Many people who have grown up in Fort Worth have heard of Longhair Jim Courtright, the three-term marshal (1876-1879) who died in a shootout with gambler Luke Short in front of the White Elephant Saloon in 1887.
Hardly anyone knows that the ex-marshal was also the star witness in an investigation into another shootout, the Buttermilk Junction ambush on April 3, 1886.
It was part of the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886. The ex-marshal was pressed into service by city marshal and old friend William Rea as a “special officer” and deputized by Mayor John Peter Smith, not so much as a peacekeeper but to guard Texas & Pacific property.
He in turn selected seven additional deputies whose only qualification was being “friends of Jim.” Together they would escort a strike-busting train to Alvarado, 27 miles south of Fort Worth. When the train got to Buttermilk Junction, two miles outside of town, it was ambushed by a group of eight or nine men armed with Winchesters.
Courtright and his crew only carried six-shooters. Three of his men went down in the gun battle that followed. They were loaded onto the train, which then backed all the way into town. One of the wounded deputies, Dick Townsend died that night, and the other two were in serious condition.
Courtright’s reputation took a beating due to the fact that he had been in charge and it was he who ordered the precipitous retreat. The San Antonio Light laid the blame for what it called the “Fort Worth massacre” squarely on Courtright’s shoulders. He did not wear it well.
Alarmed city fathers called in the Texas Rangers and state militia, who placed the city under martial law. Uncle Sam was involved only peripherally. Although Courtright was a U.S. deputy marshal who had been fired on, Washington was more concerned that the trains carried the U.S. mail, and the strike had stopped the trains.
And even though the Buttermilk Junction train hadn’t been carrying any mail, the attack still constituted an assault on a U.S. government agent. So, Congress took a personal interest. The House of Representatives formed a committee to investigate the strike, and they headed west, splitting up into several subcommittees to cover the several states involved.
The subcommittee that headed to Fort Worth was chaired by Texas Congressman W.H. Crain. They arrived in Fort Worth on May 7 and went to work that same day. In two long sessions stretching over two days, they interviewed a number of men, including Jim Courtright.
When asked to describe the fight, Courtright explained how he and his deputies had heroically defended the train after being fired on by the “strikers.” Others were not so sure which side fired first. After two grueling sessions, the congressmen packed up and headed back to Washington. A few days later the strike was resolved peacefully, but Courtright’s time in the hot seat was not done.
On Jan. 15, 1887, he was called again to testify, this time as a state witness in the bond hearing for bushwhacker Henry Henning. Courtright’s testimony this time did not match what he had said eight months earlier. At the hearing, he stated that Deputy Dick Townsend had been shot in the back at point-blank range, something the evidence contradicted and no one else had ever claimed.
Other testimony revealed that Courtright had spent most of the gun battle hugging the ground for safety, not organizing a defense or returning fire. Henning was remanded to jail until trial, no thanks to Courtright. Later another captured bushwhacker told officers that Courtright had been their primary target. The fact that he had escaped without a scratch strongly suggested to some that he may have been present, but he was not in the fight.
At Henning’s trial, the defense used Courtright’s subcommittee testimony to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, not enough to win acquittal but enough to embarrass the ex-marshal.
The next ambusher brought to trial was their leader, John Hardin, who was acquitted. The Dallas Morning News blamed the prosecution’s failure to secure a conviction largely on Courtright’s ignoble part in the affair. His testimony was inconsistent, and his reputation was in tatters.
But by then Jim Courtright was no longer around. Luke Short had taken care of that on the night of Feb. 8, 1887. Sadly, Courtright had outlived his legend.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.