by Skeeter Skelton
Shooting Times Magazine
Mention the name Tom Threepersons in New York or Chicago, and you’ll probably evoke a small response. But to utter this full-blooded Cherokee Indian’s name along the Mexican border is to inspire a string of yarns stretching from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Yukon to Chihuahua. He was the last of the famous Gunfighting law officers, and his career extended well into the 20th century.
The history of Threepersons is somewhat enigmatic. Though many know his name and have heard of an exploit or two of his, no one I’ve met is really qualified to write his biography. John Voliva, a U.S. Customs Special Agent and gun collector in El Paso, Texas, Recently acquired a Smith & Wesson Triplelock .44 Special and a Winchester Model 94 .30-30 carbine Threepersons sold to an El Paso saloon owner in 1929. The barman, Tom Powers, was a collector of the guns of famous western characters; at one time, he owned the Colt SA Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid.
With the Threepersons guns, Voliva also obtained the lawman’s scrapbook, which contained several newspaper and magazine clipping dated in the 1920s. Combining these with official U.S. Treasury Department records and other documents, Voliva has pieced together a reasonable story of Tom Threepersons’ life and passed the information along to me.
Tom Threepersons was born in Vinita, Oklahoma, on July 22, 1889. Around 1900, his family moved to Alberta, Canada, to go into ranching. Threepersons’ boyhood companion was a youth named Bill White, whose family apparently accompanied the Threepersons to Canada.
Around 1910, the fathers of both young men were killed during a fight with rustlers. The two killers were caught but released on bond. Threepersons followed them to a local saloon and surprised them by entering through the back door. When they went for their guns, he shot them dead. Tried for murder, the young man was acquitted by a jury which deliberated for only seven minutes.
Threepersons and Bill White joined the Northwest Mounted Police and were stationed 50 miles from Calgary. They were soon assigned to track down three smugglers who had murdered an entire family. They learned that the killers were heading toward the Yukon River in Alaska, a tremendous distance away. After following the trail for five days in the snow, the two Mounties had to abandon their exhausted horses and proceed on foot carrying backpacks. They encountered the suspects two days later, and the trio of killers opened fire, mortally wounding White. Threepersons dispatched one of the outlaws, and the remaining pair fled.
Stopping long enough to dig a shallow grave and bury his partner, an experience that saddened him for life, the Oklahoma Indian then picked up the killers’ sign and trekked for many days, living on small game. He finally arrived at a tiny settlement named End of the Trail, where he discovered the two fugitives were nearby.
Threepersons ate and rested for several days, surveying and finding out the place was a den of toughs, gamblers, and killers. His chances of effecting an arrest in the village without being killed were nil, so he waited at the pair’s country cabin and confronted them when they arrived from the settlement. The killers opted to shoot it out, and a bullet knocked off Threepersons’ stiff-brimmed Stetson. With a Colt revolver in each hand, he avenged Bill White in spades.
Those who made the mistake of getting crossways with Threepersons often met with similar fates. One night in Calgary, he killed three bank robbers in the process of foiling a bank job before his partner could even get his gun into play. And a few months later, the big Cherokee added even more notches to his gun while frustrating the holdup of a Canadian Pacific train near Medicine Hat.
Threepersons’ experiences in the Mounted Police became less exciting after these incidents. He returned to ranching and became a renowned rodeo rider; in 1912, he was proclaimed World Champion Cowboy in Calgary by the lieutenant governor of Alberta. Making a good stake in the cattle game, he treated himself to a trip around the world, visiting Argentina, most of Europe, Africa, Asia, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Hawaii. After 11 months of travel, Threepersons came home unimpressed. “Nobody talked like I did, or wore the clothes I word, ar ate the food I wanted,” he complained.
He cowboyed around Douglas, Arizona, for a time, but when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, he enlisted with General “Black Jack” Pershing in Mexico. The two men held each other in mutual esteem. There is a somewhat nebulous story about Threepersons and some other scouts being captured by Villista troops in Mexico, escaping, and walking out to Douglas Arizona. Since he received a belated Border Service medal and citation in 1938, this story is quite believable.
After the Mexican troubles, Three persons stayed in the Army, serving with the Quartermaster Corps as a horsebreaker at the cavalry remount station at Fort Bliss, Texas. To his disgust, he was never allowed to join the fighting troops in France. During this service, he was kicked in the head by a horse and suffered a head injury which plagued him for many years. I was told once that Threepersons was never seen without a high-crowned, broad-brimmed, heavy Stetson, and photographs bear this out. Aside from being a westerner, he needed the heavy hats to protect his ailing head.
Discharged from the Army in San Antonio in 1920, Threepersons served as a uniformed patrolman and then as a detective with the El Paso city police until 1922. His beat was the area known as “Little Mexico,” and it was a stronghold of smugglers, dope dealers, bootleggers, pimps, and their ilk.
One night in 1921, Threepersons was patrolling with his partner, Juan Escontrias, another pistolero of note. He left his partner to enter a restaurant, then heard someone cursing in Spanish and a shot fired. He drew and wheeled around to see a dead Mexican in the street, a sixshooter under his hand. Escontrias had heard the shout, “Die, you damned policeman!” and had been a shade faster.
Western writer Eugene Cunningham quoted Threepersons describing this incident: “Some time later, Juan and I fought a battle with smugglers down on the riverbank. It was a nice fight, and when it ended and the smoke blew away, there were three dead men beside the river, and I had a bullet in my chest.
On June 10, 1922, Threepersons was appointed as a Federal Prohibition Agent in El Paso at a salary of $1800 per year. He resigned December 24, 1922, and accepted a job as manager of Cudahy ranch in Durango, Mexico, early the next year. His assignment was to stop the rampant cattle rustling on the 15,000-head outfit. He was the only employee on the ranch allowed to carry a sixgun by the Mexican government.
During his brief stay on the Cudahy, he had numerous skirmishes with rustlers and killed two of them in one fight. Arrested for this by Mexican authorities, he was released after two days when the Cudahy people intervened. He was ambushed soon after as he slept in his house but managed to escape through a window.
Threepersons realized no single man could hope to prevail against the odds he faced in Mexico. He resigned and returned to El Paso, where he was appointed a Mounted Inspector, U.S. Customs, in July 1923. Shortly after joining Customs, he was run over and slightly injured by a bootlegger’s car. Gunfights along the Rio Grande in the El Paso area were an every night occurrence, with official statements and newspaper clippings from Threepersons’ scrapbook showing he was an active participant.
Obviously a restless sort, Threepersons left Customs in 1925 and went to work for the El Paso County sheriff’s department as a deputy. He resigned that position in 1926 to work for the Y ranch near Odessa, Texas, but was back with the El Paso police department in 1927, working as a detective with Juan Excontrias, his old partner. During this time, Threepersons was an award-winning pistol shooter on the police department team.
As early as 1925, the famous S.D. Myres Saddle Saddle Co. of El Paso advertised Tom Threepersons-style holsters, which featured a cutaway top exposing the hammer and trigger guard of the revolver. This design remains a standard today and has been copied by many holstermakers.
In the late 1920s, Hollywood focused its attention on Threepersons. He was offered a chance to go into the movies as a western star – at a salary of $700 per month; he chose to stay on the border, preferring real adventure to make-believe versions.
About 1929, Threepersons began to suffer health problems connected with his old head injury, and he left law enforcement to take up ranching near Gila, New Mexico. Four years later, he traveled to New York City for corrective surgery. He ranched and was a hunting guide and outfitter around Silver City, New Mexico, for the rest of his life.
Although I’d been warned Threepersons shunned publicity, I wrote to the old lawman in 1962, asking permission to visit and interview him for a magazine article. He never replied.
On April 2, 1969, Tom Threepersons died of cardiac arrest and pneumonia in Safford, Arizona. He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Silver City. Too little information about his amazing life is available, but there’s enough to conclude that here was a man.