Texas outlaw Sam Bass proved hard to catch and hard to kill back in July 1878, and following his dim, dusty treasure trail 134 years later is infinitely more elusive. One of the only things that can be certain about Bass is the outlaw’s death, witnessed and documented by the Texas Rangers who killed him in Round Rock, Texas.
Happy birthday, Sam Bass
Bass died on his twenty-seventh birthday on July 21, 1878, where fellow gang member Frank Jackson left him (at Sam’s request) propped against a tree, with bullet wounds in his hand, chest, back and groin. Many legends, some of them undoubtedly spurious, of lost treasure in the literature revolve around the final, dying whispers of repentant outlaws, eager to reveal their cache locations just before they succumb to justice recently delivered by a Winchester, a Colt or a Smith & Wesson. Bass, however, didn’t provide any tantalizing clues for treasure hounds with his dying words. Depending on whether you believe the doctor treating Bass’s wounds or the Texas Ranger guarding him, Bass either said, “The world is bobbing around me,” or “This world is a bubble—trouble wherever you go,” and then he closed his eyes and left the outlaw life behind forever.
Sam Bass, the legend
Dead outlaws, like artists, often enjoyed an immediate and lasting surge of Old West notoriety, their exploits enhanced by the tall tales of those who either knew them or claimed to—storytellers who longed for the notoriety that came from having rubbed elbows or lifted a whiskey glass with tough hombres who were no longer around to confirm or deny the allegations and exaggerations. According to Thomas Penfield in his book Dig Here, “The total value of the Sam Bass treasures, said to be buried in eight widely scattered spots in Texas, amounts to $355,000.” But Penfield points out that “all available records prove that Bass and his gang secured, at the most, only $70,000 from their hauls, and that $25,000 of this was recovered,” leaving “a mere $45,000 to be divided among the members of the gang.” Penfield’s point is valid, but $45,000 was still a lot of money in the 1870s.
Union Pacific payoff
Most of Bass’s outlaw earnings came from a single robbery on the clear, moonlit night of September 18, 1877, when Bass and his gang stuck up the Union Pacific Railroad at Big Springs, Nebraska, making off with $60,000 in newly minted 20-dollar gold coins, in addition to some jewelry and cash they relieved from the passengers. Looking to confuse their pursuers, the gang decided to split up. Here’s what happened next:
The bandits divided the gold coins six ways and then in pairs split up, each pair heading in a different direction. Joel Collins and his partner were shot and killed a week later. Another pair, composed of James Berry and Nixon, was split up and Berry was captured; Nixon, it is assumed, escaped with his share to Canada. The third pair, Sam and Jack Davis, rode south in a one horse buggy—their share of the haul stowed under the seat.
Sam Bass would wind up back in and around Denton, Texas, which he had called home since the age of 19, in 1870, having left his home state of Indiana, where he was born on July 21, 1851, to travel to Texas with dreams of being a cowboy. Instead, North and Central Texas would be where Sam Bass would leave his lasting mark on outlaw and treasure hunting lore.
Part two of this series (coming soon) looks at Sam Bass’s evolution from an aspiring cowboy to becoming one of the West’s most infamous, controversial, and, according to some, most generous outlaws.