Slagg Ditch was raised in McGill next to a notorious waterway. He’s also a WPHS graduate.
Sam Brown was a true badman of the Old West stripe, maybe the baddest of them all. Like the reputed escapades of Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Sam’s have taken on a mythic quality, leaving the whole truth lost in the mist of time. First there’s the oft-told legend-generating story.
Sam arrived in Virginia City in 1861 as a self-described ‘great fighter.’ Texas born, he was said to have left 16 victims in his wake in Texas, California, and Nevada, using his favorite weapon, the Bowie knife. It was his ambition to be known as the “big chief.”
According to an early Nevada historian, Sam fancied himself insulted by a drunk in a Virginia City saloon late one night. So, he “ran a knife into his victim, and then turned it around, completely cutting the heart out, then wiped his bloody knife and laid down on a billiard table and went to sleep.” Another version of the story is that Sam ripped the man up (no mention of his heart), walked across the street, and fell asleep on a bench.
After thus burnishing his reputation as a fighter, Sam was hated and feared in the community. Not even a fool would drink with him. The citizenry blamed him for several murders, but the prosecutors couldn’t get the goods on him. No one was crazy enough to testify against him.
Today he’d be called a narcissistic sociopath.
In Sam’s day, citizens would often ignore the law and assemble what they called a “Citizens Safety Committee.” They would forcefully take men like Sam, hold mock trials, and string ‘em up. They often got the wrong man, but hey, they rationalized, maybe we mess one up now and then, but it’s all for the greater good. It’s likely that in due time Sam would have had his neck stretched by a passel of such good citizens, but he wasn’t around long enough to enjoy the party.
Dan De Quille was a writer for the Territorial Enterprise, a widely known and respected Virginia City newspaper. His book The Big Bonanza, published in 1876, remains the definitive, eye-witness history of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. The Introductory to the book was written by another Enterprise writer and close friend by the name of Mark Twain. In the book, Dan gives a short history of Sam Brown and describes the reputed climax of his life.
The phrase “he died with his boots on” originally applied to soldiers who died in battle. But in the 1800s in the West, it referred to a man who was killed in a gun battle or hanged. Needless to say, no man wanted to die in his boots. But when he met his Maker, Sam had no choice.
One day Sam rode down the hill to the Carson Valley to look up a man named Van Sickle, with whom he had serious differences. Van Sickle owned a way station along the wagon road going over the Sierras to Hang Town (now Placerville) and Sacramento. Van Sickle wasn’t there at the time, so a disappointed Sam took a few shots at the innkeeper and stole his horse.
Now, Mr. Van Sickle was not a man to be trifled with. Soon he was on Sam’s trail with a fast horse and a heavily loaded, double-barrel shotgun. As Van Sickle approached him, Sam turned and fired a couple of errant rounds. Van Sickle then, according to Dan De Quille, “riddled the great fighter with buckshot, tumbling him dead from his horse on the edge of the town of Genoa.. Thus died ‘Fighting Sam Brown’—died with his ‘boots on,’ an end which all ‘chiefs’ dread.” [Genoa is Nevada’s oldest settlement.]
And so goes the classic story of Sam Brown. But how true is it? Sam Brown was a bad man, to be sure, but his story has taken on adornments, or evolved, over the years to the point that it has become an archetypal story of the heroes and villains of a mythical Old West.
In her wonderful book Ghost Dance Writers and Other Tales of the Frontier, the great Nevada writer Sally Zanjani includes a story called “Sam Brown: The Evolution of a Frontier Villain.” She makes the point that rather ordinary stories often evolve into heroic sagas. She says that, in the case of Sam Brown, years of “omissions, accretions, and slanted interpretations finally produced a villain perfectly tailored to the model” of the classic bad man. She goes on to examine “the few strands of evidence that can be disentangled from legend.”
Sam, she says, was a “large, flamboyant figure, with long red hair, fringed buckskin coat, and clanging Mexican spurs. He “caught the popular imagination.” It was the perfect description of a villain. As the story wore on, writers with little or no first-hand knowledge made Sam a gang leader, stage robber, cattle rustler, and Indian slayer.
Ms. Zanjani gets to the truth when quotes Van Sickle and his innkeeper as they told the story to contemporaries. When Sam showed up at Van Sickle’s station, he threatened the innkeeper and drew a gun. But as other men rode up, he holstered the gun and rode away.
Van Sickle got on Sam’s trail, saying later that “if I failed to kill him he would without a doubt kill me [any] time he got the chance.” Van Sickle eventually made his way unseen around and ahead of Sam. “I …waited till he rode up within short range, when stepping out I…at once ended his career putting seven buck shots right through the center of his body, death being instantaneous, he fell from his horse without muttering a word… “ Alas, poor Sam died with his boots on.
So, it is that Sam, contrary to legend, was the victim of an ambush, not the villain in a shoot-out where a heroic Van Sickle prevailed. The coroner discharged Van Sickle, finding that Brown’s death “served him right.”
The evolution of Brown’s image in the hands of rumor-mongers and historians finally culminated in a classic villain who was the enemy of the hero who eventually outwitted him.
Sam Brown thus played a part in the making of the hero v. bad man sagas of western lore. Roy Rogers and John Wayne and a plethora of screen writers and western novelists (hello Louis L’Amour) owed him a thank you.
In the movie Stagecoach, Wayne, the hero, says “Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” Yep, you can bet your boots, Pilgrim, that he’d fearlessly gunned down any man he met the likes of Bad Bad Sammy Brown.
[The writer was raised in McGill and graduated from White Pine High School.]