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  • Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

    'Tumbleweeds' took outlaws to prison

    by Delbert Trew
    Delbert Trew
    Among the more famous conveyances adapted and used by man were the "tumbleweed wagons." Actually, they were only common canvas covered farm wagons put to use hauling captured prisoners being taken to the Fort Smith prison.

    This Western District Prison, presided over by Federal Judge Parker, oversaw the Indian Lands, consisting of 19 counties in rough wild country. It contained the dregs of the outlaw world having fled the fast dwindling law-abiding West. The judge had 200 federal marshals hired to clean up the problem.

    The miscreants were so numerous and the marshals so tough and successful, that expeditions were organized with prison wagons, accompanied by chuck wagons to feed the prisoners and guards and supply wagons to haul food and water. The country was thinly settled with few towns around for service.

    The entourage followed the hard-riding marshals who scattered across the rough timbered lands acting on tips by the public who mostly wanted the outlaws removed.

    The title of tumbleweed wagons came from the erratic turns and side trips made as word came of arrests made by the marshals.

    Most expeditions began with one wagon loaded with handcuffs, leg shackles and log chains. Next came a chuck wagon, supply wagon and a tough selection of guards mounted on horseback and heavily armed.

    When the first wagon filled, another was leased with a team for a second load. When three wagons were filled they made a trip to the prison to unload. When a marshal delivered his prisoners to the wagons he joined the expedition as a guard.

    At night the prisoners were unloaded and shackled to a log chain tied to a tree or the wagon wheels. The food was good, and water was always available. The guards were armed with shotguns and ordered to shoot to kill during attempted escapes. There were few escape attempts.

    The unusually high numbers of outlaws required unusual methods of arrest and transport. The outriding marshals carried "John Doe" arrest warrants, meaning the name place was left vacant and could be filled in when a suspicious character was found. Since the outlaws were described as "thick as deer flies in August" the wagons were quickly filled on each expedition.

    When the tumbleweed wagons arrived at any town or community it was like the carnival came to town. Everyone for miles around came in to see if anyone famous had been captured, look for relatives and ex-husbands, etc. They cheered, booed and hissed at any prisoner who reacted.

    After arriving at the prison, the final sounds heard were the clanging of the metal doors of cells closing, and almost every day the dull thump of those falling through the trap doors of the hanging scaffold. The method was cruel but efficient, and at last, the frontier was cleaned up and became safe for the new settlers.

    Delbert Trew - "It's All Trew"
    May 31 , 2011 column
    Related Topics: Texas Outlaws | People
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