Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Tom Threepersons – The Story of Two Persons

Tom Threepersons was an Indian who became famous. Research reveals numerous stories claiming he was a Cherokee, or perhaps a Blood (Kainai) Indian; He was born in Oklahoma (1889) or perhaps Canada (1888); he was a mounted policeman, tracker and rodeo star in Canada; a famous lawman and prohibition officer in El Paso, Texas; a cowboy in New Mexico and a successful rancher in Canada; he had a leather gun holster named after him and won the World Bronc Riding Championship of 1912; his name was spelled “Threepersons” or perhaps “Three Persons” and he died poor in 1969, in Arizona, or possibly a rich man during 1949 in Canada.

Many accomplishments (and contradictions) for only one man! How did he do so much? A closer examination of the facts reveals there were—ironically, TWO different “Tom Threepersons,” alive and making headlines at the same time. Although the names are spelled slightly different, their stories are often mistakenly jumbled into one. One was a rodeo star, who had a few encounters with the law—the other was a lawman, who had a few encounters with rodeo. Last month we talked about the Canadian rodeo star “Three Persons,” this month we examine “Threepersons,” the Southwestern lawman.

Tom Threepersons was born in Vinita, Oklahoma (Indian Territory) on July 22, 1889. His parents were John and Belle, full blooded Cherokees. Not much is known about this particular “Threepersons” between 1889 and 1916, however much has been speculated and this period of his life is often confused with that of “Three Persons” from Canada (who made headlines in 1912 as the World Champion Bronc Rider). However, from 1916 through 1929, Threepersons the lawman accomplished a lot and much was written regarding his exploits. During this period, he became a legend and his name will forever be a part of Western history.

In a Douglas, AZ newspaper dated February, 1916, it mentions a Threepersons competing in the saddle bronc riding at a rodeo there. It has been said that the Threepersons from the Southwest held a love of rodeo and was a pretty good bronc rider. This probably adds to the confusion often applied between him and the Canadian Three Persons. Our southwestern Tom, however, was never famous for rodeo like the Canadian Tom.

Then, in March of 1916, Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico. This caused numerous troops to be sent to the border region. This act also helped propel Tom Threepersons onto a path that took him from being a local rodeo cowboy, to one of becoming a famous lawman. Tom joined the fray and was listed as a civilian scout for the Army under General Pershing—it was his first of many ventures into civic duty. Later, he spent time at Fort Bliss, breaking remount horses during World War I and this continued till about 1920.

In 1919, the Volstead Act (prohibition) was voted in and the new law took effect January of 1920. This unpopular law created a new crime enterprise along the border region between the United States and Mexico. Tom Threepersons spent the next nine years working for the El Paso police department, the El Paso County Sheriffs Department and the United States Prohibition Service battling this new crime. During which time, he became a legend.

According to author, Jim Coffey, “While the men enforcing Prohibition are largely forgotten now, they were legends at the time. Many considered Frank Hamer of the Texas Rangers, the archetypical ‘twentieth century Ranger,’ totally fearless. D.A. (Jelly) Bryce, FBI agent, was so fast with a pistol that he actually ‘beat the drop’ on two separate occasions when outlaws already had their weapons out and trained on him. Manuel Gonzales, who made a name for himself as an honest Prohibition agent, would not back down with armed smugglers breaking the law. Many of these officers brought a frontier mentality to the war on booze. For some, it was a code of honor that prohibited asking or giving quarter; for others, it was unimpeachable honesty . . . Tom Threepersons was one of these men . . . A Texas Ranger captain once related, ‘El Paso was one of the toughest towns I’d ever been in. There was a gunfight for 236 straight nights.’” This was Tom Threepersons beat.

While serving as a law enforcement official in and around El Paso, Threepersons was involved in several shootouts and hair raising encounters with outlaws and contrabandistas (smugglers from Mexico). Because of his, shoot first, ask questions later methods, he was often referred to as a throwback from the old West, and to this day is considered by many as the last of the old-time, frontier lawmen.

Also, as a way to improve his ability to get his gun out quickly when needed, Tom is credited with designing the first true “quick draw” holster. He approached Sam Myers, an El Paso saddle maker about his design. Myers and Threepersons worked together, and by the mid-20s, the S.D. Myers catalog offered the “Threepersons quick draw holster.” Myers later sold his business to El Paso Saddlery, and the holster was offered in their catalog as well. Today, an original Threepersons holster by S.D. Myers or a vintage one by El Paso Saddlery is a highly sought after western collectible.

In spite of his ‘legend-in-his-own-time” status, Tom was reluctant to discuss most of his numerous gunfights publicly. He said once in an interview, “I never had any desire to be placed in a class with Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, or any of the so-called Western bad men. My desire was, and still is, to be classed as a respectable officer of the law and its enforcement.”

When asked about the numerous death threats he received from contrabandistas, the brave Threepersons responded, “It doesn’t disturb my sleep.” However, smugglers were said to have put a $10,000 bounty on Tom’s head during the height of prohibition enforcement—a few unfortunate souls tried to collect it.

In 1929, Tom decided to retire from law enforcement. He had taken two bullets—even one in the chest, and was run down by a car—all in the line of duty. He sold his guns to an El Paso collector, a Mr. Powers, who also owned guns formerly belonging to Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin and John Selman (the man who killed John Wesley Hardin). Powers valued the guns of Tom Threepersons, equally, with those other Old West legends.

Threepersons and his wife Lorene moved to the Arizona-New Mexico border region where he worked as a cowboy and she worked many years for the Silver City enterprise. Tom worked for many ranches over the next forty years in the rough NM/AZ border area and he died in Safford, Arizona on April 2, 1969.

Both “Tom Three Persons” and “Tom Threepersons” were examples of Native Americans who left their permanent marks on history. Each was one of the first Natives to accomplish what they did.

Although the two are easily confused because of their names, their stories are worthy of separate recognition—and each deserves his own distinct place in history.