Vinson: The Legend of the real 'Pistol Pete'

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Location: Webber Falls, Oklahoma

Year: 1877

Astride his steed, a lone lawman, large in stature, a patch across his left eye, eyeballs the outlaws, also on horseback, who face him and are attempting to escape. In a loud, aggressive tone, the lawman challenges the outlaws with, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" With that, the lawman, horse galloping, places the horse's reins into his mouth, and charges the outlaws, a pistol blazing in each hand!

What you just read above, arguably, is the most famous scene in Charles Portis' 1968 novel "True Grit." Too, there was the 1969 movie "True Grit," starring actor John Wayne as U.S. Marshal "Rooster Cogburn," the movie based on Portis' novel. Still, there was a 2010 remake of "True Grit," starring actor Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn (NOTE: John Wayne won his only Academy Award for his role as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 "True Grit.").

However many "Old West" historians argue the lawman who actually charged the outlaws--in real time, in real space--was none other than Frank Boardman Eaton, a.k.a. "Pistol Pete."

So goes the legend of Pistol Pete...

The year was 1868 and 8-year-old Frank Eaton was living with his family in Twin Mounds, Kansas. The Ferber-Campsey gang, who had ridden with Quantrill's Raiders, an infamous Confederate outfit, rode up to the Eaton's home and "called out" young Frank's father, himself allegedly a "vigilante." When Frank's father opened the door, the Ferber-Campsey gang "shot him dead in the moonlight."

It has been written a man named Moses Beaman, Mr. Eaton's good friend and neighbor, gave young Frank a pistol, an old Navy revolver, and said to him: "My boy may an old man's curse rest upon you, if you do not try to avenge your father." A few days after Frank's father's funeral, Frank commenced practicing, stone-cold vengeance both his agitator and motivator.

Frank Eaton's mother re-married and the family moved just south of modern-day Bartlesville, Oklahoma, then known as "Cherokee Nation" territory. Participating in weekend pistol-shooting contests with the neighboring Cherokee Indians, a teenage Frank garnered a reputation as an excellent marksman.

To enhance his shooting skills, Frank traveled to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, to practice with, and compete against, the cavalry's best marksmen. While at Fort Gibson, Frank "outshot U.S. soldiers in every shooting match," to the point the fort's commanding officer, a Colonel Copinger, dubbed Frank Eaton "Pistol Pete." The nickname stuck, and the legend of Pistol Pete quickly spread. Some boasted that Pistol Pete was even "faster on the draw" than "Buffalo Bill Cody," a gunslinger and showman of considerable renown.

Pistol Pete began serving in Indian Territory as a deputy U.S. Marshal at the age of seventeen (around 1877), under Judge Isaac C. Parker, respectfully known as the "hanging judge." Pistol Pete would brag he was the youngest U.S. marshal in history (likely the truth). Too, during this era, Pistol Pete earned considerable respect from the Cherokee Indian Nation. On another hand, though, there were other white men ("forked-tongued pale faces") with whom the Cherokees were very much displeased

The Cherokees learned the Ferber-Campsey gang was rustling cattle in the Webber Falls area of Oklahoma (around 1877). Since the Cherokees felt Pistol Pete was the one man tough enough to deal with the likes of the Ferber-Campsey gang, the Cherokees guided Pistol Pete to the Ferber-Campsey hide-out. Though accounts vary it appears Pistol Pete, during that initial gun battle, did shoot to death both "Doc Ferber and a Campsey." Reportedly, Wyley Campsey escaped "Eaton's wrath, riding west."

Word soon spread Wyley Campsey was operating a saloon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One fateful night, Pistol Pete walked through Campsey's saloon doors. Flanked by two gunmen, Campsey mocked Pistol Pete for being a "fool." Pistol Pete retorted with, "I am not here to talk." Gunshots were exchanged. When the dust settled, Campsey and his two henchmen lie dead. Though badly wounded, Frank Eaton/Pistol Pete survived. His vengeance appeased, Pistol Pete hung up his pistol and lived until the ripe old age of 98.

A caricature of "Pistol Pete" was sanctioned in 1984 by the Oklahoma State University as a licensed symbol for the university's athletic mascot.

Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton--true American grit!

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Mike Vinson
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