), all seven defendants were acquitted. But even though an all-white jury exonerated the accused men, local kids yelled epithets at the men (“Damn Mormon Robbers!”) when they boarded the train for home.

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Gilbert Webb allegedly took most of the money from the robbery to pay off his massive debts, forgive debts to fellow Pimans (especially those who helped pull off the robbery) and pay for the attorneys. The next year, Webb was elected a delegate to the Territorial Democratic Convention, but then he was indicted for defrauding the Pima school district of $160. He left Pima in 1891 and ended up taking a railroad job in New Mexico. Eventually moving to Colonia Juárez, Mexico, he died and was buried there in 1923—a year after the Mormon Church had reinstated him.

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Medal of Honor recipients Benjamin Brown and Isaiah Mays stayed in the Army, with Brown retiring in 1904 and dying six years later. Suffering from rheumatism, Mays resigned from the Army in 1893 and spent the rest of his life around Bonita, just outside Fort Grant. He tried for years to get an Army pension but failed, dying at Phoenix’s Arizona State Hospital in 1925.

Buried in the hospital’s cemetery, Mays’s body was rediscovered in the late 1960s and a proper headstone was erected. In May 2009, 120 years after the Wham Robbery, his body was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

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The other Buffalo Soldier escorts received Certificates of Merit: Squire Williams, Benjamin Burge, Julius Harrison, Oscar Fox, George Arrington, George Short and James Young of the 24th Infantry, and Thornton Harris and James Wheeler of the 10th Cavalry.

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Recommended: Ambush at Bloody Run: The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889 by Larry D. Ball, published by Arizona Historical Society.

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Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.