Part I of II
One cannot mention the term “western” and not think within the first few seconds, “Josey Wales.” A classic film starring the legendary Clint Eastwood, “Josey Wales” createa a legacy in the media market that will continue to speak to people, especially those of the south. However, the tale of Josey Wales connects more with the North Texas area, Van Alstyne in particular, than many of us may know.
Some sources state that the story of Josey Wales was written and based upon the life of Bushwhacker William “Bill” Wilson. He was referred to as “The Bushwhacker” or “The Great Bushwhacker.” He was most probably the most notorious of all other men like him. Some say he ran with men like Quantrill, Jesse James, The Younger Gang, Dick Kitchen and Anthony Wright and it is said that when he was with them he was in charge, leading all of Quantrill’s men on several occasions, this according to a 1938 biography written about him.
Born around the year 1830, he was a native to Phelps County, Missouri, an area deep within the Ozarks. Before the war he had been married and throughout his life, no matter what he was doing, he remained a family man to his four children and wife. He stood 6-2 and weighed 185 pounds with thick locks of black curly hair. Light skinned with light blue eyes, he normally wore a short beard. Wilson was charismatic and enjoyed playing the violin at local get-togethers. He remarked that his three best friends were his two 44s and his horse.
A classic countryman, Wilson had two known horses. The first was named Dime because it had a dime shape on its forehead. When the horse went lame, The Bushwhacker set him free to the hills where he could be seen from time to time. The other faithful companion was a horse named Bullet for his incredible speed. He was a well-trained horse, as all of Wilson’s horses were, and would come to Wilson the moment he whistled.
Wilson and his three friends roamed the Ozarks throughout the Civil War, making terror for the Union and Red Legs whenever they could. Originally Wilson, like his home state of Missouri, was neutral and chose neither the Union nor Confederate.
However, after Wilson was wrongly accused of horse theft, his family was thrown from its house while he was away and the structure was set afire. From this moment on, Wilson made it his goal to make hell for the government and Union forces. Keeping to the hills he would see his family and friends when he was able and did what he could to help them, all the while leaving the bodies of Unionist and spies strewn across the countryside. So good a marksman was Wilson that it is said he would draw out his double 44s while amount and charge toward a tree, firing at it as he went around it. When he was done, there was a perfect ring around the tree from his target practice. These rings were found around trees long after his disappearance.
After the war, Missouri was still full of unrest and bodies continued to turn up throughout the area. The great cleanup of Bushwhackers came in 1868. Wilson moved his family to a new piece of land nearby and bid them farewell as he headed for Texas. There are not many accounts as to what he did over the next year; however, if Wilson had rode with Quantrill and his men at other times it is likely he came to Sherman where some of these men were known to have resided. Grayson County was full of Missouri migrants, especially during this time period.
Recently, a story has emerged that Bill Wilson was murdered near Van Alsyne and buried in a shallow grave somewhere nearby. The McKinney Examiner reported to the Galveston Flakes Daily Bulletin on February 7, 1869 as follows: “Horrible murder and robbery of a Missourian-One of the foulest murders and robberies in the annals of crime was committed on last Sunday evening in the southern portion of Grayson County, a few miles north of Mantua in this county, a stranger from North Missouri, entirely unknown in this section, being the victim, whose name is yet a mystery.” The Georgetown Watchman reported on April 17, 1869 that “On the discovery of the body of the murdered Wilson, great excitement prevailed on the suspicion falling on the two men, Blackmore and Thompson.”
Accounts state that Wilson was driving to McKinney with a wagon load of apples which he sold. At the drug store of Foote & Herndon, he exchanged gold for currency, a total of $600. It was revealed later in some newspaper accounts that Blackmore and Thompson were preparing to rob the drug store but when they witnessed the afore-mentioned transaction they decided to take their chances in robbing Wilson.
Wilson headed back north and stayed the night with Col. Wilmeth. The next day he continued north and was gunned down by the two men north of Mantua near present day Van Alstyne. Some reports state that Wilson had seven bullet holes, supposedly all that entered him through his back, while other accounts state there were only two gunshot wounds, one in the head and one in the right side.
The Galveston Flakes continued by reporting: “The firing, which occurred between two and three o’clock in the afternoon was heard throughout the neighborhood, and the body of the murdered man was found off the main road about a quarter of a mile, just before sundown. His saddle-bags, memoranda book and all his money had been carried off by the murderers. Citizens to the number of two or three hundred were summoned to the spot, and everyone was required under oath to prove his whereabouts on Sunday, at the hour of the shooting was heard, but this thorough investigation failed to throw any light on the track of the murderers. Determined to bring the perpetrators of so foul a murder to justice, scouts were sent in various directions. Two young men named Wm. Blackmore, formerly of Carroll County, Mo., and John Thompson, formerly of Barry County, Mo., were arrested and they are now lodged in jail at this place (McKinney), awaiting an examination on the charge of murdering the traveler. The murdered man is supposed to have had with him between $2500 and $3500 in gold and currency.”
Part II of II
The first installment of this column ran in the Sept. 3 edition of the Van Alstyne Leader.
Whether or not this murdered man was in fact The Great Bushwhacker, Bill Wilson, we may never know, but someone was murdered nonetheless and the name of Wilson, from Missouri, was given as the identity of the man. It is hard to imagine that such a great man could have been gunned down in this manner; however authorities in Missouri had often remarked that they could get Bill Wilson if only he would leave the hills. Perhaps leaving the hills was his fatal mistake.
It is unknown what exactly happened to the body of this man. Some say the murderers buried him in a shallow grave near the trail (a quarter of a mile, according to the afore-mentioned article). Regardless of this, he was obviously not buried properly if the citizens of Mantua found him and created a search party. He was likely covered with brush and other debris to somewhat hide his remains. What the citizens did with his body it is not known. They could have buried him where he lay, or perhaps they took him back to Mantua and buried him in their city cemetery there. This cemetery is located at the northeast intersection of county roads 573 and 574; however, there is little evidence of its existence.
There is a rumor that the body was buried by the murderers near Highway 5 and Prong Creek, north of Van Alstyne. Roy F. Hall wrote an account of this historic event but there are several errors with his story. I have not been able to find any proof that the murder took place this far north. According to some accounts, William C. McKinney was hunting and heard the shots. McKinney’s land was near Mantua, almost due east of it near the Grayson-Collin County line. The afore-mentioned newspaper accounts also stated that the citizens of the community heard the shots… Mantua was too far away to have heard the shots had it occurred north of present day Van Alstyne. It seems more likely that it had occurred south of present day Van Alstyne between it and Mantua, but on the Grayson County side.
A fiftieth anniversary edition of The Sherman Courier, on August 15, 1917 retails the account and states that “the traveler left for the north and these men (Thompson and Blackmore) followed him, overtaking and murdering him at night in Grayson County, south of Van Alstyne.”
It is also important to remember that in 1869, neither Van Alstyne nor the railroad were in existence. Prior to the Interurban’s creation in the early 1900s, Highway 5 did not exist. When traveling to Howe from Van Alstyne one would have taken what is now called Old Highway 6. When the interurban disbanded in later years towards the middle part of the 20th century, its remains were turned into Highway 5. Being a murder case, it is unlikely that the posse would have buried the body where they found it when they had a city cemetery in their community of Mantua. There were also several family cemeteries nearby, including the McKinney Cemetery which later became the Van Alstyne Cemetery.
Bushwhacker Bill Wilson’s widow, Mary, was remarried to John Jackson in Missouri in 1884. The following information is taken from the Rolla Herald in 1883 just prior to the marriage. It appears he had planned to marry Mrs. Wilson, but wanted to ensure that she was in fact a widow. “Mr. John Jackson returned last week from a trip to Texas. While at McKinney he learned the particulars of the death of William Wilson, a brother of the late Napoleon Wilson, who went to Texas soon after the war for the purpose of buying a home. Mr. Jackson showed us a McKinney paper, dated January 30, 1869, in which an account is given of a foul murder and robbery of a stranger from Missouri, and from the description given Mr. Jackson is satisfied that the murdered man was William Wilson. He had on his person at the time he was murdered about $3500. His widow and relatives in the county, so we are informed, have never believed him to be dead, but the description of the murdered man tallies exactly with that of Wilson, and Mr. Jackson investigated the matter while there and is satisfied beyond a doubt that William Wilson was murdered for his money and that the person spoken of in the paper was no other than William Wilson.”
Ironically, in the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, at the end his alias name is given as “Mr. Wilson.” Coincidence? It is also said that the bar/saloon in which Josey Wales frequented in the movie and the place where his alias was given to the authorities was styled after James “Jim Crow” Chiles’ saloon which was located in Sherman during the Civil War and where Quantrill’s men were frequent customers.
The names of Bob Lee and Simp Dixon were also mentioned in the movie, both parties having been involved in the Pilot Grove Difficulty, just east of Van Alstyne. Whether or not the character of Josey Wales was in fact molded to reflect Bill Wilson may never truly be known as parties argue both sides of the matter. However, Josey Wales and Bill Wilson lived very similar lives as most Bushwhackers did at the time. For many in the Ozarks, Bill Wilson appeared to be something of a hero who could never be defeated… in the hills of Missouri, that is.
Even today many wonder if Bill Wilson was ever really killed. He never, in all his escapades, was injured by the authorities. Perhaps he took this as an advantage, that a man was murdered and Wilson somehow placed his name to the corpse to give himself a new start. Many old time folks in Missouri say that they saw Bill Wilson long after this and that he lived to an old age taking an assumed name. A similar story like this exist in the case of Jesse James.
With cases such as these, rumors seem to always spread that the dead are not really dead, perhaps it is a way to cope with the loss of a great hero who all thought could never be killed. Perhaps the Titanic is still afloat somewhere in the Atlantic? No matter, someone was murdered near Mantua and the two men convicted of the murder were the first two men to be legally hanged in Sherman in 1869. This story can be found in the next installment of Trails of Our Past titled, “To the Gallows.”
Dusty Williams is a ninth generation Grayson County resident, author and local historian.
He can be reached at email@example.com.