Texas Trails

Clay Coppedge, Texas Trails

February 29, 2024

Tales of Old Tascosa

Tascosa was the kind of Old West town where a man could get killed over most anything, even a duck. This was true despite the fact that the town’s first sheriff, Cape Willingham, imposed an early form of gun control by making it illegal to carry a gun in town. Willingham, of course, tended to his own business armed with a double-barreled shotgun. 

Willingham was taking it easy in the Equity Bar in the summer of 1881 when Fred Leigh, an Englishman-turned-cowboy turned-problem drunk, rode into Tascosa and took target practice on some ducks playing in a ditch. A woman ran into the Equity Bar yelling to Willingham and everybody else within earshot that a man had just killed her duck. The sheriff assured the woman he’d make sure the duck killer compensated her and he went outside to confront Leigh.

The sheriff notified Leigh that he was now indebted to the woman for the fair market value of a duck. Leigh then did something dumber than shooting a duck; he went for his pistol. Negotiations ended when Willingham raised his shotgun and blew Leigh out of the saddle. 

Leigh’s cowboy pals seemed ready to avenge Leigh’s death right then and there, but Tascosa Marshal Henry Brown, backed up by four men with Winchesters, stepped into view. The cowboys rode away, but the shooting rubbed the cowboys the wrong way and Willingham lost his bid for reelection. 

We don’t know if the woman ever got paid for her duck, but we know that Leigh was buried outside of town in the Boot Hill cemetery, so named because Leigh and others of his ilk so often died with their boots on. It was the same idea that inspired the more well-known Boot Hills outside of Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona. 

Subsequent peacekeepers such as Jim East continued Willingham’s tradition of carrying a shotgun, which is just common sense in a town that hosted the likes of Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, and the occasional duck killer.

Billy the Kid hung around Tascosa long enough to sell a racehorse named Dandy Dick to the town doctor, Henry Hoyt. He neglected to disclose to Hoyt that a Lincoln County (New Mexico) sheriff named William Brady was riding that very same horse when Billy the Kid shot him dead and stole the horse. 

Tascosa remained a hub of commerce and sin on the southern plains until an 1893 flood washed out the bridge and damaged many of the town’s businesses. Some people left and never came back. Others soon followed. The big ranches began fencing their spreads, which made the town harder to access. New towns were established in the Panhandle, towns with more churches and schools than Tascosa ever wanted and with a lot fewer saloons and brothels. The county seat moved to Vega. The nearby railroad town of Amarillo became the new shipping and supply point for the region. The Fort Worth and Denver Railroad tracks didn’t include Tascosa. 

By 1939, only one person remained in Tascosa and that was Frenchy McCormick, widow of saloon keeper Mickey McCormick. She moved to Channing in 1939. That same year Cal Farley established the Maverick Boys Ranch at the site of the old town. It exists today as Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch and includes the Julia Bivens Museum, housed in the old courthouse building. 

Other than what exists in the museum, few traces of old Tascosa remain today. The notable exception is Boot Hill, where cause of death is usually listed on the tombstone, thus exposing a scarcity of people who died of natural causes in Old Tascosa. But what else should we expect of a town where someone could get killed over a duck? 

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