Usually, when I start a story like this...I like to dive into history, find some kind of connection to another historic event happening somewhere else in the world at the same time. But, today...it seems appropriate to start at the end, actually further than the end. In the year 2020.
I’m driving down Sam Bass Road in Round Rock, Texas. I’m just one of millions who have probably driven down this road since it was named.
As I’m driving, I talk to my mom, also a Georgetown resident and fellow history buff. When I told her about the story of the graves we are going to visit, she was instantly intrigued.
"When we first moved here, of course I needed to rely on my GPS to get me to places," she said. "Originally, the GPS referred to A.W. Grimes as 'AW Grimes,' so I started using that term not knowing that it was not 'AW Grimes,' it was A.W. Grimes. Until I was corrected quietly one day by someone...I was talking about a business that was on AW Grimes. They kind of chuckled and said, 'It's A.W. Grimes. That's the name of a person.'"
I turn off Sam Bass Road into the Round Rock Cemetery. According to FindaGrave.com, it used to be called the Old Sam Bass Cemetery.
It comes as no surprise then that Sam Bass - the famous American outlaw - is buried here off Sam Bass Road, and well, since I don’t know where the exact locations of the graves I’m looking for are, it’s going to take some walking and scanning through the headstones to find the final resting places of the people we’re looking for.
As we walk through the cemetery, we see a newer looking headstone. Based on the pictures I’ve seen on the Internet, it might be the grave site of Sam Bass. I’ll get to his story and our visit to his grave site in a minute. But, we keep walking, passing old and in some cases, broken headstones, weathered by the centuries.
Along the furthest back edge of the Round Rock Cemetery, we find who we’re looking for. It’s much too new to be the original headstone. That’s because the headstone is of a person who’s been largely overlooked in local history and only in recent years has been getting recognition for his short few years of service to Texas: Former Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy A.W. Grimes.
I never quite know what to do or say at someone’s final resting place...but it always seems polite to offer a simple hello.
My mom and I talk about the bits of information I’ve learned about this man as I’ve been researching.
Some Texas roots runs deep. This is certainly true for Ahijah W. Grimes or Alijah W. Grimes (you may see what he simply went by A.W. - which is what we’ll keep calling him on The Root Story).
Born on July 5, 1850 in Bastrop, Texas, A.W. Grimes came from a long line of Texas natives and patriots. His grandfather Jesse Grimes is famous in Texas history for his role as one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. He also acted as Sam Houston’s running mate as Lt. Governor after Texas became a state in 1845. Jesse Grimes is the namesake of Grimes County Texas.
A.W. Grimes also has an Alamo hero in his history. Albert Calvin Grimes, his uncle, died while defending the Alamo.
So, when A.W. Grimes is born in 1850, it’s safe to say his heritage is one of bravery and Texas pride.
As a young man, A.W. Grimes worked in Bastrop in the printing industry...and also suffered loss at a young age when his father Robert passed away when A.W. was just 13.
Eventually, the young A.W. Grimes grew to be a strapping 5 foot 10 inch man with dark hair and grey eyes., according to his muster roll enlistment with the Texas Rangers.
Source: Ancestry.com. Texas, Muster Roll Index Cards, 1838-1900 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Civil War Muster Rolls index Cards (both Confederate and Union). Also Texas State Rangers. Austin, Texas: Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
In 1873, A.W. joined the ranks of the Masons at the Gamble Lodge in Bastrop, according to a narrative written by Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Craig Gripentrog.
No doubt the handsome Texan also turned a head or two...but there would be one who would capture his heart. In 1874, A.W. Grimes married Charlotte or "Lottie" as many called her. Both children of lumbermen, according to the narrative written by his great grandsons, the two started off their wedded lives together, and it wasn’t long before A.W.’s venture into both law enforcement and fatherhood began.
The same year the couple exchanged vows, A.W. began serving as the Bastrop City Marshall.
"His law enforcement career in Bastrop was pretty mundane," Mike Cox, longtime Texas writer, told The Root Story. "He made $40 a month, which was later raised to $50 a month, which, you know, was a reasonable income back then. But, a lot of what he did was remove dead hogs from the street or deal with somebody's wild dog that was causing a problem. I couldn't find any, you know, certainly any major crime that he'd been involved in handling."
Grimes was also elected as City Tax Assessor the following year, but lost his re-election bid in 1876, according to the narrative written by his great grandsons.
Also in 1875, just one year after their marriage, A.W. and Lottie welcomed their first child Elizabeth into the world and a year later, the two parents welcomed a son - Benjamin Lyman - into their growing family. A.W. also added one more item to his growing resume of experience. In September 1877, A.W. Grimes joined the Texas Rangers just nineteen days after his younger brother Albert.
His service to the Rangers was brief, as many enlistments were in the day, and just two months later, he returned to Bastrop where he would pack up his family the following year and move to Round Rock Texas.
"At that time Round Rock was a pretty active, little railroad town and probably had it's wild times," Cox said.
In Round Rock, A.W. Grimes started working for Miller’s Exchange Bank, according to the narrative by his great grandsons, and that same year, the Grimes family welcomed one more sweet baby to their family - Mabel Edna.
Sadly, the birth of his daughter would be a short lived joy for both Grimes and his family. Unbeknownst to anyone...Grimes was about to come face to face with one the most famous outlaws in the region...and wouldn’t make it out alive.
Back in the cemetery, my mom and I examine another grave site - the one to which all the names and roads seem to point.
Over the years, Sam Bass has been immortalized in films, portrayed by famous actors - he has a famous Texas folk song about him, simply called Sam Bass, and of course, there’s road and cemeteries, among other things.
In fact, it didn’t take me long to find an alleged auto-biography, though it’s pretty clear it must have been written by someone else and Mike Cox confirmed to me Sam Bass had nothing to do with the work.
Born on July 21, 1851 near Mitchell, Indiana, Sam was one of eight children, according to this alleged autobiography, and as so often happened to people during these times. Sam experienced his own successive tragedies. In 1861, Sam’s mother Elizabeth died. In 1862, Sam’s brother George died in the battle of Richmond, Kentucky, according to the alleged autobiography, and just two years later, Sam became an orphan when his father died in 1864.
When Sam was old enough to strike out on his own, he did and wandered state to state until he found a place to settle for a bit in Denton, Texas where evidently, the Lone Star State seemed to have made an impression on him.
Sam quickly establishes himself as trustworthy, honorable and hard working...eventually taking up non-law enforcement work with the local Sheriff!
I’ll let the irony sink in for a second.
So, what changes the trustworthy employee to the famous gunslinging outlaw?
"He did have a propensity for horses and acquired quite a reputation as a racer of horses and would, you know, bet on them and apparently made some money like that," Cox said. "Then when gold was discovered in the Dakotas in 1876-1877, in that timeframe, he and at least one of his cowboy pals and some others left Texas and went to the Dakotas, as so many people did at that time expecting they would make a fortune. Rather than try to dig gold, he and his cronies decided it was easier to just steal other people's gold, and so, he transitioned into robbing stagecoaches and did that for awhile."
After four years of honest labor, Sam decided to go for the quick buck, and thus began his journey to outlaw infamy.
"His big claim to fame came about a year before he ended up in Round Rock, which was when he and several of his cronies robbed a train in Nebraska at a place called Big Springs, Nebraska, which now is just a little more than a wide spot in the road," Cox said. "But, that railroad robbery was...the biggest in terms of amount of money stolen to that point in American history. He got some $60,000 in gold back when that was, you know, a huge amount of money, and then some of his gang members did get arrested or killed. But, he made it back to Texas and decided that, well, you know, if he could rob trains in Nebraska with success, he could do it in Texas."
Bass made his way to Texas and began his business of robbery once again.
"He started robbing trains in the Dallas area," Cox said. "In fact, he is distinguished [as] being the first person to ever rob a train in Texas, which occurred near Allen, and that got the Texas Rangers on his case, in addition to local law enforcement. And he was pretty successful in fending off the Rangers. It had become something of an embarrassment to the state that they had not yet been able to find Sam Bass."
I could go into all the crimes Bass committed, but well - I won’t. There’s plenty of information out there if you want to learn more including in Mike Cox’s books.
Suffice it to say, Sam Bass took a turn for the worst and the worst is what he became.
Which is what leads us to the fateful day in 1878 when Sam Bass and his gang made their way into a young Round Rock, Texas. We’re not quite sure why, after thieving and robbing through north Texas, they decided to go to Round Rock, but we have a few ideas. Perhaps law enforcement was closing in on them in North Texas. Perhaps they were looking to flee Texas entirely and disappear into nearby Mexico.
Whatever their reasons, time was running out for the Sam Bass gang and the Texas Rangers were right on their tail, closer than Sam Bass even knew.
"The Rangers had the managed to flip somebody," Cox said. "They had a federal charge actually against the father of this individual Jim Murphy, and the Rangers, did a classic thing, which was to put pressure on the Murphys and in modern parlance ‘flip’ Jim Murphy into, you know, being an informant for the Rangers.
And so he was actually riding with Sam Bass, he had no background whatsoever in outlawry. The most the family had done was just to give shelter to the Bass gang in North Texas. But, his father had been arrested for that and he was eager to get him out of jail because he was in bad health.
So, that's what the Rangers did to put the pressure on the Murphy family and get Murphy to keep them informed as to the gangs’ progress headed South, and when Murphy found out that the plan was to rob a bank in Round Rock, he was able to get a letter off to Major John B. Jones...So that's how the Rangers knew that Bass and his gang were in Round Rock planning to rob the banks there. "
Yes, by the time Sam Bass arrived in Round Rock, the Texas Rangers weren’t far behind.
It’s likely, though history still is undecided, that the Rangers informed Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy A.W. Grimes and the Travis County Sheriff’s Deputy Sam Bass was in town.
And on July 19, 1878...as Grimes and his deputy counterpart walked through town, they noticed a small group of men entering a nearby store. The men all had six shooters on their hips, illegal at the time, though allowed under a few specific circumstances.
Certainly, Grimes must have thought, it was worth questioning them; or maybe Grimes saw the chiseled outlaw face of Sam Bass and recognized the wanted signs that had circulated. Perhaps, he worried the men were getting ready to flee, perhaps he saw them slipping out of the fingers of Texas Rangers once again.
Whatever the thoughts running through his head, Deputy Sheriff A.W. Grimes approached Sam Bass, Seaborne Barnes and Frank Jackson on that fateful day and asked the men if they were carrying six shooters.
Immediately the men replied they did and swung around with guns in hand firing mercilessly at the unsuspecting Grimes who hadn’t even had a chance to pull his own weapon.
What happened next is outlined in an account by Williamson County Deputy James Tucker - who was stationed in Georgetown, his account was submitted to a paper by Jeannie Tucker Ridnour.
"The three desperadoes, who were Sam Bass, Frank Jackson and Seab Barnes, left the store and ran to their horses. They were pursued by Rangers and citizens. Everyone who had a gun or pistol, used it. As they neared their horses, Barnes fell dead, having been shot through the head. Bass received two wounds, one disabling his right hand, and the other through his body. He and Jackson reached their horses, mounted and rode out of town, pursued by the Rangers and others as soon as horses and arms could be caught up, saddled and made ready.
Bass and Jackson rode to their camp, which was near the graveyard, got their guns and then struck the Georgetown Road...Bass was compelled to halt. His wound had opened and he could go no further.
Not long before sundown that evening, the news of the fight with the Bass Party at Round Rock reached Georgetown, and in short time Deputy Sheriff James Tucker and a Constable mounted their horses and started for Round Rock. They arrived soon after dark. They sought out Major Jones, informed him who they were, and that they wished to aid in the capture of Bass, and their familiarity of the countryside.
Mr. Tucker found the trail and followed it into the woods. He had gone about 100 yards when Sergeant Nevils called him. They came up a man with his left hand raised in token of surrender. When asked who he was, the man answered, “I’m Sam Bass, the man that has been wanted so long.”
The Rangers arrested Bass and brought him back to town where a doctor soon determined there was nothing that could be done for his wounds, and two days later, on his birthday, Sam Bass died.
Standing in the cemetery, my mom and I look over Sam Bass’ grave. There’s some flowers, coins placed on the marker and on what looks to be an older, broken down gravestone behind it. Tucked behind a large rock is a deck of playing cards.
Several yards away, is the grave site of A.W. Grimes - it too has a newer headstone, a marker from the Texas Rangers and an American flag placed nearby.
Two men, born just a year apart, born in the same month, who died just two days apart -forever linked by the shootout that claimed both their lives.
And though one got a jump start in the history books, both tales are starting to be told today...of an outlaw who came face to face with the law...and now of the young man who dared to approach him and paid for it with his life.