The story of Bill Wilson has been told throughout the Ozark Mountains since he began his bloody career in 1861 to the present day. He is a true folk hero. The Ozarks were full of men who took to the bush and waged a single man to a small gang warfare on the union soldiers, red legs, jayhawkers and spies for the Union. Although there were a lot of these men, if someone said, “The Bushwhacker,” “The Great Bushwhacker,” or the “Famous Bushwhacker,” everyone knew that they were talking about Bill Wilson. His daring deeds are still considered miracles due to his never being wounded once. He is remembered for his superior skill with revolvers and clever tactics in surprising his enemies. The writings and movie about Josie Wales are based on the real bushwhacker, Bill Wilson.
Bill Wilson was born around 1830 in Phelps County, Missouri. His father, Sol Wilson, was a very well-to-do farmer who owned several slaves, but freed them before the Civil War. Sol remained neutral and advised his children to do the same.
At 6’2” tall and 185 pounds with black curly hair and bright blue eyes, Bill was a very striking man. Because of his fun loving personality and skill at playing the violin, he was always in demand for weddings and parties. Bill was never without at least two forty-four caliber six shooters. This was not uncommon in the mountains at that time.
In the summer of 1861, some horses were stolen from the U.S. Government by a guerilla gang. Bill was accused of the deed. He was questioned, but maintained his innocence. A few days later, while he was away from home, a group of Union soldiers, Jayhawkers and Red Legs rode to his house, ejected his family, took everything he had, and set fire to his house, barn and outbuildings. Bill moved his family into a one room cabin on his mother’s farm and started on his quest. Bill Wilson became, “The Bushwhacker.”
Bodies started turning up everywhere. Sometimes disguised as a Union soldier, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of other bushwhackers, Bill was always a very dangerous man. Even when alone, Bill Wilson claimed to have three friends with him, his best horse and two six shooters. He was constantly in pistol practice and most of it from the back of a horse.
Bushwhacker Bill found out from a neighbor, Mary A. Arthur, that four Union soldiers had been by her place looking for him. He knew that they had to come back the same route to get to their headquarters at Rolla, Missouri. He hid and watched the trail. When they approached, he stepped onto the road, stopped them, drew both revolvers and killed all four of them. This surprise was their shock and his edge. After Mrs. Arthur identified the soldiers, Bill removed them from her property and led away four government horses.
On one occasion, Bill rode his horse from a main trail to the Little Piney River and back several times. He then rode up stream, crossed the river, came back down, and rode back and fourth to the river across from his original tracks. This made it look like a crossing. There was quicksand between the two trails. He got several soldiers after him on the road, took the trail, and then left it, tricking the soldiers into riding into the quicksand. Many soldiers and horses were drowned that day.
At a Union soldier’s reunion, several years after the war, a favorite story was that of three soldiers trying to trap Bill. Due to his love for turkey hunting, they slipped as close to the Bushwhacker’s camp as they dared and started making turkey sounds. Bill caught on and slipped up hill in order to change locations. He started calling. Thinking it was a turkey answering them, the soldiers were drawn in. Soon all of the soldiers dreaded going after Mr. Wilson.
Bushwhacker Jim Deem and his father were killed by soldiers. Hearing of this, Bill immediately set up in a rock shed next to the road close to the Deem home. He shaved his long beard to change his appearance. This was his edge. When the soldiers arrived, they asked him if he had seen Bill Wilson.
The Bushwhacker said, “You are looking at him.”
All five pulled their revolvers and Bill killed the other four. Mrs. Deem identified them and Bill removed them from her property, leading away four government horses.
More soldiers, scouts and spies were set afield looking for bushwhackers. One of them was James Butler Hickok (Wild Bill). They just couldn’t catch Bill Wilson.
Once three soldiers were guarding a mill house with Bill inside. He watched and when one started lighting his pipe, Bill decided that this distraction was all the edge he needed. He rushed them, killing all three. He again led away government horses.
On another occasion, Bill was working with Bushwhacker Tom Brown. They ended up in a running gunfight with soldiers. Tom slowed down and killed several, but his horse took too many bullets and Tom was killed. Bill always talked about telling Tom not to try that due to there being too many, but it may have been that Tom didn’t have enough horse or that his horse had already taken bullets.
Once Bill followed a government supply train and after they made camp, charged in on his horse and killed what he could while others ran away. It is unknown how many he killed on this raid, but it was said to be his highest number yet. Bill Wilson robbed and burned many wagon trains by charging in. This surprised attack was all the edge he needed.
Sometimes Bill Wilson rode with Bushwhackers Dick Kitchen, Anthony Wright and Jim Jamison. They were all natives of the Ozark Mountains in Phelps County, Missouri. Together they did much damage to the Union army in the area.
Anthony Wright was the son of former Presiding Justice Lewis F. Wright. Anthony hid food stuffs taken in a train robbery under his father’s house. It was found by soldiers. After questioning Anthony’s father and four brothers, and not learning anything, all five were shot in front of Anthony’s mother. They were all innocent.
After the war, rewards were posted for Anthony, Dick, Jim and Bill. Anthony Wright moved a few times and many years later died of old age in Oklahoma. Dick Kitchen moved to Evening Shade, Arkansas and ran a harness shop. A spy gained his confidence and killed him with one of his own guns. Jim Jamison was pardoned by Governor Crittenden and became a peace officer in Kansas and finally a Texas Ranger. Bill Wilson went to Texas and his wife received a letter stating that he was killed for his wealth. Everyone believed that this was contrived to allow the Bushwhacker to change his name and avoid bounty hunters. It was thought that no one could kill him. His wife did re-marry, but soon moved back to the home that Bill bought just before going to Texas.
Mountain people of the Ozarks maintained a code of “mind your own business.” They didn’t readily take anyone into their confidence. In 1939 a book, Bushwhacker - A True History of Bill Wilson, Missouri’s Greatest Desperado was written by a descendent of friends and neighbors of the famous bushwhacker. Even though the author grew up in Phelps County, he never found out that these bushwhackers were associated with Partisan Rangers under Colonel William Clarke Quantrill. During the winter and when not active in Missouri, they were in North Texas. He only found out that Jim Jamison guided Quantrill while the Rangers were in Missouri.
One may wonder what the bushwhackers did with all the U.S. horses they stole. Easy answer. Quantrill and General Joe Shelby were in constant need of re-mounts. Horses were a great contribution to their cause.
After the war, there was a $300 bounty on bushwhackers. Bill Wilson went to Texas waiting on things to settle down. In March, 1865 Dave Poole, Arch Clement, Jim Anderson and 144 other Quantrill Rangers moved to Sherman, Texas. Wilson was probably one of this group. Captain Dave Poole stayed in Sherman and became a successful rancher, spending a lot of his time brokering pardons for many of the Rangers. Bill would not take the oath, but did make many trips back to Missouri visiting his family.
In the movie, Josie Wales, Josie arrives in Texas, goes into a store, is shown a death picture of Simp Dixon and is told that Bob Lee is still fighting in Fannin County. Actually, Simp wasn’t killed until one year after both Bob Lee and Bill Wilson were killed. Also, there are no known pictures of Simp Dixon. The one used in the movie was that of Bill Doolin, killed many years later. When Simp Dixon left North Texas, a Missouri Partisan Ranger, Sam Stone, let him set up an ambush in Stone’s woodlot to kill Judge Hardin Hart. Hart was not killed, but did lose his left arm to a shotgun blast. This happened five miles south of Bonham, Texas. Dixon went south tracking Lewis Peacock, Bob Lee’s nemesis, and was killed near Fort Parker. He is buried close to Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother, and her family.
The saloon/bordello/gambling house in the movie would have been that belonging to Jim, “Jim Crow” Chiles. Mr. Chiles was burnt out in Missouri before the war and moved his family to Sherman, Texas. He was an uncle of President Harry Truman and had met Quantrill while a wagon master on the Santa Fe Trail. He rode with both Quantrill and General Joe Shelby. All the Rangers frequented his place while in Sherman.
While the movie Josie Wales had minor historical inaccuracies, it had many parallels to the life of the Bushwhacker Bill Wilson. The one big surprise came towards the end of the movie when “Jim Crow” Chiles told the two police officers who were on the great outlaw roundup, that Josie’s name was “Mr. Wilson.”
Bill Wilson was probably living around Sherman, Texas after the war. He sold a wagon load of apples in McKinney, Texas and was paid in greenbacks. The transaction was observed by John Thompson and William O. Blackmore, both ex-Missouri Partisan Rangers. Bill headed north a short distance and spent the night at the home of J. B. Wilmeth. The next morning he continued north through Van Alstyne. Thompson and Blackmore over took him one mile north of Van Alstyne where now Highway 5 crosses a branch of Prong Creek. There they shot him several times, robbed him, and buried him in a shallow grave. After these men were caught, they confessed and were tried and convicted. Both were hanged at 1:00 p.m. on March 26, 1869 in Sherman, Texas.
So ends the Great Bushwhacker Bill Wilson. “Maybe no five pistoleers alive that could kill him,” but two ex-comrades in arms did get the drop on him.
Was he exhumed and buried in a cemetery or left by the road covered with a little dirt and brush? His descendents would like to know. They have made attempts to locate his burial site in order to relocate anything found to a family cemetery in Missouri.
Ronnie Atnip is a twenty year member of the Fannin County Historical Commission, a hobby historian and member of the Bob Lee Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Bonham, Texas.