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Sheriff Kirk

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Young County proved mighty hard on its sheriffs in the 19th century.

In a span of 24 years, the 919-square mile political subdivision northwest of Fort Worth lost three sheriffs in the line of duty.

Sheriff Harvey S. Cox died first, killed in an assault on Sept. 15, 1864. Next to fall, Sheriff Richard Kirk's watch ended on Feb. 21, 1876. Twelve years later, on Christmas Eve 1888, someone gunned down Sheriff Marion D. Wallace.

In addition to the three elected county lawmen, two deputies and one deputized civilian died in felonious incidents up through Feb. 24, 1915, the only time in the 20th century the county lost an officer.

All the deaths amounted to tragedies for everyone involved, but the killing of Sheriff Kirk stands out as an Old West shootout worthy of any Hollywood Western.

Organized in 1856, Young County became virtually depopulated during the Civil War and dissolved in 1865, attached to adjacent Jack County for judicial purposes. When the county reorganized in 1874, Kirk got elected as its first sheriff in nearly a decade. Not much is known of Kirk. He must have been fairly young and unmarried, because his survivors were later listed as his mother and siblings. Apparently he had no wife, no children.

Whatever his background, the sheriff seems to have taken his job seriously. As the Graham Leader later reported, Kirk "performed his duties in a manner which pleased his constituents and brought fear to the hearts of the unlawful element which filtered into every frontier town."

In the winter of 1876, he saddled his horse and rode to Fort Belknap to serve an arrest warrant on a man wanted in Clay County for assaulting noted cattleman W.S. Ikard. The man had escaped from the county jail in Henrietta.

The fugitive's given name has fallen through the cracks of history, but in Northwest Texas people knew him by his memorable nickname, Buffalo Bill. (Not to be confused with Col. William Cody, THE Buffalo Bill.)

Whoever the other Buffalo Bill was, he came by his nickname because he made his living as a buffalo hunter. That vocation typecasts him as not a particularly gentle soul, given that he played a role in virtually exterminating a species. Judging from later descriptions of his character, he must have had a singularly nasty disposition - especially when in his cups.

A fellow buffalo hunter later recalled that Buffalo Bill stood about five feet, eight inches, had a slight build and wore his hair long, like the famous scout and showman. Like many a man in the 19th century, the Buffalo Bill drank too much.

On Monday morning, February 21, 1876, Bill and a couple of companions had already tossed down too many drinks at a combination store and saloon called Holly's by the time Sheriff Kirk walked into the saloon with the warrant for his arrest. Kirk told Bill he was under arrest.

But Bill did not want to go back to Henrietta. As the sheriff approached the wanted man, the buffalo hunter brought up his rifle and pulled the trigger. The .50 caliber round, a load more than ample for bringing down the heaviest bull buffalo, slammed into the lawman.

As he collapsed, Kirk snapped off a pistol shot at Buffalo Bill, who caught the bullet in his chest below the collar bone.

Newspapers of the day made no pretense of balance in their coverage of the incident.

Here's what the Capital City's newspaper, the Democratic Statesman, had to say about the Young County the sheriff's killer:

"Buffalo Bill, the coarse, degraded bully and murderer and desperado and blackguard, the sweetest, most admirable impersonation Texas has ever known of the virtues of the street fighter and swindler, has slaughtered his last man.

"At the very instant that he shot Sheriff Richard Kirk…Kirk's bullet penetrated his body. Kirk died within the hour, and Buffalo Bill breathed his last soon afterwards amid the execrations of a throng that could hardly be restrained from violent deeds when it was again and again proposed to hasten the monster's exit from a world whose very breath was polluted by his foul presence."

Citizens gathered in a mass meeting three days after the shooting and passed several resolutions praising the dead lawman. Of a more lasting nature, they decided to name the county's highest elevation in his honor - Mount Kirk.

With the development of the internet in the late 20th century, the sheriff's memory gained semi-eternal status in cyberspace on a Web site maintained by the Young County Sheriff's Office. The site lists Kirk's name among five county peace officers and one deputized civilian who have died in the line of duty.

In addition to his recognition on the internet, Kirk has a nice marker in the Graham cemetery. Where they buried the outlaw who murdered the sheriff stands as a mystery today.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - June 1, 2006 column
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