Sam Bass is one of the more notorious outlaws from in and around DFW, and his story is intimately tied to Denton’s history. As an Old West legend, the accounts of the life of “Texas’ Beloved Bandit” or “Robin Hood on a Fast Horse” (documented for cowboy firesides in “The Ballad of Sam Bass”) are as varied as the number of folks telling the tale, but few disagree that his story begins in Denton County around 1870. Young orphan Sam handled horses in the stables of the Lacy House Hotel on the Denton Square and later worked for Denton County Sheriff William F. ‘Uncle Bill’ Egan caring for livestock, cutting firewood, building fences, and spending time as a freighter between Denton County and the railroad towns of Dallas and Sherman. Bass soon became enamored with horse racing and, after acquiring a fleet filly that became known across Texas as “The Denton Mare” in 1874, he turned his attention to professional racing and gambling after an ultimatum from Egan (who would later hunt the outlaw). Competing his speedy mare around the territories, the charming rogue quickly fell in with thieving scoundrels headed north after squandering earnings and in 1877 he and the Collins brothers along with three others held up an eastbound Union Pacific passenger train in Big Springs, Nebraska. The gang stole a jaw-dropping sum of $60,000 in newly minted twenty-dollar gold pieces (still to this day the largest single robbery of the Union Pacific Railroad) and $1,300 plus four gold watches from the passengers. After dividing the loot, the bandits decided to go in pairs in different directions so Sam made his way back to Denton County disguised as an itinerant farmer.
The fate of Sam’s impressive cut of the heist has fueled treasure-hunter legends about hidden gold in “Sam Bass’ Cave” for years, since by 1878 his Sam Bass Gang quickly resumed a crime wave of robbing stagecoaches and trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas while hiding out in the thickets of the rural Denton County area. One account has the bandits’ horses confiscated to Denton after Sheriff Egan spooked their camp, only to be reclaimed at sunrise by a mounted Sam awakening Egan by playfully exclaiming to his former employer: “Wake up, Bill! I hear there’s thieving scallywags roaming these parts!” Within mere months, the Sam Bass Gang were soon wanted outlaws who led the Texas Rangers and railway-hired Pinkerton Men on a spirited chase across North Texas. Before Sam met his legendary end in Round Rock, Texas on his twenty-seventh birthday later that year, however, there was a very notable encounter with his pursuers on the Denton Square that will be included on the tour (along with accounts of Sam Bass’ ghost continuing to haunt Denton County in search of his hidden gold and to torment the lingering spirit of his ‘Judas‘ Jim Murphy)! The legend was immortalized in the cowboy Ballad of Sam Bass, making him a Texas hero. Stay tuned!