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Tom Horn: His Early Years

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In previous columns, we have taken a look at some early day sheriffs in the area, and we left off on Joe LeFors. To keep things in chronological order, the next two columns will address Tom Horn, and then we will rejoin Joe LeFors and his part Tom Horn’s story and eventual hanging.

Tom Horn led an interesting life, although not an unusual one for the times. At the young age of 16, Horn was hired by the army as a civilian scout, packer, and interpreter during the Apache Wars. Horn was respected for his work with the army and in 1885, he earned the position as chief of scouts under Captain Emmet Crawford.

On September 4, 1886, Horn was present at Geronimo’s final surrender, acting as an interpreter under Lt. Charles B. Gatewood. After the Apache Wars, Horn wandered around the West, prospecting, ranching, and hiring out to cattle companies as a hired gun. He worked for the Pinkerton Detective agency a one time as well.

Display about Tom Horn in the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum, Buffalo

In The Daily Boomerang, April 4, 1899, there is this story about Tom Horn and some of his achievements. – He Caught Geronimo – Tom Horn, the veteran scout, who captured Geronimo, is at the Albany in Denver, says the Republican of that city. These who knew Horn a few years ago would have some difficulty in recognizing him. In the old days he was as rugged as a peak, but sickness has brought down his weight and his cheeks are sunken. Instead of being shaven he now has a tuft of whiskers on his chin. Horn registers from Iron Mountain. Wyo., near which station he has a ranch, and he is enroute to Arizona.

When the American-Spanish war was declared Gen. Miles sent for Horn and made him the chief packmaster. It was in Cuba that he contracted malarial fever and various and sundry other tropical fevers which are responsible for his wasted strength. “The truth is I don’t feel as well as I did a dozen years ago,” said Mr. Horn, with the same old, warming smile, “But I believe it will be a good many years before death rounds me up. The climate in Cuba and Arizona and New Mexico are different propositions entirely. The Cuban climate is damp and penetrating and laden with all kinds of fever, but the Arizona and Mexican climate is not.”

This from the Wyoming Derrick, April 28, 1898, about Horn going to Cuba with the army.

Trailed the Indians for 18 years. “For 18 consecutive years I was in the employ of the United States government as Indian scout, serving under Gen. Crook and Gen. Miles, both of whom were my personal friends. “I drifted in as an Indian scout naturally enough. My father was a scout and was killed in the early 70s by an Apache bullet, and also, naturally enough I had a grudge against the Indians. I learned the language as a boy, and today, although a bit rusty for want of practice, can speak the language nearly as well as I can speak English.

“In 1882 I was chief of scouts and that was really the beginning of the campaign against Geronimo which eventually resulted in his capture and the ending of the war which he had so long waged on the troops and settlers in Arizona and along the Mexican border.

“Contemporaneous with Geronimo was Chief Ju, an Apache robber, and between the two the United Slates cavalry and scouts were kept busy. Ju had probably 150 Indians with him. and a more desperate aggregation was never before assembled in one band.”

After his scouting and Army days, Horn became a Pinkerton detective, and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad.

This was in The Laramie Republican, January 30, 1900 – The U. P. Robbers Another Report That the Two Bandits Have Been Killed. Story DeniedThis morning’s Denver News contains the following from Cheyenne: Tom Horn of Iron mountain, the daring scout and detective, was in the city today and. being questioned as to the dispatch in yesterday’s News reporting the killing of two train robbers in the mountains recently, said that the report was true, but that the locality of the fight was not in the Hole-in-the-Wall, but about forty miles west of Jackson’s Hole, and the affair took place about three weeks ago.

He states he had only one man with him at the time a half Indian, who knew the country thoroughly. After following the trail of the two men for nearly a month, they came upon them in camp just us they were getting supper. One was engaged in frying bacon and the other at some distance from the fire, getting their traps together.

He and his companion at once opened fire on them, the man who was cooking being first hit. The other man sprang behind a tree and began shooting rapidly, one of his shots hitting his companion in the leg. Horn advanced and finally got the other man as he was trying to escape. Both men were left dead on the ground.

After identifying the men he had killed as Smith and Montgomery, he took his companion to the railroad station at Opal, on the Oregon Short Line, for medical attendance. Horn says there is no question as to their being members of the gang that robbed the Union Pacific train at Wilcox, as their trail was struck shortly after that affair and had been followed all the time, although occasionally lost, and taken up again.

Horn reports his wounded companion as doing well, stating that he had heard from him only a few days ago.

It Isn’t True –Tom Horn, the detective, was in the city yesterday. He just returned from the Hole-in-the-Wall country, where he has been looking for the Wilcox train robbers. He is in the employ of the Union Pacific and says the company does not intend to abandon the search for the murderers until they are captured or killed. The sensational report in the Denver News that a posse had run down and killed two of the robbers is not true. The officers were on the trail and one of the posse was wounded a few days ago, but none of the robbers were shot. The officers know the men who committed the robbery and the murder of Sheriff Hazen, and they look forward to their capture. — Sun-Leader.

On display at Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum

Being an excellent shot, Horn was hired by the Swan Land and Cattle Company in Colorado to rid the county of rustlers, who were draining the resources of the large ranchers. Although he had the title of ‘range detective’, he was more of a hired gun. During the Johnson County War, Horn worked for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and for the Pinkertons, who had assigned him to work undercover in the county using the alias, Tom Hale.

From the Buffalo Voice, February 1, 1902 – Tom Horn, who figured in the Johnson County War as Tom Hale, U.S. Deputy Marshall, stands today bound over to the Distinct court, without bail, as the self-confessed murderer of Willie Nickell, a 14-year-old boy at Iron Mountian, in July 1901. The confession was made to Deputy Marshal Joe Lefors, in the hearing of two witnesses.

John C. Coble of Iron Mountain is implicated in having paid $750 to Horn as the price of young Nickell’s life. This incident reminds Johnson County People of like occurrences in this county 10 years ago.

Although much of his life he was on the right side of the law, in 1902 Horn was convicted of the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell near Iron Mountain Wyoming. He was hanged in Cheyenne on November 20, 1903, one day before his 43rd birthday.

Deputy U.S. Marshall Joe Lefors was the man who took down Horn’s confession to the murder, and that will be the subject of a future column.

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