The West's Greatest Gunfighter? It May Surprise You...
Wyatt Earp. Wild Bill Hickok. Doc Holliday. Billy the Kid. The deadliest gunslingers in the West. Their names are forever etched in the zeitgeist of the American frontier.
But there’s one gunfighter that some scholars say may have very well been greater than them all. But most Americans have never heard of him. Born Frank Boardman Eaton, he would become known as “Pistol Pete,” first named by a U.S. Army colonel at Fort Gibson in 1870 in Oklahoma, after he won a shooting contest at age 15 against the Army’s best.
As with many men who lived by the gun in the Wild West, Frank Eaton was touched by violence very early in life. In Kansas territory on his family's homestead, when he was only eight years old, Frank Eaton was forced to watch his father gunned down in cold blood by a gang of former Confederates who had been with the Quantrill Raiders. The men belonged to the Campsey and Ferber family clans. They shot Frank’s father as he stood in the doorway of their cabin, then beat little Frank with a horse whip. It would harden the boy’s heart and soul and he vowed he would someday avenge his father.
The boy asked the friend of his father, Mose Beaman, to teach him how to shoot. Beaman gave the young Eaton two .36 Colt Navy revolvers and showed him how to cap and load the guns, how to clean and maintain them, and how to cast lead bullets. Young Frank practiced diligently every day and he became a keen shot.
At age 15, he rode to Fort Gibson in Oklahoma to learn as much as he could from Army officers. It was then that the Army held a shooting contest and the teenager found that, to his surprise, he won the contest hands-down against the Army’s best marksmen. The fort’s commanding office, Colonel John Joseph Coppinger, awarded Frank a medal and nicknamed him “Pistol Pete.” The name stuck.
At a young age, Frank had indeed become a phenomenal shot. He used two pistols and could shoot the head off a rattlesnake without aiming. He could perform the famous trick shot, asking a spectator to throw a dollar coin in the air, and he would shoot a bullet through it.
The young Frank was ready to avenge his father. In the following years, Frank tracked down and killed all but one of the six men who had killed his father. A crowd witnessed Frank gun down two of the brothers at once who both drew against him. The sixth, died of a heart attack the day before the young man arrived in town after he heard Frank was coming for him.
After Pistol Pete had killed the first two murderers of his father, the Cattlemen’s Association hired him as a detective and bounty hunter for cattle rustlers. Within three months, Peter had avenged his blood debt by killing three more of his father’s killers. Pete became a lawman, Indian fighter, and, finally, settled down in Perkins, Oklahoma, to become a blacksmith.
In 1890, he married Orpha Pearl Miller and had two daughters, but twelve years later his wife died, leaving him a single father with two little daughters. In 1903, he married Anna Sillix and, together, they had eight children.
Frank was an avid reader and became a popular storyteller. Children used to gather at his and Anna’s home on Saturday nightto hear his yarns and watch him do trick shots. Between being a wife and mother of eight children, Anna found time to become a gifted quilter and Frank would help her hold up her prized quilts so they could be photographed.
In 1923, the students at Oklahoma A & M College (now Oklahoma State University) requested that Eaton pose as their mascot, “The Original Cowboy.” His image was also adopted by the University of Wyoming and New Mexico State University as their mascot.
From 1950-1956, Eaton wrote a weekly newspaper column, “Pistol Pete Says,” of his humor, philosophy and recollections of the olden frontier days. He learned to set metal type and also crank the old iron press to print the newspaper.
Unlike many men who lived by the gun, he did not die by it. He lived to the ripe old age of 97 and died in 1958 in his sleep. His funeral was attended by more than 1,000 mourners, including one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Reverend A.G. McCowan, a longtime friend of Eaton, officiated his funeral and said: “He had a tough exterior, but he was kind and tender hearted. Children loved him. He could quote Shakespeare, Plato, and Aristotle. He knew poetry.”
Eaton himself had philosophized about appearing at heaven’s pearly gates: “I know St. Peter has me charged up pretty heavy. But unlike a mortal judge, He knows the innermost motive for every deed committed, whether good or evil. And I think He will not be too hard on this poor old cowboy, who did his best as he saw it.”
Eaton was buried in the Perkins Cemetery in a brown suit with his Cherokee Strip ribbon and badge pinned to his chest. But he was buried without his famous six-shooter. His daughter traded that to a Wichita businessman in exchange for a headstone for her dad’s grave. His gun had eleven notches on it.❦
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