Lucky Luke: The true story of the Dalton brothers of crime and blood


We know them especially under the pencil of Morris, "wicked" inseparable from the adventures of Lucky Luke, and who seem to collect all the defects: greed, stupidity, incompetence … As for many characters in his comics, the genius of the ninth art s is inspired by the outlaws of the Great West: because the Dalton brothers really existed and made themselves famous for their multiple attacks of banks and trains. But before becoming highwaymen, Emmett, Bill, Grat and Bob were model children.

Bill (left) and Emmett Dalton. If the Dalton were really dreaded criminals up to New Mexico, they were neither twins nor staggered! – Corbis via Getty Images

"The Dalton family is emblematic of what is called the" Frontier "(which means in the United States the slow advance to the west). She is very attached to Puritan mores, and carries the American dream that everyone, by dint of hard work and courage, can achieve its goals, "says Farid Ameur, historian, author of Heroes and Legends of the Wild West (Edited by François Bourin, 2012). Here are the values ​​shared by Lewis Dalton, a hard worker who became a barkeeper, and Adeline Younger. United on March 12, 1851 in Kansas City, Missouri, the couple settled for about thirty years in a modest farm in the region. There, he gives birth to fifteen children, three of whom die in infancy. The survivors grow up in an environment marked by violence and poverty: the state, on the border between the North and the South, is ravaged by the battles of the American Civil War, then torn apart by the settling of scores between supporters of the two camps.

As Farid Ameur explains, "robbery then appears as a form of revenge for those who have not accepted the defeat of the South. For example, Jesse James, a famous bandit, argues that banks are part of the northern profiteers and that it is right to tackle them. The Dalton will bear this heritage, especially since their mother is a relative of the Younger brothers, bandits associated with Jesse James. They will make their model. In 1882, hunted by meager harvests, the family settled in southeastern Kansas, a few miles from Coffeyville. Two years later, they won the Indian Territories open to colonization, in present-day Oklahoma. From one farm to another, the harsh daily life of boys hardly varies: they help their father Lewis to harvest corn and beets, feed the pigs. All respect the precepts of the Bible. Adeline takes care of a rigorous education that seems to bear fruit. The two eldest, Ben and Cole, have a university degree. Another son, Bill, is trying his luck in California. And above all, Frank, who has always been the arbiter of family disputes, chose the camp of the law: in 1884, he left to serve as deputy federal marshal in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The siblings are well on their way to embody the American dream.

A family hit by misfortune

Everything shifts three years later. One winter's day in 1887, the family sees a dismal motorcade arrive at the farm. Marshals bring back Frank's corpse, murdered with a bullet in the head by a thief of horses he stalked on the edge of the Cherokee territory. As a misfortune never arrives alone, Father Dalton, deeply alcoholic, leaves the family home, leaving only debts to his wife and his sons. Grattan, nicknamed Grat, is proposed to take over the job of his eldest, left vacant. He agrees, provided he gets the services of his little brother Emmett, then 16 years old. Robert, said Bob, 18, at the same time becomes chief of the Indian police of the Osage tribe. Three brothers, three men of law: Frank could be proud of them … Except that Grat, Bob and Emmett hardly pass for models of probity and virtue.

Quickly, the three abuse their authority, racket traders, steal horses. They are embarrassed all the less that Washington regularly delays sending their pay. For Farid Ameur, "it was not uncommon for the marshals to be paid with much delay. Moreover, if this mission was considered an honor, it was also very dangerous. It was common for marshals to profit personally ".

Dalton sow terror, multiply horse theft and alcohol trafficking in Indian territory

Of the three brothers, Bob is already the leader. "His blue eyes had that look of steel in front of which every being (…) seemed to bend unconsciously", describes the journalist Eye Witness, in The Dalton Gang (published in 1892). Violent, irascible, Bob is not confined to the swindle: in August 1889, he coldly murders Charlie Montgomery, a cowboy who dared to court his contender, claiming to have caught him in the middle of alcohol trafficking. It's too much for the authorities: in the face of the repeated misdeeds of Daltonwe end up depriving them of their insignia and any appearance of legality. Since then, Bob and Grat finally switch to the side of outlaws: in 1890, the first is charged with trafficking alcohol in Indian territory, while the second is suspected of stealing horses, a crime punishable by death. They then run away.

This is how the clan Dalton, who will be terror-stricken in the West for two years, settles in New Mexico after 1,600 kilometers of riding. Bob and Grat are accompanied byEmmettwho gave up Julia's tender attentions to follow her brothers. Three friends follow them, including a certain Charlie Bryant. In the summer of 1890, in Silver City, the band points a playroom. Fleeing the marshals of the judge Parker, nicknamed "the judge of the gallows", the Dalton join their brother Bill in California. There, they are accused of pointing a train and killed the driver, February 6, 1891. Are they guilty? The evidence is thin but their reputation is made and they are sought after.

Grat is captured and then imprisoned, while Bob and Emmett flee to the lands of their childhood. With three or four thugs, they hide in the Cherokee Strip, a strip of wild land between Oklahoma and Kansas. From these barren areas, traditional shelters of outlaws, the armed gang rushes to attack stagecoaches, rob thoroughbreds or loot warehouses before returning to sleep under the stars. Sometimes they take the risk of a quick visit to their dear mother …

The Dalton specialty: train attacks

The band specializes in train attacks: four in less than two years, from New Mexico to Iowa to Oklahoma. Loaded with bags of dollars conveyed by the Wells Fargo, the trains are a target of choice, especially since the gang has a secret weapon: Eugenia Moore, the companion of Bob, an adventuress who plays informants. In the summer of 1892, she warned Dalton that in the small town of Red Rock the train stops only at the signal of the switchman. The bandits then force the unfortunate man to wave his lantern to stop the convoy before turning the conveyor.

The vise tightens on the Dalton brothers

If a passerby sometimes succumbs to a lost ball, raids by the gang are rarely lethal. But their growing reputation is damaging to the railways and Wells Fargo, who end up promising $ 40,000 for the capture of bandits. Bounty hunters join stubborn sheriffs, such as Ransom Payne, in the hunt for the gang. Terrés, short of resources, experienced by the loss of Charlie Bryant shot in a robbery, the Dalton feel the vise tighten around them. Only the return of Grat, escaped from California, comforts them a little.

Dreaming of a new life in Mexico, Bob imagine ending the gang's career with a feat that will surpass those of the Younger brothers: he wants to rob two banks at the same time in Coffeyville, a quiet town familiar to Dalton. Bad luck or amateurism? The expected exploit will turn to the killing … On the morning of October 5, 1892, five riders with false beards entered the main street. Bad surprise, work is blocking access: the gang must post horses away from banks and continue on foot. Bob and Emmett go away to attack the First National Bank, robbing customers and cashiers, while a few streets away, GratBill Powers and Dick Broadwell do the same at Condon Bank. There, a brave cashier convinces Grat wait a few minutes before opening the trunk controlled by a timer. This is a trick, and it's more than enough for the merchants of the city, who have recognized the Dalton, prepare to pick them at the exit. When the bandits try to escape, it is the carnage: in ten minutes, on the ground lie eight corpses, including that of four of the five bandits. Beside them, bags containing 23 240 dollars … The end of the gang Dalton rang, for the immense relief of the inhabitants of the city. All parade to the prison where the remains of the brigands are exhibited, while Adeline watches over Emmett, riddled with twenty-one balls of buckshot.

The Coffeyville robbery of 1892 resulted in four casualties: Bill Powers, Dick Broadwell, and two of the Dalton brothers, Grat and Bob. Emmett, the survivor, wounded by 21 bullets, will spend fourteen years in prison before finally being released. – Bettmann Archives / Getty Images

"In 1892, the conquest of the West is almost over, the climate calmed down. With its spectacular denouement, Coffeyville represents the last burst of wild America. Without this episode, we would have remembered Dalton as a band, "Farid Ameur analysis. The destiny ofEmmett, who survived the killings, will also contribute to the notoriety of Dalton. Sentenced to life on March 8, 1893, he was sent to Texas State Prison. He learns of the death of Bill, killed by marshals after he, too, took the path of banditry. This is considered to be the true epilogue of family criminal matters. Because his good behavior is worth Emmett to be released after fourteen years. At 36, he married his faithful Julia, became a real estate agent in California and wrote his memoirs, before working in the cinema. In 1916, he plays his own role in The Man of the Desert : actor of the Frontier then of Hollywood, he incarnates during his lifetime his own legend, before dying in Los Angeles, in 1937.

Article published in the magazine GEO History on Lucky Luke and the conquest of the West (No. 41, October – November 2018).

⋙ 1803 – 1890: the conquest of the West as seen by Lucky Luke
⋙ Gold rush: the nugget fever made in California
⋙ The bandits and vigilantes who inspired Lucky Luke.

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