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Texas Gunfighter Barney Riggs

Updated on August 31, 2015
Barney Riggs in 1902. Standing: BrotherTom Riggs on left, Lon "Stump" Robbins on right. Seated, left to right: Moye Grinder, Barney and John Chalk
Barney Riggs in 1902. Standing: BrotherTom Riggs on left, Lon "Stump" Robbins on right. Seated, left to right: Moye Grinder, Barney and John Chalk

Barney Kemp Riggs was a not so well known Texas gunfighter who was said to have first killed a man at the age of 18. The man was a friend and the shooting was ruled as an accident. But there were some who doubted that decision since Barney was known to have an extremely violent temper and fly into fits of rage.

Riggs was born in December of 1856 somewhere in Arkansas, but shortly thereafter the family moved to Texas. Barney was always into some type of trouble with the law, so in 1879 when a local sheriff came looking to ask him a few questions over who knows what, he instinctively fled to Cochise County in Arizona. Apparently he chose that location because he had several Uncles and cousins living there.

One uncle, Jim Riggs, put him to work as a cow hand on his ranch. Not long afterwards he became enamored of a young lady named Vennie Hicklin whom he married in February of 1882. But marriage didn’t change Barney’s lifestyle. He still dabbled in various criminal activities, mostly stealing horses, not only in Arizona, but Mexico as well.

Allegedly, during one of his horse stealing raids in which a cousin was also involved, he shot and killed two Mexicans during an argument at a watering hole. There were three women accompanying the men who were initially left unharmed. However after leaving, he realized they could identify him, so he returned to the watering hole and killed them as well.

Barney Riggs

It was about this time the famous Earp “Vendetta Ride” was in full swing. And when Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, known to be a shady character himself, called for men to form a posse to track down the Earp’s, Riggs signed on as a deputy. However, that wasn’t the end of law enforcement for Riggs. In later years he became a deputy in Pecos County, Texas.

But Barney couldn’t stay out of trouble due to his hot temper. It was in 1886 after returning from a business trip in Texas he heard rumors a man named Richard Hudson had been having an affair with his wife. Hudson, his uncle’s stepson, also happened to be his boss. When Riggs confronted Hudson with the matter, he naturally denied it. But a few days later someone told him Hudson had been heard bragging about his conquest of Vennie. Hudson was found dead of a gunshot wound on September 29.

Everyone knew there was no love lost between Riggs and Hudson, so Riggs became the Prime suspect for the murder. A $250 bounty was posted for his capture, but Barney wasn’t sticking around for someone to try and collect it. He made tracks for the high country.

But the diligent Sheriff of Tombstone, Fred Dodge and his deputy Charlie Smith, set out on his trail anyway. They figured sooner or later he would return to his Uncle’s ranch to see his wife. The two lawmen set up a stakeout in the hills overlooking the Rigg’s ranch. Sure enough, he returned. The two were both arrested and hauled off to the Tombstone jail. However, Vennie had not broken any laws and was subsequently released.

Barney was tried for Hudson’s murder twice. The first trail on November 11, 1886, was declared a mistrial as many of the jurors felt Barney had a right to kill a man dallying with his wife. A month later he was convicted as the prosecution pushed the fact the murder had been an ambush. Riggs was convicted of murder and sentenced to life at the Arizona Territorial Prison in Yuma. He would only serve one year.

Providence intervened. In 1887 the prison warden, Thomas Gates was taken captive by seven inmates. Somehow they had managed to get guns smuggled in. Using Gates the convicts ordered the prison gates to be opened. But, contrary to his nature a quick thinking Riggs grabbed a gun from one of the escaping prisoners, whose attention was focused entirely on the front gate. Without hesitation, Riggs shot and killed the man holding Gates hostage. The warden, being in Riggs’ debt, advocated for a pardon and he was released on December 31, 1887.

Barney’s wife had since moved to California with their son, Earl. So that’s where he went after his release. However, apparently Vennie had tired of his shenanigans so he took his son, returned to Texas and went into business with his younger brother, Tom, operating a ranch near Fort Stockton.

In 1889, one newspaper, the Albuquerque Citizen reported Riggs had been arrested for killing a cowboy, but there was never any evidence to back up the claim, nor were there any records indicating he had been arrested.

There are also no records showing he divorced his first wife Vennie. But Barney married again to Annie Stella Frazer Johnson in September of 1891, the sister of George A. “Bud” Frazer, Reeves County Sheriff. Reeves was a competent sheriff, but was a bad judge of character. He hired the infamous killer for hire “Deacon” Jim Miller as his deputy.

A. J. Royal

Annie Riggs

Riggs had warned the sheriff about Miller and pointed out since he had become his deputy, cattle rustling in the area had significantly increased. But Riggs had no proof therefore Miller kept his job. Not long afterwards Miller killed a prisoner who he claimed was trying to escape. Reeves began taking a closer look at Miller’s affairs.

However, the clincher came when Riggs discovered where Miller had hidden some stolen livestock and took the sheriff to the location. Miller was immediately fired. That was the beginning of a deadly feud between the two.

In 1892, a dishonest Sheriff named Andrew Jackson Royal and his deputies, one being Riggs, were arrested by Texas Rangers for intentionally letting a prisoner escape from jail. Obviously, being a lawman in Pecos County had its advantages when it came to avoiding arrest for his underhanded schemes. But over, in the next county where his brother-in-law was the county sheriff, his position afforded him no favoritism.

He was arrested there numerous times for drunkenness, assault and carrying a pistol. In March, 1893, he was arrested by Reeves for assault with intent to murder. When a man went to the Riggs ranch looking for a lost burro, Barney took a shot at him and then beat him severely over the head. However, Riggs was found not guilty, which once again local citizens found highly unlikely. Several days later, Riggs was arrested again for unlawfully carrying a gun.

In early 1896, two of Millers’ hit men in Texas were overheard making plans to find Riggs and kill him. Fortunately, one of Riggs old friends, U.S. Deputy Marshal Dee Harkey, found out about it and wired a warning. When the two arrived Barney was nowhere to be found.

However, after thinking things had quieted down he returned. On March 3rd Riggs was tending bar for a friend when the two strode in and one fired a shot at him. Fortunately, he managed to get away with only a graze. Later that year, Miller killed Barney’s brother-in-law, Sheriff Reeves.

Barney’s temper hadn’t gotten any better over the years. In fact, he had soured even more. His drinking and troublemaking increased. Finally, his wife got fed up and filed for divorce. Riggs was forced to pay child support which was handled by Daniel J. “Buck” Chadborn. Chadborn was the 21 year old husband of Annie’s daughter from a previous marriage.

Barney didn’t like that arrangement much. He and Chadborn had never seen eye to eye and this stuck in his craw. About a year later, Chadborn tired of Riggs’ constantly berating his character and asked the court to find someone else to handle the child support payments. But, Riggs was known to never let go of a grudge. In April of 1902 the two ran into each other and Riggs beat him with a cane. The next day, Riggs temper had not subsided one iota and when he saw Chadborn he went after him with the cane again. But this time Chadborn shot him at close range in the chest. Barney died the next day in a hospital. He was buried in the old fort cemetery at Fort Stockton.


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    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Well done! Very interesting stuff, and now I'll have to read the rest of your Hubs!

    • profile image

      Ed 5 years ago

      Even more interesting is the fact that there was an altercation between Riggs and the two would be assassins sent by Killer Jim Miller. The two men one Billy Earhart and John Densin were both killed by Riggs in Heard Saloon in Pecos while trying to ambush Riggs.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you Fish. I have written very many old west stories on hub pages.

    • FishAreFriends profile image

      FishAreFriends 6 years ago from Colorado

      Wow this is really cool. I've always been interested in the old west, and this is a perfect hub for learning about it. I like your writing style, it's organized and very clear. Nive hub!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I'll take a look Finance.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks qeyler. Always nice to know someone appreciates your hard work.

    • qeyler profile image

      qeyler 6 years ago

      Another very interesting hub on America's old west