The Murder of Dan Maples – A Man With  “True Grit”

By Larry Horton

Whenever I hear the term “Deputy US Marshal” I always think of Rooster Cogburn, the rough and tumble marshal who displayed the “True Grit” to track and kill “Lucky” Ned Pepper in Charles Portis’ masterpiece novel of the same name. But Bentonville had its own Rooster Cogburn, although ours was not a drunk, as Rooster was portrayed in the book. Marshals of the day were said to be, “Straight shooting, hard riding, and fearless.”

Dan Maples was born in January, 1846. Like Cogburn, he served in the Confederate army - not with the notorious William Quantrill, but with the regular army - participating in the Battle of Corinth where future Arkansas Governor and Bentonville resident James H. Berry lost a leg. Maples moved to Bentonville from Carroll County and served as a deputy sheriff before being appointed as deputy US marshal.

The importance of the US Marshal service is touched upon in the book and in the “True Grit” films, but the reality was much more serious. 200 brave men served the US District Court of the Western District of Arkansas and Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith. Parker, known as “the hanging judge” for the number of convictions in his court that led to that very penalty. But put into context, it’s a bit easier to see why.

The proximity of the Indian Territory to Western Arkansas is a fact that is often forgotten in modern times. After numerous wars, broken treaties, and subjugation, the Native Americans from across the country were forced into various reservations before finally being forced to move to Oklahoma, which was reserved nearly totally for their homes. In 1834, territory was assigned in what is now Oklahoma to each Indian tribe, with the majority of the Arkansas border being shared with the Cherokee and the Choctaw. One faction of outlaws in this territory were made up of Native Americans and the other of white men who used the Territory for a hiding place free of US rule of law. Of course, not all of the Native Americans were outlaws; many were highly educated and law-abiding; as in any society, there are bad apples.

The Territory was the ideal hiding place for an outlaw. The Native American government had no control over white men, and the courts in Arkansas and Kansas were far away and their jurisdiction rights caused many conflicts. Many times the citizens considered the marshal as an intruder and fought to hide any individuals that were being sought.

Ned Christie, Tahlequah Daily Press

Ned Christie, Tahlequah Daily Press

In May, 1887, Dan Maples headed to Tahlequah to serve a whiskey warrant. He travelled with his son, George Maples, friend George Jefferson, who was a long time Bentonville merchant, J.M.Pelle or Peel. who was the son of an Arkansas Congressman, and a cook.  They took the trip leisurely, hoping to hunt and fish a little along the way. They camped north of Tahlequah where Town Branch crosses what is now known as Seminary Avenue and Spring Street, but at the time was in the wilderness. According to a 1935 book entitled Around Tahlequah Council Fires, “…the deputy marshal attempted to arrest Ned Christie, a member of the Cherokee executive council who was returning to his lodgings after purchasing whisky from a local bootlegger in Dog Town, a less desirable neighborhood on Tahlequah’s northern fringe.” Newspaper accounts of the time stated that Maples and Jefferson had left camp to head to town to buy eggs and visit with friends. Having no thought as to the danger they were in, they were ambushed while crossing the creek. About 100 yards from the spring they had to cross a log that served as the footbridge to the other side.

The Galveston Daily News reported that just as Dan placed a foot on the log, Jefferson warned him that there was a man with a gun drawn on the other side. Maples replied, “Don’t worry, he won’t shoot,” and was immediately shot in the chest. This seems hard to believe, as a lawman in “enemy” territory would likely always be on his guard. Other accounts say that the man was hidden behind a tree, but whatever the case, the man did indeed shoot Maples. Jefferson was said to have stood tall and emptied his gun at the man. Maples fired four shots after being shot himself, but the man escaped. Maples, unlike Rooster Cogburn who always escaped death, was taken to a local doctor where he later died of his injuries.

Four men were immediately thought to have been involved in the ambush, and three were quickly arrested – John Parris, Charles Bobtail, and Bud Trainor. The fourth, Ned Christie, remained at large until surrounded by US Marshals in 1882 and killed after a gun battle which culminated in Christie’s cabin being blown to bits with dynamite. Christie was blamed for the killing when he was implicated by Parris. The Cherokee tribe, under Chief Bushyhead, were regretful of the incident and put out a $500 bounty on Ned Christie, a large amount considering that the normal pay to capture an outlaw in the Territory was $2.

Dan Maples, Tahlequah Daily Press

Dan Maples, Tahlequah Daily Press

Over the years there has been much debate about who actually killed Maples, more than needs to be examined in this forum. A blacksmith who admitted to being present at the time, said the real murderer was Trainor, but he didn’t come forward with the information until after Trainor’s death in 1896 out of fear of retaliation. According to the Tahlequah Daily Press, in an article reviewing the case in April, 2015:

“A Daily Oklahoman account written 31 years after his death indicated that Maples, accompanied by a single posseman, had used a telephone recently installed in the post office in James S. Stapler’s general merchandise store in the Nation’s capital city to request warrants to arrest two Tahlequah female liquor dealers. An unnamed individual who overheard the conversation warned Bud (or Bub) Trainor of the lawman’s plan. Described as “a wild and reckless young man ... with a big revolver stuck in his belt,” Trainor crossed the Town Branch Creek, where he discovered Ned Christie sleeping off an alcohol-induced stupor in the bushes near the creek.

Taking Christie’s coat, Trainor put it on and took a position behind a tree to await Maples. In an exchange of fire, the federal officer was mortally wounded; his assailant returned Christie’s coat, roused the sleeping Cherokee, and told him to get up. Christie did not go far before resuming his slumber.”

Maples was brought back to Bentonville for burial. His wife lived until 1929 and never forgave the “Indians” for killing her husband. Dan Maples’ son George, who was present after his father’s murder, was elected Sheriff of Benton County two separate times in the 1930’s. His grandson Bryan served as Bentonville fire chief in the 1950’s.

The tale of Dan Maples is 130 years old last month. The ambush and murder were front page news all across the country. It’s hard to believe in modern times that a trip to Tulsa or Tahlequah in those days was risky business, fraught with danger, and to be a lawman in those days required “True Grit” and more.

Remember, The US Marshall Museum is located a short drive away in Ft. Smith. It’s definitely worth a day trip to see how these folks became famous. Visit them on the web at http://usmmuseum.org/