THE 21ST BIRTHDAY OF JOHN WESLEY HARDIN
By: Brandon Mangan
John Wesley Hardin, Abilene, Kansas – 1871
The day of May 26th, 1874 is a day of infamy in Comanche County. It didn’t start that way. The residents of Comanche awoke with a spirit of excitement – horse races were being held northeast of town and people across the area would be traveling to witness sport and join in the festivities that come with such events.
Life for the men and women of that period demanded a certain amount of grit, for those who decided to settle the Comanche Territory it demanded it in spades. These early settlers earned the title of “briar-breakers”, arriving in 1854 to clear the brush and chisel out a place for themselves in the expansive Comanche Territory. They were on their own. The closest supplies to be had required riding nearly three hundred miles, oftentimes in yoked wagons over roads that were little more than pairs of rock and stump-strewn ruts. The Leon River would gorge itself on rains as it still does today, overflowing its banks and stranding return parties who could spend weeks contemplating their homes and families just a few miles from where they were forced to camp in wait. This was the state of affairs for nearly two decades, and the families that remained, forged deep bonds fighting to flourish in a part of this country many of us now call home. After years of tribulation from battling the native elements and people, the area began to see a great amount of growth. With the close of the Civil War there was an exodus from the more war-torn areas of the south, many of those who left their home states ended up in Texas, some in Comanche. After two decades of surviving Comanche raids the natives were rounded up and driven to reservations in 1874. This allowed the western part of the state to be settled and made Comanche one of the last bastions of civilization for those who were to venture that way. In 1873 the newly established Comanche Chief reported a town of 700, with twenty businesses to boast.
Map of Texas 1854, Author: Henry Lange, 1821-1893.
One of the families making up those early 700 were the Hardins. The family was well renowned in the state, one member signing the Texas Declaration of Independence, another serving as a member of the Texas Congress. A descendent of these men, the young Joe Hardin had moved to town in 1871. He was well received and before long did work as a lawyer, real estate agent, and eventually as postmaster. His parents soon followed suit, with many of their children in tow. Of their children the most notorious was without doubt the outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Earning the outlaw designation at young age John Wesley or “Wes” had taken many lives before ever stepping foot in Comanche. He was born in Bonham, TX in 1853. When he was 15, he was in a wrestling match with a former slave, who reportedly ambushed him the next day. Wes shot him and fled. He went on to kill three Union soldiers looking to arrest him, his family hiding their bodies in his wake. In the six short years between that time and the Comanche races, he’d killed over two dozen men (conservatively), had a run in or two with Wild Bill Hickok, and escaped custody of the Texas State Police.
May 26th was Wes Hardin’s 21st birthday and he’d arranged the races to take place on the occasion. The days leading up to the races had been filled with rumor. A Brown County deputy by the name of Charlie Webb had recently arrested the son of a Mrs. Waldrup, owner of a ranch Wes Hardin and his compatriots had spent an evening at in Logan’s Gap. Although there are differing accounts of what was said at dinner that evening, it is agreed that Mrs. Waldrup had taken issue with the deputy, and the cordial group of cowboys she was hosting took issue with him as well. In the weeks preceding the races it was whispered that Webb spoke of arresting Wes Hardin if the law in Comanche wasn’t up to the task. By the day of the races this rumor had become the notion that Webb and fifteen other deputies from Brown county had come to Comanche to arrest Wes Hardin and kill his associate Jim Taylor (who had a $500 bounty at the time).
The morning of the races Hardin, Taylor and the rest of their band were seen coming towards the square while loading shotguns, preparing for the potential gunplay to come. It had yet to commence by afternoon. Although both Webb and Hardin were present, in Hardin’s words “he didn’t make any breaks”. Hardin and his gang took the day. His horse Rondo won the first race, his cousins horse Shiloh won the second, and Dock his brother Joe’s horse won third. It’s claimed that Wes Hardin won $3000 (what would amount to close to $60,000 today), fifty head of cattle, a wagon, and fifteen saddle horses. Not a bad take for a 21st birthday. Ready to celebrate the group raced the afternoon sun back to town, bringing ruckus and gunfire along with them.
Comanche Square, 1876
The gang caroused from one saloon to another, Hardin purportedly throwing handfuls of gold pieces to the bar, calling the patrons to come up and whet their thirst. With time the drink took its toll, tensions rose and the air became weighted with violence. Word was sent to Sheriff Carnes and he deployed deputy Frank Wilson to order Hardin and his men out of town before trouble ensued. Wilson found Hardin at the Jack Wright Saloon, where he’d called the crowd to the bar for another drink. According to Hardin he’d already called on his younger brother to prepare a horse and buggy before meeting them at the Wright Saloon, buying another drink for the crowd being a last call of sorts. Wilson walked into the saloon, telling Wes he was looking to speak to him. Hardin sauntered outside after Wilson, telling Wilson they’d gone far enough a few paces from the door. It’s said that Wilson relayed the message that Hardin should be making his way home as not to cause any trouble and reminded Hardin that it was a violation of the law to carry a pistol. Hardin threw open his coat claiming his pistol was back behind the bar – hiding the fact that another laid beneath his vest. Hardin told the deputy he would go back in for a cigar and leave as soon as his brother arrived with their homebound buggy. Before his brother could arrive and before Hardin could return to the bar for a cigar Jim Taylor stopped Hardin at the door, imploring him to go home. About that time someone exclaimed “Here comes that damned Brown County Sheriff!”
Current location of the Jack Wright Saloon
Walking up with two revolvers and the sun behind him, Webb had reportedly come to meet a friend before going to their home for dinner. When he arrived, Hardin stood at the entrance to the saloon, Jim Taylor to his left. Men began to give space between themselves and Hardin, eyes trained on the Deputy from Brown County. As Webb came within speaking distance Hardin exclaimed “Are you the sheriff of Brown County?”. Webb lifted his head a bit before placing his gaze on Hardin “No, I’m the deputy sheriff”. Hardin asked if he had papers for his arrest, which Webb replied, “I don’t even know you.” Hardin announced in a boastful voice “I’m the notorious John Wesley Hardin, the desperado, as people call me. I’m considered an outlaw, but I always carry the documents to protect myself”. Hardin, seeing Webb’s hands behind his back asked what Webb was carrying. Webb produced a cigar, as Hardin went on “I’ve been told that you said Sheriff Carnes was no sheriff or he wouldn’t allow me to stay around Comanche with my murdering pals.” Webb refuted the statement, claiming he was not the sheriff, nor was he responsible for what the sheriff or the people of Brown county had said. Accounts differ, but it’s clear that John Wesley Hardin was gunning for his type of excitement. On both accounts Webb drew first, his and Hardin’s bullets being hard to distinguish. When the firing was over Hardin was wounded in the leg, and Webb lay dead with a bullet in his cheek. He was said to be his 40th victim.
Reports claim that Webb had recently procured a new pistol, equipped with a hair-trigger. It’s assumed he fired early, misjudging the action of his gun and causing his shot to place low. The story may have ended here had the man grown accustomed to his arms. With that said, John Wesley Hardin was famous for the quickness of his draw and the preciseness of his gun play. In 1877, while a captive of the Texas Rangers, he was given a pair of empty Colts to show his prowess. A Ranger remarked he “handled the guns as a sleight-of-hand performer manipulates a coin. The quick draw, the spin, the rolls, the pinwheeling, border shift – he did them all with magical precision.” He kept his pistols holstered with the butts facing out, crossing his arms to draw. He swore this to be the fastest way to draw, and history does much to justify his opinion.
The gun that Hardin owned, sold at auction for $100,000.
Hardin and his associates backed towards the Saloon, Hardin calling his gang to fill up the pistols and hold the house. Men rushed to the square, one of them being Sheriff Carnes. The Sheriff had a bum pistol and was on his way to the smith when the fighting broke out. Brandishing a weapon about as lethal as a paperweight he trudged forward to apprehend two of the most violent men in the state. When he approached, he demanded Hardin’s pistol, which he gave. Deputies had relieved Taylor and many of the other members of Hardin’s bunch as they exited the building. As the Sheriff went to search the last of the stragglers, he threw his gun to the ground, with only Hardin’s in hand. Hardin, knowing his pistol was empty quickly retrieved two more from his vest, retreating into the saloon with Jim and the rest of his cohort. Many of the men had only relieved themselves of their primary weapons, as when they exited the saloon, they seemed more armed than when they went in. Cries of the murder were echoing through the square; a lynch mob was already forming. Between the shouting and the crowd outside fighting to gain entry the men in the saloon had to think quickly. They decided to make their break out the side door, making it across the street and mounting a group of hitched horses before a shot could be put to them.
The Sheriff fought to maintain order but was overwhelmed. The chase began, only to be cut short when men realized the insufficiency of their arms. Hardin made it to his father’s, where he met with his brother and Sheriff Carnes. In fear of the mob Hardin decided to make tracks to nearby Round Mountain, about eight miles west of Comanche.
Round Mountain – 2019
From this point on John Wesley Hardin was pursued relentlessly.
Upon learning of the hanging of his brother and other kin he returned to Comanche to enact his vengeance, only to turn back in what may have been a small bit of wisdom. He was finally tracked down in Florida, three years later. From there he was transported back to Comanche to be tried for the murder of Charles Webb. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison on September 28th, 1878. After many failed attempts at escape he adapted to prison life, becoming the superintendent of the Sunday School and studying law.
He was pardoned in 1894 and admitted to the bar. A little more than a year later he found his fate behind the gun, when he was killed at age 42 by Constable John Selman in El Paso. He is buried in El Paso, at the Concordia Cemetery.
John Wesley Hardin’s Grave, Photo by Leo Miletich 2014