History has not bestowed upon them the notoriety of The James Gang, nor are they as well known as The Daltons but in their day The Cook Gang were every bit as feared as any of the Old West's outlaws.
"They are a stench to the nostril of lawful men." Said one Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) newspaper in 1890. and during the height of their crimes they were pursued by a team of U. S. marshalls, the Army and even The Texas Rangers.
Their leader was William Tuttle Cook but their ranks changed so often that it is impossible to pin down all the names of the actual members.
The first recorded incident of Bill (William) Cook falling foul of the law was in 1892 when the half Cherokee, was charged with selling whisky in Indian Territory. Later Bill worked as a posseman for U.S. Marshall Will Smith. But when his kid brother Jim was charged with larceny and jumped bail in 1894 he moved over to the other side of the law and joined his brother on the lam. It was not too long before the two brothers met and joined up with Crawford Goldsby, an outlaw, better known to history as Cherokee Bill.
Together with other men, drifters mostly, including Jim French, Skeeter Baldwin and The Verdigris Kid (Sam Mcwilliams then only 17 years old), they started stealing horses whilst keeping one step ahead of the law.
In the Spring of 1894 the U.S. Government passed the law that became to be known as, 'Strip Money'. This was $7 million of compensation to be paid to the Cherokee Nation at Tahlequah. Now Cherokee Bill and the two Cook boys were entitled to payment under the scheme but being on the scout, as they called it, they didn't see how they could claim it. They eventually gave written persmission to one Effie Crittendon to collect their shares on their behalf.
When the law learned of this they sent a Cherokee posse out to Effie's home at Fourteen Mile Creek to capture the outlaws. The posse included Effie's husband, Dick Critterdon. There was a shoot out and Sequoyah Houston, a respected member of the Cherokee police, was killed. The two Cook brothers and Cherokee Bill managed to escape. Though Jim Cook was wounded by buckshot.
Following the incident the newspapers were calling the men 'The Cook Gang' and so began a trail of theft, murder and unspeakable violence that would turn The Cook Gang into household names across America.
Yet they are not remembered today in the way other Old West Badmen are -there was nothing romantic about the Cook gang, nothing to really mythologise though some did try - legend says that as Cherokee Bill was finally led to the hangman his last words were - "I came here to die and not make a speech. It is a good day to die." Though in fact documents record that he had no last words.
Bill Cook, leader of the gang, died in prison in 1901. His brother Jim had died the year earlier when he came second place in a gunfight over an argument about a steer.
If this brief article has prompted anyone to want to learn more about The Cook gang then I suggest getting hold of Black, Red and Deadly by Art Burton.