The Wild West, or the Old West, refers to the period of western expansion in United States history, roughly from the late 19th century and early 20th century. While most of us today only know it as a fictional aesthetic, the period was full of real violence and lawlessness, especially along the frontier regions. The unique characteristics of that time gave rise to numerous powerful Wild West gangs, some of which were known for their brutality and scale of violence.
10. Soap Gang
The Soap Gang was a group of conmen led by Jefferson Randolph Smith II, better known as Soapy Smith. It was formed in 1879 in Denver, Colorado, and quickly gained fame for their innovative con jobs. Smith was a skilled con artist specializing in many scams, including the ‘Prize Package Soap Sell’ racket, which involved selling bars of soap to a crowd with a chance to win a valuable prize inside. Of course, he’d always have a member in the crowd to buy the soap at a higher price, convincing others into putting their money into worthless soaps.
The Soap Gang gained fame in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as they traveled from town to town throughout the American West defrauding locals and visitors alike. They were especially active in the towns of Skagway and Juneau, Alaska, during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1899.
The gang’s downfall came in 1898, when a group of vigilantes known as the Committee of 101 in Skagway, led by a man named Frank Reid, decided to pick bounties against some of the criminals in town, including members of the Soap Gang. Soapy Smith and several members were killed in a shootout at Juneau Wharf.
9. Dalton Gang
The Dalton Gang, also known as the Dalton Brothers, was a group of outlaws that gained fame during the latter part of the 19th century. It was formed in 1890 in Oklahoma by four brothers, Bob, Emmett, Grat, and Bill Dalton, with other members like Bill Doolin and George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb joining some time later. They were feared for their daring train and bank robberies across the American West, and could be called one of the most dangerous gangs of the time.
Their most famous robbery was that of the C.M. Condon & Co. Bank in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1892. The gang was confronted by lawmen and citizens during the robbery, resulting in a shootout that left several members and civilians dead. It became known as the Coffeyville Raid and further cemented the gang’s reputation as ruthless criminals. Their final heist came in 1894, when they attempted to rob two banks simultaneously in the town of El Reno, Oklahoma. It ended in disaster, with most of the gang members killed or captured.
8. Archer Gang
The Archer Gang was active in central Indiana and parts of Illinois and Kentucky during the mid 19th century. Formed by brothers Thomas, Mort, John, and Sam, they robbed banks and other businesses in towns throughout large parts of Indiana. They’d also rob stagecoaches, trains, and other travelers on the roads, sometimes even resorting to stealing cattle and horses from unsuspecting residents of small towns.
The members of the Archer gang were mostly farmers and millers who turned to robbery and crime during hard financial times. Many civilians and other regular folk died or disappeared due to their activities, particularly in the Martin County region. Their reign ended in 1886, when three of the Archer brothers were arrested by law enforcement in the town of Shoals. Before they could be tried, however, they were broken out by local vigilantes and lynched nearby.
7. Reynolds Gang
The Reynolds Gang was a short-lived group of criminals and outlaws operating in Colorado during the 1860s. It was named after brothers James and John Reynolds, gaining popular attention in 1864, when local newspapers in and around the South Park region started talking about their early crimes. Most of the members were experienced criminals and ex-Confederate soldiers, executing a number of high-profile robberies and murders in the area until they were brought down.
Because of their Confederate past, the Reynolds gang was associated with many local stories and legends of lost treasures, despite their relatively short existence. The Reynolds brothers and many of the gang’s members were arrested and eventually shot in the summer of 1864, bringing a quick end to their exploits.
6. Rufus Buck Gang
The Rufus Buck Gang lived in Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. It was formed in 1895 and consisted of Rufus Buck, a Creek Indian, Lewis Davis, Sam Sampson, and brothers Maoma July and Lucky Davis. They were known for robberies, murders and assaults, and were particularly notorious for their level of brutality.
The Rufus Buck Gang gained attention in July 1895, when they first robbed Fort Smith and violently murdered the marshal in charge. Their list of crimes includes rape and torture, as they terrorized the region for many months. When members of the Rufus Buck gang were finally captured on August 10, they were almost lynched by the locals. All of them were eventually put on trial and sentenced to death at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
5. McCarty Gang
The McCarty gang was headed by Tom McCarty, and included his brother Bill McCarty and nephew Fred McCarty. Their first operation was robbing the Wallowa National Bank in Enterprise, Oregon, followed by many other heists and robberies in and around Colorado.
While the McCarty’s were great at evading law enforcement, they were ultimately downed by a bunch of civilians during a raid in Delta, Colorado in September 1893. While they had partly succeeded, the heist ended in the death of the cashier, resulting in an armed fight between the locals and the gang’s members. Bill and Fred were shot dead in the resulting violence, bringing an abrupt end to the McCarty gang. While Tom managed to escape the law and settle down as a sheepherder in Montana, he was also killed in a gunfight around the turn of the century.
4. Calton Gang
Also known as The Cowboys, the Caltons were a family of outlaws and cattle rustlers living along the Mexican border during the late 19th century. It was an early form of organized crime in the area, and the gang members mostly included people from the Carlton family living in Tombstone, Arizona. They were infamous for robberies, murders, and other forms of crime in the border regions, and are still remembered as one of the most feared outlaw groups in Arizona’s history.
The gang was involved in a number of crimes, including a high-profile gunfight against rival gang members that resulted in the death of William “Billy” Clanton. The gang’s rivalry with the Earp brothers and their allies led to a series of violent confrontations now known as the Earp-Clanton feud. Even after the gang’s downfall, the Clantons remained an influential ranching group in the region for a long time.
3. Ketchum Gang
The Ketchum gang was named after its leader, Black Jack Thomas Ketchum, along with his brother, Sam, and other members like Will Carver, Elza Lay, and Ben Kilpatrick, who was also associated with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Active during the late 1890s, they were known for robberies of all kinds in small towns in the New Mexico region.
One of their most famous robberies happened in Folsom, New Mexico, when members Sam Ketchum, Will Carver, and Elzy Lay decided to carry out a heist without Black Jack Ketchum. While they managed to rob about $50,000, the group was pursued by a posse led by Sheriff Edward Farr. Sam Ketchum was seriously wounded in the ensuing shootout, though the other members were able to escape to a nearby hideout. Some of them were later arrested, or went on to work with other gangs in the region. Black Jack Ketchum was arrested on August 16, 1899 during an attempted robbery, and was eventually hanged in Union County, New Mexico.
2. Daly Gang
The Daly Gang was a group of thugs operating out of a saloon in Aurora, Nevada between 1862 and 1864. Founded by “Three-Fingered Jack” McDowell and John Daly, they quickly gained a reputation for beatings and murder in and around the Aurora region. Apart from the regular stagecoach and bank robberies, they also targetted the goldfields springing up between Aurora and Carson City during the gold rush period.
It was one of the most powerful gangs in the region’s history, though their terror ultimately came to an end when they murdered a man named William R. Johnson in a gruesome manner. As a result, the citizens of nearby towns formed a local civilian committee and attacked McDowell’s saloon on February 5, 1864. After the fight, all of the gang’s members were arrested and hanged outside the Armory Hall in Aurora.
1. Mason Henry Gang
The Mason Henry gang operated in the San Joaquin Valley in Santa Cruz County, California during the mid-1860s. Named after its leaders, John Mason and Jim Henry, the gang posed as Confederate partisan rangers, but were, in reality, a band of ruthless criminals who committed robberies, thefts, and murders throughout the southern part of the valley.
The Mason Henry gang was involved in several high-profile robberies, including the theft of a large amount of gold from a stagecoach. They also murdered several people, and despite their efforts to portray themselves as Confederate soldiers, the gang’s actions quickly earned them a reputation as ruthless outlaws among local civilians.
Their downfall came in September 1865, when a posse led by the local sheriff pursued and engaged them in a shootout near Panoche Pass. Several members were killed in the ensuing battle, including Henry and Showalter, bringing an end to the famous-yet-short-lived Mason Henry gang.