Time Before Now – July 1851 – New Yorker Millard Fillmore was president, succeeding Zachary Taylor who died in office. Former slave, Sojourner Truth, delivered her famous extemporaneous speech on gender inequalities “Ain’t I a Woman?” in May and Harriet Beecher Stowe published her serialized novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in June. By July, 1878, the nation had fought a Civil War, gone through seven presidents and teetered on the cusp of the modern era. Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, San Francisco introduced cable car service, the world’s first telephone directory was issued in New Harbor, Connecticut, and First Lady Lucy Hayes hosted the first Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. (Right)
July 21, 1851 & 1877
On this day, take your pick, bandit and all-around bad guy Sam Bass, was born in Mitchell, Indiana, and died on the same date, his 27th birthday. He was shot while plotting to rob a bank in Round Rock, Texas.
Bass, made a legend mostly by his death at the hands of a pair of Texas Rangers in addition to a folksy Robin Hood image. His real claim to fame in the annals of law enforcement, however, is a million dollar train robbery that still holds the record for the Union Pacific’s biggest train heist. And it was almost an accident.
Big Spring at the time of the train robbery
On the night of October 17, 1877, Bass and the Black Hills Bandits, Joel Collins, Jack Davis, Tom Nixon, Bill Heffridge and Jim Berry, boarded a gold train headed east from San Francisco at Big Springs, Nebraska. Breaking in to the baggage car and pistol whipping the attendant, the plot was practically foiled when they learned the safe was on a timer and wouldn’t open until reaching the Coast.
Bass, standing at left and Joel Collins, holding pistol
Fearing they’d missed out on the big payoff, the gang prepared to leave with about $1,300 in the passenger’s cash and valuables (about $32,000 today). On their way out the door they spied a neat stack of boxes filled with $60,000 worth of newly minted $20 gold pieces (well over a million now) headed for a New York bank.
The good news was that nobody died. The Big Springs station master, John Barnhart, was captured and then released and the assistant assaulted on the train, apparently recovered. Eight days later, however Collins and Heffridge met their maker at the hands of ten soldiers from Fort Hayes, Kansas who were escorting the pair off to jail. Jim Berry, wounded in a robbery, died not far from his home in Mexico, Missouri. Tom Nixon was believed to have returned to his native Canada.
Bass and Davis, however, escaped to rob another day. Bass rode south, formed a new gang and by 1878 had robbed several stage coaches and two more trains but none of them yielding the paydirt of the Big Springs heist. He managed to elude the Texas Rangers until betrayed by one of is new confederates, Jim Murphy. (Left) Questionable tactics by the Rangers persuaded Murphy to become an informant. His seriously ill father was taken into custody and denied medical treatment until Murphy complied.
On July 19, 1878, Bass and his gang were scouting out the Williamson County Bank in Round Rock, Texas. Deputy Sheriff A.W. Grimes (below) approached the men and asked for their guns. “Sure,” Bass reportedly answered, “and I’ll give you both of ‘em” before shooting Grimes on the spot.
The 28-year-old deputy had followed his brother into the Texas Rangers but the father of three resigned in favor of better paying jobs, first as a bank clerk and then as a deputy sheriff. A native of Texas, his grandfather, Jesse Grimes, was Sam Houston’s running mate in his bid for governor after statehood and his uncle, Albert C. Grimes died at the Alamo.
In an attempt to escape, Bass was himself shot by either Texas Ranger George Herold or Richard Ware. Herold was credited with firing the fatal shot but eye witnesses reported it was in fact, Ware. (Below)
Ware was one of the Rangers assigned to intercept Bass and company in Round Rock. The 28-year-old Ware was in the in the barber shop getting a shave at the time. Running out with lather on his face, he managed to fell Seaborn Barnes and apparently administered the fatal bullet to Bass.
Bass was found in a field July 20 by a party of railroad workers and taken into custody. Claiming the man who shot him had lather on his face, he died the next day, July 21, his 27th birthday. He is buried at Round Rock.
The handsome young bandit had benefited from more public sympathy than most outlaws of the day. Both parents died before Bass was 13, his mother, Elizabeth Jane Sheeks Bass, at just 39 and his father, Daniel, two years later. Unruly children may have run in the family. Elizabeth’s aunt, Rosannah Sheeks Albin, was grandmother to the famous female outlaw, Belle Starr.
As a teenager Bass did in fact have a stepmother, Margaret A. Seibert Bass, but apparently was handed over to an uncle at the time of Daniel’s death. It appeared young Sam made an attempt to be law abiding for a time but turned to crime after failing as a farmer, a wrangler, teamster, miner and saloon keeper. Paying lavishly with other people’s money had made him a populist hero.
His posthumous legacy was buoyed, first by a popular cowboy song, “The Ballad of Sam Bass.” More recently he was portrayed by several colorful leading men, including Howard Duff in the 1949 Western “Calamity Jane and Sam Bass” and Chuck Conners (right) in the a 1957 episode of the television series “Tales of Wells Fargo.”
While Bass wasn’t actually a resident of Round Rock, notorious frontier con man, Soupy Smith (right) was. An 18-year-old at the time, Smith, along with his cousin, allegedly witnessed the Bass shooting. Twenty years later Smith himself, died in a confrontation with members of the Skagway. Alaska “Vigilance Committee” in 1898.
Round Rock,Texas, today part of the Austin Metro, now celebrates the annual “Frontier Days” with memories of cowboys, fireworks, free parades, an Old Settler’s Picnic and less of Sam Bass. History buffs can visit he bandit’s grave in the Round Rock Cemetery, not far from where he was shot. The headstone had to be replaced but the original head stone can be found at the Round Rock Library.
In addition, nearby Brushy Creek Regional Park is located where the famed Chisholm Trail crossed the creek at the “round rock” and features scenic hiking and picnic areas. The Palm House Museum in downtown Round Rock is dedicated to preserving the history of the area’s Swedish settlers. For more information about locations in and near Round Rock, go to www.roundrocktexas.gov, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (512) 255-5805.
© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.