|Cover Story||September 23th, 2010|
by lyle e davis
"I’d rather have pockets full of rocks than an empty gun.”
Most of us know the names of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, but few of us know the name Frank B. Eaton.
Those readers from Oklahoma may know of him. His nick name of “Pistol Pete” Eaton is not only well known but it is so well known, almost revered, that “Pistol Pete” has become the mascott for the Oklahoma State Football team.
Frank B. Eaton was an Oklahoma lawman.
His is one of the more remarkable stories from the Wild, Wild West.
Eaton was born on October 26, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. When he was eight years old, he moved with his family to a homestead in Twin Mounds, Kansas. That very year, his father, a Union Army veteran, became involved in a dispute with several Confederate men who had ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War. A short time later, six of these men appeared at their home and Frank’s father was shot in cold blood, in front of Frank, by the Campseys and the Ferbers - former Confederates who called themselves Regulators.
Mose Beaman, his father's friend, said to Frank: "My boy, may an old man's curse rest upon you, if you do not try to avenge your father."
That was in 1868. The same year Mose taught him to handle a gun, but it was nineteen years before Frank finished his job.
When Frank was fifteen, he decided he needed to know more about shooting to be sure he could avenge his father's death when the time came. He went down to Fort Gibson, a cavalry fort in the northeast part of the Indian Territory (known today as Oklahoma) to see what the Cavalry soldiers could teach him. Although he was still too young to join the Army (if he had wanted to), he outshot everyone at the Fort. After many competitions, the fort's commanding officer, Colonel Copinger, gave Frank a marksmanship badge and a new nickname. From that day forward, Frank would be known as "Pistol Pete."
It was a remarkable feat, as Eaton had been born with a crossed left eye. However, he had overcome this "disability” by figuring out how to aim the gun without sighting down the barrel. He was so good that a friend said the he could "Shoot the head off a snake with either hand."
During his teen years, Eaton was reputed to be faster on the draw than Buffalo Bill.
Frank then began to search for the men who had killed his father years before.
First was Shannon Campsey. Frank killed him on his own front porch. Doc Ferber was next. He was shot off of his horse with "two forty-five slugs through his breast". John Ferber would have been next, but the day before Frank caught up with him, he was shot for cheating at cards. Frank went to his funeral just to make sure he was dead. At John Ferber's funeral, Frank met a Deputy United States Marshal who was on the trail of the same men. After talking about the men, Frank was offered, and accepted a commission.
Frank then caught up with Jim and Jonce Campsey together. They were both shot as they drew on Frank. Only one man was left to hunt and find.
He had tracked down and killed four of the six men who had been involved in the murder in 1868.
At the age of just 17, he was one of the youngest U.S. Deputy Marshals to have ever been commissioned in the Western District at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Serving under "hanging judge,” Isaac Parker, his territory extended from southern Kansas to northern Texas.
Eventually, Frank tracked down the last murderer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In his own words:
I had stopped in one saloon and was coming out of the second one when I noticed a tall man with a heavy mustache standing by the door. As I started down the street he started right behind me. I turned around and met him.
"Stranger," I said, "you seem to be following me. Is there any information I can give you?"
"Well, yes, there is," said the man, with a Western drawl. "When a young fellow comes into town riding as good an outfit as you have, with a Winchester under his leg and two guns on, when he goes into every dance hall and saloon in town and doesn't take a drink or have anything to do with the girls, he naturally excites a lot of curiosity."
I grinned. "Well," I said, "my name is Frank Eaton, my home is on Sand Creek in Cooweescoowee District in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. I am a rider for the Cattlemen's Association and am in line of duty. Now is there anything more?" The man smiled. "My name is Pat Garrett," he said, "I am an officer, I have heard of you and am glad to meet you." We shook hands and he said, "Let's go in and drink something."
This was during the time known as "the Lincoln County War," in New Mexico. I knew Pat Garrett as the well-to-do rancher who, at the risk of his own life, had taken the job of sheriff and was trying to establish a semblance of law and order, so that honest men might live in bloody Lincoln County. I had the greatest respect for him.
"I don't drink," I told him, "but I will go in with you."
We walked down the street and went into the next saloon. As we came up to the bar and the bartender came up to wait on us, I had to look only once. This was the end of the trail. My job was almost finished. Before me stood the last man, Wyley Campsey!
Garrett called for a drink and paid for it. Laying his hand on my shoulder he walked out with me.
"Don't lie to me, boy," he said, "I know you are after a man."
"Yes. What's more, I have found him. It's that damned bartender, and I'm going to get him!"
I threw back my head and laughed. "I don't care if he has the whole United States Army for bodyguards. He or I will hear the cook call breakfast in hell. Let's go eat and I will tell you why I am after him."
We went into a restaurant and sat down at an out-of-the-way table in the back. There were no other customers, so we could talk. I told him the story of my father's murder. How I had carried in my heart, all these years, the picture of my father lying in the doorway, a man standing over his body, emptying his gun into my father's lifeless form. How I had fallen on my father's body, screaming, only to be pulled.away, brutally struck with a riding whip and kicked across the room.
Then I told him the words of Mose Beaman. I could almost hear Mose saying, "May an old man's curse be upon you if you do not try to avenge your father. You must never stop until the last man has been accounted for." I told Pat Garrett of the years that followed, of learning how to shoot, of how all the other killers had been brought to justice and how I felt, now that I was face to face with the last man, Wyley Campsey, the bartender in the saloon next door.
I showed Pat Garrett my Deputy United States Marshal badge and commission and my letter from Captain Knipe of the Cattlemen's Association. I told him of the murder and thieving of the gang in the Cherokee Nation and how, with the help of the Lighthorsemen, we had cleaned them out; I told him, too, that Wyley was wanted for the murder of an officer at Vian in the Indian Territory.
As Pat Garrett listened he seemed to be weighing every word. When I had finished he said, "This is something you had better not tackle alone. You know I cannot allow another killing if I can prevent it."
"You can't prevent this one and if you think you can, right now is as good a time to start as you will ever have." I was ready to go for my guns.
"Hold on, son," he said, "you got me wrong. I only meant that you had better let me go in and try to arrest him."
"You may be right, son, but how are you going to handle this one?"
"Easy enough," I told him, "when you see me ride down and tie my horse in front of that place you go uptown, and come back after the fireworks. It won't be long. I know he is fast but I think I am faster."
"What about the two men, his bodyguards?"
"If they want to take chips in another man's game I guess they will have to play them, that's all. I hope they don't, for they might lose and that would complicate matters for me with the local police."
"Don't worry, son," said Garrett, "there will be no trouble on that score. The thing that worries me is that maybe you have overplayed your hand. Three to one is a hard game and heavy odds."
"I'll risk it and guess we had better be getting busy." We arose from the table, I paid the bill and we went out on the street.
"Thank you, sir, you sure are a man." We shook hands and parted.
I went to the livery barn, saddled my pony and paid the bill. Then I mounted and rode down the street to the saloon where I had seen Wyley Campsey. I ground-tied old Bowlegs a little to one side of the door so that if any stray shots came through the door they would not hit him. Working my guns to make sure they were loose in the holsters, I walked through the crowd and stopped at the bar.
"What do you want, kid?" asked Wyley as I stood in front of him.
"I just want you, Wyley." We were about four feet apart with nothing but the bar between us.
Wyley looked at his two guards. They showed a lack of war wisdom for they came to him instead of staying where they were. That move put all of them in a bunch right under my eyes and close to me.
He said, “What are you doing here, and what do you want?”
“Who the hell are you anyhow? And how do you know who I am?”
“I am Frank Eaton and I ought to know you.You killed my father. Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch."
All three of them went for their guns.
There was a wild stampede among the bystanders when the shooting started, but it was finished before any of them got out the door. Looking over the bar to be sure there was no need for further action I started for the door and ran right into Pat Garrett. He had been standing in the door looking in.
He helped me into the saddle. "You have lost one of your guns," he said. "Here's another one." He stuck a long gun in my empty holster saying, "After you have ridden a few miles you will see a house off to your right. Go in there and tell them that I sent you. They will dress your wounds and keep you until you are able to go on. They are friends of mine and fine people."
Finally, after six long years of searching, Frank Eaton was able to avenge his father's death. Each man drew his gun first, but came out "second best" in the end.
Most of the gun battles that Eaton had were with cattle rustlers and robbers and it‘s not certain whether all of his enemies died of their wounds. As an example, Eaton encountered Bud Wells, a notorious desperado at Webber Falls and was fast enough on the draw to shatter Wells’ shooting hand. Wells was said to be so grateful that he wasn’t killed that he went straight for the rest of his life.
The legend says Frank 'Pistol Pete' Eaton, one of the fastest gunmen of his day, put five of the 11 notches on his .45 Colt tracking down that group of Confederates who murdered his father. The other six notches were accumulated when "Pistol Pete" was riding as a U.S. Deputy marshal for Judge Parker.
He made his home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Eaton lived in a world of violence, but one day he fell in love with a girlfriend named Jennie who gave him a crucifix to wear around his neck for protection. The girl must have had a premonition as the crucifix actually saved Eaton’s life on one occasion when it deflected a bullet that the lawman would have taken in his chest. Frank would later write of this, "I’d rather have the prayers of a good woman in a fight than half a dozen hot guns: she’s talking to Headquarters.”
During his career, he was involved in a number of gunfights and was known to always carry a pair of loaded Colt .45 pistols on his hips. In his own words he said his best insurance was: "Throwin' a lot a lead fast and straight"
When he was 29, he joined the Oklahoma Land Rush and settled southwest of Perkins, Oklahoma where he served as sheriff and later became a blacksmith. In August, 1893, he married a woman named Orpha Miller of Guthrie, Oklahoma and the couple had two children. Unfortunately, she died of a lung disease seven years into the marriage. He remarried in December, 1902 to a woman named Anna Sillix and the couple would eventually have another eight children.
Frank would continue to serve as a marshal, a sheriff or a deputy sheriff until late in life. By the time his career as a lawman was completed, he reportedly had some 15 notches on his gun belt.
Later, he wrote two books, telling the story of the Old West. The first was an autobiography entitled Veteran of the Old West: Pistol Pete, which tells of his life as a U.S. Deputy Marshal and cowboy. His second book, entitled Campfire Stories: Remembrances of a Cowboy Legend wasn’t published until 30 years after his death.
He continued to carry his loaded pistols until his death and was still said to be extremely quick on the draw when he was in his nineties. He died on April 8, 1958 at the age of 97.
During his lifetime, he was married twice, had ten children, 31 grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.
The phrase "hotter than Pete's pistol," traces back to Eaton's shooting skills and his legendary pursuit of his father's killers.
Frank is honored as the mascot for Oklahoma State University, signifying the Old West and the spirit of Oklahoma.
In March, 1997, he posthumously received the prestigious Director's Award at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
This one time cowboy, scout, Indian fighter, trail rider and Deputy United States Marshal, died at his home in Perkins, Oklahoma, at the age of 98 years, on April 8, 1958. At the time of his death he earned his living as a blacksmith and a deputy sheriff. His stories were colorful, funny, violent, moving, exciting, full of action and always a good yarn. They may also be the last personal experience account, as Mr. Eaton says, "of the old Cherokee Nation when I lived there and of some of the noblest men that ever lived-good and bad. "
Frank Boardman "Pistol Pete” Eaton (1860-1958)
At the time of has death, he still carried his gun loaded because, as he said, "I'd rather have a pocket full of rocks than an empty gun."
Pistol Pete told about the "constant struggle between law and crime and the result of crime which in those times was a rope or bullet ... the incidents do not always end as we wish they would, but the end is told and not a fictitious one," and people "can take it or let it alone, as they please."