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U.S. Marshals: The Three Guardians

Updated on December 29, 2015

Chris Madsen

In the Oklahoma and Indian Territory of the Old West there were three deputy marshals who earned the title of “The Three Guardians." They were Chris Madsen, William M. "Bill" Tilghman Jr. and Henry Andrew "Heck" Thomas. These three lawmen arrested and killed some of the meanest and most dangerous criminals in a territory covering over 70,000 square miles. Some accounts refer to the trio as “The Three Guardsman.”

Indian Territory provided a relatively safe haven for outlaws. Many found safety by living amongst the intial Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. They were called that because they eventually adopted many European customs…including African slavery.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Chris Madsen was born in Denmark in 1851 with the surname Rormose. Madsen would seem an unlikely candidate for the position of deputy marshal. Before coming to the United States in 1876 he had been incarcerated 5 times for offenses such as vagrancy, fraud, and forgery.

Upon arriving in America, Madsen enlisted in the U.S. Army and served a 15 year stint in the Fifth Cavalry. During those years Madsen was court-martialed for stealing government grain. He was acquitted of that charge, but still served five months in the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary for larceny.

After being discharged from military service in January of 1891, Madsen became a deputy U.S. marshal in Oklahoma Territory. However, in 1893 the U.S. Marshal Evett D. Nix was fired for gross malfeasance which also brought Madsen’s performance as deputy under close scrutiny by federal inspectors. Madsen resigned and found employment as U.S. marshal in the Western District of Missouri.

He later returned to Indian Territory in 1898 and became a special deputy in the Southern District. That same year he signed on with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders and served as a quartermaster sergeant. Following the Spanish-American War Madsen again returned to Indian Territory and resumed his career as a deputy U.S. marshal. He retired from active law enforcement in 1913. Madsen later held positions as a guard, court bailiff and superintendent of the Union Soldiers' Home.

Many believe Madsen’s reputation has been grossly overinflated since he was rarely involved in any gunfights and spent most of his time in administrative work. He died January 9th, 1944, at the ripe old age of 92 in the Masonic Home for the Aged in Guthrie and was buried in Yukon, Oklahoma.

Bill Tilghman

Next, there was Bill Tilghman, born July 4th, 1854, in Iowa. Not long afterwards his family moved to a farm in Kansas. One day as he was driving his sister to a berry picking expedition, their wagon was stopped by a mustached marshal in buckskins. As the stranger questioned them about recent traffic on the road, Bill’s eyes kept straying to the man’s two ivory handled Navy Colts.

It wasn’t until a few days later young Bill learned the stranger’s identity…"Wild Bill" Hickock.Tilghman would later become known as "the man who drove the outlaws out of Oklahoma." And another legendary lawman, Bat Masterson, would one day describe Tilghman as "the greatest of us all."

By the age of 16 Bill had become an accomplished buffalo hunter. During this period Bill took a job scouting for the Army at Fort Dodge until 1877 at which time he became a deputy sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, married Flora Kendall and set up a small ranch near Dodge City.

In 1884 he was appointed city marshal of Dodge City, a position he held for 2 years. Later, in 1888 Tilghman became involved with the Wichita County, Kansas, seat war. The next year Tilghman hired on to one of the factions in the Gray County, Kansas, seat war.

During the famous Oklahoma Land Run in 1889, Tilghman filed a homestead claim near Guthrie. Tilghman resumed work as a peace officer in 1893 in Perry, an up and coming boomtown. In the course of his duties, he shot and killed the infamous Creek Indian outlaw "Crescent" Sam and wounded "Little Bill" Raidler, a member of the notorious Bill Doolin Gang. Tilghman single handedly arrested Doolin in 1896. Although Doolin managed to escape, Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas and a posse soon tracked him down and he was shot and killed. Between 1900 and 1902 Tilghman served as Lincoln County sheriff.

Not long afterwards Tilghman moved his wife Flora and four children to a farm near Chandler. Flora died in 1900. In 1903 at age forty-eight, Tilghman remarried to 22-year-old schoolteacher, Zoe Agnes Stratton, The marriage produced three children.

In 1910 Tilghman was elected to the state senate but resigned in 1911 to return to doing what he loved best. He became Oklahoma City's police chief. Over the next decade he assisted in filming four Western motion pictures, including The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws.

At age seventy he became city marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma, a booming oil town. Tilghman has been on the job less than a year before being shot and killed in the line of duty. He died on November 1, 1924, after being shot at “Ma Murphy's” cafe by a corrupt and drunken prohibition agent named Wiley Lynn. In the past, Tilghman and Lynn had frequently locked horns over Lynn’s repeated release of prisoners he had arrested. Lynn was never arrested for Tilghman’s murder. It is strongly believed the witnesses were intimidated.

After 51 years as a peace officer, Tilghman was laid to rest in Cromwell.

Heck Thomas

Heck Thomas was the youngest son of Lovick Pierce and Martha Ann Fullwood Bedell Thomas born January 6, 1850, in Oxford, Georgia. At 12 years old Heck was already serving in the Confederate army. By the time he was 18 he was working as a police officer in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1871 he married Isabelle Gray and after having five children the family moved to Texas. Heck signed on as a messenger for the Texas Express Company and assisted company detectives in tracking down the feared Sam Bass gang.

By 1886 Thomas was a deputy U.S. marshal, in Judge Isaac Parker’s Federal District Court of Western Arkansas. He held that position until 1900. During those years Thomas became a legendary figure, but not without sacrifice. His wife, unaccustomed to the harsh, rough life on the western frontier, divorced him and returned to Georgia with their children. Thomas later remarried to Mattie Mowbra.

Thomas was probably best known for killing outlaw and gang leader Bill Doolin in August 1896. He later served for 7 years as the first police chief in Lawton, Oklahoma. In 1910 he was again appointed a deputy marshal for the Western District of Oklahoma.

Thomas died on August 14, 1912 in Lawton, Oklahoma, and was interred at Lawton's Highland Cemetery.


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      cwarden, thank you very much. It makes the effort worthwhile.

    • cwarden profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      What an interesting hub! I really enjoyed it and you did a wonderful job! Voted up :)

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I thank you both for your kind comments. This one took a while and a lot of effort.

    • Nils Visser profile image

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      This is great, as an honorary Okie, this is awesome. Voted as such (and up).

    • USHISTORY4YOU profile image

      Anthony Carrell 

      7 years ago from Lemoore California

      Very well written and informative.


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