” A SHOWDOWN AT SUNDOWN”

— FROM OUTLAW TO LAWMAN —

Sheriff Frank Canton of Pawnee, Oklahoma, finished dinner and walked out of the restaurant into the chilled air of early November 1896. Unknown to Canton, a man lurked in the shadows of a setting sun with murder on his mind.  

Frank M. Canton

The 47-year-old lawman—born —once rode the outlaw trail in his youth as a bank robber and cattle rustler.

In his early Twenties, Horner went on the run for killing a Buffalo soldier in a barroom brawl.

The Texas Rangers caught up with Horner after a bank robbery in Comanche, Texas, in 1877.

Horner, however, gave them the slip and joined a cattle drive into Nebraska.

Vowing to give up the outlaw life, Horner changed his name to Frank Canton and went to work for the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association as a stock detective.

In 1881, Canton was elected sheriff of Johnson County, Wyoming, and served four years before returning to the WSGA.

He became one of the prominent figures involved in the Johnson County War* of 1892.

Two years later, Canton moved to Oklahoma Territory, served as undersheriff in Pawnee County, and was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal for Judge Isaac Parker. 

Canton played a vital role in helping bring the Bill Doolin Gang and other outlaw bands to justice.

In Pawnee, Canton ran up against the Dunn Brothers, a family of bounty hunters who operated a meat market in town and a boarding house near Ingalls. 

When citizens around Pawnee began lodging complaints accusing the Dunn Brothers of rustling and robbery, Canton decided to investigate.

He tried to arrest Bill Dunn and his brothers for the ambush-murder of Wild Bunch gang members George “Bittercreek” Newcomb and Charley Pierce but couldn’t make the charges stick. 

Despite the setback, Canton pursued the brothers on suspicion of cattle rustling.

His efforts to bring the family to justice angered Bill Dunn, who vowed to kill Canton on sight. Dunn decided to ambush the lawman in Pawnee.

Canton left the restaurant after dinner and headed for the courthouse.  He carried a .45 caliber Colt in the waistband of his trousers. Canton rarely wore a cartridge belt while working in town.  

“As I started up the street in a brisk walk, Bill Dunn stepped in front of me,” Canton recalled. Dunn, he said, threatened him to his face.

Dunn stood with his hand on his revolver but hadn’t yet drawn. Canton studied the outlaw, “and I saw murder in his eyes.”

Wasting no time, Canton drew his .45 and fired. The bullet struck him, Dunn, in the forehead.

Three decades after the shooting, Canton told a slightly different version. He said when the two locked eyes, Dunn went for his gun, but it got snagged on his suspenders. The brief second of delay gave Canton the advantage.

In his book, Alias Frank Canton,* Robert K. DeArment quotes Canton as saying he had no choice but to take a headshot.

A few days earlier, he had learned a local blacksmith had fashioned a steel breastplate for Dunn.

“If I had shot at his body, I wouldn’t have killed him, and he would have filled me full of lead before I had known what was happening,” said Canton.

The following year, Canton joined the gold rush to Alaska. 

He returned to Oklahoma in 1907 and became Adjutant General for the Oklahoma National Guard.

At one point, historians say he met with the governor of Texas, and admitted to being Joe Horner, but was eventually pardoned.

Canton died on September 28, 1927, at age 78.

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Additional Resources

*Johnson County War,

*Alias Frank Canton

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2 comments to ” A SHOWDOWN AT SUNDOWN”

  • Fred Staff

    In my research I found that he may have said he was on the side of the law, but is time in Johnson County was far from being on the side of good. He was the leader of a murderous group who killed and burned out homesteads as required by the big cattle companies. These homesteaders were legal and with in there rights to be where they were and doing what they did. The big land owners couldn’t stand the lose of the huge open range and hired men like Canton to dissuade them any way he could. The movie Shane is based on this kind of action.

  • Hi Fred, thanks for expanding on the story. The open-range system was so sacrosanct, that big landowners used several tactics to protect it, including legal efforts, intimidation, and outright violence–carried out by men like Canton. Since the open-range system involved public land not privately owned, ranchers were able to keep herds of cattle on it without paying for the land. When homesteaders moved in and began filing claims, it threatened the space and grass supply to accommodate herds of cattle.
    This conflict resulted in events, as you point out, like the Johnson County War. Your example of the flick SHANE provides an excellent example and history lesson.

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