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‘Pistol Pete’ Eaton’s formative years were in Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, at 2:39 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, at 2:40 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties."

In the end, Oklahoma may claim him.

Frank Boardman “Pistol Pete” Eaton lived there longer than he did anywhere else. But his formative years were spent in Kansas.

During the late 1860s, the Eatons built a home on land where an old hotel once stood before it was burned to the ground by Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill and his raiders. Eaton would write in his autobiography “Pistol Pete: Veteran of the West,” published in 1952, that his Osage County home “lay on a gentle slope of ground … about a hundred yards off the old Santa Fe Trail.”

He was 8 years old when his father was shot and killed in front of him by some of Quantrill’s men, who after the Civil War called themselves the “Regulators.” Eaton’s father was a Vigilante.

He would recount that moment in the book:

“Mother had gone to bed and Father and I had taken off our boots when we heard the sound of running horses … I ran to the door just as the horses stopped. A man called for Father who was right behind me. There was a burst of gunfire and my father fell to the floor with six bullets through him. I fell on his body screaming. One of the men got off his horse and pulled me away. He kicked me and hit me with his riding whip. Then he emptied his gun into my father’s body and cried, ‘Take that, you … Yankee!’ ”

In Kansas and other states and territories following the Civil War, those settling in new communities needed an organized means to protect residents from lawlessness. As Union and Confederate veterans settled the frontier, some formed loosely-knit committees. Most often the Vigilantes were Union sympathizers; the Regulators were Southern.

His neighbor, Mose Beaman, taught Eaton how to shoot and told him:

“My boy, may an old man’s curse rest upon you, if you do not try to avenge your father.”

By the time he was 15, Eaton had moved to Oklahoma. In 1875, he competed at Fort Gibson in a marksmanship contest against some of the cavalry’s best marksmen. The event earned him the nickname “Pistol Pete.”

Two years later, he became a deputy U.S. Marshal under the jurisdiction of Isaac Parker, known as the “Hanging Judge of Fort Smith, Ark.”

In time, he would shoot and kill all but one of the men who were there on the night his father was killed. The one he didn’t kill was shot and killed in a fight over a game of cards.

He would serve as a lawman for most of his life and, in so doing, become an iconic figure of the Old West. He also participated as a scout in the Geronimo Apache uprising of 1885.

Until his death in 1958, Eaton often wore a broad-brimmed hat, boots and carried a pistol strapped to his leg.

On Feb. 23, 2002, The Arkansas City Traveler reported on a painting of Eaton dedicated at a ceremony in the Oklahoma State Capitol building.

The Traveler reported how Eaton sometimes slept outside of his home in Perkins, Okla., during the summer, and how a street light would sometimes affect his ability to sleep.

“He drew his pistol and shot it out. After the city repaired the street light, the next night before Frank retired, he shot it out again. After just a few more times, the city just left the light unrepaired until summer was over.”

For many Oklahomans, Pistol Pete is simply and best known as the mascot of Oklahoma State University.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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