Family history — and mysteries

Over at The Expert Witness, Mom and Gentle Reader Tom got to chit-chatting about a family heirloom.

I’ve mentioned this pistol in passing before, but I seem to have neglected in posting a picture of it.


The serial number on that pistol is 187XXX, which has it coming out of the Colt factory in 1898 or 1899. It is a nickled Single Action Army in .41 Colt, and originally came with mother-of-pearl grips, carved — if memory serves — with a longhorn head on one side.

Those grips were damaged, and replaced with the scrimshawed ivory ones you see above.

That .41 sits in my hand like it was designed for it. The action and spring-work are glass-smooth and while the sights are typical 19th century work, at hip-shooting distances when I pull the trigger a hole appears right where I’m looking.

This was my granda’s uncle’s church gun — carried to church and other special occasions. For everyday use, Unc had a stag-handled .38-40, which has unfortunately been lost to time.

Below that pistol is one of the mysteries that surrounds my granda’s great-uncle.

Unc was the child of an upper-class southern family, and — although too young to participate himself — he had brothers who fought in the War of Southern Independence.

When Unc decided he was old enough (in his teens), he cut trail for the West. When asked in his later years, Unc stated that he was a cattle drover and left it at that.

We do know that Unc’s family refused to have anything to do with him; indeed Granda’s mother — she was Unc’s niece — was the only family member who would deign to even speak with Unc, and she was the family that he sporadically contacted throughout his ‘cow punching’ days.

When Granda lost his father, Unc — then in his forties — came to Texas to help his niece and her two sons.

Another mystery surrounding the man is the relationship between Unc and Frank James as recounted by several family members. According to family lore, Frank James visited Unc on several occasions while Mr. James was employed in Ft. Worth. During these visits — according to family stories — Unc and Mr. Frank would sit on the porch with their Bibles, their pistols, a plate of snacks, and talk.

What those two men talked about is anyone’s guess.

When Unc died (and was buried holding the picture of an unknown woman which the never-married Unc kept on the dresser in his room) among his effects was found the badge of a U.S. Marshal seen below the SAA in the photo above.

Was Unc a U.S. Marshal? He never mentioned it to family. Was the badge a souvenir? Something interesting he found on the trail or that caught his eye in a shop? Or — more worrisome — was it a trophy?

I wish that badge and that gun could talk, but they can’t. So I keep them safe — the gun in Granda’s old holster close to hand; and the badge is has been carefully framed — for another generation of the family.


Kee riced all my tea.

26 thoughts on “Family history — and mysteries”

  1. Actually, Frank James worked for the Pinkertons as a floor walker (store detective) in Dallas.
    My grandmother knew him through her father, who had been the neighbor kid of the James boys in Missouri. Both my grandmother’s grandfather and the James boys’ father were Baptist preachers, and had been to college together, leaving Virginia and Kentucky to to go Missouri to “Carry The Word.”
    Reverend Mr. Robert Sallee James died about six weeks out heading for the gold fields of California with some of those who later became known as The ’49ers.
    So, it was my grandmother’s father’s family who knew the Jameses.
    Unk was my grandmother’s uncle on her mother’s side. Although there was a man of the same sirname who rode with the James Boys, the family connection to him is distant, and it seems unlikely that Unk even knew him.
    However, Unk was somewhere in his late teens, 20s and 30s, and it wasn’t ranching in Texas. When he did come home to Texas, most of his family would have nothing to do with him. He went to live with my widowed grandmother and her two sons.
    I have a picture of Unk, sitting stoically on the seat of a wagon, horse’s reins held loosely in his hands. He was very tall, very spare, and absolutely lethal. He taught my father to shoot-though Daddy didn’t need much teaching; like many of his family, he had a natural eye. My father taught me, and I taught the Dog and his brother-though the latter took after my father and needed little teaching at all.
    Unk had learned to shoot as a boy in Tennessee, the same way his father and his brothers learned: firing to break feathers stuck in a fencepost, and at cast iron skillets tied with rawhide to the whippy branch of a tree.
    Unk also taught my father to swim, probably the same way he’d learned himself: he picked Daddy up, threw him into deep water, and walked away leaving him to literally sink or swim.
    Unk always said that the Colt was given to him by Jesse Chisum. I have my doubts about which Jesse gave it to him.
    By an odd coincidence, my mother’s great-half-aunt had been a cook on Chisum’s trail rides, a rare and difficult thing for a woman to do in those days. She and Unk probably knew each other, but never met in Texas.
    Like the Dog, I have to say that this pistol is the most beautifully balanced weapon I have ever held. It fits my hand like it grew there. The only other pistol I’ve ever held that even came close was a Belgian duelling pistol. I still regret not buying that one.

  2. I like the idea of an undercover US Marshal, it sounds very historic…

  3. FWIW (slightly related) the upcoming movie “The Assassination of Jesse James…” is VERY favorably reviewed by a number of aficiandos of film production–and who are also moral heavyweights.

  4. Hi dad29-
    Back in those days, kids raised as Frank and Jesse were bound to have been (judging from my grandmother’s upbringing) were profoundly affected by religion. As adults, they would have rebelled against it, or always carried its tenents with them. I think the latter in the case of the Jameses.
    The Reverend Mr. James and his compatriot, my gg-grandfather were strong doctrinal Baptists. Combine that with mostly Scots or English blood, a pioneer or frontier mentality, and you have someone in the pulpit (and in the home) who is almost irresistible. (That is to say, perhaps, overwhelming, if not persuasive)
    My gg-grandfather raised several sons, all of whom were missionary Baptist preachers. It wouldn’t surprise me if the James boys, strange as it sounds, didn’t have leanings in that direction.
    My g-grandfather (a regimental color-bearer in the War of Northern Aggression, who survived), was known to come to the pulpit, Bible in one hand, pistol in the other in some of his more rowdy missions. So, it’s not that hard, given the circumstances of the time, how a man could be both a religious and principalled man (in his way) and an outlaw.
    I suspect that’s what most of our early explorers and settlers were, and that was naturally passed down to their children.
    P. S. I think that because Brad Pitt is so beautiful that he’s vastly underrated as an actor, and I’m eager to see him as Jesse.

  5. In time, all the mysteries will be revealed, probably when you ask Unk in person but, at least you’ll know. Hopefully not for a LONG long time but…*smile*

    I take great satisfaction that we haven’t explained things very much. That there are still mysteries both great and small for us to marvel and wonder at even these days.

    After all, mysteries are the salt of life and what’s life without just a little salt?

    Great story and even better follow up LawMom.

    So, LD was the slacker when it came to learning to shoot of the family eh?


  6. Very cool LawDog. Thanks for posting that. It’s a beautiful pistol. Looks similiar to some I’ve seen at Waco in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame.

    Unc is a facinating character. I’m sure it didn’t take much to be disowned by your family in those turbulent times, especially if you were from southern aristocracy. It speaks well of him that he went to help a widowed relative and her boys get along.

    Concerning the badge, I would speculate he probably wore it at one time. This would seem more in keeping with the chatracter of a man who spent afternoons discussing Scripture and going to the aid of widowed realtives.

    Thanks for sharing the story.

  7. My personal thought is that rather than going to the aid of a widowed niece and her boys-she having grown up on the Oklahoma frontier (she actually saw someone who had been scalped) and weathered a stepmother who thought Nomy should be a servant, and made her live out in the dugout instead of in the house)was fairly capable of taking care of herself-Unk was probably on the run, and came to his family in Texas ‘retired.’ He wasn’t all that retired because he shot a couple of men after he got to Texas, and nary a word was ever said about it.

  8. Lawmom, it is surprising how many preachers or outlaws could VERY easily have been the other. The old joke “he was either going to be a preacher or a jailbird” has more truth to it than many might think (I’m sure you grasp it). Sure, some in the clergy are gentle souls who would likely never envision harming another person, while others (I consider myself in this second category) tend to be drawn more to the “eternal struggle” end. The danger in being attracted to the struggle is that you might not care which side you’re on, so long as you see action.

  9. Have you checked with the Marshalls(or whatever agency would have their records) to see if Unc was a Marshall? They might not have anything, but it could cut out one of those possibilities.

  10. Unk was probably on the run, and came to his family in Texas ‘retired.’ He wasn’t all that retired because he shot a couple of men after he got to Texas, and nary a word was ever said about it.

    Well LawMom, I’m wiling to give him the benefit of the doubt for two reasons. First off, he is kin of yours. Secondarily, I have first hand knowledge of how many folks in this world need shootin’.

  11. Hi Prophet-
    Or, with Scots-English hard-headedness,a right is right and wrong is wrong, and never the twain shall pass.

  12. I have been thoroughly chastised. Therefore, I have to do something I rarely do, and that is, explain myself.
    The Dog is a very good shot. However, he isn’t a natural, nor am I. We’re not exactly inept, but we had to be TAUGHT through trial and error and box after box of shells. Dog’s brother is a natural shot, as was his grandfather, and his g-grandmother, and his ggg-grandfather and so on, before him. It’s a natural bent with that side of the family, and it doesn’t matter at all what the weapon is.
    There, now, all better?

  13. Another fine post LD.

    I have my Grandfather’s Model ’94 that he carried from Montana to California and later as the family followed the wheat.

    It has seen three generations of use, and the fourth is in line waiting her turn (granted I am hoping that is a long wait for her).

  14. Nice bit ‘o’ history there, ‘Dog.

    Thanks, BTW. You just gave me an idea for this Friday’s gun pic…

  15. Well, nonetheless, I sure as hell wouldn’t want Lawdog or his family shooting at me!!!

    Even if he missed, I’d prolly still get arrested.

    No thanks, I’ll pass on that….


  16. According to a (brief) search of Google, US Marshall badges weren’t standardized until the 1940’s. A collector or historian might be able to help you narrow down the region where that specific badge was distributed.

    National Archives has some info also. But not in one central place.

    There was also a USMarshal’s Museum, but it’s currently mothballed I guess. Nonetheless, the administrator may have resources that he/she could direct you to, should you wish to pursue it further.

    Good Luck!

  17. ‘Dog,

    Interesting history,

    the US Marshal’s service or the Library of Congress should have a list of US Marshalls as they were and are appointed.


    I have said of DW and oldest son they are better shots than I, I have to practice, practice, etc

    Women, here in TX are generally good shots, because, drumroll please

    if they weren’t (for quite some time, up to the 1920’s or so)they didn’t last long enough to have or protect their kids. When they shoot well, generally so do their kids.

    DW and her Mom can out shoot the whole tribe they just don’t like to embarrase us, much.

    My G-Grandma had to interdict or errr, discourage Bandits in S Tex twice once w/ stony glare once w/ musketry

    I’m here, she won.


  18. Great tale, and even better follow up/expansion on the family history from LawMom! Thanks!


  19. The Dog tried to find out about the badge when I first gave it to him. Not much luck. I believe it’s dated, but I don’t remember the date; somewhere in the 1880s, I think.
    If anyone can find out about it, we would welcome the information—-on second thought, with Unk’s reputation, maybe we just don’t want to know…..

  20. The design on the grips is interwoven horns, an old brand in our family going back and back.

  21. The design on the grips is interwoven horns, an old brand in our family going back and back.

  22. Just want to share the following: is now hosting BLUtube, a YouTube for law enforcement related videos. They have some ‘open to the public’ but some LE-only video topics such as Video Tips, In-car Video and SWAT.

    Being that I am no longer a certified officer, I don’t have the secure clearance, so you will just have to let me know if they have any good ones.

  23. LD, since you’ve commented on the
    Star of Life, I know you’re still alive…..


    I’m not naive enough to think that me whining is going to make you finish the Pink Gorill Story, but at least post something….. I’m going through withdrawals…. If you and AD don’t start posting more often, I’ll have to go back to crack!!!! (if I do, I am totally suing you both)

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