Tom Threepersons A tale of two Indians

Mike Weber
03-18-2005, 11:50 AM
The article below was authored by Jim Coffey for the Institute of Texan Culture ...

Stories about Tom Threepersons have existed since the mid-1920s, and some are the most colorful of the border region, but Tom personally remains a bit of a mystery. Once the stories are sorted out and re-examined, one thing remains—Tom was a brave man, one of the few whose reality matches the legends.
It all ended quietly one day in 1929. Tom Threepersons was finishing a colorful but relatively short law enforcement career. Gunfights, ambushes, and jobs with four different branches of law enforcement as well as private security work had characterized the past nine years. He had sustained two gunshot wounds, been run over by a panicked smuggler, and still suffered from a head injury sustained during the First World War. He was ready for a different life, and he needed money.
The big man walked into a meeting with an old friend, Tom Powers. Powers was a one-eyed saloonkeeper and El Paso character who owned the Coney Island Saloon. Powers had seen history happen, and now he collected the guns of the men who had written it in gunfire. Powers was typical of many old-time El Pasoans. He had seen the action in the border town before Prohibition and now was riding out what was left of the noble experiment. He had known outlaws and lawmen and had an unusual feel for history. Powers collected firearms, many of which were displayed in the Coney Island Saloon. His prizes included John Wesley Hardin's .41 Colts, the .45 Colt John Selman used to end Hardin's career, and weapons from his old friend Pat Garrett. Now he was on the trail of two more guns.
The men talked briefly, and a deal was struck. Powers gave Threepersons fifty dollars, which Tom stowed away in his dark suit, and, flashing a gold-toothed grin at the bartender, he walked out. The tools he had used for nine years lay silent on the bar. Later Powers made two written entries in his journal:
Smith and Wesson .44 Special Model of Febr. 1906—ID No. 10199. Gun of Indian Tom Threepersons. Got from Tom T.P. in 1929
Winch 1894 30 WCF Rifle—I.D. No. 731,888. Gun of Indian Tom Threepersons. Got from Tom T.P. in 1929
Prohibition was still in place as Tom’s career was ending. Tom Threepersons, one of the last of the old-style border lawmen, turned in his badge, moved to the mountains, and spent the next thirty-nine years in a variety of non-law enforcement jobs. None brought him the notoriety of his nine years on the border as a peace officer—probably that was what he wanted.
On the border, Tom Threepersons had attained legendary status. Walking away from his guns did nothing to diminish that legend; in fact, it enhanced it. When he left El Paso in 1929, the legend was firmly in place. The stories had been told, been printed in various newspapers, and then retold to the point that the legend took on a life of its own. Whether the stories had begun to protect him or someone else, whether he adopted a new persona to create a new life or to commemorate another life, there will probably never be a way of knowing.
What is clear is that much of his life prior to 1916 is hidden, with two writers, Eugene Cunningham and Oren Arnold, creating the legendary public parts. Tom loved to tell stories, and there were always people who wanted to listen. Threepersons made a couple of efforts to correct the inaccuracies, but then he just let it ride. To learn some semblance of the truth, both the man and the legend must be reexamined.
The accepted biography of Threepersons dates from a long interview he is supposed to have given writer Oren Arnold in El Paso in 1925. Later, the story was used by Eugene Cunningham, who printed his version of it in 1926. The accounts are fascinating, colorful, and read like novels. Some portions of the accounts can now be discounted as fantasy; other portions are impossible to verify.
The stories by Arnold, supposedly collected during a four-hour marathon interview in El Paso’s San Jacinto Plaza, were vivid and heroic. They quickly became well known and were repeated by others verbally and in print. For the most part, the stories concerning Threepersons's life prior to his arrival in El Paso lack any verifying evidence.
Arnold stated that Threepersons was born in a wigwam on the Cherokee Reservation and was given his name because his mother, after his birth, saw three men standing outside. Arnold continued that, after the family moved to Montana, outlaws killed both Threepersons’s father and a neighbor. Later, it was told that Tom and a friend, Bill White, moved to Canada, joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and were involved in hair-raising exploits that included the tracking down of the murderers.
Eugene Cunningham further expanded the story. Cunningham and later writers have Threepersons also competing in saddle bronc riding in Pendleton, Oregon, in 1911 and at the Calgary Stampede in 1912. He was supposed to have won the title for the “Best All-Around Cowboy.” Then, after a brief trip around the world, Threepersons found himself in El Paso, starting a new career.
It is a great story—but virtually all of it is false!
“…there are two Tom Threepersons…”
Tom Threepersons in 1928.
There was Tom Threepersons
The Texas border lawman
And there was Tom Threepersons.
The Canadian Rodeo Champion

Tom Threepersons was a larger-than-life peace officer on the border living in El Paso. He seemed to appear out of nowhere in 1916. His life is fairly easy to document after that, but, prior to 1916, he is a mystery. It is easier to determine who he was not than who he was.
His death certificate states that he was born in Vinita, Oklahoma, July 22, 1889, to John and Belle Threepersons. Vinita is in the northeast corner of Oklahoma in the fourteen-county Cherokee reservation area. The name Threepersons does not seem to be a Cherokee name. By 1889 many of the Cherokees registered with the government under Anglicized names such as Ross or Adair. When some of the Cherokees translated their Native American names, they were translated as one-syllable names, for example, Squirrel. Multisyllable names were very rare, but some were found, such as Goingsnake.
Examination of the enrollment rolls of the federal government, the Dawes and Siler Rolls, do not show the name “Threepersons.” It might have been that the family moved out of the territory to ranch or farm elsewhere. If this occurred prior to 1899, they could have been dropped from the tribal rolls.
To be considered a member of the tribe, Cherokees had to register between 1899 and 1906. Furthermore, they had to appear on previous rolls and had to have maintained permanent residence in the Cherokee Nation. Generally, if the family had moved to Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, or Kentucky, they were no longer considered members of the tribe. Additionally, there may have been other reasons for the family to move. Vinita, and much of the Indian Territory, was a violent place. Theft, extortion, and murder were detailed almost daily in the Vinita newspaper, The Daily Indian. The family could have left because of involvement one way or another with a crime. Threepersons always maintained that he was a “full-blood Cherokee,” but evidence for this remains hazy.
In examining the Royal Mounted Police connection, correspondence with them makes one thing clear.
Over the years we have had numerous requests for information on this individual. Our files have been searched thoroughly on several occasions, but no record has ever come to light on his service in the Mounted Police.
Further correspondence with Hugh Dempsey, when he was assistant director of Collections for the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, revealed the following:
This question is raised from time to time as most people do not seem to realize that there were actually two men by this name. The Canadian was a Blood Indian who was a rodeo star, rancher, and successful horse racer.
Since the southwestern Tom Threepersons is so identified with the events in the north, such as Pendleton and Calgary, it is necessary to determine who the Canadian Three Persons was and how he fits into the story.
While the Canadian Tom Three Persons began as a relatively unknown cowboy, he became one of the most famous bronc riders on the northern prairies. The Canadian Three Persons was well known to the Royal Mounted Police contingent at Ft. McLeod, but not as a mountie or scout. The Blood Indian loved fast horses and whiskey, and both brought him to the attention of the Mounted Police. He did have one other skill; he could ride anything that was brought through the gates of Ft. McLeod. The police recognized his talent as a horsebreaker and frequently looked him up when a rough string of horses needed bucking out.
He tended to drink often, so his visits to nearby Ft. McLeod were frequent, and he was there in 1912, when the first Calgary Stampede was announced. Sprung from jail by the Canadian Indian Commissioner, Tom made his way to the Stampede. He paid his entry fees and drew a horse for saddle bronc riding.
In 1912 the Calgary Stampede was the place to be for a competitive cowboy. The idea had sprung from the mind of an American cowboy, Guy Weadick. He convinced four of Alberta Province's leading ranchers to put up $25,000 each to finance the first major Canadian Rodeo. The total purse was $20,000, which was considerable money for the time. The largest rodeo of its time, both in size and duration, began on September 2 and was scheduled to finish on September 7, 1912. Heavy rain on the opening day did nothing to spoil the show. Before a crowd of 27,990, seventeen events highlighted the skills of cowboys and cowgirls from both the United States and Canada. It quickly became obvious that the contest was becoming one of national pride and that the cowboys from the United States were going to take all the prizes.
If there was a star of the saddle bronc competition, it wasn't one of the cowboys—it was a horse named Cyclone. Owned by Bertha Blanchett of Arizona, the big black horse held an impressive record. Prior to the Stampede, 127 men had tried to ride him, and 127 had been left in the dust of rodeo arenas from the Mexican border to the plains of Canada, and now, in the language of the Canadian plains, Cyclone had arrived in Calgary. The one chance the Canadians had was in saddle bronc riding, but that wasn't obvious until the first go-round. After the first draw, Three Persons rode a horse named Speckled Face in a sea of mud, and word spread that the Canadians were not down yet.
Going into the finals, each cowboy drew for horses. Both Three Persons and Cyclone were victorious in separate rides. The final draw was down to four riders, Three Persons and three Americans. The cowboys drew again, and Tom, the Blood Indian, drew Cyclone. The feeling among the Americans was that the party was over; the black horse that had emptied saddles across two countries would make it a clean sweep for the Americans.
On Saturday afternoon, September 7, 1912, the horse that couldn't be rode and the Blood Indian who broke horses for the mounties during his jail time met for the first and only time. Cyclone was loaded into a chute, and Tom put on his red chaps, pulled his big hat down, eased into the saddle, and looked at the gate man, “Let him go.”
He hit the black with his spurs as the big horse stood on his hind legs, and he never quit. In front of 27,000 people, he rode the black to a standstill. Tom Three Persons became the hero of the first Calgary Stampede; he left with $1,000, a saddle, a championship belt, and a reputation. He was the man who rode Cyclone. He was the only Canadian cowboy to win a world's championship at the 1912 Stampede. Tom continued to rodeo, and, through his ranching and horse raising on the reservation, he became very wealthy. He died in 1949.
The impact of an Indian winning a major championship was felt all across the northern border. Even though the incomparable Jackson Sundown, a Blackfoot, had won saddle bronc riding at Pendleton, Oregon, the year before, that did not seem to have the impact of the Calgary win. Canadian and American newspapers ran extensive coverage of the event and the man. The name Tom Three Persons became known to anyone who followed rodeo at that time.
There is ample evidence that the man who won at Calgary was not the Tom Threepersons who later became known on the Mexican border. Examination of photographs leave no doubt that the man who won at Calgary and the man who won at gunfights in El Paso were two different men. What is not known is if there was a Cherokee family named Threepersons in Montana at the time, or if a boy from Vinita, Oklahoma, re-created himself in the North Country and then headed south with a new name to find a new life.
Tom Threepersons collected newspaper clippings, as did many of the law enforcement officers of the time. These were accounts of his exploits, bits of poetry, stories about his friends and the children of friends. In Tom's s****book is his biographical account by Orne Arnold. Marked through with blue pencil are the stories of his being named for three men outside a wigwam, his life on a ranch in Oklahoma, and the service with the Mounted Police. There were no marks on the portion of the story about the Calgary Stampede. What the marked-out material really means is conjecture. Perhaps Tom couldn't let all of the stories go on as truth in his s****book, but the story about the Calgary Stampede did happen, even if it did happen to someone else.
“...a big dusky fellow with a tall sombrero…”
The first documentation putting Tom Threepersons in the Southwest is found in a Douglas, Arizona, newspaper for February 21, 1916. It is ironic that it is a report of him at a rodeo.
Tom Threepersons, a local Indian, a big dusky fellow with a tall sombrero and silver spangled chaps, was a wild west picture good to look upon. He is said to be a machine in the saddle and about the best in the southwest.
Because he was a “local Indian,” it can be implied that Tom was living somewhere near Douglas at this time. Years later, when he moved from New Mexico, Tom settled at Safford, Arizona, north of Douglas, perhaps because of family connections that dated from this time. From the story, it is plain that both the Canadian and the Arizona cowboy had a similar way of handling horses and a mutual love of rodeo.
Two weeks later, life on the border changed dramatically. The revolution in Mexico spilled over into New Mexico, Pancho Villa's elite Los Dorados raided Columbus on March 9, 1916. The border was then flooded with U.S. Army and National Guard troops. A punitive expedition, led by General John J. Pershing, invaded Mexico on March 14, 1916. Tom was involved in some manner, but it is not clear in exactly what role. Based on stories and the Arnold-Cunningham biographies, Threepersons was a civilian scout. Word of mouth reports suggest that he was possibly attached to the 18th Infantry. The mystery deepens as a check of contemporary accounts fails to list the 18th Infantry as one of the infantry companies with Pershing. One unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard is identified as the 18th Infantry, but no National Guard units entered Mexico.
The expedition withdrew from Mexico on February 5, 1917, and, regardless of his previous service, Tom was in El Paso in May, assigned to the U.S. Army Remount Depot at Fort Bliss. He was to remain there during the First World War.
The Remount Service managed horses within a certain geographic area for the army. At the remount stations, horses and mules were quarantined as they were brought into the army. During the quarantine, the animals were examined and branded, and a service record was initiated for each animal. The Remount Depot employed people with a variety of skills, and, at one time or another, horsebreakers, trainers, farriers, and veterinarian assistants worked as civilian employees of the army.
It is likely that Tom spent time as a horsebreaker and trainer at Ft. Bliss from 1917 until 1920. Probably it was during this time that he suffered the injury that bothered him the rest of his life. Tales have it that he was kicked in the head by a horse, and a silver plate was inserted into his damaged skull, but army records do not acknowledge an accident of this type. He was seldom photographed without a large Stetson, supposedly to hide the dent in his head as a result of the accident. In a time when infection probably killed as many people as accidents did, his survival was remarkable. How the injury affected his brain functioning is impossible to guess, but it may have had an impact on some of his behavior later. Friends recalled that Tom married his first wife, Susie, while he was at Ft. Bliss. She is as much a mystery as Tom, since she drops out of the historical record shortly after the marriage.
In 1920 two events occurred that significantly affected him. The first was the army's reduction in force, which deprived him of his remount job at Ft. Bliss. The other was the nation’s flirtation with morality known as Prohibition, which provided him with the job that propelled him into history.
“…the most immoral, degenerate,
and utterly wicked place…”
In January of 1919, forty-four states and the United States Congress had approved a Constitutional amendment which prohibited the manufacture and distribution of alcohol, except for medicinal and sacramental purposes. In this attempt to save the common man from the evils of strong drink, the Volsted Act enforcing the 18th Amendment, was passed. On January 16, 1920, National Prohibition began and led to thirteen years of the most unparalleled crime and criminal disobedience experienced by this nation.
Smuggling had long been a way of life for some along the 2,300 miles of shared boundary between Mexico and the United States. In the 1920s, “La Frontera” was a net full of holes through which flowed illegal liquor by the tens of thousands of gallons. The product was handled by tequileros, horsebackers and bootleggers, who represented the finest selection of professional and amateur smugglers found on the border until recent years. Generally the liquor was purchased in Mexico at about fifty cents a bottle. Loaded onto mules, the tequileros crossed at fords along the border and sold the tequila, sotol, or whiskey for a dollar a bottle to the liquor runners. The runners loaded the cargo into cars and trucks for transportation to Dallas, Denver, and other retail outlets.
Initially, many of the smugglers abandoned the liquor if faced with capture. As organizations and profits improved, Mexican wholesalers guaranteed delivery within a twenty-mile zone inside the United States for an additional ten dollars a case. At this point, the issue of security for the liquor became more important. Many of the wholesalers expanded by hiring pistoleros “who would fight anybody, anytime on little more than a change of expression.
To deal with this liquor menace, a number of new government agencies swung into action. The newly created United States Prohibition Service, Customs Service Line Riders, who became, after 1924, the Border Patrol, and elements of the Immigration Service joined local sheriffs, police departments, and Texas Rangers to stop the smuggling. The entire border was spoiling for a fight over booze, and the main event would be held in El Paso.
El Paso and Juárez were one city divided by two cultures and separated by a river that was shallow and only yards wide in places. The major differences were prosperity and corruption in the north and poverty and corruption in the south. As the railroads brought prosperity to El Paso in the 1880s, prohibition brought prosperity to some in Juárez. The bars became legendary: Harry Mitchell's Mint Bar and Oasis Café and Jimmie O'Brien’s and Severo Gonzales's Central Café became known nationwide. With the noble experiment of Prohibition in place, sin had to go somewhere. In El Paso, it went to Juárez.
Many of the old-time bartenders moved across the Rio Grande. This movement, along with the normal entrepreneurial spirit on the border, resulted in a bar every twenty feet along Avenida de 16th de Septiembre. This concentration of vice resulted in Juárez being indicted as “the most immoral, degenerate, and utterly wicked place I have ever seen or heard of in my travels…gambling, dope selling and using, drinking to excess, and sexual vice are continuous...
This description failed to mention the three whiskey distilleries that were transported almost intact from the United States and put into operation, plus a new brewery that was built and a population very experienced in smuggling.
“…there was a gunfight for
236 straight nights…”
While the men enforcing Prohibition are largely forgotten now, they were legends at the time. Many considered Frank Hamer of the Texas Rangers, the archetypical “twentieth century Ranger,” totally fearless. D.A. (Jelly) Bryce, FBI agent, was so fast with a pistol that he actually “beat the drop” on two separate occasions when outlaws already had their weapons out and trained on him. Manuel Gonzaullas, who made a name for himself as an honest Prohibition agent, would not back down with armed smugglers breaking the law. Many of these officers brought a frontier mentality to the war on booze. For some, it was a code of honor that prohibited asking or giving quarter; for others, it was unimpeachable honesty; and, for some others, unfortunately, it was a selective enforcement of the laws.
Tom Threepersons was one of these men. The mysteries of where he had come from, what he had done, who he had been, didn't really matter anymore. What mattered now was that Tom Threepersons was in El Paso, Prohibition was in place, there were rascals breaking the law, and there was a need for a man who knew the river, was willing to take chances, and would be the last man standing when the fight was over.
Shortly after being released from the Remount Service, Tom joined the El Paso Police Department. At six feet tall and one hundred and eighty pounds, he was an impressive figure. A black Stetson and a dark business suit accented his size; his stature tended to produce calm when he appeared. Possibly because of his ability to speak Spanish, Tom was assigned to walk a beat in South El Paso. He and his partner, Juan Escontrias, became familiar with this new battleground.
South El Paso was built up to the Rio Grande. The jacales and adobes were separated from the river in a number of places by large stands of cane. Willows and tall grass shielded movement from view and masked the sounds of contrabandistas. Further downriver was the 1,200-acre Cordova Island. Created when the Rio Grande changed course, Cordova Island became a center of smuggling and nightly gun fights. Years later a Texas Ranger captain related to his son, “El Paso was one of the toughest towns I'd ever been in. There was a gunfight for 236 straight nights.
Concrete markers or monuments indicated the borderline itself. Distances from a particular monument measured locations of crossings and gunfights, since, in many cases, there were no street names. With a border this open, the two bridges dealing with regular traffic were a minor factor in the liquor business.
El Paso allowed members of its police force to carry personally owned weapons. Threepersons's gun was a 4¾-inch single action Colt, nickel-plated with longhorn-carved pearl grips. The revolver had been fitted with a special front sight moved to the end of the barrel and slightly higher than normal to improve accuracy.
In 1915 he had purchased a Smith and Wesson First Model Hand Ejector from the Shelton-Payne Arms Company in El Paso. At this time, the “Triple Lock” was known for its fine workmanship and accuracy. There were at least two Model 1894 Winchester carbines carried by Threepersons, one a standard carbine and another described as a “sawn-off rifle.” This rifle was probably a “Trappers Model,” either original from the factory with a shorter-than-normal twenty-inch barrel, or one of many that were modified by local gunsmiths. The shortening of the barrel was seen as an improvement to allow for ease of handling in close quarters and was favored by law enforcement and those on horseback alike.
Threepersons was a professional lawman and as such gave particular care to his weapons and gear. It was only natural that he would make modifications to some of his equipment. The modification which still bears his name is the design of the Threepersons holster.
Prior to the 1920s, the majority of holsters consisted of a heavy leather envelope designed to protect the weapon by covering as much of it as possible. While this was something to be desired when people spent most of their time on horses and out in the open, when transportation became cars and frontiers became towns, this sort of holster needed modification.
The design attributed to Threepersons was a leather pouch, closely fitted to the weapon's cylinder, frame, and barrel with leather cut away from the hammer and the trigger guard to allow easier access. It fit a belt with a slight cant of the muzzle to the rear to allow a quicker draw. The holster was designed so that the grips of the pistol were carried above the belt itself. The design was easily adapted to both belt and shoulder rigs.
Threepersons approached Tío Sam Myers, a pioneer saddlemaker from Sweetwater who had moved his operation to El Paso. Myers himself credited Threepersons with the design and stated that modifications of holsters were a common theme among lawmen. Myers's son remarked, “It was a simple process of elimination. If a gunman designed a holster and then was too slow on the draw, you might as well forget the pattern". That must not have been a problem with Threepersons's design. The holster was first included in the S.D. Myers's 1922 catalog and was offered until the company closed down. The holster appeared in the catalog of Myers's successor, El Paso Saddlery, as well as those of a number of other modern holster makers.
Tom Threepersons’s single action Colt
with special front sight and the
Threepersons holster design
he developed with Sam Myers.
Tom's expertise with weapons was well known in the area, and he participated in a variety of formal and informal target-shooting contests, gathering a number of medals for his abilities. During this time and for the rest of his life, Threepersons was reluctant to take any kind of shooting s****e lightly. He was very reluctant to discuss the details of any fights on the border and maintained that he treated prisoners and potential prisoners with respect.
"I never had any desire to be placed in a class with Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, or any of the so-called Western bad men. My desire was and still is to be classed as a respectable officer of the law and its enforcement."
His commitment to being a good officer was tested early in his career. In 1922 Tom and Juan Escontrias were patrolling near the Rio Grande when they encountered smugglers who quickly became belligerent. A sharp gunfight occurred, and Tom later recalled, “Juan and I fought a battle with some smugglers down on the river bank. It was a pretty fight.…” When it was over, Tom had a bullet in the chest. Escontrias loaded the big man into a car and hauled him to the Hotel Dieu Hospital for medical care.
“…he took two high school boys
by the scruff of the neck…”
Threepersons made a place for himself in the community. He lived in Sunset Heights, an enclave northwest of the city that was home to the chief of police, the sheriff, and Tom Powers, the saloonkeeper. During this time, Tom and his wife dined often with ex-Mayor Tom Lea Sr. Lea had a reputation as a no-nonsense reformer who had done much to clean up El Paso during his tenure as mayor from 1915 to 1917. He was a prominent attorney, his home a meeting place for a varied group of people. Lea, Threepersons, and their families would enjoy Sunday lunch or dinner together. Later, over cigars, Lea, Threepersons, and any number of other guests would discuss politics and other topics, surrounded by Lea’s collection of Cases Grande pottery, ore samples, guns, and the thousand other artifacts that crammed Lea's den.
Off duty, Threepersons taught Lea's son, Tom Jr., to shoot in a sand pit north of the city and served as an unofficial model for the young artist's sketches. Threepersons followed the younger man's career through newspaper clippings as he became an internationally known artist.
At a time when expertise with a gun was valued, Threepersons found that his growing reputation as a peace officer brought him many friends. He often hunted with a number of El Paso's civic leaders, probably providing stories and field experience for those people more accustomed to boardrooms than hunting fields.
On duty, Threepersons was known as a strict peace officer. There were a number of establishments in El Paso frequented by young people in search of adventure and the kind of experiences that are fondly recalled in later years. Naturally, some of these adventures involved bootleg liquor. One of the places that catered to the nightlife of the El Paso youth was the Modern Café located in the basement of the Mills Building. There was generally no opposition to teenagers bringing in their own liquor. On at least one occasion, a booze-fueled disturbance grew to the point that it could not be ignored, and the police were called. “Police” in this case translated into Tom Threepersons, who ended the dispute “by taking two of the young men by the scruff of the neck and carrying them up the stairs and out of the building. It became a Threepersons trademark to settle disturbances quickly with an appropriate level of response.
While he enjoyed the work with the police department, Tom, like so many officers, was concerned about his low pay. Perhaps lured by the prospect of a $2,400-a-year salary, Tom became a Federal Prohibition Agent on June 10, 1922. The “Prohis,” as they were called, had a spotty reputation for honesty but were in the forefront of the national effort to stop liquor. Their primary focus was to stop the smuggling of illegal booze at its point of entry, but, as the smugglers moved further inland in armed convoys, the Prohis became more mobile. Liquor convoys of four or five vehicles including a lead car, one or two decoys, and a heavily loaded transport made runs from the border to Dallas and beyond.
Threepersons stayed with the Prohibition Service for about six months and, then, on Christmas Eve 1922, walked away. The exact reason for this decision is not easily determined. At a number of times during his career, Threepersons took short breaks from law enforcement. Whether this was a need to let a particular incident be forgotten, a need for more money, or a desire to reduce the personal danger he was in is unknown. The New Year brought a new job for Tom in Mexico.
Cudahay Packing Company was one of the four largest packing companies in the United States. In 1923 it had extensive holdings in Durango, Mexico, where the Cudahay Cattle Company raised beef. Vast cattle holdings attracted extremely active banditos. There is ample evidence that bandits and cattle were big business in Durango. When the Mexican government sought to retire Pancho Villa, they gave him a pension and a 25,000-acre ranch at Canutillo, Durango. An equally important part of the Villa settlement was the personal bodyguard of fifty of his Los Dorados that he took with him when he rode into retirement. On the ranch, Villa raised cattle and brooded over the past. It was, supposedly, a dispute with cattle buyer Militon Lozoya that led to Villa's murder in 1923.
Large landowners, both Mexican and American, had a tradition of hiring pistoleros to maintain a level of lawfulness as defined by the landowner. While it has never been completely established how Tom spent his time in Mexico, some lean toward his being involved in providing security for the large ranch holdings. In a pamphlet published in 1926, Eugene Cunningham has Threepersons involved in several gunfights to reduce the threat of cattle rustling. Coming on the heels of the Mexican Revolution, the idea of any armed Americano dispensing instant justice in the countryside was not received too well by the Mexican government. Whatever the true stories of his adventures in Mexico were, by July he was back in El Paso.
“I decided to get somewhere else…”
The war against Prohibition continued without letup into the summer of 1923, when Threepersons was with the United States Customs Service. June 14, 1923, marks the best documented of Threepersons's gunfights.
About 7:30 in the evening, Tom and his partner, R.M. Wadsworth, parked their car near the Union Stockyards and walked quickly down First Street close to Monument 2 and slipped into the weeds to wait for the smugglers they knew were coming. After sitting in the heat for nearly three hours, Wadsworth decided that they were in the wrong location and left to bring up the car so they could move to another site. A little later, at about 10:30, a man slipped into the river, waded across, and returned with two sacks of liquor. Threepersons stopped him, handcuffed his right hand to his right ankle, and began to question him. Movement caught his eye, and he looked up to see groups of two and three contrabandistas wading into the river carrying bags of booze. As they emerged from the water, Tom quietly arrested each, collected the booze, and made each man lie on the ground. Things quickly began to turn sour because the next group to wade the river was armed.
Apparently a pre-arranged signal was missed; a member of the second group called out for his compadres, and shooting began. Tom located the positions of the smugglers by their muzzle flashes and returned fire, while keeping his prisoners on the ground. The intermittent gunfire probably kept them from being too anxious to try escaping. Tom located a tree and crouched behind it, seeking some cover. Slugs from the outlaws tore into the tree above his head and near his knee. He was not dealing with beginners. Just as Tom used their muzzle flashes to determine their location, they found him and concentrated their fire. The contrabandistas slipped into the river and moved through the underbrush, slowly surrounding the lawman.
Lacking any method of communication with his partner and his position marked only by the nearly continuous gunfire, Tom must have known that he was on his own. In the stifling heat among the weeds along the river, ears ringing from the gunfire, Tom alternately shouted at the firing smugglers and kept his prisoners lying on the ground. The handcuffed man told him that the fiscales, or Mexican border guards, would kill him pretty quick. The big man's response was to shove more shells into the little Winchester and move from the tree to lie down near his prisoners. With the clarity that sometimes comes in combat, he reasoned that the bootleggers would not fire into their cohorts. He was only partly correct, as a cursing smuggler rushed within twenty feet of him and fired. Tom rose, snapped off a shot, and the man went down. Tom dropped back among the prisoners and reached to his belt to reload the Winchester.

"I had been there about an hour fighting with these fellows and started to load my rifle, but found I had only three cartridges left. So I decided to get somewhere else".
He had fired nearly forty rounds.
Unknown to Tom, Wadsworth had made contact with other Customs officers but was unable to relieve his surrounded partner because of the gunfire from the smugglers. Three cars had pulled up on the south side of the river and had trained their headlights on the relief party and started a second gunfight. The relief group, supplemented by Browning automatic rifles, still was unable to break through to Tom. Threepersons had decided it was time to move. Unable to convince the prisoners to follow him, Tom pulled his revolver and emptied it into the brush west of his position. “That opened up a way for me so I could get out." The prisoners scattered, but Threepersons still had the first man handcuffed hand to foot. He dragged the smuggler behind him as he scuttled through the weeds towards the railroad tracks and road. As he emerged from the tall grass, he saw the approaching headlights of a car, which he stopped by blowing his police whistle.
The fight yielded thirteen five-gallon cans of alcohol, seventy-nine pints and thirty-five quarts of tequila, thirteen pints of whiskey, two pints of beer, three quarts of cognac, and one smuggler, who was probably happy to finally get unhooked from his foot and stand up. Shortly afterwards the El Paso Times received a letter stating, “We are going to kill Tom Threepersons.” Tom probably questioned the mentality of a group who would announce their murderous intent with a “Letter to the editor.” The big man said, “It doesn't disturb my sleep.”
“…one of the best men with a gun
the sheriff's department ever had…”
In the business of law enforcement, especially on the border, death threats and bounties were a way of life. It was not the first time he had been threatened—he had received threats in the old days on the South El Paso beat. Such was the nature of this business that contrabandistas would not stop smuggling, and people like Threepersons continued to enforce the law.
In September, during what appeared to be a routine smuggler stop on Newman Road in El Paso, things turned dangerous quickly. As Tom approached a suspect car, the driver suddenly rocketed forward, slamming into the big man. Tom was knocked to the ground, lost a tooth, and was left with multiple bruises. The smuggling business was not getting any easier for lawman or bootlegger.
Throughout the fall of 1924 and into 1925, Tom continued with the Customs Service. Customs and the border patrol divided the border into sectors, trying to avoid shootings between official law enforcement personnel. With no radios and little formal communication, the two- and three-man teams were largely on their own during the evening stakeouts. The standard drill was for the team to drive close to the surveillance site and then to sit and wait for the smugglers. It was not traditional police work; it more closely resembled combat duty. During this period, Tom married Lorene Tritthart.
By 1925 one of the contrabandista chiefs had put a $10,000 bounty on Threepersons. At least one attempt to collect it was made in a shooting incident near the border. Threepersons escaped with his life but must have been wondering if maybe the time had come for a career change.
He remained with the Customs Service until November 1925, when he resigned and, on November 30, became a deputy sheriff for El Paso County under Sheriff Seth Orndorff. Service with the sheriff's department removed him briefly from the constant pressure of stakeouts on the river. In regular law enforcement, Tom now had some personal time and renewed acquaintances. He met author Eugene Cunningham, who was writing copy for Rodeo Western Wear. Cunningham wrote the Threepersons story, relying largely on Oren Arnold’s original work, and published pictures of the lawman in a ducking jacket and pants, something he rarely wore. In the booklet, entitled Famous in the West, Tom's story was told along with three other El Paso notables, Jim Gillette, Dallas Stoudenmire, and John Wesley Hardin. If he did not have national notoriety before this publication, it was to follow shortly.
His contribution to the sheriff's department was recognized immediately. He was described by a former newspaperman as “one of the best men with a gun that (the) sheriff's department had." Despite that recognition, his tenure with the department was short. After a disagreement with other members of the department over the disposal of contraband, he resigned in August 1926. He was again at loose ends and sought out the only other world that he knew, the world of ranching.
Tom went to work for the McElroy Ranch at Crane. J.T. McElroy, owner of an El Paso packing plant, originally owned the ranch. When oil was discovered in 1926, the ranch was sold to the Franco-Wyoming Oil Company. The company decided to run the place for both stock and oil and thus needed both cowboys and other laborers. Lester Grant, with Fount Mayfield as foreman, ran the outfit. Perhaps because of his El Paso connections, Tom was brought in to work on windmills among other things. It was not an arrangement which proved to be successful for either Tom or the ranch. “He was out of his depth with all those windmills,” recalled historian Paul Patterson.
By April 16, 1927, he was back in El Paso, this time with the police department, but times were changing in the border city. While Prohibition was still in place, the support for it was eroding quickly. In El Paso, people were coming to grips with their demons; routine traffic stops, domestic shootings, and stabbings were replacing the nightly gunfights with smugglers. Tom became a detective on the police force and was content for a couple of years. His adventures made for good reading, and stories about him appeared in several pulp magazines such as the Triple-X magazine. It was, however, all ending.
In 1929 Tom Threepersons resigned from the police department. His friend Tom Lea remembered the reason as simply, “He was all stove up.” He had been shot twice and still had headaches resulting from the head wound suffered in 1918. It is possible that he was feeling the partial paralysis he would complain of two years later. Even in its earliest stages, paralysis was deadly for a man who had spent his time walking the streets, sitting out ambushes, and breaking horses. Tom knew it was time to move on—he left his resignation on the police chief's desk and sold his guns to Tom Powers, leaving El Paso for Silver City, New Mexico, and a new life.
“Air like wine…”
Tom and Lorene remained in Silver City for the next thirty-two years. He continued a migrating existence, seeking work where he could find it, mostly day work on the ranches, but no law enforcement. He had always worked on ranches, and he continued to do so at the Heart Bar Cross and the Moon Ranch. For a time, he worked for Tom Lyons on the LC ranch in the Gila Wilderness above Silver City and guided hunters who had been attracted by his advertisement:
"Bear and Deer Hunting with a Full Blooded Indian…Bear Season is from Oct 10 to 20. Deer Season is from Oct 10 to 31. Air like wine."
He never got too far away from guns. People recall how he would spin pistols on his fingers in the manner of movie heroes and shoot targets with selected friends. He must have given some thought to having his own place because the 1932 New Mexico brand book lists his brand, but he was plagued with a host of medical problems that got worse when he was gored by a steer while working cattle that year.
The old head injury sustained in the First World War continued to plague him. In May of 1933, he went to New York to have surgery to relieve the pressure and the extremely painful headaches he suffered. Partial paralysis had set in on his left side, which probably motivated him to have the operation. Newspaper accounts claimed the operation was a complete success, and he returned to El Paso briefly in June 1933, but he did not stay.
The country was in the clutches of the depression, and jobs were difficult to find, but, in New Mexico, he continued to pick up some day work on ranches. Like many old-time peace officers, Tom was active in the Masons and later spent time working with the Disabled American Veterans.
Lorene continued to work for the Silver City Enterprise and Daily Press. She maintained contacts with various Indian organizations, illustrating the pride both she and Tom had in their Indian heritage. With the exception of riding in parades at rodeos, the couple maintained a modest life. Life slowed down for the big man, with the exception of occasional visits with old friends from the border.
They moved one last time. In 1962 Tom returned to Arizona, settling in Safford, the same region where he started rodeoing in 1916. Lorene died in 1968, and Tom married Rose Gould, his third wife. On March 29, he had a heart attack, pneumonia set in, and, on April 2, 1969, he died.
Much of Tom Threepersons's life remains a mystery. His early life and origins are obscure. His service in law enforcement was honorable, although full documentation is lacking. It is as if he stepped into the arena of history from a side door, took part in an extremely violent time in the history of Texas, and slipped away, keeping details of his life private.
In 1957 he commented on his career:
"I did my duty to the best of my ability…. I never took advantage of any man that was under my protection.…
I am proud of my record as a peace officer in the southwest and on the border."
His own words speak more eloquently than others.
There have been few Native American peace officers in the history of Texas, and history should record that Tom Threepersons, as separate from the Canadian cowboy, served this state with distinction. In the olden days, there was a phrase used along the border to describe a man who could be counted on. “He would do to ride the river with.” Such a man was Tom Threepersons.

If you enjoyed reading about "Tom Threepersons A tale of two Indians" here in the archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join today for the full version!
03-18-2005, 05:52 PM
Thanks, Mike. I enjoyed the read. I never knew anything about the man. Wish I had read this sooner.

03-18-2005, 09:42 PM
I had no idea he lived in Safford when I was assigned to that area. I had heard and read about him when I was in Texas. I even saw some of the holsters he is known for when I bought uniforms and leather gear from S. D. Myers in El Paso,

I wish I had known,


03-18-2005, 10:44 PM
El Paso Saddlery makes a nice Threepersons holster to this day.

That was a good read. Thanks Mike.


03-20-2005, 01:11 PM
Good read, thanks Mike.

12-09-2005, 07:59 PM
A great read for sure-- here is a pre-MDL 18, with her S.D.Myers holster, one of a couple I am lucky enought to own. I am a long time fan of this style holster-- guess I now know why. :)

If you enjoyed reading about "Tom Threepersons A tale of two Indians" here in the archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join today for the full version!