In the spring of 1872, a posse of ten lawmen from Fort Smith rode into a clearing in front of a schoolhouse in Indian Territory to monitor the trial of a Cherokee named Ezekiel, or Zeke, Proctor—a trial that would turn deadly minutes later.Proctor faced charges for shooting at an American named Jim Kesterson and for killing Kesterson’s Cherokee wife, Polly Beck, at the Hildebrand Mill in what is now Adair County, Oklahoma.
Procter maintained the shooting was an accident.
The details of the February 13, 1872, shooting vary, depending on what account you read.
According to Cherokee Nation, Kesterson was married to Proctor’s sister, Susan, and abandoned her. Proctor “discovered that her husband had left her and her children, and they were hungry,” and escorted them to another sister’s home.
Proctor then headed out to find Kesterson, who moved in with the widow. Beck had been married to Stephen Hildebrand, who owned a share of the mill, and who was killed during the the Civil War.
Whether Kesterson was even married to Susan Proctor isn’t quite clear.
Cherokee Nation reports that when Proctor found the Kesterson and Beck together, he became enraged and tried to shoot his brother-in-law, “but Polly jumped in the way and was killed by the bullet meant for Jim.”
Another account points out bad blood was already flowing because Kesterson accused Proctor of stealing stock.
Yet another version suggests Proctor may have rode to the mill in his capacity as deputy sheriff in the Goingsnake District to warn Polly Beck to control her livestock, which was straying onto other people’s properties.
Ironically, the two families had once been close. Until the Civil War. The Becks aligned themselves with the Confederacy while some of the Proctors, including Zeke, went to war for the Union.
The shooting triggered a firestorm of political maneuvering involving jurisdictional issues. Indian courts, at the time, handled all legal issues involving Indians, while American courts conducted proceedings of white settlers.
The Beck family and Kesterson, who survived the shooting, feared the Cherokee court would acquit Procter.
In an effort to assure justice, the Becks and Kesterson sought help from the local government.
The Becks vowed that if the courts failed, they were prepared to exact their own revenge.
The U.S. commissioner issued an arrest warrant stipulating it be served only if Procter won an acquittal.
What happened next is open to dispute because two different versions exist.
According to the United States Marshal Service, Deputy U.S. Marshals Jacob Owens and Joseph Peavy led eight deputy marshals into Tahlequah on April 15th.
They dismounted and started walking toward the makeshift courtroom to takes seats in the rear and await the verdict.
The warrant specified that if Proctor was acquitted, he and others identified in the warrant would be brought to Fort Smith.
Before reaching the entrance, several armed Cherokees swarmed out of the front door and began shooting at the lawmen.
With nowhere to hide in the prairie clearing, deputies returned fire, trying to get back to their horses.
The marshals killed three Indians and wounded about six others.
But Cherokee firepower proved too daunting, and eight marshals fell dead.
Former agency historian Ted Calhoun called the killings, ”…the worst slaughter of marshals in history.”
Cherokee Nation contends the lawmen didn’t wait for a verdict and charged the schoolhouse where the trial was being held. The posse, “led by the Becks burst in and opened fire…”
The Cherokee court found Proctor not guilty. Although arrest warrants were issued for Proctor and everyone supporting him, Proctor disappeared. Relatives and neighbors banded together to protect from from white authorities.
In October 1873, the United States District Court dismissed the case of U.S. v Zeke Proctor two months after announcing it would not proceed with prosecution of the others involved in the shootout.
The Cherokee National Council passed an amnesty act in February 1874 preventing legal action against anyone involved in the case.
Proctor eventually held offices in the Cherokee Nation, including Senator and sheriff, and lived as a law-abiding citizen. Zeke Proctor is said to be the only single individual to have a treaty with the United States.
Tom Rizzo blames the The Lone Ranger, Durango Kid, Randolph Scott, Tim Holt, and Paladin for triggering his lifelong obsession with the American Frontier—and for convincing him that outlaws must face justice, no matter how many guns they carry or how high the odds.
A novelist and naturally curious amateur historian, Tom’s new three-volume collection, Tall Tales from the High Plains & Beyond, features dozens of quick-read true stories featuring characters and events of the Old West, crafted with a fictional technique that drops readers into the middle of the action. If you enjoyed the story above, please share it with your friends. And visit Tom's Blog and rediscover the Old West.