Cullen Baker

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Cullen Montgomery Baker (June 23, 1835 – January 1869), was a Tennessee-born Texas and Arkansas desperado whose gang is alleged to have killed hundreds of people including former slaves during the early days of the American Old West, in the years following the Civil War. However, these numbers are probably inaccurate, and the actual number is between fifty and sixty.

Baker was notorious for fighting in saloon brawls and his fiery temper. During one fight, he was knocked unconscious by a man named Morgan Culp, who hit him in the head with a tomahawk. This seemed to have shocked him into behaving, and it calmed his temper at least for a while. Baker has also been described as an earlier version of a gunfighter, though his preferred weapon was actually a double-barrel shotgun.

Early life[edit]

Baker was born in Weakley County, Tennessee, a son of John Baker and his wife. Soon after that his family moved to Clarksville, Arkansas, and as Cullen Baker matured he spent much of his time in the saloons and bars in now Lafayette and Miller Counties. His father was a honest farmer, and owned cattle as well as working in the fields. Even when young Cullen Baker is said to have had a quick temper, which was revealed as he got older, as he drank heavily and often.

On January 11, 1854 in Cass County, Texas Baker married Martha Jane Petty, and for a time he settled. Martha Jane Petty was the daughter of Hubbard and Nancy Petty. However, eight months into his marriage, while out drinking with friends, he became involved in a verbal altercation with a youth named Stallcup. Baker became enraged, grabbed a whip, and beat the boy to near death. There were several witnesses to the incident, and Baker was soon charged with the crime. One of the witnesses, Wesley Bailey, was confronted by Baker at Bailey's home. Baker shot him in both legs with a shotgun, then left him lying in front of his house. Bailey died a few days later. Before he could be arrested for the murder, Baker fled to Arkansas, where he stayed with an uncle. On May 24, 1857, Martha Jane Baker gave birth to a baby girl, Louisa Jane. On June 2, 1860, Martha Jane Baker died. Cullen Baker then returned to Texas, where he left his daughter with his in-laws.

Baker returned to Arkansas, but word of his crimes had spread, and a local woman named Beth Warthom was openly critical of him. He took several hickory switches to her house, and threatened to beat her. Her husband, David Warthom, began to fight with Baker, and overwhelmed him in front of the house. Beth Warthom screamed, and her husband looked her way. With his attention drawn away from Baker, he was stabbed once with a knife Baker had in his possession. Warthom died on the spot. Baker fled back to Texas, and in July, 1862, he married his second wife Martha Foster, who was unaware that he was wanted for murder. She was a daughter of William and Elizabeth Young Foster.

American Civil War and after[edit]

Baker served with the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, joining shortly after his second marriage. It is claimed he shot and killed at least three African Americans, killing a black woman in an immigrant train and later shooting a black boy six times with a pistol after taking the Oath of Allegiance and becoming an overseer of Freemen.[1] By 1864 he had either been discharged or deserted, and he joined a group called the "Independent Rangers", loosely associated with the Confederate Home Guard. It was intended to pursue and capture deserters from the Confederate Army, but more often than not took advantage of most of the men being away at war, leaving mostly elderly men, women and children. This left the door open for acts of intimidation, rape, theft and violence for groups of well-armed men like the "Independent Rangers". Shortly after Baker joined the "Independent Rangers" they began an ongoing feud with another band called the "Mountain Boomers", but by the end of that year the "Boomers" had been driven out or forced to disperse due to several of their members having been killed by the "Rangers". In November, 1864 Baker led a group of "Rangers" to intercept a band of Arkansas settlers, mostly older men, women and children who had fled Perry County, Arkansas for a better life out West. Allegedly this was considered "un-patriotic" by Baker, but more likely than not is that he wished to rob them of their possessions. The "Rangers" caught up with these fleeing settlers as they were crossing the Saline River somewhere in the Ouachita Mountains, but when the settler band refused to return Baker drew his pistol and shot and killed the band's leader. With assurances from Baker that he would not kill anyone else, the remaining settlers returned to Baker's side of the river, where he quickly led his "Rangers" in shooting and killing nine other men. The event became known locally as the Massacre of Saline.

By that stage of the war the Union Army occupied most of Arkansas, with several troops under the command of Captain F. S. Dodge enforcing the law in the area of Lafayette County. Most of these Union troops were African American, and despised by Baker. Toward the end of 1864 Baker was in a saloon in the small town of Spanish Bluffs, Arkansas when he was approached by four African American Union soldiers and asked for identification. Baker turned to face them with his pistol drawn, shooting and killing one sergeant and the three other soldiers.

After the war he operated with a gang he organized with outlaw Lee Rames in the late 1860s, operating out of the Sulphur River bottoms near Bright Star, Arkansas, committing acts of robbery and murder. Authorities credit him officially with killing at least 30 people, though many of these no doubt were killed by his men. Unlike the romanticized versions of his exploits, the reality was that he killed most of them from ambush or in the back, and many with a shotgun, and he almost always had his victims outnumbered. Like many of the ex-Confederates who operated after the war, Baker was regarded as a hero by some because he opposed the Union occupation, but his record shows a merciless killer who killed anyone who angered him, regardless of their loyalties.

In March, 1866 he traveled back to Texas, Baker, now on the run from Union authorities, went on a killing spree, during which he killed two men, W.G. Kirkman and John Salmons. Salmons had previously killed one of Baker's gang members, Seth Rames, brother to gang member Lee Rames. He also killed a local man named George W. Barron, who had previously taken part as a member of a posse hunting Baker. The gang was active in the areas of Queen City, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas during that time. On June 1, 1867, having returned to Cass County, Baker entered the Rowden general store where he found the store kept by Mrs. Rowden, after which he simply helped himself to whatever he wanted and left without paying. When the store's owner, John Rowden, discovered this he armed himself with a shotgun and rode out to Baker's house. He demanded that Baker pay him, to which Baker replied that he would come back to the store in a few days with the money. On June 5, 1867, Baker returned, but instead was standing in front of the store yelling for Mr. Rowden to come out and face him. Rowden armed himself with a shotgun and stepped out only to be shot in the chest and killed by Baker. Baker fled back into Arkansas, and a few days later he was confronted by a Union sergeant and one private as Baker boarded a ferry. When he was accused of being Cullen Baker, after he'd told them his name was Johnson, Baker went for his gun as did the sergeant. Baker shot the Union sergeant four times, killing him, with the Union private fleeing on horseback and reporting the murder to a Captain Kirkham. Following his murder of this sergeant Baker was pursued relentlessly by Union forces in the area and while in New Boston, Texas [2] on July 25, 1867, he became involved in an argument with several Union Soldiers. A shootout ensued, and he was shot in the arm, with him killing army Private Albert E. Titus of the US 20th Infantry Regiment.[3] This resulted in a $1,000 reward being placed on him for his capture or death. He returned to Arkansas, and while in a saloon in Bright Star he agreed to join a mob intending to raid the farm of a local farmer named Howell Smith. Smith had hired several recently-freed slaves, which was considered inappropriate by much of the local population. During the raid one of Smith's daughters was stabbed and another clubbed, and a black man was shot and killed. Smith resisted, and a shootout ensued resulting in several mob members being wounded, including Baker being shot in the leg.

On October 24, 1868 Baker and his gang were reported to have been involved in the killings of Major P.J. Andrews, Lt. H.F. Willis, an unnamed negro and wounding of Sheriff Standel of Little Rock Arkansas.[4][5]

Downfall and assassination[edit]

Although Baker was feared by his own men, Lee Rames, who was recognized as the co-leader and co-founder of Baker's gang, also had a substantial and deadly reputation. Rames began to doubt Baker's leadership, and that eventually Baker would lead to the downfall of the entire gang. Lee Rames defied Baker and Baker backed down, leading to the gang breaking up. All but one gang member, "Dummy" Kirby, sided with Rames.

Baker and Kirby rode to Bloomburg, Texas and the house of Baker's in-laws in January 1869. It would be there that Cullen Baker and "Dummy" Kirby were killed. What exactly happened, however, has at least two versions;

First version: Unknown to Baker, his wife Martha Foster's father and friends had laced a bottle of whiskey and some food with strychnine. Kirby and Baker drank and ate it, and both died from poisoning. Their bodies were then shot several times by Foster and some friends.

Second version: A local school teacher named Thomas Orr had become involved romantically with Baker's second wife Martha, and led a small band of men who ambushed Baker and Kirby at the Foster home, shooting and killing him near to the chimney of the house, along with Kirby. It is known that a school teacher named Thomas Orr was one of the friends to the in-laws who took part in the killing of Baker. As to the affair, it is unknown.

What both versions share is the end result. Baker and Kirby were killed, it did happen at the Foster home, both were shot numerous times, whether that was what killed them or it happened after they died from poisoning, then the bodies were dragged through the town of Bloomburg. The bodies were then taken to the US Army outpost near Jefferson, where they were placed on public display. He is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Jefferson, Texas.

The town of Bloomburg, Texas continues to commemorate the event with the annual Cullen Baker Country Fair, held the first weekend in November. Proceeds benefit the Bloomburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Possible eye witness version to death[edit]

Reference to Cullen (Col) Baker is made by former slave Doc Quinn in the Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States - From Interviews with Former Slaves - Arkansas Narratives, Part 6. Doc Quinn provides a somewhat different perspective on Cullen Baker throughout. The statements of Doc Quinn are recorded as follows:

"He wuz mah frien' as long as he lib, and he wuz a good frien' ob de South 'cause he saved lots ob white folks frum de wrath ob de mean niggers." (sic) .[6]

Doc Quinn provides an account of Cullen Baker's death at which he claims to have been present.

"I saw Colonel Baker killed. We had just arrived at his father-in-law's house and I wuz in the horse lot, about 50 yards from de house, when Joe Davis. Thomas Orr and some more men rode up."

"De Colonel wuz standin' by de chimney an did not see dem come aroun' de house. Dey killed him befo' he knew dey wuz aroun'."[6]

Whilst Doc Quinn refers to Cullen Baker as Colonel Baker, the text from which Doc Quinn is quoted has the following inclusion, presumably included by the editor of the publication to clarify any confusion: "Note: The Col. Baker referred to was Cullen Baker, the leader of a ruthless gang of bushwhackers that operated in this (Texarkana, Arkansas) section shortly after the Civil War."[6]

Louis L'amour, author of many western novels, wrote about Cullen Baker in several of his books. Baker only starred in one of these, however, that being The First Fast Draw, a highly fictional account of Baker's origin and subsequent years. Other books by L'amour that reference Baker include Lando, one of L'amour's many novels about a feuding Tennessee family. Baker was also the subject of the book Cullen Baker; Reconstruction Desperado, authored by Barry A. Crouch and Donally E. Brice. [1]


The First Fast Draw, by Louis L'Amour.

Further reading[edit]

  • Teel, Robert W (1995). Cullen Montgomery Baker: champion of the lost cause. Huntsville, Ala.: R.W. Teel. OCLC 947953654. 

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