© by Terrel Shields
The West was given to many excesses in exaggerating the deeds of men who were often more ordinary than we can imagine. One of the most misunderstood man in all of Indian Territory during the 1870's through statehood for Oklahoma was Ezekiel Proctor, otherwise known as Zeke. Zeke was either a blood-thirsty, trigger-happy Cherokee outlaw, or a simple family man, loved by his grandchildren for his kind and generous ways, depending upon who you listened to. Even today Ezekiel Proctor is widely regarded in the lore of the West as an outlaw on the scale of Belle Starr or Dalton's. But Zeke was not a bank robber or common highwayman. The myth of Zeke Proctor began with the accidental death of a woman who stepped between him and Proctor's brother-in-law, a white man working at a mill on Flint Creek. It culminated in a courtroom gunfight between Proctor and members of the slain woman's family.
The remains of the Hilderbrand Mill [also called Beck's or Beckwith Mill], lie near present day Flint, then known as Beckwith. This is in present day Delaware County, but then was in the Goingsnake District of the Indian Nation. Stephen Hilderbrand was married to Pauline "Polly" Beck. After the Civil War Hilderbrand ran the mill until his death. Polly hired James Kesterson to work at the mill, and reportedly married him in 1871. Kesterson had abandoned a wife and children. This wife was sister to Ezekiel Proctor.
Zeke went to Hilderbrand's Mill on February 13, 1872 to confront Kesterson. As the men argued, Proctor pulled a pistol and fired just as Polly Hilderbrand stepped between the two men. She died instantly. Zeke fled the scene, but turned himself into Sheriff Jack Wright of the Goingsnake District.
Head Beck, nephew of the slain woman, counseled his family to stay away from the upcoming tribal trial to be held west of Westville [now in Adair County], at the Whitmire School. But Head's brother, Surry [known as "Black Sutt"] and his cousin, also named Surry [and called "White Sutt"] headed members of the Beck family bent upon revenge for the death of "Aunt Polly".
Apparently, the Beck's felt that tribal justice would not be sufficient, and enlisted the U. S. Western District Court in Fort Smith to send a U. S. Marshal and deputy Marshall to attend the trial. The trial date was April 15, 1872 and presiding judge was Cornick Sixkiller. Accompanying the Marshals were a posse comitatus composed of mostly Beck family and friends.
The courtroom was packed with armed men, including jurors and members of Zeke Proctor's family. Arriving during the trial's opening arguments the posse marched two abreast into the schoolhouse with White Sutt in the lead. Aiming a double barreled shotgun at Zeke, Sutt's arm was deflected by Zeke's brother Johnson. Johnson received the full effect of the first barrel, and Zeke was injured by the second shot. Pandemonium broke out and wild shots fired.
At least 11 men were killed including U. S. Marshal Jacob Owen. Black Sutt was also killed. The jury foreman, jurors, and the judge were all injured in various degrees. Nevertheless, the trial resumed the next day and Zeke Proctor was acquitted. The event was known as the Goingsnake Massacre, or Beck-Proctor War. Sutt Beck left the area briefly. Head Beck and Zeke Proctor eventually shook hands and settled their differences.
The event accented tensions between the Cherokee Nation and the U. S. Government over who should be conducting trials. Another myth about Zeke Proctor was the story that the U. S. And Zeke signed a peace treaty. This apparently is an exaggerated description of an agreement between Cherokee Nation officials and U. S. District attorneys. Warrants were issued for White Sutt Beck but the Principal Chief suspended the trial. In response, the U. S. Government who had arrested some of the jurors, as well as Zeke Proctor, agreed to dismiss their case against Proctor so long as the Tribe did not indict or try any of the posse members involved in the shootout.
Fifteen years later, Zeke Proctor shot John Rose, a tenant with whom he got into a dispute. The Fayetteville, Arkansas Fayetteville Democrat newspaper [9.20.1887] described Proctor as "ringleader among a band of murderers...[who] counts his murders by the score." The paper went on to say that Zeke had been arrested for murder and was being held in a Ft. Smith Jail. In reply, the Siloam Springs, Arkansas paper the Globe Democrat reported that the above report was wrong and the reporter went on to say that Proctor had requested a copy of the Fayetteville report so as to "learn what a desperate character" he was. The report also stated that the victim was still alive and likely to recover. Both men were "well armed" according to the account.
Eventually, Ezekiel Proctor died in his own bed February 28, 1907 after whispering his last wishes to family in his native tongue. He was interred in the Johnson Cemetery near his home in the year Indian Territory and Oklahoma combined to become a state. Proctor had been no saint, but neither was he the blood-thirsty ringleader of an outlaw gang so often depicted in old dime novels and Western magazines.
"Goingsnake Messenger", Vol VII, No. 2, Goingsnake District Heritage Assoc., May 1990
"Obituaries of Washington County, Arkansas Vol. I, 1841-1892", Heritage Books, complied by Barbara Easley.