King of the Cowboys: His Life and Times from the Hoo Doo War to Tombstone
By David Johnson
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2008 David Johnson
All rights reserved.
"A Hamlet among outlaws"
IN THE YEARS FOLLOWING HIS DEATH, John Ringo has fascinated readers. Ringo's legend "began to slowly sprout and take root" only four days after his death. The seeds of that legend were sown in Texas' bitter Hoo Doo War. At the time he was no different from dozens of other men engaged in the conflict, each with his own story. Yet unlike most of them, Ringo was destined to become a legend.
Walter Noble Burns can be credited with almost single-handedly popularizing John Ringo. From his pen emerged a tarnished knight errant who rode out of nowhere and died mysteriously. In 1927 Burns wrote, "John Ringo stalks through the stories of old Tombstone days like a Hamlet among outlaws, an introspective, tragic figure darkly handsome, splendidly brave, a man born for better things, who, having thrown his life recklessly away, drowned his memories in cards and drink and drifted without definite purpose or destination." With that single, emotional sentence, Burns set the stage for the romantic myth of John Ringo.
Unfortunately for history, Burns allowed his desire to write a marketable book interfere with historic truth. Tombstone, An Iliad of the Southwest mingled folklore with fact to the point that the entire volume is suspect. One writer characterizes the book as "seriously flawed." "When Walter Noble Burns wrote Tombstone in the style of his time, the question followed: Is this history or is it a novel?" In creating the mythical John Ringo, Burns also created a target for later historians and writers to either assail or glorify.
Ringo was far more than a creation of Burns, however. In the pre-Tombstone gunfighting West he was recognized and respected. John Wesley Hardin, Texas' number one shootist, made Ringo's acquaintance in the Travis County jail in Austin. Hardin apparently liked the man. William Preston Longley, a gunman of equal notoriety, also knew Ringo but disliked him. Any number of men tried to enhance their own reputations by boasting that they killed Ringo while he was passed out from a binge lasting several days. Little glory attaches itself to killing a sleeping man, and the historian must ask why so many have made the claim.
Part of the answer lies in Ringo's Texas years. He fought in the Hoo Doo War and arrived in Arizona with garbled accounts of that feud yapping at his heels. In his abbreviated account of the feud, Burns confused Ringo's actions with those of fellow feudist John Baird. "While he was little more than a boy, he became involved in a war between sheep and cattle men. His only brother was killed in the feud, and Ringo hunted down the three murderers and killed them." Burns doubtless drew that succinct and over-simplified version from one of his informants. It was what people in Arizona believed and, inaccurate as it was, Ringo could not escape his reputation. He was the feudist who destroyed his enemies, the remorseless gunman who killed savagely and emerged unscathed. In contrast, the men who knew Ringo generally liked him. Grace McCool, who interviewed Ringo's acquaintances, asserted, "All the old timers, who knew him, liked him, and spoke well of him."
For more than a century, John Ringo successfully eluded serious biographers. Never reluctant to let facts interfere with a good story, pulp writers and folklorists either invented or repeated settings and events that, given the dearth of factual evidence available, at times had the ring of truth. There is a copious amount of these fictions beginning in the 1920s and persisting to the present.
Unlike the knight errant portrayed by Burns, John Ringo did not ride out of nowhere. His family may well be one of the best-documented in America. They were Dutch Walloon in origin. Jerome B. Collins recognized the Dutch origin in 1880 when he referred to John Ringo as Ike Clanton's "Dutch friend." Ringo's name and lineage, however, have proven troubling to writers.
John Ringo's great-grandfather was Major Ringo, who with his wife Elizabeth Hazelrigg moved to Kentucky in mid-1789, ultimately settling in Montgomery County no later than 1797. He and Elizabeth had eleven children prior to his death in Montgomery County on July 15, 1838. Major Ringo's immediate family maintained close ties for several generations. One of his children, Peter Ringo, born June 29, 1791, was the grandfather of John Ringo.
Peter Ringo married Margaret Henderson on October 6, 1813. At least two children were born to them in Kentucky: Joel on September 27, 1814, and Elvira on April 5, 1816. The couple's next children, William H. born on November 24, 1817, and Martin Ringo, born on October 1, 1819, were reportedly born in Kentucky. This may be an error. By 1817 Peter Ringo had relocated to Wayne County, Indiana, where on October 7, 1817, John and Sarah Jones sold him a plot of land in Centerville for $130. Justice of the Peace Isaac Julian recorded it on October 13, 1817. This appears to establish William and Martin's birthplace as Indiana. Martin consistently listed his place of birth as Kentucky in all available records. The 1820 census places the Ringo family in Wayne County. This record notes four white males and two white females in the household and lists Peter's occupation as "manufacturing." The following year Albert H. Ringo was born on November 22.
The Ringos were founding members of the Centerville Methodist Episcopal church in 1823. The following year Peter served as county treasurer. On February 28, 1825, Peter purchased about eighty acres of land from Samuel and Sally Lough. At a sheriff's sale on April 10of the same year, Peter expanded his holdings. Several more children were born in Wayne County between 1820 and 1830: Hamilton on February 3, 1824; Melissa Jane on January 1, 1826; and Pugh on February 27, 1828.
The 1830 Census for Wayne County notes the Peter Ringos but reveals little beyond their ages. During the next decade three more children were added to the family: John on March 19, 1832; Martha Elizabeth on July 9, 1834; and Marshall C. on December 27, 1838. The Census for 1840 lists seven children of varying ages, three of whom were engaged in agriculture. The eldest Ringo children had moved on. Joel Ringo was in Arkansas, engaged in his medical practice and living in close proximity to his uncle, Daniel Ringo, who was serving as the first chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Joel and Daniel remained close, and Daniel's will refers to him as his "esteemed nephew" in whom he had "full and implicit confidence." Elvira had married John R. Funk on December 6, 1832, and by 1840 had three children of her own. William Ringo also moved to Arkansas where he was practicing law.
Peter Ringo prospered in Indiana. A description of his farm four miles northwest of Centerville noted, "It consists of One Hundred and Sixty Acres of Land, of good quality, and in a good state of repair. The improvements comprise a very good Barn, Dwelling and Outhouses, large Orchard, & c. There are a good Spring and Well near the house, and never failing stock water in almost every part of the farm. It is also very well timbered."
During the early 1840s Martin also left home. Possibly he went to Arkansas to visit his brothers. If so he did not remain long. Ultimately he went to Missouri where cousins, sons of Samuel H. Ringo, were well established. Martin apparently worked for his cousin, also named Samuel Ringo, for a time. Later Martin engaged in the mercantile trade that he undoubtedly learned at the firm of S. & A. H. Ringo. He and his cousins remained close throughout their lives. That business association apparently led to a more pleasurable one. In Liberty, Missouri, Martin met Mary Peters.
It has been stated that Mary and her sister Augusta, who married Coleman Younger, were twins. Another writer, aware that Mary had sisters, mentions Augusta by name, adding that she was an older sister. Both together arrive at the truth, as Mary was a twin, but not to Augusta. Her twin was Martha. Neither writer discusses the Peters family in depth, but Mary Peters eventually linked John Ringo to the Younger, James, and Dalton families. John's obituary has a garbled allusion to the kinship, calling him a "grandson" of Colonel Coleman Younger.
Mary's father John R. Peters was born in Woodford County, Kentucky, on February 15, 1797. In 1821 Peters married Frances A. Simms, moving to Liberty four years later. When Liberty was incorporated on May 4, 1829, Peters served on the first Board of Trustees. With him on the board was Samuel Ringo. The Peters family was well thought of in the community. John served for a time as sheriff of Clay County and justice of the peace.
John's wife, Frances Simms, was born August 24, 1796, to Richard and Elizabeth Ashby Simms. The couple had seven children: Vienna Strother, born May 22, 1822; Augusta, born September 26, 1823; Mary and Martha, twins, born November 13, 1826; Enfield S., born October 15, 1830; Ashby, born c. 1838; and William, born c. 1840.
Ringo's best known family tie came through his aunt Augusta Peters. On July 21, 1842, Augusta married a Presbyterian minister named James M. Inskeep who had been born in Virginia around 1809. The couple had two children, Florence, born around 1846, and a second child who died young. Later Augusta wed Coleman Younger, an uncle of the Younger brothers. Younger's half-sister, Adeline Lee, was the mother of the Dalton brothers.
The Ringos were also linked briefly to the James family through Mary's uncle, Benjamin A. Simms. Benjamin, born around 1800 in Virginia, served in the Regiment of Virginia Militia during the War of 1812. He married Mary Ann George on December 11, 1823, in Woodford County, Kentucky, before moving to Missouri. After Mary Ann's death, he married Zerelda Cole James. The marriage was short lived. The 1885 History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri, notes that "the chief trouble arose from the fact that her three little children, Frank, Jesse, and Susie, whom she had always humored and indulged, gave their old step-father no end of annoyance." Benjamin demanded that the children be sent away, and when Zerelda refused, the couple separated. One tradition notes "that Zerelda left Simms because he was mean to her sons." Simms died January 2, 1854, in Clay County.
In the spring of 1846 Mexico declared war on the United States. Martin Ringo enlisted June 7, 1846, in Company C, First Regiment, Doniphan's Missouri Mounted Infantry, for a term of one year. He was mustered into service at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with a horse valued at forty-five dollars. Martin Ringo's war record indicates that his horse failed at El Gardo, Mexico, for want of forage and was abandoned October 30, 1846.
Martin Ringo was now in harm's way. On the evening of February 8, 1847, Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan left El Paso del Norte aiming for the city of Chihuahua. As the force neared the Sacramento River, Doniphan learned that the Mexican Army "in great force, had fortified the pass of the Sacramento river." Doniphan was successful in gaining high ground and carried the day with minimal losses: one dead, one mortally wounded and seven men slightly wounded. The Mexican force lost three hundred men killed in the action and another three hundred wounded, many of whom died.
According to family sources, Martin participated in the battle of Sacramento, probably in one of the charges that captured redoubts flanking the enemy artillery. Despite the poor firearms carried by many of the Mexican forces, it was dangerous and bloody work. Martin Ringo's service during the Mexican War left him with a familiarity, if he had not already acquired it, with weapons and violent death. On June 21, 1847, he was honorably discharged at New Orleans. The following day he appeared in the First District Court of New Orleans and filed for 160 acres of "Bounty Land." He requested that the certificate be sent to him at Liberty, Clay County, Missouri. It was issued on September 9 of the same year.
When Martin reached Liberty he wasted no time in renewing his courtship of Mary Peters. The romance was marred by the death of Mary's mother on January 20, 1848, but on September 5 of that year the young couple wed in Clay County, Missouri. The Liberty Tribune announced "In this county, on Tuesday evening the 5th inst., by Rev. J. M. C. Inskeep, MARTIN RINGO, Esq., of Washington, Indiana, to Miss MARY, daughter of John R. Peters, Esq., of this county." Augusta's husband performed the service. The Ringos then headed for Indiana where they planned to establish their home.
Indiana, seventh in population of the United States, was largely an agricultural state. The population was concentrated in the southern part of the state and had strong ties to the South where most of the citizens had originated. Madison was the largest city, with a population of 9,000. Indianapolis was second with 8,000. By 1850 the fires that ignited the Civil War had been kindled. Strongly unionist, Indiana was resolved to remain in the Union even if they had to swallow some unpalatable conditions. Ultimately the state chose a middle course, evidenced by Governor Joseph A. Wright's denunciation of both the Northeast and the South.
One of the major issues dominating Indiana politics during the period was discrimination. The Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery, but while Indiana remained a territory, a strong pro-slavery element successfully contravened the ordinance. Slavery was finally abolished in 1816 when strong anti-slavery forces drafted the state constitution. The constitution not only prohibited slavery, but also declared, "No alteration of this Constitution shall ever take place so as to introduce slavery or involuntary servitude." The state supreme court ruled that the constitution effectively outlawed the practice, and by 1820 slavery in Indiana had ceased to exist. The abolition of slavery did not end racial prejudice, and a code of infamous "Black Laws" was enacted.
Not everyone in the state agreed with the concept of discrimination. Chief among the opponents of those despicable conditions were the Quakers of Wayne, Randolph, and Henry counties who worked to repeal the Black Laws. In September 1838, the Anti-Slavery Society wasorganized in Wayne County at Milton. It was followed in 1841 by the Wesleyan Anti-Slavery Society, which also originated in Wayne County.
Politics in Indiana was a serious affair in 1850. Methodist clergyman Frederick J. Johnson in 1857 recalled a visit to Indianapolis. "Though moderate and temperate men in other matters, in politics they are most resolute and determined." Johnson noted further that the citizens had "no forbearance" towards anyone with a diverging view. It was amidst this era of change that John Ringo was born in 1850.
"passionate, domineering and dangerous"
WAYNE COUNTY WAS IN A STATE OF FLUX during 1850. In addition to the anti-prejudice movements, there were temperance and women's suffrage movements. The latter movement was first organized in Wayne County. Meeting at Dublin in 1851, a group of militant women formed the Women's Rights Association, declaring "that unless women demand their rights politically, socially and financially, they will continue in the future as in the past, to be classed with negroes, criminals, insane persons, idiots and infants."
John Ringo was born in Clay Township in Wayne County, officially created in May 1831 on petition from Thomas Hatfield and others. The date of his birth and the precise name of Ringo's birthplace proved troubling to his biographers, at least in part because both the place name and its spellings changed. One biographer refers to the town as Greenfork. Another states that Ringo was born in Green Fork on March 3, 1850, noting that the town had previously been known as Washington Village. Ringo researcher Allen Erwin also mistakenly gave the date of John's birth as March 3, placing it at Greensfork. Still another Ringo biographer places Ringo's birth at "Washington (Clay Township), Wayne County, Indiana." Since it was first created in the early 1800s the town has had many names. Even today the name is routinely misspelled.
The settlement was originally designated Westfield, but in 1818 it was renamed Washington in honor of the first president. During the late 1860s the name was changed to Green's Fork because another Washington already existed in Daviess County, Indiana. In time the name was shortened to Greens Fork, which it officially remains today. It may be the only town in America that once had the name of a distinguished president but was "renamed in honor of a reputed murderer." (Continues...)
Excerpted from John Ringo by David Johnson. Copyright © 2008 David Johnson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.