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The William Bates Story

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An early photo of Central Avenue in Fairfield, Montana. Notice that you can read part of "Fairfield Drug Co." on the side of a building on the left-hand side of the photo. Fairfield Drug is today located on the right-hand side, nearer to the camera position.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some time back, I was visiting with Sylvia Waters in the office here at the Sun Times. We were talking about Fairfield history as well as the history of her family. Sylvia was showing me one of her collections... documents, photos, news clippings, etc.... when Sylvia showed me this story about William Bates. We hope you enjoy this story, a letter written by an outlaw to his young son.

Forward by Lyle Henry Davis

The Iron Horse had crossed the northern plains.  The Indian Wars were over with Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn in southern Montana.  The Wright Brothers had carved their way into history books with their flight at Kitty Hawk, and the automobile was emerging.  The old West was rapidly fading and a new west was dawning.

Montana Territory had gained statehood in 1889. Vigilante justice had given way to law and order.  The Homestead Act had passed Congress and the emigrants were coming from far and near to claim the untamed land.  Most were honest sod busters, cattlemen and sheep men, but a few were left-over outlaws from days gone by.  Following is the story of such an outlaw as written in a letter to his son.

I have failed miserably in my endeavors to live down the past, and make a man of myself, the kind of man my father wanted his young son to be.  I have tried to forget the hideous past and live each day as it comes.  Many good resolutions that I have made in the past have come to naught.

I feel that I owe a message to others that may help someone to keep out of this rut into which I have fallen.  In what should be the morning of my life, I am old and gray.  I cannot forget, so I shall try now in my lonely hours to remember each and little detail that I may write them in a message.  It is far better to tell the truth and run, than to lie and get caught at it.  Of all the wild oats sown, none are used for breakfast food.

As I sit down alone in this little cottage, an outlaw, who has never known success and riches; I re-live with sorrow and regret, the sufferings of the past.

I am at heart a fighter, a lover of nature and a believer of all that does good.  “No I am not writing this as a farewell message.  As long as I can keep this body above ground, as long as I can keep from behind those gray walls of stone, I shall keep trying.  It is only the weak who give up when all looks black before them.  While God permits me to live, I shall have hope still.

I have but to close my eyes to see the sheriff and his posse men.  I can see the guns as they were held ready to shoot should I but make a move.  Well, men you have got me so there is no need trying to talk out of it.  Yes; I am the fellow you want, and it sounds good to a man to hear his own name after living (or trying to live) under an assumed name.  These were words of surrender.

I well knew that to return with these men could mean but one thing, the gallows for me; as  I had in a moment of self- defense while making my last robbery, shot a man who died later.  So I was not surprised when the sheriff warned his men to take no chances with me at all.  He is an ex-convict with a bad record and will take any desperate chance that he thinks he has, and he had my number right.

I knew that in cunning good behavior lay my only hope of escape.  It was with this in mind that I talked freely of my imprisonment, of my wife, babies and my home.  I was in the wonderful timber and mountains of Idaho not many miles from the beautiful little city of Wallace, with its pretty hills and valleys, a spot of wonder, rich in minerals, timber and soil; a hunters paradise.

I had gone up there as a cook in one of the Rose Lake Lumber Companies logging camps, a camp of perhaps eighty men.  Being a good cook, I at once won the hearts of these sturdy men through their stomachs.  It hurt me to see their wonder at being taken away as a murderer, an ex-convict, with handcuffs on my wrists and guns on all sides.  Why the new cook should be taken away, was something they could not understand.

The logs in these mountains are moved down into the river in the valley by means of logging flumes, in which the logs are floated in very swift running water.  Near the cook house was such a flume and a narrow foot bridge crossing it.   In my spare moments I had stood on this bridge and looked and listened to the water.  It seemed to say “stranger, in case you are caught here, I am your only friend”.

I thought of those hills full of timber.  Oh, if I could only live there always in their beauty as I saw it then!  Well, with the possibilities of this swift running water in mind, I had obtained permission to move into a smaller shack across the flume, as I knew I might be caught at any time and I must be prepared.

A time keeper played the part of a traitor.  While the sheriff and part of his men waited in the company office, this never to be forgotten puppet came to me with a story that he wanted to check over some books with me in the office, so I was led like a lamb to slaughter into the trap cunningly laid by the law.

After I had been taken to my shack and my hands manacled, I was told to follow the sheriff while the others stayed at my back.  God must have helped me—I am sure I could not have done it alone; yet as we went single file over this bridge, without the help of hands, I leaped clear of the railing, making a wonderful dive into the shallow water.  Oh, I can hear the crack of revolvers and I can see the expression on the sheriff’s face.

After many long hours of patient fishing, did you ever get a wonderful strike?    See those speckled beauties flash above the water, in their mad flight for freedom:  If so, your heart was in your mouth so to speak.  The greatest catch of your life as you wound him into your boat’s edge!  What sense of pride you had!  Then with one last mad lunge the thing was gone!  If you have had such an experience, then you well know the expression on that giant’s face.  A nice, large reward in money besides the big feather in his cap, “gone but not forgotten.  Cries of “stop him’ by the posse were unheeded by the loggers, except for one who made a mad grab at my clothing, and got my right boot in his face.

It was autumn and the mountain water cold; but in my excitement I did not feel it.  After several attempts, I freed myself from its grip and left the flume for the timber.  I had not gone far, when I heard the cry of someone saying, ‘here is where he left the water’ and what happened in the next hour can never be made clear to myself, much less to others.

What I suffered that night in those wet clothes and manacled in iron, I cannot begin to tell.  It took me three days and three long nights until I at last released my hands, with the help of rocks.  My wrists had swollen until at last the handcuffs were almost buried in my flesh.  What a relief from pain when at last the lock gave way.

Berries were my only food in those hills and they were none too plentiful.  Game was there in abundance.  I saw a black bear and different kinds of birds; but having no gun I was unable to kill them, and if I had done so, I should have to eat them raw, as I had no matches.  Besides, to build a fire would only have been putting out a signal by which the posse, who I knew who must be searching those hills for me, would be able to find me.

My clothes were torn.  I had lost my hat in my jump for liberty; and to say I was weak and hungry is putting it very mildly.  Just how long I was lost in those strange mountains I cannot say.  Finding an old skid row one evening, I followed in my desperate search for food.  Suddenly I heard the distant sounds of voices.  Creeping closer I found myself within a few yards of a camp.  Apparently it was Sunday as the men were not working.  I lay in hiding on a small hill overlooking the camp and a creek which ran between the camp and myself.  Their voices seemed very plain.  Just before the supper bell rang, I heard someone ask if the murderer was caught yet.

A big fellow who seemed to do most of the talking, said that he did not think so, and as far as he was concerned, he hoped they never catch the fugitive.  Another man said he could use that reward pretty nice and he got himself a bawling out for his trouble.

Now, maybe that did not make [me] feel better!  So after dark I crept to the cook house and to my delight I found no one there.  I was not long in helping myself and getting out.

By following the road and hiding once in a while, I finally reached the valley without being seen.  Once there was a very close call.  While making a bend in the road, I came face to face with two men afoot and carrying shot guns.  I had no chance to run, so my wits came to my rescue.  With a glad, “Howdy, men; how is luck”?  Did you see my horses down the trail?  I was gone before they had a chance to answer my question.  I left the trail soon, and never ventured to follow it again except when I had to on account of rough traveling or water.  

I reached the railroad after dark at a little town called Pritchard: tried to steal more food but had no chance.  I stayed with the track until the sun came up next morning, and found me several miles farther on my way.  Then hiding in a sunny spot, I tried to rest what I could; but could not sleep, being low on eats, I soon was walking again.  

The track follows the river at the foot of the hill; but I did not know that to my left and just a few feet above, was a highway hidden from my view by the undergrowth in the timber.  I had walked but a few miles when I had found a newspaper, the entire front page was covered with the news of my capture and escape.  It pictured me as one of the worst criminals known in years, if not the worst.  I was compared with Roy Gardner in my cunning escape; but far more dangerous at large, as it was stated that I was known to have killed two or three men and at least one woman.  (Lies! I had but one man).  It stated that one hundred men were at present combing the hills and watching the trails for me.  The sheriff had said that it would be only a matter of waiting a few hours as all outlets from the mountains were closely guarded.  It was while I was still reading this when I heard a high powered car pull up in plain view, and a man’s voice said, “That’s him, let him have it.”  For a minute bullets were singing about me like bees.  Once more the water saved my life.  With a few leaps and a desperate dive, I was in the river.  Being a fair swimmer and having the current to help me, I soon fought my way to the other side, and into the timber.  They sure must have been some poor shots or else God was my shield.  Then once again come that ever be loved darkness, and I did not forget to bow my head in prayer and thank God, the moon and the stars, and all that does good for my deliverance.  I vowed to myself that should I ever live and be free, that I had committed my last crime.  I told myself before God, that if he let me live, that I should try and be some service in the betterment of mankind.  There on my knees I said the outlaw was dead, and that a new man was born.

Since that memorable night years ago, I have had many a close call but always to come out one way or another.  Once I pulled out in the night leaving a nice little business which I had worked hard to build up.  It was all that I owned in the world, but I had seen a man in town that day and I was sure he recognized me, yet maybe he did not.  He was from my home town and knew of my trouble so I took no chances.  In a short time I was gone.  I have traveled much, and when I get the blues real bad, travel seems to be my only cure.  Yet that same travel prevents me from climbing the mountain of success.

I have a place to sleep tonight and enough for breakfast in the morning, so tomorrow will have to take care of itself.  I know that I will face each day as it comes.  But it has been said, and very true, that the way of the transgressor is hard.  There is no rest for the wicked.  An honest man has a chance to succeed, but a dishonest man has no chance whatever.  Throw rocks at the world and the world will throw them back at you.  Misfortune is a great breeder of graft and dishonesty.  He jests at scars who never felt a wound.

Each day as I walk down the street, there is ever present that hideous fear that I might be pointed out as a dangerous outlaw by someone who has a filthy lust for money.

It matters not if I be striving to do good, or plotting a crime, The price is on my head.  In my endeavor to hide from the law, I have traveled mountains and desert and tried prospecting and jobs of all descriptions.  I liked prospecting best for then I could view the wonderful hills and gaze upon the beautiful rivers and streams at close range.

Alone with my pack burro, rifle and dog, I stayed and worked through the winter months with traps and in the summer with pick and shovel, and gold pans, and as I look back now, I long to be there again, to walk hand in hand with nature; to feel the sense of freedom, that glad delight to which those hidden wonders gave me.  But I always kept my trusty rifle near me, not because my fear of wild animals; but because I feared those hounds of the Law.

The proceeding letter by William (Bill) Bates to his son Robert.  Bill was never heard from again and probably died an anonymous death with no one to grieve his passing.

The letter is only part of the story.  Emma (Kind) Davis of Power, Montana, remembered him well and told many stories of her early days in frontier Montana.

Emma told the story when Bill was caught by the Teton County Sheriff.  The posse had surprise him at his shack on what is known as the ridge between Choteau and Dutton.  

Bill was sleeping, his gun was at the foot of his bed.  He said, “if my gun had been at the head of my bed they would have never taken me alive.”  The sheriff wanted to see his horse (possible evidence).  Approaching the horse Bill grabbed his main and ran beside the horse until he was able to mount. The posse was shooting at him but was afraid of hitting the horse.  

Bill escaped and was later captured, hiding under a pile of tumble weeds.  He was found because his coat tail was hanging out of the weeds.  According to Emma one of Bill’s ploys was to place a woman’s purse in the road.  When an unsuspecting person would stop to investigate, Bill would emerge from hiding and rob them. 

He also robbed stagecoaches in the Power, Fairfield and Choteau area.  Other outlaws were also operating in the area.  Because Bates was the most notorious, many of those robberies and murders were blamed on him.  L. H. Davis

ROBERT BATES – William G. Bates and Louise Kind Bates son.

Bob was born September 8, 1913, at Power, Montana.  He was 2 years and 8 months old when his parents divorced. On January 31, 1916 his dad Bill bates was sentenced to the penitentiary for robbery following several holdups.  In addition to going to prison Bob’s dad Bill was divorced by his mom Louise.  Louise was given custody of their son Robert.  They had been married at Power December 4, 1912.  

Bob’s mother Louise then married Charlie Blackenburg the following week at Power.  They then lived in the Power community where there were a lot of family members, Louise’s parents Louis and Augusta Kind and her brothers and sisters.  A brother and sister were added to Bob’s family through the Blackenburgs.  Eventually his mom, step-dad and siblings moved to Birmingham, Alabama until about 1924,  Louise left Robert with her parents to finish raising him with his aunts, uncles and many cousins.. I’m not sure what his age was, probably around 11.

When his dad Bill was released from prison on bail he got to spend some time with his dad, that was when that picture was taken.  I’m assuming his dad got into trouble again with the law, that is why he was on the run in Idaho.  While there he wrote this letter to his son Robert, while he was still living with his grandparents north of Power in the 1920’s.

He probably finished school at the Beck country school and worked with family.  When he was around 16 he helped my grandparents Henry and Mary Kind move to the Kalispell area in 1930 when the depression was hitting.  Bob was 16, My dad Ernie Kind was 14 and my uncle Charlie Kind was 12 when they moved the tools, wagon, horse team and family horses across the mountains.  Grampa Henry drew them a map and gave them instructions to go through Choteau skim around Browning, East Glacier over the divide to West Glacier, through Columbia Falls to Kalispell.  Grampa Henry met them there and took them up by Foy’s Lake to their new home.  They had quite the stories to tell for 3 young men doing a very important job.  Bob went back to Power at that time.

Robert “Bob” Bates married Clara Mae Livingston in 1934 at age 21.  They lived in the Kalispell area while their first 3 children were born.  Their first daughter died at 2 days old, William Guy then Carol May was born while in Montana.  They then moved to Washington and had 3 more children.  Twin sons Jack and James and Donna May.  So, there were 6 grandchildren born to Bill Bates and Louise Kind-Bates-Blackenberg.  Robert’s half -brother Howard James Blackeburg was born in 1917 and hjs half-sister Verna Mae Blackenburg in 1924.                             

Bob finished raising his family in Washington.