The Spikes Brothers Murders

The January 23, 1902 article was widely reported in United States newspapers that in New Mexico, three brothers had been ambushed while riding horseback on the way back to their homes. Dick and John Spikes were killed and Fred Spikes was badly wounded, but managed to make it to the home of a neighbor who helped him to obtain medical treatment. The Arkansas Gazette article shown below ended by stating that Fred Spikes said that he knew the attacking party but would give no names.

Image credit: The Arkansas Gazette, 23 January, 1902

At the time of their death, Dick Spikes was twenty years old and his brother John was twenty-nine. When he learned of the attack, another brother, Joseph Jefferson Spikes came from West Texas, retrieved his deceased brothers’ remains and carried them back to Crosby County in West Texas. They were buried in a small cemetery in Emma, Texas. Amazingly, the brother named Fred not only survived being shot in the groin and the side, he recovered from his wounds and lived to his eighties in Texas.

The day after the attack, an article appeared in some newspapers telling that the Spikes brothers had come across an unnamed gang of robbers who had just looted the Gross and Richards General Store in Tucumcari, New Mexico, after which they stole some horses from a mining camp and made their escape. The bandits engaged in a gun fight with the brothers when their paths crossed. A posse chasing the unidentified robbers said they had found a cave where some of the loot was stashed but the robbers themselves got away.

Mesa Redonda, where many of the parties lived, is a plateau of about 5,000 to 6,000 feet and was the location for natural caves that supposedly were used by bandits. The Spikes brothers’ ranch was about fifteen miles outside of Tucumcari near this mesa. It was then a rather remote area, and cattle operations were vulnerable to rustling. Fred, the surviving brother, maintained that the Spikes were honest ranchers, though locally they were accused from time to time by some of having stolen cattle on their ranch. As far as we can tell, there were never any charges brought against them for any crimes.

Over the next few weeks, conflicting accounts of the gunfight were published in newspapers. The Albuquerque Daily Citizen was quoted as carrying an article in mid February, 1902 that said the Spikes brothers were being served arrest warrants when the fatal gunfight occurred. However, no other contemporary mention of such warrants can be found. There was also another gang, the so-called Mesa Hawks Gang led by one Henry Hawkins, that was actively working in the area, and there is some speculation the Spikes were wrongly associated with these individuals. Other articles implied that it was the posse that had carried out the attack. These accounts were never reconciled and no one was ever charged with the deaths of Dick and John Spikes.

The Gholson and Spikes families had known each other back in Texas. There are stories that the long running disagreement between the families dates back to Civil War days, though neither Dick, John nor Fred Spikes was born until years after the Civil War. The father of the Spikes brothers, John Wesley Spikes, had served in Company G of the 12th Texas Cavalry of the Confederate Army during the war. He was no longer living when the attacks occurred, having passed away at about the age of fifty a few years earlier from injuries sustained when he was kicked by a horse on his ranch in Texas. Sam Gholson is believed also to have served in the Confederate Army, although not with John Wesley Spikes. The bad feelings between the two families is thought to somehow be related to the Civil War or events leading up to it. One possible explanation we have read was that Sam Gholson may have been compelled to enlist in the Confederate Army by John Wesley Spikes. If that was the cause, then Gholson would have been carrying on the disagreement after John Wesley Spikes died.

Sam Gholson was born about the same time as John Wesley Spikes and the two families had lived near one another in more than one location. As noted above, rumors of bad feelings existing between the two families persisted. Sam Gholson was a local rancher who also lived near the mesa. The Gholson name was well known in Texas. Sam Gholson had a younger brother by the name of Frank Gholson who was a Texas Ranger. Frank had personally known such individuals as General Sam Houston, General Edward Burleson and Thomas Ross. Their father, also named Sam Gholson, had served in the War of 1812 before coming to Texas. During his time as a Ranger, Frank served under Sul Ross and others, defending against the various tribes, and was serving under Ross when Cynthia Parker was recovered. At the time the Spikes brothers were killed, Frank resided in Central Texas and does not appear to have been involved in the Quay County matter in any way. The settlement of Gholson, Texas in McLennan County north of Waco on the Brazos River is named for Sam and Frank Gholson.

In 1929, some twenty-seven years after the deaths of the two Spikes brothers, historian J. Evetts Haley published a book that chronicled the history of the XIT Ranch. In it, the Spikes were referred to as outlaws. His source for this claim is unknown, though it could have come from other people that he knew. There were no conflicts between the owners of the XIT Ranch and the Spikes family as far as we know. Haley’s comment led Fred Spikes to file a lawsuit against the ranch, the publisher and Haley alleging libel and claiming damages. Fred also informed others in the Spikes family and as many as five to eight more lawsuits were filed. The defendants declined to pursue an out of court settlement with Fred. A trial of six months took place and the jury held for the defendants in this occasion, but other suits were lined up to follow. After the conclusion of the first trial, the defendants this time offered to settle, reportedly for $17,500. The publisher is believed to have withdrawn the unsold printed volumes and the author is said to have reworded the chapter which had mentioned the Spikes family. We do not have access to the before and after wording.

The questions remain. Were the Spikes wrongly labeled as being a gang and cattle rustlers? Did an old family disagreement play any role in the accusations and/or the attack against the Spikes? Did some other individuals carry out a vendetta against the Spikes? Who actually committed the Spikes murders? Now, over one hundred and twenty years later, no one will probably ever know for certain. The killers of the Spikes brothers were never identified or brought to justice.

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