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Stagelines, Stagecoaches and Stage Robberies of the Old West
by R. Michael Wilson
The Principal Characters
The primary persons associated with stagecoaches were the DRIVER and the SHOTGUN MESSENGER, or Guard, and the primary person associated with stagecoach robberies was the ROAD AGENT.
Stagecoach DRIVERS were known by many sobriquets including KNIGHT or KNIGHT OF THE
LASH, WHIP, SAGEBRUSH NAVIGATOR, or the biblical reference JEHU. Drivers were a hardy
lot representing a cross section of the nation’s citizenry. Many chewed or smoked
tobacco to excess, and some cussed mercilessly, but others were kind and gentle,
especially toward the ladies riding in their coaches. Drivers were the captains of
their vessels. They commanded all who boarded and were always respected, usually
appreciated, and often admired. Not every man could handle the ribbons of a four-
SHOTGUN MESSENGERS sat beside the driver and shared the discomfort and danger, more so in those rare instances of a robbery because the messenger was the first target of a road agent’s bullets. Putting a messenger on a stagecoach was a signal, to a spy, that there was substantial treasure aboard, because if there was no treasure there was no guard. A stage line operator would not pay a messenger to ride along if there was no treasure to protect. Many lawmen, when not engaged in their primary vocation, worked as messengers, and men such as Wyatt Earp and Morgan Earp worked for Wells, Fargo in that capacity at Tombstone. However, there is not much in the record about their activities as messengers since, as might be expected, their coaches were never robbed.
The term ROAD AGENT originated with a station keeper. Two men stopped at his station, left but returned a short time later, then left again. When the stagecoach arrived a robbery was reported and the description of the robbers matched the two men who had stopped at the station. The station keeper, in his report, referred to the robbers as “agents of the road” and Wells, Fargo & Company adopted the term “road agents.” Road agents followed a formula which varied only slightly, except in a few instances. For example there were loners, but usually road agents worked in parties of 2 to 4 men. Even when they acted alone they often made it appear there were others lying in hiding.
One of the advantages in robbing stagecoaches was that the work could be done at some isolated location, allowing the criminals time to escape before a posse could be organized and ride to the scene. The scene of the robbery was a place where the stagecoach would naturally travel at a slow pace, such as when the coach was ascending a steep or long grade, driving across soft sand, crossing a narrow bridge, or where there was a sharp curve in the road. The coach could be stopped by almost anything, or by nothing more than a man stepping in front of the horses, pointing his gun at the driver, and ordering him to halt. Other methods included placing a small obstruction in the roadway such as a log, a brush pile, rocks, a long tree limb propped at waist level, or tying a rope across the road. The road agents’ weapons included shotguns, rifles and pistols.
A spy might be assigned to watch the loading of the treasure box at the express office
to see if it was heavy, or to watch for a shotgun messenger to board which would
signal there was substantial treasure aboard. At the scene of a robbery, once the
driver, messenger, and passengers were covered by firearms, a road agent would order
the driver to throw out the treasure box. Sometimes the mail sacks would also be
demanded, but often road agents did not want to involve federal authorities. Occasionally
the passengers would be STOOD-
Many stagecoach robberies were not solved because there was no motivation to pursue the robbers. Lawmen had no budget to pursue road agents. They had to put up the funds themselves to pay for a posse and a pursuit, so there were instances where a posse numbered only one or two men. Lawmen relied on the rewards for “capture and conviction,” or the rewards for recovered treasure, to reimburse them their expenses; so, if there was no reward there was no pursuit. Still, lawmen were relatively effective and, if there was a pursuit, the road agents were usually caught.
It was quite common in the old west that, upon being captured, criminals confessed,
and often they would “PEACH,” or inform, on their partners-
Road agents were sent to prison, and sentences typically ranged from 5 years to 15 years. Often one of the road agents in a case turned state’s evidence and testified against their fellow road agents, and were released after testifying. Stagecoach robbers were not legally executed, though once in Del Norte, Colorado two young brothers were lynched for the crime. However, circumstances during a stagecoach robbery sometimes led to a murder, and first degree murder was a capital crime in all parts of the Old West.
R. Michael Wilson -
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