The Texas bandit from Denton, 1851-1878.
Denton's infamous "Robin Hood on a fast horse"
Sam Bass is a Texas outlaw legend, immortalized in the cowboy campfire "Ballad of Sam Bass" and countless fictionalized tales of the Wild West frontier. Although cloaked in folklore, few disagree that Sam's legend begins in Denton.
Born on a farm near Mitchell, Indiana, on July 21, 1851 to Daniel and Elizabeth Jane (Sheeks) Bass, Sam was orphaned before he was thirteen and spent five years at the home of an uncle before he ran away in 1869. He briefly worked in a sawmill at Rosedale, Mississippi before deciding to strike out for the cattle country in the late summer of 1870 and arrived in Denton, Texas, by early fall. Young orphan Sam handled horses in the stables of the Lacy House hotel on the Denton Square and later worked for Denton County Sheriff William F. ‘Uncle Bill’ Egan caring for livestock, cutting firewood, building fences, and spending time as a freighter between Denton County and the railroad towns of Dallas and Sherman. Bass soon became enamored with horse racing and, after acquiring a fleet filly that became known across Texas as “The Denton Mare” in 1874, he turned his attention to professional racing and gambling after an ultimatum from Egan (who would later hunt the outlaw). The Denton courthouse on the square mysteriously burned in 1875 and suspicion fell to Sam's ne'er-do-well associate Henry Underwood, who was arrested but later released due to insufficient evidence.
Competing his speedy mare around the territories, the charming rogue quickly fell in with thieving scoundrels headed north after squandering earnings and in 1877 he and the Collins brothers along with three others held up an eastbound Union Pacific passenger train in Big Springs, Nebraska. The gang stole a jaw-dropping sum of $60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces (still to this day the largest single robbery of the Union Pacific Railroad) and $1,300 plus four gold watches from the passengers. After dividing the loot, the bandits decided to go in pairs in different directions so Sam made his way back to Denton County disguised as an itinerant farmer. The fate of Sam’s impressive cut of the heist has fueled treasure-hunter legends about hidden gold in “Sam Bass’ Cave” for years, since by 1878 his Sam Bass Gang quickly resumed a crime wave of robbing stagecoaches and trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas while hiding out in the thickets of the rural Denton County area. The Lacy House Hotel on the Denton Square was a familiar and frequent haunt, and the rural residents of Denton were known to harbor and aid their beloved outlaw hero during what came to be known as "The Bass Wars."
Within mere months, the Sam Bass Gang were soon wanted outlaws who led the Texas Rangers and railway-hired Pinkerton Men on a spirited chase across North Texas. Before Sam met his legendary end in Round Rock, Texas on his twenty-seventh birthday later that year, however, there was a very notable "drunken dare on the Square" with his pursuers on the Denton Square. (There are also accounts of Sam Bass’ ghost continuing to haunt Denton County in search of his hidden gold and to torment the lingering spirit of his ‘Judas‘ Jim Murphy)! The legend was immortalized in the cowboy Ballad of Sam Bass, making him a Texas hero.