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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
The Outlaw Johnny Ringo
Rode the Hill Country

Michael Barr

Johnny Ringo is most famous for tangling with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, Arizona, but he was a familiar figure on the streets of Fredericksburg, Mason, and Burnet. He knew the Texas Hill Country like the back of his hand.

John Peters Ringo was born in Indiana in 1850. He was related by marriage to Cole Younger of the James-Younger Gang.

Johnny Ringo
Johnny Ringo
Wikimedia Commons

As a young man Ringo drifted between Indiana and California before crash landing in Blanco County, Texas in November 1874.

Biographer David Johnson called Ringo a "recklessly brave man" with an unshakable frontier loyalty to his friends. His devotion to his pals got him into all kinds of trouble.

His first brush with the law came on December 25, 1874 when he got drunk at a Christmas party in Burnet and fired a pistol shot across the square. The sheriff arrested him for disorderly conduct.

Meanwhile Ringo befriended a dangerous, hot-tempered ex-Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, and that friendship drew Ringo into the Mason County Hoo Doo War - a deadly conflict rooted in cattle rustling with ethnic overtones.

On May 13, 1875 a German farmer killed a Mason County rancher named Timothy Williamson who had a reputation for finding ropes with someone else's cattle on the other end. Williamson was Scott Cooley's adoptive father.

Cooley swore vengeance. He collected the names of men he believed were responsible for Williamson's death, and as they died he checked off the names like items on a grocery list.

As the war raged, Johnny Ringo traveled back and forth from the friendly confines of Burnet County to the war zone in Mason County.

On July 20, 1875, he spent the night in room 15 at the Nimitz Hotel. He was back at the Nimitz on July 23. What he did in the meantime is anybody's guess.

Fredericksburg  TX - Nimitz Hotel.
Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg
Photo courtesy the Fredericksburg Standard and Radio Post

On September 25, 1875, Ringo killed his first man, Jim Chaney, in Mason.

In December Ringo and Cooley had an altercation with the sheriff of Burnet County, probably over the sheriff's attempt to serve a warrant on Ringo for the old indictment of disturbing the peace.

After a scuffle the sheriff and an army of deputies arrested the two desperadoes and took them to Lampasas for confinement, but Llano County friends arranged for their "parole and early release" in the middle of the night.

In June 1876 Ringo and Cooley, on their way to Mason, stopped for lunch at Charlie Metcalfe's hotel in Loyal Valley. A witness reported that they walked in to the hotel "in broad daylight, armed to the teeth, ate lunch with perfect composure and rode off unmolested." Ringo was a wanted man and often had meals with a rifle across his lap.

But the plan to ride into Mason changed when Cooley and Ringo learned their enemies were waiting for them at Hedwig's Hill just north of the Llano River.

Ringo turned east and rode to Long Mountain in Llano County (near the present day Buchanan Dam) where he hid out with the Farris family.

Scott Cooley went to Fredericksburg where he stopped for lunch at the Nimitz. He rode out of town that afternoon on his way to see friends in Blanco County.

But Cooley never made it. Somewhere near the Blanco County line he got off his horse, laid down, and died. That his last meal was lunch at the Nimitz Hotel is probably a coincidence.

In 1879 Johnny Ringo left the Hill Country for Tombstone where he fell in with "back shooting border scum" including Ike Clanton and William "Curly Bill" Brocius.

In Arizona Ringo suffered from bouts of depression. He would get rip-roaring drunk, occasionally going on a whiskey tear for days at a time.

On July 14, 1882 a traveler found Ringo's body lying against the trunk of a tree in Turkey Creek Canyon. He had a single gunshot wound to the head. Most experts believe he committed suicide.

Ringo's sisters lived well into the twentieth century. Many writers and historians tried to get them to talk about their brother, but they stubbornly refused all interviews.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" November 14 , 2016 Column

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, June 22, 1994, "Going In Search Of The Real Johnny Ringo," p5. David Johnson, The Mason County "Hoo Doo" War, 1874-1902 (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2006).

David Johnson, John Ringo, King of the Cowboys (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2008).

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