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U.S. Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas: Cleaning up the Badlands with a Colt and Winchester 1/2

In the Old West there were good men and bad men, and then there were lawmen. Regrettably, most lawmen were a little bit of both, and few who wore a badge could claim to have walked the straight and narrow their entire lives, mostly becoming lawmen after failed attempts at ranching, farming or other endeavors; some had even been or would become outlaws. One of the rare exceptions was Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas, who literally spent his entire adult life as a lawman.

Born in 1850, Heck Thomas grew up in a family of military officers and frontier lawmen; his father, a Colonel during the War Between the States, would become the first City Marshal of Atlanta, Georgia, following the war. In 1862, as the conflict between North and South entered it second year, Colonel Thomas took his 12-year old son along when he returned to the 35th Regiment Georgia Volunteers, Thomas brigade, A.P. Hill’s division, Stonewall Jackson’s corps. Heck became a courier for his father and uncle, Brig. Gen.

Edward Lloyd Thomas of Virginia. The day after they arrived, Heck witnessed the second battle of Manassas. His first assignment as a courier was to personally take charge of the horse, saddle and gear of slain Union Major General Phil Kearney and return them under a flag of truce through enemy lines to Kearney’s widow. It would have been a daunting task for any soldier, let alone a 12 year old boy. At the time, Heck considered it the proudest moment of his life.

As a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Heck Thomas, (seated at left in this 1894 photo), carried a blued Colt SAA with 7-1/2 inch barrel and a Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle. A ruthless and unrelenting lawman working for Judge Isaac Parker out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, he was responsible for helping bring an end to the outlaw gangs of the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1890s

Two years after the war, at age 17, Heck became a deputy on the Atlanta police force. Though younger than other officers he showed the discretion and good judgment of a lawman well beyond his years.

When he was 21 Thomas married Isabelle Gray the daughter of Atlanta Reverend Albert Gray. By 1875 they had two children, Belle and Henry. That same year Heck decided to leave the police department and follow his cousin Jim to Texas, where they took employment with the Texas Express Company, headquartered in Dallas.

It was here that Heck Thomas would first make a name for himself. Once settled in, he moved his wife and children to Galveston, and began working as a railway express agent responsible for guarding the Houston and Texas Central Railroad that ran between Denison and Galveston, a route rampant with train robbery attempts. In March, outlaw Sam Bass and his gang attempted a heist near the Hutchins Station, some 12 miles southeast of Dallas. Thomas initially refused to give up the contents of the mail car he was guarding, but it was a ruse.

In the end Bass and his men got away with nothing. As the robbery began Heck moved the contents of the safe, around $22,000 in paper money and silver coins, into an unlit stove in the mail car.

He then filled the money bags with $89 in silver coins to add some weight and make a nice clunk when it hit the ground, and the rest with paper he had cut into the size of greenbacks before boarding the train! The shootout that followed, when the brakeman and conductor opened fire with a shotgun, hastened the robber’s departure and by the time they discovered the switch the train was safely out of sight. Upon his return to the express office in Denison, Thomas was able to describe most of the highwaymen he had encountered, leading to the discovery that the gang leader was none other than Sam Bass. Thomas’ clever deception got him promoted to Fort Worth as a company detective, and by 1879 he had been appointed Chief Agent.

In this photo taken in 1878, Thomas (seated center) was working on trailing Sam Bass. At various times he wore a full beard, goatee, or mustache, the latter throughout his entire adult life.

In the 1870s when Heck signed on, the Texas Express Company had been unopposed but by the 1880s it was being driven out of business by larger firms like Wells Fargo & Co and the Pacific Express. Heck saw that it was time to move on, he was 35 and now had four children. In 1885 he left the railroad and decided to run for Fort Worth Sheriff. He lost the election by a mere 22 votes. But his years of experience made him an ideal candidate for another position that opened up, as an officer of the Fort Worth Detective Association. Working in the field with an old friend, Deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Taylor, who was operating out of the Fort Smith, Arkansas, court, Heck again distinguished himself by helping track and capture murderers Jim and Pink Lee.

When confronted by the two lawmen the Lees ignored Thomas’ announcement, “Hands up—we’re officers” and the brothers quickly fell to Thomas and Taylor’s Winchesters. Heck’s role in tracking and capturing two of the most wanted outlaws in Texas brought him an offer to join the Texas Rangers, but Thomas already had his eye on a U.S. Marshal’s badge.

By the mid 1880s good, honest men with experience in law enforcement were hard to come by, and Thomas applied to become a U.S. Deputy Marshal.

With a good word from Taylor and passing his interview, Heck was commissioned and moved his family to Fort Smith, Arkansas. For the next 11 years he would earn a reputation for being one of the most efficient deputies working the badlands.

The area was comprised of the Old Indian Territory and parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma, which had become a haven for some of the most notorious outlaws of the 1880s and 1890s. The U.S. Marshals were pitted against train robbers, cattle thieves, bank robbers, ruffians, murders, whisky peddlers and miscreants of every type. Thomas went forth with little more than a Colt revolver, a Winchester rifle, and the resolve to use them. Along with friends, U.S. Deputy Marshals William Tilghman and Chris Madsen, the trio led an assault to purge the territory of its outlaw element. Together they came to be known as the “Three Guardsmen of Oklahoma.”

Keep reading the story of Henry Andrew "Heck" Thomas in the next article!

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