Every outlaw had an alias, a catchy nickname that provided a little pizzazz to his otherwise nefarious behavior. We all know Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Billy the Kid. Even the questionable “good guys” of the Old West, “Buffalo Bill” and “Wild Bill” came with their own brand of advertising.
What’s in a name? If you lived in 19th-century Wyoming Territory, it meant everything.
If you were asked to identify Robert Leroy Parker, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, or Henry McCarty could you? Would these names have the same glitter as their aliases Butch, Sundance, and the Kid? Definitely not, is the answer.
One name that didn’t stand the test of time comes to us from the tumultuous days before statehood.
Wyoming Territory was carved out in a big rectangle by easterners who had never been to the vast, diverse landscape in 1869. A scant 21 years later, and with a bit of chicanery, Wyoming became a state on July 10, 1890. But the intervening years played out like a classic John Ford western with outlaws, battles with Native Americans, stagecoaches, cattle ranches, posses, lynchings, and even more outlaws.
After the Union Pacific rolled through Wyoming in 1867 and 1868 settlers came west to homestead behind the advancing rails. The path of the railroad was expedient, with little regard for ranching or farming. The best areas for both lay to the north.
That land belonged to the tribes of the plains and with each western advancement another treaty was made and quickly broken by the United States Government. The first came in 1851 with the Laramie River Treaty which gave protection to immigrants on the Oregon Trail, the second was in 1868, the Laramie River Treaty gave more rights and protection to the railroad, gold miners in Montana and travelers headed north from Cheyenne to seek their fortune in the mines. It gave the Native Americans nothing but words and led to the Indian Wars from 1868 to 1877.
Gold in the Hills
Fred and Moses Manuel, Hank Harney, and Alex Engh were prospecting near present-day Lead, South Dakota when they found a large gold seam on April 9, 1876.
The assembled Arapaho, Brulé, Oglala, Miniconjou, and Yankton at the 1868 Laramie River Treaty had no idea that their world was about to turn upside down as the provisions of the treaty were shredded by a mad rush of white men headed for the gold fields of Dakota Territory.
Enter into this political morass William F. Chambers.
His name brings little recognition today, but in 1876, “Persimmon Bill” was the scourge of the Cheyenne – Black Hills Road.
The cry of “gold!” quickly reached the East Coast and then Europe. Thousands of dreamers started north from Cheyenne and Denver to the Black Hills.
Enterprising businessmen quickly began to offer freight service to the miners spreading out from Lead and the mayhem began.
At first, it was just pack trains led by a dozen or so heavily armed men taking essential supplies to the miners in Lead, soon it spread to Deadwood and the demand increased.
The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage, Mail, and Express Company grew quickly. Stations from Cheyenne to Deadwood with major stops at Ft. Laramie, Rawhide Buttes, and Hat Creek, along with dozens of smaller stations dotted the route.
The route developed over time, gradually shortening with road improvements so that express freight could be delivered in four days from the railhead in Cheyenne to the hungry miners in Dakota Territory.
Lots of open space, lonely miles, and ambush sites along the trail offered ample opportunities for criminals to attack and rob both the stage and the freight wagons.
There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of armed bandits who preyed on the passengers and employees of the stage line, and who robbed solitary travelers and small groups on the way north in Laramie County.
None was worse than Persimmon Bill.
William “Persimmon Bill” Chambers
Not much is known of William Chambers, the man who gave himself the moniker “Persimmon.” He first sprang onto the scene in the late spring of 1876. One of his crime victims was a news correspondent headed west to tell the tale of the Black Hills gold rush. Chambers robbed the stage he was on, and Persimmon Bill’s narcissistic nature came to the front. In today’s world Chambers would be the king of selfies and social media, but in 1876, the only outlet was the newspaper or pulp, paperback books.
Chambers said that he’d been born in North Carolina and fought the first year of the Civil War with a North Carolina infantry unit before he deserted to join the Union Cavalry.
As a Union soldier, Chambers became involved with a woman in the hamlet of Bowling Green, Virginia where he shot and killed a fellow soldier over her attention. He deserted the Union and rejoined the Confederacy but was captured and spent the rest of the war at Johnson Island Prison on Lake Erie.
Little is known of Chambers between his furlough out of prison until his first mention in the March 9, 1875, edition of the Cheyenne Daily Leader.
Chambers mentioned Sioux City, North Platte, and Fort Collins to members of his gang in later years and finally emerged in Wyoming, working for Malcolm Campbell making charcoal for Fort. Fetterman. Chambers spent two years with Campbell and was regarded as an excellent cowboy.
Chambers was jailed by Laramie County Sheriff Nicholas O’Brien on suspicion of rustling horses near the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson, Nebraska.
The charges didn’t hold, and Chambers was soon on the loose. Where the Daily Leader came up with the nickname “Persimmon Bill.” Chambers most likely invented the name since persimmons grow wild in his native North Carolina and are the bitterest of fruit until the frost when they become very sweet.
By 1876, Persimmon Bill was a bogeyman that mothers used to scare their children into sleep, or lack of it, at the mere mention of his name.
A Murdering Horse Thief
He worked the central area of Laramie County, committing robbery, murder, and rape on isolated travelers, stagecoaches, and freight wagons. The area of present-day Niobrara County was his hotspot, committing crimes near the Hat Creek Station, Indian Creek, Cheyenne River, and north into Red Canyon.
There were plenty of available victims on the heavily traveled route to the Black Hills gold fields, but his penchant was for stealing horses and he often stole from Native Americans, near the Red Cloud Agency.
In early March 1876, Chambers and two partners stole a handful of Arapaho horses. The rightful owners tracked Persimmon Bill near Fort Fetterman and lodged a complaint with Major Alexander Chambers. (No relation)
Major Chambers ordered Sergeant Patrick Sullivan to investigate. Sullivan found grounds to arrest the trio, but they jumped him, shooting him in the back and killing him instantly. The Arapaho rode off as the shooting started but reported the crime to Major Chambers.
Persimmon Bill stole Sullivan’s gold watch and about $30 in cash, then hid out in the Laramie Mountains.
Chambers had escalated from a petty horse thief to a murderer. The US Army offered a $1,000 “Dead or Alive” reward for his capture.
Territorial law enforcement sprang into action as quickly as messenger and limited telegraph could spread the news. The US Marshall’s office in Cheyenne and the military at Fort Sanders at the far western edge of the Medicine Bow Road worked the suspected hiding area of the outlaws.
Three days after the murder, William Madden was arrested at Medicine Bow, Brown his other accomplices a man named Brown as captured at Fort Fetterman. Chambers escaped to Rawlins, then traveled back to the Black Hills leaving a trail of stolen horses to mark his path.
“Persimmon Bill’s” savagery rose to a new level with the brutal Metz Massacre as it became known.
Red Canyon is a seven-mile-long drainage that rises from the plains towards the Black Hills to the east. It was the perfect spot for robberies and an easy ambush site with ample red rocks, and cottonwood groves to hide the attacking outlaws.
Now eroded by time and Wyoming’s brutal winters, an inscription was carved into a red rock wall on one of the blind corners.
“Look to your rifles well
For this is the Canyon of Hell”
The Metz Massacre
Charles Metz was a baker. He had a storefront in Laramie, but in February of 1876, he decided to take his business north to the gold fields. He moved his wife and their cook, Rachel Briggs to Custer City. Gold was abundant, but bread, pies, and cakes weren’t. Metz had a monopoly and the cash rolled in from the hungry miners.
The Custer City rush sputtered buy new diggings, closer to Deadwood had most of the miners racing north for the next chance at a fortune. Instead of heading north with them, Metz decided to sell his bakery, and take his $2000 profit in the form of placer gold and currency and return to Laramie.
Teamsters advised Metz to not travel alone, but he ignored the advice and left Custer City on April 16. There was a large party heading south scheduled to depart April 17, but Metz feared the weather would turn bad and left Custer.
Metz hired a driver named Simpson to take the three of them back south to Laramie.
Persimmon Bill was waiting in Red Canyon for them.
Metz was killed in the initial volley from the ambush, shot through the head and body. Simpson put up a fight, but his body was found about a half mile away from the wagon.
Briggs, a Black woman, was found dead near Metz with an arrow in her back and Mrs. Metz lay a few hundred yards from Simpson with a shot through the heart.
Teamsters who discovered the attack were convinced the women had been raped. All the bodies were mutilated. Though no autopsies were done, it was believed by the witnesses at the scene that Rachel Briggs had been shot, and an arrow jammed into the wound to make the crime appear to be an Indian attack.
Briggs and Simpson were buried where they were found in Red Canyon. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Metz were carried to the Cheyenne River Ranch and buried there.
The ruse to pin the attack on Native Americans didn’t work. Investigators, led by reporter Jesse Brown found evidence of boots and the imprint of cloth in the dirt where the attack occurred. The Arapaho and Sioux native to the area didn’t wear boots and the cloth pattern didn’t match clothes commonly worn by them. Nothing was taken except gold, silver coins, and currency the party had been carrying, further evidence of a robbery by Chambers and his gang.
Persimmon Bill was the most famous, and most violent criminal on the road, but there were dozens of others regularly robbing freight wagons, stagecoaches, and independent travelers on an almost daily basis.
The “Stuttering” Brown Murder
H.E. “Stuttering” Brown was a veteran freight manager, working in Omaha and Salt Lake City previously. He was hired by the freight company to keep supplies stocked at the stations along the trail and to investigate robberies to help law enforcement and hopefully send the criminals to the territorial prison in Laramie.
Brown was unaware of the Metz killings when he confronted Persimmon Bill at the Cheyenne River State Station. The majority of the robberies and attacks were between Hat Creek Station in present-day Niobrara County and Red Canyon. Passengers were relieved of gold, cash, and jewelry often on the trail, but Brown was more interested in the large amount of good quality company horses the thieves were making off with.
Brown had no evidence aside from Chamber’s reputation as a horse thief but threatened to kill him if he ever caught him with company stock.
Persimmon Bill denied the allegation, left the station, but told others outside that he would get even with Brown for the insult.
Revenge didn’t take long. Later that afternoon, Brown, Charlie Edwards, and Curly Ayres were driving a fast freight south toward Hat Creek. As darkness set, gunshots rang out and Brown was hit in his cartridge belt with the force of the shot driving the ball and paper deep into his stomach. It was a mortal wound. Brown told the other two men to take the stock and leave him. They did but Brown mounted his mule and slowly rode towards Hat Creek. A search party found him alive by the road but in bad shape.
Word was sent for the Army Surgeon, Dr. Charles Petteys at Ft. Laramie to come to Hat Creek. It was a ride of 70 miles and when Dr. Petteys arrived Brown was too far gone and died a few hours later.
A Wanted Man Killed by his Partner
Persimmon Bill’s narcissistic nature was in full flower with the Army, the stage company, and Wyoming law enforcement all hot after him.
A reporter working for an Eastern newspaper interviewed Chambers in the company of several dozen Indians on the trail. Persimmon Bill was known to frequent the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies and had at least one Native American in his gang.
That was the last recorded encounter with Persimmon Bill. The Army set up infantry camps at three sights between Hat Creek and Red Canyon and the crime level dropped.
The most credible story of Persimmon Bill’s death was published in the Cheyenne Daily Sun on May 3, 1879.
Nick Janis, a French rancher, married to a niece of Red Cloud and an interpreter at Ft. Laramie said Chambers had been killed in an argument over dividing up loot after a robbery in the fall of 1876. Persimmon Bill started to argue with his unnamed Indian partner, and the young man shot and killed him in the presence of a group of Sioux men.
“Oh, yes, Persimmon Bill is dead, boys, you can bet on that,” Janis said.
Not much remains of the outlaw and his short reign of terror. Tracks marking the Cheyenne-Deadwood Road are still there if you look in Goshen, Niobrara, and Weston County.