Did the Real Josey Wales Die in Texas?

Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) lists the origin of the 1976 film “The Outlaw Josey Wales” to be a screenplay by Phillip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus which was in turn based on a fictional book believed to have been written by Asa Earl Carter under the pen name Forrest Carter. Carter’s book was first published in 1973 as “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales,” republished two years later as “Gone to Texas” and published once more under the name “Josey Wales.” In the film the time period of which is set during the Civil War years, the character Wales’ family is killed and his home is burned by Union irregular troops. Seeking revenge, Wales aligns himself with a Confederate irregular group (Quantrill’s Raiders). After the Confederate surrender and the end of the war, the character Wales continues to seek revenge on those individuals who were responsible. The story continues with Wales eventually finding peace and a relationship with a female rancher, presumably escaping his violent past and living out his days.

A second book, predating Carter’s by a many years, was published in 1938 and written by George Clinton Arthur (also said to be a descendant of Wilson) called “Bushwhacker: A True History of Bill Wilson — Missouri’s Greatest Desperado” tells the story of William “Bill” Wilson, whose life closely parallels that of the fictional character Wales. Wilson was born in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Early in the war, his home was destroyed by Union troops and he is said to have joined the irregular Confederate troops, Quantrill’s Raiders, and served with them throughout the war. After the war, Wilson is believed to have taken part in numerous acts of revenge. Wilson later moved to Collin County, Texas while his wife Mary Ann Noaks (or Noakes) and children apparently remained in Missouri. The couple had married and had a number of children, at least four. Wilson is believed to have been murdered around the seventh of March, 1869 near Van Alstyne, Texas around 1869 by two former associates named William O. Blackmore and John Thompson. Wilson’s burial location is unknown but is thought to have been north of Van Alstyne. Blackmore and Thompson were arrested, tried and convicted of murder and were hanged on March 26, 1869 in Sherman, Texas. Please see the two clippings below.

Galveston Flakes Semi-Weekly Bulletin, 27 Feb 1869
Galveston Flakes Daily Bulletin, 5 Apr 1869

There is still another book that postdates the other two called “Bushwhacker Bill Rides Again” by Don Wilson, a great grandson of Bill Wilson, and George Clinton Arthur. The book is also said to tell the true story of William Wilson. In the description of the book released in 2012, the author Wilson says he grew up on the Missouri farm formerly owned by Wilson and relates some of the family stories about him.

William “Bill” Wilson is a fairly common name in genealogy. In the records that can be more easily located, he is listed as having been born October 28, 1837 in what is now Phelps County, Missouri. He is usually noted as only having been married to Mary Ann Noaks Wilson. Mary Ann is shown as having been born in 1833 in Kentucky and the date of their marriage is noted to be 1860. No earlier wife of Wilson is named and we can assume that she was the person to whom he was married when the war broke out. The 1860 census lists the couple as living in Phelps County, Missouri while the 1870 census lists Mary Ann as being a single parent living in Missouri with four children (two daughters and two sons) after Bill Wilson’s murder. The explanation for Bill Wilson having briefly lived in Texas was that he and a few other former Quantrill’s Raiders were sought by bounty hunters and were living around Sherman until the post war situation in Missouri “cooled down.” Another account for Wilson’s life included that he faked his own death in Texas to avoid the bounty hunters. For this to be true, Wilson would have needed not to be the person murdered in Texas as referenced in the above clippings. Further, Mary Ann Wilson married again. She was later married for some time to a John J. Jackson. That union is said to have ended in divorce and there is a photograph of Mary Ann and Jackson that can be found on internet genealogy sites. Jackson died in 1898 in Missouri. Mary Ann died in 1905 and is buried in Phelps County, Missouri.

So, was Bill Wilson’s life the basis for Asa Earl Carter’s book? No one can probably say for certain, if Carter did not say so. The character Wales could have easily been a composite based on several individuals. Carter’s life itself was controversial. He was said to be a self proclaimed segregationist and he died in Abilene, Texas at the age of fifty-six after some sort of altercation. However, the character Wales could have been based on the life of Wilson. Wilson’s experiences were fairly similar to that of the fictional character up to a point, though his family was apparently not murdered by Union soldiers in Missouri. His burial is not documented but he was apparently murdered in Collin County, Texas in 1869 at the age of about thirty-one years old. There was no happy ending to his part of the story. If Bill Wilson was the real Josey Wales, he probably did die in Texas.

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