Tilghman went from Fort Dodge to Old West lawman legend

by Alan F. Nelson

“Bill, you’ve been a frontier lawman practically all your life, and you’re still alive and healthy. How do you account for that fact?”

“Mr. President … I guess it was luck.”

T.R.’s hand fanned back and forth, “No, no, no! I don’t believe that. Life isn’t that way. They tell me you’re the fastest draw and the best shot in the West. Now surely, those skills are more important than luck.”

“True, I always managed to beat the other fellow to it by a sixteenth of a second.”

“And yet, that wouldn’t help if you were bushwhacked,” Teddy prodded further. “There must be something else.”

“Well, sir,” Bill continued in his characteristic economy of words, “When you’ve got the right on your side, you’ve always got an edge on the other man.”

“BULLY!” roared Teddy as he slapped his palm on the desk.

That is reportedly how the conversation went when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Bill Tilghman to the White House for the first time. They would meet again in the future.

Teddy offered Bill a seemingly impossible task. Go deep into Mexico and bring back a railroad embezzler who had eluded the U.S. Government for some time. The year 1905 was an especially turbulent time in Old Mexico. Mexican Government Rurales (federal troops) were trying to keep revolutionaries from controlling remote regions of the country – the land was hot, barren and full of those “bushwhackers” Teddy talked about.

President Porfirio Diaz was impressed with the letter Bill presented to him from President Roosevelt. He offered him any number of rurales he wanted. After all, Tilghman was headed to Aguascalientes, a nasty city inhabited by the worst of criminals – both Mexican and American.

Bill respectfully declined the Diaz offer. He didn’t want to cause a commotion that might offer the quarry an opportunity for escape.

Tilghman rode into the dingy town alone. He rode out of town with his rifle across his saddle covered by a duster. The man the U.S. Government hadn’t been able to capture occupied the saddle on the horse in front of him. He was delivered north of the border – alive. No wonder T.R. once remarked, “Bill Tilghman would charge hell with a bucket.”

This is only one of hundreds of incidents where Bill brought in his man, or men, alive. It illustrates the character of this great lawman of the West.

So, who is this Bill Tilghman? And, where did he come from? Why didn’t his fame reach the heights of some other great names of the West?

His family was from the same stock as Richard Tilghman, who came from England to Maryland’s eastern shore with Lord Baltimore. Tench Tilghman – Aid de Camp of General George Washington – was also descended from Richard. Tench carried the news of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown to Philadelphia in 1781. Our lawman Bill would later name a son Tench in his honor.

William Matthew Tilghman, Jr., was born on the 4th of July, 1854, at Fort Dodge, Iowa. Company E, 6th Infantry, established the fort overlooking the Des Moines River in 1850. The town of Fort Dodge was platted in March of 1854. Bill would be the new town’s first native son. Bill Sr. was also born on a 4th of July – in 1820. Fort military records show that the elder Tilghman was in confinement at least once, for drinking – a favorite pastime for some soldiers at this isolated prairie outpost.

Bill Jr. was known throughout his life as a teetotaler. He didn’t use tobacco or swear. Perhaps these qualities came as a result of witnessing his father’s romance with the devil’s libation. No one, even among his most dishonest detractors (of which there are a few), ever accused the mild-mannered, handsome Tilghman as a womanizer.

Fort Dodge initially consisted of 12 buildings, in a line, along a ridge overlooking Soldier Creek and the mouth of the Lizard River. Families of soldiers whose wives were laundresses occupied the four most westerly log houses. Little Bill’s mother, Amanda, was a laundress for the soldiers. Some historians have written that Bill Sr. was the sutler (storekeeper) for the military. All military records and local history accounts show William Williams as the sutler at the fort. Williams was the eventual founder of the town of Fort Dodge.