The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Three Guardsmen
By Rachel Kovaciny

If I asked you to name three famous lawmen who helped tame the Wild West, you might say people like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, Wild Bill Hickok, or the Earp brothers. Each of whom could fill up my whole column by themselves. I may write about them at some point, but today, I’m here to share a little about three lawmen who teamed up to take down some of the most famous outlaws of their day. Deputy US Marshals Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, and Chris Madsen joined forces around 1890. They set about cleaning up the lawlessness in what is now part of Oklahoma state, then called Indian Territory. Together, they reportedly apprehended over three hundred lawbreakers by the end of the decade. The outlaws they hunted down nicknamed them the Three Guardsmen. As they continued to fight crime year after year, they lived up to the name. Even if you’ve never heard of them, you’ve undoubtedly heard of one criminal gang they broke up: the Doolin Gang, known as the Wild Bunch. After Heck Thomas and Chris Madsen dissolved the Dalton Gang, its surviving members formed this gang. The Doolin Gang loved to rob banks, trains, and stagecoaches, then run across the border into Indian Territory to hide. 

Five Native American tribes governed Indian Territory, but had no jurisdiction over white people, so outlaws turned the area into a sanctuary for bad men. It was common for peace officers venturing into the territory to get shot outright before they could find the people they were pursuing. (If you’ve ever read the book True Grit by Charles Portis, or seen one of the movie versions, you may recall this is the situation faced by Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn.) The Three Guardsmen invaded the lawless regions to hunt down outlaws otherwise immune to justice.


A large group of US Marshals surrounded the Doolin Gang in Ingalls, Oklahoma, in 1893, to smash the gang. That effort, known as the Battle of Ingalls, resulted in the death of three marshals and two innocent bystanders. Seeing that a large force of lawmen was ineffective at fighting these outlaws, US Marshal Evett Nix pulled the Three Guardsmen off their other duties and tasked them with bringing the Doolin Gang to justice. For years, they pursued members of the gang all across the west, capturing or killing the principal members. Each of the Three Guardsmen brought unique abilities to the team. Bill Tilghman was a Midwesterner who excelled at tracking. Heck Thomas was a Georgia-born sharp-shooter. Chris Madsen was a Danish immigrant with a talent for organization and planning. Relentless in pursuing their duties, they made a formidable peacekeeping force. After smashing the Doolin Gang, the Three Guardsmen went their separate ways. The increasingly civilized territory no longer needed their combined forces. Though all three continued to serve as deputy US Marshals for some years after, each eventually moved on to other jobs. 

Heck Thomas became the chief of police in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he died in 1912. Bill Tilghman served on the Oklahoma state senate for a time before becoming town marshal for the city of Cromwell, Oklahoma. He was murdered there in 1924. One month later, the town burned to the ground. While no culprit was ever officially found, it’s widely believed Chris Madsen and some of Tilghman’s other lawman friends set the blaze because the town sought no justice for Tilghman’s murder. Chris Madsen served with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders during the Spanish American war. He later became the US Marshal over all of Oklahoma state. He died in 1944 at 93.

The Three Guardsmen serve as a shining example of courage and tenacity in pursuit of justice. I think it’s a shame they’re not remembered as widely as other lawmen of the era, but they never sought notoriety in life. Their simple aim was to uphold and defend the law, and they had incredible success in accomplishing that goal.