In a quiet cemetery in Round Rock, a tombstone used to read, “A brave man reposes in death here. Why was he not true?” The tombstone was whittled away by time and curiosity-seekers. The epitaph was placed by one of the sisters of the deceased, Sam Bass. He lay dead at the end of a crime spree that lasted only a couple of years but was remembered for generations. In the Old West when the population was still small and the emptiness of the wide-open frontiers was filled by larger-than-life personalities, Sam Bass stood out.
Bass was born on a farm in Indiana in 1851. He was the fourth of nine children, two of whom died before he was born. The family had a successful farm and a good reputation. Few problems were reported about the future outlaw save for his dislike of school, the little time he did attend. In 1861, Bass’s mother died. His father remarried, but he died in 1864. At that point, he spent the rest of his childhood living on a nearby farm of one of his uncles.
Just shy of his eighteenth birthday in 1869, he left Indiana and made his way down to Mississippi. He worked in a mill for some time and also mastered poker and the revolver. Bass then left for Denton, Texas. He landed a job with Sheriff W. F. “Dad” Eagan as a farmhand and wagon driver. He developed a reputation for his hard work. He traveled the back roads of Denton, Collin, Grayson, Cooke, and Dallas counties extensively, roads that eventually became his escape routes.
By 1874, he was becoming a successful horse racer in his spare time. He saved enough to buy his own horse, which he called “Denton Mare.” He eventually made so much that he quit working altogether.
What led him to his crime spree is uncertain. He was steadily winning races and raking in the proceeds. Then by late 1875, his luck ran out; and it all fell apart.
In December 1875, Bass and an associate picked up a job driving cattle from Texas to the railroad junctions in Kansas. The two went on to Nebraska, where prices were higher, and kept the payment for the cattle, to the tune of $8,000 (roughly $191,000 today). They traveled still further north into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory hoping to strike it rich in the growing gold fields of the area. The mining venture failed, and by the end of 1876, Sam Bass and a number of others started robbing stage coaches. These robberies continued for months until Bass assembled a gang determined to take on larger stakes.
In September 1877, Bass and five others held up a Union Pacific passenger train in the dead of night. They took $60,000 in gold coins and $1,300 from the passengers, a total of nearly $1.46 million in 2019 dollars. The six then scattered. Bass himself narrowly avoided escape from bounty hunters and U. S. Marshals by pretending to be a bounty hunter himself. Three members of his gang were killed within weeks of the robbery.
In spite of the fortune, he added a few more to his gang and held up two stagecoaches in Texas in spring 1878. They robbed four trains in Collin and Dallas counties in rapid succession that spring and summer, disappearing into the thickets and creek bottoms Bass had come to know so well. Texas Rangers put together a special company of men to pursue Bass and his gang, scouring the whole area between Dallas, Sherman, and Denton. Bass managed to stay a step ahead of them — barely.
Jim Murphy, a member of the gang, was soon arrested at his father’s house. He made a deal with prosecutors and turned informant and rejoined Bass’s gang. In late April, Bass barely escaped death in a gunfight with Rangers. The gang decided to go further south and planned a bank robbery in the Williamson County community of Round Rock, and Murphy sent a letter ahead to alert the Rangers.
By July, the Bass gang had reached Round Rock and scouted the area for days in mid-July, often walking past the very Rangers and deputies in pursuit of them. After five days, Murphy broke away and warned Rangers of Bass’s plan. On July 19, Rangers confronted Bass and his two remaining men in town. Within moments, a gunfight erupted. One Ranger was hit, and Bass’s two men were killed on the spot.
Bass was hit with one shot, but he managed to pull away. He rode several miles north and stopped. The wound was too severe, and his strength spilled away with each drop of blood. The next morning, he was found, slumped against a tree. He weakly identified himself and was taken into custody. By this point nothing more could be done for him, yet he refused to identify his cohorts or anyone associated with him and died the next afternoon, his twenty-seventh birthday. His death was such that even his pursuers paused to pay their respects.
His outlaw life did not destroy his reputation. In fact, after his death, he became a larger-than-life figure. Several communities have streets named after him, most notably Denton and Round Rock. Bass’s career was re-enacted on movies and television. His last days figure prominently in Round Rock’s annual Frontier Days celebration.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.