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 Sherman W. McMaster

(1853 –1892?)

By

Peter Brand

© 2006

Sherman McMaster is probably the most complex member of Wyatt Earp’s so-called Vendetta Posse. Despite a seemingly privileged upbringing, McMaster chose to live his life in the harsh environs of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and in doing so, rode with some of the most famous names in the history of the American Wild West. His ability to walk a fine line between lawman and outlaw is evidenced by the calibre of his associates, including the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius.

McMaster’s own story is an intriguing puzzle of contradictions and shifting alliances that have motivated my research since I first watched his character portrayed in the John Sturges’ movie, Hour of the Gun. Although the movie was inaccurate, I was drawn to the McMaster character and those of the other Earp Vendetta riders depicted in the film. I was especially interested in what motivated these men to risk their lives for Wyatt Earp.

With the assistance of genealogist and historical researcher, Jean Smith of Safford Arizona, I began to research the life of Sherman McMaster and his fellow posse riders. In 1999 I wrote an article for the Western Outlaw Lawman Association, titled Sherman W. McMaster(s), The El Paso Salt War, Texas Rangers and Tombstone: © 1999. The following text is an extract from that article – 

Late in March 1882, Wyatt Earp and seven heavily armed men camped on a butte near the Sierra Bonita ranch in Graham County, Arizona Territory. The men had chosen the high ground for what they thought would be an imminent gun battle with a hostile outlaw posse from Tombstone, lead by John Behan and John Ringo. As they pondered their safety and immediate future, one of Earp’s men, Sherman McMaster, must have had mixed feelings at that campsite, for he knew the enemy better than most.

McMaster had been friendly with Ringo, and had ridden with some of the approaching cowboys, prior to joining Earp’s posse. Indeed his value to Wyatt Earp’s cause was based largely on his knowledge of their character, behaviour and usual haunts. But what of McMaster’s own character and behavior? He has been variously described as an outlaw, a Wells Fargo undercover man and an Earp informant. In fact, the Tombstone story is littered with contradictions concerning his true nature, motivations and the quality of his associates.

Sherman W. McMaster was born in 1853 in Galena, Jo Daviess County, Illinois. Available Census records indicate that the family name was spelt “McMaster”, without the seemingly obligatory final “s”, and that Sherman was one of seven children born to Sylvester and Jannette McMaster. The family was raised in Galena, Jo Daviess County, Illinois and later at Rock Island, Illinois.

The McMaster family were well respected in Galena and Rock Island. Federal Census records indicate that Sylvester McMaster was a successful businessman, who ran a pork packing business during his days at Galena. Sylvester was a firm believer in education and Sherman and his sister Mary, later attended school in Rock Island. The McMaster family were well cared for and Sylvester always employed up to two servants, one of whom, Nora Joyce from Ireland, worked for the family for over 20 years.

Sylvester McMaster was a staunch Republican and a strong backer of Abraham Lincoln. His first son, William B. McMaster, born in 1842, was a member of Company A of the 96th Illinois Infantry. He survived the Civil War and eventually returned home to Rock Island to be reunited with his family. William however, is not listed on the 1870 Federal Census, which shows Sherman, aged 16, still residing at home with the family in Rock Island, Illinois. Rock Island High School archive records confirm that Sherman attended school there, probably completing his studies in 1870.

Some time between 1870 and 1878, Sherman left the security of his well-off family and a stable future in Rock Island to make his way west. His exact movements during this eight- year period are not clear as yet. If he longed for more adventure than was on offer in Rock Island, his travels ultimately took him to the right place. By August 1878, he had journeyed, probably via New Mexico, down to the border area of El Paso County, Texas and found work as a laborer.

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For a complete copy of the above McMaster article, please see –

Sherman W. McMaster(s), The El Paso Salt War, Texas Rangers and Tombstone

By Peter Brand, © 1999

The Western Outlaw Lawman History Association Journal: Vol. VIII No. 4: Winter 1999.

 

For further details of McMaster’s Texas Ranger Company see also –

The Escape of “Curly Bill” Brocius

By Peter Brand © 2000

The Western Outlaw Lawman History Association Journal: Vol. IX No. 2: Summer 2000.

No discussion of Sherman McMaster would be complete without mention of two excellent articles written by researcher, Paul Cool. The first provides extensive information regarding McMaster’s family life and his early influences. The second closely examines McMaster’s controversial attempted arrest by Virgil Earp in Tombstone in September 1881. Both his articles are listed below and are highly recommended –

 

The World of Sherman McMaster(s)

By Paul Cool © 1998

The Western Outlaw Lawman History Association Journal: Vol. VII No. 1: Autumn 1998.

 

Escape of a Highwayman: The Riddle of Sherman McMaster

By Paul Cool © 2000

The Western Outlaw Lawman History Association Journal: Vol. IX No. 2: Summer 2000.

 

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Peter Brand is currently working on a biography of Sherman McMaster and any readers with questions or information regarding Sherman are encouraged to contact him. See the “Contact Us” section of this website for further details.  

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