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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Sam Bass:
The Not So Merry Bandit

by Clay Coppedge

If notorious Old West bandit Sam Bass buried all the gold he is said to have buried in Central Texas, he would have been a wealthy man indeed. He wouldn't have made the fatal decision to rob a bank in Round Rock in July of 1878. He would simply have stopped by one of the caves where millions of his dollars are said to have been buried, and hightailed it to Mexico, incognito.

Likewise, if he stopped by every place he is said to have been sighted on that ill-fated trip to Round Rock, his route would have been most circuitous indeed.

For years - a hundred or more - people have talked about when Sam Bass dropped by The Grove in Coryell County en route to Round Rock. W.J. Graham, who ran a store in The Grove during Bass' heyday, recounted a day when Bass dropped by the store and asked Graham what he would say to Sam Bass if he were to come into the store. Graham said he would tell the outlaw to go straight to hell.

"Well, here's your chance because I am Sam Bass," the man said.

"Now, that's an altogether different matter, isn't it?" Graham said.

Bass, or someone pretending to be Sam Bass, might have made it over to the saloon for a little nip because there is another story concerning Sam Bass at The Grove.

In this story, some locals were hanging out at the saloon and heckling a young man who had come in to quench his thirst. The object of their ridicule was the man's straw hat. Apparently, no one in The Grove had made this particular kind of fashion statement before.

The man approached the hecklers and said he liked a good joke as well as the next person and would be glad to join in if they would tell him what was so funny. Before they told him, he introduced himself as Sam Bass, which inspired everybody in the saloon to seek entertainment elsewhere.

Legend and lore surrounding Sam Bass still exists today because facts never got in the way of a good story, even during Bass' brief time in the spotlight. With the exception of one big haul, when he and his gang got away with $60,000 in gold coins from a Union Pacific train, Sam Bass and his gang weren't all that successful as bandits. But oral history and folklore have been kind to Bass because of his enduring reputation as basically a merry bandit, a Robin Hood of the Old West.

Bell County Attorney and Old West historian Rick Miller probably knows more about Sam Bass than anybody on the planet. His biography of Bass, "Sam Bass and Gang," was named by True West magazine as one of the 50 best books ever written on the American West. To give you an idea of the kind of company he's in with that award, Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" is also on the list.
People who want to believe that Sam Bass passed through Coryell County on his way to Round Rock will find scant support in Miller's book, which traces day-by-day the route Bass and his gang made on that final fateful ride.

Even if the gang did stop off in The Grove, Sam Bass and his gang were in no position to announce their presence in general stores and saloons. They were in a world of trouble, and getting away unnoticed was a matter of life and death.
Bass and gang did stop in Belton and even considered robbing the bank there, but Belton spooked Bass. "I would hate for them Belton fellows to get after us for they are bad medicine," Bass said. "These Bell County fellows are different material."

Miller speculates that Bass might have heard some stories about Belton, such as the time in 1874 when a mob took over the jail and shot to death nine prisoners inside.

Or maybe he was thinking of more recent history, when in June of that year another mob stormed a house near Troy and shot to death a man and 14-year old boy, possibly over an elopement.

Bass wanted no part of Belton or Bell County. The gang soon moved into Williamson County, where the saga of Sam Bass came to a bloody end. He was betrayed by a member of his gang, who had wired the Texas Rangers from Belton to inform them of Bass' plans to rob the Round Rock bank.

Scarcely had he been buried in Round Rock before songs and biographies romanticizing the "Robin Hood of the West" began to appear.

Miller cut through the legend and lore to write his book on Bass, and he cuts neither the man or the legend little slack.

"In truth, Sam Bass was singularly unsuccessful as an outlaw except when he stumbled over the gold coins during the Big Springs robbery," Miller wrote in his epilogue. "Beyond that it is difficult to attribute anything to him of a positive nature. He was an illiterate crook who sought easy riches, but by being the focus of a manhunt unparalleled in the history of Texas then or since, Bass indirectly reinforced the need for an organized state police force.

"Bass' exploits have been glamorously but untruthfully distorted to give him more credit as an outlaw than he deserves, but his is nevertheless an exciting tale that has become a significant footnote in Texas history."

Clay Coppedge September 13, 2006 column
More "Letters from Central Texas"

More Texas Outlaws | Small Town Sagas

More on Sam Bass:

  • The short life of Sam Bass by Bob Bowman

  • Texas outlaw Sam Bass inspired tall tales by Murray Montgomery

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