“No one imagined that Muskogee was to lose a good citizen and the Territory one of the bravest of officers.”
The Indian Journal – December 29, 1886
In the hours leading up to Christmas Day 1886, Muskogee was crowded with trail hands, farmers, drifters and families. Mothers with their children in hand filtered in and out of the various stores that lined Main Street to shop. Upon exiting the businesses they would stop to admire the few displays in the windows. Most of the people visiting the mercantile, restaurants and hotels on December 23 and 24 were primarily interested in horse racing. They hurried back and forth from the two mile long stretch of track outside of town carrying food, alcohol and cash. Men laid money out recklessly on long-legged, sleepy-eyed geldings, some with United States Army brandings on their rump. Spectators stood on either side of the unmarked track anxiously waiting for the races to begin. Horses and riders lined up for the ‘dropped flag’ start. The shouts and cheers from the onlookers nearly drowned out the sound of the animals’ pounding hooves hurrying toward the finishing mark.
Dick Vann was among the enthusiastic group enjoying the festivities. Whenever the horse he bet on won he would celebrate with a round of thunderous applause and a long swig off a half-empty bottle of whiskey. Alf Cunningham had had his share of drinks during the event and he and Dick took turns slapping one another on the back each time their wager paid off and laughing uproariously at their good fortune.
By early afternoon on Christmas Eve both men were well on their way to getting drunk. They were belligerent with anyone jockeying for a better position to see the races than they had and were not immune from spitting in the face of people who celebrated a win when they had lost. Vann had finished off his bottle of whiskey and persuaded Cunningham to return to a place in town that would sell them more bootleg alcohol. Heavy grey clouds hung over the busy hamlet. A great V-shaped mass of ducks and Canadian geese flying south passed overhead of the two as they walked away from the race track. The whole sky was filled with the soft whir of wings. Cunningham removed a gun tucked inside his coat pocket, pointed it at the birds and pretended to shoot. Amused with himself, Cunningham laughed at his playful antics. Vann was too distracted by the sight of Tom Kennard, a Creek Lighthorseman to do more than grin.
Kennard stood in the doorway of the Commercial Hotel surveying the plethora of activity around him. Vann watched the officer carefully, then crossed to the other side of the street to avoid coming in contact with him. Unaware that anything was out of the ordinary at first, Cunningham followed after his brother-in-law. When he spotted Kennard he slowed down. Deciding against continuing on with Vann, he crossed the street to the lawman. Cunningham wore a contemptuous look as he approached Kennard. The bitterness he had for the law grew with magnificent intensity as he drew closer to the Lighthorseman. Kennard, a descendant of black slaves once owned by the Creek Indians, saw Cunningham walking towards him, but did not anticipate any trouble.
Without hesitating, Cunningham jerked his gun out and pointed it at the lawman’s face. He swore angrily at Kennard and threatened to kill him. Neither calm reasoning nor the promise of jail could persuade Cunningham to lower his weapon. A passerby, Mrs. Renfoe (wife of the town butcher), witnessed the exchange, grabbed the pistol and before Cunningham was able to wrench it free, Kennard drew his own gun. He brought the butt of the weapon down hard on the cursing assailant’s head and Cunningham collapsed at his feet. Kennard took the gun away from him and left him where he fell.
Cunningham came to a few hours later. In the near distance he could hear whistling, hand clapping and the sound of horses’ hooves galloping down the race track. The crowd that had congregated in town to celebrate the season had thinned considerably. No one around seemed the slightest bit concerned about whether Cunningham was face down in the dirt or not. People had cut a wide swatch around him to avoid any contact with the known trouble maker. After inspecting the lump on his skull, he got to his feet. He was rattled, but not enough to stay put. He dusted off his clothes then proceeded in the direction of the track.
As the stillness of a starry night crept up on Muskogee, Vann and Cunningham were seen together again wandering in and out of businesses in the process of closing. Cunningham relayed the tale of his encounter with Kennard to Vann and both men were infuriated with the officer and every other Lighthorsemen in the Nation. The memory of what happened to Jess Nicholson and Black Hoyt was still fresh in their minds. The men needed guns to do what they felt needed to be done. They tried to purchase a pistol from Turner & Byrnes’ Hardware, but were turned away by the owner of the store, C.F. Byrnes. Undeterred, they walked to the popular Mitchell House and went inside. Ray Farmer, the owner of the hotel, was too preoccupied with his job to notice the two enter and didn’t see Cunningham steal his shotgun. The two left the establishment determined to use the weapon they had acquired.
City Marshal Shelley Keyes was making his appointed rounds when Vann and Cunningham swaggered out of the Mitchell House in front of him. Cunningham raised the shotgun he was carrying to Keyes’s face. The lawman instinctively held up his hands. Vann eyed the pistol on Keyes’s hip and before the officer had a chance to object, he jerked it out of his holster. They left Keyes with his arms in the air and a bewildered look plastered across his face. He watched them disappear into the alleyways and dark corners of the buildings.
Drunk on the courage the guns gave them, Vann and Cunningham scanned the vicinity for Lighthorseman Kennard. One of Muskogee’s most well-known citizens, Armistead Cox noticed the two men walking down the street and caught a glimpse of the weapons they were toting as they passed by an eatery called King’s Restaurant. Cox wasn’t completely sure, but he thought he saw the butt of the shotgun tucked under Cunningham’s arm with the barrel pointed downward. The men continued on their way and there was no chance for a second look.
Captain Sixkiller was purchasing medicine at Dr. M.F. William’s drugstore when Vann and Cunningham arrived on the scene. The lawman wasn’t on duty, he had plans to take his family to a service at the Methodist church, but first he had to get rid of the headache he was suffering from. He had been sick for one reason or another since late November after returning home from a trip to Fort Smith. In early December, he and Fannie traveled to Vinita to visit family. The hope was that his health would be restored during that time, but they were forced to come home on December 15, 1886, because the captain wasn’t getting any better.
As Captain Sixkiller stepped out into the street he saw the shadowy image of the armed men. They were silhouetted against the light from the hotel and butcher shop across the street. The captain was unarmed and had no reason to believe Vann and Cunningham were carrying weapons. He wasn’t intimidated in the least. As he walked toward the pair one of them called out his name. Vann then shouted, “You’d never do that to me again.” Suddenly Cunningham fired the shotgun at the officer. Captain Sixkiller sprang forward before the full force of the shotgun shell made contact. He knocked the gun out of Cunningham’s hands and fell to the ground. A few pellets had riddled his clothing, but none had penetrated the skin. Before the lawman could defend himself, Vann drew his pistol and fired four times. Blood oozed from the lawman’s chest and head. All four bullets had met their target.
Captain Sixkiller staggered a bit then dropped to his hands and knees. Vann pulled the hammer back on the gun again and shot him one more time. The lawman groaned as the fatal wound fought against every internal organ to keep from working. The captain winched in pain as he exhaled. One of the murderers leaned over his body as he breathed his last breath; when it was over the shooters fled.
Rancher H.B. Spaulding and Armistead Cox were the first to arrive at the scene of the crime, followed by a gentleman named Nip Blackstone and the butcher, Jim Renfro. Cox checked to see if Captain Sixkiller was still alive. He knew by looking at his injured skull it wasn’t possible, but he had to be sure. It was a gruesome sight. The lawman had a hole in his face under his left cheekbone and it was covered with powder burns from being shot at close range. The clothing around his waist was saturated with blood; a pair of bullets was lodged into his abdomen.
City Marshal Keyes watched the men surround the deceased captain from across the street. He was overcome with guilt for letting the renegades get the best of him and take his gun. In an effort to conceal his identity from Vann and Cunningham and anyone else who might have witnessed the exchange, he turned his coat inside out and removed his hat. A reporter for the Cherokee Advocate who spotted Keyes noted “it seemed as though he might like to contract for a cast iron suit of clothes.”
Captain Sixkiller’s lifeless frame was transported to the undertaker’s office and his body was prepared for burial. His wife Fannie and his children learned of the shocking news from the men who handled the lawman’s remains. Fannie was inconsolable. Captain Sixkiller’s killing was a hard truth for the community to accept as well. The loss was immediately felt throughout the entire Indian Nation. Recognized as being the “head and heart of the Indian police,” the public demanded swift justice.
On Saturday morning December 26, writs were issued for the killers and given to four United States marshals, Frank Dalton, Tyson Greenbury, James Campbell and H.J. Hayes. The writs read “Dick Vann and Alf Cunningham feloniously, willfully and premeditatedly, and with malice and forethought, killed and murdered Samuel Sixkiller a Cherokee Indian.” For twenty-four hours the marshals searched vigorously for the murderers but could not locate them. An additional search took place on Monday, December 28, 1886. Captain Sixkiller’s brothers Martin and Luke joined the posse along with three other members of the Lighthorsemen. The men decided to look for the runaway killers in the thick bottoms of Gooseneck Bend, ten miles east of Muskogee. It was the area Vann had traveled to in 1884, when he was trying to escape justice for the attempted murder of John Hammer.
The December 29, 1886, edition of the Indian Journal newspaper reported that after Vann and Cunningham had killed the captain “they ran half leisurely down Main Street, turned the corner and passed the billiard hall as they headed out of town. Saturday night it was noted they attempted to lodge with an acquaintance named John Lowery who objected to them staying with him. Vann tried to change his mind by showing him the pistol he had and in the process the weapon discharged accidentally, the bullet going across the end of his thumb.”
While the police continued their search for killers, several letters of condolence were sent to Captain Sixkiller’s widow and his family. One of the letters Fannie received was from the chairman and secretary of the Missouri-Pacific Railway, Thomas Furlong and John J. Kinney. “Dear Madam: I was deeply pained to learn from this morning’s paper of the sad calamity that had befallen you in the untimely and cruel death of your late husband. My wife and family desire with me to tender you our sincere sympathy in your terrible affliction.” In addition to the letter, Furlong forwarded a resolution adopted by the railroad secret service. The resolution was adopted to express the rail line’s sentiment relative to Captain Sixkiller’s tragic death.
“Whereas, by the hands of murderous assassins our esteemed friend Captain Sam Sixkiller has been taken from our midst, and while submitting to the all-wise and inscrutable Providence, we desire to express our sentiments, respecting this to us an irreparable loss of a tried and true friend, and to the United States Government a brave, honest and competent officer. Therefore, we, the members of the Missouri-Pacific Railway Secret Service Department at St. Louis assembled, deeply deplore the cruel and untimely death of our esteemed friend, Captain Sam Sixkiller, who endeared himself to the members of this department by his uniform kindness and invaluable assistance rendered us in the discourage of our duties, and while our grief in itself is great at the loss of our esteemed friend, we realize that the loss of such an exemplary husband and father is immeasurable, and therefore we desire to convey to his family our heartfelt sympathy in this their greatest hour of affliction.”
More than two thousand mourners attended Captain Sixkiller’s funeral the Sunday after he was killed. The services were conducted at the Methodist Church and the eulogy delivered by Cherokee leaders from Tahlequah. The church could not contain the friends who gathered to pay their respects. According to the December 29, 1886, edition of the Indian Journal, “people from nearly every part of the eastern portion of the territory attended the last rites.”
Newspaper editors throughout the Nation praised Captain Sixkiller for his heroism and courage. An editor for the Indian Chieftain in Vinita wrote in an article that “a man with so little thought of danger should fall by violence seemed in no way strange.” The Indian Journal editor noted “the Captain has done probably more than any one person to free the railroad towns of this Territory of their dangerous and reckless elements, and to him the country owes a great degree the comparative security to life and property that it now enjoys.” In a report made to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, Indian agent Robert L. Owen commended Captain Sixkiller noting that “he died a martyr to the cause of law and order and had the respect and confidence of all the decent people in the country particularly of men like Honorable Isaac C. Parker, U.S. Judge of this district….”
The procession that accompanied Captain Sixkiller’s remains to the cemetery was staggering and a testimony to how much people thought of him. The crowd on hand at the graveyard was one of the largest ever assembled in that section of the country.
The men responsible for the death of the revered Captain Sixkiller were two of the most wanted men in the Nation. A $1,500 reward was offered for their arrest. Friends of both Dick Vann and Alf Cunningham made it known that the men had every intention of turning themselves in to authorities and added that the pair were willing to stand trial, even though they believed Captain Sixkiller’s associates would distort the facts in their case and make sure they were prosecuted in the bitter end. Vann and Cunningham wanted to wait ten days before surrendering themselves to the law. The nearly two week span of time was to ensure tempers had cooled and that the public was ready to hear their side of the incident. Numerous officers were on the trail of Vann and Cunningham and were convinced the pair would be apprehended before the ten days had ended.
Vann and Cunningham were charged with the crime of murder by a Creek Indian court. When or if they were caught they were to be turned over to Creek authorities. According to the compact existing between the Creek and Cherokee Nation, the Creek Nation had jurisdiction over the case. If Vann and Cunningham were arrested in the Cherokee Nation they would have to be extradited to the Creek Nation to stand trial. Judge Parker wanted to help bring the fugitives to justice, but as all the parties involved in the murder were Cherokee, the federal court had no jurisdiction in the matter.
After carefully considering the specifics of the case, the Judge determined the only way the federal government could assist in arresting Alf Cunningham would be to go after him for theft. The gun he had taken from the owner of the Mitchell House qualified as stealing, a crime well within Judge Parker’s right to handle. He issued a writ giving his deputy marshals the authority to arrest Cunningham on a larceny charge. The murder charge took precedent over the crime of stealing. If the deputy marshals managed to apprehend Cunningham they would turn him over to the proper court.
While the hunt for the captain’s assassins was in progress, another man was named to the slain lawman’s post. William Fields, a U.S. marshal and the former city marshal of Tahlequah, was Captain Sixkiller’s successor. He was an accomplished officer who knew filling the vacancy left by his beloved predecessor would be a daunting task. Several months after the death of Captain Sixkiller newspapers were still praising his work. “There never was before and there never was afterwards an officer like Captain Sam Sixkiller,” the February 24, 1887, edition of the Muskogee Phoenix reported. “He was as handsome as an Apollo Belvedere; if there is a race born without fear, Sixkiller belonged to it. He had a figure like Mars divestible of immortality. It was worth a hundred miles travel to see Sixkiller seated in his saddle, straight as Tecumseh: perhaps no man ever had a more complete mastery over a horse than the gallant captain.”
Captain Sixkiller’s widow and children struggled with the loss of their loved one. His brothers had joined in the quest to track down his killers and his sisters, sons and daughters helped comfort their mother and care for the family home. A note on a picture of the captain hanging on the wall in the house reminded relatives how he was quickly taken from them: “Captain Sixkiller was gunned down in Muskogee by Alf Cunningham and Dick Vann.”