The Dalton gang saw a number of successful robberies in the Old West – until October 5, 1892, when they attempted to rob two banks in Coffeyville, Kansas in broad daylight.
The history of the Wild West is filled with gangs and gunfights. Outlaws like Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Johnny Ringo have all left their bloody mark on American history with their violent lives – and violent deaths. The Dalton Gang was no exception.
But while other Wild West outlaws are perhaps best known for their successful robberies, the Dalton Gang are best known for their failed bank robbery. In 1892, they made a fatal attempt to rob two banks in broad daylight.
Things got so bad that almost the entire gang was killed. It is their story.
How the Dalton brothers went from lawmen to outlaws
The Dalton Gang was primarily made up of brothers: Bob, Grat, Bill, and Emmett Dalton. Born to James Lewis Dalton and Adeline Lee Younger – whose nephews included Old West outlaw Cole Younger – the Dalton brothers spent their childhoods rampaging through the West.
Their family started in Missouri before moving to Oklahoma Territory and spent some time near the small town of Coffeyville, Kansas. And while many Dalton brothers eventually make a name for themselves as outlaws, they started out on the “good side of the law.”
As the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture notes, their older brother Frank served as Deputy United States Marshal for the United States District Court for the Western Arkansas at Fort Smith from of 1884. When he was shot by “horse thieves and whiskey peddlers” in 1887, Grat and Bob Dalton followed in his footsteps and served as Deputy U.S. Marshals.
Even then, however, the Dalton brothers showed outlaw tendencies. Throughout Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, Bob left several bodies in his wake. Rumor has it that a suspect ended up with Bob’s bullet in the skull because he tried to seduce his girlfriend.
And in 1890, Bob and Grat got into trouble with the law. Bob was accused of selling whiskey to the Osage Nation; Grat with flying horses. Ironically, they had become the very things that had killed their brother.
From there, Grat, Bob and Emmett Dalton traveled to California, where they met their law-abiding brother, Bill. The Dalton brothers were together again. And soon they would hit their first major target.
The heyday of the Dalton gang
The criminal life of the Dalton gang allegedly began on February 6, 1891, when four masked men robbed the South Pacific Train in Alila, California. According Legends of America, a man – assumed to be Bill – shot over the heads of the passengers, while the others forced the engineer to lead them to the car carrying money. In the commotion, the robbers shot and killed the engineer, but the man guarding the money forced the robbers to retreat.
In the aftermath, Bob and Emmett escaped but Grat and Bill were arrested and put on trial. While Bill was acquitted, Grat was convicted in July 1891 and sentenced to 20 years in prison (although dozens of eyewitnesses said he was in a hotel in Fresno during the robbery).
But Grat would soon pull off a daring escape. In September, he somehow stole the key to his handcuffs as he was being transported to jail and jumped off the moving train into the San Joaquin River. Then he returned to Oklahoma, where he joined the Dalton gang.
Even before Grat reached them, Emmett and Bob – working alongside other outlaws – had kept themselves busy robbing trains in Indian Territory. With Grat back among them, they continued their crime spree, fleeing with $17,000 from a train they robbed in Pryor Creek in July 1892. The Dalton gang also narrowly avoided arrest after having decided not to rob a dark train, which they later learned was under heavy guard and carrying $70,000.
By then, the law had inquired about Dalton’s law. Each member of the Dalton gang had a $5,000 reward placed on their head, and the U.S. Marshals were closing in. But Brother Dalton didn’t seem discouraged. Instead of laying low, they planned their biggest heist yet.
According to the National Park Service, Bob Dalton wanted to leave his mark on the Old West. He said the gang would “beat anything Jesse James has ever done – rob two banks at once, in broad daylight”.
To make things riskier, they would attempt to rob CM Condon & Company Bank and First National Bank in Coffeyville – their home town.
“The Town That Stopped the Daltons”
On October 5, 1892, the Dalton Gang – consisting of Bob, Grat and Emmett, plus two outlaws named Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers – carried out their daring heist. But almost nothing would go as planned.
As the gang entered town, Legends of America reports that a Coffeyville resident named Aleck McKenna recognized the Daltons. As the gang separated – Bob and Emmett Dalton headed for First National Bank, and Grat Dalton, Broadwell and Powers headed for Condon Bank – McKenna saw the flash of a gun. He shouted, “The bank is robbed!
As the Dalton gang began their double bank robbery, word began to spread throughout the city. At Condon Bank, HISTORY reports that a quick-witted bank teller lied and told Grat and his accomplices that the safe was locked on time, meaning it wouldn’t open for ten minutes from more. At the First National Bank, armed townspeople waited outside the bank while Bob and Emmett Dalton stuffed cash into sacks of grain.
When Bob and Emmett attempted to flee, they were met with a hail of bullets. They turned and walked out the back door of the bank, only to find themselves trapped in an alley. Meanwhile, Grat, Broadwell and Powers also found themselves facing armed locals. They, too, ran down the alley – and were quickly surrounded by angry, armed Coffeyville residents on both sides.
By then, the Dalton gang was all but doomed. Bob and Grat were killed, as were Broadwell and Powers, along with four local men. Emmett Dalton was shot 20 times but managed to survive.
“The Dalton Gang is no more, and travelers through Indian Territory may proceed without fear now,” said the Coffeyville Journal wrote triumphantly on Oct. 7, according to the National Parks Service. “The country, and the railroads and express lines in particular, can breathe easier now that the Daltons are wiped out. The country is rid of the desperate gang, but the riddance has cost Coffeyville some of its best blood.
The Dalton gang lives on
Law-abiding citizens across the Wild West celebrated the demise of the Dalton Gang. But his story didn’t quite end in Coffeyville.
In 1893, Bill Dalton joined forces with his old friend Bill Doolin to form the Doolin-Dalton gang, also known as the Wild Bunch. He continued to terrorize the West until a posse shot him dead on June 8, 1894. Meanwhile, Emmett Dalton – who had survived the failed bank robbery at Coffeyville – was pardoned from his life sentence in 1907. Thereafter, he made a fresh start. in Hollywood as an author and screenwriter and died at the ripe old age of 66.
Over the past century, the Dalton Gang has been depicted in numerous movies and television shows. Movies Badman Territory (1946) and Return of the Villains (1948) used elements of Dalton Gang history, as did The last day (1975) and The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang (1979).
In this way, Bob Dalton realized his wish: to be remembered.
After reading about the rise and fall of the Dalton gang, discover the stories of nine forgotten heroes of the Black Wild West. Or see what really happened during the infamous OK Corral shooting.