Young outlaw makes the most of second chance

After the wild young outlaw’s battle royal with buffalo soldiers on Oct. 10, 1874, Joe Horner sure seemed headed for an early grave. No one could have possibly imagined that half a century later he would be the guest of honor at a state funeral in Oklahoma!

Hoping to put the post-Civil War strife behind them, the Horners left Missouri in the fall of 1866. Their first North Texas stop was in Denton County, but they later turned their collective attention to ranching on the fringe of the frontier not far from Jacksboro.

By the spring of 1874, Josiah “Joe” Horner was punching people instead of cattle. The 27-year-old hell raiser beat a man to a bloody pulp in one of Jacksboro’s two dozen saloons, a savage and senseless crime that resulted in an indictment for felony assault.

When hot-headed Horner rode into town on that fateful Saturday in October, the grand jury had added two counts of cattle rustling to the list of his alleged offenses. He made a beeline for the nearest watering hole but got into an argument with two black soldiers before the bartender even poured his whiskey.

Who picked the fight has always been the subject of honest debate, but there is no doubt Horner fired first. Private George Smith slumped to the floor, and the other trooper ran the half mile to Fort Richardson to summon help.

While Smith was carried by cart to the post infirmary, where an army sawbones saved his life, six black enlisted men and a white sergeant started searching the saloons for his attacker.

Horner and a drinking buddy named Joe Watson suddenly stepped into the street and cut loose on the squad. The sound of shooting brought reinforcements on the run, and a full-scale skirmish ensued with the crack-shot civilians keeping the cavalrymen at bay.

Deciding the duel demanded a more effective weapon, Horner sprinted to his horse and seized his Winchester. Moments later, a slug from the rifle stuck a buffalo soldier right between the eyes killing him instantly. Watson raced home for more firepower, but his grandmother grabbed him in a bear hug and removed the youth from the combat.

As the soldiers closed in on their quarry, Horner was rescued by Frank Lake who risked his neck to give him a ride. The twosome galloped away on Lake’s horse, but the double load erased their head start enabling the hard-riding cavalry to catch them.

In desperation the duo dismounted, and Horner fought his third battle of the busy afternoon. Crippled by a bullet through a thigh, Lake watched helplessly as the saddle partner he had saved vamoosed on his horse.

The military would have pressed for a long prison term or maybe even death had Horner’s victims been white. But since they were black, the army was willing to forget the whole thing. Not so with S.W.T. Lanham, district attorney and future governor, who charged the crazed cowboy with the attempted murder of Private Smith.

Horner remained at large until the next September, when the sheriff placed him under lock and key pending a February trial. Within the week, his three brothers broke him out of the Jacksboro jail. Allen and John Wesley washed their hands of the black sheep, but George chose to tag along as Joe’s partner in crime.

The Horner boys and an accomplice robbed a bank at Comanche of $5,500 on Jan. 10, 1876. Acting on a tip three weeks later from an army scout, who had tracked the gang from Jacksboro and witnessed the holdup, San Antonio authorities arrested the bandit trio without a struggle.

After 14 months in the Bat Cave, the notorious local dungeon, Joe Horner had his day in court. It did not take any longer than that for a jury to convict him of the Comanche caper and a judge to sentence him to ten years at hard labor.

While awaiting transfer to Huntsville, Horner sawed his way out of the Bat Cave and fled the Alamo City on April Fools’ Day. He made it only as far as Uvalde County, where five “minutemen” captured the famous fugitive two days after he stuck up the Eagle Pass-to-Castroville stage.

The Bexar County sheriff wasted no time delivering the desperado to the state penitentiary. On May 5, 1877 Horner traded his name for a number – inmate 5920.

Although four out of five convicts toiled as contract labor outside the prison walls, escape risks like Horner were denied that privilege. Nevertheless, 27 months into his term he was assigned to a work detail and at the first opportunity vanished without a trace.

Then out of the blue in July 1894, Joe Horner alias “Frank M. Canton” petitioned the governor of Texas for a full pardon. The escaped convict provided James S. Hogg with glowing testimonials from prominent citizens in Wyoming and the Oklahoma Territory citing his service on the side of law and order for the past decade and a half. Gov. Hogg granted the request and wiped the slate clean for the Deputy U.S. Marshal destined to be appointed the first commander of the Oklahoma National Guard.

After his death in 1927 at the age of 78, the body of “Frank Canton” lay in state in the Sooner capitol. Quite a send-off for the former terror of the Texas frontier! 

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77389.

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